REVIEWS AND ABSTRACTS
1. Dat Ole Davil, Anna Christie, Stiffed in Worcester. A Review.
"Fog, fog, fog all bloody time. You can't see vhere you vas going, no." So says Chris Christopherson at the close of Anna Christie. One might say the same of the New England Repertory Theatre's recent production of the play in Worcester, MA (October 23 - November 15). The Rep's fog machine was, literally, in top gear throughout most of the evening, prodigiously fuming, while the players had little or no idea where they were going with the play--something that no fog machine could hide, no matter how much you cranked it up.
From the first scene to the last, the Rep's production was cloddish and care-less. Director Jon Knowles, who played Chris Christopherson, opted to rework the opening scene and axed the first six pages or so of the text. The scene was artistically butterfingered and embarrassingly amateur, featuring two incoherent drunks sloshed in their suds. One drunk is so far gone that his partner has to drag him off the stage before too long, and I don't know quite how the fellow managed it but he dragged his pal off in an irritatingly phony manner thoroughly unbecoming a respectably dingy saloon. One felt the whole spirit of the play being dragged off as well. And while we're on barroom etiquette, it should be noted that Johnny-the-Priest--whom O'Neill described in the stage directions as "cynical, callous, hard as nails," indeed, "a personage of the waterfront"--was wearing saddle shoes during this particular performance. Blimey!
Ironically, even though two characters were cut from Act One (Larry the Bar-tender and the Postman) and Jon Knowles' Chris blitzed the stage as if he were on casters and his ankles jelly--again, that phony drunk stuff, God stiffen it--Lucille Coz as Chris's barge mate Marthy Owen (or "Marty," if you go by the Rep's program) gave by far the best performance of the evening during this strange first act. Marthy was most believable and witty, eccentric and street-wise (or, rather, wharf-wise) as well. All done up in her bag lady duds, Miss Coz could have left the theatre and easily blended into any dark dockside scene you'd care to conjure up.
Roseann Concannon as Anna did not look particularly painted or tainted to me. She rolled her own smokes but that was about as seamy as she ever got. Next to Miss Coz's Marthy, this Anna was a tenderfoot. And I sensed that with this character, as well as with the rest of the main characters, there was a lack of purpose and direction.
In Act Two, after a confusing and ridiculously melodramatic rescue of the shipwrecked sailors (which consisted of an actor, in undershorts with an army blanket over his head, being carried/dragged on and then off the stage twice--I fear that it was the same actor who'd been so ineptly dragged across Johnny-the-Priest's floor in Act One), Matt Burke crawls over the side of the barge, his clothes in tatters but nonetheless completely dry despite the stalwart fog machine and rough seas.
What is confusing and certainly distracting about the Rep's Matt Burke, in the context of the play, is that he is played by William Farrier, who is black. And yet the question of race never once came up in the performance. Are we to believe that in 1900, when the play takes place, race would not have been a question, if not the question, when a white woman and a black man in love were considering marriage? To be honest about it, to cast Mr. Farrier as Matt Burke is to make Anna Christie into another play--one, in fact, with truly volatile ingredients and not a little dramatic potential--yet director Knowles changed nothing else in the play. (Nothing else having to do with Matt Burke, that is.) What did Mr. Knowles want us to believe? That Matt Burke was truly a black Irish Catholic and that his race was of absolutely no interest to the Christophersons? Or were we supposed to pretend that Mr. Farrier was white? He delivered his lines with gusto and punctuated them with great bellows of laughter; but he, too, was non-directed, as well as miscast, and was ultimately lost in the fog of the evening's performance.
In Act Three, when Anna brings the boys up to date on her recent ugly past, the performance reached its nadir. Cowering, trembling and blubbering on the floor, Matt and Chris wrapped their arms protectively about their eyes and ears as if they were about to be beheaded; Anna, hard by, looked more like a frowsy Gibson girl than a funky seen-it-all strumpet who'd just lowered the boom on two thick skulled sailor fellas. Surely, even James O'Neill, Sr., would have winced at this sort of unbridled melodrama, which made Eugene O'Neill's dated notions about sexual morality and love seem not only foolish but positively retarded.
O'Neill had ambivalent feelings about Anna Christie, we are told; and well he should have. But whatever the play's faults, it did not deserve the treatment it received at the New England Rep. The Rep, which only a short while ago put on such a swell Moon for the Misbegotten, stiffed Anna. In this play about fog people, everybody was left groping about directionlessly--most especially the audience.
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