Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The Royal Family
For those who somehow have not heard, Rachel Chavkin is the innovative and widely acclaimed director of the hit Broadway show, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. One has to commend Guthrie's Artistic Director Joe Haj for bringing us yet another acclaimed woman director in what is turning out to be one of best seasons I can remember. At the same time, the logic behind bringing together this particular director with this particular show is by no means obvious. Chavkin is known primarily for her avant-garde, cutting edge (sometimes immersive) approach, and, above all, for creating originaland often devisednew plays. It turns out that pairing Chavkin with the 1927 comedy classic was a stroke of genius. Reimagining the play in this innovative way reinvigorates its characters and dilemmas; a more conventional approach could have been appreciated only as an artefact.
Part drawing room comedy, part Frenchish farce, with a strong strain of subversive Marxist (and I don't mean Karl) whimsy, The Royal Family revolves around three generations of an illustrious family of New York actors. Per the program notes, Kaufman and Ferber "loosely based" the House of Cavendish on the Barrymore clan, who between 1900 and 1930 were regarded by many or most (including themselves) as the first family of American theater. Kaufman and Ferber, Algonquinians both, with three Pulitzers between them, were famous for their biting wit and their disdain of sentimentality. Yet, while they are merciless in exposing the histrionics, idiosyncrasies and hubris of a certain breed of theater folk, the writers clearly have a soft spot for players, and they reserve their harshest rapier thrusts for wealthy philistines and powerful establishment types.
Without sacrificing any of the anarchic, high-energy, madcap feel of the comedy, Chavkin penetrates to its emotional center. Kaufman and Ferber's play, it turns out, offers a nuanced depiction of psychological and emotional underpinnings of family life, as well as the problem of romantic relationships for people who cannot live without the theaterbut who sometimes get the silly idea that they can no longer live with it. On one end of the spectrum there is aging grand dame, Fanny Cavendish (played with great finesse and big heart by Tony Award winner Elizabeth Franz). Despite being ill and enfeebled, Fanny is determined to get back on the boards, even it means taking a part in a mid-level production touring second-rate theaters on the cattle town circuit. At the other end, you have Fanny's granddaughter Gwen (Victoria Janicki), who at 19 years old is just on the verge of being seated on the throne beside her mother. But Gwen is under pressure from her Park Avenue fiancé Perry Stewart (David Darrow) to give up acting so she can focus on domestic life andumhim. Besides, it's not real work, or as Perry mansplains: "You can't compare acting with stockbroking."
At the center of the play (and the spectrum) is Gwen's divorced mother, the famous and glamorous Julie Cavendish (Michelle O'Neill, great). At first glance, Julie seems content with the life she has and the choices she made to get there. Why not? She is the reigning queen of Broadway, she has fulfilling work, is adored by thousands, and is richor she would be if (like all the theater people depicted in this play) she weren't so absent-minded about money. Julie urges Gwen not to make the mistake of her life. Gwen can do bothhave a family and a career! Otherwise, mom warns, you may grow to hate being stuck at home with sweet but dull Perry.
Yet Julie too can't help but think what life would have been like had she married one-time flame, handsome, "dependable" billionaire platinum tycoon Gilbert Marshall (Robert Berdahl, in a subdued, very generous performance). It happenssince this is one of those kinds of playsthat Gil has just arrived back from South America and is scheduled to visit Julie for the first time in 20 years that very afternoon.
As for Fanny, she'll have none of this nonsense. In fact, you can hear Ferber's sensible feminism in Fanny's voice when grandma tries to set Gwen straight: "Fiddlesticks! Marriage isn't a career. It's an incident." But then, if you're a Cavendish, acting isn't really a "career" either. It is more like a religious calling, or sacred trust, handed down through the generations. To throw away the gift is tantamount to heresy.
Kaufman and Ferber seem to have the most fun with, and give some of the biggest gags to, Julie's manic, unpredictable brother Tony (Matthew Saldivar), an ex-stage actor, now a swashbuckling, romantic screen star (think Douglas Fairbanks or, um, John Barrymore). Saldivar gives a truly stunning performance, capturing to perfection the subversive custom-be-damned bravado of the Hollywood "actor-rebel" who refuses to be confined to an assigned social identityor, in fact, to any one identityfor more than half a minute. Tony, you see, is not the kind of actor who tries to keep the drama on the stage. As he rails and begs, and throws his legs across a chair, and slides down the barrister to throw himself onto the divan (in his underwear), it dawns on you that he's simply not going to stop playing. To the contrary, he morphs ceaselessly from character to character, across shows that span the western canonfrom Shakespeare to Farquhar to Shawwithout even stopping to take a breath.
