Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Off Off Broadway: Ritter, Dene, Voss

I saw the New York premiere of Ritter, Dene, Voss by Thomas Bernhard at La Mama First Floor Theatre last Sunday and loved it. This is a perfect gem of a play and it is difficult to understand why it did not arrive in New York sooner: originally produced in German in 1986, it is beautifully written, elegantly translated into English by Kenneth Northcott and Peter Jansen, and intricately structured with levels upon levels of self-referential and symbolic allusions, and it is astonishing that it should have taken nearly 25 years for it to have made it here. And even after all that time, it still took a Canadian troupe, Toronto’s One Little Goat Theatre Company, rather than an American troupe, to bring it off!

Thomas Bernhard, although not that well known in the United States, was one of Austria’s most highly regarded and provocative novelists and playwrights of the last century. He developed a ranting manner and an unusual writing style: his plays are written without punctuation of any kind but with line breaks indicating cadence - which actually has the effect of making his plays all that more poetic (albeit a tougher challenge for the actors involved in performing his roles). Clearly influenced by Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet and others of their ilk, Bernhard might have been expected to assume a prominent role in the absurdist school, but he did not. We may hope that this production may redress some of that imbalance and that he may be more highly regarded in this country in the future.

On the surface, the plot of Ritter, Dene, Voss is a simple one involving the attempts of an older sister (Maev Beaty) and a younger sister (Shannon Perrault) to bring their highly eccentric if not actually psychotic brother Ludwig (Jordan Pettle) home from an insane asylum but the sibling rivalries and repressed psycho-sexual relationships among the three add so many layers of meaning to the play that a simple plot description does it little justice. Ludwig is clearly meant to be a fictionalized representation of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the most influential and arguably the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. The press release for the play states that Ludwig is “loosely based on…Ludwig Wittgenstein” and in an “Author’s note” in the program, Bernhard states that “During my work on the play…my thoughts dwelt mainly on my friend Paul and on his uncle, Ludwig Wittgenstein,” but it seems quite clear to me that Ludwig is intended to be Ludwig Wittgenstein and not just a character loosely based on him or influenced by the playwright’s transient thoughts of his friend’s uncle. And the sisters are intended to be Wittgenstein’s sisters and the family to be the Wittgenstein family, at one time the wealthiest family in Austria.

Ludwig, after all, has been dictating his books on logic to his older sister. (Might those be his Tractatus?) He has recalled the time he spent at his remote cabin in Norway and has expressed his desire for a doctorate degree from Cambridge. His disdain for children and for money is made clear. And in a clever tour-de-force, he repeatedly proclaims his adamant refusal to see Doctor Frege for whom he exhibits little respect (a symbolic reminder, surely, of the relationship between Wittgenstein and Gottlob Frege, the mathematician-logician who had a profound influence on the early Wittgenstein but whose philosophy was almost directly antithetical to that of the later Wittgenstein.)

That is not to say, of course, that this play accurately portrays all aspects of the real Ludwig Wittgenstein. On the contrary, Bernhard clearly has taken poetic license in endowing his Ludwig with some traits that Wittgenstein surely lacked. It is, for instance, highly doubtful that the real Wittgenstein would have harbored incestuous longings for either of his sisters, as Bernhard suggests, since likely as not Wittgenstein’s inclinations were more of a homosexual than heterosexual bent. But that is what makes this a play, rather than a documentary, and all the better for that.

The title of the play itself, Ritter, Dene, Voss is a bit mysterious to begin with for it actually has nothing to do with the substance of the play nor any of the characters in it. Rather it is simply the surnames of the three actors who originally starred in the play and for whom Bernhard wrote it. But what is Bernhard getting at with that odd conceit? Perhaps a further clue is provided by the fact that two of the three characters in the play, the two sisters, are actors themselves and what Bernhard may be alluding to is the degree to which our personas are nothing more than self-referent roles. Bernhard returns to this idea in several guises. Are the portraits on the wall really pictures of the persons they purport to depict or do they provide false impressions of who those persons really were? Who are the truly insane in the institution from which Ludwig’s sisters seek to release him: the inmates or their keepers? And why does the older sister really want to bring Ludwig home – for his sake or for her own?

