MARCO MILLIONS (based on lies), a CurtainUp review CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp Review
Marco Millions (based on lies)

There's no money in politics, dear Uncle. And no power. The power comes from Money. …They say, he Who's got the gold makes the rules, but I submit: He who makes the rules gets the gold! --- Marco Polo .

Kevin Townley and Arian Moyaedy  in a scene from Marco Millions
Kevin Townley and Arian Moyaed in a scene from Marco Millions (based on lies).
It's probably not surprising that in a ten year period which saw Eugene O'Neill produce some of his greatest plays, including Anna Christie, Desire Under The Elms and Mourning Becomes Electra, that an odd work like his Marco Millions (based on lies) would get overlooked. Tracing the life of Marco Polo (allegedly using many of the Venetian merchant's own words) from his rise to favor with Kublai Khan to his escorting of the Khan's daughter to Persia for her marriage, the play was never produced entirely as O'Neill envisioned it: the original draft of the script called for thirty extras to carry a coffin on stage in the first ten minutes! Now the ever-ambitious Waterwell Theatre Company has taken on the challenge and produced an "adaptation" of O'Neill's work--minus the thirty extras. The attempt is admirable, but when all is said and done it's hard not to wonder if the company's reach has finally exceeded its grasp.

Waterwell is known for its clever playing with traditional theatrical boundaries, and such characteristics are quickly in evidence here. Marco Millions opens with a kind of vaudevillian soft-shoe act in which the narrator Kevin Townley (playing himself) explains the details of what the audience is about to see in appropriately Barnum-esque prose, introducing each of the characters (using their respective performers' real names to do so) before launching into O'Neill's text.

By the performers' own admission (despite the listing of Tom Ridgely as director, Waterwell prefers to think of itself as a largely collaborative exercise without any individual artistic authority), their use of the text is fast and loose, and so the show tends to veer wildly from historical account to thinly veiled modern commentary on our consumer culture and back again without prior warning. The staging itself is similarly disjointed--the Lion's physical setup, with the audience seats set back from the stage while the "pit" orchestra plays from a ledge above the action, contributes to this feel. At times this confusion works, in part because the cast of five (Hanna Cheek, Rodney Gardiner, Arian Moayed, Ridgely and Townley) is quite good and can often sell a given scene despite its oddities. And the music (composed by Lauren Cregor) gives a kind of resonance to the on-stage action which is both moving and surprising.

When at its best, this free-wheeling approach gives O'Neill's dialogue (never one of his strengths) a freshness and vitality which is appealing and effective. It's clear that the performers have bought in to Waterwell's vision of collaborative artistic achievement. But as the production continues, the drawbacks of this method become increasingly obvious. Despite its intelligence, the adaptation at times seems too clever by half and after a while the audience starts to wonder if it's being left out of an inside joke which only Waterwell insiders truly get.

Playing the Khan as a Mafia don seems like a reasonable extrapolation of O'Neill. Less easy to understand is how an impromptu poetry slam featuring sailors and the Khan's suffering daughter fits in, or why the Khan elects to break into a heartfelt but bewildering Negro spiritual towards the end of the play. At other times, O'Neill's own tendency to moralize gets gleefully amplified, so that the potentially fascinating return of Marco Polo to his Venetian home is marred by the obvious hammer-satire of a song (and scene) composed entirely of the word "money." The musical numbers don't work, in part because despite the quality of the composition, the orchestra is noticeably sub-par. As an Australian friend who was with me observed, during times like these the play feels more like ""a university exercise" than a theater production.

Despite the problems mentioned, the elemental power in all of O'Neill's work comes through often enough, with Polo's speech to the Khan about his invention of money particularly well done. But these good moments are undermined by odd decisions and directorial misjudgments. An adaptation of Marco Millions (based on lies) needs to overcome its natural failings; instead Waterwell tends to play into and enhance them, and the result is an erratic and rather disappointing production.

Editor's Note: For more about Eugene O'Neill's work and life and links to reviews of O'Neill play's reviewed, see our O'Neill Backgrounder.

MARCO MILLIONS (based on lies)
Playwright: Eugene O' Neill
Adapted by Waterwell
Director: Tom Ridgely
Composer: Lauren Cregor
Choreographer: Lynn Peterson
Cast: Hanna Cheek, Rodney Gardiner, Aria Moayed, Tom Ridgely, Kevin Townley
Lighting Designer: Stacey Boggs
Costume Designer: Elizabeth Payne
Set Designer: Dave Lombard
Sound Designer: Jessica Paz
Musicians: Lauren Cregor, Gunter Gruner, Jenny Hill, Adam Levine, Joe Morse
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes (no intermission)
The Lion at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St., 212-279-4200
Web Site:
From 8/4/06 through 8/26/06; opening 8/12/06
Mon, Wed.-Sat. @ 8 p.m.
Tickets: $35 for all performances

Reviewed by Gregory Wilson based on August 10th press performance

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