Friday, February 13, 2009

Five reasons why the New York Times will rave about Winter’s Tale

1. Rebecca Hall. She’s pretty, she’s talented, she has a great voice, she’s British theatre royalty, and I cannot stand her. I didn’t like her Rosalinde in As You Like It, and she does the same things in this that bugged me then: treats the verse like, uhm, prose, so that a simple line like “I had thought, sir, to have held my peace until/ You have drawn oaths from him not to stay.” becomes “I had [let me think of what I did now] thought, [what do I call him again?] sir, to have [how to describe it?] held my [sing the vowel, girl] peace until [touch my pregnant belly because I’m talking to the father of my child] you have [pretend there’s a set of parentheses around the next two words] drawn oaths from him [make the next word two syllables long] not to [make the next word two syllables long] stay.” There are people who love this kind of acting. Ben Brantley is one of them. (I can’t wait to see his review of her Hedda Gabler. Which I will only go to see because Hedda kills herself at the end, and I’ll be rooting for that to happen from the opening line.)

2 It’s a very thoughtful production. Critics love it when plays tell us what to think. It brings them back to those college papers they had to write about how the light at the end of the dock symbolizes hope in The Great Gatsby. It says Director’s Message in big bold letters. In this production of Winter’s Tale, the message is “Isn’t Jealousy awful?” Something we can all agree on, right? Yes, but. And the But is, the play is not written to make you stop and think. It starts with blind jealousy that hits the road at 60MPH and accelerates from there. It doesn’t pause at every rest stop to consider what it’s doing, because it’s blind jealousy, not sighted jealousy. And if you don’t floor the gas pedal and never let up until you run out of gas, then the audience will start wondering why you didn’t take that exit marked “Hey stupid -– if your wife supposedly slept with your best friend, when were they ever alone together? And why isn’t your idiot wife asking this question, huh?” So instead of getting caught up in the moment, we are asked to reflect upon the moment, which brings us to the biggest reason why this will get raves:

3. It’s a very British production. Meaning distanced, meaning polite, meaning cool and un-sweaty –- meaning, in a very real sense, that it’s all about the acting. On one level this play is a fairy tale, not a drawing room piece. But drawing room is what Sam Mendes knows and does, and that’s what we get here: private moments of suffering, instead of hyper-realized moments of passion. Moments like Simon Russell Beale’s Leontes walking around barefoot or dressed in rags to SHOW that he’s suffering, to SHOW that he feels like the victim. All his soliloquies done with special lighting, (spotlight on Beale, darkness on the rest of the stage) no matter whether they’re forty lines long or four words long. Which just throws another level of distance at the audience, because it takes you out of the character’s actions and focuses you on the actor. But that’s what the Brits do. It’s not about disappearing into the part, it’s about playing the part, it’s about saying “Simon Russell Beale’s Leontes” instead of “Leontes,” it’s about seeing how the engine works instead of feeling how the car rides, it’s about appreciating what the actor does instead of getting caught up in what the character is doing -- which is why Meryl Streep is the most British actress we have in this country.

4. Ethan Hawke as Autolycus steals the show. He doesn’t, really –- he comes very close -- but you’ll still hear the phrase “steals the show” because (a) he plays a thief; (b) his performance jump starts the second act; and (c) he’s getting laughs, which (because everything is so fucking polite) are few and far between here. He doesn’t get as many laughs as he could, which may change by the end of the run –- there are bits of business that could have been done better, and probably will be in time –- but he’s like a breath of fresh air after all the “look at me acting” in the first half of the play. Plus he plays the part like a cross between Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, which is just as delightful as it sounds.

5. "It is required you do awake your faith." The last scene of this play is total fantasy, it comes out of nowhere, it makes no logical sense at all, and no matter who’s doing it or how poorly it’s done, I always bawl like a baby whenever I see it, just the way I always laugh like a hyena whenever I see the Pyramus and Thisbe part of Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is where the play gets quiet for real, which in a production filled with quiet moments is like hearing a twentieth whisper in a row instead of a single whisper after nineteen shouts. No matter; it still works, which makes me forgive a lot. Especially the last moment, which highlights the fact that Leontes and Hermione never exchange a single word (she has only one speech, and that for her long-lost daughter), and if that final stage picture makes me think of the fabulous ending of Trevor Nunn’s fabulous All’s Well, then that, too, pardons much. Which, in a play about forgiveness, is as it should be.

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