Our American Friend, Jeff Burdick, continues his take on this year's Ashland Festival. This week he looks at the three very different plays he saw in the Bowmer Theater.
Bowmer theater is a conventional proscenium stage with a thrust. It seats 600 and no one is more than 55 feet from the stage according to their web page. It looks a bit more to me, but they probably are right. Very comfortable, by the way. Beautiful facilities, comfortable seating, perfect acoustics.
Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land is touted as the most popular play in the Chinese speaking world. It wasn’t the most popular play in my world. It is a collision of two plays (quite literally). Two theater troops have booked the Bowmer theater for the same night (the play was translated for Ashland, so many references, some of them sly, some of them I probably missed since I’m not a native, are local), and Bill Rauch, the beloved Artistic Director of the festival, is blamed for the confusion. Great laughter came after that – he isn’t known for goofing.
One play is a slight but touching drama: two young people fall in love before the civil war in China has destroyed the country. The young man’s family flees to Taiwan. The young woman vanishes. He goes on to live a life: marriage for 40 years, children, etc. But he never forgets his first love. China has reabsorbed Taiwan and it is possible to visit. In the final scene, he has advertised on the front page of prominent papers that are distributed everywhere to find her because he is dying and wants to see her one last time. In fact, they have been living in the same city for 40 years, both thinking the other one was far away in China. She shows up, and they have a conversation that is full of lost opportunities. She too had a family, grandchildren. She too thought of him every day.
The acting is superb, especially Cristofer Jean, who is completely believable as a young man in love and completely believable as a man on his deathbed full of regrets. His first love was played by Kate Hurster.
And so this play is in dress rehearsal and we gets bits and pieces, often interrupted. It is a testament to the power of this simple play and its actors that we are immediately inside the emotion when it is on stage.
The other play intervenes, sometimes between scenes, sometimes simultaneously with both plays occurring at the same time on the same stage, lines sometimes crossing from one dialogue to the other, sometimes one on top of the other. The play is a Chinese opera, which is sort of the Three Stooges kind of acting. Stupid, silly, vulgar. Frequently stylized gestures that one might borrow from Kabuki – but slapstick. I find slapstick funny for about 3 minutes and then I just want it to go away. We got two hours of it, and I was restless and bored through much of it.
The story is of a cuckolded fisherman who goes upstream to find big fish and finds the “peach blossom land” which is a utopia. Everyone dresses in white and speaks softly and captures injured butterflies to nurse them back to health. The man’s wife in the real world (a harridan) is transformed into perfect peace in this utopia; the man’s wife’s lover (a bawd) becomes the husband’s mentor in this utopia.
I was glad when it was over.
There was one fun moment that confronted the race-blind casting that is common here. The play, all Chinese in content, was performed by a multi-racial cast. The director (a character who mirrors the actual director and writer of the play) complains that non-Asians simply can’t get the play the way Asians can. Some hilarity ensures and the audience loved it – probably the first time that race-blind casting was a central issue in a play. The good humor slides on the top of something that I suspect many audience members (many of whom are elderly) struggle with: love stories that aren’t typical. I sometimes think I hear a squirm in the audience when a couple is mixed race. (Note: in the next play, Fingersmith, the squirming wasn’t very hidden. The lesbian theme made many people visibly upset – they didn’t know what they were getting into, I guess. Beatrice and Benedict are also a mixed couple: black and white. This looks like the 21st century, folks, so get used to it).
There was one other bright point. An on-stage assistant director for the Chinese opera was a young, gangly man on a skateboard. He periodically skated through the plays, delivering props, picking up things, cleaning up problems – all with the bewildered delight of being there so that he stole every moment he was on stage. He threw himself into the silliness with all the abandon of someone throwing himself off a cliff to see what was on the other side. Great fun, and a reminder that there are no small parts.
Fingersmith. This is based on a highly touted novel by Sarah Waters, and I’m tempted to read it just so I can figure out what I just saw. It was fun. The set was absolutely gorgeous and huge – far bigger than the stage would seem to allow. There was an inset roundabout in the floor, stairways to a bridge across the stage, multiple doorways into various buildings that doubled as asylum, homes, baby farmer facilities, etc.
