April 20th, 2016

Village Playhouse of Wauwatosa, “The Skin of Our Teeth”

On Friday evening, April 15th, we went to the Inspiration Studios performance space to see the Village Playhouse of Wauwatosa’s production of Thornton Wilder’s 1942 play, “The Skin of Our Teeth.” I was curious to see it, because it is a famous play in American letters, and won Wilder a Pulitzer Prize. Unfortunately, the play has not aged well, in my opinion.

The play concerns the Antrobus family, who, in the play’s present day, reside in a pleasant residential neighborhood in New Jersey. Mr. Antrobus works in New York—inventing the alphabet, multiplication tables, and the wheel. It soon appears that Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus (Robert A. Zimmerman and Joyce Sponcia) are more than 5000 years old. They may or may not be “Adam and Eve”, but they have a son, Cain (now known as “Henry”) (Scott Sorenson), who long ago killed his brother with a thrown stone. Henry, who seems a bit simple-minded, has anger issues and a slingshot, with which he is deadly dangerous. “Henry” has a scar on his forehead that he must keep covered or fear his father’s wrath. Whether Henry/Cain was injured by his brother and lashed out at him, or by his father in punishment is not revealed. They also have a younger daughter, named Gladys (Jordyn Stewart).

The household is completed by their maid of all work, Sabina (Alexis Fielek), pet dinosaur, and a woolly mammoth that Sabina is expected to milk as part of her duties.

Wilder breaks the “fourth wall” repeatedly in this play, beginning early on with Sabina’s monologue, in which she confesses to us she has no idea what the play is about and doesn’t understand a word of it. We are also occasionally reminded that it IS a play, as when the put-upon stage manager (Jessie Barr0 dashes across the stage in response to a “missed” entrance.
The New Jersey of 1949 is a mélange of times. Not only is Antrobus’ seemingly anachronistic work of value, a glacier is threatening New York, and Antrobus takes in refugees who include Moses and Homer.

The first act in particular seems heavily influenced by the “funny papers” and radio comedies of the forties. Antrobus is supposedly a domestic tyrant that all live in fear of, but the shrewish Mrs. Antrobus runs the house. Although Henry and Gladys are over four thousand years old, they are infantilized by their parents treatment and remain eternal children. The “Bickersons”-style dialog between Mr. and Mrs. May have been funny back then, but it just struck me as depressingly abusive. After dishing out expository lumps, the act ends with pointless noisy chaos.

The second act has the plot of a classic sex farce, or would have, if there were actually any sex. The glacier having receded, the Antrobus family is in Atlantic City on holiday, where Antrobus (whose list of inventions now includes beer) has been elected President of the Loyal Order of Mammals. As we have found, Sabina was at one time Antrobus’ second wife, whom he “brought back from the Sabines,” and, for a time exalted over Mrs. Antrobus. However, Antrobus returned to the mother of his children and reduced Sabina to the status of servant. She is scheming to win him back, disguised as “Miss Fairweather,” a beauty pageant winner. Her cynical speech to Antrobus to the effect that most people are straw men and pretend to have emotions although they really don’t, is one of the more biting bits of the play. She’s succeeding in her purpose, too, until the actress flatly refuses to perform the sex scene, resulting in a debate on stage.

After it’s decided to continue as though the scene had gone on, the act ends with a hurricane warning escalating to “end of the world” level, and the Antrobus family takes shelter in a large ship, along with numerous pairs of other mammals, thus bringing the Noah story into the mix. One intriguing character in this act is the boardwalk fortune teller (Scott Stenstrup) who claims to infallibly tell the (usually dire) future from faces, but declares, “if anyone says he can tell you the past, he is a charlatan.”

The third act is the most powerful and effective. It is seven years later, and the world, including New Jersey, has been devastated by war. Sabina, Henry, and Mr. Antrobus have all gone off to fight, with Henry and his father on opposing sides. Peace has been declared at last, and one by one, the fighters return home. Sabina comes first, finding that Mrs. Antrobus and Gladys, who now has a baby, have been living a wretched existence using the basement as a bunker. As Mrs. Antrobus begins preparing the house for her husband’s return (and dragooning Sabina back into her subservient role) Sabina sighs that she actually liked the war.

Enter Henry, weary and hungry, the scarred place on his forehead freshly bloodied. No longer a dullard, Henry/Cain is fully awake, a mature warrior, and angry. They give him food, and he falls asleep. Antrobus (the inventor of gunpowder) enters, drawing his gun. He has a bloody bandage over the same spot on his forehead, his own “mark of Cain.” In the scene that follows, Henry demands that Antrobus kill him. He repudiates his family, wanting no father, no mother, no sister, only wanting to be alone—in death. Antrobus declares that “it’s easier to fight you than live with you. War is a pleasure compared to what faces us now.” Antrobus wavers, until Henry throws himself at Antrobus’ throat. It’s only when the stage manager joins the rest of the cast intervening that we realise that this isn’t in the supposed script—the “actor” playing “Henry” is having a flashback to abuse suffered by him at the hands of his own father.

