Something Old, Something New

Shakespeare sings, but The Left Hand doesn't

Nov 26, 2003 at 4:00 am
Initially, Barbara Lebow's The Left Hand Singing is about three idealistic college students on their way to Mississippi as civil-rights volunteers in 1964. Then the focus shifts, and it's about the students' concerned parents. Ultimately the play is about two and a half hours -- which is painfully long for a work that has nothing original or insightful to say.

Credit director Deanna Jent (my theater-reviewing colleague at the Riverfront Times) and a talented cast with trying to mount a marvel of deception. Terry Meddows and Lavonne Byers, in particular, do everything possible to camouflage the fact that this is a flaccid, hollow play in which the characters are about as real as wax fruit. Early on, Byers in particular instills her character with a sense of life and urgency. As an activist mother waiting to learn the fate of her missing daughter, she is so quietly, intensely distraught that a viewer has a right to wonder if the actress will make it through the night. But by the evening's long-delayed end, all this good work is for naught; the play is smothered under the numbing weight of its own inertia.

The author probably thought she was doing something really clever when she juxtaposed time frames. (Perhaps she was influenced by Irish playwright Brian Friel, who effectively pulls off the ploy in his luminous comedy-drama Winners.) The first plot, concerning the college kids, runs the length of one evening. The second storyline, involving their parents, plays out over three decades. Unfortunately, the adults are so much less uninteresting than the kids, every time the play returns to the dormitory room the viewer begins to cringe. Why? Because this script suggests that its author doesn't understand the fundamentals of Play Writing 101. She pollutes her text with references to offstage characters who are not germane to the action and about whom the audience has no interest.

Nor has the playwright even the first clue about how to develop her onstage characters. F. Scott Fitzgerald once advised, "Start out with an individual and you find that you have created a type -- start out with a type and you find that you have created nothing." There's not a single individual in this entire script.

Why did New Jewish Theatre choose to produce such an inferior work -- which it has billed as a "regional premiere"? Perhaps because two of the seven characters are Jewish? That's no reason. Two of the characters are African Americans, but you can rest assured that the Black Rep wouldn't touch this play with a ten-foot pole.

There's no arguing with success, and the New Jewish Theatre is a decided success story. Over the years it has built its subscription base from 60 to more than 800. Perhaps it's time for New Jewish to redefine itself. How about Old Jewish? How about dipping into the Arthur Miller canon or reviving something by Paddy Chayefsky? When's the last time anyone saw a production of Gideon, The Tenth Man or Middle of the Night? These plays aren't new; they might not allow for premiere productions, but at least they'd give the actors -- and the audiences -- something worthy of their time.

St. Louis Shakespeare concludes its nineteenth season with an As You Like It that brightly captures the comedy's airy, pastoral tone. Sanghee Moon's set is a handsome evocation of the Forest of Arden. Here, under the greenwood trees, the actors parade about in richly embroidered costumes (credited to Michelle Siler, though some were borrowed from the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois) painted in earth hues: oranges and burnt siennas. The entire production benefits from a lovely look.

Shakespeare himself was born and bred in the country; this play offers a brief return to that rustic world he left behind when he moved to London. It also shares a common theme with the 1944 MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis: There are no bad guys in Meet Me in St. Louis; the only enemy is Progress, as crystallized by New York City. (Even in 1903, who would choose to live in the Big Apple over quaint, charming St. Louis?) In As You Like It, though the play is rife with villains, once again the true culprit is the Big City, as represented by the court. If only people will return to a simpler life, Shakespeare seems to be suggesting, one's problems will be resolved. That's easily accomplished here, because everyone who's anyone gets banished from the court and ends up living "like old Robin Hood" in the woods, where there is "good in every thing."

It's fascinating, for instance, to note how much more interesting the heroine Rosalind is after she enters the forest -- and in true Shakespearean style pretends to be a man -- than she is when she's a woman at court. The same is true of Julie Layton's performance. Once she dons ribbons, bows and lacy trousers and struts about like a veritable Hummel figure come to life, Layton is sprightly and full of pluck. Her sylvan romance with Orlando (Blake Anthony) is easy to take, despite the fact that the admittedly crowd-pleasing direction by Donna Northcott emphasizes pratfalls, sticking-out of tongues and jumping up in the air, not to mention a lot of large people hiding behind thin trees. But the text is easy to follow.

The production benefits from good work by James Malone as Rosalind's banished father and by Adam Hale, whose Touchstone resembles a young Jerry Lewis -- in part perhaps because of his crew cut but also because of his tireless attempts to wring humor from his lines. Perhaps the most curious portrayal is the Jaques of B. Weller. Usually Jaques (who delivers the play's most celebrated speech -- "All the world's a stage/And all the men and women merely players...." -- is mired in melancholy. Here he's practically the most cheerful person on the stage. That was different.

By evening's end, all is forgiven, and these banished royals -- who have had such a fine time living in the woods -- are allowed to return to urban life. It hardly seems fair, but it's foolproof.