Amateur Hour at the Asylum
My beagle died at the end of February. His name was Ricky, and I'd had him for eleven years. He died a terrible death, poisoned by his own dog food. That same month, my basset hound, Toast, acquired a spinal disease that left his hindquarters paralyzed. Now he has been reduced to dragging himself along the tiled floors of my home, helplessly spraying urine everywhere he goes. A week later, the best boss I'd ever had packed up and moved to New York, and then my band broke up for no good reason at all. On March 30, I went with my friend John Linn to see Nijinsky's Last Dance. In spite of the death, the paralysis, the boss's departure, and the break-up, I am almost certain that Nijinsky's Last Dance is the worst thing to happen to me this year.
I hadn't planned on reviewing Nijinsky's Last Dance. I knew the play was a one-man show starring newbie actor Frank Rodriguez, and I'd seen Frank in action too many times already (that'd be twice, for those keeping score). The mere thought of sitting in a room with nothing but Frank Rodriguez to look at for two (ten? 100?) hours filled me with fear. If Frank Rodriguez were a band, he would be Creed, all stock poses and cheesy bombast. If he were a television show, he'd be 7th Heaven, a schlocky dime-store greeting card come to hideous, sputtering life. If he were a contestant on American Idol, he would be Sanjaya Malakar, dragged before the footlights again and again.
The constant, weird presence of Sanjaya Malakar in the public eye is easy enough to explain: There are millions of eleven-year-old girls with access to telephones. Frank Rodriguez's situation is more mysterious, in that he owes his repeated engagement by local theaters not to 'tweens on the jitterbugging edge of apocalyptic pubertal meltdown, but to rational, cultured directors who should know better.
In this case, that director is Jim Tommaney. He sent me an e-mail last week asking that I come to the show despite my reservations, to see "what a good director can do with talent." He cited another reviewer who said Rodriguez was "riveting," "fascinating," and "magnetic," and then he said this: "Frank is giving what may well be the best performance in any theater in the country."
Those are some mighty powerful words. I figured: "What the hell? This man is a director. I am but a scribbler." And so I went, and here are the facts. Vaslov Nijinsky was born in Kiev in 1890. He entered the Imperial Ballet School at the age of ten, and by the time he was eighteen, he was a rising star in East European dance, known for his ability to perform en pointe (a rarity for males), his brilliant characterizations, and his physics-defying leaps. So he danced and danced, became the lover of lapsed composer and impresario Sergei Diaghilev, won fame and fortune, choreographed many of his own ballets, got hitched to the Countess Pulszky Romola, got stuck in Hungary during WWI, began going apeshit during a tour in North America, and wound up spending the rest of his life in and out of asylums. Nijinsky's Last Dance is a play written by Norman Allen, set in a Swiss sanitarium in the year 1919. Nijinsky is the play's only character. Giggling, crying, swaying, acting crazy, he recounts the story of his life, impersonating many of the characters he's encountered along the way. Nijinsky ruminates on art, reminisces about sex, and hints that WWI was responsible for his descent into madness.
If Tommaney had mounted a decent production, this is where you'd want to go spelunking for a theme. As it was, I could do no spelunking. Not because I was overcome with loathing for the production, and not because I thought the writing sucked (though a lover's vagina was referenced with the following words: "The hair below, where I find a place I can climb inside" for some reason, this reminded me of Guns N' Roses), but because I couldn't figure out what the hell was going on.
Simply speaking: Frank Rodriguez does not have good diction. At one point I heard this sentence: "A batter broachoutha the press!" Later, I heard this: "Zoos taurine of ze sole!" When Rodriguez does speak clearly, his speech is filled with unnatural pauses that make audience members work to decode the words a-hiccupping from his mouth. During the last half of the show, I took some notes to document this weird phenomenon, and here's what I came up with: "No matter how great is Nijinsky, he cannot dance. As the wave can dance or. Move ... (...) ... as the clouds can move." And this: "She came back ... to me. And I never saw Russia. Again."
Such a bizarrely arrhythmic delivery not only makes it extraordinarily difficult to follow the plot, or to figure out which of Nijinsky's friends/lovers/whatever Frank Rodriguez is impersonating at any given moment; it also saps every bit of realism from the performance. And the loss of that realism, so necessary for the effective suspension of disbelief in a play of this kind, makes all of Rodriguez's high-voltage histrionics look silly at best and tastelessly overcooked at worst. In the end, when we hear of Nijinsky's last dance, when he sits stock-still and looks sternly into the audience, holding them accountable for the terrible war that ripped the continent apart and left its beautiful young men rotting in shallow graves, the enormous weight meant to be carried by that stare the great pneumatic conscience of the mad, leaping genius is nowhere to be found.
Dear reader, I am sorry. This is a cringe-worthy review. I will qualify all the blatant, ugly misanthropy herein with the following statements: This play has been a critical success when rendered by people other than Jim Tommaney and Frank Rodriguez, and might be worth looking into at another time. Tommaney has balls of steel for even trying to pull it off, and the punk-rock attitude evidenced by casting an untried actor like Frank Rodriguez is unimpeachable. And Frank himself is not without talent. He has boundless energy and an obvious willingness to push himself he simply hasn't been acting very long. This is his third production, and he is hopelessly out of his depth. You cannot roll out of bed one morning and declare yourself a brilliant dramatic actor, any more than you can roll out of bed and declare yourself a brilliant violinist. Whether it's intended or not, such a notion shows contempt for all the men and women who've worked hard to learn this or any trade, and demonstrates a dangerous indifference to the wishes of the paying public. Nobody shells out cash for two hours of hambone operatics and amateur mugging, no matter how enthusiastically executed. Keep up with the acting classes, Frank. We'll meet on friendlier terms in a few years.
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