Play It Again

Three different theatrical productions pose the same question: Does familiarity breed contempt?

There is, according to Ecclesiastes 1:9, nothing new under the sun. So often, the ideas that seem fresh are merely timeworn notions recycled and repackaged with new ribbons. Such is the case with Goblin Market, the chamber opera by Polly Pen and Peggy Harmon that is currently being produced by Nautilus Music-Theater. The source here is a poem by Christina Rossetti, sister of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The music references Brahms, Handel, and a host of illustrious others. Yet with finely wrought performances and an intelligent evocation of Rossetti's enigmatic parable, Nautilus has managed to turn what might otherwise be a scrap of Victorian exotica into something fascinating and even exotic.

On the surface at least, Goblin Market has all the narrative trappings of a fairy tale. Two sisters, the unabashedly hedonistic Laura (Norah Long) and the perpetually demure Lizzie (Vanessa Gamble), are lured to a woodland glen by "goblin men," who offer a succulent array of forbidden fruit. Lizzie, of course, abstains, but her wilder sibling nibbles and ends up in a melancholy gloom that can be lifted only by another taste of the aforementioned produce. It seems harmless enough, but Rossetti's poem is definitely not the stuff of children's stories. Ripe cherries are plucked, luscious melons fondled, and tender peaches devoured. Recounting her encounter with the goblins, Lizzie says, "I opened not lip from lip, lest they cram a mouthful in."

Hate the one you love: Kyra (Jennifer Blagen) and Tom (Jon Cranney) enjoy an icy silence in Eye of the Storm's Skylight
Hate the one you love: Kyra (Jennifer Blagen) and Tom (Jon Cranney) enjoy an icy silence in Eye of the Storm's Skylight

Sex is the currency of Goblin Market, but there is more to Rossetti's poetry than fruit-based double-entendre. Rather, the sisters represent the Victorian dichotomy between sensuality and sensibility. To save her sister's life and her own virtue, Lizzie must secure the goblin fruit without succumbing to the goblins' overtures--reap the rewards of empowerment, in other words, without sacrificing her essential feminine rectitude. Harmon and Pen recognize the complex tension underlying Rossetti's words, and their opera works as both a fairy story and a moral parable.

As in any opera, much depends on the singers. Gamble and Long, both experienced opera performers and fine actors, manage beautifully despite a rather demanding 70-minute program with no respite for strained voices. Yet perhaps they are asked to do too much; while stage director Ben Krywosz's Spartan and steeply raked set reflects the more ominous strains of the piece (and the limits of a budget), much of the lush imagery is left to the imagination of the audience. Listening to Rossetti's poetry, one can visualize the goblin men leaping and frolicking about their moonlit glen and passing out groceries to unsuspecting maidens. Seeing the sylvan idyll made manifest onstage might add a bit of wonder to what is already is already a wonderful opera.

 

Speaking of recycled material, Steve Guttenberg is in a play. Guttenberg, whom you may remember from Police Academy and Police Academy 2, is the lead chewer of scenery in Furthest From the Sun, an autobiographical mess by Woody Harrelson and other, less famous people. Though the plot might be summarized as "white moron meets black moron, and becomes a better person for it," such condensation does not do justice to the extraordinary awfulness of either the performances or the script, which makes Mr. Guttenberg's oeuvre look Oscar-worthy.

Based on the experience of Mr. Harrelson before he became rich and known, Furthest From the Sun (staged by Children at Play Productions) recounts a summer spent with a reformed hustler named Frankie (Tom Wright, who played George Costanza's nemesis Morgan on Seinfeld), a hippie chick (Mariah O'Brien), two sisters (Tanya Crutchfield and Tonia Jackson--much too talented for this), and an obnoxious pimp (Michael Harris). The play purports to have something to do with the budding friendship between the white Zach (Harrelson's alter ego) and the black Frankie, but it is really just a stream of humorless banter and garbled ghetto patois (Steve Guttenberg trying to be "street" is funny for five of the sixty or so minutes he is on stage). When Guttenberg's talents are wasted, something is seriously wrong.

Lackluster writing and bad acting would be unpleasant enough if it appeared that even a modicum of thought had gone into Furthest From the Sun. Though the play is ostensibly set in 1983, it is peppered with references to Starbucks' coffee and Y2K (Mr. Harrelson, a vocal hemp activist, may have been smoking one of his sweaters when he penned the script). Ineptitude aside, however, there is also a disturbing undercurrent of misogyny that undermines what little comedy might be wrung from this debacle. Women, it seems, exist for no reason but to tempt men. Men, it seems, exist for no reason but to act like blathering cretins and drink beer. And this play, it seems, exists for no reason but to indulge a Hollywood ego. Whatever the case, this white man can't write.

 

Speaking again of recycled material, David Hare's Skylight, now getting its Midwest premiere courtesy of Eye of the Storm, capitalizes on the oldest trick in the dramatist's book: Give two characters a reason to desire and despise one another, stick them in a room, and leave them to speak daggers. In this case, an idealist named Kyra (Jennifer Blagen) is visited by a former lover and unapologetic capitalist pig named Tom (Jon Cranney). The two had an affair before the death of Tom's wife, and there are plenty of old scabs to pick open. And that, unfortunately, is all they manage to do over the course of one interminable winter evening.

Hare, who has been all over Broadway this past season, is perhaps best known at the moment for The Blue Room, which is itself best known as a vehicle for Nicole Kidman's exposed bust. In Skylight, the playwright reveals his penchant for talky drama with a political subtext--more particularly, the power dynamics of Thatcher-era Britain. Tom, a rich but lonely materialist, is the quintessential Thatcherite, while Kyra, the poor but lonely lefty, represents the compromised Labor position. The obvious domestic correlative might be Tony Kushner's brilliant meditation on the Reagan-era zeitgeist, Angels in America. Yet, Hare's play does not stack up on either artistic or ideological grounds. Where Kushner finds parallels to the political in the personal, Hare merely stuffs rhetoric into his character's mouths. His people are carved in ice--cold and unchanging--and his indignation is so sincere that the play itself seems nothing more than an excuse for political posturing.

Injecting drame à thèse with any real sense of pathos is a tall task indeed, and with the exception of Casey Greig as Tom's son--who seems to have wandered in off the set of a better, funnier play--Eye of the Storm's cast struggles mightily. Cranney and Blagen hit a few good notes in a tone-deaf script, most notably in a bittersweet denouement in which Kyra throws cutlery (symbol of Tom's domesticity) and Tom throws books (symbol of Kyra's intellectual pretensions). Director Larissa Kokernot, too, manages an even pace for the evening (albeit that of continental drift). By play's end, however, Tom and Kyra are no different than when they first entered--only insufferable in slightly different ways.

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