Steven Leigh serves up his usual top quality here with this double, but what makes this critique special is how he wrings some serious context out of these reviews drawing some razor sharp conclusions and throwing down some serious gauntlets. Not many theater critics can do this effectively, mostly because they can’t, and shouldn’t, but for those who can, I wish they’d give it a little more effort.
HAMLET & THE MORINI STRAD
Steven Leigh Morris – LA Weekly
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre arrived in Santa Monica from the United Kingdom last week, at the tail end of a U.S. tour. Its production of Hamlet, co-directed by Bill Buckhurst and the company’s artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole, started in Washington, D.C., in early September and continues at the Broad Stage through Sunday.
It’s a pretty good production, but the event still left me feeling disheartened, thanks to a couple of interrelated observations.
First, on the night I attended, the second in the play’s Santa Monica run, the majority of the crowd was age 60-plus. While students from Santa Monica High School presented a potpourri of Shakespeare scenes in the lobby before the show as part of the Broad’s youth-outreach program, once the professionals took the stage, you could barely spot anybody under 20 in the house. There was a 5-year-old girl in the front row, but she was clearly an exception, which may be why one of the actors made such a fuss over her before the show started.
Second, ticket prices ranged from $67 to $175, and neither the Broad nor ticketing website Theatermania.com showed any discounts available for this production.
I got to thinking about these things because, throughout large chunks of Shakespeare’s play, the beautifully spoken text competed with the sound of an oxygen tank placed directly behind my seat for an audience member who needed mechanical assistance breathing. On one hand, there is something inspiring about anybody challenged by such a physical impediment possessing the determination to get out of the house, sucking the marrow from life by attending a performance of Hamlet while attached to a rolling tank of oxygen. On the other, the sight was a distressing metaphor for the state of the performing arts in the United States, and an increasingly common representation of aging audiences in too many of our midsize theaters, and some of our smaller ones, too.
The audience conspicuously missing Friday night — people under age 30 — represent potential patrons for the next few decades of theater in America. Hazarding a guess, among the reasons for their absence is that most people under 30 cannot, or will not, pay $134 to $350 per couple for an evening of theater in Los Angeles. For productions not on Broadway, the high cost of theater tickets, and the resulting generational divide, presents the greatest challenge for an art form burdened by high overhead and diminishing subsidies.
Such high ticket prices, of course, are part of the economics of inviting international troupes to our shores in the 2010s — one reason why it’s wonderful that midsize theater companies like Pasadena’s A Noise Within have the wherewithal to offer “pay what you can” nights (a truly open-door policy) during repertory presentations of classical plays, and that, every summer, the equally accomplished Independent Shakespeare Company performs the Bard gratis and al fresco in Griffith Park. The company always passes a hat and begs for money after the show, a variation on “pay what you can.”
It was particularly dispiriting to see so few young people in the audience at the Broad, because the skilled artists of Shakespeare’s Globe offer such a lively way to meet Shakespeare.
In the title role, slender blond Michael Benz gives a lucid and tender rendition. The hyper-efficient production is notable for the multiple roles played by only eight actors, some of whom double as musicians (violin, percussion, accordion) providing atmosphere for various scenes.
The production doesn’t tease out any of the play’s dozens of core ideas. Instead, it lets the play rip and invites us to ponder the nuanced distinctions between Claudius; his deceased brother, the Ghost; and the Player King; all played by Dickson Tyrrell with wistful dignity.
The production blows through like a locomotive that’s late for its next stop, with a few exceptions for retrospection: Benz puts the brakes on Hamlet’s clowning with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Peter Bray and Matthew Romain, both ebullient and excellent) and settles into a sweetly meditative rendition of “what a piece of work is a man.”
The endeavor plays out on Jonathan Fensom’s handsome set of blanks and boards. Polonius (Christopher Saul) makes each entrance by heaving himself over a foot-high wooden step-piece with a wry expression of annoyance, as though he’s forced to keep walking off a curb. Miranda Foster makes for a ferociously smart and harrowed Gertrude, matched in counterpoint by Carlyss Peer’s endearing Ophelia.
Two weeks before Willy Holtzman’s The Morini Strad was set to open at Burbank’s 270-seat Colony Theatre, the theater went public with a grim announcement that the 37-year-old company needed $49,000 to open Holtzman’s play, and $500,000 by the end of the year in order to prevent the indefinite suspension of programming. The theater reported that, since 2008, its subscriber base has slipped from 3,800 to 3,000 and, since 2010, the theater has seen a 20 percent drop in single-ticket sales.
The $49,000 came in, and artistic director Barbara Beckley sounds hopeful that the half-million dollars “to clear our financial obligations and produce our last two shows and stabilize us into the future” is on the near horizon.
And so the show went on. But the audience for a Sunday matinee performance of The Morini Strad was, again, a sea of silver hair.
Ticket prices for this show range from $20 to $42, with a limited number of $15 tickets for students and groups. Those non-discounted tickets aren’t cheap, but they’re not terrible. The bigger problem in drawing younger audience might be the play itself.
The Morini Strad is a thin, morose work straining to be inspirational and profound. Aging, dying violist Erica Morini (the fine Mariette Hartley), a former child prodigy, is the owner of a rare but damaged Stradivarius violin. Before she dies, she wants it repaired, and the play concerns her relationship with a younger artisan, Brian Skarstad (David Nevell) — a violin builder and repairer — who can restore it to its former glory and value.
She’s a diva who runs on attitude and entitlement, the violinist answer to Terrence McNally’s Maria Callas in Master Class; he’s a dull man with a wife, two kids who need dentures and a dog that needs de-worming. She baits him and tests his loyalty and his patience against the backdrop of the same motif from a Tchaikovsky violin concerto played repeatedly over the sound system and by a real child violin prodigy (Geneva Lewis).
What is life for? What is art for? Why did Erica give her life for art? What did it get her in the end? Why can’t Brian do the same? Should he give up his restoration business to build violins? We’re invited to address these questions, if we care to.
Stephen Gifford’s set and Jared A. Sayeg’s lighting design create the opulent veneer of Erica’s Fifth Avenue digs blending into Brian’s workshop, but Stephanie Vlahos’ production more or less wheezes along its 95-minute, predictable trajectory.
Despite this tepid production, which obviously arrives at a moment of crisis for the Colony, this theater has the legacy and the talent to warrant continued support. It fully deserves the stabilization to which Beckley refers.
But part of that stabilization needs to include productions that will attract people in their 20s and 30s at prices they can afford — even at the cost of aggravating the theater’s diminishing subscriber base. It may be callous to say, but at this point for the Colony, little else really matters.
About the Author: COLIN MITCHELL: Actor/Writer/Director/Producer/Father, award-winning playwright and screenwriter, Broadway veteran, Marvel comics scribe, Van Morrison disciple, Zen-Catholic, a proud U.S. Army Brat conceived in Scotland and born in Frankfurt, Germany, currently living in Los Angeles and doing his best to piss off as many people as possible.