Two Plays on Politics and Frivolity in Europe
Brian George, left, and Michael McKean in Yes, Prime Minster
PHOTO BY MICHAEL LAMONT
How many theater companies does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
Chilean writer-director Guillermo Calderón's Neva, which just closed after playing its scheduled one week in a Kirk Douglas Theatre rehearsal hall as part of Center Theatre Group's Douglas Plus series, is a co-production of three of our most esteemed regional theaters — South Coast Repertory, La Jolla Playhouse (where this production will be performed after it leaves L.A.) and our own Center Theatre Group. Calderón's beautiful 2006 play first showed up here in 2011 as one of the highlights of the first Radar L.A. festival, in a Spanish-language, supertitled production by Chile's Teatro en el Blanco.
It was so good, in fact, that Andrea Thome was brought in to translate it into English. Since then, Calderón has been working double-duty staging that translation, with different actors, all over America — specifically, one version for New York's Public Theater earlier this year, and now this version, with yet a different cast (Sue Cremin, Ramon De Ocampo and Ruth Livier).
The play addresses any number of intriguing questions about the interconnection of art and revolution, but the biggest question raised by this version is how can such a hypnotic and chilling spectacle re-emerge two years later so diminished?
As in the earlier rendition, it would seem that a single bulb provides the only source of light onstage. The bulb is lodged in a portable electric heater in a theater rehearsal hall in 1905 St. Petersburg, Russia. It sends out a glow that both illuminates the three actors and casts them in shadow. The trio portray thespians in their artistic refuge, while the revolution brews on the frigid streets outside. Calderón's lighting design is perfect, but the perfection ends there.
Memories from Teatro en el Blanco's production — which Calderón also directed — remain vivid: Widowed actress Olga Knipper (wife of Anton Chekhov, then played by Trinidad Gonzalez) — has arrived in St. Petersburg to join local actors Aleko and Masha (Jorge Becker and Mariana Munoz). Rehearsing for an upcoming production of The Cherry Orchard, Olga fears that since Chekhov's recent death, she's unable to recite his lines with any semblance of authenticity. This is a play largely about what is authentic, what is real, what is frivolous and what matters.
What ensues is a series of theater games — scenes in which the trio enacts and re-enacts Chekhov's death in Yalta, for which Olga arrived just in time. Details of Chekhov's death, as recorded by witnesses, are recounted in Janet Malcom's extraordinary book Reading Chekhov, which Calderón used as source material.
The Teatro en el Blanco actors played out this series of reinterpretations of Chekhov's death with such droll understatement that each version had a life of its own, so that with each variation you felt a rug was being pulled out from under you. Using theater games to question what is (or was) real is hardly an original theatrical conceit, but the actors' subtlety and piercing intelligence made it feel novel and, yes, authentic.
But when it comes to novelty and authenticity, nothing could compare with the blistering, show-closing monologue delivered by Munoz, chastising her colleagues for their self-indulgence while their nation was mostly impoverished and troops in the streets were beating and shooting protesters. So what is more real, art or politics? And which matters more? The Russian Revolution is now a chapter in a history book that left millions of victims in its wake, while The Cherry Orchard — just a play — continues to be performed around the world.
At the Douglas, the theater games are so broad and frivolous, played out by such a stereotype of sanctimonious, melodramatic actors, that how Chekhov died, what is or was real, falls somewhere between an idle curiosity and a smirk. This leads intractably to the apathy surrounding the closing monologue, which here seems endless, as though Masha is chastising children for being children.
Delivering this monologue, Livier rages and gulps for air between breaths, letting us know this is such hard work. Munoz did precisely the opposite. Her rage was quiet and intense. It came from her bones, not from her lungs. It took the audience's breath away, not her own.
In a New York Times interview earlier this year, Calderón expressed concern that by trying to replicate his play in multiple productions, it would become a "formal, co-opted objet d'art." His fears have been realized. And he did it almost entirely himself.
A revolution also is engulfing Great Britain — part of a global revolution, really — in that nation's response to terrorism and global warming, in its immigration policies and austerity measures, and the ever-wobbling Eurozone. But in this revolution, satirized in Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn's 2010 political farce, Yes, Prime Minister — directed by Lynn and based on their BBC TV series — the more things change ...
The leader of oil-rich Kumranistan offers a loan to the president of the European Commission, who also happens to be the embattled British prime minister (Michael McKean), to shore up the Eurozone in exchange for a trans-European oil pipeline to be carved all the way around Russia, so that Kumranistan can become Europe's primary oil supplier instead of "the Soviets."
(Although the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the British officials here insist that, since so little has changed in the running of Russia, why should the country's name?)
The satire is the stuff of stock comedy dating back to the ancient Romans: The leadership has only a vague awareness of what's going on, as the prime minister is kept largely in the dark by his underlings (Dakin Matthews as the cabinet secretary, and a beautifully wiry, high-principled private secretary played by Jefferson Mays).
The central machination is a demand by the Kumranistani leader for three prostitutes to participate in a sex orgy at the prime minister's country residence, where the action unfolds on Simon Higlett's gorgeous set. This demand — in exchange for the face-saving loan — sets off a chain reaction of moral and practical crises: Can three hookers be airlifted from London and snuck in? If so, where can they be found? Maybe Scotland Yard's vice squad can help? Right. Fingernails are chewed as staff scrambles to keep all this out of the Daily Mail.
The digs at the BBC are sort of delicious, as it slides down the same slippery slope as our NPR. And the performances — also including a terrific, wry turn by Tara Summers as the prime minister's special policy adviser — are very well calibrated.
Not so sure about the comedy's concluding joke that global warming is a hoax, an unproven, money-making contrivance by international P.C. police. There will be international commissions and industries to change things, while nothing will be accomplished, the play quips, because the problem isn't real.
Oh? Has nothing really truly changed since the days of Roman comedy?
NEVA | Written and directed by Guillermo Calderón, translated from Spanish by Adrea Thome | Presented by South Coast Repertory, La Jolla Playhouse and Center Theatre Group | Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City | transferring to South Coast Repertory, La Jolla Playhouse | scr.org; ljp.org
YES, PRIME MINISTER | By Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn | Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Wstwd.; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through July 14 | (310) 208-5454 | geffenplayhouse.com
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