Theatre review

Girl from the North Country

My mother told me “we don’t compare.” And my brother’s long years as a theater critic taught me that not every play is for everyone.

But man, I am double damned if I can figure out what it is that most of the critics are responding to in this show, and what the audience was standing up and clapping for at its conclusion this afternoon.

And why, if the point is to evoke and illuminate the notoriously obtuse and obscure Dylan canon, this has found favor and Twyla Tharpe’s soaring and glorious (to me, at least) The Times They Are a-Changin’ was universally panned and ignominiously closed after two months in 2006.

Scene from Girl from the North Country. Photograph: Joan Marcus

I like bleak. I like dark and depressing and difficult. And certainly Girl from the North Country is all that. But I also like clarity. I don’t need everything spelled out or neatly tied up with a bow (proof: I adored the maddening, mystifying, and magnificent Twin Peaks: The Return), but I do need to sense that the creative minds behind a work have a vision, a point, an idea they are struggling to share.

And I sure didn’t feel that today. I saw hefty borrowings from Our Town, The Iceman Cometh, Of Mice and Men, and even Rent. I saw more plot than you can shake a stick at—if, like Groucho says, that’s your idea of a good time. I saw loss leaders and red herrings, much-heralded reveals that elucidated nothing, bombshells that fizzled, characters twisted to serve exposition rather than the other way round, color-blind casting that sometimes was and sometimes wasn’t, lighting effects seemingly exercised only for their novelty. In short: incoherent characters, incomprehensible plot, and inconsistent staging.

The piece focuses on the managers and residents of a Duluth boardinghouse: a much-scarred, highly flawed assemblage of Midwestern Depression-era losers. I don’t use the word flippantly; each character has lost something—to death, despair, disease, or just bad luck—of critical value: love, freedom, financial security, purpose. And the actors, particularly the terrific Mare Winningham, make their suffering palpable. But they can’t make them believable, because the script doesn’t permit this.

I think we are never supposed to forget that we are watching a play, a contrivance. Certainly, the way the twenty musical numbers are handled supports this idea. A scene will be unfolding and then, suddenly, a character will come forward to a standing mike and begin singing, while the rest of the cast assembles behind him or her, some playing instruments, others forming a (largely stagnant, at least in the first act) backup group. Then everyone troops back to where they were before the song erupted and the action resumes. The numbers are less an explication or expansion of a character’s thoughts and feelings than a series of parenthetical asides: the polar opposite of an integrated book musical. They are also, almost uniformly, terrific; Steve, a Dylan aficionado, noted how much more emotional content and depth trained actors and singers bring to the songs than the composer himself.

However, the strange distancing framing of the songs, where they are not sung by the characters, but by anonymous unknowns, makes for a discomfiting experience: who are these people? where are they with regard to the action? why do they sometimes interact with each other, smiling and holding hands? and why the hell don’t they dance in the first act?

I could go on, enumerating all the big and little questions this odd production raised for me, but life’s too short, and I think I just have to chalk this up as somehow simply not speaking to me. To me, the creators of Girl from the North Country tackled the challenge of Dylan by working to pile on more mystery and inconclusiveness. Whereas Twyla Tharpe decided to bring the viewer to Dylan’s world through the senses rather than the head.

Scene from The Times They Are a-Changin’; Sara Krulwich/The New York Times


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