I never cease to be pleased by how much I learn on this job. When I first saw one of my personal favorite plays A Lanford Wilson's lust story Burn This A in 1987 on Broadway, I would have sworn that above and beyond the brilliance of the work itself, the evening was ignited mainly by John Malkovitch in the scene-stealing lead role of Pale. In fact, I felt the primary female part of Anna, played in that production by the respected and skillful stage actress Joan Allen, was probably underwritten in order to maximize Pale's impact.
Since then I have taught the play, studied it, recommended it, and witnessed readings of it, and still was left with the feeling that Wilson intentionally dealt Pale, the explosive, uncouth manager of an Italian restaurant, a far stronger dramatic deck than that of his love and adversary, the cool as menthol, classy as Baccarat crystal Anna.
It took Vince Rhomberg and the Public Theatre Studio's expert production, and Rhomberg's intelligent direction of Wilson's masterwork, to convince me otherwise. In particular, April Daras's stunning embodiment of Anna A a woman as afraid to make the change from choreographer to dancer as she is to dump her predictable lover Burton in favor of the animalistic, unpredictable Pale A steals this version's reverberating thunder. Further, JR Davis's skillfully underplayed Burton and Richard Marlow's gentle, wit-filled turn as Anna's gay friend Larry demonstrate that Wilson wrote four wonderful roles for exceptional actors such as these.
Of course, Mikal Nilsen as Pale still commands the most attention whenever he roars onto the stage. Nilsen plays the difficult, high-strung eccentric with great skill and certainly serves Wilson's intent well; the only fault I find with his portrayal is a lack of chemistry between him and Daras, caused in large part by his lack of strong sexual appeal A an element vital to the role and to Wilson's story. When I saw Malkovitch seethe and grind his emotions to the very edge, he literally hammered my back against the seat with energy, and frankly, made me crave an hour or two alone with him. Nilsen does neither. His energy, though fierce, often comes off as frantic and frightening rather than intense and sensual.
Burn This is one of those great plays that rely on far more than plot. On the surface, the tale of an upper-middle-class New York dancer and her friends whose lives are disrupted by the sudden appearance of Pale, a distinctly lower-echelon macho, clearly deals with issues of class, yuppiedom, and how appearance can be used to disguise and deny the true workings of the heart. But recurring themes and images help weave a multilayered work, rife with interpretations; the more you see this piece, the more you discover within it.
Pale comes into Anna's life because her beloved dance partner and roommate Robbie has tragically died with his male lover in a freak boating accident. Robbie's older brother, Pale, bears a remarkable resemblance to his sibling except for one vital detail; now Anna can fulfill her fantasies because the coarser, surviving brother definitely prefers the ladies. But Pale doesn't fit into her gestalt. He's terrifying. He curses too much and too loud, he didn't attend prep school, and he doesn't blend in with the witticisms exchanged between Anna and her more suitable screenwriter beau, Burton, or the lightning-sharp third roomie, Larry. Can pure passion conquer such a huge sociopsychological gap?
Rhomberg's careful direction makes both the character of Pale and his unusual relationship with Anna believable, even poetic, as it should be. The actors help immensely by finding every layer built in by the playwright and subtly changing emotions from moment to moment. The communication between characters, which carries the momentum, never falters; you really believe these people are listening to each other and reacting appropriately.
The dialogue crackles, as well. "I'm not an opera queen, Burton," snipes Larry. "I've seen opera queens and I rank no higher than lady-in-waiting." Pale, as described by Anna, looks exactly like Robbie "except in that kind of blue-collar, working-at-the-steel-mill kind of way."
The nickname Pale, incidentally, comes from his favorite drink, V.S.O.P. (Very Special Old Pale) cognac; the play's title comes from Burton's cynical view of writing: "Make it personal, tell the truth, and then write 'Burn this' on it." Fortunately, Wilson didn't burn his words; instead he constructed an entertaining and challenging work. Rhomberg brings it to life; Daras's beautiful, slender, gentle but opinionated Anna, clad in glorious costumes by Laura M. Shrewsbury, is his shining centerpiece. Her love for Robbie, her insecurity, her passion for Pale, and her decency all come delicately through and combine to make her quiet persona overshadow the showy Pale.
Burn This is playwriting at its best, in the best possible production. See it.
The first week of the eighth International Hispanic Theatre Festival featured themes common to Latin American nations: love and death (often existing hand in hand), political upheaval, choosing laughter in preference to crying during bleak conditions, and the ever-changing alternations in life between light and dark, good and evil. With minimal sets but effective acting, dancing, and lighting, the first presentation from Teatro del Sur of Argentina, Tango varsoviano , used the traditional sensual tango form to communicate conflict and attraction between male and female archetypes. The production, which opened strikingly, turned out to be repetitive, tedious even, covering ground long overdone by the Argentinians. Surely some other form of dramatic art can emerge from this nation.
Sunday, at least during the day, belonged to the younger set. There were free dolls, free hamburgers, and best of all, free experimental theater versions of such classics as Los tres cerditos (The Three Little Pigs) by the Miami-based Cami troupe, and a surrealistic Pinocchio from the Chilean company, La Troppa.
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The first production that caught my attention was a one-man performance art piece, Imaginerias, from the Colombian Fearjumping group. Enrique Vargas, an energetic, engaging monologuist whose words and actions are highlighted by both minimal background music by Gabriel Hernandez and simple but clever props, tells four historias del amor based on traditional myths.
Through Vargas's words, paper props, and his hands making shadows on a screen, the initial legend tells of a couple struggling to communicate and failing miserably; another describes the odd adventures of a small boy who remains in his mother's womb, reading via books she swallows, becoming an astronaut, and finally flying upward in her body until they meet, inner eye to inner eye; the third traces a man who journeys through the center of the Earth and loses his way; and the finale describes a village where a harvest overly plentiful in vegetables and grains brings ruin, and where antisocial behavior leads one man to his death. All four stories turn strange, becoming disjointed and seemingly pointless. However, as with much Latin literature (as well as its ancient Greek predecessors), the mystical simplicity and existential wit enliven the tales and the perpetual but acute theme: man as a victim of fate and his own flaws.
More mundane and less satisfying was a farce about bad actors in a small village in Puerto Rico trying to convince the local government to build them a large cultural center A Este pais...No existe! A which, as presented by the 30-year-old Puerto Rican company Producciones Cisne, suffers from major problems. Mediocre acting (save for Santiago Garcia Ortega as the director of the play-within-the-play), predictable writing, and wooden direction doom this to lukewarm sitcom matter.
Still, the fine organization of the festival, the diversity of material and styles, the constant changing of sets, and the professionalism among the casts and crews represent a significant cultural event. Next week stellar companies such as Teatro do Ornitorrinco from Brazil and Teatro Avante from Coral Gables promise the strong possibility of carefully sculpted theater. In these times of trash overload, a two-week multinational collection of dramaturgy is both a hopeful and welcome sight.