Dancing with Scissors? Bourne Tinkers With Burton at Sadler’s Wells

Well, I have returned from London—just in time to dodge the “poison clouds” that were expected to blanket the city on 12 December after what the Evening Standard proclaimed to be an “apocalyptic” conflagration in Hemel Hempstead. I did notice the black band of smoke on Sunday afternoon, but failed to match either my observations or my persistent respiratory problems (my cough being a New York City import) with the headlines I had read just hours earlier. I don’t know, somehow bold print on a front page always makes news spell something not pertaining or happening to me. What did happen to me that day was a theatrical experience that, while not quite a blot on the sunny skies of my holiday disposition, left me colder than the wet ashes of an extinguished winter blaze.

I am referring to Matthew Bourne’s production of Edward Scissorhands, the quirky fairy tale created for the screen by Tim Burton and scored by Danny Elfman back in 1990. Burton’s motion pictures are distinguished by a peculiar tension of aesthetics, a confrontation of Post-Modern and Victorian sensibilities, of the queer and sentimental, that conjures up the bathos of a melancholy drunkard slipping in and out of consciousness at an anything goes Halloween bash. The Penguin in the bleak cityscape of Batman Returns comes to mind; or the lonely giant of Big Fish. Sometimes this aesthetic exchange feels rather forced and irksomely disingenuous.

The opening scenes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a movie-qua-computer game about as charming and magical as a dead rabbit pulled out of a plastic top hat, seem as authentic in their winter-of-our-discontentedness as the patched-up seconds of a third-rate Oliver!. With the sweet-and-sour confectionery that is Edward Scissorhands, on the other, finger-licking good hand, Burton got it just about right.

I considered myself both tickled and stirred. Here, the dark scenes contrast with and accentuate the bright in such poignant counterpoint, it is like watching an energetic MTV-age cut of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Unfortunately, Bourne did not manage to infuse his stage version with the same bathos.

Whimsical scenery and a general busyness of dancers jogging about in costumes apparently on loan from a touring company of Hairspray are violently yoked with more or less static scenes depicting Edward in quiet despair. I could have told Bourne that making Edward both move and moving would prove an impossible assignment: you simply can’t dance with scissors.

Edward cuts a dashing figure, all right, but it’s the topiary. At one point, this good twin of Freddy Krueger sheds the shears to take his limbs for a spin; but that only underscores the weaknesses of Bourne’s less than cutting edge production. It would be less painful to watch a clipped wings edition of Swan Lake, the resplendent ballet spectacular that had me in tears at Sadler’s Wells the previous year.

To borrow from an old Saturday Night Live sketch, the modern dance theatre version of Edward Scissorhands at Sadler’s Wells is neither modern, nor dance, nor theater. . . . Now talk amongst yourselves.

A New York Souvenir Is Glorious! in London

Well, I am on my way to London in a few hours, even though I have barely recovered from my trip to New York City, a souvenir of which is a lingering cold. Still, I am looking forward to a weekend in the metropolis, where I’ll be reunited with my best pal to celebrate his birthday and the twentieth anniversary of our friendship. We used to have our annual get-togethers in the Big Apple, but the Big Smoke will do.

While there, I would love for us to take in a few shows, impervious as he is to the wonders of the “wooden O.” I, for one, have had some terrific theatrical experiences lately, including a rare staging of the outrageously bloody Revenger’s Tragedy at New York City’s Red Bull Theater, an all-male production of The Winter’s Tale by the touring Propeller company, and an out-of-tuneful Broadway evening with Judy Kaye in Souvenir. True, the 9 December issue of Entertainment Weekly did not exactly endorse Souvenir, reviewer Thom Geier calling Stephen Temperley’s play “too broad, too shallow, and far too long for [its] modest pleasures.” Still, Kaye is marvellous in the role of Florence Foster Jenkins, the tone-deaf soprano and unlikely recording artist who managed to fill seats and thrill audiences in NYC’s Carnegie Hall, unaware that many came to gawk and deride, not to admire her.

I have seen musical-comedienne Kaye several times onstage and even had an after-theater drink with her, back in November 1992, when she played Sweeney Todd‘s Mrs. Lovett at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. Her portrayal of the real-life phenomenon that was Florence Foster Jenkins managed at once to amuse and touch me, even though Souvenir, as written by Temperley, is slight, repetitive, and less than incisive.

