Arts In LA

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Our American Hamlet
Commonwealth Shakespeare Company in residence at Babson College

Reviewed by Bob Verini


Jacob Fishel, Maureen Keiller, Jake Broder, Will Lyman, and Joe Fria
Photo by Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots

Even if the youngest son hadn’t sought immortality by murdering our 16th president, the Booth family story would eminently qualify as the source of high drama, early-American style. In the saga of fabled, dissolute touring tragedian Junius Brutus, and even more fabled classical actor Edwin, can be found such fertile themes as father-son competitiveness; modern artistic concepts elbowing out traditional ones; infidelity and betrayal (Junius kept a second wife and family in the UK, to the chagrin of the home folks); sibling rivalry (young Johnny, too, aspired, to his father’s crown), and the remarkable and persistent vulnerability of performers to demon rum and mental illness.

   With the blossoming of an assassin on the family tree comes a wealth of additional facets, including a family’s shame at having raised a viper in their midst; the “celebrity murder” phenomenon, which caught on a century later but whose roots lay in the tragedy of 1865; the haunting of the present by the past; and the unforgiving nature of the mob, who insisted on tarring Edwin with the same bloody brush as John Wilkes. Multitalented Jake Broder—he who rocked L.A. with his writing and acting in Louis & Keely ‘Live’ at the Sahara and Miravel—has managed to incorporate all of the above thematic elements into a 90-minute dramatic portrait.

 Our American Hamlet received a stylish, accomplished world premiere engagement by the prestigious Commonwealth Shakespeare Company of Wellesley, Mass., and now that the short run (ending April 2) has ended, the way should be clear for some needed script work prior to the many additional productions that will doubtless follow. (Full disclosure: Jake hosted the 2016 LA Drama Critics Circle Awards, which I produced, and we became friends.)

The Booths have been the source of drama before, of course. But the biography Prince of Players, the film adaptation of the same name starring Richard Burton, and Milton Geiger’s stage play Edwin Booth failed to do their subject justice due to a sluggish, conventional, chronology-based approach.

   Broder has wisely chosen a more impressionistic take on the material, one that director Steven Maler has happily run with. The action is set within a framing device in which, months after the assassination, Edwin Booth (Jacob Fishel) is about to face the madding crowd in a New York revival of Hamlet. Passions are high and death threats swirling, as reported by Booth intimate Adam Badeau (a real-life character, portrayed by Broder here). Would it not be wiser to go abroad or just lay low? But Edwin is driven, and we alternate between the dressing room and flashes of his past, often enough to render it not just understandable but also inevitable that he would seek to make this most daring public appearance at this most fraught public moment.

   Julia Noulin-Merat’s set is itself a stage, opening out to the auditorium shown on the back wall, with a dressing room, ropes, and a locking rail stage left. And why not, since the world of the Booths was always the world of backstage and greasepaint. Maler and Noulin-Merat have platforms and furniture deftly sliding in and out so that the events of a half-century of touring and family tension can sail along. Particularly impressive is the sound design of David Remedios, which makes ghostly voices manifest and allows us to feel the impact of a bloodthirsty mob even while the onstage cast merely numbers seven.

But Broder has something even more sophisticated in mind than just fracturing time frame and incident. He has taken pains to weave the plot, characters, and lines of Hamlet into the Booths’ everyday and professional lives. This effort—which one senses really tickled the playwright—feels very right: A family defined by its relationship to the theater might well be in the habit of communicating through Shakespearean references. And with Edwin so obsessed by the role of the haunted Prince, it makes psychological sense that his shaky command of reality should be seen through the lens of that play.

   The whole thing is a tall order for any cast to handle, but Maler’s ensemble is up to the challenge. Fishel is a splendid Edwin, louche and period-believable in his relaxed moments and scarily frenzied when madness is upon him. You start to wish you could see him play Hamlet in full, which could be the best possible compliment to anyone portraying this role. The playwright is quite persuasive as Badeau, whom historians have believed for years was enamored of Edwin in every possible way and may or may not have made his intentions known; Broder subtly hints at the role’s undertones.


Jacob Fishel and Will Lyman
Photo by Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots


   The superb Will Lyman—a local stalwart, known by voice around the world as the longtime narrator of PBS’s Frontline—goes toe to toe with Fishel as the patriarch, while Joe Fria, familiar to LA audiences, manages to negotiate both the comic swagger and murderous mania of John Wilkes. Kelby Akin gets less to do as the eldest Booth son (I’d forgotten about June, who went off early to produce plays on the Pacific Coast and missed most of the sibling warfare), but acquits himself capably in various other roles. It’s a little odd to have the same actor double as Edwin’s sister and wife—yikes!—though Lucy Davenport differentiates them nicely; the doubling of Junius’s two wives is a little less weird and Maureen Keiller thrives in both parts.

To bring his play to the next level, Broder needs to reexamine his framing device, which is predicated on Badeau’s attempt to dissuade Edwin from making himself available to the angry crowd. But that effort dissipates quickly, and very soon each revisit to the 1866 playhouse just becomes a too-convenient way to lay out exposition. If we’re going to keep returning to them, Badeau and Edwin need a genuine dramatic question they can wrestle with for the play’s duration, and the transitions between 1866 and the past need clarifying (the director’s aid could be enlisted here). More knotty—although rather noble, all things considered—is the confidence Broder has that his audience is intimately familiar with Hamlet’s plot and lines. Amidst the prevailing 19th-century diction, we’re never quite sure when they’re shifting into Shakespearean quotes; as it is, those references seem shoehorned in by the playwright, rather than the result of conscious character choices.
   Whatever work it needs, Our American Hamlet is already an ambitious and absorbing entertainment.

