September 22, 2010

"The Little Foxes" Needs Sharper Teeth

Theater talk, including mine, usually focuses on whether to point the thumb up or down. Witness the hedline for this posting.  But the new revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes that opened last night at New York Theatre Workshop requires a far more complex response than that. For this production has been directed by Ivo van Hove, the post-modern Flemish director who specializes in deconstructions of classic plays that some people find to be brilliant—and others baffling. 

Van Hove believes there’s no sense in reviving a play unless you’re going to reinterpret it.  Or, as he says, “Just to look in a mirror is not interesting.  But to look behind the mirror at what is the deeper truth, that is what interests me.”  (Click here to listen to excerpts from an interview he did with the New York Times.)  His dogma clicked with my husband K.  “I’m not sure if I can say I liked it," he said as we left the theater after seeing The Little Foxes. "But you’ve got to respect his artistic vision.”

That vision tends to include a nearly bare stage; modern dress, regardless of when the play is set; moody music; a prominent video screen on which bits of the performances are projected; and a core of actors who appreciate van Hove's highly stylized—and highly physical—approach to theatermaking and so often appear in his productions. 

A prominent member of that group is the always-impressive actress Elizabeth Marvel, who has played Hedda Gabler and Blanche DuBois for van Hove and is now creating Regina Giddens, the greedy she-wolf at the center of Hellman’s dysfunctional family drama.   

The Little Foxes, which the New Orleans-born Hellman used to say was inspired by her own kin, is set about 20 years after the Civil War. Regina’s prosperous, if unscrupulous, brothers are just about to build a cotton mill that will make them even wealthier and they’re willing to share the riches with their sister if she can come up with $75,000 to invest in the project. But when Regina’s ailing husband won’t give her the money, she remains determined to get it by any means necessary.   

The play, perhaps Hellman’s best, is old-fashioned and well-crafted with big speeches for nearly all the characters, including the family’s loyal black servants. The movie version with Bette Davis is one of my all-time faves.

Unlike K, I may be too much of a traditionalist to appreciate van Hove’s stripped down approach. So many of the choices he's made seem odd to me. I couldn’t figure out why the set was basically just a bare purple box, with the exception of a tiny piano, a tinier table and a half-seen flight of stairs. I wondered if it might have symbolized the emptiness of the characters’ lives but K thought I might be over thinking the concept. 

Maybe so but the actors seemed desperate to interact with something and so they kept pounding on the walls, running into them and rubbing up against them, all of which got old after awhile. 

Another of van Hove's choices is the casting of Tina Benko, an actress I’ve recently grown to admire, as Birdie, Regina’s emotionally (and in this production, physically) abused sister-in-law.  Birdie, the heiress to a once-great plantation, is usually played as a sad sack but Benko is so classically beautiful that I had a hard time believing that money would be the only reason Regina’s avaricious brother would marry her.  K said I was being too literal.  

That may be. But while I was intellectually challenged by van Hove's interpretation of The Little Foxes (and respect it) my heart was left totally unengaged.  And, call me old-fashioned if you like, when I go to the theater that’s the kind of catharsis I’m seeking.

No comments: