Before attending The Beast in the Jungle—directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, book by David Thompson, music by John Kander—I made an honest mistake.
I reread Henry James’ novella of that title. I assumed that the production was to be an adaptation of the darkly disturbing James work, which I’d read for the first time many years earlier and greatly admired then for reasons that perhaps aren’t the same reasons I greatly admire it now. (It’s a nice reminder about the value of rereading.)
But though Thompson and Stroman do pluck many particulars from the James original—including the names of the focal figures, John Marcher and May Bartram—they have carefully avoided the phrase “adapted from.” Their “dance play” is “inspired by the novella.”
The approach frees them to take any liberties they care to, which inspires me to say that anyone watching and listening to this Beast in the Jungle at the Vineyard Theatre may respond to the point of enchantment. For me, however, the result might be inspired by James but is, as a dance play, not sufficiently inspiring.
In this Beast in the Jungle—which is divided into three parts under the heading “Time/Place/Dances”—a modern-day John Marcher (the always terrific Peter Friedman) chooses to advise his nephew (Tony Yazbeck), who has just broken up with a girlfriend, to rethink the hasty decision. (By the way, the stage Beast in the Jungle takes place today as indicated by people throwing into their conversation un-Jamesian words like “fuck.”)
To convince the nephew, quick-to-anger John Marcher draws on his own romantic history. This involves his meeting when a young man (Yazbeck, importantly doubling), a woman called May Bartram (Irina Dvorovenko, late of American Ballet Theatre, among other places) and falling in love with her. But when the relationship looks as if it’s becoming serious, he abruptly leaves.
Some years later, having become an art dealer—as a result of his and May Bartram’s shared appreciation of a study for Henri Matisse’s famous “La Danse”—Marcher encounters her again. She’s married to John’s friend (Teagle F. Bougere) for whom he’s just bought a birthday gift meant for May: the coveted Matisse study.
During the weekend John Marcher spends with them, May Bartram and he rekindle their romance, and, fighting it out in a late night bedroom encounter (a hot pas de deux), they vow to run away with each other. Again they don’t, due to a fear John Marcher has long harbored.
He claims to May—this is directly lifted from James—he’s terrified that at some point of his life he’s going to meet a metaphorical jungle beast that will undo him by way of a life-threatening leap. That’s what stops him from following through on his amorous inclinations.
He does change his mind when, again several years on, he comes into contact with the now successful photographer and widow May Bartram. At last, he wants to be together with her, but for her their love is too far behind them. Beside that, she’s terminally ill. This culminates in her death and a graveside epiphany for John Marcher about the nature of his impending beast. Plus which he’s now conveniently armed with a concluding moral for John’s nephew.
Telling the story in dance, Stroman and Thompson present John Marcher as an instantly recognizable male type: the fellow who can’t commit, the guy who is, as the script has it, “waltzing through life.”
The description unsurprisingly cues composer Kander for an abundance (an overabundance?) of pleasant melodies in three-quarter time. These in their turn allow Stroman to choreograph any number of appealing dances that range from the pleasant to the provocative to the tormented (the John Marcher-May Bartram bedroom bout). And Dvorovenko and Yazbeck perform them with feeling. (By the way, the Beast in the Jungle does seem to pale in comparison with Stroman’s Contact from some years back.)
A crucial Beast in the Jungle element is a grouping of six dancers (Maira Barriga, Elizabeth Dugas, Leah Hofmann, Naomi Kakuk, Brittany Marcin Maschmeyer, Erin N. Moore) who serve as the women with whom John Marcher dallies when having no intention of hanging around for more than a one-night stand. The six elegant dancers also appear frequently as a replication of the Matisse study or as the representation of the frightened man’s worst fear. At those turbulent moments they either manipulate large pieces of a beast’s face or wield an encompassing gauzy banner with a beast’s face on it.
Lending further persuasion to Stroman’s vision (a good guess might be that the “dance play” is her idea), is Michael Curry’s gliding scene design as well as his often float-y costumes, Ben Stanton’s shadowy lighting design, and Peter Hylenski’s sound design. Also and meaningfully, David Loud conducts a generous nine-piece ensemble.
As I say, viewers who haven’t read the James novella could be in for a rewarding time, whereas those familiar with the slim volume may be concerned with, if not disturbed by, what’s lost in the liberal Stroman-Thompson translation.
James’ story is a far more psychologically rich look at a John Marcher who does confide his consuming doubts to a May Bartram. They don’t confess their love, however. That John Marcher never sees their abiding connection—and that May Bartram does but says nothing as they remain in touch for decades—is James’ heart-breaking point. Yes, John Marcher is a man averse to commitment, but his aversion is handled with a Henry James expertise that Stroman misses in opting for a conventionally troubled love affair.
Perhaps where Stroman and Thompson took the wrong turn was when they didn’t notice that the name John Marcher is James’ clue to who the man is. He’s a man who glumly and fastidiously marches through life. He doesn’t waltz through it. Does Stroman think John Marcher’s dancing in this Beast in the Jungle is a metaphor for marching? That doesn’t work. At the depths of his soul, James’ John Marcher is not a dancer.
The Beast in the Jungle opened April 23, 2018, at the Vineyard Theatre and runs through June 24. Tickets and information: vineyardtheatre.org