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Why “Nine”?

February 12, 2011

Why would you put “Nine” in your season? I’m not trying to call out Speakeasy Stage Company, but this question was in my head during the production at the BCA last night. It’s just not a good show: the book is languid, the songs are unremarkable and the conceit is flawed.

“Nine” is based on Fellini’s classic and strange film, “8 1/2”.  That movie is a grand excercise of meta-filmaking: a film about making a film, or rather, not making a film. Guido, a once successful but now fading director, is a few days from production and has no idea what film he is making. His well has run dry. He has faltering relationships with his wife, his mistress, and his muse. He camps out at a spa in Venice and pretends to put the finishing touches on a script that doesn’t exist. His producer arrives and threatens to kill him if he doesn’t make a hit. On the eve of shooting he is inspired by his similarity to Casanova and so begins filming scenes for a period piece that mirrors his own life: wife, mistress and all. His wife witnesses a scene that reveals Casanova’s wandering heart and leaves Guido. His mistress leaves. His muse leaves. He has a vision of death; was it suicide or the producer? We’re unsure.

Well, that’s the play version. When I write it out like a coherent story, it doesn’t sound so bad. But the script is tiring as it darts back and forth in setting and time. In the first act, Guido appears in a nonlinear series of short scenes with the nine women of his life – including his mother, a nun, and a prostitute who corrupted him when he was nine. The whole first act feels like one never-ending song, as the chorus of women repeatedly come on and off singing “Guido” a lot. The music is vaguely operatic with jokey ethnic bits: Germans dancing in laderhosen, tribal music (!). There’s even a burlesque number by his producer which is, shall I say, lightly motivated. The second act is the culmination of Guido’s movie-making and relationship breakdown and is similarly disorienting.

A show can be nonlinear, kitcshy and fun, but not if it takes itself as seriously as Nine does [see “The Slutcracker“]. The whole time Guido is tormented by guilt and fear; perhaps this could have been leavened with some humor by a lighter production. Whatever chance Speakeasy had of salvaging Nine it loses by failure of execution. Jane Krakowski earned a Tony as the mistress for simply rocking a number wherein she strips seductively for Guido. The stripping by Mccaela Donovan? More awkward than seductive. The burlesque number didn’t feel like a real burlesque number.  The flashes to Guido’s ideas for a cowboy flick?  The girls run out in vaguely different costumes and ride invisible horses. None of the physical bits felt tight. Guido mugged a lot for the audience, firing off a lot of one-liners that resulted in silence. Guido is miscast- Timothy John Smith is no casanova- but had a nice voice and at least kept the accent under control. Mostly excellent Aimee Doherty, in the wife role, had a terrible time with her-a accent-e, wavering between straight up Americano and something vaguely Russian.

As I was asking, Why “Nine”?,  I was also thinking about what I would do differently. I would clear up the stage and develop a sense of place for the longer scenes. Let the actors go sit down instead of hovering in the arches. Let Guido lighten up here and there, instead of straining and flailing the whole show. Either get the accents right or kill them. Commit to the physical bits instead of just waving at them. The company built a working fountain in the middle of the set, which bubbled for one short scene and filled up with about an inch of water for Guido to wade in at the end of act one. After the scene, out comes a tech with the wetvac, which in itself is a kind of comedy. Overall, I would demonstrate Guido’s vivid imagination with concrete details and abrupt transitions. Speakeasy’s Guido exists in more of a dreamlike state with no real definition or boundaries, hence the all-black costumes and gauzy in-and-out of scenes. Guido should see things in his head as if they were real; he is a gifted filmmaker after all.

But again, Why “Nine”?

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