You’ll have to get up close and zoom in on Kaye’s features—the snare and shelter of Jenkins’s oblivion expressing itself in innocent smiles and youthful exuberance, the firm belief in her musical disabilities as she refuses to heed the at fist cautioning then caustic words from her hapless accompanist, and the terror of recognition when at last she discerns the cruel laughter of the crowd—to wrest any oomphs from Temperley’s pleasant and chuckles-filled survey of the dubious diva’s odd career. Fortunately, I sat in the third row. Anyone back on the balcony is unlikely to get half as much out of this play, which is suited to a smaller venue than Broadway’s grand Lyceum.

Upon returning to the UK, I learned that another dramatization of Jenkins’s life, conceived by another playwright (Peter Quilter), is currently playing in London. Called Glorious, this version stars Maureen Lipman, whom I have last seen opposite Ian McKellen in the pantomime Aladdin at the Old Vic. Ms. Lipman hasn’t got Kaye’s pipes, but her acting garnered some favorable notices. I am sufficiently intrigued by Jenkins’s antics to judge her performance myself later this year.

How come there are two plays running simultaneously about a 1930s New York City curiosity, a novelty act who, like those making a spectacle of themselves during last year’s American Idol auditions, has become an old joke few can recall? It is encouraging, somehow. Ready to rediscover most anything, the public might yet turn a favourable ear to the golden age of radio. I sure wouldn’t mind having someone to talk to . . .

Listening to “The Thing That Cries in the Night”; (Chapter Seven): Agony Is a Child Heard, Not Seen

Well, here’s to the delights of absent-mindedness. In the pursuit of pleasurable thrills, it is only the forgetful, thoughtless, or ignorant man who is entirely self-sufficient. He never has to rely on others to maintain a cheerful state of glorious surprise. Last night, I was all prepared to see a touring production of Emlyn Williams’s Night Must Fall; but when I glanced at our theater tickets shortly before leaving, I noticed it was to be The Importance of Being Earnest, as staged by the Ridiculusmus company (you see, I had the date right at one point). As those not “born, or at any rate bred, in a handbag” will be undoubtedly aware, Ridiculusmus does Earnest (and Lady Bracknell, Miss Prism, Cecily and Gwendolen) with a cast of only two players and an assortment of ghastly costumes. Quite a romp, that! Night won’t fall until Thursday, and rather appropriately so, since that day the power is going to be cut off in our house (for maintenance, the “outage” notice read). It will be another blackout to misremember.

Anyway, let’s saunter over to the one house where power need never be in short supply—the theater of the mind. The stage is all set for the fall of the House of Martin. I am referring, of course, to the house that novelist-radio dramatist Carlton E. Morse built back in the late 1930s, an old-time radio serial that I am enjoying in the daily doses in which it was dispensed back when television was not yet ready for mass consumption.

If you’d like to join me in my daily inspections of that other bleak house (I am still following the BBC’s adaptation of Dickens’s thrilling story with great interest), you can find recordings of it in the Internet Archive. In chapter seven (as heard on this day, 8 November, in 1949), “The Thing That Cries in the Night” takes an unnerving turn.

“There ain’t no sense to nothing,” Texan adventurer Doc Long grumbles during a conference with his British pal, Reggie York. Jack Packard, the third member of their A-1 Detective agency, is merely giving instructions, but shares little about what he surmises with his fellow soldiers-of-misfortune. With questions piling up like dirty laundry in a bachelor’s pad and little opportunity to roll up one’s sleeves for some action, Morse’s adventurers—and his listeners—may have cause to be frustrated.

Something’s rotten all right—but just from where is this “stench of a decaying family tree” wafting? What is needed, for the sake of sanity, is empirical evidence. After all, the three amigos do not only have to find whoever murdered the Martin’s chauffeur and attempted to do away with or implicate the Martin siblings; they also need to solve the puzzle of the ominous “Thing,” the cries and giggles of an invisible infant foretelling each violent attack.

“That baby gag gets me down,” Fay Martin sneers, “A houseful of widows, spinsters, and neurotics. What’s a baby doing here?” Now, the permanently distraught Charity Martin warns that her brother Job is in imminent danger of adding to the body count. The murderous entity in their midst, she insists, is intent on rooting out the family tree altogether, killing off the Martins one by one. For now, however, Job has disappeared; and, as Doc, Reggie, and Hope stand by, it is Charity whose skin receives a few new slashes.

