Arts & Culture » Theater

Season's Greetings

Two prominent companies unfurl their first productions of the fall season. So far, so good.


The new theater season has begun with a flourish, thanks to two exquisitely directed productions that elevate comedy and tragedy to classic heights.

First, the comedy.

As staged by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Georges Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear provides a rare and exhilarating opportunity to see farce performed to a fare-thee-well. When farce is mounted with pace and polish, as it is here, you're laughing too hard to ponder the toil that went into its original design. Comedies may get written, but farces get designed, and the good ones are as ingeniously intricate as a NASA rocket. The 95-year-old A Flea in Her Ear is better than good; it may be the definitive French farce.

Set in Paris in 1910, the springboard for this spiraling imbroglio of would-be adultery, marital mix-up and mistaken identity is a neglected wife with a flea in her ear -- or, in Americanese, a bee in her bonnet. The wife suspects that her husband is cheating on her, so she sets out to test his fidelity. By play's end, after the events have spun out of control, these once-rational characters are crying, "I've lost my mind!" And so they have, nearly, because at its best farce is not merely about laughter; it also exposes us to a logical world gone haywire.

With dazzling success, John Going has transformed A Flea in Her Ear into a gorgeous Fabergé toy. The playbill credits him as director, but he's also the conductor and choreographer. I haven't seen so many stylish entrances since Loretta Young was on television. But beyond mere poise and precision, clarity is uppermost on Going's mind. There's a lot going on here, yet the audience is able to keep ahead of the multiple plots and subplots. As directed by Going, the exposition is as funny as the payoffs.

In a cast of thirteen, two performances personify the essence of the evening. As a young adulterer whose cleft palate reduces his speech to mush, Jeffries Thaiss must modulate just how mushy that dialogue will be. Sometimes he is totally inarticulate; on other occasions he must maintain the affectation while conveying story points and punchlines. His performance is a triumph of calibrated cruelty. Equally admirable is Anderson Matthews as the put-upon husband. Early on, Matthews is the solid maypole around whom all the others do their frantic dances. But by the end of the play, as his character hovers at the precipice of insanity, Matthews glides through the merciless madness with a deft ease that is nothing less than astonishing.

Probably no one had a more acute understanding of the precarious balance between sanity and lunacy than Georges Feydeau. Although his plays always settled for a happy ending, he knew that -- with the revision of a single speech -- he could exile his characters to permanent madness (as, indeed, at the end of his life he was committed to a mental hospital by his own children). So it is that in recognizing the razor-thin line that exists between comedy and tragedy, Feydeau surely would have been stirred by the pathos of Blanche DuBois.

A Streetcar Named Desire is Tennessee Williams' lyrical ode to the American theater's most poignant heroine, that tragic, faded Southern belle who brings havoc on herself after she arrives unannounced at the cramped New Orleans apartment inhabited by her sister Stella and Stella's husband, Stanley Kowalski. Ever since this Pulitzer Prize-winning play premiered in 1947, Streetcar has been an essential part of the American canon. Its many classic lines have become a part of our lexicon ("Sometimes there's God so quickly," "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers"). So how is it that the current HotHouse production is so surprisingly fresh? And how is it that, despite the play's familiarity, this Streetcar possesses the power to startle and even stun?

Director Marty Stanberry has stretched Bryan Schulte's French Quarter scenic design across the center of the ArtLoft playing space. The audience sits on either side of the set. Because this Kowalski apartment lacks a ceiling, I feared that the play's required sense of claustrophobia might be diminished, and to a degree it is. But by moving Streetcar into the center of the theater, we're not so much watching a play as witnessing a chess match in which life-size pieces are battling to the death.

What is the endgame? In this production, Blanche and Stanley are not simply tearing at each other -- she, the withered flower; he, the boorish Pole. The struggle here is much more specific: Each is grasping, clutching, begging for the affection of Stella. To Blanche, baby sister Stella is her only link to a lost past; for Stanley, Stella is his lifeline to the future. As portrayed by Laurie McConnell, Stella is Everywoman -- sympathetic and understanding, provocative and sensual. It is fitting that McConnell takes the second-to-last curtain call, for this Stella is integral to the HotHouse equation.

Why, then, is this production so immediate? In large measure, it's because director Stanberry somehow has persuaded his actors that they are performing the play for the very first time. It has no history, no past. No one's imitating anybody. The Stanley Kowalski portrayed by Jared Sanz-Agero (who resembles a young Orson Welles more than he does Marlon Brando) is initially sympathetic. Especially at the beginning, this Stanley seems as if he might be a decent enough guy, so long as you don't cross him. If that's your production's point of departure, anything can happen on the stage.

And anything does -- especially when Carolyne Hood's Blanche is prowling about. I confess that I have never seen a thoroughly satisfying Blanche. They're always laden down with too much baggage: too much star power, too much accent, too much frailty, too much doom. If Hood is the most persuasive Blanche I've seen, it's because she arrives onstage shorn of affectation. Whether she's bantering with Mitch (persuasively played by Cameron Ulrich) or defending herself against "deliberate cruelty," Hood finds a way to serve the play rather than her own performance.

Elia Kazan, who directed the original Broadway production, wrote in his memoir, "In the end, the play was the event; not the cast, not the director. The play carried us all. In years to come, this masterful work, written out of Tennessee's most personal experience, asking no favors, no pity, no special allegiance, always moved its audience." Fifty-five years later, A Streetcar Named Desire continues to move, elate and even exhaust its audience.

Nine months from now, when we're recalling the 2002-03 theater season that will have just concluded, it's possible that we'll look back to late September as a golden moment when the masks of comedy and tragedy were illuminated by two first-rate productions. A Flea in Her Ear and A Streetcar Named Desire well may be the standards against which the remainder of the season are measured.

The Historyonics Theatre Company has opened another season of hybrid theater with a production devoted to Theodore Roosevelt. In Bully Pulpit, five actors race through the life and career of America's 26th president, vainly trying to energize a script that is devoid of emotion or wit. Every few minutes the proceedings screech to a halt so that the cast can sing songs of the period, an occurrence that gives new resonance to the phrase "show-stopper."

If you don't think TR was one of America's most fascinating personalities, just watch Brian Lamb devote two hours to him on C-SPAN. But this sanitized survey of dates and events reveals so little of interest, we'd be justified in starting a petition to have Teddy removed from Mount Rushmore. The only actor to best the script is Julie Ganey as Roosevelt's spunky daughter Alice. But even she can coast on charm for only so long.

The Historyonics approach plays into the premise that the less you know about the subject, the more interesting you might find the script. But let's face it: When the show's most compelling drama occurs during an intermission raffle to determine who won the Historyonics T-shirt, something is sadly amiss.

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