‘Anatomy of a Suicide’ by Alice Birch at Atlantic Theater Company

Carla Gugino, Vince Nappo, Celeste Arias, Anatomy of a Suicide,Alice Birch, Lileana Blain-Cruz, Atlantic Theater Company

(L to R): Carla Gugino, Vince Nappo, Celeste Arias, ‘Anatomy of a Suicide, by Alice Birch, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz (Ahron R. Foster)

In Anatomy of a Suicide  written by Alice Birch directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, the playwright examines suicide’s ancestral relativities between and among mothers and daughters. Underlying the developmental arc and structure of her complex play, Birch examines many questions. Two which appear to pertain the most directly are the following. What is the likelihood that a mother’s depressive, suicidal personality may be inherited as part of the familial DNA passed down through generations? If a mother commits suicide, what is the likelihood that her daughter will be unable to overcome the death impulse to follow her mother’s example, unconsciously nurtured by her mother to that end?

Currently running at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater, Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2018. Indeed, her approach to the topic is structurally unique and worthy of the tremendous efforts of the cast and director to reveal the mysterious bond between mothers and daughters that moves them in the direction of soul immolation.

Birch displays three generations of mothers and daughters: Carol (Carla Gugino) her daughter Anna (Celeste Arias) and Anna’s daughter Bonnie (Gabby Beans) on stage concurrently in real time. She unwinds their characters until they reach their apotheosis. They exist in different decades in the 20th and 21st century but appear before us in the present. Each mother anticipates the depressive ethos of her daughter in some of her interactions with others: spouse, friend, family.

Carla Gugino, Jason Babinsky, Anatomy of a Suicide, Alice Birch, Lileana Blain-Cruz, Atlantic Theater Company

Carla Gugino, Jason Babinsky in ‘Anatomy of a Suicide,’ by Alice Birch, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz (Ahron R. Foster)

Birch sets these three components of the depressive state in each character on stage simultaneously with their ancestral counterparts by defying the space/time continuum. As each character depicts her own manifestations of her condition, sometimes the dialogue overlaps repetitively as if a time warp occurs and you are allowed to see how the mother has impacted the daughter in the future (i.e. how Carol impacted Anna). Usually, Birch features a key vignette with one character while the other two draw inward. For example while Anna has a scene with a doctor, Carol is occupied in an action, i.e. cutting apples, smoking, etc. and Bonnie is involved in her own action. When their dialogue overlaps and there is a synchronicity of time and space, a still point of connection occurs.

Birch uses this structure of simultaneity, rhythmic dialogue, repetition and overlap to stimulate the audience’s dissection and analysis of the characters. Perhaps it is to understand how suicidal depression in the case of this family leaps genetically (?) telepathically (?) from mother to daughter without knowing the etiology of each woman and specifically how or if such a transmission occurs. Birch depicts Carol’s, Anna’s and Bonnie’s depressive, addictive and emotional isolation in events unique to each and not in chronological order, but always simultaneously. However, though we see the symptoms and reactions which are the tip of the iceberg, we never know the rationale why these women are suicidal because it is unknowable. It is unconscious. Thantos, the death impulse exists in each of us, as does eros, the life impulse. Why does one overcome the other in these women is not what concerns Birch. That it is there in this family group is enough to investigate and atomize.

Carla Gugino in Anatomy of a Suicide, Alice Birch, Lileana Blain-Cruz, Atlantic Theater Company

Carla Gugino in ‘Anatomy of a Suicide,’ by Alice Birch, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz (Ahron R. Foster)

For Carol and Anna the suicidal impulse is acute at the outset of the play. Carol’s husband John (Richard Topol) confronts her about her bandaged/sliced wrists and her thoughtful accommodation for him to have enough dinners for a week or so, which she has cooked and frozen for him to thaw out after her death. Such premeditation is crystal clear; she has thought about what she will do and planned for it, yet she tells John everything is “fine.” Later in her segments the evidence mounts and we understand why “it is fine.”

For his part, John confronts her with great passivity, an element of her depressive state she perhaps wishes to conclude with finality. Divorce would not be final enough, we learn in a subsequent later vignette that is companionable to a simultaneous event with Anna and Bonnie. Nevertheless, John is frightened, yet incompetent to handle her. Through various scenes he cannot read her or cogently, effectively deal with her flattened affect that hides the dark abyss within. Carol’s various scenes unfold tied not to a time order but to a thematic familial order with her daughter Anna and Granddaughter Bonnie who demonstrate their own angst: Anna in her relationship with her spouse Jamie (Julian Elijah Martinez) and Bonnie in her interest and relationship with Jo (Jo Mei ).

