Four Greats

Watching the discussion of the new fall theatre season over the weekend got me to reflecting about some of the most memorable productions I’ve seen – electrifying, inspiring, definitive. Here are four that will, for me, last a lifetime.

The late Michael Langham’s staging of “Love’s Labor’s Lost” at Canada’s paradisal Stratford Festival was just about the best Shakespeare I’ve ever seen. Stripped of naturalistic trappings except for a few charming scenic reminders, and unencumbered by directorial concepts, the production placed primacy on the actors and the words. And the use of direct address during the soliloquies (the actors spoke right to us when alone on stage, as if we were their friends and co-conspirators) created the kind of pact between actors and audience that makes the theatre–where both breathe the same air–such a uniquely exciting encounter.

Moliere’s astonishingly unpredictable, radically unclassifiable “Don Juan” was given a production of penetrating clarity and beauty by Princeton’s McCarter Theatre about ten years ago. A rare case of lots of money well spent. Stephen Wadsworth’s production scrupulously, but lovingly, recreated seventeenth century production conventions, including ornately artificial backdrops, layered costumes, depth-of-field staging and floods of candlelight. But the production never for a moment seemed musty, mannered, or fussy; instead, the element of time travel made the play seem even closer to us, more fresh and modern, as if it had just been dropped in our laps for the first time. This was due to the production’s conviction, visual eloquence, and full-blooded acting.

Some of my favorite experiences have been university productions. Juilliard’s production of Gozzi’s rarely produced commedia-esque masterpiece, “The King Stag,” was magical. Unabashedly theatrical, epically imaginative but charmingly low-tech, Andrei Belgrader’s production captured an otherworldly balance between naivete and wisdom, which is the key to the play. And the students performed with ardor, enthusiasm, and high-flying improvisatory brio.

Finally, Elaine Stritch in her solo Broadway show, “At Liberty,” was a knockout. When she sang “Everybody Rise!” at the end of “Ladies Who Lunch,” it was so primal and so direct, you felt like you had to get out of your chair, or she would kill you. Tough, funny, gutsy, intelligent, this was the kind of performance that makes you want to blow trumpets.

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