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The Long (Wharf) And Short Of Theatre In New Haven



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Theatre Reviews—

The Long (Wharf) And Short Of Theatre In New Haven

By Julie Stern

NEW HAVEN — The city of New Haven is fortunate to have two serious theater companies, famous both for introducing exciting new material by contemporary playwrights, and for staging innovative interpretations of classical dramatic works. This may entail updating the setting and costumes, or inserting modern references to impose an additional level of socio-political significance.

At their best, such productions make the play more accessible and thus easier to appreciate. They allow for the display of theatrical pyrotechnics that leave audiences gasping in amazement and delight. At their worst they are embarrassing, foolish, or boring, demanding the continual examination of one’s wristwatch if you are unable to sleep.

How ironic therefore, that while Long Wharf Theatre is opening its season with a stunning rendition of Shakespeare’s  Much Ado About Nothing, set in the Harlem Renaissance just after World War I, Yale Rep has elected to present an adaptation of Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid that is just plain godawful.

Many people’s acquaintance with Much Ado stems from the Kenneth Branagh movie which set the story in Tuscany during the Napoleonic wars. The action centers on a troop of victorious soldiers returning from combat to enjoy the welcoming hospitality of the local gentry.

In the Shakespearean comedy, the plot revolves around two pairs of lovers who must traverse the bumpy road to eventual wedded bliss. Usually one couple is sweet and innocent, while the other (more central to the story) is sharper of tongue and wit, allowing for snappy exchanges and clever repartee (sort of like Elizabeth and Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, who are far more intelligent and interesting than Sister Jane and Mr Bingley.)

In this play, returning heroes Benedick and Claudio are best friends who differ in their attitude toward women. From the moment Claudio lays eyes on gentle Hero, the daughter of their host, he is in love. It will be harder for their friends to get the witty, cynical Benedick together with Beatrice, Hero’s proud and independent cousin, but that’s what has to happen.

That’s exactly what does happen, with great fun, involving a wicked plot by the commander’s bastard brother, a goofy set of policemen, and discovery that loyalty and honor exist in women as well as men, and civilians as well as soldiers.

In choosing to set the Long Wharf play in 1920s Harlem, director Douglas Anson Jones has retained all of Shakespeare’s language and characterization and wit, while giving these an exciting new venue. Dressed in khakis and puttees, the returning heroes are members of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment, who marched home to Harlem on February 17, 1919 in precision formation, led by drum major Bill Bojangles Robinson, to the beat of a military band, and the cheers of thousands of spectators.

Here they are invited to stay for a month at the luxurious Hotel Messina, as guests of the owner Leonato, a pillar of upper class Harlem society, in a segregated time when writers, poets, artists and musicians congregated uptown.

As Beatrice and Benedick, Caroline Stefanie Clay and Michael Genet are perfectly matched, and perfect in their performance. They each succeed in being both true to the nature of their characters, and to the spirit of Shakespeare.

Director Anson-Jones is in complete control of what he is doing, achieving great comic effect without cheapening or degrading his material. The comedy is verbal, more than physical, although there are moments of great clowning, as when Benedick “overhears” a conversation his friends have staged for his benefit, or when the quartet of Keystone Kops confront the treacherous henchmen of the villainous Don John.

In contrast, over at Yale, Mark Rucker has taken James Magruder’s “translation and adaptation” of a Moliere play and turned in into a diatribe against the medical profession that relies largely on scatological references and sound effects, exaggerated campy acting, and scattershot interludes of vaudevillian entertainment.

In his time, Moliere was a scathing satirist who poked fun at the hypocrisy and pretensions of the French bourgeoisie. In this play a confirmed hypochondriac is exploited by his doctors, who collect healthy fees, and his second wife, who hopes to inherit his money. He hopes to marry his daughter to another physician in order to have a doctor in the family, despite the fact she is in love with someone else.

As far as I can tell, Mr Magruder and Mr Rucker have attempted to update Moliere’s outrageousness by stretching the envelope of gross humor. Thus the central construction on the stage is a privy, into which the invalid Argan regularly ventures, complete with sound effects. Enemas play a large part in both the plot and the staging, as does flatulence. (I understand this was also an element of ancient Greek comedy but those don’t get revived much.)

The point of the play is that doctors don’t really want to cure patients. They just like to give expensive treatments that bring in a lot of money to them. In what I suppose he feels is a Moliere-like bit of iconoclasm, Mr Magruder brings things up to the present day, invoking a pink pantsuited Hilary Clinton who explodes from the outhouse like a bimbo popping out of a cake, to introduce a discussion on contemporary health care. None of it really makes you like Moliere, and I’m not going to tell you that you need to go see it.

But Much Ado, at Long Wharf, that’s a keeper!

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