They sound so inviting, these 90-minute intermissionless plays. Easy in, easy out. No distractions. But like looks, lengths can be deceiving, and 90 minutes of express-lane theater can sometimes feel as if time has stopped altogether, sending you into a limbo in which a simple intermission would be as welcome to a theatergoer as a desert oasis would be to a camel. Currently, two more of these intermissionless offerings are on view. Although the plays themselves could not be more different, the overall effect is not dissimilar.
First there is Upstream Theater's staging of Federico García Lorca's Blood Wedding. Lorca, the Spanish dramatist and poet who was murdered at age 38 in the Spanish Civil War, did not live long enough to know that his plays would have a seminal impact on world theater. In Lorca's universe there are no rules. Theater can be whatever you choose. He filled his scripts with multilayered imagery; he discarded realism for tales that float through dream settings. Here, Blood Wedding, a turbulent story of lust and revenge, plays out in an essentially empty space. The set is lit and painted in sun-bleached golds and browns that evoke the arid, dusty hills of rural Spain. A scrim will reveal the spindly olive trees that loom over our doomed characters like voyeurs.
In a lyrical translation by American poet Langston Hughes, Blood Wedding concerns a discontented, brooding former suitor (J. Samuel Davis) who steals his true love (Julie Layton) away from her new husband on their wedding day, thus setting into motion events as inexorable as time itself. The bride, however, is not an unwilling victim. She feels trapped in this parched, sere land whose inhabitants are more consumed by thoughts of death than of life. Apparently everyone wears black in this town, as if mourning is a perpetual condition — an obsession, even.
Blood Wedding is an important and influential work. And, yes, its very dreamscape lends itself to multiple interpretations. But is it too much to expect a production to be tempestuous? Shouldn't Lorca's dance of death swirl with turbulence? As directed by Philip Boehm, this is a bloodless Blood Wedding more preoccupied with stylized stillness and correct posture than with emotions. Unlike Saint Louis University's still-haunting 2005 mounting of Lorca's tragic The House of Bernarda Alba, which exuded a repressed sensuality, there's no passion here. We feel no catharsis, because Boehm has not allowed these characters to breathe. If they can't feel, we can't either. Where are the hormones? Not even the live flamenco music of guitarist Lliam Christy, who sits strumming off to one side of the stage, can fill the void.
For the past three years, Boehm and his Upstream designers have exploited the intimate Kranzberg Arts Center's stage to dizzying effect. Usually, to see an Upstream production is to be swept into another world, where the stage's limitations are promptly forgotten. But in Blood Wedding, by evening's end this already bare space feels congested; the staging, self-conscious. When two woodcutters begin swinging their axes in slow motion, for a moment I thought they had stepped out of the "Lonesome Polecat" number in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Obviously, that's a stretch. But there's no telling where the mind will take you while you're trying to outlast 90 intermissionless minutes.
Unlike Lorca, whose writing was most closely identified with Spain's avant-garde, French phenomenon Yasmina Reza personifies commercial success. Her scripts are produced globally to critical acclaim and boffo box office. According to British writer Christopher Hampton, who often translates Reza's plays, she is so successful that people tend to resent her. "There's something about success that people react against," Hampton suggests in an intriguing interview in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' playbill for their current offering, Reza's God of Carnage.
A reaction against success actually seems to be one of the themes of God of Carnage. Two wealthy couples, ostensibly people of goodwill, meet after their children have duked it out in a schoolyard brawl. "There is still such a thing as the art of coexistence," suggests Veronica, who is hosting this parental get-together. Then, of course, relations between the two couples deteriorate until the adults are misbehaving worse than their miscreant kids. It might well be that part of the problem with these four is that they are uncomfortable with their own success. (One father is a high-powered attorney, the other sells domestic hardware.) So as the evening proceeds, the false veneer is stripped away, and a comedy of manners reveals some very ill-mannered adults.
For the record, I do not resent Reza's success. But that doesn't mean I can't regard God of Carnage as predictable and one-note. I also think the script is condescending and elitist. Reza knows her audience is upscale, and she plays them like a pipe. She knows, for instance, that the two couples portrayed in God of Carnage would be eager to attend a Reza play, preferably as soon after its Broadway opening as possible, when tickets are most in demand. God of Carnage is a cunning offspring of the "snob hit," that theater category created by William Goldman in his 1969 chronicle, The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway. According to Goldman, a snob hit must be influenced by the British — which, thanks to Hampton's translation, Carnage is. And it must appeal to the snobbery of the audience, which Carnage does. On opening night, just about everyone in the Rep audience seemed to feel smugly superior to the people onstage. Why not? When the antics occurring onstage are about as mature as the shenanigans in an old Abbott and Costello farce, who wouldn't feel superior?
But not only has God of Carnage been translated from French into English, it also has been "Americanized." Consider, for instance, the admission midway through the evening by Veronica's husband, Alan, that, despite the fineries of his upper-class existence, he is "fundamentally uncouth." At least that how Alan describes himself in Hampton's English translation. But in Hampton's revised American version, Alan now blurts out, "I am a fucking Neanderthal!" And the audience roars with delight. But is Reza saying anything that Rob Becker didn't already say in his 1990s theater piece, Defending the Caveman (which, by the way, ran on Broadway half again as long as God of Carnage)? Not really. But she deftly targets her content for a wine-sipping audience rather than the beer-chugging fans of Caveman. Yes, Reza knows her audience well.
The Rep production was directed by Edward Stern, and the opening-night audience seemed to enjoy it a lot. The set is suitably slick — but it did seem odd that the locale is set in a Brooklyn Heights home with a spectacular view of the East River, yet not one of the four characters ever looked out the window. The four actors (Eva Kaminsky, Anthony Marble, Susan Louise O'Connor, Triney Sandoval) are well-honed, having played the show in Cincinnati for several weeks prior to opening here. They know when to scream, holler and claw to best effect.
Perhaps those same viewers who reveled in Reza's hit comedy Art also might find God of Carnage to be, as Stern proclaims in his director's notes, "extraordinary...hilarious, painful, rich and oh-so-human." Stern does concede that "it does not take long to see how the play will end." As for me, after a constant onslaught of insults and howls, when the play would end became a much greater preoccupation than how it would end. The answer, of course, was obvious: after 90 inescapable minutes.
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