Friday, November 13, 2009

Alexander Pushkin's Little Tragedies

"Alexander Pushkin's Little Tragedies" at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, Howard Gilman Theatre, November 10, 2009

Julian Henry Lowenfeld translates, directs, composes and appears in the four stories written by the 19th century Russian author.

IMHO, that's at least two jobs too many.

Mr. Lowenfeld provides 5 pages of program notes about Mr. Pushkin and an analysis of his writing - all very interesting, but a bit of overkill for an evening of theatre. The four stories that comprise Little Tragedies are The Knight-Miser, Mozart and Salieri, The Stone Guest and The Feast in Time of Plague. He seems most interested that none of the four stories are set in Russia.

After an oddly contemporary Requiem opening (seemingly composed in the style of Burt Bachrach) the ill-fitting evening begins. The Knight-Miser, set in France, is a familiar tale of Albert (Mr. Ruckdashel) a brash young knight whose lifestyle his miserly father (Mr. Von Berg) refuses to fund. Solomon the moneylender (Mr. Thompson) has cut off Albert's credit. After calling upon the Duke (Mr. Carin) to plead his case, the father reveals his son's greed and has him banished from court, then dies. Here the anachronisms surface with a reference to "Dad." The static and grand-ish staging, perhaps fitting for an opera, is markedly ineffective for a play, regardless of any "music" in the text.

If you've seen Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, either on stage or in film, think of Mozart and Salieri set in Austria as his outline. The weakest of the four scenes, Mr. Lowenfeld's Salieri calls to mind as if played by Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean. Mr. Simas, quite a talented pianist, is even more poorly cast as Mozart. Anachronisms continue: "See ya later."

The Stone Guest set in Spain is Mr. Pushkin's retelling of Don Juan. Mr. Innocenzi has a couple of nice moments as the legendary Lothario, but gets no support from Ms. Chapman's wooden Dona Ana. Mr. Ruckdashel's Leporello flails in contrast, and in vain. Soprano Niki Leoni has a lovely voice, but brings no interest to Don Juan's on-again-off-again lover, Laura. There are one or two fleeting moments of camp melodrama, likely unintended, which might have saved this leaden mess. Anachronisms continue - Don Juan asking about Dona Ana: "Is she cute?"

Finally, The Feast in Time of Plague set in England, staggers with overlong songs and an unclear goal. That lack of clarity hovers over the entire evening. Are these tragedies supposed to be sad? Is the goal that of irony?

Mr. Lowenfeld has assembled quite an eclectic cast, including Brandon Ruckdashel, Robert Carin, Karen Chapman, Stephen Innocenzi, Nika Leoni, Luiz Simas, John Leonard Thompson and Peter Von Berg. Each actor plays multiple roles among the four offerings. Of them, Messrs. Thompson and Von Berg come off the most effective and polished, delivering the stylized prose translations, and minimizing the numerous anachronisms among them. Offering his own interesting interpretation, Mr. Ruckdashel overlays a very natural style on the text. The result is a bit disruptive, particularly as the remainder of the cast infrequently manage to pull off their respective roles at all. Otherwise, the actors appear to wander aimlessly about the stage more often than not. Mr. Lowenfeld's academic credits are impressive. His devotion is clear, but his success in this theatrical venture is not.

There are some interesting staging moments, using split traveller panels and different sized black cubes to create various settings courtesy of Lea Orth. Gail Cooper-Hecht's costumes make a valiant attempt to raise the production quality, as do Derek Wright's lighting. Neither overcomes the weak direction.

1 comment:

booker said...

The best Pushkin's work is Secret Journal 1836-1837. I wish it is staged in the US as is was in France.