Saturday, March 04, 2017

"Watch on the Rhine" @ Arena Stage

Tonight marked the 1st of March's theatrical experiences and the 26th of the year. It was at Arena Stage in DC (my 5th show there so far--I should have purchased season tickets) and it was set in the Fichandler theater in the round with an amazingly beautiful set. The production "Watch on the Rhine" is by Lillian Hellmann and is the second Hellmann play presented by Arena this season to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the playwright's birth. The anchor actor of the production in the role of the Matriarch, Fanny, was Marsha Mason.

The story is set in pre-World War II suburban Washington, DC. The setting is the estate of the Franny Farrelly where she lives with her bachelor son, David, and their house staff. At present they are also hosting the Count and Countess de Brancovis--the countess being the daughter of a family friend. The two are refugees from the turmoil in Europe. The main even is the pending arrival of Franny's daughter Sara with her German husband Kurt, and their three children, Joshua, Babette and Bodo. Sara has not been home since her wedding, and neither Franny nor David have met the children. In this moment the whole of the coming conflict and the treacheries of the resistance and those who mean to profit from their misery arrives at this bucolic country home. More importantly this historic drama has something to say to us today. Determined so far in advance of this past year's election, the presentation of this play proved prescient in retrospect. There's no need to speak of the writing, the writing is outstanding and the power Hellmann gives to her female characters is certainly striking. I have mentioned that the set was stunning, and let me say that the costumes were, as well. So what is left to dissect? The actors, of course! 

I have to start with Mason. She was wonderful, and her brightest contribution was her comic timing. It's a long show: 2hr 20mn, not counting the intermission. But the fact that it flew by is due in no small part to her wit and her character's essential place as the fulcrum upon which everything else finds it's balance. I once again encountered Tom Keegan, who I have previously seen in "The Glass Menagerie" at Ford's Theater a year ago, and this past autumn in both productions of "Angels in America" at Round House Theater. He really impressed me in "Menagerie" as the gentleman caller. He was the right kind of vulnerable as closeted Mormon in "Angels", but held the same physicality that the Gentleman Caller had. And once again, he brings to this role that tentative body language that is less acting and more just him. He's a handsome guy. He memorizes and delivers his lines with great accuracy. He is articulate. But I'm kinda over him in terms of his depth of abilities. He can deliver a solid performance, but I'm loosing faith in the fact that he can inhabit a character. And that would be the only downside to the acting in this production, something someone without a history of watching him perform would never be the wiser to.

Other standout performances go to J. Anthony Crane as the Count Teck de Brancovis. Every inch the devilishly handsome villain, believable to the bitter end. Andrew Long as Kurt Müller was powerful in his nuanced performance that knew when to hold back and when to let go. It's the difference between monotone and stereophonic sound. The Countess de Brancovis Marthe, played by Natalia Payne was compelling and convincingly delivered some of the most empowering feminist lines of the night.

All in all, a wonderful production.
The Müllers arrive after twenty years away to be greeted by the longtime housekeeper, Anise (Helen Hedman).  She embraces Sara Müller (Lise Bruneau) as Joshua Müller (Ethan Miller) and Kurt Müller (Andrew Long) and Babette Müller (Lucy Breedlove) look on
The Müller sons, Joshua, Ethan Miller, and Bodo, Tyler Bowman
The Count and Countess De Brancovis, Playing Count Teck, J. Anthony Crane and his wife, Marthe, Natalia Payne
Marsha Mason as Fanny Farrelly and in the background, Thomas Keegan as David Farrelly, Lucy Breedlove as Babette Müller and Lise Bruneau as Sara Müller
The stunning set by Tony award winning designer, Tony Rosenthal

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