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Saturday, June 10, 2006

Death to the Mere

Hmm . . . this week has been a relentless cultural bombardment. I'm afraid it's not quite over yet, either, because last night pal M, spouse M, and I were LED with BRUSQUENESS to Court Theatre's production of Lettice and Lovage.

Having just now read the The Chicago Tribune's review of this production, I can only imagine that they either had a truly awful opening night, or the reviewer is so enamored of Peter Shaffer (the playwright of this as well as Equus and Amadeus), that he feels compelled to foist any flaws on to the production. In my view the problem is the opposite: Court provides a practically perfect production, but the play has its flaws.

Briefly (well, we'll see, that doesn't constitute a contract or anything), the play focuses on two women "of a certain age" in London near the end of the 20th century who, in strange ways, rise up against their lives of quiet desperation. In Act I, scene i, we meet Lettice Douffet, a tour guide to the unwashed masses (well, handsful, but they're certainly unwashed) at the most boring house in England. Frustrated with the rudeness and palpable disinterest of her groups, Lettice draws on her theatrical legacy and her passion for Tudor-era cuisine to "endore" the past.

Although Lettice's strategy is largely successful (and she has the illicit gratuities and fan mail to prove it), a handful of complaints to her employer ends with her being called on the staid, boring carpet of Lotte Schoen, the human resources director of the Preservation Trust. It is in scene ii that we learn of Lettice's off-the-wall childhood. After she and her mother are abandoned by her father, they find that post-WWII England has little patience or place for women of vaulting, if slightly dotty, ambition. They sail for France and found "Les Barbares," an all-female theater company dedicated to performing her mother's translations of Shakespeare's histories. ("Un cheval! Un cheval! Mon royaume pour un cheval!")

Using her own history with the histories, Lettice rails against the pointless preservation of history in which nothing ever happened. All the whiles, she is building the case for her own defense in good Shakespearean style, which culminates in her declaring herself to be a martyr for language, history, and spunk.

Lotte, a sensible, be-bobbed, button-down nightmare of an HR person seems as if she could cheerfully and ruthlessly throttle Lettice at the beginning of the scene. But by the end of it she is not exactly charmed by Lettice, but is moved to some compassion for her nonetheless.

That sliver of sympathy brings Lotte to Lettice's basement flat in Act II, which takes place some six weeks later. In this Act, we learn about Lotte, who has been moved to seek out another job for Lettice and even to provide her with a letter of reference that is completely factual and yet not at all veracious. Although this gesture seems to be pitying at first, we gradually learn (with the help of some of Lettice's Tudor-era homebrew) that Lotte is somewhat envious of Lettice and the success she enjoys, however intermittently, in carving a place for herself, on her own terms, in modern life.

Like Lettice, Lotte had to navigate life with one parent stuck in the past. In her case, her father was a survivor of Dresden who, as she puts it, died with Europe (the physical, architectural landscape, not the people) during the war. Bearing the burden of his mourning, and joining in with laments of her own as uglier and uglier buildings replaced the past beauty, Lotte studied to be an architect. At school she fell in love with a young, radical chemist, and they planned to protest modernity and ugliness by blowing up the Shell building. At the last minute, though, her sraight-laced nature gets the better of her inner anarchist, and her relationship and her career are the only things that go up in a puff of smoke.

In Act III, we've moved six months into the future, and we find Lettice in her basement flat with solicitor who is trying, in vain, to get her to realize the seriousness of a situation to be named later. We eventually learn that she is accused of trying to murder Lotte with an axe. Although Lettice is initially firm in her belief that Lotte will exonerate her, Mr. Bardolphe (the public aid solicitor assigned to her case) eventually convinces her that Lotte is, in fact, the main witness for the prosecution. Lettice in beautiful, Western-history-flouting, nonlinear fashion, recounts the course of their friendship over the last six months, which has centered around recreating the final days and executions of historical figures with spunk: Mary, Queen of Scots; Charles I of England;

Eventually, Lotte and her ridiculously bandaged head arrive, and she is furious and mortified at how much Lettice has already revealed. She admits that in her concussed state, she confirmed the police's suspicion that Lettice had hit her in the head with an axe, inadvertantly precipitating her arrest. As Lotte and Lettice tangle and argue, the solicitor eventually coaxes the the real story out of them, which involves last-minute role reversal in their recreations, a chopping block smuggled from forest to London by bus, and a cat attack.

