sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2011-02-26 05:22 am

I am such a girl of habit. I had got into the way of being alive

In which I attempt to make up for the flu with theater. It's like chicken soup, only with more lighting cues and fewer kneydlekh. Although if I go and see The Dybbuk next month in New York, that might change.

Tonight I went to Cardillac at Opera Boston—music by Paul Hindemith, serial killings by E.T.A Hoffmann, I'll post a review tomorrow. I am awake far too late as it is.

Last night I saw The Lady's Not for Burning at Theatre@First. This is a play about which it is impossible for me to be sensible; my grandparents took me to a production when I was thirteen, without telling me anything about it, and I fell in love. It was the first modern play I took any notice of. It was the first play I ever bought. (The same hardcover second edition with tattered, saffron-colored jacket I have here on the shelf beside me, with its woodcut cover and someone else's checks and underscores and caesurae pencilled into most of the parts; I think it must have been a rehearsal copy. I preserved it like a relic everywhere I moved: it's in better condition than many a book I've bought since.) I never tried to memorize it, but there are lines I've been able to quote for the last sixteen years:

I have left
Rings of beer on every alehouse table
From the salt sea-coast across half a dozen counties
But each time I thought I was on the way
To a faintly festive hiccup
The sight of the damned world sobered me up again.

I can see
The sky's pale belly glowing and growing big,
Soon to deliver the moon.

What is deep, as love is deep, I'll have
Deeply. What is good, as love is good,
I'll have well. Then if time and space
Have any purpose, I shall belong to it.

I love you, but the world's not changed.

I am therefore very pleased to report that I quite liked this production, because otherwise it'd have depressed me for weeks.

There are problems with their Jennet; I'll get that out of the way first. I don't know if she'd have done better without the southern accent, but I had serious issues with Maria Natapov's diction—not helped by her consistently breathy, rising inflections, which neither conversationalized the verse nor kept its rhythms—and in a play as concerned with poetry as The Lady's Not for Burning, that's almost fatal. If she'd been wooden all round, I'd have simply been able to tune her out. As she had the right intelligent affect for a woman accused of crimes she can't believe anyone still believes in, I kept being distracted. Jennet has some of my favorite lines in the play; I was sorry to lose the full range of what could be done with them. Fortunately, their Thomas Mendip was the excellent Brian Keller: tall, slender, a little saturnine, with a voice that could turn whetstone and scythe for his self-sickness and boom out with caustic profundity, "Don't they know I sing solo bass in Hell's Madrigal Club?" He looks resigned to nothing; there's a real rage in him, not just cynical discontent, and it flashes to the surface at each new manifestation of the world's stupidity, sometimes tempered with humor he can just keep bitter, sometimes spilling over into corrosion. I think I had seen him played gentler, less soul-burnt, and I liked the difference. And yet he could be whimsical and self-upstaging and genuinely shaken by the realization that he's still capable of love: I didn't fall for him, but I'll remember how he leaned up in the window, nodding in, how his voice lightens as he reports the twilight and how you mark the first time Jennet touches him. Their last scene together is, in fact, unbreakable.

For the rest of the cast: a very good Richard and Alizon, not silly, but a kind of clear sweetness; they are less complicated than Jennet and Thomas, but that does not mean they are less real. A very good Tappercoom, in the unenviable position of being at all times the designated (at least to his friends) voice of reason; the scenes with him and the Mayor and the wistfully foolish, music-besotted Chaplain were some of the best in the second and early third act. By the time they sloped off with the alleluia'ing Matthew Skipps, I'd even become fond of Nicholas and Humphrey, in a safely-five-rows-back sort of way, though I am afraid I have actually met mothers like Margaret Devize. Who I wasn't expecting was Rob Noyes' absolutely fucking brilliant Mayor Hebble Tyson. He enters full of blusterous, beleaguered bureaucracy, welded to routine ("This will all be gone into at the proper time!") and blowing his nose like a particularly glutinous form of Victor Borge punctuation; he finishes a broken man, weeping into his handkerchief. All his certainties destroyed. And it's not solely for the audience to grin at. It's as if a commedia Pantalone suddenly fell into three dimensions and didn't know what to do with himself once he got there, tragicomic as Malvolio. That's memorable. I can't remember a thing about the actor who played the role when I was thirteen, but I'll probably have bits of Noyes in my head—at the very least, his post-nasal drip—whenever I read the play now.

And the Appalachian setting worked beautifully. The year is 1919, requiring no alteration to the references to Flanders and artillery; an alchemist in West Virginia is probably something of a stretch, but there are so many little churches and congregations in hollow country,1 Alizon's convent is perfectly believable. The folk music is very well integrated, especially when it accompanies the characters: Thomas has been walking the long, demobbed miles to the tune of "Wayfaring Stranger," the Chaplain is introduced absently singing "Simple Gifts." And I had not thought about how the accents would influence the language, but at least in Thomas' dialogue it produced one wonderful and unexpected effect: those glittering, metaphysical monologues that are both a defense mechanism and a passionate argument roll off his tongue with the cadences of hellfire and revival, except that what he's preaching is human disillusion and the mortal sin of despair. I don't know if you could get that effect with the original stage directions of "the fifteenth century, more or less exactly." I love this sort of thing.

1. Not that I have ever lived in Appalachia, but I did hear Carlisle Floyd talk about the genesis of Susannah (1955) when [ profile] fleurdelis28 and I went to see the opera at BU in April: that where he grew up in South Carolina in the '20's and '30's, every little town had essentially its own religion and nobody ever noticed; it was just your church, the church. It was only when he came back from college and later university in the 1940's that he realized how out of the mainstream his upbringing really had been; that's what he wrote Susannah from. I was actually reminded of it by this production, which is not a bad thing—it's my favorite opera in English after Peter Grimes and The Medium. What, you thought this post wouldn't include at least one footnote?

So once again, I find myself in the position of recommending a play the night before it closes, but that shouldn't keep you from listening to me. Yes, I'd have preferred an equal match of leads, but it didn't keep me from applauding all of the cast; there are cuts made to the text, but only a few lines ("What a wonderful thing is metaphor") that I really missed. There's the music and the voices. There's one performance left; if you're in the Boston area, you should go see it. And I will hope I don't need to wait another half my lifetime before I hear about another production of this play, because it deserves a wider audience than Pamela Dean's Tam Lin (1991), but if I have to take a version to carry with me for years, I don't mind it being this one.