A Plague on the Playhouse
Smallpox, cholera, and polio -- diseases that a century ago killed or disabled hundreds of thousands of people -- have all but been eliminated from the Western world by virtue of vaccinations, antibiotics, and improved sanitation. Such eradication has created an illusory sense of immunity among people in the First World. Historian William H. McNeill, author of Plagues and Peoples, recounts this feeling of safety in a 1983 critique of a history of the Black Death published in the New York Review of Books: "One of the things that separate us from our ancestors and make contemporary experience profoundly different from that of other ages," McNeill writes, "is the disappearance of epidemic disease as a serious factor in human life." But a subsequent resurgence of tuberculosis, increasing bacterial resistance to antibiotics, the emergence of the Ebola virus, and, of course, AIDS have rudely awakened those of us who naively believed we were impervious to catastrophic illnesses.
Playwright Anthony Clarvoe seeks to explore the effects of epidemics on the human spirit in his 1993 drama The Living. On-stage at the Pope Theatre Company in Manalapan, this allegory of our modern response to disease is set in London in 1665 during an outbreak of bubonic plague. King Charles II and his entire court have fled the city, followed by wealthy merchants, church leaders, and even medical personnel, leaving the poor with limited resources. Clarvoe sketches the stories of several individuals who stay behind either because they are penniless, do not have connections to get a pass to leave, or because they feel a sense of obligation to those who are suffering. Their stories intersect through a series of interrelated episodes, stitched together with speeches, sermons, and a eulogy.
At its best, The Living raises challenging questions about personal and social responsibility. At times it proves both clever ("Are you proposing that the government pay for health care?" asks a shocked spokesman for the king) and moving (a doctor who has selflessly been helping others discovers he has the plague). And it introduces a coterie of compelling characters, including Sir John Lawrence (Roger Forbes), a nobleman who finds himself running the city after his colleagues have fled; Sarah Chandler (Brenda Foley), a woman who loses her husband and children to the disease; and John Graunt (Dan Leonard), the narrator-guide to many of the events who studies the ebb and flow of the plague according to the numbers of dead. ("What do you call your trade?" Sir John asks Graunt. "I call it statistics," Graunt replies. "Do you think it will catch on?") Unfortunately such intriguing characters are limited by hastily drawn scenes that leave us wanting more insights, details, and action. And the stupefying speeches linking these scenes bring the underdeveloped story lines to a grinding halt. By relying on pedantic soliloquies to tell us what we should think, Clarvoe avoids dramatizing events that would allow us to arrive at our own conclusions. In the long run, the playwright's leaden style prevents his ambitious attempt at allegory from moving beyond a static period piece.
The Pope Theatre's production goes a long way toward making up for the limitations of Clarvoe's script. Through his often animated direction, Louis Tyrrell once again proves himself a director who so inherently understands the ingredients of good drama that he could elicit a dynamic performance from an actor reading the directions on a bottle of shampoo. And what actors he has assembled here! Forbes delivers an impeccable performance as a man dueling with his sense of right and wrong. As Forbes portrays him, Sir John has such great integrity and sense that you would want him around in a crisis. John Felix brings his sonorous voice and considerable stage presence to the role of Lord Brounker, the aristocrat who remains duty-bound to the king. Foley inspires as Sarah, a steel-spined woman who summons a purpose from within herself to go on living after losing her entire family. Gordon McConnell poignantly grapples with his fears and his commitment to heal as Dr. Edward Harmon. Dan Leonard and Stephen G. Anthony (as Rev. Dr. Thomas Vincent) both turn in strong performances, even though they are saddled with too many of Clarvoe's deadly speeches.
You may find it worthwhile to catch this production of The Living if only to enjoy the consummate cast, but be forewarned: Neither stellar acting nor Tyrrell's creative direction adequately enlivens what is essentially an academic discourse instead of a dramatic event.
Two years, three months, and one week ago (who's counting?) I stepped into the role of New Times drama critic, beginning a tradition of arriving at the office to file my review with my five-month-old daughter in tow. Then, she was considerably less demanding than she is now, which is the reason I am concluding my tenure here as a reviewer -- to pursue writing projects with less frequent deadlines so I can hang out more with my child. Before I move on, here are several observations about theater, Miami-style.