Although the two women seem to repair their relationship in large part as they are caught up in the drama of their own story, things come crashing down around their ears again when it becomes clear that telling the story in court is the only way that Lettice will be able to evade jail time. For Lotte, however, this is a death sentence, as her antics will be revealed to all and sundry. She unleashes a torrent of abuse at Lettice, accusing her of romanticizing a past that was even more brutal than the present she so hates, and of wanting company among the ranks of the unemployed and ridiculous. For the first time, Lettice's facade crumbles and she breaks down admitting that the modern world terrifies her and she has no idea how to deal with any of it. Lotte ultimately returns, repentant, and the two hatch a plan that will unite their strengths: They will give tours excoriating the ugliest buildings in London and thus ferret out like minds, rather than hiding away. Lettice improvises a tour talk, culminating in a typically madcap story, and the play ends with a toast to the audience.

Well, so much for briefly. But hey, as the Trib guy points out, the play runs three hours, so turnabout is fair play. Most of what was dead weight to me is concentrated in the second act, but I admit that somewhat subjective. I don't have the knowledge or interest in architecture that I do in theater, so Lotte's story just doesn't move me as much. However, I think there is also some objective problem with the play in this act and, perhaps, with Court's approach.

The play was written in 1987 and seems to be intended to be a portable play that can be set in "present day." There are a few touches in the production that are nods to that portability (e.g., one of the rude tourists has a modern cell phone). But some of the content in Act II is dated, most notably Lotte's off-hand remarks about how easy her bomb plot was to carry out "before terrorism," and some whingeing by both women about Lettice's Arab upstairs neighbor. I'm certainly not arguing that we need a long, serious, Toby Keith homage to the horror of terrorism post-September 11th, but the dissonance could have been fixed by some trimming (my preference) or more aggressive work by the dramaturg. On a related note, in some ways the "crisis" such as it is, well, a bit British, isn't it? I mean, after all, Lettice is facing some pretty dire straits. Lotte's fear of being a laughingstock in her office really pales in comparison for an American (particularly Americans in 2006 who have had five years of looking really stupid all the time).

Given that I really enjoyed the rest of the production, though, I'm much more comfortable laying the blame for the flaws on the playwright. The set and staging (design by Jack Magaw) were a big success in my opinion. Court's space can, of course, be set up in any of a number of ways, and this production goes for a standard proscenium approach, more or less, although it does make good use of the fact that the actual stage is hexagonal.

Act I, which is set within "Fustian House," takes place downstage of the proscenium on one half of that hexagon. The upstage area is half concealed by a semitransparent curtain. Behind it, the furniture and set pieces that will be used in Acts II & III for Lettice's flat are jumbled together in piles. A few pieces are suspended from the ceiling on wires, and two swathes of light blue silk are tangled haphazardly over the whole kit and kaboodle. I like the basic concept, which evokes the wings and backstage area of the theatre (and, to some extent, the actors' wagon from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead.) However, suspending stuff from the ceiling also says "bogus seance," which I'm not sure was intentional.

The interior of the house is represented by a velvet rope set up at the downstage center edge so that the staircase (the only feature of the house that came close to hosting an event of any interest whatsoever) is actually the audience. Just downstage of the curtain are two suits of armor on low platforms. Three ugly overlapping Persian rugs complete the set.

In scene ii, the transformation into Lotte's office is achieved with the help of a few cheapy, ultramodern pieces straight out of CB2: A glass and aluminum desk (complete with an intimidating phone-intercom system that sits semiupright) and two matching chairs in cool glassy blue and gunmetal grey. The half-stage curtain is drawn back to allow the use of a wood-framed doorway set upstage left, and the up-center, and up-right portions of the stage are casually masked with a few posters set on stands behind the desk.

