The Seagull and The Toxic Avenger

The Seagull

Hearing about—and scanning Ben Brantley’s review about—the wonders of the imported British production of The Seagull, I expected a transformative theatre experience. Imagine, then, my disappointment in a production (which I saw Saturday, 10/11/08) I found alternating between listlessness and hyperactivity, ringing dissonant tones without a clear sense of comment or critique.

The new translation by Christopher Hampton transports the play into some sort of Anglo netherworld. It also retains all the references to Russian culture, which seems jarring, considering the accents and the high British attitude of the staging. Although the variety of dialects and tones correlate slightly to the class status of each character, over the course of the long evening, the speech dulls out into a mish-mash within and between characters, making them strangely indistinguishable in their inarticulate misery and longing. Peter Sarsgaard, as Trigorin, loses his way through his accent rather quickly, but then, his vague portrayal of the supposedly great man blurs the edges of everything about the character.

Playing against such a non-entity, Kristin Scott Thomas as Arkadina appears manic and mannered, without the subtleties of depth or nuance that might layer her portrayal of the always already performative role. Her performance sounds shrill and desperate, not a bad choice for the character, but out of sync with the rest of the cast, whose performances ranged from the corpse-like pose of Sarsgaard to the dark, self-immolating, melodrama of the skeletal, hollowed-out Konstantin as played by Mackenzie Crook.

None of these actors sustain the appeal necessary to carry an audience through a long, static evening. With its atmosphere of decay and despair, the cold barrenness of the old country manor house is clear in the stark lighting and the set’s peeling paint, with the walls’ disrepaired framing, and rattling windows battered by the wind and storms that continue through the second act.Metaphorizing the torments of the characters’ souls, the production’s design had more to say about its intent than the actors.

Hints of an answer to the perennial question, “Why this play now?” (posed continually by my former colleague, the famed theatre historian Oscar Brockett) are provided mostly by the supporting cast, especially Christopher Patrick Nolan as Yakov. His bitterness at his station reads clearly as he sweats under the weight of luggage hauled back and forth, in and out of the manor house, at the whim of his capricious employer. His rolled eyes, his suffering posture, his eavesdropping on the ethically impure dalliances that his superiors carry on, all offer a glimmer of the class critique it seems director Ian Rickson wants to launch. Given the events of the day, The Seagull could be a sharp analysis of the excesses of emotion and expenditure that vex the upper class, and the ways in which fortunes are fickle and fleeting. But only intermittently does a strong point of view sharpen what’s otherwise a pedestrian production.

Perhaps the new American actors confused the issues for the celebrated British cast. Sarsgaard’s film-style technique fails to galvanize live on stage, but Zoe Kazan (late of the terrific Broadway production of Come Back, Little Sheba, in which she played the family’s seductive boarder) offers a focused performance of Masha, enacting her trajectory from hope to angry resignation with nuance and a nicely contradictory verve. Carey Mulligan, who’s transported from the UK original as Nina, does a good job with the deluded actress and her seesawing affections for Konstantin and Trigorin.Her Nina’s realization that she’s been used up and cast aside by the play’s end is one of the only sincere moments in a production that’s not carefully plotted enough by its director or its actors to move the audience from one point to the next in its emotional drawing.

The Toxic Avenger Musical: New Jersey’s First Superhero

Shifting tone abruptly, I saw this latest musicalization of the 1985 cult film at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, NJ, Sunday night (10/12/08). This is apparently the third musical version of the film, which garnered its fame as a late-night event at the Bleecker Street Cinema in New York. Wikipedia calls the George Street’s the “definitive” stage version of the film; director John Rando (Urinetown) provides the high energy, high camp, highly imaginative staging that keeps the 90-minute romp fun, if slight.

The genre-mixing stew of The Toxic Avenger proceeds in the parodic vein of Urinetown and Little Shop of Horrors, cut with the pathos of being green from Wicked and the blood-thirsty, blood-spurting horror gore of Sweeney Todd (as my musicals-expert companion, Stacy Wolf, pointed out), flavored with the blind-beauty and the beast romance of the film Mask, spiced with the resurrectionist narrative of Rent (or La Boheme), and iced with the one-actor-playing-two-characters-sharing-a-scene conceit of Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep. The show purées its references to take aim at environmental pollution and government corruption, mapping the most politically incorrect routes possible to hit its targets and to make its points. Rando and book writer Joe DiPietro collaborate on fun but forgettable songs with piquant titles like “Who Will Save New Jersey?” “Thank God She’s Blind,” “Choose Me, Oprah,” “Evil is Hot,” and “Hot Toxic Love.”

