Theatre Matters

Contemplations on the dramatic arts from a national perspective


Steven Oxman has contributed to such publications as the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, Stagebill, and, most frequently, Variety, for which he has written over 300 television and theatre reviews.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Lord of the Rings to the Rescue!

The other day, in Toronto, a press conference was held to announce the upcoming, massive stage production of a wee book that's already been made into a wee film trilogy: "Lord of the Rings."

This article from The Toronto Globe & Mail heralds the hope that the show might single-handedly revive Toronto as a tourist destination. Just a bit riding on this one.

I'm probably not alone in feeling a mixture of curiosity, dubiousness, and hope. As a "Lion King" fan, I'm now convinced that staging something familiar to audiences from a different format actually provides a great opportunity to expose the potentials of theatricality. The very impossibility of interpreting the Tolkien classics the way the film did makes this interesting. It's GOT to be wildly theatrical, or it will be wildly awful. The article clearly states that the director, well-known stage helmer Matthew Warchus, knows this:

"With a cast of more than 65 actors, the production will include an assortment of elaborate costumes and actors on stilts, evoking some of Cirque du Soleil's aesthetic, as well as giant props. Shelob, the enormous spider that is central to The Lord of the Rings's final book and that nearly kills Frodo the hobbit, will stretch across the entire 40-foot stage.

The production's otherworldly set and costume design will rely on depicting characters such as the sinister Black Riders and the tree-like Ents, rather than trying to build gigantic Tolkienesque landscapes in the theatre.

As director Matthew Warchus suggested, the stage production will have to rely largely on the power of subtle suggestion in recreating such exotic scenes as the gleaming city of Minas Tirith and the dark land of Mordor.

For instance, opening yesterday's tightly choreographed press conference, which felt like a gala performance in its own right, a sinister Black Rider was a large construction of skeletal, wooden-like beams. It was lit as much to accentuate its shadows, as to show off its actual form.
The music, at least judging by the few songs previewed yesterday, is a combination of Nordic folk tunes (as composed by the Finish contemporary folk group Varttina) and lush, Eastern-influenced passages (by A. R. Rahman, a popular composer of Indian film soundtracks) devolving into catchy, Josh Groban-like balladry. The audience of journalists, tourism people and other guests applauded heartily."

I suppose the audience of invited guests applauding at the press conference is better than booing, but doesn't exactly mean a whole lot at this point. I had to search the article for my biggest question: how long will the show be? Answer, it's 3-hours total, with each book being dramatically summed up in an hour. In and of itself, that's neither good nor bad, but it raises the concern that, given how well people know the full story, the stage version will come like a Reader's Digest summation: souvenir theatre, piquing our memories of something we like rather than delivering an actual experience.

Gotta say: I can't wait to find out.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

I'm back, I think

Wow. It's so easy for weeks to go by without posting. Blogging is hard. I am gaining more and more respect for those who do it diligently... and intelligently.

Anyway, I'm back in more ways than one. Just returned from a vacation to Hong Kong, where I caught the world premiere of a play called "Amber," commissioned from the National Theatre Company of China for the Hong Kong Arts Festival. It's by a woman named Liao Yimei, although the advertising emphasized the director, Meng Jinghui, whom the program labeled "the most influential among the young vanguard of Chinese theatre and film directors since the 1980s...." The play was in Mandarin with English subtitles.

It was certainly extremely interesting to see contemporary Chinese theatre. The underlying plot line was a bit cliche -- after the sudden death of her lover, a "pure", "innocent" young woman pursues the man who received a heart transplant from the woman's deceased paramour. The guy is a bit of a hustler, but he falls for her purity.

The play, at least as directed, always remained more concerned with the metaphor than with the reality of this situation. It was about big things, and sentimental things, and was ripe with all sort of literary allusions, both western and eastern. Unlike American theatre, the show certainly wasn't afraid of being pretentious and overtly intellectual, although I suppose that's what gave it the label "avant-garde." There were two reference that came into my head during the show, although neither is a perfect comparison by any means. Baz Luhrmann was one, on the directing side. It didn't have Luhrmann's visual flair, but it definitely had the combination of his sentimentality combined with artistic ambition, as well as his sense of the contemporary. The other comparison is Jean Anouilh, the French writer of "Madwoman of Chaillot." I can't articulate exactly what made me think so much of Anouilh, but I think it's the sense of everything being real and metaphorical at once.

Anyway, an interesting theatrical experience as part of a very nice break from the western world.