Corrections or additions?
This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the September 26,
2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
To a professional critic (I have been one myself) theater-going is
the curse of Adam. The play is the evil he is paid to endure in the
sweat of his brow; and the sooner it is over, the better. (From the
preface to "Saint Joan," by George Bernard Shaw.)
It is quite possible that there is a member or two of the New Jersey
Shakespeare Festival who feels kinship with Jean-Baptiste Poquelin,
a 21-year-old law student who had little or no qualms about
chucking his studies and running off to join a struggling theatrical
repertory company. Since an actor’s inspiration can tend to be as
ephemeral as his career, any fellow artist’s triumph over seemingly
insurmountable odds can serve as reassurance and support, even if the
triumph occurred over 300 years ago. I’m referring to a young
whippersnapper who lost little time taking over as star and director
of the drama company and author of its plays. Not stopping at that, he
changed his name to Moliere, married the leading lady, and with his
brilliance soon won the heart and patronage of King Louis XIV.
Since royal patronage is hard to come by these days, a classical
repertory company has to make sure that it is putting its best foot
forward for their sponsors and supporters. It has to demonstrate that
its contribution is as vital and important an experience in the
development of actors as it was in Moliere’s time.
Moliere certainly had his problems with "Tartuffe." At its premiere
King Louis XIV gave the play the equivalent of an "X" rating and
refused it license for further performances. Condemned by the Catholic
hierarchy, Moliere’s ferocious attack on religious hypocrisy provoked
such violent reactions from the French Parliament and clergy that the
play and the theater were closed. Only by later changing the play’s
name to "the Imposter" could it find deserved success.
Would that an X rating be affixed this condemnable NJSF staging, not
for its content, but for so much unacceptable acting, sloppy
direction, and the lack of care and control of this staging. The play
opened Saturday, September 15, and performances continue through
Sunday, September 30.
With most of the first act spent waiting for Tartuffe’s entrance,
which we know from experience is akin to the second coming, the
besieged household is given time to inform us on just how each one
feels about the presence in their home of this pious hypocrite. Oh,
that the wait — with one exception — would have been shorter given
the painful and perfunctory delivery of the great Richard Wilber’s
verse translation. The exception is Craig Wallace, as brother-in-law
Cleante, whose clear, precise, and mercifully believable performance
was almost unsettling.
Ceremoniously and mysteriously, by way of either the French doors of
an upstairs gallery, or rising from a trap door in the parlor, Daniel
Oreskes, as Tartuffe, enters and peers at us languorously as though at
the end of a night’s stupor. This he will do with the other actors
throughout the evening, his unctuous presence supported by his
slightly tilted head and fey demeanor, as he puts the move on the
housemaid Dorine, and her mistress Elmire. More often than not, and
through no fault of anyone else, Oreskes has the effect of diminishing
rather than dominating the action.
The play’s descent is done with remarkable swiftness; each bit of
business, every expression (that includes almost everyone) tends to
indicate a lack of technique, style, and anything resembling character
involvement. When laughter is begged, comedy loses its fun. But what
are we to expect of Oreskes after an opening monologue by Judith
Roberts, as Madame Pernelle, that exemplifies what is best described
as the nadir of versifying; call it terrifying. What are we to make of
so many of the actors who, under the guidance of director Paul
Mullins, make it their mission to stress only the rhyming word in a
couplet. Didn’t these actors ever hear of trusting rather than
indicating the text? The result is numbing. And what are we to make of
Mullins’ vision to pose people in straight or diagonal lines, have
them walk through imaginary walls, rarely connect to one and other,
and to generally disregard the subtleties that can mark a character
and the opportunities for an audience to observe the ironic, satiric,
yet substantial, subtext of Moliere’s masterpiece.
One has a right to hope that the family that Tartuffe has ensnared
will have much to contribute, or so it seemed in the past. Oblivious
to the deception the father Orgon (Wally Dunn) tries and fails, thank
goodness, to convince his wife, son, daughter, brother-in-law, and
servant of Tartuffe’s piety and sincerity. It is his family’s attempt
to make him see the light that is the crux of the play. As a victim of
this staging, the boorishly consigned Dunn matches Oreskes in making
his presence unpleasant. But together they can’t offset the affront to
the text that gives Leslie Geraci, as Dorine, her raison d’etre.
As the daughter Mariane, whom Orgon wants to marry off to Tartuffe
instead of her real sweetheart Valere, curly-coifed Mia Barron made a
commendable attempt at simple-mindedness. Jeffrey Binder’s Valere was
distinguished in that he appeared to be conveying a stylishly comic
intent. Credit Binder and Barron with bringing the play to a robust
and rollicking life, if only for a brief moment, in the lover’s feisty
Tamara Tunie’s performance as Orgon’s wife, cannot be faulted for its
earnestness, but her charm was as indistinct as it was distant, making
the famous seduction scene with Oreskes arch and uncomfortable. Maybe
Mullins’ direction failed to inspire in his cast any signs of flair,
esprit de corps, or elan, but it sure instigated what looks like a
rebellion from Cameron Roberts, whose hideous collection of
contemporary clothes did little to offset the ugliness of Michael
Schweikardt’s fleur-de-lis flocked setting.