One must pause for a moment on that last one because I had never heard the term, but it is basically what we frequently do with children now: they are born, spend a week at home with mom who is eager to get back to work and someone somewhere takes care of the children – those are baby farmers. It went further in the Victorian period when people could surrender their babies to a farmer for a fee and never see the kids again. Or, it might be a short term solution (one thinks of Les Miz).
This is a tale of two girls in the Victorian era who started off life with a baby farmer; one was adopted by her uncle to become a secretary and oral reader of his pornography collection to at-home evenings with his buds, a pornography collection that is extensive; one was left to the streets to become known as “Fingersmith” – a pickpocket in other words. There are confusions about which girl is which as they grow up, an inheritance is involved, a shady fellow is out to fleece everyone and proceeds to fleece one girl, with the help of the other girl who is fleeced by the same girl with the help of the shady fellow – and all are fleeced by the baby farmer who, apparently is the mother of one of them. Hidden in all this is a touching (sometimes) lesbian affair as the two girls (not related) find one another and awaken love in one another.
Oh, is it confusing. At one point, one of the narrators (the girls narrate different parts of the story: two sections are nearly identical except by changing the narrator and finding out what is really going on, we see the same scene rashomon–wise. Well, I lost my sentence there: at one point, one of the narrators actually suggests that the audience get out pencils and record the steps so they can understand. It was good advice, though I had no pencil. A scorecard would have been helpful. This is the only time so far this year when there was talking in the audience (Ashland audiences really are good), and the talking all seemed to be, “What was that? Who is she? Why did . . . “ So, what’s wrong with the direction and the play if the audience can’t follow?
Really, if they know this is so confusing, why not add something to clarify?
I really wanted to like this play, and the energy and the good humor of it all was infectious. But finally, my failing: I simply got lost in the rapid changes and didn’t understand what was going on. I’m trying to remember if that has ever happened to me before, and nothing comes to mind.
Much Ado About Nothing. This is my favorite comedy. I’ve seen way too many productions to count, including some fun movie versions, but I’ve never seen one this good. The play depends on Benedict and Beatrice, and these were the two best I’ve seen. Absolutely hilarious. As always, describing comedy is impossible without making the whole thing sound ridiculous, and finally this was ridiculously funny. At one point, Benedict, overhearing the praises of Beatrice, crawled under the feet of audience members, slid down a stairway, crawled until the lip of the stage, and then got a can of beer “accidentally” tossed onto him by his buddies; When it was Beatrice’s turn, she did almost the same and had a champagne bucket’s ice dumped onto her. Only Claudio was weak; everyone else played beautifully.
But what was truly amazing to me was that the best Benedict I’ve ever seen was also the Edmund from Long Day’s Journey, Danforth Comins.. Two roles that are extremely difficult and requiring vastly different ranges – both excellent. Beatrice was also amazing, Christiana Clark. (photos below).
Near the end of the play, perhaps 15 minutes or so before the end, the house lights flickered and came on, the stage went to some sort of general rehearsal lighting. Apparently the air conditioner, over taxed (it was exactly eleventy-hundred degrees Farenheit –my converter doesn’t cover this in centigrade –outside), blew the circuits and we were on some sort of auxiliary power. Benedict (Comins) effortlessly (sprezzatura comes to mind) worked the fact of the broken air conditioner into his next speech and the play went on without a single hitch. Oh, but there were no lights, no music and the play was to end in a dance – so it did. Again, Comins invited the audience to clap, and the dance went on as planned to clapping instead of music. I’m not even sure much of the audience realized that it was all improvised on the fly. (They had to cancel the performance for last night in that theater; I’m hoping it is fixed in the next few hours because I’m scheduled there this afternoon). (Later note: it was!)
Guys and Dolls is a popular musical, and here it was done very well: good acting, good staging and all the rest. But two years ago, this festival set the bar high by reinventing My Fair Lady entirely, and this production of Guys and Dolls could have been done by any regional theater in the nation. Good, fun and entertaining, and certainly a fun way to spend an afternoon. But it is hard to get too enthused by something we’ve seen before. The highlight of my afternoon was a chatty lady (before, during the interval, and after – not during) who graduated from Stanford in 1958 and was there with a dozen of her classmates, something they do every single year. Great fun, full of life. She mentioned that they’d lost two of their group this year, “Two moved on this year.” And that was that.