Fifth of July at the Aurora

Last week Dave and I went to a preview for the Aurora Theater’s production of one of Dave’s favorite plays, Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July. It’s a lovely production, and the acting was very good all around, though here and there it did feel just like a preview performance, with the characterizations sometimes a little roughly sketched in, still needing to deepen and fill in some details. We’re planning to go back later in the run and see how things have developed.

One thing Dave loves about Fifth of July, which debuted in 1978, is that it may well be the first successful American play in which the central character is a gay man and yet the story is in no way about the fact that he’s gay. Being gay is just there, just another thing that particularizes him, like his hair color or his accent; if he were straight, the relationships and the story wouldn’t be hugely different. Wow, a play where people like us are just ordinary people, part of the fabric of the world, no big deal. What’s more important to the story is that he lost both legs in the Vietnam War and hobbles around on fiberglass prothenics and crutches, and that he’s given up on what he thought he was going to do next with his life, but he hasn’t told friends and family about this or come up with anything else to do instead. Meanwhile, his aunt still hasn’t gotten up the wherewithal to scatter her late husband’s ashes as he requested, even though it’s been several years since he passed away.

It’s a good play about how life stalls out on us sometimes, and we have to figure out how to let go of our past hopes and find a way to move forward. We hope to get back for a second time.

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Gok! Blit! Blasny Blasny!

Dave and I just got back from a really wonderful production of Larry Shue’s farce The Foreigner at the Contra Costa Civic Theatre. I saw the first off-Broadway production starring Anthony Heald in the late 1980s, and I became an instant fan and saw it one or two more times (I forget now which). I’ve not seen it again till now, though I’ve reread it several times over the years with great pleasure; I don’t know why the play isn’t done all the time, but it isn’t. This production seems just as good to me as the off-Broadway production was, though of course it has its differences and is weaker in some ways and stronger in others.

Ryan O’Donnell’s performance as Charlie, the phony “foreigner” of the title, is quite different from Heald’s (or at least my memory of it) but in some ways he’s even more convincing in the role than Heald was. That may be something of a backhanded compliment, as Charlie is such a total nebbish at the start of the play, but be that as it may, O’Donnell nails the nebbish and then nails every step of Charlie’s transformation. I thought Aaron Murphy as the slow-witted Ellard was the other standout — my memory may be weak but I don’t remember Ellard being played with so much detail and so much heart off-Broadway. But the whole ensemble is just really, really good.

Larry Shue died young, not long after writing The Foreigner; had he lived, we wouldn’t be talking about how The Foreigner was his last play but about how it was the first play in which he’d really mastered his craft. It’s an intricate farce, the sort of comedy where you spend the first twenty minutes being shown dozens of assorted bits and pieces of story and character, and then you spend the rest of the play gasping with delight and disbelief as the playwright takes this assortment of gears and pulleys and ratchets and puts them together to make an astonishingly tricky and hilarious clockwork machine. And yet in this play Shue also created a number of genuinely memorable characters who don’t feel mechanical at all, some of whom you even come to like and care about, even as you’re laughing at the impossible tangle they’re getting themselves into — or at least I do. I’m a big fan of Shue’s earlier farce, The Nerd, too, but in that one the characters never really stop feeling like the playwright’s puppets; The Foreigner has a heart and soul that The Nerd doesn’t. It’s a huge shame and a great loss to us all that, once he had brought himself to this level of mastery of the craft, having at last found his way to a distinctive and confident voice as a playwright, this is the only play that Shue then had time to give us.

Really fine production of one of the best farces I know. Definitely worth a visit. Gok! Gok! Blasny blasny!

More Thoughts About Mirandolina

The Mercury News reviewer generally likes Center REP’s Mirandolina a lot, but she calls it a “door-slamming farce” and says that it never quite achieves the “fever pitch” she thinks it needs.

Alas, Goldoni, the great Venetian playwright famed for “Servant of Two Masters,” is sometimes funnier on the page than the stage. Near, former head of San Jose Repertory Theatre, directs with a light touch, but the first act lacks pep, and the last act needs more of a breakneck pace to make the farce pop. A little more speed would give the zaniness more zip.

I think she’s right in thinking — despite the excellent production — that the play itself comes across as a bit thin, especially for a play widely regarded as one of the great masterpieces in Italian theater. But I think she’s wrong in assessing why; she thinks the production isn’t zany enough, but I think the problem is really that the play loses some of its character in translation.

Goldoni’s play is more of a comedy of manners than a farce. Goldoni was writing in reaction to the commedia dell’arte of his time, which had become tired and formulaic, repeating the same slapstick gags over and over. On the one hand, Molière breathed new life into commedia dell’arte by taking its small-town character types and making them grander and more important, using comedy as a way of mocking and satirizing what he saw as important evils of society. Goldoni went in the other direction, keeping his characters at a more human scale, but drawing them less like cartoon characters and more like real people. But for that to work for us, we have to perceive the humanity in them, not just see them as stock characters in a zany farce.