The three actors all do a superb job in their respective roles and the director deserves considerable credit for this production. The scenic design is creative and first-rate, particularly the arrangement and rearrangement of the various portraits which are designed and utilized to dramatic effect. And the decision to play the music of Ludwig von Beethoven is a good one, underscoring the relationships among the three Ludwigs (the play’s protagonist, Wittgenstein, and Beethoven).

All in all, this is a terrific play and, even if you’re not overly familiar with the life and work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, you’re likely both to enjoy it and to get a lot out of it. And if you are familiar with Wittgenstein’s life and work, more’s the better. In that event, you’re really in for a treat.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Off Broadway: Alphabetical Order

On Saturday, I saw the New York premiere of Alphabetical Order by Michael Frayn at the Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row. It was a very well-acted farce with some interesting ideas, but not up to the level of Michael Frayn’s dramas.

A disclaimer: I am a Michael Frayn fan. I think he is a thoughtful and deep thinker, an elegant writer, and a talented playwright. I thoroughly enjoyed both of his best-known dramas, Copenhagen and Democracy, when I saw them several years ago. I am currently in the midst of reading his philosophical tome, The Human Touch, and I find it provocative and challenging. But – and here comes the disclaimer – I really don’t much like his comedies. I think that he has a great talent for drama, but not so much for farce. So notwithstanding the general critical acclaim it received at the time and its successful Broadway run, I didn’t enjoy Noises Off when first I saw it many years ago. And I similarly wasn’t very impressed by this revival of Alphabetical Order either, despite the fact that it expressed some interesting ideas and was very well directed and acted.

Alphabetical Order was written and takes place in the 1970s and, as a consequence, is somewhat dated. All of the action takes place in the library of a provincial newspaper’s library and much of the action centers around the process of clipping out newspaper articles - a process rendered obsolete in this digital age. The library is a mess and Lesley (Audrey Lynn Weston), a new 25 year old assistant librarian is brought on board to bring order out of chaos. In that she succeeds admirably, beyond anyone’s highest hopes – but has something even more valuable been lost in the process?

In the first act, we meet not only Lesley but all of the play’s other characters: Lucy (Angela Reed), the paper’s head librarian; Geoffrey (John Windsor-Cunningham) the paper’s soon to be retired messenger who doubles as something of a narrator or Greek chorus; and Arnold (Brad Bellamy), John (William Connell), Nora (Margaret Daly) and Wally (Paul Molnar), all of whom are writers, journalists or editors at the paper. And what we come to suspect is that how they all view themselves is not really how they are at all.

In the second act, we witness the occurrence of a major crisis at the newspaper and minor crises in the lives of several of the characters. The dramatic and comedic aspects of their reactions and interactions to these crises are what then give meaning and value to the play.

The entire cast deserves kudos for their performances as does the director, Carl Forsman, and the scenic designer, Nathan Heverin. If, unlike me, you enjoyed Noises Off, you’ll likely enjoy this play too. But if you’re expecting another Copenhagen or Democracy, you may be disappointed.
This tension between order and chaos certainly is a major theme of this play and it is the one that most reviewers have focused on in the past. But there are other conflicts which I think are as important, or even more important, that have received shorter shrift from the critics: that between form and substance, for instance, and that between appearance and reality. 

Friday, September 17, 2010

Off Off Broadway: Exit/Entrance

I saw a preview matinee performance of Exit/Entrance by Aidan Mathews at 59E59 Theaters last Sunday and I'm glad I did. While at first blush, this intricately structured portrayal of a couple’s 40 year life together may seem little more than a slim reflection on the vicissitudes of life, its inevitable disappointments, and the inexorable debilitation that comes with age, on further consideration, there appears to be much more to this play than first meets the eye.

