Arts & Events
FROST/NIXON strikes me as a dauntingly challenging play to produce, particularly because of the casting.
Richard Milhous Nixon remains an archetypal “boogieman” in these parts, and every Hallowe’en there still are a plethora of masks bearing his likeness worn by children whose parents were not born during his presidency. Everybody in the theatre at the Sunday Matinee that I attended lived through his turbulent administration. To portray him is “asking for it.”
But actor John Hale as Nixon is reason enough to journey to Hayward to the Douglas Morrisson Theatre for FROST/NIXON through September 25.
Hale moves like Nixon, he phrases his sentences as Nixon did, he stands and sits like him, he evokes him without impersonating him. We all do our fleeting impersonations of Tricky Dick with hunch-shouldered, jowl-wobbling “I-am-not-a-crook,” our hands held high, fingers in V-signs. But to sustain the character for an hour-and-fifty minutes sans intermission is Promethean.
The capper is the enormous video screen that looms above the two, and which has a video feed of their acting. Now as every acting teacher will tell you, there is a difference between stage and screen acting, the latter done much more with the emotion coming through the eyes. Hale bridges the gap, and when he is full on screen our attention is riveted.
Frost/Nixon is deftly staged by Marilyn Langbehn. Exits and entrances and set changes are fluid and integrated into the action. With a large cast, many short scenes, and video integration, she has delivered seamless execution and production values.
However, the production suffers from a lack of urgency for such high stakes. There is a dearth of subtext in the expressions of the newsmen and producers. Expressive and edgy Easterners and those immersed in the world of the Washington Beltway talk over one another, and that interruptive and conflictive energy is absent.
Craig Souza as David Frost is pitch-perfect in accent and suaveness, but does not evoke the casual animation that Frost had, and his eyes do not convey conviction and connection which is an on-screen imperative.
Daria Hepps is engagingly subtle and realistic in her convincing portrayal of a jet-setter that Frost picks up on a trans-Atlantic flight.
Don R. Williams as Jack Brennan is Nixon’s political advisor in a colonel’s uniform, and the picture of military savvy and demeanor, with a gruff, flat mid-Western tone, hovering protectively around his personal Commander-in–Chief.
Renny Madlena actually bears a vague resemblance to reporter James Reston, who was a devoted enemy of Nixon, and who is the narrator of this tale. He provides continuity and serves as chorus for the theatre-goers who despised the only president to resign the office.
Still, he and the other cast members seem to cool down their performance to policy-wonk temperature rather than as if they were hyenas heatedly circling the crippled lion.
Admittedly, the theatre layout has its challenges for any director: the crescent shaped “house” is at considerable distance from the proscenium, and the players never venture too far downstage, perhaps for sight-line reasons. The video screen helped, but sitting four rows back, I felt miles from the action.
Kim Tolman’s set is excellent if monochromatic. The portal (i.e., framing around the stage proscenium) is in the shape of a rounded 1970’s television screen with many smaller replicas on both side through which more video images are fed at intervals. Several steps lead up to a platform on which the interviews take place with an enormous video monitor hovering above.
Matthew Royce’s lighting is could be brighter. The level of brightness during the interviews would have served throughout with a bump for the high intensity TV lights Low level lighting tends to induce somnolence, yet I see it in many productions.
Though I must say that the elderly audience of a Sunday matinee—all 75 of them in this under-attended 250-seat theatre—stayed connected if not rapt through the performance, which is high praise.
Next to theJapanese Gardens on the edge of the Hayward Area Recreation and Park District, DOUGLAS MORRISSON THEATRE is little difficult theatre to find and is a mile walk from BART, but get out your GPS and go and find it. Since Susan E. Evans, late of the lauded Eastenders, has assumed the artistic direction of the theatre, DMT is undertaking more challenging and provocative work.
MY VERDICT: The performance of John Hale (who, for full disclosure, I recommended for the role), along with the set and the superior staging are award-worthy and worth your attention and money.
Do not tarry for FROST/NIXON has a short run through September 25.
FROST/NIXON by Peter Morgan
Directed by Marilyn Langbehn
Playing through September 25.
The Douglas Morrisson Theatre
22311 N Third Street, Hayward, CA
WITH: Jesus Fuentes, Dave Iverson, Doug Brook, Rick Daniels, Daria Hepps, John Hale, Renny Madlena, Craig Souza, Don R. Williams, Jessica Lyn Robertson, and Kendall Tieck (v-o).
John McMullen is a member of SFBATCC, ATCA, and SDC. Editing by EJ Dunne.