The Best Friend You Love to Hate

My Brilliant Friend by Elsa Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend (1)

I resisted this book at first because none of the reviews I read were particularly compelling. But after hearing an interview with a scholar of Italian literature, I gave it a whirl. It turns out that this book is extraordinarily compelling. More than that — it is mesmerizing.
Ferrante describes the relationship between two girls in a way that every woman will recognize from her own childhood. The narrator isn’t really sure she likes her friend, nor is she really sure her friend likes her.   And her friend does not often do anything to inspire anyone to be her friend in the first place. In fact, her friend is kind of a jerk. The two girls are resigned to their friendship, whether they enjoy it or not. This shared burden binds them tighter as time goes on.

The seemingly unwanted friendship allows Ferrante to explore the inner turmoil of young girls. The adult world is inscrutable, governed by invisible pressures and shadowed by events from the far distant past.   The protagonist slowly realizes that relationships among grown-ups follow rules that she and her partner-in-friend will understand only when the time is right. Until then, they watch in fascination. And practice various solutions to their relatives’ suffering, hoping to find an answer, even if by accident.

Ferrante also portrays their particular neighborhood in post-war Naples as a closed world. The children cannot see out of the neighborhood, and they appear never to leave it.  When they occasionally push the fringes of their small collection of streets, nothing good comes from it.  They incubate in the neighborhood, to emerge from it only in later volumes of Ferrante’s quartet.

The story that results from this friendship in this neighborhood is the truth about little girls.  And any artist who manages to convey truth gets an A in my book.


As You Like It

As You Like ItSeveral aspects of Center Stage’s all-female staging of As You Like It are mesmerizing.  Mattie Hawkins’s performance as Celia was by far my favorite part.  I looked forward to each line she uttered, and sat up eagerly whenever she was on stage.  Her costuming was genius, from her Christian Laboutin shoes and her poofy dress in the court scenes, to her bandana, pigtails and mid-century sunglasses in the forest of Arden.  Her entrance to the forest was the highlight of the play for me.  Just super.

I was also fascinated by Angela Reed’s performance of Jacques.  She pulled off a non-laughable portrayal of the morose melancholic while looking like Matt McConnaughy at a Grateful Dead concert.  She made it work.  I was captivated.

My third favorite thing was the stage design for the forest of Arden.  The bleak mid-century Court slides away and down from the ceiling drop columns of bright white aspen trees.  They remain for the rest of the play.  Their arrival coincides with the ensemble singing a great version of Under the Greenwood Tree – a version I have found myself humming even now almost a week later.

And lastly, I did enjoy Julie Coffey’s Rosalind.  Coffey infused physical humor into the woman-of-many-words, especially in the scene where she is convincing Orlando to “practice” wooing on her.   It is really only then that character of Rosalind becomes truly interesting anyway.  Up until then she is kind of a self-righteous bore.

But there many other things I did not enjoy, the vast majority of which are attributable not so much to this production as to Shakespeare’s play itself.   I did not enjoy the rendition of Orlando or his brother, and I thought the Touchstone and good Duke portrayals were wooden.  Some of that is the fault of the actors, but much more, I think, is the fault of Shakespeare.

Orlando is an exceedingly dull young man.  He starts the play off whining unproductively about his mean older brother, then he beats some guy at wrestling, then he writes sappy poems to a girl he’s met only once.  He is so dimly acquainted with the object of his love that he doesn’t even recognize her when she shows up.  He never says anything funny.  He never says anything deep.  He doesn’t even woo his girl – he stands there blinking while Ganymede (who is really Rosalind in disguise) tries to show him how it’s done.  Why would spunky Rosalind like this guy – a guy so dull he can’t even flirt without help?

The older brother, Oliver, does appear to be a jerk.  Even he admits to a murderous hatred of Orlando.  But we never learn why, nor do we learn why it matters.  Oliver shows up at the beginning being a murderous jerk to Orlando, and then vanishes until the very end when Celia claims to fall in love with him at first sight.  Celia, who is beautiful and loyal and Goodness personified. Why would she like a guy whose only attribute is murderous hatred?   It feels contrived.   Shakespeare could have left Oliver on the cutting room floor without anyone noticing.

Oliver is not the only unnecessary character.  Orlando is trailed around by a faithful servant named Adam.  Adam is tediously loyal.  He dotes on Orlando as would a puppy and makes a dramatic show of trying to starve himself to death for the welfare of the dullard.  He is tedious and also unconvincing.  All Orlando has done by this time is whine about his older brother and beat a guy at wrestling.  Why would that inspire fealty?   Did Shakespeare write in a pointless part as a favor to an out-of-work actor friend?

Other than Celia – at least until she pairs off with Oliver — the most convincing character is the blathery melancholic, Jacques. He tells it like it is.  For example, he asks the besotted Orlando:  “Rosalind is your love’s name?”  Orlando says yes and Jacques looks into the middle distance and says, in flat tones, “I do not like her name.”  Orlando summons a rare sliver of spirit: “There was no thought of pleasing you when she was christened.”  Funny!  Then the play shambles on.

Some of this play’s dialogue has made its way into common parlance.  It gave us “the last gasp” and “the motley fool,” and “all the world’s a stage, the men and women merely players.”  This last is said by Jacques at the beginning of one of his better meditations.  He slumps down in a lawn chair with a red Solo cup of beer and comes out with his philosophy of the seven stages of life – the mewling puking infant, the whining school-boy, the lover and the solider, the portly judge, the man who is too old for fashionable clothes, and the senile and incapacitated ancient.  It’s a wonderful passage.  But other than the first line, it is totally irrelevant.  It does not move the plot.  It does not explain anyone’s motives.  It does not resolve any dramatic tension.  Did Shakespeare pen a wonderful poem in the middle of the night and decide to stick it in this play come hell or high water?

I could go on about other parts and players that are silly or pointless and I could imagine a good editor slashing this play to bits (why hasn’t one?).  But if we did that there wouldn’t be much left.  Imagine the Hollywood pitch: “Four boys meet four girls and they all get married.”  Something is missing.   Only one boy loses his girl – the myopic Silvius who loses Phoebe temporarily to Ganymede, who isn’t even a real person because Ganymede is really Rosalind pretending to be a made-up person to try to trap the boring Orlando, who doesn’t seem to recognize her.  But Silvius is so myopic that he doesn’t realize he has lost Phoebe to the imaginary man.  And because the man to whom he has lost is imaginary, it doesn’t really count.  Follow?  For all four couples, it is “boy meets girl, skip to the end, get married”

So let’s skip to the end, too.  The end arrives all of a sudden.  All the couples get married the day after they all get engaged, which conveniently all happens on the same day for all four couples.  All this engaging and marrying happens in a big rush in the very last scene and then BINGO!  A messenger arrives just at that precise moment to say – without explanation or context – that the bad old Duke has retired to a monastery so no-one is exiled to the forest of Arden anymore.  Hooray!

February 2016