Friday, May 1, 2009

Travesty at Naples

The Miracle at Naples marks rookie Artistic Director, Peter DuBois' directorial debut at his new theatrical home. Riding on his recent laurels with Gina Gionfriddo's Becky Shaw, which garnered rave reviews in New York and a Pulitzer nomination, Huntington audiences (including myself) were eager to see what he would bring to Boston's exciting theatre scene. Unfortunately, what he brought was a sophomoric, Benny Hill skit in the guise of historical commedia del arte. But this commedia had the audiences squirming more than laughing and wondering, where's the arte?

The plot is purposefully formulaic: a motley band of traveling players enters Naples to bring their bawdy humour and lasciviousness to the puritanical town on the high holy day of their saint, San Gennaro. When the saint's coagulated relic refuses to liquify, the town assumes it is because there are heretics in their midst. Naturally, they turn their ire to the acting rogues and, though, love triangles (and quadrangles) ensue, with characters this two-dimensional does anyone really care?
The most heartfelt applause for the entire show is for the set, a stunning work in forced perspective by Alexander Dodge. One wishes the gigantic life-like statue of San Gennaro could take the final bow as opposed to the performers. And the performers really are the biggest disappointment of this production as I believe they are incredibly talented actors. Veteran of Broadway and Huntington shows, Dick Latessa plays Fortunato, the impressario and pantalone of the traveling troupe. Granted, he receives the biggest laugh of the evening with a very un-p.c. bit baffooning French, German, and Dutch dialects. But, I couldn't help feel sorry for this amazingly talented actor trying to make art out of dung. Lucy DeVito as the short, spurned daughter and sole female performer in the troupe delivers a Jeneane Garofalo-like performance that almost tugs at your heartstrings, if only her role wasn't solely created to be the butt of cheap jokes. Christina Pumariega as the lusty innamorata Flaminia and Alma Cuevo as the columbine-stock-character, Francescina also deserve honorable mention for their utmost commitment to attempting to make the jokes fly. But like the slapstick that made commedia famous, most of the humor simply falls on its face.
I understand that the playwright was attempting to recreate the bawdiness and baseness of commedia del arte using contemporary language and revisionist sexual taboos. However, the legacy of this style of theatre is well documented in contemporary sitcoms and film. Any episode of South Park deftly mixes fart jokes and potty humour with critical social commentary in ways this play doesn't even aspire to. There have been many instances in attending theatre when I wanted to leave at intermission, this play holds the distinction of the first play I wanted to leave in the first ten minutes.
As for Peter DuBois, his direction of the show is nothing less than sloppy. The entrance of the players could (and maybe should) have a choreographic wonder, but the players simply run around and jump on any accesible scenery. In the first scene, I was so transfixed by the arbitrary choice to have an ensemble member stuccoing walls that my attention to the action of the play was distracted. Not to mention, the aerobic performances of Pedro Pascal and Gregory Wooddell, which have them constantly running apparently to get away from the flimsy script. Apparently, Mr. DuBois is committed to "developing new work," but his development process always seems to involve him vacationing in some fabulous destination with the playwright on his patrons' dime. For this show, they made a trip to Naples; however, everything they learned about commedia del arte could have been picked up by reading any Intro to Theatre History textbook. Likewise, Mr. DuBois is spending summers on the Cape "developing" new works. Considering that the Huntington is facing a $1.2 million deficit last I heard, perhaps the theatre needs a little more fiscal leadership and a little less "artistic development."

1 comment:

Lisa T. said...

Dear Boston TheatreSnob,

I am the Director of New Work at the Huntington, so I noted with interest your concern with how we pay for our new play development programs. You’ll be pleased to learn that almost none of the support for our readings or workshops comes out of general operating funds or from general pools of donor support. We have been very fortunate to receive funding for our Provincetown initiative from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Mellon Foundation. Peter and David paid for their trip to Naples out of their own pockets.

I know it sounds like a vacation when artists go off to the O’Neill, Sundance or Ojai to work on new projects. To be sure, they are all incredibly beautiful and fun places to work. However, if it weren’t vital for creators to have uninterrupted time together, none of these laudable programs would exist. We are a little bit different in that we are trying to tie development more closely to production rather than have plays languish in “development hell.”

I hope you continue to write about the Huntington and hold our feet to the fire. We surely won’t always agree, but it’s fun to have engaged critics out there responding to what we do. I practice an open door policy. Anytime you wish to speak with me about what’s happening at the Hunt with regard to programming or new plays, give me a ring at 617-266-7900.

All best,

Lisa Timmel
Director of New Work