22 November 2009: Weiner, Murray, and Paulus, Best of Both Worlds

Matinee. American Repertory Theatre, Loeb drama Center. Book and lyrics by Randi Weiner. Music by Diedre Murray. Co-written and directed by Diane Paulus. An adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.

“A sad tale’s best for winter,” says Mamillius, King Leontes’s ill-fated son in Shakespeare’s play. His incipient genius leads him toward sadness, and so it seems only appropriate in that play, if cruel, that he should die. That death, however, is more about Leontes than about him; it requires an actual death and two more near-deaths to prepare Leontes for the redemption that lies in store. Shakespeare’s play would seem to veer toward tragedy before it ultimately moves into a more forgiving mode that looks toward a more distant, comforting shore. This adaptation of Shakespeare’s play by the new artistic director of the A. R. T., Diane Paulus and her partner, Randy Weiner, along with the composer Diedre Murray, never pretends to veer toward tragedy; it is at heart a heartwarming comedy that heads from the very first toward a happy ending.

This is really not just an adaptation, but a thorough generic and socially aware rethinking and re-conception of Shakespeare’s play. I don’t mean for a minute to denigrate this re-conception for being what it is. It would be foolish, in fact, not to see that one must take it completely for what it is or leave it alone. This is a play about redemption superimposed upon a magnificent African-American cast who are so joyful, so rightfully full of themselves, and such titanic performers and singers in the hallowed rhythm-and-blues tradition of American music that they need no redemption whatever. And so it is a sheer delight to experience this play, but one must do so fully aware that it is more presentation than dramatic art. I use the word “experience” intentionally to echo the motto printed on the front page of the program and almost everywhere else: “Experience the A.R.T.” It is quite an experience, this musical play. But it should not be mistaken for a drama, where, as generations of teachers and critics have insisted, the essence of drama is conflict. There is no actual conflict in this version of Shakespeare; there is only the representation of it, by actors who stand outside and take on roles that are transparently versions of their real world selves and not full-fledged characters. That premise, different from the premise that underlies the impersonation of character, is, finally, what we must accept in order to enjoy it. It is, finally, more night-club act than it is anything else. Than a play, for instance.

The play begins—“explodes” would be a better word—when a huge metal door, like the false proscenium it is built into, suddenly rises very noisily, and through the gaping hole moves a preposterously large, pink 1950’s Cadillac sedan, filled to overflowing with the entire cast, all of them decked out in extravagant costumes and all of them singing at the tops of their voices. We know we are in for something that would seem to have little or nothing to do with Sicily or the seacoast of Bohemia, Shakespeare’s two settings. West Philadelphia might be more like it. Most of the names are changed, though Camillo remains Camillo, as does Mamillius. Some of them have ghetto nicknames like 8-Ball, The Bear, and Sweet Daddy; one is biblical, Ezekiel; two of them are familiar European names, Serena (Ezekiel’s Queen) and Violetta, Ezekiel’s mother; one has a Mediterranean name, Tariq. In other words, it is a notably heterogeneous culture we are looking at, typically American, in fact. What they have in common is a marvelously exuberant approach to life and an ability to feel their feelings deeply and articulately. The mode of articulation throughout is song. These characters burst into song at the slightest provocation. And what they sing is wonderful, vibrant, super-rhythmic music, in solo, duet, quartet, or ensemble chorus.

Deidre Murray’s music has an authentic character all its own. The program informs us through her own words that her background is jazz, but it is easy to see that while the basis of the music is jazz (taking that term as a reference to a general, comprehensive form, even to a lifestyle), its heart and soul are a combination of gospel music and the rhythm and blues that it spawned. Almost immediately, the audience was moving and swaying to the insistent, compelling rhythms. And they would frequently burst into hearty applause well before the last note of the piece was sung. The couple sitting on our left could hardly restrain themselves from leaping out of their seats and rushing down onto the stage floor to join in the general celebration. (And it was a celebration, even at its putative darkest moments, a celebration of an authentic American art-and-music form. Today, Shakespeare; tomorrow, . . . Genet? One wants to dare them to try it.)

It is fascinating to think further in the direction of my initial take on this work — that the singers and actors (singer-actors) are playing themselves rather than playing the characters adapted from Shakespeare’s play. Take as an example Frank Sinatra, one of the truly great artists of American popular song, whose venue was always the night club, the cocktail lounge, the dance hall, or, later in his professional career, the concert stage. Sinatra was always Sinatra, no matter the series of thin guises he would successively adopt in singing a song through the transparent persona of the “speaker.” It was easy for us to accept that kind of “impersonation” because it was always Sinatra, fully perceivable in the music and lyrics of the song. He was even Sinatra when he took a role in the musical version of Philadelphia Story, made into a film with Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, and others. The only two times Sinatra actually acted, as I remember, were in the film of From Here to Eternity (am I getting this wrong?) and the film of The Golden Arm (I know that’s right). And he was quite good. But he was doing something utterly different, in the case of the dramatic films.

