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By Glenn Loney, February 14, 2002

Glenn Loney
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
[01] Escape To SE Asia
[02] "The Wonder" Is Wonderful
[03] Other Entertainments

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Escape To South-East Asia!

If you are a Regular Reader of this column, you may well have wondered where the New York City theatre-reports for January were hidden. There was a January column, of course, but it dealt with productions of Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame/Queen of Spades mounted in Siberia and in Munich. Among other European theatre-events…

Truth is, December, January, and even early February are now almost effectually Dead Months in Manhattan Theatre. Unless revivals of Christmas Carol and the Radio City Music Hall Xmas Show are your idea of exciting theatre…

As with movie-producers—holding their best new films for release shortly before the Oscar Nominations—so also do Broadway entrepreneurs now wait for the symbolic Rebirth of Spring and hordes of Spring-Break tourists to unveil their Tony Hopefuls.

Even with New York's unusually mild winter, it seemed a good idea to abandon its current theatrical wasteland mid-January for non-theatre adventures closer to the Equator. Your photographer/scribe has just returned from the fabulous ruined temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, a trip to the Golden Triangle, and a trash-free tour of Singapore.

Having shot some 125 rolls of slide & print film—plus some 2,000 digital images with my new top-of-the-line Canon camera—I will soon be able to post a colorful report of this amazing journey on our companion website, New York Museums.com

As the proprietors of Mama Mia! still won't give me the press-privilege to see that much-hyped show—even though, as Secretary of the Outer Critics Circle, I am an Awards Nominator—I returned to Manhattan with nothing much of interest on the horizon.

The idea of reviving Oklahoma! and The Crucible doesn't make my heart beat faster, alas. I remember how both shows turn out, so where's the element of surprise?

One could imagine some relevance of Miller's witch-hunt epic to the activities of the current Attorney-General. Or should this cabinet post be retitled "Witch-Finder General"?

As no one could see the Enron-gate Scandal looming, neither the Shuberts nor the Nederlanders have prepared a Broadway revival which might have some collateral contemporary resonances.

Perhaps Miller could be prevailed upon to rework his greatest American classic drama as Death of an Enron Salesman?

Frankly, considering the current penchant of the White House to brand Entire Nations as EVIL—recalling Ronnie Reagan's Empire of Evil tag-line for the now defunct Soviet Union—a Broadway revival of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial might be very timely.

It could be renamed The Taliban Court-Martial! With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, André Previn, & Maury Yeston!

Fortunately, I was hardly off the plane from Tokyo/Narita when I received an invitation to view an unjustly forgotten 18th Century British comedy at the T. Schreiber Studio.

What's more, it's a wonder of a play, written by a remarkable woman, at a time when it was almost impossible even for male playwrights to get London productions at the Royal Patent Theatres.

The Wonder Is Wonderful—
And Should Be Transferred Off-Broadway!

If you've never heard of Aphra Behn, then you probably won't recognize the name of Susanna Centlivre either. But they were both brilliant and very successful playwrights for the London stage in an age when men customarily called the tune, onstage and off.

Unfortunately, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Restoration & 18 Century British play-anthologies were generally edited by men. So the plays of Centlivre and Behn were overlooked, dismissed, or altogether forgotten.

This is not just an injustice to two talented women artists, but also to those who love the theatre—especially the English Comedies of Manners of Congreve, Wycherley, and Sheridan.

Not only are Centlivre and Behn equal to the playwriting challenges set by Congreve, but their women are also witty foils for the potent, seductive males of a Congreve or a Van Brugh comedy.

What's more, in Centlivre's 1714 The Wonder, for example, women are able to outwit and out-maneuver the men with marvelous zest and excitement.

Centlivre even raises the stakes in her Battle of the Sexes by setting her comedy of mistaken identities, misfired accidental meetings, and epic misunderstandings not in fashionable, self-aware London. But in semi-feudal, class-conscious, morally rigid, and Macho Male Dominated Portugal.

In Lisbon—as in Madrid or Seville—at that time, Honor was Everything to a Man of Noble Birth and Ancient House. This tradition was firmly rooted in the feudal Middle Ages and Roman Catholicism. And it is central to some of Spain's greatest dramas of the Siglo d'Oro, classics by Lope de Vega and Calderon.

