Monday, May 26, 2014

A View from the Bridge: The Silence that Haunts

“He’s stealing from me.”

As Ivo van Hove’s production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge came to a close my mouth fell open agape. Concluding with a stunning coup de théâtre, I sat breathless and still. This minimalist production releases the seething opera of emotion in Miller’s florid prose.  Van Hove makes the minimalist and stylized approach seem like a natural extension of the material.  Now I cannot imagine a naturalistic telling* of the story.

We are in the secretive and insular world of Sicilian dockworkers in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Eddie (Mark Strong) struggles and fights to provide for his family which includes his wife Beatrice (Nicola Walker) and her niece Catherine (Phoebe Fox). When he agrees to have his wife’s illegal Italian cousins Rodolpho (Luke Norris) and Marco (Emun Elliot) hide out with them and help find them work on the docks, he does so out of this obligation to family. But the cousins become catalyst for change in the household. Catie is 17 and yearning to be part of the world. Beatrice cannot wait for her niece to go so she can get her husband back, and Eddie cannot bear to think of all his hard work, love, and affection drifting out the door with Catie falling into the arms of another man.

Eddie becomes another one of Miller’s flawed protagonists. Blinded by his obsession for Catie, he deludes himself into thinking everything he’s doing is out of honor, family, and a blood oath obligation to provide for this girl. But nothing about the way he holds her, or the way she sits in his lap, makes this a comfortable familial scene.

The actors are all barefoot as they move around a glass enclosure initially shrouded in black. As the black monolith which frames the 3-sided stage ascends, the sweaty dockworkers are cleaning themselves in a shower. This is a show of the tactile and the sensory. An uncle’s affection for his niece is shown through every stroke of her naked legs, as she wraps herself around him, clinging to him with every muscle in her body.  For every look and touch Eddie showers on her, his wife stands aside, untouched, unnoticed. The Italian-American lawyer who narrates the story as the Greek chorus**, often walks the perimeter of the space, until he too is pulled into it.  There is either intense closeness or an abyss of distance for all the characters.

It is easy to get lost in the terrific direction, but it would not work without the actors finding the right balance as well. Strong is a powerhouse here.  His pleas to the lawyer that Rodolpho is "not right" are agonizingly uncomfortable.  His constant reassurances to Beatrice that he's doing this for family are (intentionally) painfully unconvincing.  Strong is this terrifying physical presence and yet putty in Catie's hands too.  That he can find the range, between aggressive machismo and weak pawn to his own desires, makes his performance all the more believable and terrifying.  He's not likeable--he can't be--but you feel the pull of his magnetism and that unto itself adds another layer to the production's every increasing anxiety. 

A steady underscoring of sound or music is constantly heard somewhere in the ether. This shadowy world is full of distrust, paranoia, government interference, struggle, and violence.  Van Hove illustrates this with a persistent and ominous drum beat—whether the thumping of a tell-tale heart, an indomitable libido, or the lighthouse warning for the dangerous rocks ahead, there is no escaping. It is inevitable.

Even in the smallest details, the change in Catie's costuming for instance (from color to black and white), van Hove uses every piece of information at his fingertips to coax out the story quietly, since the meat of the story itself is raw and rough on on its own.  Taking all that energy, heat, and volume, van Hove and his creative team turns it down to a terrifying low rumble for the audience to absorb almost through osmosis. 

Van Hove manages to wring so much out of so little. As the family tensions reach their apex, he stages an entire scene with extenuated pauses. No one is making eye contact. Everyone is staged alone with space between them. And the explosive conversation drags on and on as each line is given extra weight. The anxiety builds in the audience as we wait for every line, every response, every pause, and every step closer to the family's explosion.
At two hours with no intermission the audience is placed in a pressure cooker and we endure the building tension as the characters do. But when all hell breaks loose and tragedy must befall this family, the carnage that is done onstage is beautiful, visceral, physical, abusive, and breathtaking. When death has a smell you cannot escape, you know you’re in the hands of a particularly skilled director.  This production shows that a minimalist approach can crack open the soul of a play and in a time when excess on stage seems to rule the day, it reminds us that the greatest struggles can be perfectly illustrated with so little. 

*I never saw the most recent Broadway production of A View From the Bridge. And frankly now that I have seen this I'm glad I came to it totally fresh.

**I'm still thinking about about how Miller has framed these characters and whether the "othering" I felt came from the play, the production, or simply the odd circumstance of seeing an American immigrant story in a theater in London.  I'm not sure.  But the framework of having the Italian-American lawyer "explain" the cultural nuances of the family's behavior made me feel like it was in the text. And in some ways I wasn't troubled by the "othering," (maybe that itself is a problem) except to the extent that it allows the audience to find some distance from the material as this just being about crazy I-talians being hotblooded and violent.

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