KPBS AIRDATE: July 7, 1993
Playwright Alan Ayckbourn once said that a comedy is just a tragedy interrupted. In the folk tale now playing at the Old Globe and the satire running at the La Jolla Playhouse, ponderous themes are cloaked in comic antics.
The outdoor setting of “Ballad of the Blacksmith” is perfect for this Uruguayan morality play turned on its ear. Renowned guest director René Buch has chosen peasant garb and stylized dance, a stark set and glitzy suits. That’s the problem here. There’s no focus, no single concept to guide the ancient tale of mortal man versus Mr. Death. More than a smattering of Uruguayan colors and dance would have been great. Or a totally stylized, choreographed piece. But what we get is neither, and both.
The salsa is merely a suggestion; the women who dance really can’t. The slick Peron-like governor lapses into a Bill Clinton imitation. Death has wonderfully nimble fingers, long bony protuberances that undulate ominously. But though he writhes like a serpent, he whines like a kvetch. Jesus wears a breezy white suit, the Devil’s emissary a spiffy red one, with matching shades. St. Peter is a hot-head and Miseria, the main character, moves like a monkey, somersaulting around the stage while everyone else merely strikes a pose. What’s the concept here?
The story is ageless: a man making a deal with Death, bartering for extra time, all the while “stopping the world from fulfilling its destiny,” as Jesus puts it, which is to say, nobody’s dying while Miseria has Death stuck up a tree, and the earth is getting crowded and cranky. There are some inventive stage pictures, a few funny moments, and the character roles are really cute. But cute and peasant/country isn’t enough. Besides making you laugh, this tale should grab you by the throat and throttle you to think. My neck was untouched, and so was I.
Now, at the same time, up in La Jolla, another old chestnut is getting quite a new airing. Director Lisa Peterson has certainly drawn our attention to the parallels between today’s headlines and “Arms and the Man,” George Bernard Shaw’s 1894 ‘anti-comedy,’ which takes place in the Balkans in the shadow of a Serbian war.
Anachronisms abound, and they’re used to great effect. Battle plans are drawn up on laptops. Red Cross helicopters parachute down a light bulb to needy Bulgarians — (isn’t our foreign aid always ever-so-helpful?) So the third act is mired in wires, and the country is over-electrified, everyone clamoring to plug in his or her own personal appliance. Another sarcastic comment, heaped onto the pile Shaw himself amassed in this play, concerning class distinctions, civilized versus uncivilized nations, the vagaries and vulgarities of love, and of course, the glories of war and the jerkiness of jingoism.
Shaw can sometimes sound stodgy these days, and certainly talky. But Peterson’s cast is terrific, and the pace is perfect. Cynthia Nixon is delightful as Raina, the ditz-with-a-spine, and she plays well off Mark Harelik, the “chocolate cream soldier” who has a wonderful way with a cynical line. The rest of the cast is a dream, color being brought to the cheeks of every character. In Robert Brill’s creatively convertible set, replete with his signature boxes and miniatures, stars fall from the sky and a peacock drapes itself over a windowsill. Humor, silliness, relevance, social commentary — what more could anyone ask in the theater?
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.