To the impatient Doc, the lack of certainty sure puts a damper on the prospect of being in a place where “all these female women are running around in flimsy wisps of lace, wanting to be rescued.” Who among the Martins really wants to be rescued—and who is in pursuit of them? It is an ill-defined chase in which clues are in short supply and alliances dubious.

To those listeners who align themselves with the benighted Doc in an effort to solve the case of a terrorized maiden whose mind does not appear to be altogether sound, “The Thing That Cries in the Night” may be little more than an overwrought mystery of the Gaslight school. The audience, of course, is encouraged to consider Doc’s momentary loss of brio as an act of misreading and to side with an imaginative fellow like Reggie, who is convinced that the puzzle will be solved eventually but declares the present state of confusion to be “deucedly interesting.”

Doc’s momentary frustration is a reminder that Morse, like many storytellers in the gothic tradition, felt compelled to offer his impatient audience, namely that ambiguity is its own reward.

On This Day in 1938: The Mercury Players “dismember Caesar”

“Let’s be sacrificers, but not butchers,” Brutus implores his co-conspirators prior to the assassination of Julius Caesar. This line might have served as a motto for the Mercury Players when Orson Welles and company decided to adapt their stage success Julius Caesar for radio. They needed to butcher Shakespeare’s play, or at least trim it down considerably; and they were making such a sacrifice to accommodate a larger audience—millions who might not have had the opportunity to take in a production of such a play in their rural communities. It was the butchery of high art and a sacrifice to lowly commerce.

“O, that we then could come by Caesar’s spirit,
And not dismember Caesar!” Brutus (played by Welles), exclaimed. “But, alas,

Caesar must bleed for it. And, gentle friends,
Let’s kill him boldly, but not wrathfully.
Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods,
Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds.

The 11 September 1938 broadcast of Julius Caesar is remarkable for several reason. To begin with, it offered an alternative to the not always inspired programming of the commerce and common denominator oriented networks. And not only was the radio-readied production an ingenious exercise in adaptation but a poignant and timely commentary on the crisis in Europe that was about to plunge the world into war.

11 September 1938 was certainly no less innocent than the day we now commemorate as 9/11. “This is the history of a political assassination,” we are told about the story of Julius Caesar, a “dictator for life” upon whom were bestowed “honors” that “seemed to exceed the limits of ordinary human ambition.” As in the Mercury stage production, the radio adaptation dropped the togas to lay bare the urgency of Shakespeare’s drama, a play that was at once a revenge fantasy and a call to reason. Could a people under the rule of a despot be expected to rise against their leader? Could the forceful removal of such a ruler bring about a new and better world?

To drive home that the broadcast was not an invitation to a literary soiree but a call for a political debate, the Mercury Theater on the Air drew upon the services of H. V. Kaltenborn as a narrator. Kaltenborn was among the most prominent and respected radio commentators of his day. What he uttered was news, not ancient history; and it was certainly not highbrow hooey. His commentary, based upon Plutarch’s Parallel Lives (the source for Shakespeare’s play) but sounding thoroughly contemporary, helped to bridge the gaps in this considerably abridged script, which was acted out by the chief players original cast (Welles as Brutus, Martin Gabel as Cassius, George Coulouris as Antony, and Joseph Holland as Caesar). Kaltenborn assumed a role well suited to Shakespearean theater, which relied on eloquent words rather than elaborate stagecraft to relate its stories.

“How many ages hence” Cassius remarks shortly after the assassination, “Shall this our lofty scene be acted over, / In states unborn and accents yet unknown!” In the Mercury Theater on the Air production, these lines are uttered by Brutus, Welles’s ego being comparable to that of Caesar. Yet, rather than playing the ham and exulting the hoped-for glories of the crime—“peace, freedom, and liberty”—Welles’s Brutus is subdued and plaintive, adding a question mark to the lines. After all, the very “peace, freedom, and liberty” of the West was at stake if fascism continued to spread in Europe and threaten the world. A voice like that of the noble, thoughtful conspirator Brutus might not be heard in future “states unborn” or “accents yet unknown.”

