Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The art of mis-casting: Dionysus and Lola

On Saturday I got to the Scottish National Theater's version of Euripides' Bacchae at the Rose Theater - the one where the draw is Alan Cumming as Dionysus. Wrong but not bad (as Bacchaes go, and I've seen or taken part in a lot of them). On Sunday I got into the Encores revival of Damn Yankees with Sean Hayes, Cheyenne Jackson, Randi Graff and Jane Krakowski. Everyone was good - but Jane.

So I'm pondering this at five in the morning (having just wakened from a rather delicious dream in which a favorite opera singer accompanied me on a quest to buy rare postage stamps, and suddenly he began licking them and I began licking them and we began licking each other, and the next thing I knew - well, I do wake up with a grin on my silly face after a dream like that, don't you?).

Bacchae is a difficult play; no one ever said it wasn't. It was found among Euripides's papers when he died (in exile), produced posthumously, and has aroused mistrustful accusations of blasphemy et al. ever since. I've seen it several times, played Pentheus twice and Tiresias once - I'm beginning to think I should consider undertaking the god's part next. I'm beginning to understand him.

Dionysus appears in several different "characters" - he is the stern, offended god newly returned from near-martyrdom at birth and a triumphal tour of the Far East to establish his cult among the unbelievers (including his difficult family) in Thebes. Then he is the antic, jolly leader of a band of maniacal devotees (sort of like Charles Manson), enslaved by wine and sex and excess generally. Then he appears in disguise as one of the eastern devotees, captured and questioned by King Pentheus, the determined, arrogant, order-obsessed, neurotic, insecure young ruler of Thebes - whom he proceeds to seduce. The king goes mad - yielding to his own repressed female side, his curiosity about the mysteries of the ecstatic god - and, dressed as a woman (even more of a disgrace for Greek men than for us), follows his tempter to the hills - where the madwomen tear him to pieces, led by his own blinded mother. The god has vanished, but he returns in the final scene. By this time our own attitudes have been altered - from thinking Pentheus a foolish brute to deny the ecstasy that is part of human life, and Dionysus right to resent his tyrannical unbelief, we have now come to think the punishments of this unhappy royal house much too harsh, to sympathize with mad, bereft Agave and wretched Cadmus. Dionysus, returning, makes no attempt to reacquire our sympathies - he washes his hands of the whole thing - he's only been the instrument of destiny, after all. (There is some doubt about the authorship of the last speeches.) We are in uneasy awe of the wayward but omnipotent god, almost fearing to protest what we certainly feel - are meant to feel - is injustice on his part, however tit for tat.

It's difficult - to say the least - for any director to link the first scenes of the play to its ending. There is no neat tying of the circle into a circle. The plot moves but the fable has no clear moral. We are uneasy with the Powers that Be, and religious ritual is not supposed to leave such an aftertaste.

Alan Cumming plays himself. (Can he play anything else? I've seen no evidence of it.) He does the first speeches of Dionysus as Scottish shtick, with little jokes and flirts and asides (almost), as if poking fun at this silly story. Considering the nature of the play's opening, this seems a bit over the top but not incorrect - Dionysus is supposed to be controlled uncontrollability. I accepted this, and also the wonderful Afro-Caribbean music-stylings of the chorus (all black women). I accepted the stiffness of Pentheus and the madness of Agave. But the seduction of Pentheus by Cumming's Dionysus was not ... comprehensible. They did not make it real. They did not explain the hypnosis, the trance, the spell the god casts. Cumming was not playing it - he was mouthing the lines in some other handy spirit. It was not part and parcel of what we knew. The continuity was not here. The final scene, too, seemed abrupt and out of place - I keep hoping a Dionysus will create by his movements or attitudes the link that is difficult to find on the page. Cumming did not show it.

Damn Yankees is another sort of drama about confronting the supernatural. This Pentheus is a baseball fan who wants to win the pennant from the Yankees, and the demon who tempts him is an entirely comical devil - nothing threatening about him, even when he asks where all this will end, and Sean Hayes, in a low, suggestive murmur says, "Oh I think we both know the answer to that." The drag he gets to wear - far better than any outfit of any maenad - is a young, buff body, in this case Cheyenne Jackson's. No one is complaining. But Pentheus never mentions a wife (he had one, though - per Greek mythology, he was the great-grandfather of Oedipus), and Joe Hardy left one behind - middle-aged, perhaps, but sturdy. To counter her influence, the devil conjures - Lola! The 172-year-old vamp from tempting Providence (also the hometown of Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls - what does this mean?).

Lola is not meant to be seductive any more than Mr. Applegate is demonic. She's a put-on. She says she drives men to suicide and women to divorce, but do you believe her? Gwen Verdon wasn't so much a brilliant dancer (though she was that) - she was a great comic. She put Lola over because she seemed to believe every word of her allure while every gesture kidded the idea. This was a popular way to handle sex in those days - Marilyn Monroe did it, too. Later Raquel Welch and Ann-Margret got some of their funniest mileage from the idea. But Verdon was also no beauty, which made the whole story that much madder.

Jane Krakowski has not thought the role out; she has merely imitated Verdon's routines (as was clear when I got home and played them on youtube), and her imitation is lifeless though expert. Yes, she can dance. Yes, she can move the moves. Yes, she has a far prettier singing voice than Verdon ever had - as if that meant anything. Looking nothing like Verdon (aside from an even flatter chest), she goes for Marilyn lookalike, which suits her coloring but does not suit the part. She does not link with the other characters. She's doing a solo turn in a book show. There is far more chemistry between Cheyenne Jackson and Randi Graff than he ever shares with this Lola - and he's not the one holding back.

It'a a lacuna in the midst of an otherwise charming revival. Even Sean Hayes makes more in his parody of Gwen Verdon's seductive dance than Krakowski does.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Alan Cumming plays himself. (Can he play anything else? I've seen no evidence of it.)

He can. His Trigorin was the only natural, character-driven performance in Classic Stage Company's very misguided revival (or revisal, I should say, based on the late Paul Schmidt's overly Americanized, unidiomatic translation) of "The Seagull" earlier this year. I was amazed at how commanding his portrayal was--it was a completely different style of acting than what I'd ever seen from him. He was magic--but not enough reason for me to hang around for the second act.