. Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Visit"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi


by Friedrich Dürrenmatt

adapted and directed by Dmitry Troyanovsky

Claire Zachanassian … Gillian Mackay-Smith
Alfred Ill … Adam Garcia
Butcher / Man One / Ensemble … Nathan Thibodeau
Son / Man Two / Husband VIII / Ensemble … Michael G. Hall
Husbands VII & IX / Man Three / Ensemble … Drew Hinckley
Pastor … Mike Budwey
Schoolmaster … Brian C. Fahey
Mayor … Sean Hopkins
Policeman … Sean Morris
Station Master / Customer / Ensemble … Mark Berglund
Butler … Geoff P. Palmer
Blind Man One / Ensemble … Aden Hakimi
Blind Man Two / Ensemble … Jen Molnar
Marshall / First Reporter / TV Commentator / Woman One / Ensemble … Susan Terzian Cartiglia
Mrs. Ill / Ensemble … Beth Reardon
Daughter … Lisa Martin
Mayor's Wife / Woman Two … Danielle Kline
Second Reporter / Man Four / Ensemble … Evan Dahme

To write about a college production is to handle a two-edged sword: on the one hand, you can encounter plays rarely produced nowadays by professional theatres and performed by fresh, new actors willing to take risks; on the other hand, those actors are students learning their craft, working (for the present) more from without than within; imitating rather than portraying. How, then, should one judge a college production? By concentrating on its director, who, in this context becomes both teacher and parent: he/she can set his/her trusting charges on the right path --- patience, dedication, an awareness of time, place, period; and to give them a kick in the pants when they need it --- or he/she can lead them down some very dark alleys --- encouraging shtick or mannerisms, the glorification of Self, and that mumbling Realism will always win the day, whether it be Mamet or Congreve. Two recent college productions touched the heavens with their excellence, regardless of age or experience --- Tufts’ ROMEO AND JULIET (directed by Anthony Cornish; Fall 2001) and Boston University’s VENUS (directed by Eve Muson; Fall 2002). Both directors went in with a vision --- Mr. Cornish, to present Shakespeare as Elizabethan theatre-in-the-round; Ms. Muson, to dazzle with a tour de force --- not only did they achieve their goals, they galvanized their casts, leaving me in open-mouthed wonder over what can be accomplished when the young are guided by a sure, steady hand. (Last month, Darko Tresnjak cleverly placed seven B. U. actors within his magical BLUE DEMON for the Huntington, and they gleamed as brightly as their more seasoned peers.) And then there have been disappointments, where the director plays havoc with the script, pops up to wave “hello!” every few minutes, and distorts the actors or leaves them to fend for themselves (which often happens in the cold, cruel world; pity the lambs who are subjected to it while still so malleable). Such is the case with Northeastern’s production of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s THE VISIT, which will have closed by the time you read this.

Mr. Dürrenmatt spins a simple fairytale of greed: Claire Zachanassian, an extremely wealthy old woman, pays a visit to her home town Guellen, set somewhere in Central Europe. Claire --- gracious, glittering, and sinister --- is attended by her current husband (#7), her butler/lawyer, two strong men, and two blind eunuchs; she also sports an artificial hand and leg. Once a distinguished town, Guellen is now financially (and spiritually) impoverished. Claire promises to revive the town with a gift of a million pounds in exchange for the life of leading citizen Alfred Ill, who seduced, impregnated and betrayed her many years ago. The townspeople are shocked at Claire’s cold-blooded proposal; Claire calmly waits (collecting two more husbands in the meantime). To Alfred’s growing horror, he soon witnesses the townspeople’s reckless spending in anticipation of future funds, their monitoring his every move, and the deafening ears of the police/church/state and his own wife and children to his plight --- Guellen begins to rationalize his murder as a just act as well as a necessary one for its own survival. Knowing he is doomed, Alfred accepts his fate, is murdered, and leaves Guellen in the coffin that Claire has conveniently brought along with her. The town is saved, but its collective soul has been bought and sold. No doubt, Mr. Dürrenmatt, who was Swiss, was reacting to the winked-at neutrality of his country during WWII --- in doing so, he produced a grimly amusing masterpiece. (Though born only a few years after Beckett’s WAITING FOR GODOT, THE VISIT is second-generation Theatre of the Absurd; there is a definite plot and characters with definite purposes, well-seasoned with Absurdist touches --- the blind, giggling eunuchs; the growing army of yellow shoes --- my GODOT neighbor (remember her?) would definitely “get” THE VISIT.)

I have no real quarrel with Dmitry Troyanovsky’s revision of the play, which consisted of his removing Clare’s strong men, the Gymnast she selects as Ill’s executioner, the Doctor, and two extended scenes in Act Three (here, Act Two); he also raised Clare’s gift from a million to a billion. But I must take Mr. Troyanovsky to task for his direction: in brief, he dumbed-down Mr. Dürrenmatt’s wise little parable, and I shall go deaf as a post should Mr. Troyanovsky claim ‘tis all in the name of making THE VISIT relevant for today’s audiences; in particular, the Northeastern students who filled the Studio Theatre on the night I attended. As a playwright and a member of the audience, I’ve grown weary of directors condescending to us --- we aren’t stupid, but we do need to know the rules of the game; should the director toss away the rulebook and draw up his/her own, then he/she had better be a genius; judging by this production, Mr. Troyanovsky --- whether he be newly hatched or as old as the hills --- is not. Mr. Dürrenmatt’s play will go on, of course, but I fear the student audience, many of whom will never see another production of THE VISIT, may go away accepting an old man’s murder in favor of You, Too, Can Be a Millionaire. (What is there to update in THE VISIT, now that the echoes of WWII have long since faded? Nothing --- what was once timely has crossed into the timeless: “Once there was a little town called Guellen, and it was very poor. One day, an old woman named Clare came to visit, and she was very rich…” What could be simpler?)

