Review: An Indeterminate ‘Beast in the Jungle’ at the Vineyard Theatre
By Sheila Kogan, Contributing Writer, May 29, 2018
The Vineyard Theatre is a small, comfortable Off-Broadway theater with a reputation for encouraging daring, creative experimentation. Among its successes is Avenue Q, which moved to Broadway and after a hiatus is now running again Off-Broadway, the recent Indecent, which also moved to Broadway for a brief run, and two Pulitzer-winning dramas, Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, currently receiving a Broadway production, and Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive.
So, let’s see what there was to like about their latest production: The Beast in the Jungle, “inspired by” a novella by Henry James. First and foremost was Susan Stroman’s original, charming, and often clever choreography. The stage came alive when there was dancing, and the dancing was performed by the most wonderful dancers, led by Tony Yazbeck and Irina Dvorovenko. Yazbeck had that easy-going, masculine grace that reminded me of Gene Kelly, and Dvorovenko, who was a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, was breathtakingly radiant and lovely. Her character (May) danced in classical ballet technique style en pointe, differing in style from the other women in the life of protagonist John Marcher. Through choreography, Stroman highlighted May’s specialness, and that she was someone with whom Marcher could, understandably, fall in love.
The other dancers, six tall, willowy, versatile, talented women, danced in groups and played various parts. It occurred to me that their dances often moved the drama forward and made wordless comments that were clearer than most of the dialogue.
Also of note was the use of puppetry, which was utilized to embody the “beast” — an irrational fear that takes over Marcher, making him run from life’s possibilities. Although explained through a monologue, the deep-rooted nature of his psychosis was never made clear, and while I wouldn’t make light of someone’s emotional angst, the reasoning here seemed trite.
The production is subtitled “A Dance Play,” and one wonders of the potential choice to have told the story completely through dance. The music, by the way, was composed by the renowned musical theater composer John Kander. His songs are so much a part of the essential American Broadway Songbook (Chicago, Cabaret) that I expected at least one show-stopper. Instead, he has written what feels more like a movie soundtrack; serviceable, but not particularly memorable. There were no songs and no singing. Although the music is sometimes pretty and a pleasant background for dance, there were no melodies or musical themes to catch one’s attention.
The stagecraft, the lighting, sound effects, costumes and sets were all well done and helped to illustrate the drama. (I was particularly impressed with the play of perspective in the scene where an unmoored boat is rescued.) But nothing seemed to give the play that necessary, hard-to-explain spark. During sections of spoken dialogue, my interest waned. Peter Friedman and Teagle F. Bougere, who didn’t dance, seemed to be fine actors, so it was puzzling. Overall, the play felt flat and unengaging.
If there’s a way to go back to the drawing board and revise the play, I wish the creative team would consider it because there is so much to like about this production, especially the dancing.
The Beast in the Jungle (world premiere) presented by The Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street, running through June 17, 2018. Book by David Thompson, inspired by a novella by Henry James; music by John Kander. Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman; scenic and costume design by Michael Curry; lighting design by Ben Stanton; sound design by Peter Hylenski.
Cast: Tony Yazbeck, Irina Dvorovenko, Peter Friedman, Teagle F. Bougere, Maira Barriga, Elizabeth Dugas, Leah Hofmann, Naomi Kakuk, Brittany Marcin Maschmeyer, and Erin N. Moore.
Cover: Irina Dvorovenko and Tony Yazbeck in the Vineyard Theatre”s ‘The Beast in the Jungle;’ photo: Carol Rosegg.