Sunday, November 12, 2006

You can lead a horse to Wagner but you can't make him drink

Saw The Stendhal Syndrome* by Terrance McNally last night. It's a very interesting set of two short plays, Full Frontal Nudity (American tourists encountering Michaelangelo's David for the first time under the guidance of an Italian tour guide) and Prelude and Liebestod (the inner thoughts of the conductor interspered with brief glimpses into the thoughts of the concertmaster, soloist, conductor's wife and besotted fan of the conductor, whilst he conducts the aforementioned pieces from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.)

I thoroughly enjoyed both plays. But apparently, that's very much in the eye of the beholder. It never ceases to amaze me how differently people perceive theatre (or anything for that matter). My companion found the language in Prelude and Liebestod, in which the conductor relates a bisexual bondage scene from his youth, citing it the most sublime sexual experience of his life and bemoaning the lack of anything since approaching that intensity, a bit too vulgar for her liking. I didn't find it offensive in the least and wondered how you could relate a story like that without being vulgar. Another friend, who'd seen the play earlier in the week, found that story quite arousing and said she'd left the theatre "walking funny."

And it's not just we locals who can't agree on what we've seen. When I went online to find a bit more background for this post, I found diametrically opposed reviews of the Off Broadway production starring Isabella Rosselini and Richard Thomas.

John Simon of the
New York Times Theatre section detested the plays, calling them "hokey." He disliked everything about the plays from the subject matter to the characters and the actors playing them.

Matthew Murray of
Talkin' Broadway - Off Broadway held a view more similar to mine. Other than finding fault with some of the actors, and mitigating that with the opinion that they would improve once they'd, "... settled into their roles." he was quite complimentary to the play itself, concluding his review with, "... missing too many McNally plays, including The Stendhal Syndrome, would be an unfortunate loss."

Elyse Sommer of
Curtain Up gives the play a glowing review and thinks McNally succeeds admirably in poking fun at dead serious art.

But then, they couldn't agree on what to say about Isabella Rosselini, either. John Simon said, "[she] has inherited neither her father’s talent nor her mother’s looks, does justice to her undemanding roles and delivers the guide’s Italian phrases meticulously." Ouch! While Elyse Sommer stated that Rossilini was charming and looked and sounded like her mother. See? Eye of the beholder.

But all that aside, I really enjoyed the unusal staging of both plays. Full Frontal Nudity has four actors, three tourists and a tour guide, facing the audience with the premise being that they are standing in front of the statue of David which is sitting just in front of the first row of seats. Photographs of the statue were projected onto a screen upstage, with the photo changing to suit the dialogue (full vantage, close-up of the eye, or the hand, etc.). It worked very well in our theatre, as the stage is at floor level and the audience is seated on risers, so that the actors upturned faces were very visible. I'm not sure how well it would have worked in a more convential theatre where the actors are up on a stage.

Prelude and Liebestod had the action viewed from the perspective of the orchestra, so that the conductor was facing us, with the soprano sitting back on to the audience and singing to the upstage wall, the conductor's wife in a stage right "box seat" facing the real audience and the besotted fan in a stage left stall seat, again facing the real audience. The words to the music, first in German and then in English, were projected onto the screen that showed photos of David in the first play.

I don't know. I enjoyed myself. Whether the scripts were hokey or too vulgar or not. I'd recommned you see it if a production comes your way. I can tell you one thing. It sure made me wonder what was really going on inside our director's head at choir practice today...

* Not to be confused with the horror film of the same name.


Anonymous dale said...

I know exactly what you mean by "the eye of the beholder". Yvonne and I go to a series of plays together and usually agree on things. However, we have had experiences of having diametrically opposed ideas of what something meant, or how it fit into the overall play, was it necessary, etc. I tend to like the more off the wall stuff and she is more comfortable with the traditional plays. It makes really good conversation over coffee afterwards, as we disect the play and defend our opinions. Isn't that what theatre is for? To make people think?

November 12, 2006 at 10:16 p.m.  

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