One-person shows can be wonderfully exciting vehicles for a gifted actors to bring to life historic or famous theatrical figures, giving the audience the opportunity of reliving their lives. Immediately comes to mind is the recent brilliant performance by Laurence Fishburne in “Thurgood,” wherein he meticulously not only lived in the famous jurist’s skin, but filled the stage with multiple unseen, but very real characters.
Vivien Leigh is clearly one of the most beautiful, legendary actors of the last century with her characterizations of Scarlett O’Hara in the seminal “Gone with the Wind” and Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” earning her two Academy Awards. Despite her great success, her life was troubled, both in her marriage to Sir Laurence Olivier as well as her bouts with mental illness. She tragically died from tuberculosis at the age of 53.
Playwright Rick Foster tried to illuminate this fascinating life in his overwritten, dreary play “Vivien,” that hadn’t been staged in 10 years, a warning that should have been heeded.
With such a complex character to create, it takes a heightened stage presence and keen acting skills to hold the stage for 90 minutes but unfortunately under the directionless direction of Elina de Santos, Judith Chapman’s portrayal as “Vivien” is a self-indulgent, interminable, most forgettable exercise. Chapman misses the mark on almost all levels as her vocal delivery is monotonous and strident, the words are often garbled, and in very short order her unfulfilled transitions become as predictable as her unimaginative blocking. Chapman tries, but fails to conger up some of the people in Leigh’s life including her husband, (Olivier) Noel Coward, Winston Churchill, Katharine Hepburn, Darryl F. Zanuck, and theatre critic Kenneth Tynan. However, we don’t see them through her eyes because she doesn’t appear to have the acting technique to pull it off.
Chapman’s Vivien quotes passages as Juliet from “Romeo and Juliet” and what is a hair-raising speech by Lady MacBeth, but alas both sounded pretty much alike in the delivery. We are also supposed to see her make love to Peter Finch, but the problem is we never see these imaginary characters as Chapman is unfocused in her delivery and uses the same tone and physical life when speaking to each of them.
Chapman is a veteran of soap operas including As the World Turns, General Hospital, One Life to Live, The Young and the Restless, and Days of Our Lives. Soap opera acting, in which histrionics, including lots of yelling, are perfectly acceptable, but does not a theatrical actress make. The requirements are diametrically opposed such as digging deeply into the psychological make-up of the character to find the motivation, subtleties, subtext, and nuances of the behavior. This performance lacked that shading, some of the fault of which must be laid directly at the feet of the usually competent de Santos whose directing expertise was sorely missing. Granted, the material itself is not that interesting and at the very least should have been cut by 30 minutes. That said, however, with a Meryl Streep acting and Ron Howard directing, even this poor material could have been somewhat compelling.
If we were to meet Vivien Leigh for the first time, as presented to us in this production, we would only know an angry woman, devoid of any humor, and slowing descending into madness. The only laugh of the evening was when Chapman used the F…word, always good for a cheap laugh. Less than halfway through the 90 minutes, I found myself thinking “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
Photo Credit: John Flynn
Rogue Machine Theatre
5041 W. Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles CA 90019
Friday-Sunday Thru September 4, 2011