I'd have loved to have seen Bugs's Falstaff
As I’ve mentioned once or twice on these pages, I’m a director. In that role, I feel like I have two jobs. The first is to watch the actors, see what they’re doing, and tailor the action to their strengths (within the context of the script, of course). I’ve long found that if I try to get an actor to do something that isn’t organic to them, whatever it is isn’t going to work. If I can match the action to the actor, though, I find they can do anything.
My other job is to get the hell out of the writer’s way. When I read a script, I have to figure out both what it’s about (both on the surface and underneath) and the best way to get that message/story/metaphor/whatever across. Sometimes it’s by being big and bold, sometimes it’s getting tiny and intimate.
Now, this is not to say that there’s only one way to do any play. My Hamlet or Odd Couple or Sweeney Todd is going to be different from any other director’s, since we see different things in those plays that we’ll want to bring out. Even if I do something a second time, I’m going to do it differently from the way I did it the first time; different actors will bring out different values and moments and I’m an older and different person. The Long Day’s Journey I’d do now would be different from the one I did in 1997. (Though it would still be uncut.)
Even saying that, there may certainly be times where I’d want to deconstruct something or deliberately go against what’s on the page in order to make a statement about its values needing to be questioned or criticized. I have ideas about Chekhov that go against the way his plays are usually performed (though, ironically for this example, completely in line with what I think he intended), and in grad school, I devised a Brechtian deconstruction of You Can’t Take It with You (a play I really like) that highlighted and commented on its theatricality, artificiality, and place in the development of situation comedy.
So while there are obvious exceptions, most scripts intended for the commercial theatre—especially from a certain period—are pretty obvious as to what they’re about, and any attempts to screw around with them are foolhardy, pigheaded, and probably doomed to failure.
My own most notable experience here is when I directed The Fantasticks. I originally wanted to shake some of the rust and dust off of it; to lose some of its fussiness and make it more “relevant” to a modern audience. There was, I thought, a stodginess to it that needed to be lost. Anyone who’s directed the show knows that the licensor includes what is virtually an instruction manual the size of a phone book* on how to (more or less) recreate Word Baker’s 1960 production, right down to where to hang prop and costume pieces in the trunk.
The instruction manual does not include Jerry Orbach. Dammit.
(*Note to younger readers: a “phone book**” was a thick volume that contained addresses and phone numbers for every person and business in a designated are.)
(**Note to even younger readers: a “book” was a bound collection of paper upon which was printed a made-up story or accounting of factual events.)
When I got this manual, my first reaction was to sniff “Well, I’m not going to do it that way! My production will be my own!” But the more I looked at the script in conjunction with the manual, the more I realized that to make massive changes just for the sake of making changes was an exercise in hubris. There’s a reason the show has played so well for more than half a century. There probably really is a right way and a wrong way to do it, and I opted for the “right” way. It told the story in the way the authors intended. (This isn’t to say we didn’t tweak things or fit it to the actors; but we didn’t stray far from what was on the page.) The results were one of my proudest productions and fondest theatrical memories. It was a beautiful and touching production (if I say so myself), and I never regretted not having deconstructed it just because I could.
What brings this up? Well, we recently saw a production at one of the major houses in town of a show that could be considered a modern classic of sorts. (The production shall go nameless to protect the innocent.) From the moment it started, though, I knew we were in trouble. In the apparent name of shaking things up, the director (with a number of impressive credits nationally) had decided to put his or her stamp on it, despite anything intended by the creators. The changes weren’t done in the name of deconstruction or postmodernism or commenting on the text; they seemed done just because this director either knew better how to tell the story than the people who created it or was just tired of the “old” ways of doing it.
Let me hasten to add here (in case I haven’t made it clear) that I don’t expect directors, designers, or actors to do exactly what was done in the original production of something (if it’s, as in this case, a revival). Each company and production should be unique and bring a flavor or their own to the mix, while (as I mentioned last time) “coloring inside the lines.”
But this production was just a series of wrong-headed moves that kept denying or contradicting the script and its plot points, both major and minor; not for the purpose of commenting on them, but seemingly just for the hell of it. That the poor thinking extended to a good portion of the casting, as well, will go mostly uncommented on. (And, of course, that almost the entire cast was imported from out of town was inexcusable. There are literally dozens of local actors who could have played any of the roles with equal, if not greater, dexterity.)
One actor reminded me of no one so much as Jerry Colonna (seen in the video below). (To again offer clarification to younger readers, Colonna was a comedian in the 1940s known mainly for his big eyes and bigger moustache. Subtlety was not his calling card.) This isn’t necessarily a problem. I’m a fan of Colonna and his brand of overplaying, but for this role, it was like casting Elmer Fudd as Cyrano. It was almost as though the director, when faced with a choice of what to do in any moment, opted for the wrong one, just to see what would happen, then didn’t explore the alternative.
Certain of my friends will no doubt comment that “Well, you don’t like anything.” I’ll (as always) deny that, but some of the very friends who would say that shared these opinions of the production, so it wasn’t just me.
But, of course, at the end of the evening, the audience leapt to its feet to provide a seemingly sincere and hearty standing ovation, so what do I know? Ya pays yer money, and ya takes her cherce. Although in cases like this, I’m reminded of the late humorist Robert Benchley’s assessment of the utterly inexplicable popularity of the execrable Abie’s Irish Rose in the ‘20s: “This is why democracy can never be a success.”