Gabby Beans, Jo Mei, Anatomy of a Suicide, Alice Birch, Lileana Blain-Cruz, Atlantic Theater Company

(L to R): Gabby Beans, Jo Mei in ‘Anatomy of a Suicide,’ by Alice Birch, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz (Ahron R. Foster)

A telling event occurs during Carol’s pregnancy and after baby Anna is born. We and John understand that she will never have another child; sex is not pleasurable and she is only staying in the marriage to raise their daughter. Each vignette reinforces Carol’s intense emotional interior trauma that Carla Gugino’s brilliantly flickers to the surface through the character’s strained, straight-lipped smile, wooden responses and modulated, refined voice.

What happened to her, to Anna, to Bonnie? Why are they depressed? Does the historical cause matter if it is genetic, a brain disorder or some other causation that is beyond the kin of the medical profession? Interventions are tried to no avail: shock therapy, perhaps rehab for Anna for her drug addiction. Nothing works. No human interaction satisfies to stem the death impulse.

We realize Carol is fine when she succeeds in achieving her goal in life. By the end of her scenes (she is staged on the far left as the progenitor mother of depression in the 20th century) we come to understand why Carol responds as she does to John that she is “fine.” Her mind is made up. She has planned and most probably will continue to plan and justify her suicide to herself because her pain is relentless, without limit, infinite as long as she is in her body. Thus, when we finally learn that she has killed herself, it is anti-climactic. The same is not true for Anna who, in her vignettes, gyrates between anxiety and calm, hyperactivity and peace with husband Jamie.

Carla Gugino, Ava Briglia,Celeste Arias, Jo Me, Gabby Beans, Anatomy of a Suicide, Alice Birch, Lileana Blain-Cruz, Atlantic Theater Companyi

(L to R): Carla Gugino, Ava Briglia, Celeste Arias, Jo Mei, Gabby Beans in ‘Anatomy of a Suicide,’ by Alice Birch, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz (Ahron R. Foster)

Regardless, Birch blindsides us and Carol’s and Anna’s spouses with their suicides to end the roiling hell within. For Carol we know it is coming, yet when we hear of it surprisingly tucked into a conversation, we remember her memorial to herself, “I’m fine.” Anna’s suicide is as Anna is, dramatic.

At the outset of the play when Carol and John have their discussion about Carol’s suicide attempt and she affirms she’s “fine,” Celeste discusses with a doctor friend (Vince Nappo) the necessity for an injection in a frenetic insistence to charm him. The doctor knows what she wants and ignores her despite her lightening responses and “hail good fellow well met” justification for it. Her heightened state, during which she discounts how she broke her arm, is like an episode of rapid recycling in a bi-polar disorder patient. In their synchronized scenes, obviously, both women display warning signs that they are ripe for suicide, but in their own personalities and iterations which are antithetical.

Perhaps, Birch posits one clue for Carol’s and Anna’s dark intentions and eliminates it for Bonnie. Carol’s and Anna’s intolerable misery is exacerbated when they become pregnant and have their daughters. Does this symbolize the end of their lives? Indeed, Celeste’s nihilism appears even greater than Carol’s and her commitment to killing herself happens in hyperbole part of the up/down of her life that Birch reveals is her nature. On the other hand Bonnie solves the problem of mother/ daughter suicidal ideation carried to her through an inherited gene pool. A doctor, Bonnie makes a canny choice about relationships and doesn’t put herself in the position of her grandmother and mother. But perhaps she is her father’s daughter, not her mother’s. Again the etiology is never clarified, not that it should be.

Julian Elijah Martinez, Celeste Arias, Anatomy of a Suicide, Alice Birch, Lileana Blain-Cruz, Atlantic Theater Company, Anatomy of a Suicide

Julian Elijah Martinez, Celeste Arias, ‘Anatomy of a Suicide,’ by Alice Birch, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, Atlantic Theater Company (Ahron R. Foster)

The play intrigues with the everpresent present of three women in the same family reflecting how they respond to the unchanging underlying death impulse as it manifests with synchronicity in Carol, Anna and Bonnie over time, yet also with different and particular iterations based upon each individual woman. Staged simultaneously across three time periods, we think we can understand the suicidal threads in these characters and especially that  Bonnie doesn’t physically move a hand against herself.

