Matinee. American Repertory Theatre. Directed by Robert Woodruff. First performance 20 January 2007
This is the last production by Robert Woodruff, ART artistic director. I know no details about this departure.
The program note indicates that Woodruff has chosen this seventeenth-century tragedy by Racine to make a political statement about George W. Bush and his administration. If Bush and Cheney were to sit in on a special performance of this production, I think they would learn no useful lesson from it, anymore than they would if they were assigned a reading of the C. H. Sisson translation (the one Woodruff has chosen). The play itself, and Woodruff’s resolutely post-modern production of it, is something of a horror story, about intrigue, betrayal, and the abuse of power in the Rome of Nero. Woodruff wants us to see the modern analogy in the America of today, but neither George Bush nor we ourselves might readily see the resemblances, despite the banner stretched across the upper part of the stage, proclaiming in giant letters “EMPIRE CREATES ITS OWN REALITY.” Woodruff is said to have heard this statement, or words to this effect, uttered by Bush or someone in his administration. Bush would not remember having said it and would dismiss it as a cheap slander on his government. We, who may well remember Dick Cheney or someone quoted to this effect, feel that we are being unfairly led and would prefer to judge such correspondences for ourselves instead of having them thrust down our throats. I myself would much prefer to see a “straight” production of the play — which is highly dramatic and very skillfully wrought — in seventeenth-century costumes and then, as I exited the theatre, say to myself, “Well, now, this three-hundred-year-old play has some telling analogies for our own time.” That is, Woodruff makes us passive spectators of a spectacle that has all the answers already embodied in it.
That is, perhaps, a little unfair to a production that has some fine acting in it and, to its credit, plays the Sisson translation “straight,” at least. We don’t get here what we often get in theaters that pass for avant-garde; for example, “Britannicus, loosely based on the play by Racine, with additional dialogue by William Shakespeare and Robert Woodruff.”
But, having allowed that much, we understand that after that it is all Woodruff’s show. This is a modern dress, eclectically designed production. Costumes range from Bergdorf Goodman to Army Surplus, each costume telling us about the character it clothes but indicating little or nothing about the social milieu in which the character travels. For example, the heartless mother of Nero and Britannicus, Agrippina, is dressed in a series of sumptuous, glittering designer pieces; Nero wears metrosexual stylish casuals; Britannicus wears determined grunge; Narcissus prefers Middle Homeless style; and Junia could be mistaken for a college sophomore. The set has two parts, “On-Stage” and “Off-Stage.” “On-Stage” consists of three wagons (Woodruff is, the program note informs us, truly taken with triptychs, seeing them as an early form of cinema; bosh), and closed at the back and at the far left and right sides, with blinds at the back that can be raised and lowered; a couple of bright yellow upholstered plastic benches; and an exit door up right and another at far left. All the action of the play is performed in this broad yet confining space, until the last scene, the banquet, when the wagons are pushed out of sight and three tables are pushed together; here Britannicus is poisoned. The “Off-Stage” areas to left and right of the wagons are dimly lit areas where Agrippina sits at a dressing table and applies her makeup, or where Nero takes off all his clothes, washes his hair and takes a shower, and then lies back, as if in a Jacuzzi, and lets the water from the shower play on his genitals. The combination of these on- and off-stage areas — we are told, in the endlessly informative program note — are meant to illustrate Woodruff’s observation of one of the chief characteristics of life under the Bush administration, it’s blurring of the boundaries of public and private life. I have to say, in the arrangement staged in this production, those boundaries seemed quite sharply defined: they were “on-script” and “off-script,” simply that.
Finally, what annoys me about all this is not even the risk-avoidance behavior — who would dare to try to mount a “straight” production of Britannicus today? — but the condescending attitude of the auteur, who decides to share his superior insight into the past and how it can be made to inform the present, but finds he must explain everything he does for his poor, benighted audience, who cannot be trusted to “get it” on their own.
I must add that some of the acting was very fine and all of it intelligent and competent. The actors were miked (each wore a transmitter low on the spine, from which a wire rose to an earpiece from which an ultrathin microphone curved around the cheek to the edge of the lip). This had the inestimable advantage of enabling me to understand almost every word. The disadvantage was that these are stage actors, trained to project their voices in theatre auditoriums, and so they did just that, resulting in frequent auditory overload. Kevin O’Donnell, the Britannicus, was the worst offender here. Alfredo Narciso, the Nero, handled it best, often reducing the volume of his speech to not much more than ordinary conversational amplitude, and making his self-possessed enjoyment of power all the more telling, and sinister, on account of it. Narciso was fine as the megalomaniacal Nero, who sees truth and honor as expendable commodities that, properly used, can purchase for him and enable him to retain the power he so nakedly seeks. — I see I have punned inadvertently there, since Narciso’s is the well-built body we see, from behind, taking a shower. The other actor of great note was Joan MacIntosh, the Agrippina, queenly and supremely confident as the ruthless, conscienceless woman who does not hesitate to poison an emperor if she thinks it will advance her cause. MacIntosh has loads of experience and has taught acting. The existence of actors like her makes me think that the great declamatory plays of the Western repertoire — Corneille’s, Racine’s, even Dryden’s — could be revived and played as if they meant something apart from their ability to comment on contemporary American politics. MacIntosh was a perfect fit as Agrippina, and, among several of her long speeches, the one in which she answers at some length Nero’s question, late in the play, “What would you really like to have?” showed us almost definitively how that kind of declamation should be done.
I can hear a little voice saying, “Well, if Woodruff can elicit performances that good from his actors, he can’t be so very bad, can he?” I acknowledge that he can’t; I never said he could not direct actors effectively. The problem is that his actors, no matter how good, end up burdened with so much ideological baggage that the production suffers overall.
It may be that the new artistic director of ART, whoever it is, will institute a new regime in which plays are valued and playwrights are trusted more than they have been under the programmatic baton of Robert Woodruff. But I’m not counting on it.