Ivo Van Hove’s production of the Arthur Miller classic “A View From the Bridge” has me thinking a lot about theater architecture.
The production is stunning. It’s a must see — but only from the right seats, which is what leads me to the difficult question, at least for Center Theater Group.
Is this the right play in the wrong theater?
Center Theater Group operates two theaters at the Music Center: Ahmanson Theatre, which is their “Broadway” house that’s a typical proscenium theater with roughly 2000 seats; and The Mark Taper Forum, which houses a thrust stage that the audience wraps around. The audience relationship at the Ahmanson is a bit like sitting across the table from someone: the audience is on one side, the actors on the other. At the Mark Taper Forum, it’s a bit like three friends sitting around a table and looking down on the table itself.
“A View From The Bridge” is playing in the Ahmanson, which makes sense for a show that just won a Tony Award. Generally speaking, the Ahmanson is where Center Theater Group houses the touring Broadway shows it presents.
But Ivo Van Hove’s “A View From the Bridge” isn’t your typical Broadway show. For starters it’s not a musical, and it’s not designed for a proscenium theater. This production is designed for a thrust stage. This is made clear by the brilliant sculptural curtain that begins the show and by the seats that have been installed on the Ahmanson stage to surround the set.
This is a set, and a play, that’s meant to be surrounded, like a fishbowl: to be intimate and immediate. So it turns out that those discounted $25 seats on the stage are probably the best seats in theater. Sitting here, you get to be up close to the intensity of this production.
On opening night, I sat in row G, normally an ideal seat for a show at the Ahmanson. While you get a stunning sense of the scope of the work from this row, it’s about as far away as you’d want to be. This isn’t a production about spectacle – it’s a production about personal intensity. There are no flashy dance numbers to fill the stage (thank god), there’s only the strength of the actors and the power of the words.
Part of Ivo Van Hove’s brilliance is the minimalist filter through which he sifts the drama to reveal the essential core. That’s a core you want right in front of you – not seen from the distance of a the first balcony (or even the rear of the orchestra).
So first row orchestra? Actually, that might be even worse.
A front row seat at the Ahmanson, like at many at classic proscenium theaters, has you looking up at the actors and the stage floor is obscured. Normally, this is great because you are close, but that’s a problem for this production. In this production, the floor is very important and seeing the actors’ feet matters a lot. Ivo Van Hove clues us into that by having the actors perform barefoot.
So what is Center Theater Group to do? Here they have a production that just played to rave reviews in London and New York, where it played Broadway. But the Ahmanson is, frankly, too big and not well suited to this particular design.
Ivo Van Hove’s production would have fit brilliantly into the Mark Taper Forum (at least conceptually). The Taper’s embracing audience would have surrounded the stage, heightening the intensity. The audience to stage relationship, with the vast majority of the house looking down on the actors, would have emphasized the glowing white floor. The plays echoes would have reverberated with the Taper’s architecture and artistic past. The feeling in the Taper could have been electric.
So why did the smart folks at Center Theater Group pass up the Taper for the Ahmanson?
Sadly, but practically, it likely had everything to do with the bottom line. To make a touring production work, “A View From the Bridge” probably would not pencil out at only 750 seats (Mark Taper Forum’s capacity). What about playing to a smaller number of seats (The Taper) for more weeks? Again, with an out of town cast, a co-production booked to play the Kennedy Center in November, and the inflexible season calendar of the Mark Taper Forum that’s built around standard six-week runs – the time doesn’t allow it.
Now, surely there are other hurdles. The lack of fly space would have certainly required some Taper wizardry to make the opening happen. The set is likely more challenging that it seems at first glance, but it certainly wouldn’t be the most complicated challenge that the production department at Center Theater Group had ever solved.
I hope, both for Center Theater Group’s sake and the production’s, that these are nothing more than the fanciful ramblings of a critic with too many architectural notions. I hope that the productions sells out the Ahmanson and the experience from the balcony is as stirring as it should be.
If, instead, the balcony is consistently empty or, even worse, people walk away from a remarkable show with a mediocre experience, “A View From the Bridge” might reveal some of the limitations of our current production models and calendars. It may highlight that it takes more than simply picking the right show, it requires that we surround the right show with the right architecture.
I like to dream.
What we have is a must-see show with the asterisk: don’t miss it, but be sure to choose your seat carefully.
A View from the Bridge runs through Oct. 16 at Ahmanson Theatre.