Watching Paul Sorvino as Tevye was exactly like watching him on television. That, in a nutshell, was the main problem with the N.C. Theatre's production of Fiddler on the Roof last Sunday afternoon: The TV in question had a 19-inch diagonal screen and good reception. It also stood more than 80 feet away from our seats. This problematic show reminds us that stage acting is in some ways very different than acting for the camera. Close-ups and other tricks in video and film allow--or demand--that the actor draw on microgestures and a subtler, more internalized economy of expression.
But the finest of these details won't read beyond the first couple of rows of an intimate black-box space--much less the rest of a cavernous room like Raleigh's Memorial Auditorium. I was baffled that so accomplished an actor could give so fundamentally miscalibrated a performance--until subsequent research revealed that Sorvino's career on Broadway actually ended nearly 30 years ago. He's been doing film and television ever since. It shows.
There were some bright moments on stage. Dana Meller, Elena Shaddow and Cary Michele Miller's early rendition of "Matchmaker" was exuberant, while Shaddow's poignant later solo, "Far From the Home I Love," was a major standout in the second act. Before that, a lovely, candle-lit "Sabbath Prayer" revealed a home--and a village--full of faith.
But Jerome Robbins' original choreography was repeatedly marred by awkward execution. And Sorvino's far too internalized interpretation of Tevye reduced the passion and the humor of a larger-than-life character to a screen much smaller than the BTI's center stage. When that work was further compromised by line flubs and variant singing--robust enough during "Tradition" and "If I Were a Rich Man," noticeably off-key in "The Dream" and act two's "Chaveleh"--the appropriate recommendations seemed clear.
Sorvino would be well advised to keep that day job. Meanwhile, audiences should exercise caution when approaching this Fiddler.
Thankfully, the news from Copenhagen is a lot cheerier. Michael Frayn's Tony-award winning script remains a marvel for several reasons. It clearly, deftly dramatizes the interior science--and the intramural politics--of nuclear physics in the early 20th century: not the easiest of tasks to undertake, either in a classroom or on stage. It also lays bare hands on some of the thorniest ethical issues physicists faced before, during and after the development of nuclear power and the atomic bomb.
But to do such things with material this forbidding, Copenhagen absolutely must intrigue us, from start to finish--not only with the humanity of its characters, but with a riddle on which the fate of the world hung, one September afternoon in 1941.
For Werner Heisenberg, Nobel laureate, creator of quantum mechanics--and the head of the atomic energy program in Germany during the Nazi regime--did visit his mentor Niels Bohr in occupied Denmark, apparently at considerable personal risk. The two spoke, in private, for less than 10 minutes. Afterward, a visibly agitated Bohr ushered Heisenberg from his home.
In the years that followed, the men never agreed on what happened during the conversation.
Frayn's historical drama is compelling because it shows us three sides of a secret, one for each of the characters on stage. Heisenberg relives the conversation first and gives it a completely coherent explanation. Then the playwright shifts perspective by 120 degrees, depicting the meeting from Bohr's point of view.
That's not the last shift, for afterward comes the version Bohr's wife, Margrethe, experienced.
To say the least, all three hear--and infer--fundamentally different things from the same exchange.
Todd Weeks' Heisenberg has the crisp, chilly air of a man whose dealings with the world have forced in him a retreat to the large, cool room of the intellect. As Niels Bohr and Margrethe, Greg Thornton and Nicole Orth-Pallavicini are considerably warmer, but still divided at points by individual perspective and loss. The three vividly animate the ethical detective work at Copenhagen's center.
The die is cast: Our region won't be seeing The Exonerated any time soon. Evidently, Dramatists Play Service couldn't be bothered to mapquest the distance from here to Charlotte, where Charlotte Rep opens its production Feb. 2.
Which leaves Deep Dish Theatre with Plan B: Tennessee Williams' A Moon for the Misbegotten.
The development in turn makes this the second consecutive year in which Deep Dish winds up scheduling a show also slated for production at Triad Stage.
Perhaps the headline should read "When Moons Collide." Where five months separated the Hedda Gabler twins last season, this time theatrical astronomers will note the Deep Dish Moon fades one night before Triad Stage's opens. The result: an unintended boon for students of the theater--a chance to see two contrasting visions of the same work, and compare interpretations. Catch the Chapel Hill production Feb. 10-March 5, and the Greensboro version March 6-27.
