Of Melodrama and Music

Of Mice and Men visits two theaters downtown

With the centennial of John Steinbeck's birth upon us, it's not surprising that arts organizations are staging Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck's theatrical adaptation of his 1937 novella tells the familiar story of two itinerant farm workers -- one with a hulking presence and a weak mind, one with a sharp mind and a small body. Lennie, the simpleton, tests his friend's loyalty when he accidentally kills his boss's wife.

Houston audiences will get two new looks at the drama's moral complexities when it's mounted concurrently on two of the city's most prominent stages, the Alley Theatre and the Wortham Center, where Houston Grand Opera will present an operatic version of the play.

The Alley production appears to be the more traditional one. Director James Black, a veteran member of the resident acting company, affirms that he's using Steinbeck's own adaptation of the book. "But," he adds, "our production will be a unique interpretation that allows the theatergoer to look at the play with fresher eyes." One advantage to the Alley show, Black says, is the shape of the venue. The Neuhaus Arena stage offers theater-in-the-round, a more intimate experience than the larger proscenium stages where the play is often performed.

Houston arts presenters offer dueling productions of a Steinbeck classic.
Houston arts presenters offer dueling productions of a Steinbeck classic.
Houston arts presenters offer dueling productions of a Steinbeck classic.
Houston arts presenters offer dueling productions of a Steinbeck classic.

Of the two stagings, HGO's adaptation by respected composer Carlisle Floyd will be the one that breaks new ground. Co-produced with the Bregenz Festival in Austria and Washington Opera, the HGO production is based in Steinbeck's reality, but it certainly doesn't stay there. Floyd says the show includes "strongly stylized elements" to heighten the drama. "For instance, in Bregenz, stage designer Richard Hudson spoke of wanting to create an atmosphere of total menace and tension in the barn scenes," he says, "so there are two huge pieces of farm machinery and a row of hanging scythes."

The opera features tenor Anthony Dean Griffey as Lennie and bass-baritone Gordon Hawkins as his friend George. A Washington Postreviewer found Floyd's musical interpretation appropriately grim and described Francesca Zambello's stage direction as polished and cohesive.

The prospect of contemporaneous productions of a standard carries some risk for both organizations. "It wasn't planned," says HGO spokeswoman Joy Partain. "Opera seasons are generally [put together] before the season of a resident acting company, because the singers' popularity demands that they be booked two and three years in advance. So it was sheer coincidence." Alley artistic director Gregory Boyd was unable to comment on the simultaneous stagings because he was out of the country at press time. To encourage theater buffs to support both organizations, the Alley and HGO are offering a 10 percent discount for patrons willing to see both shows.

It's possible that Steinbeck's mass appeal will be enough to fill both houses. Generally beloved, Of Mice and Men is especially popular among high school kids force-fed a diet rich in Homer and Shakespeare. They like Steinbeck's straightforward prose, so the Alley production might be right up theirs. Those looking for a more innovative approach can wait for the opera's version in February.

 
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