Perhaps the first thing that threw me when I began seeing shows on a regular basis was how freely directors took liberties with scripts. Speeches and scenes were cut from plays and intermissions were excised, seemingly to accommodate audience attention spans. Such a practice, aside from being contractually illegal in certain cases, leaves a viewer with a distorted sense of a playwright's work. It reflects a lack of respect for writers, placing the play in the service of a director's vision as opposed to the director, actors, and designers serving the writer's intent.
In keeping with this tendency, too many programs barely acknowledge the playwright aside from a nod to his or her name on the title page. Sorry, but I'd much rather read background on the person who composed the play than read in a bio about an actor's high school role in the chorus of South Pacific. And those typos. I understand the immense effort it takes to hoist a production onto its feet, particularly when so many theaters are understaffed; proofreading has got to be the last detail on anyone's mind. But programs are a document of the show for both the company's archives and spectators, and they deserve as much care as other aspects of a production. Leaping from programs to production photos -- in a word, abominable. Hasn't anyone figured out that the picture printed along with the review in New Times, even if the review is unfavorable, is invaluable publicity? A sharp black-and-white photo makes a much better impression than a fuzzy shot with the photographer's knee in the foreground or the exit sign in the upper right corner.
A final note: Given the economics of paying actors for rehearsal time and the fact that many local actors hold down day jobs, I understand that local rehearsal schedules tend to be short by necessity. Like ten days short, in some cases. Or even three weeks. As can be evident in the final product. Often when I attend an opening night, it seems as if the actors have just finished absorbing the director's blocking of their movements on-stage. Likewise, actors seem just barely comfortable with the text, sans manuscript. What an enormous difference it has been to attend shows that I know have benefited from longer rehearsal -- shows where directors moved heaven and earth to carve out more time to work on a piece because they anticipated the demands of a particular work. Longer rehearsals ultimately showcase the immense talent in this town to a much greater degree. Although I love an audience's anticipatory energy on opening night, I prefer going to local shows later in their runs, when the actors have finally begun to hit their stride.
Have I mentioned the dearth of productions by black playwrights in South Florida, not to mention the limited roles for black actors? Or the lack of audience support for most work that vaguely smacks of the experimental? I could go on but, in truth, I have spent an often sublime couple of years covering the theater scene here (yes, there is theater worth seeing in this tourist town). I've enjoyed Shakespeare elegantly performed on bare stages in tiny theaters. I've caught challenging interpretations of old favorites, been treated to productions of works I've anticipated for years, and been dazzled by contemporary pieces fresh from New York, London, or Louisville's Humana Festival, through both local and touring companies.
I've also witnessed the flowering of native writing voices, nurtured by gathering places for writers such as the Writers' Alliance and Theater With Your Coffee? And I appreciate the essential role the Theater League of South Florida plays in the region's theatrical life. Unlike New York, London, or Chicago, where theaters elbow each other for room in close urban quarters or are only a walk or a cab ride away from one other, South Florida has no theater hub. The League, hosting groups not only for writers but for directors and actors, functions as a floating central meeting ground for far-flung theater folk, sort of like Nathan Detroit's peripatetic crap game in Guys and Dolls.
Frankly, I've been blown away by how hard people work here, by their dedication, and by their willingness to shoulder multiple tasks in running a company. Seeing plays and writing about them demands tremendous reserves of time; does anybody who actually produces shows ever get any sleep?
I have been impressed not only by show business pros -- it's been a delight to get to know audience members, too. While I was quite conscious that theater community people were reading this column, I truly wrote it for the playgoers who have no professional connection to the stage but who are addicted to live drama and who choose going to the theater over television, movies, sports events, or nightclubs. I've been enchanted to meet you and especially pleased when you introduced yourselves to me. Your passion keeps theater afloat, whether you see shows in massive performing centers or tiny black box spaces. Forgoing a weekly deadline, I now join your ranks. As a Carbonell voter I will continue to see productions with you on a regular basis, and it will be my pleasure.
Written by Anthony Clarvoe; directed by Louis Tyrrell; with Roger Forbes, Brenda Foley, Dan Leonard, John Felix, Gordon McConnell, Stephen G. Anthony, and Terrell Hardcastle. Through February 23. For information call 800-514-3837.
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