Of course, the Mercury Players also had to deal with the limits of liberty and freedom at home—and on the air. In a climate controlled by advertisers and the FCC, a climate that did not allow for overt political commentary, the Mercury Theater on the Air production of Julius Caesar war remarkably bold and as cunningly executed as Caesar’s assassination. To the “common eye” (or ear), Brutus insists, “We shall be purgers, not murderers.” The Mercury Players’ butchery of lines and characters was a worthwhile sacrifice . . .

Could a people under the rule of a despot be expected to rise against their leader? Could the forceful removal of such a ruler bring about a new and better world? Surely the crisis in the Middle East raised similar questions—but when was the last time CBS television presented a play like Julius Caesar?

“Reviewing the Situation”: Catching Up with Fagin in the Way West End

Moving from Manhattan to Mid-Wales was bound to lower my chances of taking in some live theater now and then (not that Broadway ticket prices had allowed me to keep the intervals between “now” and “then” quite as short as I’d like them to be). I expected there’d be the odd staging of Hamlet with an all-chicken cast or a revival of “Hey, That’s My Tractor” (to borrow some St. Olaf stories from The Golden Girls). Luckily, I’m not one to embrace the newfangled and my tastes in theatrical entertainments are, well, conservative. I say luckily because even if you’’re living west of England rather than the West End of its capital, chances are that there’s a touring company coming your way, eventually.

What came my way last night was a well-oiled production of Oliver!, with Peter Karrie in the role of Fagin. It was my second reunion with Oliver Twist this year, having watched playwright/composer Neil Brand at work on a new score for the 1922 silent screen version in his London studio last June. Apparently, the age of political correctness has not yet torn down or effaced all the melodramatic caricatures in the western portrait gallery of villains and scoundrels.

Never mind the play’s eponymous tyke, who wriggled through the miseries of his youth predictably well, in keeping with the plans laid out for him by “Mr. Popular Sentiment” (as Dickens was mockingly called by fellow novelist Anthony Trollope). Aside from Lionel Bart’s eminently hummable tunes, it was Karrie’s con brio portrayal of Fagin that kept this superannuated warhorse of a melodrama from coming across as lame and lumbering.

While often considered sure-fire, revivals are not quite so easy to pull off; too often they are self-conscious about the dateness of the material. Apart from the half-heartedness of uneasy reverence (as achieved by the Old Vic production of The Philadelphia Story I saw earlier this summer), there’s nothing worse than camp, the postmodernist disease of arrogant, willful misreading and flaunted emotional impoverishment. Oliver! was refreshingly, that is unabashedly, old-fashioned, brought to life by force of Karrie’s sense of bathos, at full throttle in the musical number “Reviewing the Situation.”

Well, it was not difficult for me to identify with the situation under review, that is, with Fagin’s assessment of his outsider status and his pondering of the pressure to adjust: “I’m finding it hard to be really as black as they paint,” he sighs, addressing the audience. Twice authored—by the creators of the play and the society they depict—Fagin conforms both to melodramatic conventions and societal expectations (he’s a “bad ‘un” who cannot change) while all along defying such standards (aware of his “situation,” he grapples with it and implicates the class system that stamped him an outcast):

Left without anyone in the world,
And I’m starting from now,
So how to win friends and to influence people?
So how?
I’m reviewing the situation:
I must quickly look up ev’ryone I know [. . .].

So where shall I go—somebody?
Who do I know? Nobody!
All my dearest companions
Have always been villains and thieves.
So at my time of life I should start
Turning over new leaves?

There simply aren’t enough leaves in the book for old Fagin. So, having reviewed the situation, he is very nearly resigned to a condition that a less reflective person would call fated:

I’m a bad ‘un and a bad ‘un I shall stay!
You’ll be seeing no transformation,
But it’s wrong to be a rogue in ev’ry way. 

I don’t want nobody hurt for me,
Or made to do the dirt for me.
This rotten life is not for me.
It’s getting far too hot for me.
Don’t want no one to rob for me.
But who will find a job for me?
There is no in between for me,
But who will change the scene for me?
I think I’d better think it out again!

Between a rock and a hard place, between Scylla and Charybdis, Fagin is forever reviewing a situation he is at a loss to improve; for him, there’s no silver lining (like the one above, which I spotted in the sky this morning). Taking advantage of the anonymity and visibility technology can offer the latter-day rogue with a touch of Hamlet and Werther, he would probably be blogging about it today.