Saturday, May 2, 2015

Two Visits to the Theatre

This weekend, I saw two plays I had been looking forward to seeing for a while: Red Bull Theater Company's production of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore and the Broadway musical adaptation of Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Visit.

With both plays, I was quite familiar with and quite fond of the source material, and both productions took considerable liberties. 'Tis Pity dates back to the 17th century, while The Visit was written in the 1950s, so one might think that the later play would be easier to update without losing a bit of its spirit. However, I found Red Bull's latest offering to be on the whole far more satisfying than what I saw on Broadway.

It's hard not to like a play with a title like 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. John Ford's dark tragedy, which dates to the reign of Charles I, luxuriates in its own excess. Taking the forbidden love of Romeo and Juliet even further, its star-crossed lovers are brother and sister. (Eww!) The brother, Giovanni, confesses his love to a Friar, who unlike Friar Lawrence does not approve of this love.

Giovanni's sister Annabella has a nurse figure with whom she can confide, her tutoress Putana. She whole-heartedly endorses the incestuous relationship. When Annabella remarks upon what a paradise she has passed over, her tutoress shockingly remarks:

Nay, what a paradise you have passed under! Why now I commend thee, charge; fear nothing, sweetheart; what though he be your brother? Your brother's a man, I hope, and I say still, if a young wench feel the fit upon her, let her take anybody, father or brother, all is one.

In directing such a deliberately outrageous play, Jesse Berger kept the feel of the 17th century while adding a number of modern touches. This came out most clearly in Sara Jean Tosetti's costume design, which used modern fabrics in periodesque ways. Giovanni's leather jacket, for instance, had been re-tailored in the shoulders to invoke the idea of a doublet. Unfortunately the music, composed by Adam Wernick, was less successful, sounding neither Renaissance nor modern.

The play famously ends with Giovanni running onstage with his sister's heart on a dagger. The only other time I have seen this play, the heart prop was done non-realistically, resembling instead some strange, cubist sculpture. Not so here. A shockingly realistic heart dripped blood from Giovanni's dagger. Terrible as the brother's actions were, he did not shrink from them, and the life-like (or rather death-like) heart would not allow the audience to forget that.

Unfortunately, I did not find the same level of bravery in The Visit, the new musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb with a book by Terrence McNally. Part of the reason for that might be the economic realities of Broadway. Durrenmatt's script lists 32 distinct characters (and that doesn't even include the actor who plays a succession of three different husbands). The cast of the Broadway musical version was half that size.

More disappointing, however, was how the adaptation seemed to turn away from the boldness of the original. In Durrenmatt's play, when a rich old woman returns to her home town, offering to lavish money on the inhabitants if they kill the man who wronged her years ago, they proudly reject the proposal, then immediately after an intermission they begin buying goods on credit, guiltily expecting the death to occur nonetheless.

Instead, McNally has the mayor momentarily tongue-tied after hearing the offer, and it is only after the schoolmaster makes a brief speech that the mayor and the rest of the town reject the proposal. It's as if all of the guts of the original had been workshopped out of the piece, and intentionally sharp edges were smoothed over so that nothing would seem too unexpected, too insufficiently justified.

There certainly are some good moments in The Visit, including a brilliant musical number where everyone in the town buys a new pair of yellow shoes on credit. Unfortunately few moments of musicalization match the haunting power of Durrenmatt's writing.

Consider this passage from the play, where the old woman describes her warped relationship with the man she now wants dead:

Your love died many years ago. But my love could not die. Neither could it live. It grew into an evil thing, like me, like the pallid mushrooms in this wood, and the blind, twisted features of the roots, all overgrown by my golden millions. Their tentacles sought you out, to take your life, because your life belonged to me, for ever. You are in their toils now, and you are lost. You will soon be no more than a dead love in my memory, a gentle ghost haunting the wreckage of a house.

I wish the musical had captured a bit more of the savage bravery of the play, the way Red Bull had managed to do with 'Tis Pity She's a Whore.