A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Whether the company's sexually explicit, unusually staged production is going to please those who loved it almost twenty years ago is another matter. As someone who was there, if it weren't for the lush, diverse score, It would have taken me even longer than it did to believe that what I was seeing last Thursday night wasn't completely revised.
Actually, except for scene 8, the libretto follow the same characters and situations: The characters named according to what defines them (The Whore, The Soldier, The Nurse, The Senator, The Young Thing, The Writer, The Actress The College Boy, The Young Wife The Husband) go through the same merry-go-round of seduction, sexual congress, and aloneness. But watching the ten couples in this revival having their "hello again" interchanges is certainly a completely different experience not just from the Lincoln Center original but from more familiar theatrical story telling.
Admirably imaginative as this Hello Again is, I would have been happier with a little less in-your-face sexual explicitness and more of the simplicity that Mr. Cummings brought to his First Lady Suite production. Despite variations in the way all LaChiusa's couples huff and puff their way towards orgasm, I would have found these inevitable climactic moments in each scene to be less tiresome if not quite so insistently realistic yet fake (no one takes their clothes off so this is risque without the risk of being accused of putting on a live peep show).
Before going any further into why I wasn't as rah rah about this staging, as Transport's First Lady Suite , permit me to take a leaf from Mr. LaChiusa's musical and jump back to this show's inspirational wellspring and its trajectory from Lincoln Center to a SoHo loft.
La Ronde, Arthur Schnitzler's 1897 sexual roundelay, has inspired numerous adaptations for both stage and screen. The most famous screen version was a 1952 French film of the same name by Max Ophuls which used a raconteur-narrator to introduce and provide philosophical commentary on the sexaul encounters. In 1998 playwright David Hare's rejiggered The Blue Room so that the journey through the ten sexual encounters was made by just two actors (the female actor being Nicole Kidman made it a hot ticket).
But it took composer-lyricist-librettist Michael John LaChiusa to turn the characters' search for meaningful and durable connection through sex into Hello Again, an intimate and intricately interwoven musical for ten actors with strong acting and vocal chops. LaChiusa's mostly sung-through chamber opera connects the heated couplings by having each new scene feature a just seen and a new character. It also takes advantage of the forward and backward time shifts to echo the musical rhythms from each era.
Besides expanding Schnitzler's single time frame, Hello Again was also more daring in its depiction of the sexual content. Yet the Lincoln Center premiere as directed and choreographed by Graciela Daniele managed to be both risque and elegantly delicate. The Mitzi Newhouse Theater's small three-sided thrust stage, allowed the actors to enter and exit through the aisles and put the audience up close to what was happening in each scene.
If, like me, you have fond memories of that long-ago all too brief run, you no doubt greeted the news about Transport Theatre Company 's revival with eager anticipation. Add LaChiusa's many fans who are too young to have experienced Hello Again other than through the original cast recording and it doesn't take a seer to predict that this adventurous young company is likely to have another hit on its hands — especially since, like last season's much praised Boys in the Band, this new Hello Again is again staged in a large downtown loft rather than a conventional theater space.
Transport's artistic director Cummings, who also helmed Boys in the Band, can't be faulted for avoiding the challenges of this kind of staging. The loft which is probably 100 feet long isn't exactly conducive to intimacy. But Cummings has come up with a interesting concept : to combine close-up viewing with the feeling of distance and apartness stemming from the fact that the heated sexual encounters bring temporary pleasure but neverthe desired real human connection. The way he's done this is to seat the audience at ten large round tables, which are in turn arranged in a circle around a central platform with a bed and overhead mirror (there's another large mirror against the wall. nearest that platform
As each scene unfolds, it becomes clear that every table will take a turn as a stage. Whether a couple interacts on the steps in front of your table or on top of it, you're as close to what's going on as you can get. Interaction on the platform with the bed and nearby tables still puts you in what might be considered a first class orchestra seat in a "regular "theater.
The problem is that no matter where you sit, there's a lot of straining and head turning to keep track of actors traversing that enormous space which is distracting. And the scenes that you view from a great distance don't really achieve the director's vision to have you experience that feeling of relationships that bring us close together only to swiftly widen the distance that keeps us far apart — for example, the scene where the adulterous Young Wife tries to arouse her lover in a movie theater just had me straining my neck. What's more, while a loft setting really was site specific for Boys in the Band, the set up here is more a case of the director making his production fit a untraditional venue.
While Mr. Cummings' vision doesn't quite work, the actors deserve a shoutout for navigating this vast playing areas and Kathryn Rohe's costumes clearly set the time and place of each scene. Best of all, and the reason to see this rarely produced show, is the music. The new orchestrations by Mary-Mitchell Campbell and the 6-piece orchestra make LaChiusa's score more compelling than ever.
As if you didn't know already, this is a strictly adults only show. There's a notice at the door that states "No one under the age of 16 will be admitted."