Monday, April 10, 2006


Not in Its Prime, but Studio's "Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" is worth seeing

Someone e-mailed to ask when the Pay-What-You-Can performances are scheduled at the Studio Theater. Answer: Usually the first Saturday matinee of the performance. (It's best to call the box office to make sure, of course.) I'm not surprised to get inquiries about the Studio. It's hard to navigate the Studio's Web site (you have to know what's playing at their main stage as opposed to what's at the Secondstage, and be pretty adept with your mouse, as well, to click properly). The Studio doesn't seem to send out as many postcards as other theaters, either. But the play's the thing, and the Studio is one of the finest theaters in Washington, having put on some very fine shows this year. They have a special relationship with Neil LaBute--"Fat Pig" was superb, as was "The Shape of Things." I loathe/dread/look forward to their next foray into Neil LaBute's cruel exposes of human nature.

Just saw the Saturday matinee of the Studio's "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie." It is worth seeing, but only if you consciously pack away what remains of your memories of the movie starring Maggie Smith, and the superb novel. This is a new adaptation of the novel, which probes the religious issues raised more deeply than other versions we've seen. Very timely, given the rehabilitation of Judas that is on the front pages of many newspapers.

In a nutshell, the show deals with the devotion of a teacher towards her students, and questions what loyalty the students owe that teacher, who is constantly in trouble with the strait-laced hierarchy in a Scottish girls' school in the 1930's.

This production started out confusingly, with nuns singing and crossing the stage. ("Are there nuns in the Church of Scotland" I wondered. "Gee, I never knew.") During the discussion afterwards, the dramaturg explained that he was trying to show that there was a Catholic convent located near the girls' school, but that was not clear to me. The show unveiled itself slowly, and you're rooting for Miss Jean Brodie's spirited if unorthodox instruction throughout, until the second act, when one of her students turns on her.
There was a focus on "Who Betrayed Me"--very Christ-like--but I didn't think the identity mattered so much. Any student could have grown up and, shattered by events, gone to the administration.
The acting was strong, remarkably so for the little girls and of the main student, Sandy. It's sad to agree with Peter Marks of the Washington Post--hell hath frozen over--but he was right when he said that Sarah Marshall was miscast as Miss Jean Brodie. She is not young enough for the part, and they made no effort to make her a beauty. I did not think this casting choice was fatal, as Marks did. Marshall was dynamic and fun to watch. But I didn't think she would have been as captivating to the men. Marks wrote: "Sarah Marshall proves fatally ill equipped for the role of the haughty, deluded schoolteacher in Jay Presson Allen's 1966 play. Since the casting of this formidable part amounts to sink-or-swim, this revival goes into an early free fall from which it never recovers. Marshall has a knack for comedy but also a tendency to gild the lily. Her inclination is to play things big, and often to the audience. The play, set in 1930s Edinburgh, asks for a certain level of histrionics, but Brodie, who instructs students at an old-line school to treasure art and beauty, is a bully in an aesthete's mask."

See it and judge for yourself. My general rule is that if Marks dislikes it, there's something there to like. Casting Sarah Marshall was a bold choice, and I like bold choices, even though I don't always agree with them. I didn't in this case.

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