Saturday, April 29, 2006

Theatre Watch: "Salome" starring Al Pacino

I don't get out to the theater very often -- too many movies and television shows to watch and too little LA theater that demands my attention -- so I may not actually be posting to review the production of "Salome" that I just caught at the Wodsworth Theatre in Brentwood, a production that purports to be nothing more than a staged reading of Oscar Wilde's play and that's showing to full houses for no reason beyond the presence of Al Pacino -- you may have heard of him -- as Herod.

Coincidentally, as I was preparing to see the show tonight, the Los Angeles Times ran a review of the show by Charles McNulty, which I saw as an archetypal example of everything that I, as a critic, attempt to avoid doing. The opinion of the review is of no import. McNulty hated the production, which is a very valid opinion. It's, um, not particularly good. Beyond Pacino and Jessica Chastain in the title role, the acting is just horrid, even if you know that you're getting actors staring at their script. The music, the only thing embellishing the show, is minimalist to a boring degree. I'm also not sure that the play itself is very good, but that's another issue.

No. McNulty's review is embarrassing because he makes no effort at all to understand the production for what it is and write a lengthy review solely on what it isn't. He's forever referencing how "Salome" is traditionally interpreted and how this version isn't Karita Mattila's 2004 performance at the Met or Sarah Bernhardt's interpretation (which McNulty probably didn't see) and that it isn't even of the level of Pacino's 2003 staged reading. McNulty's problem is that he has a certain interpretation of the show and because this isn't that interpretation, it's wrong and therefore of low quality. As a reviewer, I need to read misguided missives like this whenever I go to see a movie version of a good book or a remake of a classic film so that I can remember that merely saying "'Poseidon' isn't as good as 'The Poseidon Adventure' and therefore it's a bad movie" is bad writing.

Early on in his review, McNulty notes that Pacino's performance -- a broadly comic vision that's Pacino-esque in its theatricality -- is probably a choice, but he just decries it as wrong and doesn't bother to step back and go, "If it's a choice, why is he making it? What does it do to the text that they're approaching it in a way different from ways that I've liked seeing it done before?" Again, this is something that I, and all other reviewers who aim for intelligence and insight, need aspire to.

McNulty makes reference to nervous laughter on the audience's part, as if the laughter is *anything* other than the direct intent of Pacino's performance. I'll grant the writer that "Salome" is a darned strange play to find yourself laughing at. When, however, you find yourself laughing at "Salome," you may want to step back and ask why? There's something in Pacino's take on the character, his vision of this supposed king as a pathetic and easily emasculated man, that makes sense in context. Chastain's Salome, an insolent young girl used to getting what she wants and petulant at being scorned, fits in perfectly. Both characters are forced into a situation where they're powerless in the face of the prophet Jokanaan (a forgettable Kevin Anderson), not because of who he is, but because of what he represents. The comedy of Pacino's vainglorious and inappropriately lustful king for 2/3rds of the performance, actually makes his final action (you may know the story) all the more shocking. The journey the character has to travel is a far greater distance than what you'd see in most versions of the play, simply because of where Pacino has him start.

But again, it's not really a good show. And most of you aren't in LA and probably aren't going to see it. So that's enough blog space wasted.

Oh, but I was amused to see Gay Talese at the show. I was also amused that I'm able to recognize Gay Talese. Not sure why that is.

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