Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"It was all just a lot of fuss over nothing, wasn't it?"

How does something timely become timeless? What’s the secret sauce, as the Wharton grads say, that turns one into the other? Besides, you know, Time and Distance. The Rockies are huge close up, but they always dwindle away minute by in your rear-view mirror. That’s what happens to the timely stuff in a work of art; in the end, it’s so distant you need a Hubble telescope to see it. But the timeless stuff gets larger. You look in that rear-view mirror and even while the Rockies are shrinking, one mountain stays the same size, or even looms larger, as crazy as that sounds. To the naked eye it’s just the same as all the other mountains, so what makes this one visible? What makes this one count? (Case in point: Merchant of Venice. Shylock in 1595? Just as big as Portia, Antonio, Bassanio. Shylock in 2009? Not only bigger than everyone else in the cast, but bigger than the play he’s in, because we can’t not see him through the lens of the 20th Century.)

It’s like every creative work of art has seeds in it, and Time waters them all until some of them poke out of the ground, after which it pulls the weeds away so the flowers can blossom and keep blossoming long after its creator is dead, its initial audience is dead, and its critics are dead. That’s the image I’ve been picturing since I saw Exit The King with Geoffrey Rush last week. Ionesco wrote the play in the early 60’s, and even with this new translation/adaptation co-authored by Rush and director Nick Armfield, it still has a cloud of avant-garde patchouli hanging over it, like that girl you almost went to Woodstock with. But instead of making the play thin and trivial, Time has made it stronger and more meaningful. (Or maybe, because it’s about dying, it’s simply me growing old that made it feel deeper than a bunch of surreal gags.) (Either way, credit Time, okay?)

So what about the play I actually saw, as opposed to the one that’s in my head? Well, everybody in Australia knew that Geoffrey Rush was the best comic actor in the country long before I ever saw him in a movie, so his performance would be no surprise to them -– just me. As my friend Shannon said: “You know how when you love someone’s film work, you really hope they have the stage chops to back it up? This guy has the chops, and it really makes me happy.” And the play made me happy too. Yes, it’s a dramatized metaphor, but it’s delightful, moving, hilarious, absurd (duh), and Rush is all of these –- a limber-legged clown with amazing breath control who is so precise and loose at the same time that he threatens to tower over everything. But he doesn’t (except maybe when the Guard announces “The King is marching!” and Rush goes into this full-out two minute routine to music with Ray Bolger rubber legs and sly looks at the audience). (There’s a lot of fourth-wall breakage here too, and it’s all done just right.)

But thanks to Neil Armfield's direction, Rush never becomes bigger than the play he’s in, and the actors around him carry their weight for the most part, from Brian Hutchinson’s jarhead guard (a great example of the timeless in the timely) to William Sadler’s straight-out-of-Moliere Doctor to Andrea Martin’s I’m-in-my-own-crazy-universe Nurse. The only disappointment, and it’s a minor one, is Susan Sarandon. She gets the hardest part –- Queen Marguerite is more a narrator than a character, sitting there on her bench being calm when everyone’s frantic and focused when everyone’s scattered and doing nothing but taking it when her husband and his second wife insult her -- but even so, it feels like everyone else is performing while she’s doing the DVD commentary. In vocal terms, she speaks the part like she’s laying down a master track and will get around to tweaking the lines in post-production. There’s very little range to her delivery, which on the plus side makes her final monologue a great you-can-hear-a-pin-drop finale to the play. But it’s nothing we haven’t heard for the last two hours (except for the amplified echo effect).

None of which is a hard knock, only a soft one. Not only is there an Ionesco play on Broadway, but it’s a great production of what looks to be a timeless piece of theatre. Go see it.

Oh and, uhm, this crazy little redhead?

Still out there proving there's nothing she can't do. Nothing, I tell you.

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