Sunday, January 14, 2007

Lost in Translation

"A Spanish Play" at Classic Stage Company, January 13, 2007

(Spoiler Alert) The Classic Stage Company presents Yasmina Reza's latest play in its English-language debut. From the Theatre Communication Group's website:
A Spanish Play is a meta-drama about a group of five actors rehearsing a foreign play (a Spanish one) that they will stage in their native language (French). Which is to say, they are performing a play in translation. For American audiences, the actors won't be speaking Spanish or French, but English, which is of course what is always spoken in Reza's plays when they're performed in the U.S.
For more from this article about Ms. Reza and this translation by David Ives, click here.

Director John Turturro has taken on the play, using a clever technique to capture some of the actors as they step out of their "Spanish Play" roles and talk about their characters or speak to one or another member of the play's creative team. To accomplish this for the two younger women and the younger man, he uses a hand-held video camera projecting the image on the back wall of the set following the actors, sometimes backstage, sometimes onstage, in a confessional manner. Why he didn't follow through with this for the older couple is not clear. That lack of clarity foreshadows the rest of the production. It also may have helped Mr. Turturro provide structure instead of a rambling series of scenes and monologues. The whole notion of translating the Spanish to French (and then to English for this production) starts to remind me of an old SNL skit set in the smallest restaurant in NY in which the live entertainment sings "Send In The Clowns" in English translated into French, translated back into English. "I'm not that rich. Aren't you a queer?"

The premise of the play within the play is that recently widowed Fernan (Larry Pine), a real estate building manager has begun an affair with an older woman Pilar (Zoe Caldwell) who lives in one of the buildings he manages. She has three daughters, Nuria (Katherine Borowitz), Aurelia (Linda Emond) and Crystal (unseen). Nuria and Aurelia are both actors, but only Nuria has achieved success. Aurelia is married to Mariano (Denis O'Hare) a math teacher with a teeny, tiny, little drinking problem. Nuria is up for the Spanish equivalent of the Academy Award and has come home to visit for the weekend. Aurelia is rehearsing a Bulgarian play from the '70s and is struggling with sibling rivalry. Both daughters are concerned about their mother's affair with Fernan. The play within the play is conventional and does reduce the mother-daughter and sister-sister relationships to stereotype, though there are some great lines. Following Aurelia's panic attack, a drunken Mariano says "The brain needs a mess. Nothing good comes out of clarity." The real interest should be in the transitions to and from the rehearsal we're watching - if only those transitions were more clear.

Riccardo Hernandez' set is a wash of bright yellow punctuated with red that provides two areas sometimes used to delineate whether we're watching the rehearsal or listening to the actor discuss his role. Again, consistent use in this manner would have helped. Christopher Akerlind's lighting provides proper emphasis to make these accomodations as well. Credit must be given to Donna Zakowska for creating two of the ugliest dresses I've seen onstage, candidates for Nuria to wear to her awards ceremony.

The company is consistently strong throughout, communicating their various insecurities and control issues both in and out of character. I'm particularly impressed with the moments when the actors speak directly to the video camera - this close proximity brings their performance even closer than the apron stage provides. In the end, though, there wasn't much substance presented - - form over function, as it were.

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