Gripped by an impulse familiar to stage folk through the ages, a wily showman once got the idea to punch up a production of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII by firing an actual cannon onstage. The blast stopped the show, all right. It also started the fire that burned the original Globe Theatre to the ground.
The relationship between special effects and stagecraft is less incendiary now than it was in 1613, but that doesn’t mean it’s tranquil. From the drooping Phantom chandelier to the gee-whiz tricks of Disney’s Imagineers, elaborate FX tend to dehumanize a story and short-circuit the audience’s imagination—two developments disastrous to an art form that depends on its human connection and enticement to the imagination. Lucky, then, that two new shows offer some of the best reasons yet to think that 21st-century FX could do some good onstage.
The appeal of Sunday in the Park With George has always been the chance to hear one great artist (Stephen Sondheim) use another great artist (Georges Seurat) to help us understand the creation of great art. As the Seurat of Sondheim and librettist James Lapine’s story struggles to complete his pointillist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte, director Sam Buntrock uses marvelously precise digital projections to make the painting come to life: Splotches of color appear on a translucent canvas under Seurat’s brush; a steamer on the back wall glides along the Seine. It looks irresistibly cool, and the projections capture Seurat’s fevered focus on his work. When George (Daniel Evans, who has a Daniel Day-Lewis–ish intensity) says he is “living in” the painting, we understand how disorienting that must have felt.
Yet technology is less kind to the ear than to the eye in Buntrock’s revival (imported from London by the Roundabout). For all the dazzling visuals, the score has a synthesized quality that sounds like an artifact of the show’s original staging in 1984. Nor, alas, can digital imagery do much for a story that loses steam. Once Seurat finishes his painting, at intermission, we spend all of Act Two with his less interesting great-grandson. As badass as young George’s Chromolume looks here—all whirling lights—the evening inevitably feels like a visually sumptuous letdown.
If Buntrock shows how the inspired use of gadgetry offers a fresh way to evoke the heart of a story, Bob McGrath shows that FX can be a boon, not a detriment, to a play’s humanity. In The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island (Or, The Friends of Dr. Rushower) at the Vineyard, he sets cartoonist Ben Katchor and composer Mark Mulcahy’s whimsical story in a comic book come to life. Katchor’s drawings (familiar from strips like “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer”) are projected here on tilting screens, so the actors inhabit a world of hand-drawn color and light.
The attempts of a girl named GinGin to find love while liberating the slug bearers—laborers who transport the lead weights that give consumer electronics an illusion of substance—may not have much dramatic heft, but it’s charming and never cloys. As Katchor’s drawings whisk us from an apartment high atop New York to a distant tropical island, the show doesn’t deaden the imagination, it piques it: So this is what it’s like to live in a Fauvist dream.
At BAM, Rupert Goold is directing the first Macbeth that seems like it could be sponsored by a cutlery association. The long knives are always out in this production—the short ones, too. Patrick Stewart delivers the famous soliloquy “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly” while cutting the cork on a wine bottle. Later he slices a sandwich for Banquo’s murderers, a fitting gesture for his weirdly offhand approach: Murder doesn’t seem like a serious thing here, an odd choice for the greatest play about guilt ever written.
Otherwise Goold’s production is notable mainly for its aggression. Loud and—at three hours—long, it wows you with the occasional cinematic twist (Banquo dies via cloak-and-dagger high jinks on a train), then resumes bullying you with its Stalinesque imagery, its dingy-hospital aesthetic, its witches who rap their way through “Double, double, toil and trouble.” Hip-hop renders the chant indecipherable, which is, all in all, probably for the best.
Not long after Sunday in the Park With George opened on Broadway in 1984, the critic Robert Brustein called it “the first Broadway musical that is mainly about the set.” Employing pop-up cardboard cutouts and laser beams that might come off as eighties kitsch today, the set was stunning enough to some that it upstaged the score (“An act of self-immolation for Sondheim,” wrote another critic). Last-minute song swaps, prop problems, and visits from federal inspectors to make sure the lasers were safe led to premature rumors of disaster. But the musical went on to win the one prize that has nothing to do with staging—the Pulitzer.
Sunday in the Park With George
By Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine.
Roundabout Theatre Company. Through June 1.
The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island
By Ben Katchor and Mark Mulcahy.
Vineyard Theatre. Through March 16.
BAM. Through March 22.