Among several arts and entertainment offerings this week, two are especially noteworthy.
Good Theater opened the Maine premiere of “Frost/Nixon,” Peter Morgan’s much-lauded dramatization and back-story of the famous 1977 television confrontation between a British talk show personality and a disgraced former president of the United States.
Freeport pianist and music professor Laura Kargul is giving the American premiere of a newly discovered work by 19th-century Belgian composer Cesar Franck. The concert, which includes numerous other pieces, is slated for Gorham this Friday and Freeport later in the month.
The culture of television and the craving to be a small-screen hero has a far-too-powerful effect on our daily lives and the larger society – witness the recent “balloon boy” debacle – so I don’t get too enthusiastic about using the stage to celebrate TV’s ethos, values and history.
At least that’s my opinion, and it’s the principal reason I can’t get too enthusiastic about “Frost/Nixon,” Peter Morgan’s much-lauded dramatization of a 1977 television interview and its behind-the-scenes story.
The play is based on a real television show: a series of interviews in 1977 between David Frost, a British talk show personality, and Richard Nixon, the former U.S. president who had resigned in disgrace over the Watergate scandal almost two years earlier.
Among my objections: This play deals with the substantive issues of the Nixon presidency too indirectly, and by deliberately and self-consciously looking at those issues through the lens of a TV camera, the very basic and classic tragedy that underlies the story is obscured.
That said, let’s note that Morgan’s play is very well constructed, and Good Theater’s professional production – which is a Maine premiere – is exceptionally well acted and directed.
Structured as a championship boxing match with overtly Shakespearean overtones, Morgan’s script pits two very vulnerable opponents in a four-round match.
And the prize? If Nixon wins, he gets some measure of partial redemption and perhaps a renewed role on the world stage as an elder statesman or sage. Frost, a slightly regarded entertainer whose prior credentials had been built on puffball interviews with movie and sports celebrities, becomes a TV news superstar.
And the loser is consigned to oblivion. A Nixon loss would continue the former president’s state of disgrace and self-imposed solitude, while a Frost defeat would result in a loss of TV contracts and an forlorn return to hosting an Australian late-night show. (We’re supposed to care deeply about Frost’s fate, I think.)
In Good Theater’ production, Tony Reilly does a masterful job of portraying the former president, nicely emulating Nixon’s speech, characterized by his oddly chunky phrasing and exaggerated long vowels. (Kudos to the playwright as well, for skillfully reproducing Nixon’s distinctive rhetorical style.) Among Reilly best moments: The drunken late-night telephone conversation with Frost, which comes across as a Shakespearean soliloquy.
His opponent is equally compelling. Jon Robert Stafford convincingly portrays an intellectual lightweight and minor British TV personality who is obsessed with advancing his career in America with the Nixon interview. His obsession leads him to invest his entire personal bankroll on the project – hoping to recoup his large outlay by selling the show to a network – and permitting Nixon to reap a percentage of the profits from the venture, a no-no according to traditional journalistic ethics.
Director Brian Allen has assembled a cast of 10. Besides the two principals, I especially liked Michael Kimball’s hard-nosed portrayal of the former president’s chief of staff, a totally dedicated and unquestioning Nixon loyalist. His opposite is Craig Bowden, who plays a professor/journalist on the Frost staff who is dedicated to defeating Nixon, even to the point of beating the proverbial dead horse.
Good Theater presents “Frost/Nixon” at the St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St. (top of Munjoy Hill) in Portland through Nov. 22 with 7:30 p.m. performances Thursday and Fridays, 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Call Good Theater at 885-5883.
Laura Kargul, professor of piano studies at the University of Southern Maine School of Music, is a superb professional performer with an especially notable flair with Romantic composers. I’ve known her for more than a decade and try to catch as many of her concerts as I can.
In recent years her USM concerts always sell out, so she usually repeats the program elsewhere at a later date, often in her home town of Freeport.
Kargul has also built her career around interesting and novel programming. In two concerts this month, she’s selected an especially intriguing item: The American premiere of a newly discovered piano work by Cesar Franck, a Belgian-born Romanticist. A charming virtuoso showpiece titled “Souvenirs d’Aix-la-Chapelle,” it was discovered by a friend of Kargul who gave her the opportunity to premiere it on her USM Showcase Series concert.
“It’s a great privilege to present it to the American public, probably for the very first time, this beautiful unknown work,” Kargul said. “As far as we know, until Heribert Koch started to play it in Europe two years ago, it had lain dormant since it was written in 1843. I think it will surprise those who are familiar with Franck’s music; it doesn’t sound anything like the later works that have become so popular, like the violin sonata or the symphony.
“Franck was only 21 when he wrote it, and somehow he came up with sonorities that foreshadow what the French Impressionists like Debussy and Ravel experimented with fifty years later. The piece sheds some light on his early genius and makes his later works all that more interesting.”
Kargul will begin and close her program with two works based on operas: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s exquisite set of 10 variations on an aria by Christoph Willibald Gluck and Franz Liszt’s monumental paraphrase of Vincenzo Bellini’s “Norma.”
The rest of the concert bill is drawn from two contemporaries of Franck: Felix Mendelssohn and Franz Liszt. Kargul will celebrate this year’s 200th anniversary of Mendelssohn’s birth by performing three selections from the well-loved “Songs Without Words,” and finish the set with Liszt’s stunning transcription of Mendelssohn’s “On the Wings of Song” – a work that is also deservedly popular.
There are two opportunities to catch this interesting concert. First is Nov. 6 at 8 p.m. at Corthell Hall on the USM Gorham campus. Call 780-5555. The program will be repeated Nov. 21 at 7:30 p.m. at the Freeport Performing Arts Center (Freeport High School, 21 Holbrook St.). Call 865-0928.