This was by far the most striking sequence in the play, and an excellent acting job by Scott Sorenson, who made juvenile Henry, warrior Henry, and “actor” Henry three distinct voices.
When things settle down, the play ends where it began, with Sabina preparing the house for Antrobus’ arrival from work, saying to the audience, “this is where you all came in, we have to go on for ages and ages yet. You can all go home, you see, the end of the play isn’t written yet.”
All the actors did a fine job with the material, presenting a lively and energetic production, with some high drama in the third act. The Village Playhouse made very creative use of the limited facilities available at Inspiration Studios, the minimalist set being a frequent choice for this show based on what I’ve looked up. So, it’s kind of a glass-half-full situation—getting a good presentation of a play I didn’t care for. Kudos to the Village Playhouse for their artistic efforts, not so much for choice of vehicle.

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The Met in HD: Roberto Devereux

On Saturday afternoon, April 16th, we went to see the Metropolitan Opera simulcast of Gaetano Donizetti’s bel canto opera, Roberto Devereux. The story, by librettist Salvadore Cammarano, is very loosely based on the final days of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who was convicted of treason and beheaded in the reign of Elizabeth the First of England.

This romantic tragedy assumes that there was a deep passionate relationship between Devereux (sung by Matthew Polanzani) and the Queen (historically, he was a favorite for a time, but doubtful if more than that). Devereaux has been recalled from a military expedition against rebels in Ireland and charged with treason over his mishandling of the job. Parliamentary enemies, lead by Prime Minister Robert Cecil, Lord Burghley, have convicted him, but the Queen’s signature on his warrant of execution is required.

The Queen (Sondra Radanovsky) summons Devereux to a private audience. She guesses, correctly, that his affections have lit on another woman. She offers Devereux a deal, that she will pardon him if he tells her who her rival is.  Devereux, fearing the Queen’s vengeance on the woman he loves, denies that he is in love with anyone. Stung, the Queen bids him leave and to think further.

Devereux goes directly to the house of Sarah, Duchess of Nottingham (Elena Garanca), the wife of his best friend, and the woman he is in love with. Sarah advises him to forget her and flee England. He agrees, and she gives him a token, a blue silk scarf embroidered with gold. In turn, he leaves with her a ring given him by the Queen as a sort of “get out of jail free” card.

Devereux’s loyal friend, Nottingham (Mariuz Kwiecen), argues on Devereux’s behalf to the Queen, but cannot get her to agree to excuse him. Devereux has been taken into custody, and the love token found in his possession. The Queen confronts Devereux with it in the presence of Nottingham, who recognizes it as his wife’s handiwork. Furious, he declares that he will have vengeance. Once again, the Queen demands to know the name of her rival. Devereux refuses, and she signs the death warrant, ordering his execution the following noon.

At home, Nottingham confronts Sarah, and orders his serving men to keep her from leaving so that she can’t take the ring he has found to the Queen.

In the tower, Devereux expects a messenger with his pardon to arrive any time. He hopes to live to prove that his love for Sarah was platonic and restore her reputation. Instead, the guards come to take him to the block.

The Queen has sent for Sarah to attend her which Nottingham has to allow. When Sarah arrives, she presents the ring to the Queen, and confesses that she is the rival for Roberto’s affections. Nottingham gloats that he is responsible for the arrival being to late to save Devereux, who has by then been executed. Raging, the Queen blames both of them for Devereux’s death, and calls down curses and punishments upon them. Declaring James of Scotland to be her heir, in this production, she dies.

The opera is here staged as a play within the opera, a memorial performed before Elizabeth’s tomb. There is an on-stage audience of Elizabethan courtiers, who are the chorus and supernumeraries as required.

The role of Elizabeth is a tour de force for Ms. Radanovsky, who this season has completed the difficult “hat trick” of performing the leading roles in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda; the so-called “three queens.” The role of Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux is a particularly difficult one, requiring great range and rapid fluctuations from high to low and back again. Ms. Radanovsky sang the role beautifully, not only with power and passion, but marvelous skill and control. She also acted exceptionally well. By the time of Roberto Devereux, Elizabeth was sixty-nine years old and suffering with an arthritic hip. Given her looming costumes, vampirically pale makeup, and lurching gait, Ms. Radanovsky makes Elizabeth a sort of Bride of Frankenstein haunting her palaces, monstrous without, as her ego and anger make her monstrous within.

Voicewise, she is well matched by the other principals, who make the most of Donizetti’s beautiful music. The duets between Sarah and Roberto, Roberto and the Queen, and Sarah and Nottingham, are particularly fine, as is Devereux’s aria in the tower, Come uno spirto angelico.

We thoroughly enjoyed this performance, which was excellent in all ways. The staging worked well, the costumes were beautiful, and the orchestra, conducted by Maurizio Benini, flawless to our ears.


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