FACE IT: A View From the Audience

The most talked about new production on Broadway -- no, I haven't forgotten Hamilton, but it's been up for five months -- is A View From The Bridge , the audacious and pared-down version of the Arthur Miller play. Starring Mark Strong, there are many notable things about this version, including the bare feet to go along with the bare bones, and the use of only one real prop. And yes, there will be blood.

Director Ivo Van Hove (from Belgium and arguably the world's hottest stage director) has also placed chunks of the audience on the sides of the stage. It is framed to resemble a boxing match, so the idea of fans watching in the round makes some sense. Though, while those fans would be standing and cheering, these dare not make a move, cough, or unwrap a candy.

The actor most affected by this approach is Michael Gould, the Brit (they are all Brits, coming with the production from London) who both narrates the play as a Greek chorus of sorts, and occasionally moves into the action in the role of the lawyer, Alfieri. He is the one who roams just outside the stage, seeming to converse with the viewers.

Gould says Van Hove had the idea of the surrounding audience from day one of rehearsals: "It keeps Alfieri involved with the narrative," he says, "and takes the audience deeper into the erotic landscape. Also, because we don't have the full cast of actors that are often used, the audience takes their place. So it was also a pragmatic personnel decision."

Rather than exiting the stage, Gould sits alongside the audience, observing. It is then that he also becomes more alert to the sounds of UNsilence: "I think it would be preferable if they didn't fall asleep," says Gould, "though that is rare." Fortunately, phones have not yet gone off from members of the stage audience, but there was the poor guy who could not get a tissue out of its package. "I saw him try and try out of the corner of my eye," Gould laughs, "and I came very close to just leaning over and pulling the damn thing out." Overall, he says the conceit works well: "I love seeing their reactions up close. I think it informs my performance in subtle ways."

While the production has received mostly positive reviews, there is a sense of self-importance: if you come late, you are not admitted; don't even think about getting up before it's done, unless you are carried on a gurney; and heaven help you if the cell lights up. Does the on-stage audience really enhance the experience? I sat in one of those seats and it did add to the feeling of inescapable immersion -- which is why some theatregoers choose not to take up the offer.

The most recent example of this on Broadway was the Royal Shakespeare Company's rotating productions of Richard III and Twelfth Night last year. Star Mark Rylance occasionally played with an audience member, though in that case, it was true to how the Bard himself had his plays performed. We don't know what Arthur Miller would make of this latest take, but he did consider A View From The Bridge his Greek tragedy. So odds are he would approve.

Michael Gould says the production perhaps works even better in New York than London, in that audiences are familiar with the scene of the action -- Red Hook, Brooklyn -- and the play itself, which was revived just five years ago with Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johannsen. Because of that familiarity, the inventive stagecraft gives them new ways into the material. This also includes Alfieri, near the play's end, suddenly reciting stage directions. ("There is a knock at the door," "Marco spits at Eddie," etc) Speaking for myself, it was a jarring transition and would have been more effective if it had been done at the beginning of the play as well. Though as Gould says, "even Arthur Miller's stage directions were beautiful."

Will we see more productions trying the "in the round" thing? Is this a game changer? Well, those are truly rare. Even Hamilton has not led to the announcement that Beyonce would be hitting Broadway portraying Abigail Adams. In fact, site-specific immersive theatre has been prevalent off Broadway for quite awhile. Director David Cromer's fantastic Our Town had the stage manager-narrator sitting with the audience much of the time. Other productions coax the viewers to become actual players. I confess I felt some unease and fear that Mark Strong would grab me and throw me in the ring of his family's exploding emotions.

On the other hand, if it had been Hugh Jackman...