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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 7


Strange Interlude at the Shakespeare Theatre

Reviewed by Yvonne Shafer
St. John’s University

Strange Interlude, directed by Michael Kahn. Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington, DC, March 27 - April 29, 2012.

As part of the 2012 O’Neill Festival in Washington, D.C. the Shakespeare Theatre presented Strange Interlude and several panels dealing with the play and with O’Neill’s work. Michael Kahn, Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre, directed the play, continuing his long-standing exploration of O’Neill’s plays. He began by directing Ile in college. He directed Mourning Becomes Electra at Stratford, Connecticut and repeated his success there with a production at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington. He directed Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Jose Ferrer and Kate Reid in Boston. He also directed A Touch of the Poet at Arena Stage.

Kahn’s enthusiasm for O’Neill was evident when I interviewed him on April 1. He had early interest in directing plays by particular authors because he likes “serious, really complex plays” and finds O’Neill “a serious, weighted playwright.” He had a strong desire to direct Strange Interlude and some years ago set up a plan for production in which the script was sent to Glenda Jackson. She declined, and then, quite famously, went on to appear in England and on Broadway in it with another director and with actor Edward Petherbridge. Still Kahn planned to direct it, and about eight years ago told me his intention of presenting it at the Shakespeare Theatre. As he said “I think actors love doing O’Neill when they get the chance to do it. All of the actors who have worked with me on an O’Neill play know they are working on a major artistic event in their lives. After all, next to Shakespeare, who’s richer than O’Neill?”

Naturally there are many questions to be answered with this play which was originally six hours with a dinner break. How do you handle all the settings for this long play? How much of the play can be cut? How do the actors handle the asides? Kahn worked on the play for a year and a half before he reached decisions on all of these questions.

Walt Spangler designed the settings for the proscenium theatre in the Sidney Harman Hall. Instead of realistic settings for each act, Kahn decided to use projections of films which would set up the acts. Spangler created a spacious white box with high walls. Before the text began the audience saw a World War I pilot entering a plane, scenes of fighting, and then the crash of the plane. Kahn felt it was important to set up Gordon’s death as the instigating incident which leads to Nina’s complex and highly convoluted behavior. The following films made it clear what the setting was to be. For example, before the setting for Sam’s mother’s home was seen, there was a film showing a rural scene and before the boating competition there were various boats with rowers straining to move swiftly through the river.

The absence of complete realistic settings means that the furniture and costuming have to create the ambience required for the nine distinctly different locations and time. The evening cannot be held up by lengthy scene changes. Light furniture was quickly carried on and off in semi-darkness, while heavy, bulky pieces appeared and disappeared via trap doors. The passage of time and the changing environments relate closely to Nina’s changes. So the first was a musty study with sturdy old furniture. After her marriage we saw a cheaply furnished dining room, and after Sam’s success in business an elegantly furnished room in their apartment on Park Avenue with a bright yellow silk sofa.

Similarly, the costumes designed by Jane Greenwood reflected all the changes in the lives of the characters. At first Nina wore quite a long dress which was rather dowdy looking. Her next appearance in the nurse’s uniform, bright blue cape with red trim, the right side thrown back over the shoulder to reveal the crisp white dress, somewhat shorter, called up in an instant the whole aura of post World War I. In a later act Ned arrived while she was off stage, she appeared dramatically framed in the doorway wearing a gorgeous flowing red silk dress which was much shorter than the earlier ones. Sam, of course, first appeared in poor quality suits contributing to his weak appearance and reflecting his feelings of inadequacy. As his economic circumstances changed and he became very self confident, he was heavier and wore suits befitting a successful business man. Ned, in contrast, moved from the handsome, debonair doctor through various stages, finally looking like the rather lost, defeated man he becomes.

