The Visions of Simone Machard
Thick Description's staging of Brecht's World War II-era play is the only show I've ever seen whose staff includes a head groundskeeper (Hugh Garrison Tracy). It needs groundskeeping because the sunless small new stage at Thick House is covered in living, tended grass. The stage also features a pulley system to hoist the substantial Michael Torres into the air when he needs to play the angel, in red-dyed cammies and a pair of aeronautical wings (instead of feathers). These physical innovations promise a decent show. Simone Machard is one of Brecht's Joans of Arc (he created two) -- a simple country girl, in this case, whose dream-visions clarify confusions of loyalties that sweep France during the Nazi occupation. Except for the grass and pulleys, though, Machard is strangely forgettable. Trish Ng has a quiet, graceful style as Simone in the throes of a vision; David Yezzi is a funny cartoon of a bourgeois hostel-owner; and Wilma Bonet is sometimes masterful as his mother, Marie. (Robby MacLean has mixed some excellent sound, as well.) But none of it adds up to a powerful play. Part of the problem is Brecht's script: He lays responsibility for Nazi sympathizing at the feet of the bourgeoisie, in the form of Henri and Marie Soupeau. The conceit is a weak one; Hitler also came to power with a rhetoric of bourgeoisie-bashing (along with every other tyrant in the 20th century, as well as many playwrights). Brecht's point is that bourgeois fools like Soupeau capitulated because they were bourgeois -- when in fact they may just have been fools.
The Comedy of Errors
Director Danny Scheie erases the darker edges of Shakespeare's comedy, adding a genius lunacy of his own. With a planked wooden floor, a red curtain that snaps open and shut, a tinny piano, mobsters, flappers, hucksters, and cross-gender, multirole casting, this Comedy is pure music hall farce. Scheie places Syracuse in the American South, giving his cast oily accents, while his Ephesus has New York vaudeville cadences. Susannah Schulman wears seersucker knickers and a straw boater as the two Antipholuses, while Brad DePlanche, who looks like Mickey Rooney, wears a bellman's costume and cap as the two Dromios -- only glasses and accents distinguish both sets of twins. Schulman's Ephesus voice has a hint of Jimmy Durante in it; DePlanche's pays homage to Bud Abbott. (Many of the pair's scenes recall Abbott and Costello.) They're having a ball -- chomping on cigars, running around, switching between characters instantly. As the wised-up Adriana, Susan Marie Brecht won't take crap from anybody: Listening to her dim-bulb sister (Johanna Falls) preach patience and forbearance in marriage, she stares in sarcastic disbelief. Joan Mankin as the patriarch Egeon (among other roles) brings along an overhead projector to illustrate his present predicament. Adam Gavzer's gangster, Russian sailor, kitchen wench, and nun are all hilarious. Brian Yates Sharber is the duke and the courtesan (a Jerry Springer guest in a flapper's dress). Scrumbly Koldewyn provides the comical, melodramatic piano cues; Richard Olmstead's set and Allison Connor's costumes solve complicated problems simply. This Aurora Theater Company production is theatrical bliss.
What's intriguing about the Brontës is probably what makes them so difficult to dramatize: Their elaborate, detailed imaginations existed alongside almost unbelievable tragedy. Playwright John O'Keefe avoids any Triumph of the Imagination hooey, but he can't escape ticking off the Brontë demises. (Call it "Four Funerals and a Wedding.") After Branwell (Andrew Hurteau), Emily (Natasha Kelly), and Anne (Sarah Overman) die in succession, Charlotte's (N. Alexander Storm) kick-off is anticlimactic. O'Keefe also presents some conjectures as fact -- Emily's lesbianism, for instance -- and his ill-advised dream sequences fail miserably. (In one, Death tells Charlotte that if she'll be an uncomplaining good girl she can live a little longer.) Barbara Damashek's direction adds some puzzling bits -- Emily's and Anne's ghosts make whooshing noises upon one exit -- but she successfully delineates the same space as both the moors and the Brontë house interior. Mikiko Uesagi's set includes granite sepulchers, a backdrop of Charlotte's crisscross writing, and two rather comical rows of heather. Kelly is terrific portraying Emily's fervent romanticism, her deep, clear voice ringing out when the Brontës playact their imaginary kingdoms. Storm's Charlotte has to carry the play, which O'Keefe's script makes impossible, but she is effective in several scenes, especially when begging her father (Robert Parnell) to let her marry. Hurteau and Overman are fine as Branwell and Anne, but the roles go nowhere. With the small exception of Kelly's Emily, O'Keefe's Brontës remain lifeless, historical précis.