The cartoon-ish story finds our hero, the nerdy, unrequited-in-love teenager Melvin Ferd the Third (Nick Cordero) beleaguered and bullied by two high school toughs, who pound on him routinely whenever they cross his path. Melvin loves Sarah (Audra Blaser), the blind blonde who cheerfully resists the same two bullies’ attempted rapes and anti-blind people cat-calls, while (badly) shelving books in her library job. (The irony of her position is intentional to the plot—she’s been planted there by the villain, who wants to make sure the evidence of the scoundrel’s malfeasance isn’t, literally, seen.) Through a cruel twist of fate, the bullies dump Melvin into one of the many vats of toxic waste that pollute the landscape of “Tromaville,” their humble city, and he mutates into a muscled, if desiccated, superhero. Thanks to Cordero’s adept physical transformation, when Melvin emerges from the muck, it almost seems like he’s played by a different actor.

With one eyeball hanging out of its socket, “flesh” hanging from his arms, and his head and torso covered with green slime, Melvin becomes “Toxie,” who goes on a one-monster crusade to avenge his mutation and the town’s environmental degradation. The dumping is linked to the “Evil is Hot” Mayor Babs Belgoody, who’s importing the waste from Manhattan to make a quick buck. Needless to say, by the end, Toxie wins both the environmental battle and the girl, and the bullies are neutralized forever.

Rando’s fast and furious blocking makes great use of a set centered on piles of rusted metal drums, which occasionally steam and smoke with fumes that practically smell as nasty as they look. The performers climb about on this pile, performing on its top, on its sides, or just in front of the mountain of waste containers. The center of the mound peels open to reveal additional settings:Melvin/Toxie’s home, where his dithering mother, Ma Ferd, worries that he won’t meet the right girl; the Mayor’s office, where pictures of other nefarious officials (G.W. Bush included) hang from the tilted walls; a beauty salon, which becomes the setting for actor Nancy Opel’s virtuoso simultaneous performance as Ma Ferd and Mayor Babs, with a little help from the rest of the cast, Ludlam-style; a scientist’s study; and the library, where Sarah drops more books than she realizes as she feels about for where to place them. The scenes move fluidly, and the production design keeps the sets campy, the costumes vampy, and the lighting as fast and bright as the music.

The four-man band plays from a visible, elevated scaffolding stage right, obviously enjoying themselves and the show. David Bryan’s music is mostly just loud; a few of Sarah’s songs are fun, punny ballads, but the rest of the music is crude rock-pop with amusing lyrics, pumped up with energetic movement and delivery. That The Toxic Avenger is a musical just seems an excuse to highlight its campy predilections, rather than to have it taken seriously in the tradition of, oh, say, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Schwartz, Sondheim (god forbid), or even Adam Guettel. The music lets the show move as fast as possible; ninety minutes fly by in good-spirited, messy fun.

The two men—“White Dude” (David Josefsberg) and “Black Dude” (Demond Green)—who play multiple roles as the supporting cast do a wonderful job as a vaudevillian pair who rotate through their characters. Aside from the dumb bullies, they perform as gay hairdressers fussing alternately with the Mayor and Ma Ferd; as Sarah’s back-up singers, in tight, sequined dresses with Supremes-style attitude; as two women of the street, in even higher heels and even more attitude; and as regular “Joes,” one a policeman and the other a sports fan. All their characters come out in quick succession for the curtain call, more evidence that backstage, someone has been working wonders with quick costume changes throughout the show.

Demond Green looks like Tracy Morgan, and performs with the same expressive, not-as-dumb-as-you-think-but-almost deadpan that makes Morgan amusing to watch. Green and Josefsberg fill the holes in the plot and the show with lots of funny business; just watching them appear as still more new characters keeps things looking fresh while the show tries to figure out what it wants to be.

The home team New Jersey audience greeted the references to their state with glee and applause, embracing Toxic’s lampooning of its reputation as a chemical dumping ground of sulphurous fog and chemical muck. That the show ends with a paean to the cleaner, more liberal meaning of “green” and a rock ‘n’ roll exhortation to stop global warning seems a bit too heavy handed, especially sung loud and proud by its toxically mint-tinted, leprous-like leading man. Facile delivery aside, ending with a progressive bumper sticker-style message fits the hit and run approach of the entire production.

The Toxic Avenger is itself a mucky caper, with everything and nothing to say about crooked politics and devastated environments. That said, I was smiling, if not outright laughing, throughout, even when the jokes were predictable and obvious and good-naturedly offensive (blind jokes, girl jokes, and queer jokes included). Watching a talented cast inspired by a talented director made up for the weaknesses of the script and the music. And hearing the audience enjoy itself didn’t hurt either.

The Feminist Spectator

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