For Lettice's flat, the doorway is rolled further downstage and toward center, as is a matching archway that frames her desk nook at center right. Bridging these two from right to left is a wider wooden proscenium and upstage of that there is a bay window and window seat, giving the flat a hexagonal outline. Through the windows, we can see the iron fence that separates the windows of the basement flat from the pavement above.

The furnishing of Lettice's flat is pretty minimal, but still appropriately dramatic. Above the desk is fanatastic vintage poster advertising Alice Evans Douffet in Richard III. The desk itself has a handful of dusty old books, a clutter of goblets, mugs, and so on that clearly have been lifted from a collection of props. On the shelf under the desk, a prop sull is just barely visible. Further upstage, the living room furniture consists of her mother's "Falstaff chair" (badly scarred wood with a fraying velvet seat and back) and the "endored chair" (tacky throne-like gilt with heinous black and gold upholstery). These chairs, together with a wooden trunk, form a conversation group at right center. At left and slightly downstage are two mismatched wooden chairs around a cafe table with a wrought-iron base and some kind of floral design on the marble-look top. The only other piece if furniture is a large hexagonal ottoman with an upholstered top and wooden feet.

I also have to give the big, almost unreserved, thumbs up to Jacqueline Frinkins's costume design. I imagine that Lettice is a character who can be both a dream and a nightmare to costume. In Act I, she communicates both the grinding away of time and the evolution of Lettice's theatrics through some very clever costuming (albeit costuming that is challenging for the actress to negotiate). Her basic outfit consists of silky pants in cream with a tinge of peach and a matching unstructured jacket. Underneath the jacket she wore a kurta in a bronzey orange with embroidery around the neckline.

In her first disastrous tour, she wears a long wooly scarf wound around her neck, which seemed very out of step with the flowing silk of the rest of the outfit. During the second tour, she wears a tassled burnout velvet poncho-style scarf that still has a touch of the strangled, motion-limiting quality of the scarf, but also previews things to come. It's during this second tour that she first begins to embellish. From there, she dons a gorgeous green velvet jacket with a burnout design on the back, and the crown glory of act I, a flowing peach silk jacket with a gorgeous beaded pattern on the back. It's with this costume piece that Lettice really comes into her own. It has none of the bundled up qualities of the early pieces and the color match with her base outfit is beautiful (in contrast to the green, which is beautiful on its own, but odd in the extreme with the rest of her outfit).

In scene ii her ensemble has gone all brought-to-you-by-three-blind-hedgehogs-in-a-bag again. She arrives at Lotte's office wearing a ridiculous blue velvet page's hat and an outlandish wooly cloak with a giant cowl top. Wooly = bad juju for Lettice. I have to admit that I covet that cloak like you wouldn't believe. I mean it's not as badass as Neville the Impaler's jacket in The Secret Garden, but I wouldn't kick it out of bed. Sadly, though, the reveal of Lettice's Mary-Queen-of-Scots'-Final-Comedy-Routine-Martyr-Red get up is one of the few costuming failures. The gold polka dots say castoff gypsy, not French-Catholic martyr.

Lettice's Act II get up rubbed me the wrong way at first, but again, I have to take my silly velvet hat off to Frinkins. Lettice is morosely, pathetically "at home" in Act II, and she wears an ankle-length kimono-style robe in hot pink with both a colored floral design and a subtled brocade. Underneath she has a turquoise sailor top with beading around the tie, and flowing chiffon pants in a darker pink. Also, bitching, beaded little genie flats. The mismatched pink between the pants and robe was driving me a little bit crazy until I thought back to the "pretty, but wrong color" jacket in Act I. The not-quite-right colors give Lettice just the right chin up, down at heel feel that reminds the audience that Lettice lives on the edge of an economic abyss (which, of course is quite important in Act III when she tells Mr. Bardolphe that she qualifies for "free help" because she doesn't have 50 pounds' worth of disposable income, and she chose him of all the possible names because of the Falstaff connection).

