Teleportation vs. Inspiration

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

This past week I've thinking a lot about the uneasy relationship between theater and movies. This uneasiness was driven home while watching the recent film, The Women. The Women is very much a movie of our own times, so much so that it's hard to see its 72 year-old roots. The Women wasn't the first Broadway play written by a woman, but it was the first play written by a woman to become a smash success. Critics didn't much care for Clare Booth Luce's gossipy tale of New York society women, but audiences loved it. It became a MGM motion picture that is beloved in some circles to this day. Ms. Luce's second play is often revived today—both on Broadway and in local theaters—because even after seven decades, it still works on stage.

Sadly, it doesn't work on film – or more accurately, it isn't allowed to work on film because Diane English (the creator of Murphy Brown) has twisted the play so much to make it "contemporary." I watched The Women the same I week that I saw Los Angeles Opera's production of The Fly. To be fair to Hollywood, stage adaptations of films can be just as tortured as film adaptations of plays.

What makes this stage version of The Fly as baffling as it is boring is that it's directed by the same man who directed the entertaining 1986 film version, David Cronenberg. What's more, the man who composed the music to the opera is also the same man who wrote the soundtrack to the film, Howard Shore.

Bizarrely, David Cronenberg, the director of this new opera, makes a mash of his own material in much the same way Diane English shredded The Women. It feels as if Cronenberg doesn't believe that the pulpy subject matter of his film is worthy of the stage, and so he bogs it down with seriousness and murky metaphors about human flesh. Honestly, the only way to enjoy The Fly is to bring a flask and make everyone sitting you around drink when anyone says "The Flesh."

What Cronenberg can't seem to find is a reason or motivation for transforming The Fly "the motion picture" into The Fly "the opera." His choices feel arbitrary, unfocused, and ultimately confused. What's missing is the balance of respect for the original material and something to say in the new medium.

Luckily, LA Opera has another opera playing in repertory with The Fly that is a glittering example of this difficult balancing act. The opera is short and un-operatic. When staged well, it crackles like the smart episode of a prime-time comedy. It's called Gianni Schicchi, and this particular production is directed by Woody Allen, who's making both his operatic debut and LA Stage debut with this 50-minute comic romp. First seen on stage in 1918, Gianni Schicchi is based on an episode from Dante's Inferno, but Allen updates the story from the 13th century and stages the action like a 1950's Italian mafia comedy.

The impressive two-tiered set (by longtime Woody Allen production designer Santo Loquasto) is entirely monochromatic, emphasizing the old, Black & White movie concept. The legendary auteur even adds a goofy opening credits sequence with funny Italian names.

The reason this production (part of three short operas, all by Puccini, titled Il Trittico) is so memorable is the way Allen injects humor and liveliness by giving all of the supporting characters a seemingly endless repertoire of gags, schemes, and other motivations. He even tweaks the ending—but it feels in tune with the rest of the piece. What makes Woody Allen's Gianni Schicchi great theater is that he puts his stamp on it, without stamping out what's made it work for eighty years. Consider this production his really earlier, funnier one.

Woody Allen's production of Gianni Schicchi plays its final performance tomorrow night; The Fly wraps on Saturday afternoon, both at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.