Magnificent Oddity

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:20

    Magnificent Oddity For the third year in a row, before the theater season is two months old, I've seen a production that I'm sure?without prejudice to any future show?will be one of the pinnacles of my year. In 1997 I had this feeling with Ivo van Hove's version of O'Neill's More Stately Mansions. In 1998 it was Dare Clubb's production of his own Oedipus. Now it is the Scottish Royal Lyceum Theatre Company's production of Calderon's Life Is A Dream, directed by the Spaniard Calixto Bieito. Funny, smart, lucid, stunningly physical and exquisitely acted, this production visited the Brooklyn Academy of Music last week for only six days. In an America where more than a handful of commercial producers still existed with real imagination and guts, it might've run much longer on its own steam outside the Next Wave Festival. Written in 1635, Life Is A Dream is the crowning text of the Spanish Golden Age?a work of astonishing passion, insight and poetic grace that is nevertheless rarely produced because even directors?not known for meekness, as a class?tend to be terrified of it. To see it done well once, however, is to wonder what all the terror is about, because its continuing immediacy and contemporaneity practically slap you in the face. Its roots in hoary principles of honor and Christian doctrine notwithstanding, this play is as unlikely to go out of fashion as sex, jealousy, fear of death and fear of God's judgment?its major preoccupations.

    The story itself, for all its metaphysical speculation, is enthralling. Segismundo, heir to the Polish throne, has been locked away in a tower since birth because his father, King Basilio, feared an astrological prophecy that the boy would grow into a tyrant and usurp him. One day?after the grown and animalistic prince has been accidentally found by Rosaura, a woman traveling to Poland in male disguise to regain her honor?Basilio has Segismundo drugged, brought to the palace and treated like royalty to test whether his character is indeed as bestial as feared. The prince behaves atrociously, of course, stinging his father with accurate rebukes, and he is drugged again, returned to the tower and told that the palace episode was merely a dream.

    This single idea, however, planted in the thin soil of Christian teaching that Segismundo's keeper Clotaldo has dusted him with, sprouts quickly into a full-blown conscience: Segismundo thinks that if there's no way to tell whether we're dreaming our lives, then we must behave as if we could awaken at any moment and face God's judgment. In the end, the prophecy, which the arrogant Basilio obviously misinterpreted, is fulfilled. Freed by a rebellious officer to march against the king, Segismundo humbles his father but then submits to him, condemns the rebellious officer for treason and denies himself the love of Rosaura in order to restore her honor?his transformation from an amoral infant into a magnificently judicious adult complete.

    Bieito has taken this action?creaky ideas of propriety and all?and made it unforgettably present-tense over two intermissionless hours. With the stage bare except for a large circle of loose gravel on the floor that crunches and scatters under everyone's shoes and an enormous, mobile baroque mirror hanging above (set design by Bieito and Carles Pujol), the emphasis is constantly on the weight, heft, vanity and fascinating awkwardness of the mortal human body. Two musicians sit unobtrusively at the back (Miguel Poveda and José Miguel Cerro) supplying wonderfully malapert yet diminutive rhythms almost entirely with their hands, feet and a few boxes.

    The intensity of the evening resides in the acting, though, particularly George Anton's performance as Segismundo. Seen at BAM in 1996 as the duplicitous Bosola in Cheek by Jowl's production of The Duchess of Malfi, Anton here plays a much more earnest character that allows his strange, sinewy energy and fervid exertions to read as evidence of divine candor and grace. With his skinny chest bare and heaving, the sweat glistening over his entire shaved head, his cheeks glowing like a lantern, he ranges from the noblest generosity to the basest cruelty without ever seeming insincere. And since his expressions, gestures and mellifluous Scottish inflections are all wholly modern?blowing out his cheeks in reaction to Rosaura's story of shame and abandonment by Astolfo, Duke of Muscovy, for instance?his demeanor is a constant connection to all our own age's glib and "virtual" impediments to unmediated vision and feeling. Beckett's Estragon half-seriously longed for the days when "they crucified quick," and this mortal dreamer, in effect stripped for crucifixion himself, suffers precisely the same doubts about the authenticity of his existence.