Likewise, in the case of the superb singing-actors who populate this A.R.T. production. Gregg Baker, in the central role of Ezekiel (the Leontes of The Winter’s Tale). Baker is a professional opera singer of leading roles in Porgy and Bess, Aida, Samson and Delila, and even Das Rheingold. He has a marvelous, deeply resonant base-baritone, just as secure in the top of his range as in the bottom. He puts his all into the role of Ezekiel, feeling all the appropriate feelings, his actorly skills constantly on display. And yet you can tell, you can tell: he is playing himself, playing his African-American heritage for all it’s worth, wonderful heritage that it is. Now, surely, when he is Pagliacci, which he has also played, he is cast, not despite and not because of the color of his skin, but because the casting, as in all opera with the rare exception of works like Porgy and Bess, is color-blind. It is the opposite of color-blind in Best of Both Worlds. All the cast are African-American. Black. They could not possibly have done color-blind casting for this work. Why? Because there is a historical and ethnic requirement for any performer in it, almost surely unstated in the script but just as surely there: you have to have a lived identity outside of the work, an ethnic personhood that identifies you as an “inside” celebrant of this particular kind of music and the life that it reflects and authenticates in order to be acceptable as a potential member of this cast.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. In fact, the extraneous factor I’m describing here is not something to apologize for, or to demand compensation for; it is something to celebrate. And the celebration is more important than anything else. Best of Both Worlds is not so much performed as celebrated. This is the key to understanding the true nature of its particular kind of excellence. Paulus, Weiner, and Murray have collaborated in providing a magnificent vehicle for this kind of thing. They deserve all the accolades that have been heaped upon them. And they evidently knew what they were doing and did it with their eyes open.

And they should do it again. The narrator of the action (if that’s not a contradiction in terms — see below), played by Cleavant Derricks, dressed in a pretty snazzy zoot suit — two of them, in fact, one for each act — suggests that Shakespeare has worked for them so well they might do it again; next time it might be King Lear. Why not try it? I say. The rhythm-and-blues idiom is so captivating and compelling, so serviceable, so sturdy, you could meld it with almost anything. The only thing I’d be afraid of is that the novelty might have worn off a little the second time around.

A word about the narration. Let’s notice that, as always explained in Fiction 101 or in Drama 101, fiction is based on a narration, while drama is based on an enactment. Narration is always (exceptions to the contrary notwithstanding) delivered in the past tense. “Once upon a time . . .”. The entire “action” of the narrative has been accomplished, “happily ever after” or otherwise, before the narrative itself even begins. The novel you hold in your hand contains a manifest fait accompli. In contrast, the action of a play occurs in a perpetual present tense. You can read it if you want, but you’re reading a script for performance, not a story. The arc of the fictional narrative is from the past toward the present; the arc of the drama, from the present toward the future. Enactment assumes a perpetual present tense. So what happens when you adapt a play in such a way that a speaker, a narrator, tells you the story of it as it goes along? Answer: the “play” conforms to the form and structure of a narrative, no matter whether the characters are cast with real actor-singers and they act out what the narrator narrates. It’s all been accomplished before that huge metal door rises and the company drives in, packed into that absurd pink Cadillac. Is that all right? Do we find ourselves, deep down, objecting to a narration, which is all in the past tense? Is this a theoretical contradiction that ruins the afternoon?

Actually, no. We don’t object at all. Why? Because it doesn’t matter. Absolutely it doesn’t matter, because this is not a play, not a drama, but a presentation, a performance, an act. it can take any generic form you choose. As explained above, the real time element is in the performable external identities possessed by all the cast. Those identities have an a priori existence and are simply and joyfully brought to bear — not brought into being — in the service of music and song, along with the referential qualities of the lyrics, which just as in opera serve the extended moment of passion and emotion more than they serve the advancement of the action, although they serve that too. So what we have, finally, is the stop-action quality of operatic singing, transferred from the elitism of grand opera to a fully democratic mode, ethnically authentic and rich enough to stand and even to shout on its own — and yet the voices are good enough to do opera! What richness there is here, having the best of both worlds in a way that the title of the work doesn’t intend and in a way is perfectly oblivious to.

So everything depends, finally, at least in the case of the A.R.T.’s Best of Both Worlds, on how good the actor-singers are. These particular actor-singers are absolutely terrific. And the result of their efforts is one of the most pleasurable, satisfying, and exciting pieces of musical theatre I have ever seen. It seems undeniable that the rest of the audience took the same view.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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