To begin with, the play’s structure is intriguing, blurring the distinction between spatial and temporal separation and between reality and imagination. In the first act, Exit, we are introduced to “Charles, perhaps 70” (Greg Mullavey) and “Helen, his wife, probably 65” (Linda Thorson). In the second act, Entrance, we meet “Charles, a young man, perhaps 30” (David L. Townsend) and “Helen, his lover, probably 25” (Lara Hillier). But are these two different couples, living in adjoining apartments, separated only by a thin wall? Or are they really one and the same couple, the latter pair nothing more than a 40 year old memory in the failing minds of the former? An argument can be made on either side but the preponderance of evidence, I think, suggests that it is time and memory, not spatial reality, that separates the two couples.

To be sure, it initially appears that these are four distinct personages. In the first act, we hear the elder Helen informing Charles of having met their new younger neighbors who have just moved into the building. And we hear the sounds of nails being hammered into the walls next door as pictures are hung. In the second act, we seem to get confirmation of all this as the young couple chat about having encountered the older Helen, consider inviting her and her husband in for tea and scones, and hang the pictures we could only imagine in Act I. On the other hand, is it nothing more than coincidence that both men are named Charles, that both are classics scholars, that both women are named Helen, that the elder couple have a son named Philip conceived on their trip to Greece while the younger couple contemplate the conception of a child of their own (also to be named Philip, of course) whilst Charles (the younger) dreams of their own potential trip to Greece? But the conclusive evidence that this is a memory play about one couple rather than an interwoven tale of two neighboring couples is provided by the playwright himself who notes that “The action takes place in the living-room of an apartment in a period town-house.” It is noteworthy, I think, that the action does not take place in two adjoining living-rooms but in “the living-room….” [emphasis added].

In the first act, Charles and Helen reminisce on their lives together, recalling a number of felicitous events ranging from their honeymoon in the south of France to the delivery of Charles’ most successful lecture to the publication of his first book to their youthful exuberance at seeing the Acropolis for the first time followed by their night of lovemaking which likely resulted in the conception of their son, Philip. But their pleasant memories are more than overshadowed by the disappointments and tragedies of their lives: Charles never did publish a second book; his physical health is failing following a serious operation in his earlier years; Helen suffered some sort of nervous breakdown in the past, now euphemistically referred to as her “tiredness,” and her present mental faculties clearly are waning; and their son Philip is an alcoholic (possibly) and a homosexual (probably) who exhibits little concern or feeling for his parents. Against this sad backdrop, Charles and Helen seek to affirm some control over their lives, if only to the extent of closing the curtains.

In the second act, the younger Charles and Helen prepare for their future together, unpacking their dishes, hanging pictures, sorting and arranging books. Helen presses Charles to marry and envisions a family with him while Charles studiously avoids commitment. A sense develops that marriage and family will occur inevitably, simply with the passage of time, whether or not Charles truly wills it, and that their lives will then evolve (or devolve) into the depressing spectacle we envisioned in Act I.

The playwright has much else to convey and generally does so well and cleverly. Whereas Charles proclaims his grand intention to write in the future, Helen simply writes in the present – although her writing is simply a practical shopping list rather that a critique of classical philosophy. When Helen has an itch on her back, she finds that she is unable to reach it until she borrows Charles’ copy of Plato and scratches it with that – perhaps the best use that has been made of the book for some time. When Charles rambles on about traveling to Greece and making Helen his “Helen of Troy,” she responds: “I don’t want to be Helen of Troy. I want you to be you and I want to be me.” We come to understand what makes Helen tick and to feel sympathy for her condition. We come to understand Charles, too, but it is more difficult to empathize with him: Helen’s tragedy seems to be largely a result of her love for Charles and her having hitched her wagon to his falling star but Charles’ tragedy seems more a result simply of his own mediocrity and self-delusion.

In terms of the play’s performers, one actor, Linda Thorson, deserves to be singled out for special acclaim. Thorson does an extraordinary job in her portrayal of the older Helen and, if nothing else, this play is worth seeing for her performance alone.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Off Off Broadway on Theatre Is Easy

Off Off Broadway Theatre in New York, the third and final article in my three part series on Retirement in New York - A Theatre Lover's Dream, has just posted on the Theatre Is Easy website (  (The first two articles dealt with Broadway and Off Broadway.)