CAT’s ‘Don’t Cry For Me, Margaret Mitchell’ is a rambunctious production, heavy on energy, light on focus
Read More: Alan Armstrong, Amy Berlin, CAT Theatre, Charlotte Scharff, David O. Selznick, Kent Slonaker, Leroy Anderson, Lin Heath, Margaret Mitchell, matt hackman, Tara Callahan, Tim Schwartz, Virginia Cate and Duke Ernsberger
If all you had was the reference to Margaret Mitchell, you would instantly know what this play is about. Miss Mitchell will be forever identified as the author of one of the most popular books of the early 20th century which was subsequently made into one of the greatest films of all time: Gone With the Wind (cue Tara’s Theme).
The title of this play bears comment. Don’t Cry For Me… is lifted from the popular Broadway musical song “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” from Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Evita.
I can’t say I’m comfortable speculating why the Evita reference is used, but I am comfortable letting it be a mystery to me.
The plot is basically taken from movie business headlines. It is the story of how the great movie producer David O. Selznick decided two months into filming Gone With the Wind to halt production, trash Sidney Howard’s script and fire the Director George Cukor. Mr. Cukor, known as a women’s director was apparently not satisfactory to Mr. Selznick’s star, Clark Gable. Mr. Gable was nervous because he felt Vivian Leigh and Olivia De Havilland were getting the best coverage. He wanted to replace Cukor with his drinking buddy Victor Fleming with whom he had previously worked on several films including Red Dust and Test Pilot.
Selznick’s power was so broad that he convinced Louis B. Mayer of MGM Studios to take Mr. Fleming off of the picture he was then directing (a silly picture called The Wizard of Oz, which always struck me as an unusual vehicle for the macho Fleming). Mervyn LeRoy took over for Fleming on Oz and Cukor was shown the door. Don’t Cry for Mr. Cukor either. He went on to direct the great film The Women that same year. The Wizard of Oz, The Women and Gone With the Wind all competed against each other for the Best Picture Oscar at the 1939 Academy Awards. Gone With the Wind won.
Selznick hired the great script doctor Ben Hecht (His Girl Friday, The Front Page) to do the rewrites. Don’t Cry for Me, Margaret Mitchell is the fictitious story of how three men – Selznick, Fleming and Hecht – locked themselves in Selznick’s office for a week until the rewrite was done.
Interestingly, this exact same plot was used in another play called Moonlight and Magnolias which was written by Ron Hutchinson in 2004. Don’t Cry for Me, Margaret Mitchell was written in 2007 by the mother/son writing team of Virginia Cate and Duke Ernsberger. Ms. Cate and Mr. Ernsberger’s plays were all created for the Barter Theatre in Abington, Virginia.
I had never seen either play before tonight and am amazed that the subject matter deserved one staging, much less two different ones.
Since there is nothing inherently dramatic about men trying to write a script, the success of the production depends on making the interpersonal relationships and framing the obstacles to getting the task done in an engaging manner.
Director Amy Berlin, sensing the inherent lack of drama, has staged a madcap comedy romp much like a Marx Brothers movie if Groucho, Chico and Harpo were locked in a room for seven days. Outrageous characterizations, gymnastic choreography featuring many pratfalls, frenetic re-enactments of scenes from the book and movie, unconscious people being manipulated ala Weekend at Bernie’s and banana peels strewn about the floor. Ms. Berlin brings her extensive improvisational comedy skills in her fast paced, spirited staging. The action sometimes seems so fast that the story gets swallowed. It is more or less a hurricane in a box.
I’ll say upfront I’m not a fan of the script. The physical demands hang on a reed thin plot that more times than not is too weak to hold it up.
Theatre is always experimental. Dedicated artists commit themselves to great ideas and work extremely hard to make a vision come to life.
There is no shame in missing the mark. CAT has made a valiant effort to make this show work. The artists on the CAT stage show a great deal of work and commitment telling this story. The actors throw themselves around the set like bean bags sparring and cajoling and intimidating and delighting in the finished product. It was very satisfying to see artists tell a story about the creation of a great work of art. People in the business love plays about plays or about actors or about any craftspeople who seek to create entertainment. To that extent I enjoyed what I saw.
