Chairman of the Bard

If I ever question the validity of devoting so much time to theater criticism in a town like this, there's no stronger reassurance than the occasional, sudden privilege of attending a momentous event or meeting a luminary from the world of the stage. Last week I enjoyed the honor of interviewing Charles Marowitz about his variation and direction of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure at New World School of the Arts.

To those who need an introduction, Marowitz as playwright has written nearly a dozen polished comedies, including the witty and successful Sherlock's Last Case, which enjoyed a decent Broadway run. As dramaturge/critic, he wrote for the L.A. Herald Examiner and is currently West Coast correspondent for both Theater Week magazine and The Times of London. From 1968-1980, he was artistic director of The Open Space, one of London's leading experimental theater companies, and during that time, worked with Peter Brook at the Royal Shakespeare Company on such landmarks as the Theatre of Cruelty movement and King Lear with Paul Scofield (dubbed the "Beckett version"). This same man exchanged thoughts with Joe Orton while the master was alive and directed classic works from Frankfurt to Denmark, from the West End to Malibu.

In other words, Marowitz represents the real deal, and incredibly enough, he's come to Miami partly because of New World's reputation but also to see if this burgeoning city could support a classical repertory company. From an area once more comfortable with lesser Neil Simon productions and bungled attempts at crusty farces and drawing-room mysteries, South Florida now commands the consideration of the top tier of stage wonder-workers, grand thinkers of the highest artistic order.

Born in New York and living for the past ten years in Los Angeles, Marowitz feels it might be time to move on. "There's crazy danger now in L.A.," he explains, "people taking potshots at you from roofs just because they're psychopaths." He also cites another Hollywood problem -- unemployed screen actors using the theater merely as showcases for agents, with no respect for the craft. "Too many vanity productions and, even worse, vanity performances," Marowitz says ruefully.

But why did he leave England, the home of Shakespeare, to bring the classics to this country? The answer, like most of Marowitz' explanations, unveils layers of insight. "What's interesting to me is that the Shakespearean spirit is better expressed by the American lifestyle, which is dynamic, active, and emotional, closer to the Elizabethan lifestyle." He adds with a wry smile, "The English have become too buttoned up." He believes that with the proper training and a new approach, American actors and audiences could bring about a classical revival.

Marowitz's variations on Will's works, exemplified by what you'll see in Measure for Measure, certainly embody a new direction. Just don't go expecting the original play, intact. "I've chosen to get into the ring with Shakespeare and take him on," says Marowitz, "to enter into a discourse with the play, rather than imposing a phony stylistic approach divorced from the text." While the director doesn't rewrite the bard, he does revise, restructure, "poke about, break down, and split apart," and in the process, turn the sometimes imponderable into a work more relevant to current values.

"With Measure, I was most interested in the feminist and social aspects, the way women are treated by society and institutions, so I focused the work in that direction." He defends his variations as part of a legitimate dramatic tradition. "The way I see it, what makes a classic a classic is because it has cojones, which means it continually generates new ways of viewing it." Furthermore, he advances the theory that in a play like Measure for Measure -- which changes abruptly from a dark tragedy to a lighter piece -- the script itself may be wrong. "I have this idea that printers, or people taking down the lines in the Old Globe, screwed up the original work."

When he talks about theater itself, Marowitz displays intellectual balls equal to those of a classic. He dismisses plays that consciously intend to educate and elevate yet bore people to tears, proclaiming that "the highest art is very entertaining." He also sees theater as the foundation for all the other arts as well as the contemporary post-modernist media. "It's absurd for plays today to be intimidated by MTV, because theatrical concepts gave birth to MTV in the first place." Although he admits that theatergoers constitute about one percent of the population, he compares dramatic work to a computer virus. "It may be practically invisible, but when it gets into the computer, it affects all of its functions.... Theater is the inescapable virus in the larger cultural picture."