This meant that if there was even a suggestion of impugned honor of a wife, daughter, or sister, fathers, husbands, or brothers felt obliged to either kill the unfortunate women or immure them in a convent. All done to save the Honor of the House.

The wonder of the title is that women can keep a secret!

England's great 18th century actor, David Garrick, loved Centlivre's comedy so much he even played it for his 1776 farewell to the stage.

But, as with The Wonder, Garrick's own delightful comedy, The Clandestine Marriage, is also now virtually forgotten.

Instead, we get regular revivals of the far more sentimental comedies of Richard Brinsley Sheridan: School for Scandal and The Rivals.

Great fun in their way, but there's a wide range of lively British period comedies—some of the best by women playwrights!—slumbering on the shelves of major university libraries.

Centlivre's dual heroines in The Wonder are doubly unfortunate, for they have no mothers to guide them. Or to protect them against the avarice of their own fathers!

One is forcing his daughter to marry a rich fool, hoping thereby to enrich himself further. The other would be pleased to consign his daughter to a nunnery in order to keep her fortune for himself.

The resourceful and lovely Violante is in love with the super-sensitive, violently passionate Felix, whose sword has almost dispatched another gallant.

But he's also the brother of Isabella, fleeing from a forced marriage. If he finds her hiding in Violante's closet, his Sense of Honor may provoke him to even greater excesses than his fatuous father.

As Centlivre has her heroines note, even when widowed or orphaned, if they have brothers, they are still subject to the Male Will. Having no rights of their own in the Iberian Peninsula…

To keep her comedy from being totally exotic for London audiences, Centlivre puts a handsome British officer at its center as one of the would-be lovers. Complete with a comic Scots serving-man, with accent to match.

Shakespeare began this tradition of introducing British manners and morals into dramas set in other lands. Shaw also made good use of it in Saint Joan.

Colonel Briton—yes, that's the name Centlivre chose for him!—provides the common-sense English point-of-reference against which all the emotional excesses and broad buffooneries of the Portuguese Grandees and their amorous servants can be measured.

As with the very best of comedies—as well as mystery-dramas—the plot of Centlivre's The Wonder keeps twisting and turning. Just when it seems things are going to work out all right, some unforeseen disaster occurs. But always generated out of character and situation, not devised merely to keep the audience on the edge of its seats. Though her plotting certainly does that.

I had never seen Centlivre's comedy staged, though I had read it and other of her works long ago as a Ph. D. candidate at Stanford University. Where we read rare Restoration and 18th Century dramas and comedies in first editions with cotton-gloves in the Rare Book Room.

As staged by Elizabeth Swain—and acted by a uniformly marvelous cast—at the T. Schreiber Studio, this production of The Wonder is worthy of an Off-Broadway transfer. As are its actors to casting in soon-to-be-mounted new productions of both classic and contemporary plays.

The acting style required for these all-to-infrequently revived British Comedies of Manners is quite different from that ordained by Stanislavski, Stella Adler, and Lee Strasberg. There is no Invisible Fourth Wall for Congreve, Behn, or Centlivre.

Their actors—as in Shakespeare's comedies—often confide directly to the audience. Or allow themselves to be overheard by the spectators, although others on stage do not seem to hear what is being said.

But they don't do this as actors, but as characters. But it is not easy for anyone schooled in Living the Part, to momentarily turn out from the Stage-Picture and talk with the audience. And still remain in character, situation, and period. This takes a special skill that absolutely eluded Lee and Stella.

So it is a pleasure to report that Swain's handsome, talented, and mostly youthful cast prove themselves well worthy of the challenge of the Comedy of Manners.

The only moments which don't ring true—or play very well—are those when some characters are required to laugh heartily. I cringed at these manufactured outbursts. They didn't seem to grow out of character or situation, as they should.

As the volatile Violante, Ami Ankin is not only beautiful and high-spirited, but she's also stalwart in friendship and well able to deal with both male and female hysterics.

Costumers Jamie Sauter & Melissa M. Vieira—ably abetted by the talented wig-master Paul Huntley—have transformed her into a vision of Winterhalter's celebrated portrait of Empress Sissi of Austria.

As Isabella, her sister in marital peril, Elizabeth Alice Murray is much more vulnerable and at hazard. But she plays the role of a sheltered Iberian lady—risking all to escape an intolerable marriage—with energy and wit.

