Sunday, April 14, 2013

Shifting Roles at Asolo Repertory Theater

I have been to Sarasota so frequently of late that I wish I had Barbara Eden's ability in "I Dream of Jeannie" to transport herself with a nod of her pony-tailed head.  It's been worth it, though, to learn more about Asolo Repertory Theater's inner workings and to see some great theater.  One cool thing about Asolo Rep is that it is a true repertory theater, with multiple plays going on at the same time.  In a 36 hour period, you can see three different productions!  This week I saw two of their current offerings, Venus in Fur and Clybourne Park, with quite different reactions.

Venus in Fur:  If I could subliminally write "Go see Venus in Fur" throughout this post I would.  Instead, I will just be direct:  GO SEE THIS PLAY, which is running through April 28th.  I went into the show knowing nothing other than the most basic description:  "Vanda is an unusual young actress who arrives to audition for the lead in playwright Thomas' adaptation of the erotic novel Venus in Furs.  During their reading, realities being to shift and Thomas finds himself heading into dangerous territory.  Does art imitate life?  Or is it the other way around?"  Frankly, it didn't sound like something that I would enjoy, but my friend Andrea was visiting from New York and a theater outing was in order.  Am I ever glad that I saw this show!  The play captivated me from the first moment.  At times it was so intense that I found myself literally holding my breath.   Both Scott Kearns and Sarah Nealis are outstanding.   Kearns plays the role of the playwright who is persuaded during the audition to read the actor's part, a role he was obviously meant to play.  Nealis plays the scattered actress who is transformed when she assumes the role of Vanda during the reading.  The pair move seamlessly in and out of these roles throughout the play in a way that is truly remarkable.  

The programs for Asolo Rep's shows are always chock-full of information that gives deeper meaning to the production.  The program for this show contained an extensive description of playwright David Ives' inspiration for the show--Venus in Furs written in 1870 by Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch.  (Yes, the word "masochism" is derived from Sacher-Masoch's name.  He preferred to think of himself as a "supersensualist.")  The program also contains some wonderful reproductions of Venus in art over the ages, from Botticelli's The Birth of Venus to a picture of Marlene Dietrich in the 1932 film Blonde Venus.   Very fun. 

I don't want to reveal more about the show, but I could not recommend it more highly. It is playing at the Historic Asolo Theater (inside the doors of the Ringling Museum), which is a beautiful theater seating only about 200 people.  If you miss this production, Venus in Fur is on Florida Repertory Theater's schedule for next season.  It will be put on in the small black box theater and is bound to be a powerful theater experience there as well.  GO SEE THIS PLAY!!!

Clybourne Park:  Sadly, my feelings about Clybourne Park are not nearly as enthusiastic.  The play, which is an extension of A Raisin in the Sun, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play.  Knowing that likely raised my expectations--never a good thing--but I feel that playwright Bruce Norris tried to cover too much territory and ended up diluting his message.  It almost felt like someone with ADHD had written the play.  "Here's an idea. I know that the heart of this play is about race, but wouldn't it be better if I brought in a little bit about religion?  And how about gender issues?  And what about the ethics of real estate transactions?  Oh, and let's have some serious family drama as well."   Whew.  As my friend Bruce politely said, the show was very "content-heavy."   

While the actors in Clybourne Park were all quite proficient in their portrayals of different characters in the first and second acts, I just didn't get the intensity that I suspect Norris was going for when he wrote the play.  In addition to the numerous themes, there were extended stretches of dialogue that were so off point that I wanted to scream, "Just get on with it!'

On a positive note, the program notes about the show were wonderful.  (Lauryn E. Sasso is the dramaturg who is responsible for these sections of the program for all the shows and, as noted above, does an amazing job.)   In "Tracing the Roots:  From A Raisin in the Sun to Clybourne Park," we learn that playwright Lorraine Hansberry was the first African-American woman whose work was produced on Broadway when A Raisin in the Sun opened in 1959.  The play is based fairly literally on Hansberry's personal experience.  Her family purchased a home in Chicago in the 1930s in a community with a restrictive covenant preventing racial integration.  Her father litigated the issue, and the covenant was eventually overturned.  Hansberry remembers that, "The fight required that our family occupy the disputed property in a hellishly hostile 'white neighborhood' in which, literally, howling mobs surrounded our house... I remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our house all night with a loaded German luger [pistol], doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in ... court."   Apparently one draft of A Raisin in the Sun ends in this manner, as opposed to with the feeling of resolve and hope that Hansberry eventually settled on.   

Every show can't be wonderful, but my "hit" ratio has been much higher of late than when I lived in New York and would have happily left at least half of the shows at intermission.  I have tickets for two more productions at the Asolo to round out the season--Noah Racey's Pulse, a new dance musical, and My Brilliant Divorce.   I can't wait.  

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