Molière’s larger-than-life characters transcend cultural borders more easily — Tartuffe and Orgon and Harpagon and Arnolphe are larger-than-life social monsters whom we can recognize in our own society even if the details of 18th-century Paris society are a mystery to us. But Goldini’s more human-sized characters — innkeepers, servants, merchants, rural nobility — are woven into the fabric of 18th-century Tuscan and Venetian society, and Goldoni took it for granted that his audiences would be familiar with their quirks and foibles simply from living among people like them every day. These characters tend to seem remote to us today, and they have concerns that can seem more artificial than real to us. So it’s hard to bring them to life in a way a modern American audience can understand and connect with.

One way to accomplish that might be to rewrite the plays a bit. Goldoni’s best-known play in English, for example, is The Servant of Two Masters, but it’s most often done in versions that are more freely adapted, tightening the story and broadening the farce. Center REP’s version does a bit of this: The long, hilarious swordfight in the second act, for example, is an interpolation; in the play as written, the fight is interrupted almost as soon as it begins.

Another tactic is to move a play from 18th-century Italy to more modern times. A popular version of The Servant of Two Masters in English, for example, moves the action to London in the 1960s. I did this sort of thing myself (though not with a Goldoni play) with The Riot Grrrl on Mars by “translating” the characters and situations to modern equivalents that the audience would recognize more readily and with less need for explanation of the cultural assumptions being made along the way. The original opera, L’Italiana in Algeri, has a story straight out of the commedia dell’arte in which a young, determined Italian woman journeys to Africa to rescue her lover, who has been kidnapped by pirates on the Mediterranean, from the Bey of Algiers; in The Riot Grrrl on Mars, a young, determined punk rocker flies to outer space to rescue her boyfriend, who has been abducted by a UFO, from the King of Mars.

Center REP’s Mirandolina tightens the dialogue a bit, updates the rather formal Italian to breezy modern English, and adds a few songs and that splendid swordfight, but even so, it mostly stays close to Goldoni’s story and characters. That gives us a more direct view into Goldoni’s play, which is a good thing, but it can also make situations and characters seem quaint to us, which is not so good. We American playgoers have to stretch a little harder to see the humanity that is shared between Goldoni’s world and our own. A worthwhile stretch to make, all the same.

(Now, if it were me translating, I’d probably have made the Marquis the arrogant head of a once-successful dot-com that has recently gone bust, and ….)

Mirandolina at Center REP

Dave and I went to Walnut Creek Saturday for a preview performance of Center REP’s new production of Mirandolina! Mistress of a Tuscan Inn, an English-language version of the 18th-century Italian comedy La locandiera by Carlo Goldoni. We had a great time, and we’re planning to go back for a second look later in the run.

It’s a terrific production. The characters are strongly and strikingly portrayed by the excellent ensemble, headed by Tracy Hazas (who I don’t recall having seen before) as Mirandolina, an innkeeper who unwisely keeps the man she truly loves at arm’s length, partly because she’s too busy managing her inn, but mostly because two of her regular guests are smitten with her, and as they are both important men, she wants to keep their patronage by not dashing their hopes. One is a sour and haughty nobleman by birth who is constantly borrowing money to live on (played by Mark Anderson Phillips, who I think we last saw playing Oscar Wilde and an assortment of other roles in Mark Jackson’s Salomania! a few years back); the other is a brash, wealthy merchant who has recently purchased the title of count for himself (played by Michael Butler, in a more flamboyant role than I think we’ve seen him in before). The rivalry between the Count and the Marchese, each trying to one-up the other in front of Mirandolina, works to Mirandolina’s benefit — particularly when the men compete in giving her expensive gifts.

A third man comes to the inn, a misogynistic cavalier (Gabriel Marin, a longtime favorite). Mirandolina is angered by his disdain for women and decides she’s going to use her wiles to make him fall in love with her. At this point it’s easy to be reminded of Much Ado About Nothing, but the situation is different — and morally dicier — because Mirandolina does not actually love the cavalier, but is seducing him only to get revenge for her wounded pride. Meanwhile, the man she really loves, her butler Fabrizio (Ben Euphrat), waits on the sidelines with growing frustration. A couple of touring actresses having a lark between stops (Lynda DiVito and Lizzie O’Hara), wearing theatrical costumes and pretending to be noblewomen, add to the complications.

All this is played out on a wonderful, brightly colored set (by Nina Ball) that revolves to show the various locations in and around the inn. A swordfight that staggers from room to room as the set keeps spinning is a high point of the second act.

Goldoni’s comedies seem to be hard to pull off in English. I’ve read or seen six or seven, and in all of them his dramatic construction is loose, in the commedia dell’arte style; he evidently meant his performers to have a certain amount of room for improvising and bringing their own personalities with them — indeed, in 18th-century Italy, if his plays hadn’t provided those opportunities, the best performers wouldn’t have wanted to do them. That makes the plays a challenge to do in a different time and place where commedia is not part of the culture.

And then the plays are gentler and warmer than, say, the similar comedies of Molière and Gozzi, whose sharper, more satirical caricatures travel better across cultural borders. Goldoni poked affectionate fun at the manners, society, and even the dialects of Tuscany and Venice, and those things don’t mean much to us Americans.

This adaptation doesn’t really find ways of bringing those aspects of the play to life, I think, and as a result the play itself comes across feeling like a thinner and more conventional farce than it really is. But Timothy Near’s direction is sure-handed and most importantly the cast is strong, so it all works anyway. Lots of fun. We’re going back.