As the two heiresses' destined lovers—Don Felix and Colonel Briton—as imagined by Mrs. Centlivre and staged by Ms. Swain, Brian Avers and Mel England could not be more opposite in temperament.

Felix/Brian is all noble Hispanic sentiment and passion. Briton/England is True Blue, Plain-Spoken, and No-Nonsense. And they are both in face and form very handsome mates for the two lovely ladies!

Also notable in Swain's well-chosen cast are Reed Gazzale as Frederick, Joe MacDougall as the wily and amorous servant Lizzardo, Wry Lachlan as the comic Scots servant, and Aimee Howard and Luisa Tedoff as the maids to Isabella and Violante. J. M. McDonough and Terrence Keene play an avaricious pair of fathers with gusto.

The large cast of 15 fills the wide but all-too-shallow stage of the T. Schreiber Studio at curtain-call. It's good that the playing-area is wide, rather than deep, however, for the only slightly larger audience in this intimate space is also spread out wide-screen-style.

This could not have worked nearly so well in one of those Theatre Row deep, narrow auditorium-stage conformations

Fortunately, Professor Swain—who has also staged admirable revivals of Aphra Behn's The Rover and The Lucky Chance—is expert in bringing Restoration & 18th Century plays to vibrant and engaging life.

She is also an ardent advocate for women having a distinctive voice in Modern American Theatre, Not only as actresses, but also as authors, directors, dramaturgs, and designers.

She is currently on the faculty of Marymount-Manhattan College, teaching acting and directing. As well as at the Schreiber Studio! She earned her acting-spurs in England, on Broadway, and on television. She earned her Ph. D. in Theatre at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Terry Schreiber, his theatre, and his excellent school of theatre used to be firmly anchored in the East Village. Across from LaMaMa… But he's now at 151 West 26th Street. On the seventh floor of an office-building, which unfortunately lacks the streetside visibility of the Village.

Nonetheless, it is well worth the visit. And The Wonder continues to February 24. Comedy of Manners is not the customary fare, however. This production was a real and valuable stretch.

Coming Soon: Bus Stop and Dancing at Lughnasa!

As is the celebration for this year's Schreiber Studio 2002 Outstanding Achievement Award. It is going to Marian Seldes, one of our most distinguished and daring actresses. And also one of our most supportive and inspiring teachers of acting!

Other Entertainments—

Tight deadlines prevent giving Karen Kandel and her Mabou Mines Peter and Wendy all the raves and space she and it deserve. Actually, I did just that some time ago when this remarkable theatre-work was first shown in New York. Since then, I have seen it with renewed awe at theatre-festivals outside the US.

Kandel retells J. M. Barrie's children's classic with magical charm, doing all the voices herself. But Peter Pan, the Lost Boys, Captain Hook, and the Darling Children are all embodied by amusing puppets.

Kandel occasionally manipulates a major figure. But more often, they are brought to life in the manner of the Bunraku Puppet Theatre. But the Mabou Mines handlers are dressed in Victorian White, instead of Japanese Black. Julie Archer designed this luminously white vision.

This welcome return to Manhattan is another New Victory Theatre coup on New 42. It is worthy of a move to Broadway—as was the New Victory's Shock-Headed Peter, which later played in London's West End. Unfortunately, limited engagements and future commitments elsewhere usually prevent such extensions.

Richard Foreman is back at St. Mark's in the Bouwerie with his Ontological Theatre and Maria Del Bosco. Given Foreman's distinctive decors and symbolic non-sequiturs, Maria is vintage imagistic mysticism.

It is too late to catch Israel's Inbal Dance Theatre at LaMaMa. There were only three performances, alas. But the ingenuity and athleticism of the choreographies suggested semitic roots in the Middle Eastern deserts of long, long ago. The Story of Ruth was the most impressive.

Also at LaMaMa is Mario Fratti's Erotic Adventures in Venice. This is set for a run ending on February 24, so there is still time to see it.

It may well be based on fact, for it suggests that Venice's most famous cemetery has been used as a site for kinky sex among the monuments and tombstones.

Unfortunately, the veteran playwright Fratti is being something of a tease, for the audience doesn't get to see anything remotely kinky or sexy. Instead, he offers some comments on the current Italian political scene which obsess him more than the suggested sexual hi-jinx. [Loney]

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Copyright © Glenn Loney 2002. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: jslaff@nytheatre-wire.com.

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