How the Hall Changes Spring Awakening and The Bourgeois Gentilhomme

Jeff Atik and in Trace Taylor in Moliere's The Bourgeois Gentilhomme
Paul Rubenstein

“They forgot to turn on the fans,” said a theater rep during the intermission of Molière’s The Bourgeois Gentilhomme. It was opening night at Santa Monica’s City Garage and such an oversight was understandable and revelatory but not for the reasons the theater would have hoped.

The “fans” are not theater supporters but blades suspended in the sky to circulate the air. I take it back because when they were functioning in Act 2, the temperature was sustained at a pleasant 75 degrees or so, thereby offering the theater more support than one might have imagined.

All was well for the first 20 minutes of Act 1, without the spinning fans. Frederique Michel’s opulent, bawdy, elegant, farcical staging crackled with the 17th-century pomposity the play mocks: ludicrous dialogue, prancing flops, silly wigs and frills and bows. Michel and Charles Duncombe’s translation-adaptation bridged the continental and cultural divide with remarkable ease, largely because everything and everybody was being ridiculed on a stage of red and black, an absurdist uniform, beneath a pair of chandeliers, and to the accompaniment of music composed by Jean-Baptiste Lully (who actually performed as a musician in the first production in 1670, outside the court of Louis XIV.)

Those first 20 minutes also included a miniballet by a pair of dancers in white tights, tutus and masks painted with the tears of a clown. It was all very silly and lovely, and honored the play’s origins — it was first written as a ballet. But the heat! After about 15 minutes, I almost pulled a muscle in my neck trying to wriggle out of the heavy wool coat I was wearing, fearing that if I didn’t shed this layer, I might hyperventilate. And that’s when it became clear that nobody was laughing anymore. They weren’t even smiling. Collectively, we were shrimps in a pot of water, the temperature slowly rising and threatening to seal our fate.

This was evident in one scene between the Philosophy Master (Trace Taylor) dressed in a skin-hugging gown, serving up absurd philosophical precepts with exaggerated articulation — sort of like Margaret Thatcher — to the titular Bourgeois Gentleman (Jeff Attik), who was determined to ingratiate himself into the upper classes. Attik bore expressions of stupendous, blissful stupidity, while Taylor pressed every comedic stop, and I recall asking myself what was wrong with her performance? Why did this production suddenly exist in such a pall of silence? These actors were working their comedy fingers to the bone. One couldn’t plausibly argue that their style was too broad because it’s a farce. It just didn’t occur to me, even after 20 years of reviewing plays, that the room was just too damn hot.

It’s been said that comedy has a maximum refrigeration temperature of 75 degrees, and here was its living example.

By Act 2, the theater had been aired, the fans were spinning, and the comedy was back to crackling. This hadn’t been a dramaturgical problem but an atmospheric one. Theater practitioners slave to get every stage moment meticulously timed, each gesture and movement crafted for the maximum emotional or comedic effect. The fragility of the entire enterprise is exposed when the lights aren’t bright enough for a comedic scene (shadows too can kill laughs, though they’re perfect for suspense and intense dramas), or a heat wave suffocates mirth the director and actors have been sculpting for weeks.

Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening is a stormy, sexy turn-of-the-last-century drama about adolescence and seething hormones in a Teutonic society that seems today unfathomably repressed. Even on Broadway at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre (where a January closing notice was recently posted for Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s musical adaptation), the stomping expressionism of Bill T. Jones’ choreography reached out across the footlights and slapped you around a bit.

Variations on that production are now touring all over the country – including here at the Ahmanson, where the size of the theater has required director Michael Mayer to amp up the scale of his already very stylized staging.

Onstage, and in onstage bleachers, where members of the company are planted amidst the audience, heads gyrated to and fro as though possessed by demons, which I’m sure is the point. I wondered if I was out of touch, that people could be so possessed by a spectacle I was responding to as a glorified amusement-park extravaganza. When I understood that the possessed were actually supporting players, the fakery of it started to wear.

What’s the difference between a Grand Kabuki treatment that’s an inflation of underlying passions, and mechanical robotics that temper a play’s sensitivities, if not eviscerate them? I found myself dazzled by the stagecraft yet unmoved. Had the soul of the musical simply floated away? Very possibly: The Ahmanson’s hall is large enough to lose a soul or two in.

Again, the atmosphere, the space, the air that surround the action of a play defines and describes it as much as the actors. Hedwig and the Angry Inch was undone by the Henry Fonda Theater, much too large for its cabaret-punk essence. George C. Wolfe’ssatire of racial identity, The Colored Museum, opened at New York’s Public Theater, where the rumblings of subway trains could be heard through the walls, forming an essence of its inner-city ambiance. When they brought it to the Taper, it suffocated in the cushions.

Theater at its best rarely offers the kind of experience that can be shipped cross-country as though in a Netflix bag, or through broadcast channels which send our most popular TV shows from, say, New York City to homes in the Midwest and desert estates in California, with little impediment to the way they’re received. For media that are received electronically, the size, scale or architecture of the living room that houses the computer or TV receptor has little bearing on the event. But theater is far more temperamental, largely defined by the stage walls and the room temperature and the physical distance between the actors and the audience. That’s a tricky formula to replicate when shows are touring because the rudiment of theater is the transfer of energy between living people. It survives on the air we breathe.

THE BOURGEOIS GENTILHOMME | By MOLIÈRE | Translated and adapted by Frederique Michel and Charles Duncombe | At CITY GARAGE, 1340½ Fourth St. (alley), Santa Monica | (310) 319-9939 | Through Dec. 21

SPRING AWAKENING | By STEVEN SATER AND DUNCAN SHEIK, based on the play by FRANK WEDEKIND | Presented by CENTER THEATRE GROUP at the AHMANSON THEATER, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | (213) 628-2772 | Through Dec. 7

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