These are dirty days for the audience member. From movies that have been test-screened to death to those peskily appealing Gap commercials, we consumers are naturally made to feel a little...easy. Big budget theater's very survival depends on giving us what we want, what we really, really want--but do we, really? The spectacles get bigger in order to please us more, but with every ka-ching of the cash register, the need to bring in the masses grows, and oftentimes a play's heart falls away in the transaction. This year, the Guthrie has given us a season of productions that gleam like a Mr. Clean commercial: all entertaining, all successful, all pretty as heck but, taken together, an insultingly vacuous, utterly forgettable lot.
For The Venetian Twins, the Guthrie folks have brought in famed British director Michael Bogdanov to remount his famed British production of Carlos Goldoni's commedia dell'arte script. Wacky fun is promised as favorite son Kevin Kling joins Bogdanov to add some Minnesota Spice to this lost-identical-twin/town-mouse-country-mouse story: See, the city brother is all hip and Venetian, but the hick hails from outstate Minnesota--and he talks just like they do in Fargo! When rural twin Zanetto (Christopher Evan Welch) plods into the Venice home of the beautiful Rosaura (Kirsten Frantzich), he opens his mouth and the phrase "Soooo, whaddya know for sure?" pops out. And it's funny. Comedy is, after all, built on surprise. The joke, however, soon wears thin as we hear yet another walleye joke, yet another reference to going back home on "35 double-yah."
Not to say the show isn't funny. Joe Dowling, Michael Bogdanov, and the entire Guthrie fundraising department should get down on their knees and bow to Welch. Playing both the goofily lecherous Zanetto and hip, pompadoured brother Tonino, Welch is bug-eyed manna to a production that otherwise feels stale and forced. His characters possess him: Zanetto's chin seems to visibly sink and his eyes glaze over; Tonino's hot-dish referencing Ole and Lena rip-off seems entirely natural. Quick changes and nifty doubling add inherent comedy, but it's Welch's own rampant creativity on stage that soars--here a quick jig, there a manic stumble, now a silly little joke and the actor's slow appraisal of the audience with an oafish stare. Try not to laugh...I dare you.
Alas, much of the rest of the cast can't grow the humor organically, and, as a result, we get either caricatures or broad, passionless performances--neither of which can hold up for a three-hour production. It's a pretty world the Guthrie has created, where the piazza is sunny and the costumes are lacy (and where, unfortunately, coveted white women have black women for their servants). But with the combination of the inherently forced machinations of commedia dell'arte, the ill-conceived Minnesota gag, and the utter soullessness of the production, this play has all the subtlety of a late-period Mel Brooks movie. One can't help but feel that the Guthrie crew might as well stand onstage with big dopey smiles, goading, "Betcha laugh! Come on! This is funny! We'll tickle your feet! We'll make crotch jokes!"
While the Guthrie tickles, the contemporary musical pries open your chest to touch your heart. Ragtime proudly brandishes its forceps as it explores the plights of three families--one upper-class, one black, one Jewish-immigrant--at the turn of the century. It's frightening how shameless the manipulation is here: Immigrant Tateh (Michael Rupert) comes to this country to make a new life for his motherless daughter; abandoned black woman Sarah (Darlesia Cearcy) leaves her baby in a garden because, as she sings to him, "You have your Daddy's hands"; and one character conveniently bites it on the Lusitania, so his wife can wed the guy we like.
Even more frighteningly, it's a pretty good show. For every inane moment, and indeed there are many, the script finds originality. Here, they pound down the sledgehammer: As white Admiral Peary watches Tateh's ship sail toward Lady Liberty, his black first officer instructs solemnly, "My people were also brought here on ships." But here, there's fresh air: As the white New Rochellers sing of their lives with parasols and tennis balls, they exclaim, "There were gazebos/And there were no Negroes!" Every contrived stage picture--as when Mother (Rebecca Eichenberger) watches Father sail off with Peary and sings "Goodbye My Love" while a little boat crosses upstage--is juxtaposed with a nice one, like Harlem Ragtimer Coalhouse Walker's tooling around in his brand new Model T. And for every ridiculous character, like the Little Boy's precious sailor-suited boy-prophet (Nathan Keen), there's a touching one, like the driven Tateh, who murmurs to his daughter, "I promised you America, little one, and we'll find it."
Yes, it's just that cheesy, but there's something so archetypal in that quest for America that we can't help but be moved. It's disheartening how effective the manipulation is; nobody should ever feel compelled to shell out the cash required to see this show. And no matter how cognizant we are of the machinations of the script, that doesn't mean we get all watery-eyed, it doesn't mean we won't blow 30 bucks on the CD to bring Ragtime home with us. But, oh, feel-good has never felt so bad.
The Venetian Twins runs at the Guthrie Theater through November 8; call 377-2224.Ragtime plays at the Orpheum through November 15; call 339-7007.