Saturday, April 7, 2012

Strange Interlude, Shakespeare Theatre Company

I confess- Eugene O'Neill's work is a gaping hole in my theatrical knowledge. It probably says as much about the state of academia as it does about me personally that I have a graduate degree in theatre history but know diddly squat about a master of American theater. I'm not entirely sure if the best entry point to O'Neill's work is actually going to be a play like "Strange Interlude," but that's the way the proverbial cookie crumbles.

All of this meant that before I felt comfortable talking about Michael Kahn's production of "Strange Interlude," I felt the need to do some research. I pored through my press packet. I read ASIDES. I asked around my grad school friends. I don't think that most people actually NEED to do these things- I think that one of the wonderful things about theatre is that everyone's response is legitimate, and that whatever you take away from a performance is a valid response, whether you're the foremost scholar of the playwright or wandered in to the theatre because the poster looked nice and you had a free evening. I happen to love a good delve into supplementary materials regardless, so when I came out of the theatre, I was anticipating a good rootle through my press packet at the very least.

There's a lot that's admirable in this production. Kahn's company of actors are superb- they have brilliantly realized a challenging text. Francesca Faridany (an actor whom I've loved since seeing her in STC's "Don Juan" back in the 2005-2006 season) is outstanding in the central role of Nina; her character undergoes a tremendous journey throughout the play. Her evolution takes place largely offstage, so that while we see her crucial turning points happen onstage, we suddenly skip years of her life before we meet Nina again. In lesser hands than Faridany and Kahn, these separate snapshots of a life could turn disjointed, yet they manage to masterfully take the audience with her along Nina's strange and winding journey. The entire company gives laudable performances, but I was captivated by Faridany.

We all know that Jane Greenwood is a master of costume design, and this production is no exception. I was also particularly taken with Aaron Rhyne's projections for the show's scene break, projected onto the walls of Walt Spangler's set; they set the mood beautifully with each appearance.


Now, theatre critics have an odd role. I read a fair amount of reviews that focus on the play iself, rather than the production. Nine times out of ten, I find these to be supremely unhelpful- take the play for what it is, and tell me about the production, please. But what's the purpose of a critical review? Is it to recommend a show or not to the public? Is it to ruminate on a production in a public forum?

I ask because, as a play, "Strange Interlude" drove me up the wall. I couldn't stand O'Neill's textualized subtext- the characters' constant recourse to asides grated on my nerves and could sometimes be confusing (wait- did the other characters hear what I just heard or not?). The selfishness and self-centeredness revealed in these asides made just about every character supremely unlikeable. I know now that O'Neill was drawn to portraying epic scope in his work, but in my seat at the Harman, I felt like he was writing a story better suited to a novel or a modern-day miniseries because the story JUST KEPT GOING. To my taste, the Freudian flavoring of the characters felt as sophisticated as the efforts of an undergraduate psych major. I walked out rolling my eyes at the play's plot twists and its characters' obsessions.

Ultimately, I found myself more frustrated with the play than pleased with the production itself. I went into this production hoping to be turned into an O'Neill fan, but came out convinced that O'Neill just wasn't for me. It's not that I can't distinguish between a play and a production; I've seen fabulous productions of mediocre material, and I've seen productions of plays that normally drive me batty be brilliant (for a prime example, see last season's "Old Times" at STC). For me, "Strange Interlude" never managed to rise above my grievances with its material, despite so many good elements that went into this production. I just don't know if this production will create O'Neill fans (much less theatre fans). Is that it's responsibility? Maybe, maybe not, but for me, it's a question that I ask after every play that I see. "Strange Interlude" is mightily impressive, but it didn't move or excite me. Michael Kahn passionately loves this play; will his audience? I hope that they will. Let us here at THT know what you think! We'd love to hear your thoughts on "Strange Interlude" in the comments.

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