"Can fourteen lines bear so much weight?" -- John Guare
The concept: (1) choose seven major voices in contemporary American theater, (2) ask each to write a short play inspired by Shakespeare's Sonnets, (3) add enterprising designers, a robust cadre of actors and a clever director and (4) let the games begin. That's the idea behind The Acting Company's 25th Annniversary present to itself, Love's Fire. It has been brought to fruition, with Mark Lamos at the helm, in a traveling production now at The Public Theater.
Using high-profile playwrights for a project like this has both risks and rewards. The greatest risk is that they have better things to do, literally. The greatest reward is that, if they give you their best, it will be very good. And then there is the most likely outcome, which is that you will get good but not even terribly pertinent work. It's not surprising that among these seven there are representatives of each of these categories.
The great successes here are from Tony Kushner and John Guare. Kushner's play bubbles with ideas (and titles -- he offers three choices). Three parallel scenes present Hendryk (the exceptional Stephen DeRosa) with his therapist, Esther (Erika Rolfsrud), and both with their lovers: Billygoat (Hamish Linklater) [his] and Dymphna (Lisa Tharps) [hers]. Thanks to Hendryk's hyperactive tongue, it discourses on the meaning of love, life and death and a range of other subjects from tattoos to homophones to anal sex, all in a few short minutes. And it's a clever comedy to boot. "Ambivalence," we are told, "expands our options".
Guare offers a play within a play. The entire cast becomes students, possessed of what seems like a complete library of resources from which to divine a performance based on the final two sonnets. After much discussion, an epiphany of sorts occurs and the play begins. Led by perhaps the stage's most unusual interpretation of God (Stephen DeRosa, again a standout) and the Archangel Michael (Haimish Linklater), they tell the story of Adam (James Farmer) and Eve (Jennifer Rohn), more wildly than it has ever been told. In the end, it's an elegant portrait, and the audience is also treated to a snippet of Adam Guettel's enchanting music. The latter confirms again the praise I expressed on attending his Saturn Returns concert earlier this year. (See review linked below.)
Eric Bogosian's "Bitter Sauce," which opens the show, is also quite good, if perhaps not quite as finely tuned. Inspired by a sonnet with a decidedly contemporary feel to its subject matter, he rips the covers off the meaning of love. Opening with the memorable site of a drunk Rengin (Heather Robinson), in her wedding dress, waiting on both her fiance, Herman (Daniel Pearce) and her biker-lover, Red (James Farmer), Mark Lamos seizes the opportunity to adorn it with great physical comedy.
The only major disappointment is from William Finn. His "voice" is in the form of a single song, with respectable but pedestrian music and lyrics that say nothing. It's the kind of craftsmanship one might accept in an industrial, but it's poor company for its play-mates here.
In between, there's Marsha Norman's balletic piece on Sonnet 140 -- an interesting and well-written "round" that makes great word play from the words "undo this" but that's pretty fleshless; an enjoyable slice of New York society life (you know, making sure you're at the party with Diane Sawyer and not Michelle Pfeiffer) by Wendy Wasserstein that seems far too much like something she happened to have sitting around to be considered clever; and Ntozake Shange's artful duet, which is appealing but lacking in focus, perhaps the fault of the director more than the playwright.
The young troupe of actors are energetic and uniformly good. In addition to the aforementioned Mr. DeRosa who is a gem (calling to mind on a couple of occasions Everett Quinton), Heather Robinson, Erika Rolfsrud, Jennifer Rohn, James Farmer and Haimish Linklater (nothwithstanding his tendency to get a little "ham-ish" every so often) give particularly notable performances.
Sets score high on functionality (the ability to transition being at a premium here) even if they are a bit fussy in an abstract sort of way. Lighting is quite good, and costumes are exceptionally well-considered both in evocation and in execution.
The recitation of Shakespeare's Sonnets (yes, each referenced sonnet is recited by at least one cast member) can be pretty bitter medicine for contemporary audiences. These plays add some awfully appealing sugar, and spice, to the spoon.
by Eric Bogosian, inspired by Sonnet 118
HYDRAULICS PHAT LIKE MEAN
by Ntozake Shange, inspired by Sonnet 128
Original Music by Chico Freeman
Choreography by Dyane Harvey
by Marsha Norman, inspired by Sonnet 140
TERMINATING, or Lass Meine Schmertzen Nicht Verloren Sein, or AMBIVALENCE
by Tony Kushner, inspired by Sonnet 75
by William Finn, inspired by Sonnet 102
WAITING FOR PHILIP GLASS
by Wendy Wasserstein, inspired by Sonnet 94
THE GENERAL OF HOT DESIRE
by John Guare, inspired by Sonnets 153 and 154 and The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Varagine
Original Music by Adam Guettel
Directed by Mark Lamos
with Jason Alan Carvell, Stephen DeRosa, James Farmer, Hamish Linklater, Daniel Pearce, Heather Robinson, Jennifer Rohn, Erika Rolfsrud and Lisa Tharps
Set Designs by Micahel Yeargan
Costume Designs by Candice Donnelly
Lighting Designs by Robert Wiertzel
The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street (@Astor Place) (212) 239- 6200
June 22 - July 17, 1998
Reviewed by Les Gutman July 5, 1998