Quartet, by Ronald Harwood. Directed by John Simpkins. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Greg Mullavey, Elizabeth Franz, Joseph Hindy, Patricia McAneny; photo: Randy O'Rourke
"To come to terms with the present"
Elizabeth Franz as "Jean"; photo: Randy O'Rourke
Three retired opera singers reside at a retirement home for Artists, principally music artists. All three have worked together in the distant past when they were younger, still singing, still vitally engaged in their profession. They have agreed among themselves to perform at an annual Giuseppe Verdi birthday celebration and they would like to sing the Quartet from Rigoletto, one of their signature pieces, a recorded treasure. It is, perhaps, the most sacred piece they all know. They need a fourth, though, and fortunately for them their old soprano "buddy" Jean Horton is moving into the Home. Certainly she will save the day and reprise her role of Gilda in this one number. When she refuses and then refutes them for their mis-belief that they can still sing Verdi, they are stunned to a point beyond stupefaction. What is hurt is their pride and what saves the day for them is that same pride. At least until this new production at the Sharon Playhouse under the direction of John Simpkins.
I have been privileged to work, as an agent and a stage director, for opera singers. I know what those egos can produce in sound and fury on a stage and I remember what they can manage to do to themselves, one another and the unsuspecting public when they get going emotionally in real time. They often live outside the mainstream, and for a good reason: they don't believe in the world of normal people. They are almost universally edgey people, always taking off on a conversational tangent that leads directly back to themselves. They gesture large; they speak large and loud; their emotions are rarely hidden and what is visible is more often than not over-acted, big, boisterous, loud, and a slap in the face with the back of a hand the size of King Kong's hand.
At the Sharon Playhouse the actors are basically playing other actors without that enormous sense of taking center stage, pulling attraction. They just aren't big enough to satisfy Ronald Harwood's delicious script which should be funnier, grander, grosser, lively. Instead this play has a studied look and feel about it. Harwood's biggest stage hit on both sides of the Atlantic was a play called "The Dresser" about a man whose life is devoted to the care of an actor of the old school, wild, an engaging gesturer, a posturer, a man whose bluster rhymes with General Custer. Based loosely on Harwood's own involvement with Sir Donald Wolfitt, an actor without a genuine bone in his body,this is key to his work there and in this play. Here he has translated Wolfitt into three retired opera singers and a bit into the fourth one, Jean Horton, new to the shores of this place she finds herself deserted in at the end of her useful life.
Wilfred Bond, Bass, is played by Greg Mullavey with an accent that is difficult to hear through. In the first act he was consistently difficult to understand; in the second act he seemed fine. Mezzo-Soprano Cecily Robson is interpreted here by Patricia McInerny in a manner that is both delicious and outrageous. Tenor Reginald Paget is beautifully performed by Joseph Hindy. Elizabeth Franz, an old favorite of mine, undertakes Jean Horton, the only one of the three not willing to sacrifice pride and perform what could be their final public appearrance.
This is a superbly talented and experienced company of actors. That their work in no way matches the characters scripted by Harwood cannot be their fault; this cannot be collusion on their parts. They have clearly been drawn into down-playing their characters' natural intentions to overact for one another. Mullavey escapes it slightly and McAneny is never over-the-top though she approaches that level now and again. Hindy seems to be rigidly presenting the sane man even when he shouts wildly at a nurse who supervises his food intake.
The key to the problems with this production lies in the lovely performance by Franz. Her tensions are cleanly presented and her history movingly recited in two special moments. Her words allow us information to process and we can believe her history as she relates it. Without the emotional overage that this character requires all she is doing is reciting lines, however, and Elizabeth Franz is capable of so much more.
Clearly Hindy is her equal in restraint, therefore it follows that he might well be on a par with her in the world of histrionics. In this stage edition there is too much subtlety in his presentation of his character and not enough fire and bluster. As the tension in the play builds and information about the past is discussed openly these two people are drawn closer to one another. But without the bravado of opera singers this is just one more set of intentions that never play out properly.
Michelle Eden Humphrey has created the perfect clothing and opera costumes for these four players to wear. Michael Schweikardt has given them an excellent room to meet and play in as they hatch their plots. Chris Dallos pulls off luscious tricks, again with a subtlety, with his lighting design. And Emma Wilk adds musical elements galore to the ongoing non-musical play. Fine actors in a gracious setting with only one element missing, the visible, visual, verbal vicissitudes that would give a versimilitude to this version of Harwood's crimson tale of revenge over the ravages of time.
Seriously, this is a good play that just misses the mark in its too careful production. One character says, without irony, "they're finished now - like us" and the line gets no response. What should develop there is a tightened throat and a laughter that pierces it through and through. Instead the line goes by, we notice it, and then it's gone. The magic in a quartet is the harmony, the antiphony and the blend of individuality that makes beautiful music together. This quartet is restricted to the serious acting of words rather than the overwhelming rendition of a tune we all have to play one day. Oh, if we all could be opera singers then.
Quartet plays at the Sharon Playhouse, 49 Amenia Road, Sharon, CT through August 28. For tickets and information call the box office at 860-364-7469 or go on line to sharonplayhouse.org.