ver the past year this writer has traveled up and down the byways of the northeast American corridor to see a variety of theatre productions: Gogol's The Inspector General (Revisor) by the Alexandrinsky Theatre (Valery Fokin, director), Synge's The Playboy of the Western World by the Abbey Theatre (Ben Barnes, director), K.I. From "Crime" by the Moscow New Generation Theatre starring Oksana Mysina, and, most recently, Goldoni's Arlecchino: Servant of Two Masters by the Teatro Piccolo (Giorgio Strehler, original director). Along with these productions, I've witnessed a series of American productions as well in theatres from Baltimore to New York.
In watching these performances, my mind has been searching for ways to describe the comparisons and contrasts between the visiting productions and the work of our actors closer to home. In a sense any comparison is unfair. One or two particular productions may not serve as a truly representative sample – these tours represent some of the best work of these countries' best artists. If we sampled the larger portions of theatre in any country, I'm sure we'd discover a wide range of performance from the mediocre to the fantastic.
Nevertheless, certain traits or facets keep cropping up as I watch these shows, which suggest certain things about acting we might think about in America.
First, each of these 'visiting' shows displayed the importance of relaxation in acting. I'm certain that every acting teacher and coach provides instruction in relaxation. And I'm certain that every actor works on coming from relaxation in some way. But these shows show the results of an entire company being relaxed in their own bodies and relaxed in the work of the ensemble.
When I was a very young person, I had the pleasure of seeing/hearing a very old Eubie Blake play the piano. In watching those tendril-like fingers glitter over the keyboard, it appeared that Eubie simply chose to sit on a bench that just happened to be facing a keyboard. And his fingers danced. There was no more work involved in his playing than the work of sitting on a bench. Of course, I didn't see the untold years of practice, playing, and performing that led to his ability to just sit and play – I just saw the finished product.
This ability of 'visiting' productions to achieve a level of relaxation with each other is something American productions rarely achieve. I have argued before and will argue again that the USA's practice of the ad hoc company for each production works against the development of this kind of relaxation in a group of American actors. We forget, for example, that Shakespeare writes Hamlet for Richard Burbage after playing opposite Burbage day in and day out for at least six years. Shakespeare could see his acting partner's strengths and weaknesses and could use them to best effect in his play.
While watching the members of Teatro Piccolo I was struck by how well relaxed and comfortable they were in space new to them, doing a show in a language foreign to the majority of the audience. The various masked actors – Enrico Bonavera (Brighella), Giorgio Bongiovanni (Pantalone), and Paolo Calabres (il Dottore) – showed great physical and vocal ease. The master, Ferruccio Soleri as Arlecchino, showed the benefits of physical training – pulling off amazing physical comedy stunts at full energy even though he's at least in his late 60s. The company's common relaxation allowed for a performance of great confidence and power.
Second, each of the 'visiting' shows possessed an acting style that embodied great simplicity or naïveté. This has always been difficult for me to describe. So, what did I mean by that? The acting was so simple and so naïve that an audience member couldn't imagine the actor saying or doing anything other than what the actor is doing and/or saying at that moment. For example, Arlecchino accidentally swallowed a nibble of bread he wanted to use for another purpose. So, naturally, he got a piece of string from his pocket, knotted it, swallowed one end of it, and "fished out" the moist piece of bread to seal a letter. What else could he have done?
The appropriate audience response to simple or naïve acting is always "Well, of course" or "Of course that's what I or anybody would do." Simple acting is difficult because the naïveté creates its own logic that is simultaneously pleasurable and inevitable.
Again, certainly every actor works to be "in the moment" and have that kind of simplicity. Nevertheless, this trait doesn't seem to be in evidence equally in the 'home' companies. (A digression: I have seen this trait in whole American companies, but they were companies of students who knew each other over a period of time and worked together over a period of time and produced material that personally connected with each company in question. But I digress . . . .) Even in the best professional companies, the feeling of simplicity sometimes gets clouded by a desire to please the crowd. Pleasing the crowd is not a bad thing. But if a musical, say, has some company members who have an inner game of "You're-going-to-love-this"-eagerness – sometimes that eager aura can mask the simplicity of the work. For example, David Hyde Pierce provides this kind of simplicity as Sir Robin in Monty Python's Spamalot (note to the Tony Award committee – he was robbed). But that simplicity isn't shared across the board. Or there might be a lack of depth "in the bench" of casting experienced actors. Consequently, some actors might not have the ability to relax and create simplicity. Instead the audience sees strain and work.
Finally, one thing that compares strongly across the work of the 'visiting' companies is their great boldness in their physical choices. At the end of K.I. from "Crime" Oksana Mysina is swinging on a ladder suspended from the ceiling and pounding on that ceiling. A character in The Inspector General simply pulls on a piece of hanging scenery to give the impression of the swirling room inhabited by a group of hung-over men. Naturally, in a piece of commedia dell'arte, the actors in Servant of Two Masters did amazing physical comedy. This trait very rarely appears in 'home' companies (and rarely in American actors – in my experience).