Rather than guiding his young cast through the trickiness of playing satire --- and European satire, at that --- Mr. Troyanovsky went for the obvious: how to get across that Guellen is on the skids? Start the show with two men humping amidst the 9/11-like rubble (no Swiss village, here). How to suggest that Guellen is an already barbaric town? Have the police officer drag the train conductor offstage to be shot (huh?) How to telegraph Clare’s murderous intentions? Have her semi-strangle Ill within seconds of their reunion. How to make it clear that the townspeople are succumbing? Have Act One end in a free-for-all (“The Night of the Yellow Shoes”); in Act Two, have two townswomen biting off chunks of apple in Ill’s direction as if the fruit were his very balls (in the original, the women simply munch on chocolate). Rather than go with Ill’s silent, suggested murder (the men close in on him in a tight circle… when they step back, he lies dead on the floor), we are treated to his neck being snapped. And so on. Mr. Troyanovsky’s most horrible bit was when Ill sought out the Priest in his confessional: the Priest’s head was seen in profile; as he babbled nonsense to the frightened Ill, the Priest had an orgasm --- and out popped a choirboy, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand as he maked a quick exit. Yes, I was shocked, but not for the obvious reason --- I was shocked because (1) the Priest is meant to succumb to Greed just like the others (or, at the very least, to be rendered powerless); here, he was already spiritually corrupt; and (2) the choirboy drew a delighted laugh from the audience --- the Child-Molesting Priest is now a fixture in our pop iconography. Mr. Dürrenmatt uses horror for a moral purpose; Mr. Troyanovsky hands it out like sweets.

Need I mention that Mr. Troyanovsky staged THE VISIT sans pace, tension or an engulfing sense of evil --- not even a whiff of dark romance? No --- I’m sure you will “get” that this was a most disappointing production.

The biggest disappointment of all was the waste of the talented Gillian Mackay-Smith as Clare. Ms. Mackay-Smith made an lovely first impression on me as “Henrietta” (originally, “Henry”), the dotty old actress in last year’s production of THE FANTASTICKS --- she easily netted an Addison for Featured/Supporting Actress in a musical (she was also better directed). I next viewed her as the silly, much-married dowager in THE WOMEN (another disappointment), where she alone seemed to know what 1930s comedy was all about. THE VISIT was an opportunity to show what Ms. Mackay-Smith could really do (Clare is, after all, a vehicle role); instead, Mr. Troyanovsky reduced Clare to the old Scamp/Camp/Tramp/Vamp jingle (she first appeared as a silhouette in smoke --- there was Dirty Work Afoot!) --- and a Clare robbed of her calm but deadly power defeats the purpose of doing THE VISIT in the first place. (Ms. Mackay-Smith failed because of her youth; Mr. Troyanovsky failed for not fine tuning her comedic gifts just a notch towards the sinister.)

Still, a bad production can showcase an actor’s talents as well as a good one, especially when left to his/her own devices. For now, Ms. Mackay-Smith has timing, presence, a radiant smile and a wonderful sense of the Droll --- she will make a fine character comedienne when she matures. She projects well when speaking in the middle register, savoring her words like a fine wine, but, like many a young actress, her voice hardens and shakes in declamation --- thus, she fogged up THE VISIT’s most famous line, “The world turned me into a whore. I shall turn the world into a brothel.” I trust Ms. Mackay-Smith has been taught that acting is an ever-evolving art and hope she will not “set” herself too early in life and end up as a figure of Camp, offering us nothing but florid, over-the-top women (though she would make an ideal Auntie Mame). A clown: yes; a female impersonator: no.

Adam Garcia whined and scurried through the complex role of Ill; Mr. Troyanovsky gave him no assistance in capturing the man’s heartiness, fear and, finally, transcendence, leaving Mr. Garcia to fall back on stock Old Age: bent over double (I never saw his face until curtain call, when he straightened up), with “pipes and whistles in his sound.” Both Mr. Garcia and Ms. Mackay-Smith would do well to store away for future reference a piece of advice from Stark Young on playing old age: “…the essential character of old age lies in the fact that it has the will but not the force; the action therefore always lags behind the will.”

Geoff P. Palmer fascinated as Clare’s shaven-headed Butler; he, too, was not convincing as an old man, but he did give a well-thought-out impersonation of one: here, the action (the slow, steady gait; the overly-careful speech from a brain turning to dust) did indeed lag behind the will (to sound the trumpet of poisoned justice); and Aden Hakimi was an amusing nightmare as one of the eunuchs, tapping through the world like a fat beetle. Looking back at Mr. Troyanovsky’s production, I ask not why most of it went so wrong, but how did the Messrs. Palmer and Hakimi manage to be so RIGHT?

"The Visit" (12-22 February)
Studio Theatre, Ell Cener, Huntington Avenue, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 373-2247

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide