A View From the Bridge
By Arthur Miller
Dir. Ivo Van Hove
A View From the Bridge showed at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater from Nov. 18, 2017 – December 3, 2017.
There is no denying the quality of Belgian theatre director Ivo van Hove’s take on Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. Two Tony’s (Best Revival, Best Direction) and three cities later (London, New York City, and L.A.), the Eisenhower Theater stage at the Kennedy Center will be graced with a stripped-to-the-bone rendition of the 1955 American tragedy.
Van Hove, known for his hyper-minimalist aesthetic, has produced a richer, much more complex version of View than the play text, or any past production for that matter, seems to offer. And yet there are no props. The costume design hints at the period, but is altogether neutral and nondescript. The stage decor is nearly absent, save a black entry door and a glass cubicle structure that frames the stage. Stripped of these elements and subjected to the interpretive tweaks of the famed avant-gardist, View takes on a new dramatic sophistication.
The play opens to an enormous black cube that rises to reveal two men, Eddie (Frederick Weller) and his friend Louie (Howard W. Overshown), stripped down to their briefs. Departing from the original text, van Hove has the two men showering side-by-side beneath violent drips of water falling hard from high off-stage–the effect is more like rain than a shower head. The eerie glow of the stage is accompanied by the foreboding sounds of thunder and heavy drums. There is more than just the sense of danger– erotics, taboo, desire, and violence have also made their way in.
We begin the story with Eddie, his wife Beatrice (Andrus Nichols), and Beatrice’s niece, Catherine (Catherine Combs). The three have been living together in an Italian-American neighborhood near the Brooklyn Bridge as a pseudo-family unit. Eddie is a conventional macho type: a longshoreman and boxing enthusiast, he is a veritable man of the house figure. Any decision made under his roof must go past him. Catherine, who has been studying to be a secretary, reveals she has been offered a job, but Eddie disapproves, just as he disapproves of her new skirt and heels. “She’s just a baby,” Eddie insists, but such a notion doesn’t seem quite right each time Catherine bounces into Eddie’s arms and wraps her limber, white legs around his torso. The Freudian overtones are glaring. The physical intimacy between Eddie and his niece surpasses that between he and his own wife. Beatrice points out that she and Eddie have not had sex for three months. There is a problem and everyone is affected.
In-come brothers Marco (Alex Esola) and Rodolfo (Dave Register), relatives of Beatrice that have fled a bleak economic situation in Italy and entered illegally into the U.S. to find work. While Marco is a raven-haired, muscular, father of three, Rodolfo is a blonde, lively “kid,” prone to bursting out in song. Naturally, Catherine takes a liking to Rodolfo and he her. Eddie is not pleased.
“He ain’t right,” Eddie explains to his lawyer, Alfieri (Thomas Jay Ryan), who insists there is nothing the law can do for him, nothing to prove that Eddie’s suspicion of Rodolfo’s homosexuality and his supposed scheme to acquire American citizenship by deceiving Catherine into marriage is correct. And yet Eddie is certain of this. He can feel it in his bones. Ultimately, he betrays the family name and calls immigration on Marco and Rodolfo in order to “save” Catherine. Cue Marco’s wrath.
Wellers’ Eddie is perhaps the most effective in moments of silence. His hard brow and his scalding looks at the naive Rodolfo speak to the complexity of his characters’ anger, his offense, and his insecurity. I imagine Mark Strong’s Tony-nominated Eddie from the New York City staging was more arresting. Combs’ Catherine was compelling, expertly dipping in and out of childish enthusiasm and a more ripened, feminine desire. Nichols’ Beatrice and Register’s Rodolfo were solid. I could not imagine these characters’ seeming otherwise. Despite relatively few lines, Esola’s Marco emanated such an air of strength and control that his final outburst of vengeance was a genuinely scary performance to match the show’s bloody finale.
A View from the Bridge is a famous play, but in no way is it one of Miller’s best. Miller’s obvious grabs at the tragic spirit come off as over-compensating for the mostly unoriginal oedipal conflict. We are constantly reminded by Alfieri, who functions as a one-man chorus, that tragedy looms, and yet his speeches do little to stir the audience over, say, this production’s use of tension-heightening percussion. Or, for instance, the delayed, Pinteresque delivery of lines which induces a sort of “hold-your-breath” atmosphere (and I’m thinking of a particular scene in which the whole “family” makes cringe-worthy small talk in a half-assed attempt to cover up the growing rifts). This speaks to van Hove’s artistry and in particular his ability to elevate what is in many ways a “lesser” Miller play into a completely separate, and better work of art.
It makes sense that this production has an audience-inclusive component: surrounding the stage on both sides are two raised jury-style benches, a seating option for interested attendees.
The intimacy of the stage is intentional and the the at times voyeuristic perspective created for the audience serves to emphasize the ambiguity in play. We are pushed so terrifyingly deep into the lives’ of others that View becomes more than just the illicit desire for a Lolita figure. Is Beatrice well-intentioned or sell-serving? Should we trust Rodolfo’s intentions? Is there more to Eddie’s madness than his love for Catherine? What is going on here?
The resistance to easy answers is a distinguishing marker of great art. Van Hove teases out key nuances of the original play text, which seems to want to freeze intentions and desires into a basic mold of tragedy, into something more difficult, and (to its merit) unsolvable. In van Hove’s View, the grey area proves more interesting than any bold color.