Not long ago before a performance, I saw another cast member's small child walking backstage. I commented to a friend that small children have this amazing capacity for exploration and pleasure at discovery. Just walking across a backstage to see some new thing creates such zest for the child that the child's body can scarce keep up with the child's head and hands. And every small child I've seen has been willing to sing and dance quite openly. I wondered what happened to that capacity as people age. (Theseus and Peter Quince discussing child-rearing – well, why not?) My colleague commented that he saw himself doing that every now and again while instructing his children to be polite and quiet in public, etc.
(Let me quickly add I don't want to suggest that children shouldn't be polite and shouldn't know when to be considerate of others with appropriate noise levels.)
Also, anyone who has been in the USA and another country will realize that we are a very orderly society. We zone and tame and categorize our land, our lives, our religion. Oh, we have our rangy elements, but even that seems to be fairly well sectionized. Our society prizes hard work and competition and getting ahead – all fine things, but none of which may have much to do with creating art.
So a level of physical timidity roots itself in our stage acting. For example, I think Kevin Kline will be the best Falstaff I'm likely to see in my life -- an amazing performance that I truly love. His Oscar-winning work in A Fish Called Wanda, though, shows more physical imagination. Now, some readers might leap to the conclusion that difference may be simply explained by the difference in characters. I would argue against that conclusion. Even allowing for the difference in characters, one might show a wider range of physical expressiveness that Kline did as Falstaff.
(Another digression: I suggest that American film acting is much more physically expressive than American stage acting. And largely due to the amount of physically expressive movement necessitated by effects work and extreme action. The summer blockbuster season from Star Wars to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory bear this out.)
And overall, I think there's a not-so-hidden layer of timidity in American theatre generally. In our effort to please, we seem to be afraid of doing something "wrong." Something "wrong" could be choosing the "wrong" show, giving the show the "wrong" interpretation, making the "wrong" choice as an actor, etc, etc, etc, etc. I think the desire for respectability and money leads subtly (and not-so-subtly) to an over-willingness to please. Pleasing an audience is fine, and I'm certainly not making an argument against making money. But those factors shouldn't limit us as much as it does, I think.
For example, a little thing. At the end of The Inspector General, before the rest of the company entered for curtain call, the actors playing Khlsetakov and Osip entered with chairs and sat directly facing the audience with a gaze of extreme disinterest, if not outright hostility. The actors sat there regarding the audience with a look of boredom bordering on contempt throughout the rest of the company's curtain call. For their bow, the two actors simply picked up their chairs and walked upstage. I'd be willing to bet that not many American companies would end a show in which the main character watched the audience almost with a challenge.
Or, I've seen many fine productions of Servant of Two Masters. But American companies tend to work from the premise of showing the audience a single-focused work (and even that seems beyond some companies). So it seems bold when the Teatro Piccolo has several layers of focus working throughout the show – each layer confident on its own, but also coordinated amazingly with the other areas of focus as well – an argument between the prompter and an actor just off the acting platform while another scene proceeds on the acting platform while some musicians are getting ready while . . . .
Perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps the American theatre is bolder than I make it out to be. But I don't think so.
What we can get from our visiting colleagues is the call to lose our fears as artists. Someone might say, "But, Uncle Nathan, they've got it easy, they've got a subsidy. They've got. . . . They've got. . . ." Yes, our circumstances are different. Theatre is a labor-intensive economic challenge. But you're fooling yourself if you think making theatre in any circumstances is easy. It's all a challenge.
Our challenge is to proceed fearlessly.
[The American premiere of the Alexandrinsky Theatre's production of The Inspector General by Nikolai Gogol and directed by Valery Fokin played on the campus of Bard College July 8-11, 2004. This performance was part of Bard College's summer festival looking at Shostakovich and his world.
The Abbey Theatre included a world tour as part of its centennial in 2004. On tour, they performed The Playboy of the Western World by J. M. Synge and directed by Ben Barnes. It was performed at the Zellerbach Theatre at the Annenberg Center for the Arts in Philadelphia, PA.
Audiences around the world have had an amazing experience witnessing Oksana Mysina in K.I. from "Crime." This is basically a one-woman . . . . "show" is too lame a description. . . force of nature. The production derives from a section of Dosotoyevsky's novel Crime and Punishment. The production was directed and designed by Kama Ginkas and was presented at the Foundry Theatre in New York City in January of 2005.
Members of the Teatro Piccolo opened a limited tour of the USA 20 July 2005 in Alice Tully Hall in New York City's Lincoln Center for the Arts. Their show was Arlecchino: Servant of Two Masters (Arlecchino: servitore di due padroni) by Carlo Goldoni and originally directed by Giorgio Strehler. This performance marked the first tour of America by the Teatro Piccolo since 1960.]