At times refocusing which vignette to watch to break through the overlapping dialogue was challenging. However, the uniform superb acting drew out the sequences appropriately and the pacing of the dialogue was letter perfect so that the key lines to be repeated resonated with rhythmic precision.

Carla Gugino, Miriam Silverman, Anatomy of a Suicide, Alice Birch, Lileana Blain-Cruz, Atlantic Theater Company

(L to R): Carla Gugino, Miriam Silverman in ‘Anatomy of a Suicide,’ by Alice Birch, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, (Ahron R. Foster)

The set whose three walls are painted a green-blue color and beset with complementary plants appears vibrant on first inspection. However, the wash basin in Carol’s space which looks like those in a doctor’s office with the high curving faucet, and a bathtub with similar faucet in Anna’s space convert the set toward the clinical and sterile. This is so despite the ensemble bringing in tables to suggest dinners with friends and other activities.

The set puts one on notice that this will not be a typical play about suicide with its recumbent, empathetic emotionalism. This will be as unique as the title implies and a detached, observational approach will be employed. Indeed, as we follow Birch’s presentation and the director’s shepherding of a truly superb cast, we become like scientists viewing, as if under glass familial fault-lines that break the family. It is an empty exercise and we are no closer to understanding another element of a mysterious anti-life position of human beings: the urge, necessity, the repeated will in some families, in this play mothers and daughters, to end their lives.

By the end of the play, we remain detached. Such detachment about the most violent act one can take against oneself is frightening. But the play encourages objectification for a reason. Objectification in our culture contributes to feelings of isolation. Being or feeling “the other,” not belonging, not communicating in a felt empathetic way to bridge one’s “aloneness” in pain are states of misery. Yet, for these mothers to put their daughters in that state indicates they were hopeless. It is the height of objectification, not having empathy for oneself to live to the next day. Birch’s work enlightens and devastates.

Noted are Mariana Sanchez (sets) Kaye Voyce (costumes) Jiyoun Chang (lights) Rucyl Frison (sound) Hannah Wasileski (projetions) Tommy Kurzman (wig, hair & makeup).

Anatomy of a Suicide runs at the Atlantic Theater Company (336 West 20th) with no intermission until 15th March. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.

 

 

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope’ at the New York Botanical Garden

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ NYBG 18th Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

The New York Botanical Garden’s Orchid Show is in its 18th glorious year and it is amazing. One reason why is because of this year’s show designer, the imminently creative original Jeff Leatham.

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

Jeff Leatham posing with his orchid sculpture at the NYBG ‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ NYBG 18th Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

Board members from the NYBG were familiar with Jeff Leatham’s work and thought he would be a great fit for the NYBG orchid show since his floral designs encompass orchids, the loveliest of flowers. When he was contacted, he jumped at the opportunity enthusiastically, visited the Garden in July, solidified his ideas and arrangements were made.

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ DETAIL, NYBG 18th Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

If you have been to Paris, France and stayed at The Four Seasons Hotel Georges V, you will see Jeff’s designs. He is their award-winning artistic director. He also has studios at the Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia at Comcast Center and the Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills. Jeff Leatham is a renowned lifestyle icon and impeccable floral designer to the stars.

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

Jeff Leatham and Carrie Rebora Barratt, Ph.D., CEO and President of NYBG pictured at ‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ NYBG 18th Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

If you asked him as a teenager what he wanted to do with his life, he would have said he wanted to be a model. Interestingly, his career has morphed into something more profound, but it includes a form of modeling as well because Jeff often photographed with his unique designs.

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ DETAIL, NYBG 18th Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

At twenty-four Jeff began his career with the Four Seasons starting with flower petals. It was then he knew he had found his raison d’etre with floral design. He has been with them ever since exploring his passion for design and flowers.. His one-of-a-kind displays move in the realm of the dazzling spectacular that integrates with whatever the setting is. His creations include sculptures and these and his floral displays manifest the symbolic, bold and dramatic use of color and shape, yet embody an elegant simplicity.

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ DETAIL, NYBG 18th Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ DETAIL, NYBG 18th Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

Jeff Leatham’s designs are completely original and stand out as such. Individuals who want to hire him to feature a design for their wedding that is like “so-and-sos,” Jeff, with a smile on his face will gently tell the individual that they should hire that designer. He will evolve a creation that is particular. Indeed, his signature, one-of-a-kind designs are his brand and people have come to know right away whether a floral design is a Jeff Leatham or not.

