THE BLUE ROOM IS RED-HOT
(Published February 28, 2005)
THE MOST PROMINENT elements in the otherwise minimalist stage design of New Voice Company's latest production, The Blue Room, are the wan bouquets of flowers suspended downwards from the ceiling, looking like oversized frozen raindrops in autumnal colors of faded green and purple.
Call it a heavy-handed symbolism, but in the context of The Blue Room, David Hare's adaptation of the 1920s Arthur Schnitzler literary perennial, La Ronde, the hanging bouquets make a piquant statement--an apt visual metaphor for a work that sees love as a state suspended between heaven and earth, the sacred and the carnal, the hellish and the sublime.
Hare's adaptation uses the bare bones of Schnitzler's play--10 interlocking stories forming a daisy chain of ruminations on sex, love and relationships among people of various social classes--and peoples it with contemporary London characters.
Thus, Schnitzler's original Vienna archetypes like the count, the chambermaid and the soldier have become, in Hare's version, an aristocrat, an au pair and a cab driver, respectively.
These characters--plus others like a young upper-class student, a rich matron, a politician, a coke-snorting model, an imperious actress, a hooker and a pretentious playwright--go through a frenetic roundelay of chummy talk and clumsy sex in search of love, or what passes for it in their world.
In The Blue Room, these characters are played by only two actors, a man and a woman. For all its earnest exploration of the state of human connection, then, the play is most immediately a vehicle for tour de force versatility and craft. To shift from one character to the next, the actors undress onstage, literally shedding off one identity and assuming another.
Nudity and carnality
When Sam Mendes first staged The Blue Room at the Donmar Warehouse in London, he caused a tizzy by casting Nicole Kidman as one of the two main performers, opposite Iain Glen.
The play featured scenes of nudity and carnality, and the sight of Kidman undressed was enough to throw the theater world on fire. As one critic put it, Kidman in The Blue Room was “sheer theatrical Viagra.”
In the local version that's being staged at the Republic of Malate, Jamie Wilson and Jenny Jamora play the shape-shifting pair, and if their displays of flesh are comparatively tamer (accounts of The Blue Room's Australian production took note of the extensive, prolonged nudity of its stars, which isn't the case here), they bring as much emotional nakedness and abandon to their characters as the play warrants.
Wilson, in particular, shines in a couple of vignettes--as the young, naive student barely making it with an older woman, and as a playwright given to narcissistic fits of clever if meaningless wordplay.
In the latter episode, he throws caution to the wind and does the full monty. The scene is dimly lit, but it is breathtaking nonetheless, because it illustrates graphically the divide between appearance and reality. The two characters--the playwright and the actress--are totally naked, yet in their contrived, unrevealing banter they remain closed off to each other.
Jamora, an excellent presence in past NVC productions, has the difficult task of navigating emotionally inhibited characters like the rich matron and the hooker, women who have learned to keep their motivations in check to survive hard lives. But she manages to lace humor and genuine ache into these bruised figures.
In a discretely structured drama like this, some vignettes don't work as well as the others. Parts of the dialogue also come out indistinct--a result of the actors rushing their lines and the venue's diffuse acoustics. It's a mortal sin in a play that derives gravity from the way the characters use words to puncture and peel off each other's defenses.
Still, The Blue Room, directed by 23-year-old Rabbi Ganaban, generates enough heat and acidity to keep itself from lapsing into long-windedness.
The sex the characters casually engage in may come quick and cheap, but their revelatory flirtations represent an erotically charged, diverting night at the theater. The Blue Room has substance to go with its flashes of flesh.
[Next: “Laro”--Black hearts at play]