Jean Cocteau wanted Greta Garbo for the Queen in "The Eagle With Two Heads," when it opened on Broadway 42 years ago. Tallulah Bankhead landed the role instead. The result was, by Cocteau's own account, an unmitigated disaster.
If all the resources of an elaborate and expensive Broadway production couldn't get "The Eagle With Two Heads" off the ground, can an effort gamely powered by no more than a windup propeller at the Alternative Repertory Theatre in Santa Ana? It can't.
For starters, the thimble-sized playing space, where the show opened over the weekend, is just about unplayable. Unless you're doing something like "Krapp's Last Tape," with a cast of one, there simply is no room to move. It is especially precarious if you're royally costumed in a wide, floor-length gown. You either turn on a dime or you knock over the set.
When the Queen (Sally Leonard) makes her entrance wearing a cloak with a train so long that it literally covers the entire stage, it looks like a Mel Brooks sendup. Nor does it help that the Queen's diction has a tendency to lapse. At times this Queen sounds right out of the secretarial pool in "Working Girl."
"Why dincha kill me when you broke in? Why dincha do it then?" she demands of the poet Stanislaus, a physical double of the late King, who has come to assassinate her but appears to have changed his mind.
In a play with a fairy-tale setting, an emphasis on heightened language and a melodramatic plot--the Queen and the poet fall in love against all odds--we do not crave realism or even the minimal plausibility we've learned to accept from Hollywood movies. We crave depth of feeling conveyed by actors who are, at the very least, capable of transcending the mundane. If they can persuade us of that, then we will collaborate in the imagined poetry of the moment.
But how are we to help when the Duke of Willenstein confesses his awe at seeing the Queen's unveiled face for the first time in 10 years--"Beauty can terrify you," he declares, "great beauty can destroy you"--with so little conviction that he seems to be talking about a milkshake?
We can't. All we can do is hope the actor playing the Duke (Rusty Hodgkinson) will get it right the next time. Given his tentative stage presence and the uninspired direction by Patricia L. Terry throughout, there is not much chance of that.
Except for Amy Larson, who brings an intense focus to her role as Edith de Berg and, to a lesser extent, Brenan Baird, who displays some forcefulness as Stanislaus, the cast as a whole lacks the concentration, training, self-possession and dynamism that might have propelled this production beyond mere recitation.
Ironically, ART's grounded "Eagle" exemplifies just the sort of theatrical stasis that Cocteau wanted to cure when he wrote the play. Looking around him in 1946, he believed movies had caused a "certain decline of the drama" because the camera had taught a generation of "young actors to speak softly and move as little as possible."
Though the confining agent at ART is not the camera, the result is the same. The "fabulous beasts" that Cocteau wished to take flight in "Eagle" barely can flap their wings. There is no urgency or pace. All the aphoristic back-and-forth about love and death, rule and revolution, echoes with the ineffectual reverberation of exquisite platitudes. The play's eloquence stalls.
It would be wrong to leave the impression that Leonard's portrayal of the Queen is laughable. It is not. But it is disconcertingly uneven. And her hauteur could use some leavening, her passion some snap. Nor is it fair to single out any one actor for inept line readings. All were subject to vagaries of interpretation (again with the exception of Larson) for which the director is ultimately to blame.
That said, the scenic design of "Eagle" is a marvel of spatial economy. It manages to suggest the atmosphere of a Gothic castle with a canopy ribbing of pointed arches constructed from tubular metal. Similarly, the art deco coat-of-arms painted on the stage floor also saves space while stylishly conveying the idea of Cocteau's fanciful heraldry.
It would be wonderful if both the casting and the directing in this 2-year-old Santa Ana company could catch up with its fertile imagination in technical matters. But even this flawed production shows why ART is worthy of notice: It is, unequivocally, a plunger.
'THE EAGLE WITH TWO HEADS'
Written by Jean Cocteau. Produced by the Alternative Repertory Theatre in participation with the Cocteau Centenary Festival. Translation from the French by Ronald Duncan. Directed by Patricia L. Terry. With Sally Leonard, Brenan Baird, Amy Larson, Rusty Hodgkinson, Joe Peer, John Maucere. Scenic and sound design by Gary Christensen. Costumes by Karen J. Weller. Lighting design by David C. Palmer. At 1636 S. Grand Ave., Santa Ana. Curtain is 8 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $10-$12. A signed performance for the hearing impaired is scheduled for March 2 at 8 p.m. Information: (714) 836-7929.