|Brad Fleischer and Arian Moayed in Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo (photo by Craig Schwartz)|
That’s interesting, because the American soldier characters don’t come off that well in the play.
JOSEPH: You know, one of the problems with starting this off with a great director like Moisés [Kaufman] and the great actors I had is that I often don't see some of the weaker parts of the text. And I've seen productions of it since then where the character of Kev [one of the American soldiers] just comes off as cartoonish, and I wish I had written it differently. I see it now but I never saw it before, because Brad Fleischer is a great actor and Moisés is a great director, and they never played it for that cartoonish quality. But what can you do? It's done and gone.
In a recent conversation with Book of Mormon co-author Bobby Lopez, he voiced a similar concern about the way its Ugandan characters' immiseration has been portrayed since the show opened--that while the humanitarian crisis in which the missionaries find themselves was meant mainly to provide hard-edged contrast for the show's comedy, it wasn't meant to be a source of comedy in itself. Lopez admitted that he's seen post-opening casts go for the laughs wherever they can find them.
It raised an issue that came up when I was writing about Annie Baker's Vanya at Soho Rep. She told me she'd seen productions of her own work that made a hash of it (though she wouldn't go on the record to say which ones), and the question of interpretation is ever-present with Chekhov plays, which arguably stand or fall on how well they're done (Sandy Meisner famously discouraged young actors from even attempting Chekhov).
So my question is: Is Rajiv being too hard on himself here? Does a good or great play need to be director- and actor-proof, or is one mark of a great work that it only shines in the finest and subtlest of renderings? I can see a good case to be made on either side here, though with a living form like theater, which truly exists only in the present tense, interpretation is all. Films and recorded performances aside, we can only see Shakespeare done the way artists are doing him now (one reason this bloke says he's done). I'd concede that there are relatively production-proof texts whose glories are nearly impossible to submerge even in a mediocre rendering, but that even those--maybe especially those--benefit from fresh, insightful new stagings that make seemingly familiar and indestructible works seem strange, vital, inexhaustible (last year's cobweb-clearing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? comes to mind). But there are just as many if not more great plays that defy a straightforward, common-sense approach, and that frankly wither without vigorous interpretive engagement (Brecht's, for one).
I can't say yet whether Bengal Tiger and Book of Mormon, both shows I admire enormously, belong in either class of deathless, revivable work, though I can say that I will almost certain have the chance to see them again in new stagings in my lifetime. But, particularly in an age of collaboratively made theater, it's worth wondering about the usefulness of the "artist-proof" measuring stick.