Roman Holiday

Brave New Workshop returns to its old coliseum; the Guthrie takes a stab at Caesar

Let me begin with some odds and ends. First, let me introduce you to a word I've become quite fond of recently: exsibilation. The word describes the hissing noise that an enraged audience might make when confronted with a comment such as Pat Proft's this past Thursday. Proft, a screenwriter (famous for penning Leslie Nielsen's Naked Gun films) and alumnus of the Brave New Workshop stage, rose to offer some curtain comments before the start of the BNW's newest show, We Moved Our Cheese (and Everything Else); or, Hindsight Is 2605 Hennepin, and his remarks brought about groans and, eventually, exsibilation.

The show itself is a collection of sketches from the past several years, most funny, some very funny, such as one in which performer Dan Hetzel plays a doctor examining patient Shanan Wexler, testing a sprained knee by boxing it with a puppet of an Amish man. The show is made up of routines from the Brave New Workshop's Calhoun Square location, which is no more, as financial pressures have forced owners John Sweeney and Jenni Lilledahl to return to the carnival-colored Hennepin Avenue location that Dudley Riggs had occupied for almost 30 years. Riggs himself was on hand to say a few words, in his usual natty bow tie and thick-framed glasses, describing a couple of performances from the Sixties that had encouraged bricks to fly through the front window of the theater. This sounded like something of a challenge to the current cast.

A lousy backstabber with a nice asp: Laila Robins as Cleopatra
T. Charles Erickson
A lousy backstabber with a nice asp: Laila Robins as Cleopatra

Also on hand was Proft, grinning from beneath a mop of shaggy gray hair, who took the stage to offer a pun-laden succession of reminiscences about his own years with the company. At the summary of his comments, he pointed to one of the theater's two onstage television sets as though at the start of a corporate presentation, saying, "And now for a few slides." He then dropped to the floor twice, gliding across the stage on the seat of his pants. And with that, the audience exsibilated.

I thought I had a bigger scoop concerning the BNW's move, but I hadn't. Rumors were abounding that owner Sweeney's disappointment at leaving the Calhoun Square location had turned to rage, which in turn had evolved into lunacy. Some accounts had it that he'd acted on this lunacy by depositing into the walls of the Calhoun Square some of his own...well, let's call it ejectamenta to be polite. I confronted Lilledahl about the rumor, and she shook her head. Sweeney "had talked about pooping in the walls, but he didn't," she explained.

 

Riggs was also on hand at the opening of the Guthrie's production of Antony and Cleopatra this past Friday, not to encourage the company to mount a window-shattering show, alas, but instead as an audience member. Unexpectedly, the cast of this Shakespeare tragedy is bedizened in Roman military tunics and gauzy Egyptian evening dress. I say unexpectedly because the Guthrie has been in the habit lately of updating every other play they perform to the Roaring Twenties, which looks marvelous but has convinced a friend of mine that the Guthrie did a production of Auntie Mame in the early Seventies, and has been recycling the costumes ever since.

Here, everybody swaggers across a mostly bare stage, watched by a great plaster Greek head from above and also by an alabaster sphinx that rolls out onto the stage whenever we near Egypt. As a result the whole play has the feel of a courtly drama acted out in an antiquities museum that has been emptied of all but its largest statues. It's less than intimate, which is a pity, as tragedies rely heavily on audiences sharing that most intimate of moments when everything goes suddenly to hell.

Unexpectedly, as well, the cast of this Mark Lamos production largely comprises local actors. In recent years, I have noticed an increasing number of poorly cast New York actors cropping up on the Guthrie stage when local talent could, and should, be used--perhaps under the misapprehension that New York actors are more glamorous, or will advance the national reputation of the Guthrie, or are simply better. For example, this production stars Laila Robins, who was both icy and comely in the Guthrie production of Hedda Gabler. But Robins, though raised in St. Anthony Park, is local talent only by a stretch. And she's not even Cleopatra: She has the pale European features of a porcelain Victorian child's doll, and she plays her role as a long temper tantrum, pouting and stomping her feet in a manner most unbecoming to a queen--sometimes to comic effect, as when she repeatedly thrashes the bearer of bad tidings. The scene is both clever and unsympathetic, as she is such a petulant tyrant that we end up rooting for the asp.

She costars with Robert Cuccioli, who is a serviceable Mark Antony. He staggers around and mutters like an unhappy man, which Mark Antony certainly is. But again this actor is not local. Why settle for serviceable when somebody like Steve Hendrickson could make the part really thrilling?

I will limit my complaint, though, as Hendrickson is in the play, as a Roman soldier named Agrippa, and is great in the minuscule role. Indeed, most of the supporting cast is local, and they are all quite fine. Stephen Yoakam, for example, plays Antony's betrayer Enobarbus with a vicious blend of wit and malice. Even in these smallish support roles, Yoakam and Hendrickson command the Guthrie stage as if it were their own playhouse. Which leads to an obvious question: Why shouldn't it be?

 
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