I just re-read my review of the New Rep's 1998 production of Jack and Jill, and realized that I have already said everything I can possibly say about the Jane Martin play script. To see that for yourself, click here. I'm going to concentrate now on The Shakespeare and Company production, and the way it differs so radically from the-- also successful-- production I saw in '98 at Newton's New Rep.
First, what both productions share is brilliant acting. Long term members of Shakespeare and Company Allyn Burrows and Corinna May, paired two seasons ago in an and intense and intimate exploration of adulterous love in the context of British upper class reticence in Pinter's "Betrayal", explore spousal love in the more loquacious American style in "Jack and Jill", under the direction of Normi Noel. Rick Lombardo's excellent production at the New Rep kept its comic distance. Like S & C's at the Stables, Lombardo's production took place in an intimate theatre seating a hundred or so-- but the New Rep had a whizbang Transformer of a unit set by Jaime Fleagle that placed the action within a particular set of yuppie environments, NYC and Chicago, and within a mindset-- presumably one shared by the audience-- where money and objects, though conversationally taboo, really matter. One critical colleague, Todd Olsen, averred that at the Rep Cate Damon and Mac Carver gave "two of the most compelling performances in recent memory", while Larry Stark's review noted that " though much of what they feel is painful, it's bearable because, as types, particularly in their self analyses, they maintain an objective distance that sees the humor of it all." Laughs were frequent at the New Rep, some appreciative of the script's verbal wit, more of the recognition sort: the sort that acknowledges a true and sharp observation of the way smart and well meaning people mess up. The inadequacy of the tools they were using to understand themselves and interpret their world --eighties self-fullfillment feminism and New Age niceness psychobabble-- had a satiric edge. By the end you had the feeling that the couple's demands on a relationship, and on themselves in a relationship, were so far beyond the reach of ordinary flawed human beings that they were better off alone-- and might be best off if they could just each get a pet: a Siamese for him and a Lab for her. Jack's tumble down hill from Olympus left him sadder, wiser, and bitter. So when Jill at last comes to tell Jack that she is sadder and therefore wiser now, too-- and that her final wisdom is that she has come round to Jack's initial belief in a life-long quest for the Platonic Ideal of Love in partnership with the one sexually compatible intellectual equal in the whole world, we side with him when rejects her-- what, go though all that again! We feel superior to the characters-- we've done some of that, been near to feeling that, misinterpreted in a similarly foolish but less extreme way. And we chuckle ruefully at the idea of "maybe" trying one more time... Don't people ever learn?
The Shakespeare and Company production strips off the social specificity, eschews satire, and endorses the Platonic Ideal of love, Eternal Love. It's not very funny. After all, as GBS observed, "Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel". Boy, does this pair feel! Burrows and May are iconic: he like a young Robert Redford, she the tall cool blonde of upscale dreams. They act on a bare stage, augmented by a couple of folding chairs, and once, a bed. When I saw the set, I thought: My God! How are they going to manage the great metaphoric divorce in the dish breaking scene, where stressed out Jill violates their sacred formal dining room and systematically smashes all the household crockery? But when the time came, May just carried out a pile of dishes and a battered galvanized iron garbage can, and set noisily to work-- and it worked. The set having been stripped to a few expressionist panels, it seemed that even those the couple might be better off without. In the archetypal rather than stereotypical world Noel and her actors create, even a single sliding panel shifted by stagehands is a distraction. The actors follow the script's complicated costume plot, dressed by those same blank faced black clad stagehands as they talk to us in order to sketch in the passing of time and changing of circumstance-- but the pair could do without those details, too, and just perform in some noncommittal timeless scraps of cloth. Burrows and May are Essences, not Types, and what that are showing to us, who watch reverently, are the ways in which One Soul accepts or rejects the impress of Another. When they address the audience in monologue, they aren't pleading their character's case, but opening up to us, inviting us inside them. They treat the script's topical paradoxes, clever casualty lists from the contemporary battle of the sexes, as if they were Zen koans. They are even more intimate with us than they are with each other, and they tell us just about as much as we can bear to know about intimacy as a process: because, turning Larry Stark's comment about the New Rep's version inside out, they aim at objectivity without distance: perfect soul knowledge. They listen so intently-- sometimes to themselves, as if surprised by what just tumbled out of their mouths, but mostly and very specifically to each other. And, amazingly, we in the audience can see each listener in turn being re-shaped internally by what the other is saying. That that mutual shaping works against an equally strong drive to resist, to insist, to self define and individuate-- results in a bit of laughter and a whole lot of almost unbearable pain. By the time Jack and Jill reach the the last turn, the last chance, we are exhausted yet uplifted by so much feeling. The admiration we feel for the actors, who have given us so much, carries over to the characters. We want them to keep on, up that hill again, work away at it, the world well lost for love!
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