nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
December 2, 2008
The meta-theatrics simply do not end!
First of all, there is the novelty of seeing a production called Opening Night on its opening night; this, by the way, is an easy entry point into nervous and/or flirtatious conversation with any of the theatrical luminaries, aspiring theatrical luminaries, donors, or aspiring donors in attendance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater. Secondly, Opening Night is directed by Ivo Van Hove, the convention-bending Flemish director who—in his concurrently stripped-down and multimedia-fied (and, in my opinion, thrilling) stagings of such classics as A Streetcar Named Desire, Hedda Gabler, and The Misanthrope—never lets us forget that we are in a theatre watching a play (directed by him). Finally, Opening Night is based on the script of the 1977 John Cassavetes film of the same name, which has Gena Rowlands starring opposite Cassavetes (her real-life husband), as her ex-husband who is starring opposite her in a play called "The Second Wife," in which he plays her current husband.
In this day and age of "Reality" everything, it is a rare audience member who doesn't secretly love to be implicated as a participant—a co-conspirator, even—in her choice theatrical event for that evening. Unlike the rather literal opportunities to be thrust into the kitschy mise-en-scène of this couple's wedding, that relative's funeral, and this generation's awesome prom, directors such as van Hove give us more sophisticated alternatives, zapping our shame over our wanting to be the stationary stars of the show.
I mention this because there is a moment about 90 minutes into this production where that particular night's audience sees a stealthily captured video of themselves from earlier in the evening. I'm being vague so as not to spoil it, but the energy changed in the room immediately—the crowd was transfixed, a mite spooked, and in the end, endlessly amused by their own image. And after that, the heretofore hesitant reception of Opening Night (not to be confused with the opening night reception, which happened in the lobby afterwards and was lovely) became hearty, as though the performers were dear friends and we were all fluent in Dutch. (Did I mention this production's in Dutch? There are English subtitles, natch.)
This brilliant strategy is what finally hooked me into this very very well-acted, but rather too pedestrian theatrical journey. By essentially vivisecting the playing space into on stage, backstage, audience seating, and stage door alley—and having live video feed consisting primarily of extreme close-ups—van Hove and his equally talented constant collaborator, the set and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld, create an unrelentingly claustrophobic environment. It's apt for the solipsistic story of great actress, Myrtle Gordon, an aging beauty who willfully resists finding anything in common with her current role as an aging beauty, and thus drinks excessively, isolates professionally and personally, and becomes obsessed with a young fan who dies immediately after receiving her autograph and returns as a phantasmic representation of Myrtle's lost youth.
The cast, comprised of members of van Hove's own company, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, is uniformly excellent, and Elsie de Brauw's captivating performance of the vain and desperate Myrtle is the suitably enigmatic heart of Opening Night—a life lived with so much fuss and so little examination. This is what makes the play so fascinating in theory and so unsatisfying in practice; we literally see ourselves on stage (or on screen, as it were) and yet do we recognize anything different in or about ourselves during or afterwards?
Faded beauty and the fetishization of youth are worthy—and indeed, haunting—subjects for most all of us, but these meta-theatrics somehow missed the point, somehow distracted me from a fundamental identification. The greater my (unwitting) participation—the more I saw myself—the less involved I felt. But that might've just been me.