First Comes Love

Hold that pose: Bandit Stephen Yoakam (center) steals a happy, happy ending from the young lovers of The Fantasticks

The Fantasticks
Park Square Theatre

A Month in the Country
Guthrie Theater

It's hard to say when Park Square's production of The Fantasticks formally begins. We barely notice the actors enter, as they chat in their overcoats. The orchestra tunes up stage-left; the Narrator and the Mute, wearing black like good meta-characters should, bring on a rainbow-colored banner with the play's logo. Actors dress themselves, then sit patiently to the side in broadly decorated costumes (see: Dale Pfeilsticker in orange plaid suit, light-blue striped shirt, white bow tie, and white shoes), waiting to take character. Music begins: Our impresario, narrator, and occasional bandit, El Gallo (Stephen Yoakam), in a warm, commanding voice, beckons us into the play with the unabashedly sweet tune "Try to Remember."

For an American musical from 1960, The Fantasticks is much more Brecht and Weill than Rodgers and Hammerstein (a peculiar nature for what has proved the "longest running musical in the world"), and Park Square's director, Gary Gisselman, pursues such theatricality with unchecked delight. We see the world through the romantic eyes of a giddy girl, Luisa (Jennifer Peden). She squeals and swirls her skirt in exhibitionist glee at the forbidden courtship with her next-door neighbor, Matt (a sweet-voiced Wesley Webb, oddly dressed in cords, a pocket-tee, and flannel shirt, looking as if he's left his costume at home and wore the clothes he came in). The two cavort in the watchful presence of the Mute (choreographer Michael Matthew Ferrell) in magician's hat and black unitard; he's part set piece, part stagehand, part silent chorus. And it is the Mute's graceful movements that create the currents the play moves on while he guides the action as unobtrusively as, say, fate.

The production is alienating in some unintentional ways as well. The plot hinges around a segment called "The Rape Ballet"--"rape" used here in its archaic definition as "kidnapping." Calling this word choice "an exception to the show's timelessness" in the 30th-anniversary edition, The Fantasticks authors Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt wrote a song called "Abduction" as an alternative for subsequent productions. The choice to instead perform the original song has earned Park Square some angry phone calls, but the company's considered explanation in its program and the script's own careful setup make the choice seem palatable. Until El Gallo begins to sing:

Rape!/R-a-a-pe!/Raa-aa-aa-pe!/You can get the rape emphatic/You can get the rape polite/You can get the rape with Indians/A truly charming sight

Forget politics. From a purely dramatic standpoint, the word "rape" sung over and over in a jaunty flamenco creates a cognitive dissonance that rips us from the play's world--a dramatic wet blanket not lifted until the second act.

But what a recovery. At intermission, Luisa had found love and "her happy, happy ending," but, as El Gallo tells us, "the play is never done 'til we've all been burned a little." Yoakam flips the cardboard moon over to reveal a harsh sun and, indeed, Matt and Luisa do become burned; the production's giddy atmosphere warps into a gripping macabre cruelty. And our narrator, our trusted guide, has brought all this on through his alter ego, a bandit who steals "fancies, whatever is most precious." For Luisa, and for us, that fancy is youthful romanticism. Peden and Webb, now rendered naturalistically, crawl to each other in the play's wreckage, bruised and finally grown-up.

Naïveté suffers a similar fate in the Guthrie's production of Turgenev's comedy/drama A Month in the Country (as adapted by Irish playwright Brian Friel). Like Luisa, 17-year-old Vera fervently believes in love's pre-eminence and the happy ending. Her fervor fills the stage: As played by Maria Thayer, she is a dash of red locks, untied hair bows, and swirling petticoats. In stark contrast is her guardian Natalya (Kathryn Meisle), wife to the dotty Arkady (Charles Janasz) and object of the affections of Arkady's best friend Michel (Ken Marks). Natalya, suffocated by their love, is effortlessly cruel and imperiously bored. Thayer exists in orbit, while Meisle stays rooted by dolor.

The proto-Chekovian Month in the Country has a tension built on emotions that have been simmering too long--it's a domestic drama amplified to the 10th degree. The Guthrie's production benefits, too, from theatricality; the broad acting style and depth of the stage bring grace and coherence to a world of grand emotions (though the grace is hampered by the tendency of some cast members to speak in a Master Thespian accent). Director Mark Brokaw's staging, from Vera's romping cheer to Natalya's disquieted immovability, is so fluid as to seem actually choreographed. Movement becomes a dance, always expressive and always interesting; with no speech at all, these highly internal conflicts might still be clear.

After Natalya begins to compete with her ward for the attentions of the house's youthful new tutor Aleksey (Jeremy Fonicello), Vera's idealism is shattered and she abandons the hope of love for the actuality of pragmatism. She soon learns Michel's credo--"All love is a catastrophe.... An endless process of shame and desolation and despair..." As the production ends, the only avenue to happiness seems to be ignorance: Janasz's Arkady is a giddily loving chap, barely suspecting his wife's infidelities (it helps that in the world of the idle rich, his character has a hobby). He's filled with joy because he loves without reservation--and there lies the play's lesson. For their abuse at the hands of Natalya, Michel and Arkady are the luckiest of all, because they have allowed themselves love.

The Fantasticks plays at Park Square Theatre through August 23; call 291-7005. A Month in the Country runs at the Guthrie Theater through August 27; call 377-2224.

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