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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Murgatroyd’s Hospital for Mental Rehabilitation presents Ruddigore, or, The Witch’s Curse

Murgatroyd’s Hospital for Mental Rehabilitation presents Ruddigore, or, The Witch’s Curse is energetic and funny, but its lack of emotional sincerity, unrealized framing device, and confusing plot will put off audience members unfamiliar with the source (a mediocre Gilbert and Sullivan operetta).

Reviewed by Max Rosen

Murgatroyd’s Hospital for Mental Rehabilitation presents Ruddigore, or the Witch’s Curse is a promising title for Theater Ten Ten’s current production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta. The title suggests an innovative twist on the original play: in the style of Marat/Sade or Quills, the inmates of an asylum will bring madness, subversion, and pathos to G&S’s safe (and confusing) tale of manners and etiquette (and a “horrifying curse”). As it turns out, the title is misleading—Ruddigore is not subversive or particularly sincere. It is, instead, a straightforward and faithful presentation of the source—full of some clever gags and talented performers, but never more than one-dimensional in its presentation.

Though the play’s title suggests complexity, the first scene of David Fuller’s production makes it perfectly clear that the mental hospital frame will never be more than a joke—a throwaway device to add a little zest to the staging. Christiane Young, playing both the matriarch of the psych ward and Dame Hannah (the only character in the play within a play to elicit genuine pathos), introduces the mental patients of Murgatroyd’s Mental Hospital by their respective sight gags. She then informs the audience that, sadly, the asylum will soon be shut down, and this will consequently be the last production of Ruddigore that these misfits will ever perform. The scene is conceived of as a gimmick: each actor plays their mental patient as a joke or one-liner—not as a genuine person—and the actors make little effort to extend the conceit of a character playing a character into the show. The actors are not alone—the creative team, much to the detriment of the show, drops the themes of loss, loneliness, community, and madness just a few moments after the opening credits. Ruddigore is already one-dimensional—what it needs to transcend its potential superficiality is a touch of genuine madness or pathos. Using the framing device as a gag is a waste—especially in a show that, at two and a half hours, is already an extremely long production.

The production does make some interesting choices. A ghost scene in Act II combines nifty lighting effects, shadows, and some Jim Henson-esque puppetry to put a little imagination into an otherwise dull act. Several of the actors—in particular Greg Horton and Ms. Young—use their fingers and eyes in very funny ways, each clearly skilled at physical comedy. The singers all have wonderful, well-projected voices, and the minimal accompaniment to the show (a lone pianist sits by the stage and keeps the music moving), means the audience never has to watch actors staring at their conductor or lose the text into a particularly loud orchestral rendition of a song. Yet the show never recovers from its lack of ambitious or dramatic choices: the craft, however impressive, seems unallied to a point or purpose, a display of witty virtuosity without depth.

To be fair, the same could be said about the source material. Gilbert and Sullivan wrote for an upper crust world mired in convention, and whether or not they were attempting to satirize or entertain that world, their characters come off as caricatures, all the more superficial after a century of modern, “epic” and realist theater. Their characters don’t seem to have dramatic arcs—making an already confusing plot even harder to follow. Yet these shortcomings of the source material make the unembraced framing device even more frustrating. Ruddigore contains only winking madness, the sort that entertains a bourgeois British audience, permissible so long as it exists within a certain confine. Insane asylum patients, in contrast to that audience, are ostracized for their very inability to conform to conventions—they are subversive by their nature, and in plays they evoke themes of loneliness—people robbed of a normal life. The play goes so far as to suggest such a theme, when Dr. Murgatroyd informs the audience that the patients are about to lose their mental hospital—the place to which they escape the rigidly defined world of Gilbert and Sullivan’s society. It even follows up on that theme once—near the end, when a bridesmaid/inmate gives up a puppet she uses as a crutch, in the sort of strange, poignant moment that could have, or should have, populated the show. Sadly, with only minimal exception, the production has no interest in this arc or any ideas that might emerge out of it. When, after two and a half hours, in the closing bows, a government authority informs the patients the hospital will stay open, the actors themselves don’t know how to react. As mental patients, their reaction might be complex and intriguing. Instead, they come off as actors a touch frustrated that someone is interrupting their bows. Their confusion, and ultimate reactions, reveal the emptiness at the heart of the conceit, and ultimately, at the heart of the play.

Murgatroyd’s Hospital for Mental Rehabilitation presents Ruddigore, or, The Witch’s Curse (2 1/2 hours; one 10-minute intermission)
Park Avenue Christian Church (1010 Park Avenue)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $20.00
Performances (through 5/24): Mon, Fri, Sat at 8pm; Sun at 3pm

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