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December 19, 2020

What is That?: A Review of Court Theatre's "Leopoldstadt"

What happens when memory fails to pass from one generation to the next?

What happens when memory fails to pass from one generation to the next?

Courtesy of Court Theatre

What is this a review of? It is a review of Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt, which was performed as a staged reading by Court Theatre. Fantastic. But what is that? Even without the limits of a pandemic and Zoom, a staged reading is only a rough idea of a play. When a performance is distorted by these unfortunate conditions, by what standards should we judge it? Perhaps it is best to simply start with the basics. Then again, the basics of Leopoldstadt are anything but.  

Following multiple generations of a Jewish family in Vienna, Leopoldstadt has been described as one of Stoppard’s most personal efforts. In its three-hour runtime, the text touches on themes of memory, class, family, death, legacy, guilt, identity, sin, and more. It should be no surprise that Stoppard, author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, is behind such a complex text—and it is nice to encounter such ambition! Art without thought is enjoyable, but a healthy diet requires more than just French fries. 

The monumental roster of characters, about forty in all, is split between 17 actors, often pulling double or triple duty in different scenes. There are moments when narrators suddenly become family members only to turn back into narrators before the audience has been able to orient themselves. In a normal performance of such a sprawling piece, the scale might feel more manageable thanks to the typical audience aides of sets, costumes, and blocking. In the face of Leopoldstadt’s Zoomification, I found myself desperately searching for the speaker of a line if only to remind myself of the character’s name.  

Matters greatly improve in smaller scenes. There is an excellent sequence towards the end of the first hour featuring a pair of adulterous characters. The ease and sly magnetism that run through the scene would be impressive even in a theatrical setting—here, they are nearly miraculous. This is not to say that every two-or-three-person conversation is excellent, but it is in such moments Leopoldstadt fares best. 

In fairness, this is all making the most of a bad situation. Far more than film or TV, stage acting relies on interaction between performers. It is no surprise that Zoom, in reducing folks to essentially acting against a webcam, has drained much of the life force from the play. Is this really theater? Is this really a play? Inventions of necessity in light of Zoom—such as the aforementioned double casting or actors’ reading of stage directions to orient the audience—seemed to get in the way of the performance.  

I was particularly disappointed to see the stage directions emerge as a stumbling block. That said, in the project’s best moments, the directorial decision to have characters read their stage directions seemed like a change worthy of permanence. I was reminded of playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s inimitable work when one character choked out the words “Leo sobs.” Unfortunately, the emotional and artistic possibilities of the directions were rarely explored otherwise. 

I am frustrated that the artistic flow achieved in Leopoldstadt’s smaller moments rarely came to pass in its larger scenes. Stoppard’s dense script suffers when any one of its components cannot align with the others, and the big family scenes that make up so much of the play provide endless opportunities for misalignment. I am hopeful that one day we will emerge from this pandemic and I’ll be able to attend an honest-to-God performance of Leopoldstadt, where the busy scenes won’t be a liability. 

Given the limits of the form, the cast should be commended, but perhaps none more so than Rebecca Spence. She portrays Gretl with empathy and energy, shining through in even the fullest family scenes. Who is Gretl, you ask? In the interest of time, it is simplest to call her one of the family’s matriarchs. Cage Pierre also deserves mention, as does Michael Aaron Pogue. In truth, every actor turned in impressive performances, but Spence, Pierre, and Pogue were a cut above in their performances. Charles Newell’s direction is notable for its unobtrusiveness—it is clear he trusts his actors and the entire company is discovering this play together. 

 Was Leopoldstadt the best thing I have seen at Court Theatre? I do not think it was, but I also do not think I have seen Leopoldstadt at Court Theatre. Zoom is at best a rocky medium for theater, and this text, with its pile of large scenes, is rather ill-suited for translation. In its best moments, this reading offered glimpses of an excellent piece of theater—perhaps one day, a proper production will let us find out if those glimpses were accurate.