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ DETAIL, NYBG 18th Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

Jeff has produced his incredible floral exhibits in Paris for almost two decades and is so enamored by the French that in 2014 he was knighted with the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the highest honor for artists and those who make vital contributions to French culture. Jeff has appeared on television featuring his creations. His clients include Cher, Dolly Parton, Tina Turner, Oprah Winfrey, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and many others. They appreciate the specialness of his designs.

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ NYBG 18th Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

For the 18th annual Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham decided upon the theme of the kaleidoscope. He commented that he receives inspiration from kaleidoscopes because they represent infinity. The patterns and colors shift, never repeating themselves in variations that are starkly unique and particular; and they go on forever, the mutable immutable.

Marc Hachadourian, The Orchid Show: Jeath Leatham's Kaleidoscope

Marc Hachadourian, Senior Orchid Curator pictured with blue Vandas peeking from behind him at ‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ NYBG 18th Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

After the decision that the tent that had been up for The Holiday Train Show® would be taken down not to house the orchid exhibition, Karen Daubmann (Associate Vice President for Exhibitions and Public Engagement) mentioned in a brief chat with me that the staff and those involved with The Orchid Show like Senior Curator of Orchids, Marc Hachadourian were satisfied that this year’s orchid extravaganza with Jeff as lead designer, would encompass the entire conservatory.

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ NYBG 18th Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

Jeff worked the kaleidoscope theme beautifully, interweaving different colors staged with complementary hues in every gallery of the conservatory, save the Palms of the World Gallery. And the tunnel joining the two segments of the conservatory is the culmination of all the hues displayed in a fun and whimsical light show.

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ NYBG 18th Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

As you walk in the designated entrance that begins the exhibit, you will see the original, unique sculpture that Jeff created in his studio at the Four Seasons Hotel Georges V in Paris. Marc Hachadourian discussed with me that Jeff used his own orchid supplier from Europe for this gobsmacking living exhibit that shimmers with light and eye-popping purples, blues, pinks, fuchsias, complementary hybrid orchids with speckled white, purplish-black color combinations, whites and matching color derivative coordinates of Vanda orchids. These astounding Vandas are companioned with the popular and longer lasting phalaenopsis. The effect is visually breathtaking.

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ DETAIL, NYBG 18th Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

This first show gallery emphasizes the most myriad variety of Vanda orchids, that I’ve seen. They are happily perched up high so that they may flow down from a mammoth, laddered, rectangular trellis suspended from the show gallery ceiling. They are the perfect orchid for this structure because of their amazingly long roots and tendrils that soak up the moisture from the surrounding environment and require a flow of air around them. The effect with the Vandas sparking the color and the long roots hanging from the four-rung metal structure depending from above with the reflecting sculpture below offers a contrast. Vibrant colors are paired with their pale whitish roots that appear ethereal and lacy. It’s almost as if a garment fabricator sewed lines of lace to flow down from each mounted orchid. It’s a brilliant way to show the Vandas.

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ DETAIL, NYBG 18th Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ rear view of the orchid sculpture DETAIL, NYBG 18th Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

The sculpture is an orchid fountain mirror that reflects white light, the combined color of all the colors of the rainbow. It is the centerpiece in the round, underneath the metal ladder structure of striking orchid hues and flowing, lacy, filament roots. It is an intriguing and unique concept which gives the orchid sculpture a refracting power similar to a lustrous diamond. Jeff designed this for the Garden. And with the resplendent colors of the Vandas and coordinating phalaenopsis draped on the various rungs with accompanying greenery of the phalaenopsis leaves, you are left gazing with wonder at this stunning and memorable piece of living theater.

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ DETAIL, NYBG 18th Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

Present in this remarkable array of beauty are the Garden plants, ficus trees, shrubs, ferns that normally make their home at the Garden. Added are the bromeliades which Jeff has used as a representative of their own powerfully sculpted forms that are rich and lush in nature.

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

Bromeliade,’The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ NYBG 18th Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

And on one of the plantings is the Vanda sunanda orchid named after Jeff Leatham by Ansu Vanda, an orchid nursery in the Netherlands in 2017. By naming this orchid after Jeff, the nursery hoped to celebrate and honor his indelible work that has enhanced floral design globally.

