Act fast: Director Ivo van Hove’s visionary production of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, which won plaudits on both Broadway and the West End since it opened in 2014, is only playing at The Kennedy Center through December 3rd. But if you have any favors owed to you at the box office, now would be the time to cash them in. Because this gripping, gorgeous, shockingly original staging of the midcentury family drama is not to be missed. Ivo van Hove, together with Scenic and Lighting Designer and longtime collaborator Jan Versweyveld, turn their brutal minimalist lens on the classic show. Stripped buck naked, the only thing left standing in this production is the raw storytelling itself.
Washingtonians may recall Ivo van Hove’s Antigone, starring Juliette Binoche, which graced The Kennedy Center last spring. And although separated by millennia, the two shows are not so different – at least, not as presented by van Hove. He endows Bridge with an epic, tragic quality from the very start that lends the entire production a sacred sheen that seems to refer to those ancient times when theatre really was a religious, immersive experience that was as much spiritual as it was intellectual.
Upon entering the theatre, you encounter a massive black cube that covers the playing space like a foreboding incubator. A few dozen lucky audience members get to sit on the stage itself, on risers that flank the cube on either side. When the cube rises to reveal the spare, luminous space, it is like a dark Pandora’s Box has been opened, and the on-stage audience members are like spectators at a ritual sacrifice. A brightly lit floor conjures associations with fluorescent operating rooms, and indeed, van Hove’s laser precision direction dissects Miller’s text in all its unsparing brutality.
Van Hove provides no illusions that this story will end well. From the beginning, and throughout the entire uninterrupted two hours, an ominous sound design (by Tom Gibbons) relentlessly plays in the background, sometimes rising to a crescendo of Gothic hymnal mourning, but mostly just low and present, a beast lurking backstage.
Completing the Grecian atmosphere is the narrator Mr. Alfieri (a stolid Thomas Jay Ryan), who, like the Choruses of yore, is both spectator and participant. Although he warns us of the impending disaster, we are as powerless to stop it as Oedipus was over his divine fate.
The tension at the heart of Bridge is the Carbone household, where Eddie (Frederick Weller) and Beatrice (a wonderful Andrus Nichols) live with their orphaned niece, Catherine (a spot-on Catherine Combs) in 1950s Red Hook. Eddie displays a not so subtle possessiveness for his niece that is partway between paternal and lecherous. This quality explodes when two cousins from the old country illegally immigrate and stay with the Carbones while they find work on the docks. While Marco (Alex Esola) keeps his head down and is singularly focused on helping his struggling family back home, Rodolpho (David Register) is a blonde romantic, an aspiring singer whose joie de vivre grinds on Eddie. When Rodolpho and Catherine begin a fast, intense courtship, Eddie is driven mad by their romance.
From the start, Weller gives us a coarse and domineering Eddie, but not without a sense of duty and familial love. As his rage builds, however, these latter qualities are stripped away and we see how fragile Eddie’s sense of self truly is. There are gender issues at play, too: we learn that Eddie and Beatrice haven’t had sex in months, whereas he pays inordinate attention to the length Catherine’s skirts. And one of his tactics to discredit Rodolpho is to accuse him of homosexuality, even going so far as to forcibly kiss him so as to “prove” he is gay. This complicated gender dynamic joins the twisted thicket of family conflict that make Bridge so gloriously messy. Indeed, van Hove’s spotlessly clean production only highlights how messy it can get.
A View From the Bridge is ordinarily thought of as classic kitchen sink naturalism. But Ivo van Hove rejects this conventional attitude in favor of an aggressive staging that includes bold tableaus and ample use of space. During a dinner scene, for example, the cast sits on opposite ends of the stage, emphasizing their emotional distance from each other. During that same scene, van Hove allows excruciating empty space to exist between every… other…. line… ratcheting up the tension and weighting the subtext to an unprecedented degree. In another instance, Marco lifts a heavy chair with one hand as a feat of strength to warn Eddie about attacking Rodolpho. But in this staging, Marco lifts the chair in an almost balletic gesture that culminates in a triumphant, brightly lit tableau accompanied by ecstatic hymnals. It is in these moments that Ivo van Hove proves himself to be one of the most innovative directors working in the theatre today.
Perhaps it took a European artist to show Arthur Miller in a revolutionary new light. We should be glad he did, because it has revealed stunning new layers in a text that I had thought had revealed itself to us already. The thrill of exploring this new dramatic territory is entertaining and moving, and is essential to a living theatre.
Running Time: Two hours, with no intermission.
A View From the Bridge plays through Saturday, December 3, 2016, in the Eisenhower Theater at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.