    Olwen Fouere's performance as Rosaura is also indelibly precise, as is Sylvester McCoy as the clown-servant Clarin who accompanies Rosaura to Poland. A flat-faced, sharp-featured actress equally capable of light charm and grimly obsessive determination, Fouere makes Rosaura almost as profoundly unsettled as Segismundo. Stuffed into an ill-fitting orange dress for much of the play, which makes her look as uncomfortable as a woman as she did as a man (the costumes are all indeterminately modern, with the men vaguely totalitarian), she refuses to play the victim even though everyone treats her as one. Interestingly, she and Bieito have found a shrewd solution to the serious problem that Rosaura must marry her rapist in the end (a common problem in classical plays, alas): she simply plays strong, lingering sexual desire for Astolfo, and he reciprocates, implying there was always much more to their relationship than the breach of promise or rape.

    McCoy, for his part, wearing a standard red clown nose, is masterful at handling the bulk of the crass contemporary humor in John Clifford's smooth and speakable but occasionally over-colloquial translation. Whether he is blaspheming on the heels of someone else's spiritually awestruck monologue ("Holy shit, what in God's name was that?"), or pissing on Clotaldo, or snickering in asides about "the plots of countless bad dramas," or playing cheap tricks on audience members with playing cards as the fate of a kingdom hangs in the balance, his hilarious sycophancy and infantilism are the main reasons the production's high and low tones feel woven together with such purposeful beauty.

    As I was leaving this Life Is A Dream, I was stunned to overhear a young couple scornfully dismissing the production as "disgusting." They were especially offended, it seems, by Clarin's scatological humor and Segismundo's frank sexuality (crawling under the dress of the first woman he sees at the palace, for instance, and briefly masturbating later in his cell). What then, I wondered, did they imagine the play was about? Perhaps they thought gratification and mortification of the flesh were out of place in a play whose given circumstances include torturous isolation, or perhaps they saw the sick psychosexual father-son conflict as somehow secondary to Calderon's "nicer" honor questions, or to his presumably polite poetry. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Bieito and company have merely reminded us that this 364-year-old gem holds solace regarding our very own messily modern night fears, if we care to see it.


    Look Back in Anger by John Osborne Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St. (betw. 3rd & 4th Aves.), 677-4210, through Nov. 14. The revival of John Osborne's 1956 Look Back in Anger at Classic Stage Company, directed by Jo Bonney, is in a way the opposite case. A sensitive director with a fine, talented cast has given a work considered a modern classic as loving, careful and subtle a staging as any fan of the text could hope for, yet that text simply hasn't stood the test of time. Osborne may have been the celebrated "gatekeeper" of the angry postwar British drama movement (as David Hare recently called him), and this play may have therefore had more influence than any other modern English one. A mere 43 years, however, has dated its depiction of male-female relations so badly that basic questions of plausibility now sap the vital energy from its famously heated conflict.

    The conflict centers on a working-class young man named Jimmy Porter (played by Reg Rogers), stunningly articulate and furious at the bleak and "pusillanimous" world his generation inherited, and his upper-class wife Alison (Enid Graham), who irons in silence for most of the long first act, refusing to respond to his increasingly abusive provocations. A live-in friend of Jimmy named Cliff Lewis (James Joseph O'Neill), who seems alternately in love with Jimmy and Alison, plays referee when he can, and a friend of Alison named Helena Charles (Angelina Phillips), an actress who claims to hate Jimmy, arrives as a guest and stays as his lover after Alison takes her "friendly" advice and goes home to her parents.

    The biggest problem with all this is that no self-respecting woman today would put up with Jimmy's loathsome and spiteful verbal abuse for nearly as long as Alison does, no matter what her class?which makes it awfully hard to believe that any self-respecting woman would have in 1956 either. The second biggest problem is that no self-respecting friend would stick around a house with such evil vibes for nearly as long as Helena does, no matter what her secret attraction for the man. Helena says at one point that Jimmy's hatred is "oddly exciting," but neither Rogers nor Phillips ever rises to the challenge of giving this misogynistically conceived idea real emotional substance, nor does Graham invest Alison's chronic indolence with any strong sense of inner rebellion or passive-aggression that might lend her a redemptive edge.

    In an interview in the October issue of American Theatre, Bonney responded to questions about these problems by stressing the characters' youth: "Their behavior arises from that time in your life when you're starting to understand the bigger scheme of things and where you stand in it?the frustration of having reached the moment when your idealism is looking shaky; you've hurtled into a relationship and now you're having doubts. That behavior is timeless." Perhaps it is. The question is whether Osborne's representation of it also is.