Vanda sunanda,The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

Vanda sunanda orchid named after Jeff Leatham, ‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ NYBG 18th Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

Vanda sunanda orchid named after Jeff Leatham, ‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ DETAIL,NYBG 18th Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

Orchids in this genus of the orchid family are available in every color of the rainbow. Jeff noted for us the almost black purple that speckles this Vanda named for him.

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ NYBG 18th Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

Jeff commented that he has a passion working for orchids because each seems to have its own unique and distinct personality that you want to feature and highlight. The orchid family is the largest family of plants in the world. There are 30,000 orchids in the wild. Growers in their ingenuity have hybridized over 100,000 orchids. They remain perhaps the most popular flower because of their exotic beauty, their tongue and face that entice moths and other insects to pollinate them. Orchids grow in every continent in the world except Antarctica. With global warming and the record warm temperatures in parts of the continent, this may change.

Grasslands, The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, 18th Annual Orchid Show, NYBG

Gallery “Grasslands,” ‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ NYBG 18th Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

Grasslands, The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, 18th Annual Orchid Show, NYBG

Gallery “Grasslands,” ‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ Paphiopedilum, DETAIL, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, (Carole Di Tosti)

As you move through the conservatory, you will note Jeff’s interesting use of color. Next to the orchid sculpture gallery you move into “grasslands.” There you will note the displays of slipper orchids (Paphiopedilum) and Cymbidiums in bursts of yellow and white and a few slipper orchid hybrids tucked in with brownish faces.

Grasslands, The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, Cymbidiums 18th Annual Orchid Show, NYBG

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ Cymbidiums DETAIL, NYBG 18th Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

There is an abundance of greenery looking indeed like tall grass as the cymbidiums flourish with their waxy large blooms and spiky leaves.

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

Desert Blues, ‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, (Carole Di Tosti)

The next gallery is the desert terrain devoted to the Garden’s permanent display of desert plants. Jeff has an appreciation for the colors of the cacti and succulents and exotic desert flora in these two galleries.

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

Desert Blues, ‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, (Carole Di Tosti)

He has placed coordinating cobalt blue bamboo poles to draw the eye-line upward. For the first time, I looked up at the tops of the magnificent cacti that I had never appreciated before. Normally, I would have raced through this area without the appreciation of the immense variety that the Garden has in its desert display.

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Annual Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Annual Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Annual Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

Moving downward to the other part of the conservatory, Jeff Leatham painted the backdrop of the room that leads to the tunnel grey. He coordinated gorgeous pink and red lined hybrid phalaenopsis with unusual succulents for another amazing effect.

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ NYBG 18th Annual Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

 

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Annual Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ NYBG 18th Annual Orchid Show,(Carole Di Tosti)

The grey background makes the colors of the plants pop. And in the display cases he did the same, drawing the eye inward to note the contrast using grey bamboo poles in a simplistic design invoking minimalism. Leatham uses Spanish Moss to tie in the concept of the design of lace filaments that depend downward and recall the Vandas flowing roots in the main show exhibit with the orchid fountain.

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ NYBG 18th Annual Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

 

I love how every segment of the show in each of the galleries picks up design ideas in the previous galleries and threads them through the show in shape, color, pattern, materials to present a unified conceptualization.

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ NYBG 18th Annual Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ NYBG 18th Annual Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ NYBG 18th Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

In the Rainfroest Gallery, gorgeous green moss covering the rocks, the splashes of orchid color most naturally represent how orchids grow in the wild. Again the pinks and yellows from the previous galleries are represented. The orchids selected for their sizes and shapes are different from those that have gone before. Along the winding path is a celebration of less popular orchids that are harder to grow as if they might be found tucked away in a secluded forest’s mossy plot. These include a variety of Paphiopedilum and delicate snow drop orchids and others.

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Annual Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ NYBG 18th Annual Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

As the trail winds into a break, Jeff once again employed his sense of color to effect beauty. He had a structure painted a cherry color that threaded through the pinks and fuchsias of the phalaenopsis of the main gallery orchid fountain display.

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope, a rare Vanda, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, (Carole Di Tosti)

 

Included in the show is the gallery where the most rare species of orchids are kept in a glass case. A number of these orchids may eventually be extinct since their habitats have been destroyed by development, deforestation and blatant disregard and inattention to the importance of conservation. The Garden is a world leader in plant research and conservation, using traditional and cutting-edge tools to discover, understand, and preserve Earth’s vast botanical diversity. They have saved orchids sent to them recovered from illegal orchid poachers.

