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The Road To Mecca – Review

The Road To Mecca is having its Broadway premiere. Set in 1974 (and written in 1984) it is a story based upon a real Afrikaan woman; Miss Helen.  Written by Athol Fugard (Master Harold…, etc.) and directed by Gordon Edelstein (The Homecoming) this production stars Rosemary Harris.

This three person, two act play centers on Miss Helen’s future.  Her young friend Elsa (Carla Gugino) has arrived unexpectedly out of concern for Miss Helen.  Elsa, a British South African, has traveled 800 miles (to the middle of nowhere) to connect with her dear friend.  The third character, Marius (Jim Dale) does not arrive until just before intermission.  Miss Helen’s oldest friend, the reverend Marius is certain he knows what is best for her.  It seems an artist, close to 70, living alone in rural South Africa and surrounding her home with large cement sculptures, is a bit troubling to others.

There are issues with this play, but none whatsoever with the performances.  Rosemary Harris is simply awe inspiring.  The character, as written, is not terribly eccentric or unusual, and Ms. Harris does not add any forced mannerisms to compensate.  She is such an honest actor, we don’t hesitate for a moment to believe that Miss Helen is a quiet, unimposing woman who has to create.  (It is interesting to consider if the real Miss Helen was as devoid of manner, or if this is the playwright’s daring interpretation.  Artists, more often than not, are portrayed as borderline mad.)  While I was mildly self-conscious of my admiration for Ms. Harris’ stamina and memorization skills, I’d like to think my ageism was reinforced by the play itself.  Ms. Harris (in her 80s) is playing a woman nearing 70 whose faculties are beginning to slightly diminish.

Carla Gugino (Desire Under The Elms) is absolutely lovely.  Elsa is a bit of a rebel in her politics and manages to create a bit of a stir in her upscale world.  Her compassion and awareness for the world around her is genuine and she struggles to muster the same compassion for herself.  She has driven all day to the Karoo village, after receiving a concerning letter from Miss Helen.  It is a believable motivation as Miss Helen lives without electricity let alone a telephone.

The first act is too long and too repetitive.  Mr. Fugard seems to struggle with assigning worth to words.  They are not all equal.  There are questions and motivations left unanswered yet metaphors exhausted.  The second act is a marvelous change.  The arrival of (the wonderful) Jim Dale provides the tension needed.  What ensues are wonderful scenes between Marius and Miss Helen, Miss Helen and Elsa and some sly and lovely scenes with all three characters.

The set (Michael Yeargan) and lighting (Peter Kaczorowski) are technically excellent, but might need tone tweaking.  Much is made of Miss Helen’s issues with light and darkness and with her artistic prowess.  Yet, the set (her home) is devoid of much artistry.  There’s a bit of sparkly paint, and some mirrors, and maybe that’s how the real Miss Helen lived, but I’m not sure it works dramatically.  Much of the play is performed in very dim light as the action takes place during one long night.  The lighting, part of the metaphor parade, is distracting.  Each time a candle is lit or extinguished, a spotlight gets its wings.  The actors are not saddled with microphones (hallelujah) but in the sixth row, I sometimes had to strain to hear Ms. Harris.  Audience members further back and not adept at listening, may have difficulty.

If one can ignore the awkward technical bits, and endure the first act, see this play.  The performances are truly wonderful.  I saw this preview for the chance to see Rosemary Harris on stage.  I would do it again.  The final line of the play, spoken by Elsa, packs an emotional wallop not to be missed.  A predictable ending?  Perhaps.  But it works.

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2011 in Theatre

 

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Desire Under the Elms – Review


The Goodman Theatre’s Desire Under the Elms has come to the St. James Theatre.  Last night was the first night of previews in this limited NYC production.  Starring Brian Dennehy, Carla Gugino (Suddenly Last Summer) and Pablo Schreiber (Awake and Sing) and directed by Robert Falls (Death of a Salesman, Long Days Journey into Night) this remarkable production is going to create a stir.  The play itself (Eugene O’Neill) holds few surprises but packs an emotional wallop nonetheless.  It has good structure and as bizarre as this sounds, is the perfect starting point for this production. What is really going on, on the very large stage, is cinematic in scope.  This production is HUGE.  There are hydraulics, gargantuan set pieces, farm animals and lots of smashing and hurling.  It is a credit to the cast that they were never overpowered by the set and design.  There is an actual house that is raised and lowered throughout the production, which often hangs over the family.  Metaphor aside, I was terrified.  Call me a worry wart, but I did not entirely trust the cables.  This being the first night, the hydraulics were often a bit slow on the uptake, leaving yawning holes in the stage for minutes.  I was concerned for the actors’ safety.  All of this motion is not actually distracting; in fact it takes a relatively sedate play and brings it into the 21st century attention span demands. Music is used as a powerful device in this production.  There is one scene that has no dialogue, just a riveting musical accompaniment, lending a modern cinematic touch.  At one point a “violinist” comes on upstage.  He is obviously “bow synching” his playing (I’m not sure why) and lends an edgy touch.  The opening and closing music that accompanies father and sons as they tow rocks is pitch perfect in tone and emotion. The set is very dark, and the music works to give it a more colorful dimension.  The set and costuming echoes the bleakness of the storyline, and in such a large space does not feel overly oppressive.
Although, it is clear that this production dictates the use of a large stage, the St. James is not the right venue.  It is very large.  Musical large.  The actors are wearing body mics, although where, remains a mystery, as we saw one of the actors disrobe.  The distortion is a travesty.  The set is dark, and several times I could not discern who was actually speaking.  The volume settings were off at times, creating a  pearl crashing Singing In The Rain reality that just didn’t work.  A smaller theatre would have allowed the actors to be free to unplug.  The accents are a bit off as well.  Mr. Dennehy was using his lovely brogue with no reference to being Irish, but Ms. Gugino seemed to struggle with a New England accent.  I much prefer no accents as a rule, as so few people, save Meryl Streep, can actually master one. The acting is phenomenal, the direction perfection, and the staging out of this world.  It is a dark and sad play, with very little humor.  See it if you can, but not for a first date.


 
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Posted by on August 19, 2011 in Theatre

 

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