Kahn is a master at creating movement and stage pictures which perfectly complement and reveal the meaning of the text. Throughout the play there were memorable moments such as scene between Nina and her mother-in-law in the sparsely furnished kitchen with the mother sitting rigidly as she tried to force herself to demand that Nina get an abortion and Nina’s relaxed posture in the chair which changed to anguished movement as she pleaded for the right to bear her child. The ending of Act Six in O’Neill’s text was wonderful picture as she spoke the thought, “My three men! . . . I feel their desires converge in me! . . . to form one complete beautiful male desire which I absorb . . . and am whole.” She kissed each of them and then exited leaving Ned, Sam, and dear old Charlie, standing, as it were, at attention, spaced across the stage. Of course, dear old Charlie was excellent in the drunk scene on the boat, staggering around and falling down on his knees before the grey haired Nina, who was sullenly lying on the chaise lounge barely moving throughout the scene. It was interesting in the last act how much the love making between the young Gordon and Madeline was performed with her on his lap and in various other positions while they kissed so passionately that one nearly agreed with Charlie who sees them and thinks, “I must say! . . . his father hardly cold in his grave! . . . it’s positively bestial!” In the last few moments Charlie and Nina were seated closely on the same bench speaking of the peace to which they intended to share in their non-sexual marriage, ending with Charlie saying, “God damn dear old . . . ! No, God bless dear old Charlie . . . who passed beyond desire, has all the luck at last.” Nina’s strange interlude of sexuality was at an end, and the audience was deeply moved by its conclusion.

When I interviewed Kahn I asked him about cutting the play and he responded, laughing, “Oh, cutting! Everybody asks about that.” Of course they do, since the original length of the play led Robert Benchley to quip that he didn’t know what all the fuss was about, “After all, it’s only an ordinary nine-act play.” Kahn, who prefers the term editing to cutting, had been surprised that when he got permission to direct Mourning Become Electra he was also granted permission to cut it, the first time, I believe, in the history of O’Neill productions. Now, having studied the play for so long, he began to make the cuts in Strange Interlude. He worked it all over many times, particularly thinking that the “asides” might be cut to some degree since the actors could communicate some of those interior monologues without the words. After the first rehearsal he went away and what? Cut more? No, he decided that there was a richness in those thought monologues which he had pared too much. His assistant director, Jenny Lord, said that through the course of the rehearsals the actors would also ask that something be put back in. The result was that nobody in the production felt (unlike the original Nina, Lynne Fontanne who hated the play) that it was too long. The play was set up with the original four acts as Act One, the original acts five and six as Act Two, and the last three acts as Act Three. The play began at 7:30, had one 15 minute intermission, then after Act Two a ten minute intermission , and it ended at 11:15.

The cast was good throughout, but the burden falls on the four major characters. As usual, Kahn had cast the play superbly. Nina ( Francesca Faridany), Sam (Ted Koch), Ned (Baylen Thomas), and Charlie (Robert Stanton) were unforgettable. I was afraid the memory of Edward Petherbridge as Charlie would cause me to find Charlie a disappointment, whoever played him, but I found Stanton quite delightful and very funny. (People seem never to want to believe that O’Neill could be funny.) Kahn had a number of ideas of how to handle the “asides.” The original director Phillip Moeller had the one with the aside speak while the others froze. Kahn felt that blocked the movement of the dialogue and action and finally concluded to have the actors simply carrying on speaking the thoughts with no interruption. The actors were capable of indicating when they switched from dialogue to thoughts through intonations, facial expressions, pace, and vocal quality and I had no difficulty in knowing which were the thoughts. The actors also moved with great élan through the incredibly rapid shifts of mood which O’Neill gave them—at one moment “I love you” and the next “I hate you”—so that there never seemed anything artificial or faked about the dialogue. But it is not enough to say that the major four roles were superbly played—the total cast was outstanding. Just as one example, Ted van Griethusen and Tana Hicken as Nina’s father and Sam’s mother were solidly believable in their minor but important roles.

The audience seemed intensely involved throughout, often laughing, often completely silent. At the end of the first act, the man next to me sank back in his seat and said, “Wow!” It has become so commonplace today for the audience to stand up at the final curtain and shout and applaud that it isn’t really remarkable. But in this instance, I felt an electricity and excitement in the audience which was manifested in this response. Someone told me that there are 81 theatres in Washington, D.C. so there are many possibilities for audiences to see fine plays and excellent acting. Those who saw the rarely performed Strange Interlude at the Shakespeare Theatre had a once in a lifetime experience which will, I think, be remembered for many years.


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