Over the past several days I’ve had three intense, but very different, theatrical experiences. On Saturday night, I finally caught up with the Metropolitan Opera’s “new” production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” which was introduced last season. Then on Sunday afternoon I attended Atlantic Theater Company’s presentation of the Donmar Warehouse production of Conor McPherson’s “The Night Alive.” Finally, last night, I was at a performance of Shakespeare’s “MacBeth” presented by Lincoln Center Theater. All were interesting and exciting in their own ways, but Shakespeare wins the prize.
And I’m tempted to write in reverse chronological order, because I found Jack O’Brien’s concept and direction so compelling. This is a brilliant rendition of “MacBeth,” much enhanced by Mark Bennett’s extraordinary musical score and sound effects and the innovative sets and lighting. This is not to slight the cast in the least, because I found them brilliant as well, but this production struck me as a total concept. The choreography — almost constant movement by the cast members — was as important in signaling character and relationships as the text itself. I found Ethan Hawke compelling as MacBeth. Early reviews suggested that he was mumbling his way through the script, but that was not my impression at all. His was a very physical performance, full of highly communicative gesture and vocal manipulation. When he was performing soliloquies, he frequently spoke very quietly, presenting the soliloquy as the character musing to himself, and so close attention had to be paid to pick up all the words, but I would never say he was mumbling. He was surrounded by an extraordinary cast. Daniel Sunjata as MacDuff was fierce and fiery, Jonny Orsini as Malcolm, heir to the Scottish throne, was mercurial in his mood changes. Anne-Marie Duff as Lady MacBeth was ideally cast, I thought, sinuous in her plotting. Brian d’Arcy James, a favorite of mine from the TV series “Smash,” was excellent as Banquo. The ghosts — Francesca Faridany as Hecate, Malcolm Gets and John Glover and Byron Jennings as the three “sister” witches — provided wonderful comic relief, especially John Glover. Who can top John Glover? I’ve never been disappointed by any performance I’ve seen by him. I could easily find myself listing every cast member, such was the excellence on display. This rendition of Shakespeare learned its lessons well from the pioneering films by Kenneth Brannagh, avoiding the stilted recitation of iambic pentameter characteristic of earlier American efforts and embracing a naturalistic reading of the text that made it highly comprehensible, even amidst all the movement and bustle. I was stunned to see how many empty seats there were last night. I suspect that the early mixed-to-negative reviews had their effect, as well as the competition from gaudy musicals on Broadway, but this production is the real thing – a masterpiece, highly entertaining, worthy of its distinguished author. It should be selling out.
By contrast, I find it difficult to write about Conor McPherson’s latest effort, “The Night Alive,” because I found it so puzzling. This is one of those “slice of life” plays where the audience spends much of time puzzling about who is who, what is going on, and why one should pay attention. The central focus in this long, intermissionless presentation, is the ne’er-do-well Tommy, played by Ciaran Hinds, living in a ground-floor studio apartment in the large Edwardian House near Phoenix Park in Dublin owned by his uncle Maurice, played by Jim Norton. There are but three other characters: Aimee, played by Caoilfhionn Dunne, whose identity and status is puzzling for much of the play; Doc, a hapless, somewhat witless friend of Tommy, played by Michael McElhatton, and Kenneth, played by Brian Gleeson, who materializes part way through the play and is soon established as having some prior relationship with Aimee. Things don’t start to come clear about the relationships of these characters until one nears the end. The cast, with the exception of Norton, is intact from the prior production in London at Donmar Warehouse, so they know their characters quite well and have developed the relationships in advance of this U.S. run. Which makes it no less confusing for the theater-goer confronting this for the first time, since one has no idea why these characters have the relationship they do, only learning bits of their back-story well into the piece. At the end, I was not sure what had been accomplished, other than depicting the interaction of a particular motley group of characters. Perhaps there’s more there…. It was a pleasure to see Hinds, who has turned up in so many interesting movies and plays, and who I particularly remember from his star turn as Julius Caesar in the first season of the TV mini-series “Rome.”
Finally, going in reverse order, the Met’s Rigoletto, in a production conceived and directed by Michael Mayer. The young Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, currently principal conductor of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, is making his Met debut this season in this production, and I thought he led a buoyant performance, although it didn’t reach the end until well past the advertised time, which I put down as much to the overly-long intermissions as anything else, since tempi tended to be very forward-moving. The orchestra played well for him. Mayer’s concept is to place the story in Las Vegas in 1960, the Duke being some kind of authority figure at a grand casino where Rigoletto hangs around as a sort of court-jester type. Sparafucile and his sister Maddalena are what they are in the original: hit man and prostitute. There is some playing about with other characters. Monterone, in particular, is presented as Arab shiek in Middle Eastern dress with suited bodyguards with Muslim headwear in tailored western suits. Well, it could work, but with that name? (I suspect Mayer’s guidelines from the Met included a requirement that no matter what updating he did, the Italian text could not be tampered with — but that didn’t inhibit the subtitle writer!!). At the end, a 1960s vintage Cadillac is parked by Sparafucile’s place, with custom license plates identifying the car as his, and this is where Gilda, daughter of Rigoletto, is stashed after the murder — in the trunk. My opera-going companion asked why Rigoletto, who was given the car keys by Sparafucile in order to drive the body to be dumped in “the river”, didn’t immediately drive her to an emergency room upon finding her stabbed and bleeding in the trunk. Well, this is opera, not real life. The only staging business that I thought was wrong was in the second act when Gilda is about to make her confession to Rigoletto. He asks the crowd of men who have been hanging around outside the Duke’s quarters to leave, but they stay huddled at the back of the space, obviously overhearing everything. And then Gilda sings about the fierce, forbidding look in Rigoletto’s eyes before she begins to confess her promiscuity with the Duke — but as she sings this, he is standing at the far end of the stage with his back to her. It’s as if Mayer staged the scene without regard to what the characters are singing — a frequent problem with these “updatings” of operas. All that said, I found that the concept worked very well most of the time, pumping some new life into the old standard. But Rigoletto’s life really comes from the music, especially the big solo numbers, and these were handled well. As to casting, the only disappointment for me was Matthew Polenzani as The Duke – Not because of his singing, but because the Duke has to be charismatic for the plot to work, and Polenzani doesn’t really project that kind of charisma. Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Rigeletto was a revelation, totally transforming himself from the dashing Russian with the sharp cheekbones and mop of startling white hair into the old, shlumpy Italian court jester, balding, humpbacked, physically clumsy. It was an incredible bit of acting, and he sang the role with authority. Sonya Yoncheva as Gilda was fine, projecting the naïve love for the Duke. I thought Stefan Kocan as Sparafucile was brilliantly cast, and practically stole every scene he was in. Oksana Volkova as Maddalena seemed a bit light of voice for her part, but did the physical acting of the seductress well. Secondary roles were all well taken. The physical production is spectacular, but so specialized that I don’t think it will wear well. Once one has seen this concept, one is not likely to be eager for a repeat, so this is not likely to be a production that is brought back regularly. I think more traditional productions tend to have much more staying power (see, e.g., the Met’s Rosenkavalier and La Boheme). But I’m glad I saw it, and I’m glad it is packing them in, since the Met needs the patronage, as its more risky productions have left vacant seats this year, or so I’ve heard.