Since the play has to be character driven and everyone is playing larger than life madcap comedy, the incongruity never allows the play to find a center and what results is a lot of moments and set ups that overshoot the mark. The actors, bless them, are all trying much too hard to find the rhythm and center that eludes them. It’s like spinning tires in mud, lots of movement with no traction. The result is that no one really develops flesh and blood human beings, just caricatures.
Matt Hackman plays David O. Selznick. Mr. Hackman is a very talented and experienced actor who shows great physical comedy skills but gets stuck in manic mode. He never centers his portrayal of Selznick. You don’t get a sense of the paranoia and desperation that fuels his neurotic need to control everything. Hackman has some very funny moments playing Scarlett O’Hara, playing torpid and doing a frantic retelling of the entire book in 90 seconds. Unfortunately, these gems stand alone and don’t add up to a man we can relate to.
Tim Schwartz plays Ben Hecht. Mr. Schwartz is a promising young actor who also needed a short leash. Already a big man, he was two sizes too big in both his vocal and his physical character. I felt like he lacked control playing the stage which is very surprising considering he is a fight director. Not that the two disciplines necessary compliment another. He is promising because he has a natural gift for the lines and a good sense of timing. He needs to bring Mr. Hecht down to earth and create a characterization that shows subtlety as well as exasperation.
Kent Slonaker had a different and more difficult assignment. Victor Fleming is referred to as “a man’s man” someone Clark Gable could relate to but Mr. Slonaker gives no indication of that steely control. He needed to make stronger choices to give us a better idea of what the man was like. To be fair Ms. Berlin keeps him in the background off to the side for far too long and the script doesn’t give him many opportunities to develop that persona but the opportunities that do exist were not used to his best advantage.
I did enjoy Tara Callahan as Miss Peabody. She doesn’t have to fill the stage for two acts but when she does come on she makes the most of her scenes and is thoroughly engaged and engaging. Her pre-show and intermission stage work was nicely done despite the fact that few people were paying attention to her. I was.
Amy Berlin is master craftsman. She has a great feel for staging and pace. I think she packed this play so full of action that the audience has no time to catch up to the drama. This play’s dynamics never settled into a groove. I have to assume that this play spoke to her in some way or she wouldn’t have chosen to direct it. If I had to guess, it would be that very Marx Brothers-like pace and idiocy that can be very charming and humanly funny when done right. Unfortunately, she didn’t have the Marx Brothers.
I was very impressed by the set design by Lin Heath. Smartly designed and classily executed with fun set pieces, I was impressed as soon as my eye hit the stage. The lighting design by Alan Armstrong gave great service to the ambiance as the times of day changed often during the week of the play’s timeframe. The costumes by Charlotte Scharff excelled in Ms. Callahan’s many dresses but less impressive when it came to the men. I especially didn’t like Ben Hecht’s pajamas. I also wanted Fleming to stop playing with his eyepatch, it became distracting.
I’ll pick at the sound design for a second. Leroy Anderson’s Typewriter Symphony used in the play was written in 1950′s while the play takes place in 1938 (Gone With the Wind won Best Picture in 1939). Thematically the Typewriter Symphony fits the frantic typing Ben Hecht is ostensibly doing but the out of period music bothered a nerd like me.
Don’t Cry For Me, Margaret Mitchell is not a very adventurous piece of theatre. It may be the pleasant fodder subscription patrons are fond of seeing, but it advances their theatre education not one bit and, even for the genre of populist safe comedy, we’ve already seen the better written Quartet and Moon Over Buffalo in recent months.
I have seen CAT’s 2016-2017 season and I have to admit I don’t know any of the titles. I hope to be surprised by exciting scripts done by experienced artists and hope that this “professional theatre with a community heart” continues to produce the quality theatre that they are known for.
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