THE GIFT OF THE MAGI and 1001 ARABIAN NIGHTS
Actor’s Repertory Theatre
at the Victory Gardens Theater
The passion for destruction is also a creative passion. –anarchist philosopher Mikhail Bakunin
The Northlight Theatre’s new computerized light board failed on the opening night of Nothing Sacred, and wouldn’t be fixed. So it was decided that the actors would carry on anyway, performing under work lights. A full moon in the forest, consequently, came out looking exactly like dawn in a clearing, which in turn looked exactly like a farmhouse interior at dinnertime. The beginning and end of every scene were punctuated by the loud click of an electric switch backstage, followed either by full lights or full blackout. No in-betweens. No neat effects. No suave illusions.
It was perfect.
Because Nothing Sacred, George F. Walker’s play based on Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, is about a man who claims to hate illusions. His name’s Bazarov, and he lives the nihilist ideal (if that’s the word for it) of negation: attacking every accepted structure and received notion, from class privilege and the existence of God to fashionable dress and established mealtimes.
A disciplined and energetic subversive, Bazarov’s got no patience for anything aesthetic, romantic, traditional, inscrutable, or ideal. He abhors the flabby, unscientific ambiguities of love and poetry. Like Bakunin, he wants to tear the conventional world apart–both as a revolutionary act and as an interesting perceptual exercise. “Principles mean nothing to me,” he remarks early on. “I simply base my conduct on what is useful.”
Northlight’s computer breakdown could’ve been one of Bazarov’s exercises. Throw out lighting designer Robert Christen’s versions of midnight and dawn, undercut delicate moments with the snap of a circuit breaker–attack the poetic illusion of 11 lives intersecting on a Russian estate in the spring of 1859–and what’s left?
The answer, interestingly enough, is plenty. Computer or no computer, Northlight’s Nothing Sacred is a lovely, funny, bracing thing. This is due in part to the skill and wit of an extraordinarily smart cast–including Michael Cerveris, whose offhanded yet fierce Bazarov radiates intelligence from the bone; and Ray Chapman, who, as Arkady, plays an increasingly unexpected Candide to Bazarov’s would-be Voltaire. And Ned Schmidtke, who makes a painfully serious fool, while James Deuter and Tom Aulino make hilariously silly ones. And including Martha Lavey-Greene, whose cool gamesmanship as a widow with a reputation takes on intriguing facets when confronted with new twists.
It’s due also to David Petrarca’s playful direction; to the gorgeously apt costumes by Virgil C. Johnson and the aptly spare set design by Michael Philippi: and, not least of all, to Walker’s script, which–in joyful contrast to just about every recent work I can think of–poses thinking and talking as pleasurable activities: as pastimes and art forms and useful enterprises requiring a certain amount of mastery in their use. Thoughts, and the ability to express them, actually matter in this play.
But the success of Nothing Sacred despite technical troubles is ultimately a function of our capacity to fill in the blanks. To fantasize our own midnight and dawn. To replace the broken illusion with one of our own, Bazarov would hate that. It’s precisely what he’s against. Mankind, he believes, is enslaved by its ability to fool itself.
He’s wrong, though. Or only half-right. And this show proves it finally–not with a broken light board, but by means of Walker’s simple, ironic, exceedingly delicate mining of Bazarov’s own contradictions. Because Bazarov turns out to be human. It’s his goodwill as much as his analysis, his sense of the sacred as much as his insistence on the nothing, that brings about his one great revolutionary triumph. This is a sweet lesson, and it’s true even when the computer’s working.
The Actor’s Repertory Theatre is putting on a very weird double bill, consisting of (1) a musical version of O. Henry’s blecchy sentimental Christmas story, The Gift of the Magi, and (2) selections from the Thousand and One Nights of Scheherazade. They try to rationalize this combination by saying that both works are “tales of magic,” but that’s bullshit. What really connects these two pieces is the half-funny, half-serious, totally convinced, and completely overwrought style Actor’s Repertory Theatre brings to them.
There’s a bizarre, extravagant energy to both pieces that makes them feel more like two parts of a high-concept comedy revue than double bill. That energy makes a fascinating shambles out of Magi, which is done up as a musical with a triumphantly quirky–and sometimes really good–score by Faith Soloway. You end up sitting through it simply because you can’t believe it. Dumbfounded and awed, you wonder how something so alarmingly stupid could be so compelling.
1001 Arabian Nights is just as cracked, but a good deal more purposeful. The magic-carpet atmosphere created by the subject matter absorbs and focuses director Eric Nightengale’s excesses. Then, too, the performances are better: sharper, more professional, and better defined in their intentions. 1001 Arabian Nights actually works.
This is the first I’ve seen of Actor’s Repertory Theatre. I hope they bring this level of bravado to everything they do. They’ll be something if they can find a use for it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Ebright.