As the lights came up partway in Act III (really nice evocation of late afternoon in a basement flat, which made me forgive Diane Fairchild for a few lighting false steps earlier), Lettice is in a comparatively simple tea-length, berry-pink tank dress with the wooly green cardigan of doom over top. Seriously, I've never seen woolyness used so effectively as a foreshadowing technique. But throughout the act, as Lettice warms to her own story and the happy memories of her friendship with Lottie, she snags a floral scarf from their improvised chopping block and ties it around her waste, lending the cardigan a little bit of funk. And, of course, Frinkins is able to go completely balls out with her executioner's disguise at the end of the act. (Tragically, there are no production photos of this, but I'm afraid I completely fucking lost it at first sight of her giant curly red beard, and never quite recovered from it.)

Although Lettice is the character you write home about in terms of costuming, the rest of the design is solid, too. The same actors play the different groups of tourists, and Frinkins manages well giving them a same-shit-different-day feeling with static base outfits plus a variety of hats, scarves, and bags to make it clear that these are different individuals even if the groups have an oppressive sameness. If I had to pick out a problem here, though, I'd say that going for a slightly vintage look for the female tourists confuses the time period a bit. Lotte's suits are classic and just a little too prim to really be elegant. And although they constitute a uniform that could be worn by any business woman, her clunky three-button shoes give off a outdated old lady vibe, rather than funky-chic (which, incidentally, is how they will look on me when I steal them). Lotte's hair is another matter. I respect the uncompromising Madeleine-Kahn-as-Mrs.-White bob, but the wig didn't fit quite right, possibly because she seems to have been wearing a second, grey wig (horrible) under the first, which forms the basis of a pretty elaborate joke, but then you're stuck with it.

In terms of performances, I would say that I loved Patricia Hodges as Lettice and liked Linda Reiter as Lotte a great deal. Hodges is tall and willowy and had a wonderful, sweeping, over-the-top grace that she brought to Lettice. it's funny that the Trib guy mentions her performance as comparing unfavorably with Maggie Smith's in the same role, because there is a moment when she is telling her story to Lotte that I had a Prime of Miss Jean Brodie flashback and I thought that, although I love Maggie Smith, Lettice could get old face if she were too prim and too British (particularly alongside Lotte). In Act III, when Mr. Bardolph finally manages to hammer home the fact that she is to be put on real trial in real life, she allows Lettice to break character just slightly, and it's heartbreaking---unfortunately, probably a little more heartbreaking than the ultimate breakdown nearer the end of the act. But I loved nearly everything about her performance, her diction, body language, timing, the whole package.

Lotte is a character that's just harder to love, of course, but even still I think Reiter doesn't quite hit the high notes that are available to her in Act II. She's also a bit too shrill and aggressive in Act III where more hopelessness and despair might've gotten the job done better. Still, the two of them played off one another extremely well, and she gets some opportunities to demonstrate her own physicality in her (thankfully understated) drunk scene.

John Judd (Mr. Bardolph) deserves honorable metion as well, especially given that his character has to go through some accelerated evolution in Act III. He begins as the frustrated (but ultimately kind) public servant who somehow finds himself playing the drums (PAM! TIDITTY PAM!) at the execution of Charles I. As he leaves, you can tell he's fallen half in love with Lettice in the course of an afternoon, in much the way Lotte does in Acts I & II.

The only dubious casting choice I can think of was Linda Gillium as Miss Framer, Lotte's dizzy secretary. I can see the temptation to cast her as she has a great look: Very young and fresh-faced, but in a vintage sort of way. You can see her playing a gal pal of Rosalind Russell in some movie from the 40s. Unfortunately, although by no means a bad actress, she's simply not of the same caliber as Reiter or Hodges. She was a little too Julie Haggerty when a little Alyce-Beasley-in-later-seasons-of-Moonlighting might've worked better.

When I take a step back and consider performances and text together, though, I feel like I have to give everyone a big round of applause, particularly the two leads, for holding up so well. Shaffer is not exactly Stoppard, but the dialogue flies fast and furious and it requires a delicate touch to let the jokes tell themselves. Overall, the whole cast does that admirably, even when the script takes a temporary wrong turn.

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