Other stand-outs include Bill McCallum, winningly pathetic as has-been Uncle Bert, and Angela Timberman, in a delightful turn as Bert's relentless wife Kitty. Dressed to the teeth in the loudest, tackiest flapper hat-and-dress combo imaginable, Timberman finds a way to make desperation funny and sympathetic at the same time. Everyone is terrific, and all the characters are given one or two slaying one-liners. Julie, along with Oscar Wolfe (an impossibly charming Shawn Hamilton), the family's longtime manager, and especially Fanny, are given a degree of psychological depth and complexity that seems surprising for a comedy of this sort. All three actors are splendid at playing those moments in which their characters' vulnerability breaks through their affects only to disappear a moment later.
Chavkin adds a range of surrealist stage effects (brilliantly executed by the design team, Marte Johanne Ekhougen, Bradley King, and Scott Edwards) to illuminate some of the philosophical touches embedded in the play. For instance, at those moments when the Cavendishes move into high drama mode, or lapse into Hamletese, Chavkin will have the butler (Charles Hubbell) roll a mobile spotlight on stage and catch them in the shine. When Fanny holds forth passionately about her need to return to the stage, a rack of spotlights is slowly lowered behind her. Such effects are meant to foreground the Theatrum Mundi motif that runs through the play. (You know, that's the old stage/world metaphor, that Shakespeare puts in Jacques' mouth: "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players," that the distinctions between theater and reality, artifice and materiality, waking life and dreams, etc., are illusory.) Design-wise, the most impressive moment of the play occurs when Julie, beset by one crisis after another, suddenly announces to the family that she's done and will never ever "step on a stage" again as long as she lives. As Julie goes no ranting and declaiming, the walls and windows begin to sway and break apart until the entire interior of the Cavendish home is revealed to be so much scenery in a massive theater storage room.
Kaufman and Ferber bring a social justice subtext to their play. The play displays the tendency theater folkor at least the touring actors of that timehad to project a vision of security and dependable consistency upon an exteriorized sphere they call "normal." Perhaps it is inevitable that those who spend so much time inhabiting different lives and often-distant, always ephemeral worlds would experience a sense of disorientation, even a sense of homelessness which makes them long for stability, and for continuity of identity. For Julie, that lure seems irresistible, and so she gives herself to Philistine Gil. She assumes that he understands that in breaking with the stage, and leaving the Cavendish house, she will be sacrificing not only success and the adoration of her fans, but the sense of belonging to the family's way of life. Besides, she will miss the very "madness" she eschews. Not just the roar of the greasepaint, but a brother in underwear tossing his Hamlet skull across the room to hammer out a Tin Pan Alley tune while vowing only to eat rice for a year. Or a grand-dame mother who floats around the house in lavish feathered robes as she vows to die onstage like her beloved, deceased husband Aubrey, the greatest actor of his time, who gazes down from a massive portrait in which he is costumed in royal Shakespearian garb, every inch the king.
O'Neill is marvelous as she shows us Julie working hard to push down her growing panic with self-assuring Gilbert-affirmations. It is a gut-wrenching moment when she realizes that in Gil's contemptuous gaze all these beloved, living legends, these splendid queens and kings and princesses, appear as no more than a tribe of misfits and clownish, pathetic slackers. "Your people," he calls them. But not to worry; he'll introduce Julie to "real people ... Solid! Substantial! The kind that make a country what it is."
As Gil closes the door behind him, the family gathers around wild Tony, just back from his European sojourn and raving on and on about "a little theater" he discovered in Koenigsberg that features the new "constructivist scenery": you press a button and, voila! "It swings the whole thing aroundthe audience becomes the actors and the actors become the audience." (No wonder Haj thought of Chavkin. Immersion, anyone?) Then all at once you understand just why the big marquee announcing "The Royal Family" hangs above the door facing outward to that other, colder world. It is no more real than the one inside. Home: the place where you're with people for whom you will always be royals.
Get your tickets now because this beautiful show is going to be so, so big (Ferber pun intended).
The Royal Family by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Performed through March 19, 2017, at the Guthrie Theater, 818 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN 55415. Tickets can be purchased by calling 612-377-2224 or 1-877-44STAGE or by visiting www.guthrietheater.org.
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Featuring Elizabeth Franz, Michelle O'Neill, Victoria Janicki, Robert O. Berdahl, Bear Brummel, David Darrow, Stuart Gates, Shawn Hamilton, Charles Hubbell, Bill McCallum, Mo Perry, Matthew Salivary, Angela Timberman, Ricardo Vazquez, Tatiana Williams