IT AIN’T MOZART
Louis Nowra’s Cosi tells the story of Lewis (Adam Zivkovic) a recent college graduate with a theatrical background who gets a job in an insane asylum. There, he find himself directing mental patients in a play adapted from Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto to Mozart’s opera, Cosi Fan Tutte, which deals with issues of fidelity and love. A side plot involving Lewis’ left-wing political activist live-in girlfriend Lucy (Olivia Etzine) and his left-wing political activist roommate Nick (Zach Bubolo) mirrors the themes of Mozart’s opera, but only in theory.
The premise of lunatics putting on a play seems fertile enough, but Mr. Nowra fails to grow anything interesting from it. His dull script suffers from the usual assortment of maladies: low stakes, irrelevant consequences, hazy motivations, predictability, lack of suspense, trivial subtext, trite ideas. Each patient has a scene in which he or she gives their little monologue, explaining, more or less, why they are in the asylum. But these explanations are such pat pseudo-psychological drivel that they feel like filler rather than revelations of any significance. They also have no meaningful relationship to anything else in the play. Themes such as the connection between theater, reality, and insanity—as well as ruminations on sexual fidelity, love, and political activism—are explored so banally it’s difficult not to sigh. There are some clever bits of dialogue and a few legitimate jokes, but without the proper foundation they flounder.
Having said all that, it might have been possible to make from this material something entertaining. Regrettably Jesse Michael Mothershed’s direction nipped that possibility in the bud. Lacking both energy and imagination, with simplistic, unfocused blocking, the directing feels uninspired, giving the appearance that Mr. Mothershed does not have a strong personal vision of Cosi; he appears to be directing just what is on the paper, as opposed to inventing a world with the script as the blueprint.
There is also an irritating lack of attention to detail: a door that squeaks the first two times it’s opened subsequently stops squeaking; a knife that’s described as a switchblade is not; set specifically in 1971 the play does not have a particularly 1971 feel or look. There are a couple of instances of Henry, a near-catatonic average-sized male mental patient, manhandling Nick, a much larger, healthy, athletic-looking young man. This is either a mistake in concept (Nick should have been smaller or Henry much larger) or in execution (the way it’s directed isn’t funny). Either way it doesn’t work.
The performances are generally uncompelling and vacillate from half-baked to exaggerated to superficial. The actors don’t infuse their characters with real needs, which makes it difficult for us to sympathize with them. The fact that this is uniformly the case suggests that Mr. Mothershed failed to give to the performers, who all appear quite capable, the appropriate guidance (the inmates are Duke Anderson, Kathleen Foster, Mathew Foster, Laura Iris Hill, Stuart Williams, Annie Worden, and Clint Zugel; Joseph Thornhill plays Justin, the asylum administrator).
There is one remarkable moment in the play when Cherry (Ms. Worden) recites a few lines as Despina, a character from Cosi Fan Tutte. For those few seconds everything shines with drama and suspense; Ms. Worden’s acting, free of the playwright’s and director’s blurry vision, becomes specific, the scene becomes focused, and for that instant we’re watching theater; Despina’s motivations are clear and suddenly a character on stage comes to life. But then Mr. Nowra’s play resumes and we find ourselves wading through mud and fog once again.
Christopher Thompson’s simple yet wonderfully textured set of the asylum theater, though quite nice in and of itself, seems a bit too dreary, even sinister, for the events and themes of this play. David Margolin Lawson’s sound design is rich and crisp (if only a decision could have been made about the door squeaking). Both Greg Solomon’s lighting and Emily Rose Parman’s costumes are serviceable, though what the costumes lack in 70’s-ness they make up for in inventiveness when the lunatics are performing Mozart’s play, dressed in makeshift 1700’s outfits.
photos by Samir Abady
Australian Made Entertainment and Urban Stages in New York City
scheduled to end on September 23, 2012
for tickets, visit http://www.urbanstages.org/