Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Theatre Review: Desire Under The Elms

by: Eugene O'Neill
@ Goodman Theatre
directed by: Robert Falls

Goodman theatre, proud employer of yours truly (and I will not slant my views on this production in any way), has truly outdone itself with its production of the Eugene O'Niell classic "Desire Under the Elms". With a rocky start to the season, the new musical "Turn of the Century" (which was either loved or detested), Goodman is back on track with what very well may be the theatre event of the year. "Desire" was chosen as the centerpiece of the Eugene O'Neil festival that is being held currently at the Goodman, and with director Robert Falls at the helm - no stone is left unturned (no pun intended). The big guns have been brought out: An announced Broadway engagement following its Chicago run, the highest caliber designers and crew, and of course Brian Dennehy - which along with Falls has always spelled success. (Shall we go back a few years and remember it was Falls/Dennehy/Goodman who brought the revival of "Death of a Salesman" which opened in Chicago and went on to Broadway to win best revival of a play, best director, and best actor). With such a talented cast, I smell a repeat.

The story is one that many theatre folk are familiar with. I remember reading "Desire" my first year in college as a theatre major in my theatre history and literature class. In every way possible it is a classic tragedy. Those seeking a good time, or a happy ending, should wander elsewhere. The first great achievement of this production of the play, is the wise cutting of the script. As an epic piece, it has an epically long script. Robert Falls' cutting of the piece is quick, to the point, and meticulously planned. He eliminates wisely early on in the story, allowing the focal point (that of the fatal love triangle which destroys the core family) to breathe and grow on its own. Desire is like a 3 act play, which Falls has wisely turned into 2 acts with a prologue. In what could have been a three hour long event, this "Desire" clocks in at barely over an hour and a half. Smart move. This production is quick, to the point, yet never seems rushed or hurried in any way. (I tend to credit Falls with this, his 3 act, 3.5 hour long 'King Lear' is still my favorite piece of theatre I have seen in Chicago. Despite its length it seemed as if nothing could or should have been cut - it was all wonderful and needed).

The story follows the Cabot family. I do not want to go into the plot points. I am sure most theatre-people know the jist of it, and those who are not theatre people or haven't read the show, it would be a true crime to ruin the show's dark secrets. However a basis is needed. The show opens with 3 heirs to a family farm (sons Eben, Peter, and Simeon) doing their daily routine of strenuous chores and slaying of food. It is a boring life that the characters of the play are stuck in. However the soon return of the helm of the family (Ephraim Cabot) jolts the sons into action. Eben convinces his slightly aloof brothers to sign over their share of the farm so that they can make their trek to the Golden Hills of California (Cal .. I .. FORN .. I - A, here) to escape their begrudged lifestyle and become rich and free. As they leave the farm, a new inhabitant enters, determined to make the farm hers. Ephraim has married, a very young and very determined Abbie Putnam. O'Niell uses the rest of the show to plot out a 3 way struggle for ownership of the land. Ephraim plans to live to a hundred and out-live them all, Eben plans to get the farm in revenge of his now-replaced mother, and Abbie is determined to have something to call her own. The rest of the show details how these 3 very troubled, often unlikeable, characters twist and turn things to gain control of the farm, and each other.

Brian Dennehy has had some success in television and film (he was Juliet's father in the overrated Baz Luhrman version of "Romeo and Juliet", he was Chris Farley's father in "Tommy Boy" and was most recently in the new Pacino/DeNiro film Righteous Kill), but his true talent has always been the theatre. He is widely known as one of the best interpreters of the O'Neill language as well. He is used to great effect in this production as the stern, hard-working, and all around crotchety Ephriam Cabot. Dennehy's Ephriam is the type of old man who forgets which son is which after being gone for a year, not because he is senile, but because he honestly has spent no time looking at his children. He is all about hard work. He is dedicated to his farm, more than his family. He is on his third wife - and treats them as child bearers and food makers, his sons are his slaves. He connects better with the cows in the pasture than with his own flesh and blood. Out of the three central characters, it is Dennehy who has the least stage time, and he makes use of every scene to his advantage. He is a force onstage, one of those performances where as soon as he enters the arena - all eyes are on him. The best part of his performance is that he never allows himself to become over-dramatic or even worse melodramatic. In many ways, as Ephriam's world falls apart and he is victim of ultimate betrayal, he reacts in the opposite way that many actor would play the part. He quietens down. He bites the bullet. It would be an odd affair if Denney's wasn't awarded by both the Chicago Jeff's and the Tony's for his work here.

