The Play's Still the Thing

When I first learned of David Cronenberg's plans to film the play M. Butterfly, I declared that the project was doomed to disaster. Now that the movie is out, people mention my prediction and commend its accuracy. How did I know? Mainly because certain plays do not translate into the highly literal film medium; their core tales are spun by hazy layers of fantasy, of ephemeral visions the playwright shares with an audience suitably suspended in a willing state of disbelief. For instance, on the stage, the "heroine" in David Henry Hwang's play can easily pass as a woman; on screen, the transvestitism is painfully obvious. And with the mere hint of a set, the sumptuous and stark environments of M. Butterfly's action -- the Peking Opera, a French jail cell -- can be painted beautifully in the viewer's mind.

In fact, when people proclaim that theater is bound for extinction, obliterated from existence by the wonderful world of video and film, I explain just this: that certain stories are better told with the aid of the viewer's imagination. American-made films in particular can and will never take the place of a gifted playwright whose work needs no special effects, consisting simply of stories and words that portray the innermost core of the human condition.

In support of my thesis, I offer as evidence two exquisite productions of surreal and poignant plays currently running in our area: Bloody Poetry at the Florida Shakespeare Festival in Coral Gables, and Someone Who'll Watch Over Me at the Caldwell Theatre Company. In both cases, the well-crafted dialogue between the characters and the levels of meaning that unfold through a simple plot serve as the ideal example of uncomplicated and at the same time complex drama. In both cases, the magical tales they tell would be diluted and, for purposes of appealing to a mass audience, bastardized if ever brought to the screen. Both work with subtle lighting and a virtually empty stage; both deal with intellectual and emotional challenges and turn them into thrilling dramatic action without the need for a single technical gimmick.

Bloody Poetry, the story of poets Lord George Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley -- and the various women they wooed and wounded -- must be seen to be fully experienced. Poetic scenes and dialogue combine with actual snippets of verse from the nineteenth-century bards, who lived in a time when poets enjoyed the popularity and the notoriety of rock stars. Watching these two outrageous characters brood, brawl, and whore through Europe from 1816 through 1822 brings home to this aging hippie the fact that rebellion, free love, and substance abuse were not invented at Woodstock. These "free thinkers," as they called themselves, lived life to the fullest and happily thumbed noses at conventional morality. Oh, and in between their escapades, they created great art.

The play ably deals with the intriguing premise of tradition at war with the artistic temperament. Byron and Shelley certainly emerge as cold, self-centered sociopaths. When he learns of his first wife's suicide, Shelley's main concern is how to translate the event into poetry. Byron is an even more brutal cad; impregnating his lush young mistress, Claire Claremont, he refuses to marry her but instead gets custody of their daughter, only to later have her placed in a drafty convent where the little girl dies. This hardly bothers him, either. Peter Shaffer's masterwork, Amadeus, examined the same point, when it showed Mozart for the vain, morally debauched brat he was. Can great art be constructed by decent, normal folk? Or must the genius by necessity be so self-absorbed and removed from common emotion that he storms through life breaking people as well as rules?

Directed by the talented John Briggs, Bloody Poetry tackles psychological and literary issues, and managed to hold my attention throughout. The audience on the night I attended appeared to be similarly absorbed in the play. Of course, there are enough hot-blooded scenes to keep everyone satisfied, but the mind games played by Byron, Shelley, Mary Shelley (Percy's second wife), Claire Claremont, Byron's biographer Dr. William Polidori, and the ghost of Shelley's first wife, Harriet, are so well-staged, and the pace so rapid, they translate into enthralling action.

In addition to all these fine qualities, the acting in the play alone warrants the price of admission, since the entire cast does a stellar job. Chaz Mena as the flamboyant Lord Byron, Blaine Dunham as Claire, and Adam Koster as the hapless Dr. Polidori sometimes get carried away with their own talent and emote just a tad too much. However, their skills are so finely honed, that these excesses do not bring to mind incompetence but rather De Niro or Nicholson when they go over the top. On the other hand, John Baldwin as the manic-depressive Percy Shelley and Stephanie Heller as his wronged first wife perform to perfection, creating believable characters who quietly exude confusion and pain. But none excels to the degree that Liz Dennis does as Mary Shelley, the lusty and smart wench who created Frankenstein. I've seen Dennis's work enough times now to proclaim her the very best of actresses, one who can maintain a constant internal connection with her character at all times, and produce reality even in the most stylized of plays. I'd dub her South Florida's Meryl Streep.

Since Bloody Poetry deals with literary figures and their mental manipulations, British playwright Howard Brenton must be applauded for making this work, written in 1984, so accessible to a mass audience. Perhaps an even harder job awaited playwright Frank McGuinness when he decided to tackle the hostage crisis on stage and pen the brilliant piece, Someone Who'll Watch Over Me. If Liz Dennis is to me the very best of actresses, Someone -- written in 1992, a hit in both England and Broadway -- represents the very highest order of plays. When a writer can take a bleak subject and inject into it humor, suspense, excitement, and truth, he has learned the skills of a master.

Set in a Beirut prison cell without windows, three men sit chained to the wall: an American psychiatrist named Adam; an Irish journalist named Edward; and a British professor named Michael. They do not understand why they were chosen to be hostages. They deeply regret accepting lucrative positions in this unstable environment. Most of all, they fear the future. Will they be killed? Or worse yet, will they never be freed? To pass what seems like endless time, they play and squabble like kittens -- inventing games, fighting, making up. In the end, no matter how far apart their value systems were at the start of their imprisonment, they become a family, devoted to watching over each other.

As the macho American determined to keep his head and body in top shape, Jeffrey Blair Cornell's portrayal never once rings false. In his egoism, you (the Yankee) see yourself and blush; in his fortitude, you feel proud. As the explosive, fun-loving Irishman, Neal Moran is simply superb in the showiest role. Another virile guy, Moran delivers all the expected bluster and blarney but also breaks down realistically. Unfortunately, John Gardiner -- in the trickiest part as the fey, pretentious Englishman (who in the end of course proves to be composed of the hardiest stuff) -- is too mannered an actor to truly make his character believable. His forced delivery renders the confrontational scenes between Moran and himself more impotent than they were originally written. However, Gardiner is not weak enough to destroy the play or the production, since Michael Hall's clever direction keeps everything moving along smoothly and quickly.

Both in Bloody Poetry and in Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, the visions not seen but described -- of lovemaking, or torture -- add immeasurably to the dark and comedic moods of the pieces. In this form of storytelling, where characterization, dialogue, and evoked mental images tell a simple story that touches the heart and mind of an audience, live theater will always triumph.

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