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ Sunrise/Sunshine Gallery, NYBG 18th Annual Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

 

 

I was sorry to see that The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaledoscope was coming to an end with the last two galleries. Jeff named the gallery with the fountain and hanging vines, Sunrise/Sunshine because of the bursting orange and yellows and whites. The fountain is still in the center, but it has been covered over by moss with a potted fern as the crown of glory.

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’Sunrise/Sunshine Gallery, NYBG 18th Annual Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ NYBG 18th Annual Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ Sunrise/Sunshine Gallery, NYBG 18th Annual Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

This gallery and the last one are every bit as amazing as the former galleries. Jeff stated that he wanted “every gallery to be a different color experience as visitors move through them.” And that this experience would be reminiscent of “looking into a kaleidoscope.” We all have seen kaleidoscopes as children.

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ NYBG 18th Annual Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham's Kaleidoscope, NYBG 18th Orchid Show, Jeff Leatham

‘The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope,’ NYBG 18th Annual Orchid Show (Carole Di Tosti)

 

 

 

And with technology advancements, the designs are more elaborate than ever. Jeff stated that members and visitors to the Garden have seen the interiors of the Conservatory. But he wanted their experience to be different. “I want them to look through them (the galleries) like never before.” And in the last gallery, all the hues that Jeff displayed throughout the show are represented and the threads of designs are repeated. It’s like you’re looking through that kaleidoscope. However, it’s a living breathing wonderland of what reflects the infinite in color, texture, scent and myriad patterns. Just grand.

There are many events that pair up with the 18th Annual Orchid Show featuring the work of one-of-a-kind floral artist Jeff Leatham that you will not want to miss. The show runs from February 15 through April 19, 2020.  For specific programming go to the NYBG website by  CLICKING HERE.

 

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‘Chekhov/Tolstoy Love Stories’ at The Mint Theatre, Two Masters’ Perspectives of Love, Adapted by Miles Malleson

Chekhov/Tolstoy Love Stories, Miles Malleson, Alexander Sokovikov, Brittany Anikka Liu, The Artist, An Artist's Story, Anton Chekhov, Jonathan Bank

Alexander Sokovikov, Brittany Anikka Liu in ‘The Artist,’ adapted by Miles Malleson from “An Artist’s Story” by Anton Chekhov, Chekhov/Tolstoy Love Stories (Maria Baranova)

“One of the most diversified talents in the British theatre,” Miles Malleson (1888-1969) was enamored of Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov, who had formed a bond in the latter years of their lives; Chekhov, the younger pre-deceased Tolstoy, the elder by six years–Tolstoy died in 1910. Admiration of these two great Russian writers inspired Malleson to create theatrical adaptations of short stories by Tolstoy and Chekhov. From Tolstoy’s parable “What Men Live By” Malleson adapted Michael. From Chekhov’s “An Artist’s Story,” Malleson configured The Artist.

The Mint Theatre Company has featured Malleson’s plays before (i.e. Unfaithfully Yours) considering Malleson to be a playwright worthy of recalling to our social theatrical remembrance. In the first offering of the season, The Mint has coupled the British playwright’s dramatic adaptations of Chekhov’s and Tolstoy’s one acts because their themes relate to love. In The Artist, directed by Jonathan Banks, Chekhov via Malleson ironically presents romantic love that never has the opportunity to blossom and rejuvenate, but is cut off before its time. In Michael directed by Jane Shaw, Tolstoy via Malleson uncovers truths related to the nature and power of agape love. The Mint Theatre Company’s production of Chekhov/Tolstoy Love Stories is currently at Theatre Row.

Presenting The Artist and Michael back-to-back offers the audience the opportunity to examine how each of the plays evokes themes about love, spirituality, redemption and revelation. Additionally, one identifies the contrasting social classes represented by the setting and characters of each one act. Each play identifies the perspective of the writers who were interested about what was accessible to the Russian social classes. Tolstoy, a nobleman often wrote about the worthiness of the lower classes who are represented by the characters in Michael. On the other hand Chekhov, whose grandfather was a serf, centered his greatest works on Russian gentry on the brink of an era of change (The Russian Revolution).