I couldn’t help but think that this production looks a lot like a
throwback to some of the festival’s bad old days when mediocrity
prevailed. A final word to NJSF: too many second-rate actors are
coming back again and again, season after season. There’s a large pool
of talent out there, both fresh and seasoned. Everyone connected with
the festival should try to get to McCarter Theater to see its current
production of "Romeo and Juliet." That’s the kind regional theater
production that helps us weather the storms and the worst that the
world has to offer.
— Simon Saltzman
Avenue, Madison, 973-408-5600. $26 to $32. Performances continue
through September 30.
Review: `A Chorus Line’
It is hard to believe that 10 years have passed since
the Paper Mill Playhouse last staged "A Chorus Line," only
a few months after the musical ended its 15-year run on Broadway.
That so many of us can still respond to the passionately shared
life stories of dancers says something about the durability of this,
one of the most emotional musicals you are ever likely to see.
For those not in tune with the difficulties that mark the life of
the gypsy artist, the musical will feel like a music and dance
group therapy session. In many ways it is, as expressed by the show’s
director Baayork Lee, Connie in the original cast: "It important
that the audience realized that those people on stage are portraying
real lives — that most of the original cast members were speaking
about themselves." Another approach, and the one I take, is to
view it as a series of lyrically developed, overlapping confessionals
that have been fused into a genuinely impassioned show biz story.
These special "gypsies," originally a group of handpicked
proteges of Michael Bennett (who conceived, choreographed, and
them in a workshop initiated project) came to be the subject of one
of the most extraordinary successes in Broadway history. During its
record-breaking run of 6,137 performances at the Shubert Theater,
the musical nurtured quite a galaxy of performers who have since
Lee, who is a noted keeper-of-the-flame, having re-staged the show
many times throughout the world, is repeating the task she did for
Paper Mill’s 1991 production. And, once again, designer Robin Wagner’s
original mirrored settings have been faithfully reproduced, as have
the costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge.
There was a profound motivation and a dazzling concept behind "A
Chorus Line" that seemed to break with all precedent. Lee’s
continues to reflect the sure hand of someone who cares deeply, even
if some of the principals may not seem now as vivid and unforgettable
as were those who were there at the beginning. If this production
is marked by anything, it is the ensemble dancing, certainly a major
Even before its authors James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante had begun
to give a dramatic structure to the hours of revealing taped
between the director and the dancers, Bennett was rehearsing his
company in a provocatively conceptualized audition process. Added
to this was Marvin Hamlisch’s (best) score (with dynamic lyrics by
Edward Kleban). It is a score that remains an evocative ear-opener.
Particularly now that we have seen on Broadway just last season "A
Class Act," the Tony-nominated musical that told Kleban’s show-biz
story, the lyrics resonate with even more punch.
Lee continues the process, as does the character of the director
the musical. He is Zach, the demanding and aggressive choreographer
who leads the dancers through the demanding routines and also, often
painfully, out of their defensive emotional shells. Amazingly, the
funny-and-sad stories weave effectively through the music and dance
sequences with a strong central narrative thrust.
Even the strongly characterized Zach’s (given a thick-skinned
portrayal by Mark Bove) emotional involvement with Cassie (Caitlin
Carter), as revealed through the dance-spotlighted "The Music
and the Mirror" is designated as just another one of the show’s
more emotionally wrenching episodes. Carter is not only touching but
terrific as Zach’s former lover and the "special" dancer who
has tried unsuccessfully to become a star but who now wants
to get this job in the chorus.
The success of any "Chorus Line" must be measured by the
of its individual performers, as well as by its collective brilliance.
In this case, Kim Shriver comes on strong and aggressively sexy as
Sheila. Cindy Marchionda, as the tennis shoe-tapping Diana, put over
the hit ballad "What I Did for Love," with
overtones. Continuing to be emotionally compelling is the poignant
monologue by Luis Villabon, as the Cyd Charisse-wannabe Paul. Other
performers who stand out include Robert Tunstall, who, as Bobby,
during a low point in his life that "to commit suicide in Buffalo
is redundant," and Brenda Hamilton, who, as Kristine, wanted to
be Doris Day but "I couldn’t sing."
Whatever your reaction to "A Chorus Line," and this is a show
that prompts many different reactions, you won’t deny that this is
a valentine to all the "gypsies" — those relentlessly
committed dancers who appear in show after show, mostly unrecognized
— who train and audition and hope to make it big, but who rarely
ever reach the solo spotlight. One performer who made it big in "A
Chorus Line" is Donna McKechnie, who played Cassie in the original
production. She will be appearing at the Paper Mill Playhouse in her
acclaimed solo act "Inside the Music" in a special one-night
only concert on Tuesday, October 2.
— Simon Saltzman
$29 to $59. To October 14.
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