May 15, 2010

Lost in "The Forest"

The best part of the Classic Stage Company’s current production of The Forest came the day after my husband K and I saw the show. It was reading the background information about the play in the company’s newsletter.

I’d never heard of the play’s author Alexander Ostrovsky before but it was fascinating to learn about how he had been a contemporary of Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy, is considered by many to be the father of Russian drama and was an inspiration for both Chekhov and Stanislavski (click here to read about Ostrovsky yourself).  Alas, seeing the show was nowhere near as satisfying. 

Like so many Russian stories, The Forest involves a country estate. The one in this comedy of manners is owned by Raisa, a wealthy but miserly woman who is the uneasy guardian of a destitute niece and an equally impoverished nobleman’s son. The plot centers around her efforts to marry them off to one another and is complicated by the surprise visit of her nephew Gennady, whom she hasn’t seen in years. Other characters include a greedy businessman and his timid son, sycophantic local merchants, and, this being a 19th century Russian work, the requisite recalcitrant servants. 

Ostrovsky idolized Shakespeare and he also filled The Forest with comically misbegotten romances, cases of confused identity and philosophical soliloquies. It is supposedly one of his most popular plays in Russia, where his work is still frequently performed. But something obviously got lost in the translation. And much of the blame for that goes to Kathleen Tolan’s adaptation, which seemed to clatter back and forth between the colloquial and the highfalutin', comfortable in neither. 

According to the newsletter, Brian Kulick, the CSC's artistic director, came up with the idea of doing an Ostrovsky play, but Kulick's direction of the production offers this one little help. I’ve always thought one of the primary jobs of a director is to make sure that all the actors perform as though they’re in the same play.  But everyone here seems to wander off on his or her own, including the show’s stars Dianne Wiest as Raisa and John Douglas Thompson as Gennady.

It was the chance to see Wiest and Thompson that made K and me want to see The Forest.  Both disappointed us. Wiest usually delivers work filled with original and nuanced choices, as she did in the Broadway revival of All My Sons a couple of years ago.  But she seems off her game in The Forest, unsure of how to play Raisa and so scurrying between the comedy and the pathos in the character instead of finding a way to fuse the two. Thompson, by contrast, seems bursting with confidence.  Unfortunately, the wrong kind.  

Thompson is an actor blessed with a rich baritone, majestic stage presence and dimples so deep and alluring that if I weren’t a happily married woman, I’d want to curl up in them. His bravura performances as Othello (which I didn’t see) and the Emperor Jones (which I did and was impressed by as much as everyone else) earned him deserved accolades last year.  So I was more than willing to go along with having him, a black actor, play a Russian character. And that's not the problem. What bothered me is how Thompson's performance this time out amounts too little more than stentorian declarations and flashing those dimples. He, like the others, seems lost in The Forest.

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