Chekhov/Tolstoy Love Stories, Miles Malleson,Anna Lentz, Brittany Anikka Liu, Chekhov/Tolstoy Love Stories, Miles Malleson,Brittany Anikka Liu, The Artist, An Artist's Story, Anton Chekhov, Jonathan Bank

(L to R): Anna Lentz, Brittany Anikka Liu in ‘The Artist,’ adapted by Miles Malleson from “An Artist’s Story” by Anton Chekhov, Chekhov/Tolstoy Love Stories (Maria Baranova)

In keeping with Chekhov’s proclivities, The Artist takes place on a Russian estate run by a fine, elevated family of women who are intellectual and well regarded. These include the Mother (Katie Firth) and her two daughters. The elder daughter is the teacher Lidia (Brittany Anikka Liu) who is heavily involved with helping improve the status of the peasants. The youngest is the teenage dreamer Genya (Anna Lentz). An artist Nicov (portrayed by Alexander Sokovikov) visits often and the play opens as he paints his landscape while he interacts with Genya who listens to his philosophical justification of the importance of art over social reformation of the peasant class. Nicov and Lidia who represent antithetical views, argue continually. Thus, Nicov finds Genya’s unformed, youthful attentiveness an entrancement over Lidia’s disparagement of the useless function of Nicov’s art.

The characterizations of Nicov and Genya are reminiscent of Chekhov’s characters from his full-length plays, absent the conflict and tensions inherent in Chekhov’s full formed works. Malleson’s characterizations in The Artist are lukewarm and superficial. There is little heat and light as their should be when Nicov argues with Lidia to set up the drama and tension when he expresses his justifications to a sympathetic Genya with whom he falls in love and who returns his love.

The low-key tension and conflict of Malleson’s characterization is not helped by the lackluster performances. The spark of fire between Genya and Nicov that prompts the sardonic ending and Nicov’s felt and empathetic loss is missing. Nicov’s rant as delivered by Sokovikov is telling; Sokovikov does much of the heavy lifting with authentic responses from Katie Firth.  Brittany Anikka Liu as the caring and forceful teacher/reformer in conflict with Nicov should be brighter, more ironic. Their interplay could even be darkly humorous. However, the love between Genya and Nicov is not believable. Thus, the impact of the Chekhovian sardonic ending is rendered impotent.

Katie Firth, Vinie Burrows, Malik Reed, J. Paul Nicholas, Michael, Miles Malleson, What Men Live By, Leo Tolstoy, Jane Shaw, Chekhov/Tolstoy Love Stories

(L toR): Katie Firth, Vinie Burrows, Malik Reed, J. Paul Nicholas, in ‘Michael,’ adapted by Miles Malleson from “What Men Live By” by Leo Tolstoy, directed by Jane Shaw, ‘Chekhov/Tolstoy Love Stories’ (Maria Baranova)

Michael directed by Sound Designer Jane Shaw, making her directorial debut, employs more fluid light and music as the setting reverts to a peasant’s hut and the characters sing. The backdrop shifts. In The Artist, it is a painted tree filled with autumn leaves, signifying the season and symbolism of Nicov’s waning years. In Michael the design becomes the long, intricate white roots (interestingly lighting by Matthew Richards) of the tree. The symbolism of the lower classes is perhaps being suggested. It is the underclass (the tree’s roots) that supports and is the lifeblood of the middle and upper classes (the trunk, branches, leaves). Without the roots of the peasant class from which all humanity has derived, the upper classes can’t be sustained.

In Michael, the conflict arises when a homeless beggar (Malik Reed) is brought in by Simon (J. Paul Nicholas) and the wife (Katie Firth) must decide whether he should stay or be thrown out because they have barely enough for themselves and Aniuska (Vinie Burrows). The decision is made to let him stay. The scene shifts to a year later. We see the family is being sustained by Michael, the beggar who does not speak because he works as a cobbler for the peasant family. When a Russian Nobleman (Alexander Sokovikov) arrives and requires boots, the circumstances change. Michael makes a mistake with the boots, but it turns out to be a prescient action. That evening his learning is complete and finally Michael reveals who he is, why he is there and what he has learned about pity and empathy which is agape love. It is what we should live by.

The performances in Michael adhered more completely. Reed’s performance was soundly delivered undergirded by the ensemble. Malleson’s adaptation of the Tolstoy short story provided more dramatic tension and mystery. The staging and props added interest to engage the audience more completely, along with Oana Botez’s variable costuming, i.e. the nobleman’s coat and hat contrasted with the peasants’ outfits.