****1/2 Nixon's Nixon, Manbites Dog Theater--The darting eyes beneath the famous furrowed brow and that uniquely baleful smile can only mean one thing: The hungry ghost of Richard Nixon walks among us once again in this revival of Russell Lees' rueful, dark historical comedy, the smash hit of last fall. Though both Derrick Ivey (as Nixon) and Carl Martin (as Henry Kissinger) have made a number of discoveries since we saw them last, Ivey's performance on the night we revisited the show seemed to dial down, just a bit, the desperation and out-and-out voracity that made his initial interpretation so astounding. Just a word of caution against the possibility that an actor's grown a bit too comfortable with a show: Last fall we never forgot that it was always Resignation Eve, that there were always two agendas--and that very little time remained in which to make a deal.
The real news in this reiteration is Carl Martin's considerable development in the role of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. If Nixon's edge had, just marginally, dulled the night we saw it in this remounting, Kissinger's had sharpened: He's now much more an equal in the chess match, and cunningly manipulates inebriated reencounters with Brezhnev, Golda Meir and Mao.
Meanwhile, Ivey's character prowls the Lincoln Sitting Room, searching for an exit strategy. As he plays card after card to lure Kissinger to his side, both characters explore the monstrous extremes to which the powerful will go to maintain power. A scenario beyond mere brinksmanship makes naughty, drunken and laughable schoolboys of the two--until we remember that a red telephone sits quietly on a desk just down the hall, waiting for them to decide the fate of the world.
Though the late-found conscience Lees gives Nixon still seems largely hypothetical, this production can still make us nostalgic for a time when ambition and power had clearly definable limits, ones that were enforced not only by robust judicial and legislative failsafes, but by the will--and the voice--of the people. The differences between that time and this only sharpen the wicked edges of Lees' dark comedy. (Thursday-Saturday, through Jan. 29. $15-$9. 682-4974.)
**1/2 Bat Boy, The Musical, Hoof'n'Horn--The first clue we're not in Kansas anymore: our programs, which detail the show's licensing agreement. It's not with Samuel French, Dramatists Play Service or Music Theater International. It's with the Weekly World News instead.
Yes, ripped from the pages of America's favorite fictional weekly newsrag comes this, er, gripping, biting--and intentionally awful--camp affair about an eerie teenage boy raised by bats in the caves of West Virginia. Bat Boy roughly does to musical theater what Ed Wood once did to motion pictures.
But this two-act tribute to what Nietzsche called "the delight in stinking" raises this philosophical question: How good does a truly bad musical have to be? In doing so, it actually exposes one of the stickier dilemmas about being a theater critic.
Because I saw this show improve, fairly dramatically, during its opening night run. And a good thing, too: Though most of the cast began as cold as the grave in an opening number one or two of them apparently believed ("Hold Me"), many of the actors were clearly thawing into something far more gratifying by Bat Boy's final, kitschy homily.
Should that warming trend continue (and it probably will), by the time you read these words Hoof'n'Horn will have a more substantial show than the one we saw.
Can I predict to what extent things will improve? Not at all.
Aside from Russell Hainline's yeoman work as the title character, the warmest performances last Thursday night came from supporting actors Ashley Carlson as the mayor, Peter Golden as farmer Bud, Julia Robertson as a distraught mother, and Stan Williams who surprised us in several roles. Still we clearly must encourage the rapidly defrosting David Beckmann as that wretch, Dr. Parker, and Louisa Watkins, who was reviving his wife Meredith nicely when last we saw her. Both actors left their characters far better than they found them. Encourage also Karen Wilson's witty choreography, which quoted Michael Jackson, Oklahoma and Bob Fosse before the night was done.
On the other hand, I must say I saw dozens of punch lines buried alive due to problems with vocal projection, amplification and balance with the band. This must be remedied: Laurence O'Keefe's loopy, pun-filled lyrics provoked appreciative groans and giggles--but too rarely, when they could be heard.
Even though we left a show with some assembly still required, we hope they finish the job. Riddled with bad jokes, ridiculous plot developments and unforgivable puns, Bat Boy is clearly a show that's supposed to--well, suck. But it can be (and briefly was) a scream, when it stinks--for all the right reasons.
Byron Woods can be reached at email@example.com.