As for new directions, Marowitz would like to see playwrights break out of a rigid mold and work with such newer forms as performance art -- integrating dance, music, and visuals into the total work. Believing that we live in "the most fascinatingly decadent age of all time," he's amazed that more authors are not tackling broader societal subjects, taking a more metaphysical view on where man is headed. "When you live in a society where style is paramount, with no discoveries possible in content, you have decadence."

Thornton Wilder would have agreed, and when he wrote Our Town in 1938, he not only addressed mankind's dilemma but had the cojones to do it in a most creative fashion. Using a virtually bare stage where props must be imaginary, Wilder traced the simple lives of small-town folk to illustrate a complex problem -- that life is essentially wasted on the living. He also showed that during the years from 1901 to 1913, the typical American town -- in this case, a fictional spot in New Hampshire called Grover's Corners -- began to depart from simple pleasures and encounter hints of future nightmares. At the start, the biggest problem is the drunken choirmaster; by play's end, people talk about the growing need to lock their doors at night.

As I watched Our Town -- now opening the new season and reincarnation of the Shores Performing Arts Theater -- I could not forget Marowitz's observations. First of all, classics do need a greater introduction into these parts, if for no other reason than to inspire new local playwrights in the right direction. In spite of slight plot and slighter dramatic action, Wilder's is a work of genius, and few audience members leave the theater unaffected, because they're witnessing a true play, not a live sitcom or a dreary, self-indulgent experiment.

But if Marowitz brings the classics to Miami, he'd better be more careful than the Shores in his selection of actors and director. Some dramatic works can sustain lightweights on stage, but Our Town isn't one of them. Unless you involve artists of Jason Robards-quality, the fragile magic of the piece drowns and what surfaces may indeed evoke boredom.

Director Joe Adler stages the work nicely and sensitively in the traditional way but at the same time commits glaring errors. He combines Wilder's Act One and Two, ruining the timeline effect and making Act One so long I thought Thanksgiving dinner would be prepared by the time we broke for intermission. Wilder wisely divided the three acts at precise places; Adler doesn't exhibit half the sense.

Also, Adler allows actors to make unforgivable mistakes. Pamela Roza as the young, innocent Emily Webb performs tightly and honestly in Act One, but when she cries hysterically (and most unconvincingly) in the pivotal scene at the end of the work, she crowds the audience out. I couldn't feel the deep sorrow Wilder's memory piece is meant to evoke because I was too busy marveling at how Roza could hold a false-sounding tremor in her voice for so long.

Stephen S. Neal in the role of the omnipotent Stage Manager possesses the correct, endearing personality, but he overdoes it with a phony, endearing accent and a nasty habit of chuckling to himself, as though he's too far ahead of the joke. Wilder wrote in the Thirties of a town's decline, but Neal plays it as though the playwright foresaw crack and AIDS. Everyone in the cast seems to be reciting lines in a contrived, sentimental manner. Instead of providing realistic scenes, they give a consciously forced small-town charm. That said, however, Ralph de la Portilla as young George Gibbs and Marjorie O'Neill-Butler as his mother-in-law, Mrs. Webb, endow their roles with honesty and depth.

The Shores nonetheless deserves commendation for tackling this masterwork, and anyone who remembers Our Town only from high school English class should attend for the play itself. Believe me, this one ripens with age. The older you become, the more it means to you. And with giants like Charles Marowitz appearing in our town, you might someday witness such a classic given its proper due: as an inventive, professional production.

VARIATIONS ON MEASURE FOR MEASURE freely adapted by Charles Marowitz after William Shakespeare; with students and faculty from New World School of the Arts. At the Louise O. Gerrits Theater, 25 NE 2nd St, through November 22. Performances Thursday -- Sunday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. Tickets cost $5-$8. Call 237-3541.

OUR TOWN by Thornton Wilder, directed by Joe Adler; with a cast featuring Stephen S. Neal, Marjorie O'Neill-Butler, Patricia McLaughlin, Roger Martin, Ralph de la Portilla, and Pamela Roza. At the Shores Performing Arts Theater, 9806 NE 2nd Ave, Miami Shores, through November 14. Performances 8:00 p.m. Friday -- Saturday; 2:00 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $15-$18. Call 751-0562.

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