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February 4th, 2009

Drama, Melo and Otherwise

Last night, we saw August: Osage County. Tonight, we saw The Queen's Governor. The former is a South-Western gothic melodrama dressed up as domestic realism with high production values. The latter is camp drag comedy dressed up as a history of New York with production values only slightly more sophisticated than a highschool play. Both, in their different ways, were big, over-the-top spectacles of human frailty and endurance and colorful characters. Both featured performers who acted their socks off and weren't afraid of looking ridiculous in the service of the play.

I enjoyed both of them enormously.

August: Osage County is by far the better play. The construction is tight, the characters beautifully drawn, the words both poetic and natural, like real people speaking, only much better. I sat there for better than three hours, simultaneously harrowed and laughing out loud, which anybody who has ever been to a funny movie with me can tell you doesn't happen all that often, and I wasn't bored a bit. The third act dragged a bit, and the last dark secret it uncovered felt to me very much like a thick coat of paint on an already pretty colorful lily. But the actors were enjoying themselves so much it seems unladylike to complain, so I won't. I had visions of them, picking little pieces of the scenery out of their teeth backstage, swabbing off the sweat, then sweeping back on again, ready for a fresh mouthful. Estelle Parsons and Elizabeth Ashley. What a pair! It's a actress's show, really, full of strong, feisty, mean, survivors who may not be exactly admirable, but who are intensely human.

The Queen's Governor, on the other hand, wandered about through Edward, Lord Cornwell's last days as the Queen's Governor of the City of New York. The man was a cross-dresser, an aesthete, and a spendthrift, who sold bits of Crown land off to pay for his dresses and entertainments. According to the histories, he wasn't the worst governor New York ever had, but even this very sympathetic treatment failed to make him seem even tangentially competent. It did, however, make him colorful and reckless and larger than life, a kind of swashbuckler in panniers and lace. The sets were all painted cardboard and canvas, including a perfectly enchanting ship that got pulled across the stage at the finale by a rope, the 18th century-inflected language was slightly awkward and sometimes downright embarrassing, and the structure was a bit here-and-there. But in the end, it worked on its own terms. It was funny, it was accurate to the history (as far as I know it, having read Russel Shorto's The Island At the Center of the World), it was tremendously good-natured. And it didn't take itself too seriously, which I appreciate.


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