Adapt a classic novel for the stage and you're bound to come up with a few memorable moments of drama. It's like buying an artistic insurance policy -- no matter how badly your adaptation fails, the original novel is there to save you from total disaster.
"My Antonia," currently at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, contains a handful of truly moving scenes about failed love, growing old and learning to live with regret. For that, we can thank Willa Cather, who wrote the novel of the same name in 1918. For the rest of this bland, rather boring drama, we can only blame Scott Schwartz, who adapted and also directed the production.
Schwartz's play remains mostly faithful to the structure of Cather's novel but takes a substantial liberty by framing the story as an extended flashback. A middle-aged Jim Burden (Kevin Kilner) is traveling west by train when he begins reminiscing about his young adulthood spent on the Nebraska plains. Living on his grandparents' farm, the young Jim (Michael Redfield) is a bookish, anti-social teenager who seems intent on spending his days indoors.
That changes with the arrival of the Shimerdas, an immigrant peasant clan that hails from Bohemia in Central Europe. Their daughter, Antonia (Shiva Rose), is a high-spirited adolescent and the only English speaker in the family. She quickly befriends Jim, and their relationship deepens into a semi-clandestine romance.
Originally produced in 2004 at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, "My Antonia" has been significantly revised for its incarnation at the Rubicon. Judging solely on this version, co-produced by the Pacific Resident Theatre Ensemble, the play could use another revision.
The story has a lumpy feel, as if the creators tried to cram in too much material from the novel. Whole subplots could be excised without much loss to story line. At nearly three hours (with two intermissions), the play feels overstuffed and undernourished.
But the larger problem afflicting "My Antonia" is its Classics Illustrated approach to adaptation. Schwartz is a literary tourist who has visualized the novel as a series of pretty but essentially inert snapshots. In misguided reverence to Cather's prose, he has constructed an omniscient narration that passes among cast members. This awkward chorus is intended to bridge transitions between episodic high points, but it also acts as a glaze that smothers spontaneity from the actors.
The production features incidental music composed by Oscar-winning and Tony-nominated , father of the director. Consisting mostly of generic chords played on piano, strings and percussion, the score serves alternately as sonic wallpaper and dramatic crutch, rushing in to fill the void whenever the drama sags, which is often.
"My Antonia" is being presented as part of the Festival of New American Musicals, which runs through June. In this light, it's difficult not to view it as the book of a musical waiting to be written. Characters frequently seem poised to burst into song only to be hurried to the next scenic setup.
"My Antonia" has at least one salutary side effect -- it will make you want to read (or reread) Cather's novel.