April 10, 2017

Commonwealth Shakespeare Company in residence at Babson College, Wellesley, Mass. March 24–April 2. Running time 90 minutes. www.commshakes.org
 
Arrabal
American Repertory Theater, Cambridge, Mass.

Reviewed by Bob Verini


Juan Cupini and Micaela Spina
Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann

T
he experience of Arrabal, the new tango musical at American Repertory Theater, is like stepping into a Latin American fever dream whose details you dread, yet you never want to leave. This tale of Argentina’s experience during the awful 1976–1983 junta is told almost completely with bodies yet without words. Never anything less than enthralling as a piece of theater, it cuts deeper, politically speaking, than the viewer has any right to expect of dance storytelling. The unusual artistic collaboration among composer Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain) and librettist John Weidman (Pacific Overtures), marshaled by director Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys) and his co-choreographer Julio Zurita, pays off intoxicatingly.
   After seeing Tango Argentino on Broadway years ago—the imported revue of which many Arrabal personnel were a part—I felt I had experienced everything the tango had to offer in a theatrical event. The dancers’ skill and athleticism were undeniable, but the succession of set pieces with Latin melodies and rhythms lacked variety and nuance for me as a novice, and I confess that it was a struggle to return for intermission. What I didn’t reckon on was the power of this dance form when tied to a muscular narrative, and this is precisely where Arrabal took me by surprise. As varied as the tango can be—sad or comic, sweetly romantic or torridly sexual by turns—this show demonstrates that it takes on even greater emotional impact when asked to express characters in turmoil.
   Therefore, as catchy and smile-inducing as Santoalalla’s melodies are, and as excitingly executed as they are by the tango-rock fusion quintet known as Bajofondo, Weidman is probably the key player in Arrabal’s success; and while the book writer is generally the key, if underappreciated, element in any musical, I would argue that’s even more true here. As with Contact, Susan Stroman’s brilliant 1999 Lincoln Center dance-theater triptych, Weidman was asked to supply a clear yet nuanced storyline that could both support the dance milieu and be understood narratively within it.

If all of that weren’t hard enough to do, Arrabal offered Weidman an even greater challenge in that it proposed to make use of a woeful page of history: the resistance to military rule that took thousands—known as the Desaparecidos, “the disappeared ones”—away from home and family, many never to be heard from again. (If U.S. audiences know the melancholy details at all, it’s probably through 1986’s Oscar-winning foreign film The Official Story.) Arrabal is treading in dangerous waters here. To play-act at those victims’ real-life sacrifices, couching them in generic dance clichés, would’ve been to trivialize them beyond endurance.
   Weidman chose to represent two generations simultaneously: the innocent Arrabal (Micaela Spina) and her stalwart father, Rodolfo (Zurita), the truth of whose fate under dictatorship proves to be the ingénue’s life quest. The story whipsaws between 1976 and 1984 through flashbacks and overlapping action, all centered on a Buenos Aires tango palace managed by the suave El Puma (Carlos Rivarola). The crucial link between the two stories, he’s one of those careful operators destined to survive under any regime, albeit at a significant psychological cost. And like the Kit Kat Klub in Cabaret, his establishment offers a haven of sybaritic pleasure on the surface, while harboring betrayal and intrigue behind closed doors and within dirty alleyways.
   The playmakers’ tactics work like a charm, but deceptively. Designer Riccardo Hernandez has replaced several rows of seats in the Loeb Theater Center with round tables and chairs, ashtrays and little lamps, and by the time most of the audience has arrived, the cast has grabbed a half-dozen couples for onstage tango lessons. It’s all very jolly and facile and Tango Argentino all over again—that is, until the projections begin: the newscasts announcing the arrest of strongman Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla; flashbacks to the TV announcement of martial law; the back wall of headshots of the actual Desaparecidos. The audience volunteers withdraw and the real dancers, dazzling in Clint Ramos’s color-saturated clothes under Vincent Colbert’s lighting, take the stage. Their passion is suddenly placed within a deadly serious context that pulls one up short.
   There are scenes of persecution, interrogation under torture, and random violence that convey in dynamic shorthand the perils of surviving in a fascist state. There are also moments of exquisite beauty when boy (dreamy Juan Cupini) meets girl, and even riotous comedy in the person of the zoot-suited Mario Rizzo, the Artful Dodger to El Puma’s Fagin, contorting head and body as he guides our heroine around the town. And it’s all told with crystal clarity, through virtuoso dance.

I wish Trujillo and Weidman had made more of the cabaret crowd. They tango on and on through oppression and liberation alike, but we don’t get much of a sense of their relationship to the political shifting of winds. Arrabal herself could use more of a character arc: Not that we need to see her become radicalized like a Patty Hearst, but sheltered as she is at first, it would be thematically useful to see how the revelations of the past, her country’s and her family’s, could lead to her maturity.
   But these are small cavils about a stunning total-theater experience, which I hope Los Angeles will get a chance to experience first hand.

June 4, 2017
 
Running through June 18 at American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.), Cambridge, Mass. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission.

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