"Art is divided not between the good and the bad," said W.H. Auden in a lecture on Romeo and Juliet, "but between the interesting and the boring, and what is interesting is...the exception to the universal norm. Dog bites man is not interesting, man bites dog is." Maybe so, but how come I can't I find a publisher for my 900-page novel Hermaphrodite Bites Unicorn? And what do we say about art that can't easily be categorized with the interesting exceptions or the typical bores?
For example, Frank Theatre's production of Jack Zipes's Sicilian Nights at the old Sears building on Lake Street is indeed exceptional, and generally interesting, regularly funny, often wonderful. It's also a bit dull. The show, directed with characteristic adventurousness by Wendy Knox, is presented in two parts, which you can take in piecemeal over Friday and Saturday nights. Or, if you're medically immune to restlessness, you can attend the five-hour Sunday matinee, as I did, an experience that by the home stretch made me feel something like a full-bladdered toddler in the longest Rainbow Foods line ever.
The show is mainly drawn from Sicilian folktales originally collected in the 19th century by Swiss-German researcher Laura Gonzenbach. These important but little-known stories were first translated into English in a recent volume by Zipes, a professor of German at the University of Minnesota and one of the world's leading authorities on folklore and children's literature. These fairy tales, however, are not for children. The first involves a dispirited princess (Annie Enneking) whose long streak of mirthlessness is broken when she overhears a hag (Maria Asp) rebuking a punk (Alex Morf). The crone's fusillade of invective is profane enough to make George Carlin's seven-dirty-words routine sound like a Jim Nabors sing-along.
Offended by the princess's apparent mockery, the hag curses her, which sends the lass on a long quest for the prince who can free her from the hex. Not long into her journey, she witnesses a bound prince (Morf) being raped by three whip-wielding thugs. Later stories involve an ass that appears to shit money, and a ménage à trois involving two sisters and a very foul-mouthed lothario. The gruesome violence isn't far from the Brothers Grimm, but the graphic sex and potty humor is. Also atypical in these tales is a strong feminist streak, or at least a taste for equal-opportunity sadism. There are no helpless female victims here, and as many crafty and bloodthirsty women as there are men. Most notably, the stories rarely are moralistic, nor do they end happily.
Most of the time, in fact, they don't end so much as stop. Often in the middle of one story, a character will begin a new tale, and then another, until the production becomes a sort of narrative house of mirrors. Enneking and Morf tackle a host of discrete yet connected characters. (Among the remaining nine players, Frank regular Tom Sherohman is an excellent jack-of-all-trades who's especially hilarious as an easily gulled baron.) The effect is something like one story told a hundred different ways, or a hundred stories rolled into one. As should be expected on opening weekend of a show with this many words, there were a number of bungled lines, but on the whole this is a smooth and often quite funny production.
Still, for a piece this epic in proportion, there's not much tension or much of an emotional arc to sustain things into the fourth quarter. Despite its many charms and admirable audacity, I'm not convinced that Sicilian Nights needs to be this long. Couldn't there be one or three fewer songs, three or eight fewer tales, one or three fewer hours?
Getting back to Auden and Romeo and Juliet, director Ethan McSweeny's take on the Occident's Most Famous Play is never boring and usually out of step with the universal norm. If you feel you've been overexposed to these boundlessly soulful lovers (or horny, impetuous goofs), you might ask yourself: Have I ever seen Romeo and Juliet played on and around 500 pieces of scaffolding, or with a queer, leather-suited, scooter-riding Mercutio (Karl Kenzler in a loopy, oversized performance), or one in which the outer stage is strewn with two tons of shredded recycled tires?
In terms of design, and in some of its secondary performances, this is an outstanding production. McSweeny has placed the action in a mysterious place, a simultaneously dilapidated and glamorous construction site/abandoned movie theater, and he and the design team have created a hip temporal salad. There are sword fights and gun blasts, hints of period costume and three-piece linen suits, readings that would sit comfortably in a conservative American Shakespeare production, and servants who sound like Bill & Ted-era Keanu Reeves.
What there isn't enough of, unfortunately, is passion or creativity in the lead roles. Patch Darragh has an aw-shucks quality that does fine at capturing Romeo's callowness and naïveté. But as the tragedy unfolds, the interpretation feels too light, and one wonders if this Romeo is the sort of lad who would stub his toe for love, much less kill himself. Christine Marie Brown's Juliet runs deeper, but with her as well, we don't see quite enough of the necessarily hasty maturation that can give the play's latter half its full impact.
Where the acting really shines, where the language is musical, poetic, and conversational, is in performances by three Guthrie mainstays. Richard Iglewski's well-meaning but bumbling and cowardly Friar Laurence is like a photographic negative of Lear's jester: the foolish wise man. As the volatile Capulet, Stephen Pelinski is like a cross between Fred MacMurray and Benito Mussolini. The only trouble spot in this performance is his reaction to Juliet's false death, which builds so slowly as to seem implausibly flat.
And while Stephen Yoakam (chorus, Escalus, apothecary) doesn't have a lot to do, his spotlight moments are among the production's most incisive. His raincoated figure, often lurking in the background, provides an ominous symbol of the story's rush toward doom and sorrow (or toward eternal Tantric bliss on heaven's king-sized futon).