Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

That Day at the Quarry

February 14, 2009

Carla Gugino and Pablo Schreiber with no elms
Photo: Liz Lauren/Goodman Theater 2009

A friend of mine recommended that I see the revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms at the Goodman Theater while I'm in Chicago for no other reason than the set design. And while there is much, much more to recommend this production, which may be in line for a Broadway transfer in the near future, it is true that the production itself is spectacular enough to warrant the price of admission. This O’Neill revival comes with an important pedigree – it stars Brian Dennehy in the role of Ephraim Cabot and is directed by long-time collaborator Robert Falls. Together the two have been lauded for prior O’Neill projects and may well do so again. But they are not alone by any means as the play also revolves around two stellar performances from Carla Gugino as Abbie Putnam and a smoking-hot Pablo Schreiber as Eben Cabot, the stepson Abbie will become pregnant by and later kill for. The erotic energy between the two is remarkable, and if you haven't though of rock hard abs and glutes when you've thought of O'Neill before, you may forevermore afterwards. Appearances aside, even fully clothed, these two actors give fluid and very engaging turns in the midst of a very conceptual design.

But back to that insane staging. (And I mean that in a good way.) The Cabot’s turn-of-the-century New England farm becomes more of a rock quarry in this nearly hallucinatory vision of the play. The Cabot brothers lug rocks around like they just stepped out of Beyond Thunderdome in a very claustrophobic space that is as much marked by what’s going on above it as at stage level. Not only are there boulders on the ground, but in the air as well, suspended by huge ropes. The symbolism doesn’t end there, though, as the most interesting feature of the set, a two-story farm house replica, is also suspended above the stage and all the cast is periodically moved up and down not only to set off certain exterior scenes, but to provide a space for action as well when the outside wall is removed, revealing internal rooms. Add to all of this a near breakneck speed of progress crushing the play into 100 intermissionless minutes with hardly a break delineating scene changes or the passage of time between them. Oddly though, this all works. I think in part because it reinforces the subconscious elements of the plays events making the explicitly Freudian workings of the plot almost seem rational. It’s a clever strategy in a culture that believes it has moved beyond these psychoanalytic moorings, having really only managed to disguise them a little more effectively. Falls’ take on Desire has a real bite and while it will not be pleasing to everyone, it's hard to take your eyes off of. It runs through March 1 in Chicago, although the performances are largely sold out. However, there are still tickets available for some of the shows.


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