Carla Gugino stars as Abbie, and this is a career defining performance. Watching her in the role is like watching a star being made. Gugino is best know for her film and television work, (she is on Entourage, she was in Sin City, she also starred with Dennehy, Pacino, and DeNiro in this years Righteous Kill) but after this performance I smell many more theatre credits coming her way. Abbie is a tough role, and Gugino steps up to the plate in a big way. It's easy to paint Abbie as the villain of the piece, and Gugino is willing to play that role. Her Abbie is a violent, venom-spitting monster. But at the same time Gugino allows her Abbie to be sexual, playful, and turns the "monster" into a victim as well. At times you don't know what to do with Abbie - take her into your arms for a hug or spit potatoes in her face. As the woman who literally is the nail in the coffin for all of the farms inhabitants, Gigino stands on the fine line of realism and melodrama - and I think that is the way O'Neill intended it to be. She allows herself to go relentlessly over the top, in the best most effective and desirable way. She is the snake in the garden, literally as many of her movements in the play are dance like and slithery. In many ways, hers is the performance people will be talking about, as she damn near steals the show.

As the third member of the triangle, Pablo Schreiber stars as Eben Cabot. Eben is constantly fighting to get out of the shadow of his father - often times to no avail. He is wounded by the death of his mother, and blames his father for working her to death without showing her any love. The show is ultimately about the fateful love between Eben and Abbie (I hope I am not giving away too much here), as they make the couple in "The War of the Roses" look like Al and Peggy Bundy. Pablo is easy on the eyes, and often shirtless or even nude, but his performance is much more than eye candy. He takes the role of Eben to new extremes that couldn't be found on the page. His character makes some of the most surprising and stupid decisions. However his performance is a sight to behold as you see Eben grow from boy to man in under 2 hours.

Boris McGiver and Daniel Stewart Sherman round out the cast as Peter and Simeon Cabot (respectively). They add a greatly needed comedy to the beginning of a show which certainly isn't about laughs. Boris McGiver is certainly the standout as the dim-witted Peter.

Everything about this production is monumental. The set design is among the best I have ever seen. Gone are the elms as we are thrust onto the farm built of stones and dirt. Hanging above the set, is what hangs above each of the characters heads (driving their actions throughout), the farmhouse. Hoisted up by heavy grinding ropes, the farmhouse is literally crashing down upon its inhabitants. Stones are tied from the sky, threatening to fall down onto the greedy threesome as they fight for their home and their love. Its no surprise that the set designer is Walt Spangler, often Fall's collaborator (they last worked together on King Lear - the most sprawling theatre piece I've ever seen). The light design is haunting. Oftentimes there is a feeling of the characters being trapped underwater at times, like fish trying to escape to the ocean - yet instead they are flapping around like fish out of water, desperately hoping to flop themselves a few feet so they can land back into the stream. The music used is perfect. There are some pieces created just for the show, some live violin music, and most exciting a full Bob Dylan song, which plays early on and posts a warning to the audience: "It ain't dark yet, but it's getting there."

"Desire Under the Elms" is not only recommended theater viewing, I think it will be a true crime not to see the show. I give it my highest praise and adoration. I truly suggest that you get to Goodman theatre as soon as you can and see the show that I am sure everyone will be talking about.

**** out of ****

taken from Hedy Weiss Sun Time's Review:

"It takes actors of immense presence to stand up to such an overwhelming environment, and this cast of five unquestionably meets the challenge."

"Veteran Carla Gugino is absolutely sensational!"

"Dennehy easily taps into the unmovable, self-made tyrant whose struggle for survival has robbed him of compassion. He brings a creepy sense of foreboding."

"Schrieber turns in a beatifully calibrated performance."

"You will not soon forget this thunderous production."

"Highly recommended"

Taken from Chris Jones Chicago Tribune review:

"Robert Falls’ colossal, eye-popping, unabashedly sexual and overtly expressionistic revival of Eugene O’Neill’s embryonic American tragedy from 1924 is a success."

"Carla Gugino stars, in what could be a career-making performance."

"This latest, massive production, which also includes a defiantly anachronistic burst of Bob Dylan, feels like an intellectual companion to his similarly expressionistic and controversial take on “King Lear.”

“Desire” is a very difficult play for a modern audience to grasp. It is a relentlessly depressing play that a good portion of that audience won’t particularly want to grasp. I am not in that group, but I see their argument and wouldn’t be surprised if more than a few make it with their feet. But such are the enemies a great artistic leader must make."

"Carla Gigino's performance is an arresting and courageous one that oozes sex but also suggests the kind of steely alienation that can make sense of a mercurial character driven to madness."

"Highly Recommended"

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