Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Supersize meals

It's not that I mind ginormous sets at the theater or opera, but they can really backfire. Too often, the director feels that merely plopping the cast in the middle of a Cecil B. DeMille or D.W. Griffith extravaganza is enough: That's it, my job is done! No need to think any further! But it's part of a director's job to offer some kind of take on what he or she is staging. You may not agree with Peter Sellars saying that Marke was Tristan's lover in the Tristan Project's synopsis, but at least it's a point of view.

Case of a big set that works because it makes a point integral to a director's reading of the work: Thomas Ostermeier's rotating apartment for Nora (A Doll's House), seen at BAM in 2004.

Case of a big set with no clear purpose other than épater le bourgeois: Il Trittico at the Met, seen on Monday. For the first act of Puccini's trilogy, "Il Tabarro," there's an almost-lifesize barge on stage, and even that is dwarfed by the very high bridge it sits under. Other than it being shorthand for Paris (it's very Hôtel du Nord), I'm just not sure what purpose it serves. The monastery in "Suor Angelica" looks frighteningly authentic—or at least like an American dream of a Tuscan monastery—and includes a gurgling fountain; the 1950s apartment in "Gianni Schicci" is perfect down to the overstuffed furniture and the boar's head mounted on the wall.

The people sitting behind us loved it all, ooh'ing and aah'ing every time the curtain went up and revealed yet another set designer's wet dream. As for me, when it comes to Met productions I much preferred the boulders in Jenufa a few months back. And they were big, too!

Speaking of bigness, I cannot recommend Coram Boy enough. It's getting a rough deal from the critics (except for ours: Yay, David Cote!) but it's one of the best things on Broadway, and certainly among the few shows there to be worth the ticket price—or more, since I hear discount tickets are easy to find. This London import is pure theater magic (emphasis on theater) since its effects belong to the stage and nowhere else. I may have been positively biased because I'm a big fan of Dickens and Wilkie Collins, but the show doesn't just pile on the plot twists, it also delivers genuine pathos along with breathtaking staging ideas courtesy of director Melly Still.

No wonder that adaptation of a YA novel came from London's National Theatre, which also presented the stage version of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. The Brits know how to put on children's shows that not only don't underestimate children's intelligence, but also dare to show them that the world is not necessarily a nice place, testing their moral compass in the process. In the US, on the other hand, children's entertainment is sanitized beyond belief. Sure, parents have to prepare their little ones before going to Coram Boy, but that's part of the job, and the experience should benefit both generations.

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