January 15, 2008

View from the Bridge obscured by movie misstep

Introducing video into theater is always a dangerous affair. The potential benefits are easily outweighed by all the possible ways for it to go wrong. If it doesn’t work, you’ll lose the audience no matter how strong the rest of the play is. A textbook example of this dilemma can be found in Grey Zelda’s production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. While the production’s staging and acting are top-notch, the maddeningly problematic video sequences manage to leave the production unsatisfying despite some Jeff-worthy performances.

A View from the Bridge is an oft-forgotten gem from Arthur Miller, and if nothing else, it’s worth seeing based on the text alone. It combines all those trademark Miller themes—the relationship between the personal and the political, a respectable male protagonist trapped by his past, and inklings of Greek tragedy. Set on the docks of Red Hook, Brooklyn, the story follows the family of Eddie Carbone, a dock worker whose beneficent hosting of his wife’s illegally immigrated cousins comes under fire when one cousin begins to court his adopted niece.

The play came out at roughly the same time as Miller’s estranged Group Theatre associate Elia Kazan was making On the Waterfront, and Eddie Carbone could easily be a chum of Terry Malloy. Both works use Brooklyn docks as a metaphor for ’50s paranoia and moral quagmires.

The obvious reason for revival would be the current immigration debate, but according to producer (and Grey Zelda co-founder) Rebecca Zellar, she already had actors in mind when deciding on the play. Aris Tompulis had worked with Grey Zelda last year, and both parties felt Tompulis would be a natural Eddie Carbone. That initial feeling has paid off, as Tompulis gives one of the best performances you’re likely to to see on a Chicago stage this winter. His mannerisms and delivery were so natural, I actually had to check my script afterwards to make sure he wasn’t ad libbing.

Equally outstanding are Dave Goss’s Marco and Tom Gordon’s Rodolpho, both of whom have mastered an Italian accent and every task called for by the text. Finally, Kelly Breheny, playing niece Katherine for a second time, shows remarkable comfort with the role.

When you combine nearly flawless stage performances with an already strong text, there should be nothing preventing the play from being called a success. Unfortunately, Edward Stone French’s uninspired video design feels hopelessly out of place, and irrevocably sours the experience. In theory, adding video is not necessarily a bad move: It solves the issue of the small Stage Left space (the scenes with the lawyer Alfieri were originally staged to the side of the Carbone apartment) and could add a feel for the mean streets of Red Hook. Unfortunately, there are too many flaws, major and minor, to prevent this tactic from succeeding.

For one, the embarrassing performance by Dave Lykins as Alfieri—always on screen, never on stage—stands out in stark contrast from the strong performances of the stage actors. Additionally, despite employing Bert Walser as a sound engineer, the sound of the video is hopelessly muddled, which is especially egregious when combined with the naked acoustics of the stage. There was also the obvious contrast of 2008 city scenery with that of 1955. At the production I saw, the projector displayed an error message that blocked most of the filmed scenes for the first act. While I don’t imagine this will be a recurring problem, it absolutely killed some crucial moments of exposition.

Even the scenes without projection problems felt hopelessly out of place and long-winded. This was not a problem inherent in the films themselves, but the weak jump cuts dampened the theater experience while the use of soliloquy worsened the films even further. French is a former associate of Zellar and director Chris Ritter from the West Virginia University drama program, and one has to wonder whether the decision to use video was made out of loyalty to a friend rather than what was best for the production.

It’s also worth asking what portion of the $20 ticket price went to the actors as opposed to French.

Despite the production’s flaws, the performances are too good not to be seen, which makes the avoidable technological flaws all the more frustrating. In any case, Grey Zelda has established itself as a theater company to watch, and, hopefully, next time it’ll walk the tightrope of technology more carefully.