Performance diary: FESTEN and ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS

May 2, 2012

April 26 – After seeing the Polish theater company T. R. Warsawa’s visually spectacular and theatrically inventive demolition of Macbeth at St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2008, I resolved to see anything they decided to bring to New York. Wouldn’t you know, they put me to the test: the next production they brought to St. Ann’s was Festen. Known in English as The Celebration, Festen began life in 1998 as a Danish film written and directed by Thomas Vinterberg, who with Lars von Trier crafted the manifesto of cinematic austerity that launched the Dogme 95 movement. It portrays an elegant 60th birthday party for Helge, a wealthy hotelier, attended by his extended family. Shadowed by the recent suicide of his older daughter Linda, the event gains further tension when Christian, Helge’s older son and Linda’s twin, reads a prepared speech that simply and bluntly reveals a family secret: that when they were children, the twins were repeatedly and ritualistically raped by their father.

It’s an admirably truthful if emotionally excruciating dramatization of the denial and complicity that go along with sexual abuse within families. But it’s not exactly the kind of story that gains from repeated viewings. Nevertheless, I saw British playwright David Eldridge’s stage adaptation, which appeared on Broadway in 2006 in a production directed by Rufus Norris with a cast including Larry Bryggman, Michael Hayden, Jeremy Sisto, Julianna Margulies, and (making her Broadway debut) Ali McGraw. So I wasn’t keen to encounter the material yet again, but I dutifully bought a ticket and went. The production has justifiably garnered glowing reviews and strong word-of-mouth. It’s not nearly as rock-em-sock-em as Macbeth. Grzegorz Jarzyna has staged the play with ingenious simplicity. A stage bare except for a table formally set for 18 and a curtained bathtub becomes every room in a large rambling house, thanks to the many-doored set design by Matgorzata Szczesniak and the lighting by Jacqueline Sobiszewski. (Could Polish names possibly include any more zzzzzzs?) The acting is fine, although it’s the kind of production where you know what you’re supposed to think about each character from the minute he or she appears onstage, which I consider cheating. Andrzej Chyra as Christian holds the center with quiet strength.

April 29 – One Man, Two Guvnors lives up to all its rave reviews. I really appreciate how skillfully Nicholas Hytner, as artistic director of the National Theatre of Great Britain, makes pockets of theater history spring to life with his big, bustling productions cast with unlikely choices of actors. Richard Bean’s adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte classic The Servant of Two Masters balances vintage shtick with axiomatic absurdity: “Love passes through marriage faster than shit through a small dog.” But the best reason to see the show is the amazing high-wire performance in the leading role by James Corden (above), who sweetly and astonishingly underplays the broadest of comic scenes – very much to my taste. As my friend Liam pointed out, there’s a little too much music by the onstage band, the Craze – they help set the period (early Beatles) but after a while the songs (originals by Grant Olding) start sounding alike.

2 Responses to “Performance diary: FESTEN and ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS”

  1. dcynyc Says:

    I keep waiting for someone to point out the resemblance between James Corden and Andy Richter. Perhaps it’s not so noticeable when you see him perform, but every time I see a still photo of this fellow, I think it’s Richter.

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