It’s extremely aggressive, it’s very mean-spirited, the people are vicious to each other,” confesses Garland Wright of Too Clever by Half, the Russian comedy that has opened the Guthrie Theater’s 30th season.
He does not offer this critique by way of apology for Alexander Ostrovsky’s 1868 play. As artistic director of the Minneapolis company, Wright wanted to lead off this year’s season with a funny play, and in Rodney Ackland’s adaptation–originally commissioned, incidentally, by the theatre’s founder, Sir Tyrone Guthrie–a slick, raucous comedy is just what Wright gets.
The director’s comments betray his surprise, even awe, at what he has found at the heart of this comedy: chillingly impartial satire. “I’ve never worked on a play by someone who had less of an ideological agenda,” claims Wright. “Ostrovsky has an absolutely objective eye. I found it really quite disconcerting because there is no moral center to the play.”
The morally uncentered satire of Too Clever caters to the tabloid-reader in all of us. Squeezing his characters bone-dry of any redeeming virtues, Ostrovsky puts on display the craven ambitions of wealthy Muscovites and their equally unscrupulous hangers-on. The impecunious but abundantly clever Glumov is the play’s “hero” though the word here demands quotation marks.
Glumov is simply a bolder toady than his competitors, and is well on his way to landing a sinecure in the civil service and a wealthy, if vapid, bride when the bottom appears to fall out. Although a phenom of public hypocrisy, the young man has committed his true feelings about his mentors to his diary. (This play is perhaps better known in English as Diary of a Scoundrel) When the incriminating journal is discovered and circulated by his spurned mistress, it seems that his best-laid plans are about to collapse on him.
In a denouement of brilliant panache, however, the playwright has his hero turning on and outfacing his accusers, with the result that they beg Glumov to come back to the fold. After all, it’s better to have his poison-pen working for them than against them.
Previous to the Guthrie’s staging, the most recent major production of Too Clever in English by London’s Old Vic Theatre–dates from 1988. To judge from reviews of this eccentric but well-received British mounting, a few of its details were apparently imported to Minneapolis. Common to both shows, for example, are sharply raked floors, Kleopatra’s equine dentures, and ghoulish make-up for Glumov’s fiancee.
According to Wright, however, the inspiration for his production derives from Sergei Eisenstein’s expressionistic version from the early 1920s. Wright’s first instinct, he reports, was to evoke the slightly exaggerated style of Daumier and Dickens. This all changed after he read the casebook on the Russian director’s highly abstracted staging. “We all started thinking more freely,” declares Wright. “Our show became more and more expressive, and less and less evocative.”
To underscore how precarious one’s footing is in this society, Wright asked Too Clever’s set designer, Douglas Stein, to create a house-of-cards atmosphere on the stage. Accordingly, Stein’s working motto became: “Flimsy is good.” The set’s sloping floors and skewed furniture make this world appear treacherous to negotiate, ready to fall apart or to send someone tumbling. The floor and flats appear to be cut from enormous sheets of yellow legal paper, tenuously held together by gigantic paper clips.
Another early principle guiding the interpretation was color lots of it. Stein worked closely with costume designer Susan Hilferty in order to bring into their designs the most “violent” colors possible while keeping the characters in highest relief.
They explain the rationale behind their choices of pigment as eagerly as any “color-me-beautiful” clothes analyst. Stein reports that after he decided on the set’s yellow background, “Susan came screaming in with all this color” hot pink, orange, purple, robin’s-egg blue, along with their various complementary hues “and then I came back with some of the furniture choices, to try to sneak in colors in support of the costumes.” To maintain the purity of the yellow floor, the performers’ shoes had to be soled in white rubber.
After the initial designs were constructed, there came the lengthy, empirical process of seeing which shades actually worked on stage and which ones seemed to be missing from this wild palette. According to Stein, until he painted the furnishings in Glumov’s apartment in a primary, “Russian” red, “you couldn’t look at them. And when all that got locked in the red, not only could you look at them, but the clothes really jumped off the set.”
“It’s very obvious,” insists Hilferty, “when there’s a wrong color out there when it’s too much, when you can’t look at it, when you’re not getting the right balance, or it kind of sinks into itself
No color wins
“Clashing is all right, as long as the colors are equal–that there’s no color that wins. For instance, I first had Glumov in a gray shirt. I was just trying to make him a kind of tabula rasa, completely clean, which is why he’s now in black and white. The gray had seemed like something that could balance. But up there, it was lost, it was defeated.”
The Guthrie’s highly, “expressive” approach with its funhouse set, vibrant colors, and prosthetic noses, teeth and chins for the performers does not, on the other hand, make the characters so abstract as to dissipate their pointed, satirical force. Recognizable to audiences in any era, and in nearly any type of staging, are such figures as the pompous windbag Mamayev, who showers favors on those who pretend to seek his advice, and the aging matron, Madame Turusina, whose religious fervor increases to the degree that her sexual opportunities decline.
“When I read the play the first time,” Wright offers, “in my head I was reading it with my Texas accent. I have a feeling it just reminded me of rich people in Dallas. Rich people in Dallas are theatrical, they are bigger than life, they’re almost unbelievable.”
Wright surmises that it was this particular cultural context so seemingly remote from 19th-century Moscow that enabled him “to understand both the circumstances of the play and also its characters as these sort of huge personalities that take up a lot of room.”
Outside of Russia, Ostrovsky is frequently eclipsed by the great writers that arrived on either side of him Gogol in the early 19th century, and Chekhov at the century’s close. Yet Ostrovsky is cherished in his homeland, and at Moscow’s Maly Theater, where the playwright produced much of his work, his dramas are rarely absent from the repertoire.
Despite Wright’s own success in bringing Too Clever to the stage, however, the Guthrie director does not anticipate that the trickle of Ostrovsky plays now being produced in the U.S. will turn into a flood. Some of the plays, Wright says, are poorly structured–Ackland’s adaptation of Too Clever, for instance, involved the transposition of several scenes as well as the writing of new dialogue. Ostrovsky’s idiomatic language, moreover, is said to be devilish to translate well.
But even if Ostrovsky never becomes a staple of the English-speaking stage the way Chekhov has become, the works of the earlier playwright offer an important corrective to what Wright believes is a profound misunderstanding about Russian culture. “Ostrovsky is quite different from Chekhov,” he insists, “and Too Clever somehow gives me a clearer image of our misconceptions about the Russian consciousness which we have, in a cliched way, associated with neurotic poets who lay around on summer estates and talk philosophy.”
In place of this “lazier, aristocratic” attitude, what Wright discerns to be fueling the Slavic psyche is something likely to be more familiar to us, a picture that hits much closer to home: “What I found in working on Ostrovsky was an unbelievably forceful, passionate, greedy hunger for success in life and money and love.”