Stand By Your Man


Royal National Theatre

Clown Noir: If the Gumshoe Fits

MC2 Mask & Clown Company

          OVER THE PAST several weeks of theatergoing, from A Doll's House to Dimly Perceived Threats to the System to The Sound of a Voice to Hard Times to the hyper-hyped Broadway revival of Carousel now touring the country, I've been surprised at how urgently we are still asking the question, "Just what the hell are women supposed to be?" The articulation of feminism around the turn of the century was only an antecedent shout in this debate, and no matter what some women's studies professors might say, the debate is as much about men as women: Indeed, these plays, all good, were written by men. Carousel is the least enlightening work of the lot, and that's the fault of the current production as much as the original script, written in 1945.

          Admittedly, Rodgers and Hammerstein couldn't have cooked up more difficult roles than the leads, Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow. These two don't know how to talk to each other; their relationship, like the entire play, is about all the things that go unsaid between people--the "I love you"s and "I'm scared"s that, unspoken, slowly make things come unglued. Unless the actors dive into the depths beneath the silence, these characters come off, as they do here, like barely two-dimensional caricatures.

          Carousel was groundbreaking theater for its day, dealing with poverty, social inequality, and spousal abuse. Based on the play Liliom by Hungarian Ferenc Molnár, it follows the plight of Julie, a young mill worker who marries Billy, a carnival barker. He turns out to be an abusive, noncommunicative, financially dependent louse, but Julie lives by the Tammy Wynette creed. She represents an old male fantasy: noble, long-suffering, and strong, but only in her faithfulness to her man. After a hard day's rape and pillage, she's the source of comfort and redemption he comes home to.

          In Royal National Theatre's production, we never quite know what director Nicholas Hytner makes of all this. Is it a cautionary tale about male dominance? A reinforcement of traditional roles? A celebration of virtue's triumph over sin? A commentary on the dangers of poor communication? A warning to all abusive jerks? At points, it seems like each.

          To my mind, Carousel works best as a tragedy about all the ways men and women fail to connect, epitomized by physical abuse. In one scene that almost suggests this interpretation, Julie and her girlfriends are discussing their beaux, and she sings a quiet explanation of why women must tolerate men's folly: "He's your fella and you love him. That's all there is to that." For a split second I detected an ironic, mournful note in her voice, and for that moment she was interesting, real. Then it was gone.

          This kind of tiptoeing around intent ruins the show. If nothing seems believable among the supposed harsh realism of the first act, by the time the supernatural second act arrives, we're thoroughly bewildered. Symbolism is also used awkwardly--for example, a scrim is emblazoned with what looks like a solar eclipse. Very cool. But except for its circular form (like a carousel, see?), it feels foreign to the play. To make things worse, the sets are oddly fake looking, when they're not merely drab. If fakery were one of the play's themes, all of this might mean something. Instead it's a distraction.

          Actor Patrick Wilson isn't confusing at all. He plays Billy so straight we have no reason to care for him--he's a jerk, period. But just to prove that brilliance pops up when least expected, Claudia Alfieri, the dancer who plays Billy and Julie's daughter Louise, appears near the end to awaken us with the intelligence, sexuality, joy, and vulnerability of her dancing. At one point Julie tells her that when someone loves you, it doesn't hurt if they hit you. We're supposed to be touched, but we're not. If this Carousel were remotely convincing, we'd be appalled at best.

          For something completely different, MC2 Mask & Clown Company offers a weird little piece of film-inspired detective buddy theater. Let me try to explain. Using surprisingly evocative masks--the sneering tough guy, the pudding-faced doofus, etc.--two actors dressed like movie detectives imagine themselves caught in a film-noir plane of existence where all the lines are smooth as smoke and love means murder. Except that underneath the masks our boys, Merlot and Speed, are actually clowns, red noses and all (thus the company's title). They spend their days dodging each other's imaginary bullets, pretending to poison each other's whiskey, dancing the tango. Are these actually two gentle freaks in a mental ward? Two guys in the mind of a freak? The funny noirisms--playing with light and shadow using hand-held lights and mirrors, for example--do get a bit long. But then, who ever said comedy was pretty?

          Carousel runs at the Orpheum Theatre through November 24; call 989-5151. Clown Noir is performed at SPACESPACE through November 30; call 872-6708.

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