The pairing of the two one acts by the Russian writers who were contemporaries via Malleson is an enlightened decision if imperfectly rendered. It is the landed gentry in The Artist who remain unfulfilled by love, in effect harming the artist. They deprive him of rejuvenating love, and negatively impact his purpose to bring uplifting pleasure with his art. In Michael, the affirmation of the goodness of the peasant class (a Christian precept in the Beatitudes) is brought to them by Michael. He shares with them the wisdom that they have received through empathy/pity. It is the vitality of agape love that will sustain them.

In contrasting the two classes, the landed gentry is much worse off than the peasant class, a notion that Nicov suggests to Lidia to no avail. Lidia is convinced that (as in later years during the didactic polemic of the revolution) reform is imperative, art is useless. Meanwhile, the reforms and revolutions as they came did great harm which persists (one might argue) to this day. On the other hand making art is a necessity for the middle and upper classes to help them understand empathy and love, something the blessed poor, according to Tolstoy, are ready to receive and do take in as,the very potency which sustains them.

Chekhov/Tolstoy Love Stories runs until 14th March at Theatre Row (42nd Street). For tickets and times CLICK HERE.

Listed are the creative team: Roger Hanna (sets) Oana Botez (costumes) Matthew Richards (lights) Jane Shaw (original music and sound) Natalie carney (props).

 

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‘The Sabbath Girl’ by Cary Gitter, Directed by Joe Brancato at 59E59 Theaters

Angelina Fiordellisi, Lauren Annunziata, The Sabbath Girl,Cary Gitter, Joe Brancato, Penguin Rep Theatre, 59E59 Theaters

(L to R): Angelina Fiordellisi, Lauren Annunziata in ‘The Sabbath Girl, by Cary Gitter, directed by Joe Brancato at 59E59 Theaters (Carol Rosegg)

What happens when Jewish orthodoxy and strict mores find intermarriage with someone of another faith verboten? Depending upon the orthodoxy of the Jewish community, this may be a serious issue. Cleverly, Cary Gitter, under the superb direction of Joe Brancato, keeps the difficult elements of love between a single Catholic woman and divorced, Orthodox Jewish man at bay in the lively, well-paced, delightful The Sabbath Girl currently at 59E59 Theaters. The production presented in its New York City premiere by Penguin Rep Theatre runs a slim 85 minutes with no intermission.

The romantic comedy’s tone and tenor skirts the dramatic in the opening scene when Nonna (portrayed exquisitely by Angelina Fiordellisi) visits with her beloved granddaughter Angie (the adorable Lauren Annunziata). Nonna checks on Angie to see how she is adjusting to her new apartment. In the process as is her custom, she chides Angie about not being in a love relationship. Angie assures Nonna she is a “modern woman,” perhaps a bit of a feminist. And she insists she doesn’t need a man to make her happy. She has her budding career, which encompasses her waking moments and keeps her busy. We note that Angie is ambitious, industrious and smart, especially since she intends to translate her success into even greater achievements.

Jeremy Rishe, Lauren Annunziata, The Sabbath Girl,Cary Gitter, Joe Brancato, Penguin Rep Theatre, 59E59 Theaters

(L to R): Lauren Annunziata, Jeremy Rishe in ‘The Sabbath Girl, by Cary Gitter, directed by Joe Brancato at 59E59 Theaters (Carol Rosegg)

Thus begins the theme of traditionalism vs. modernism framed by familial relationships. Gitter expands the themes around this conflict during the course of the play. With humor and irony, she drives the arc of the plot neatly and swiftly to a satisfying resolution.

An additional conflict in Angie’s life centers around the men she encounters as potential love interests. Throughout the play, when her Nonna visits to examine how her “love life” is going, Angie sweetly dismisses Nonna’s “traditionalist” suggestions about falling in love with the “right person” and hearing the “music of love” in her soul. Angie’s feminist bent is to negotiate and affirm her own definitions of what affection, love and marriage might be for her life. Gitter’s characterization of Angie also includes that she is rebounding from a failed relationship where her former boyfriend lied and cheated on her. In other words if she will become involved with someone, he will have to convince her he is unlike the cad she was with.

Ty Molbak, Lauren Annunziata, The Sabbath Girl,Cary Gitter, Joe Brancato, Penguin Rep Theatre, 59E59 Theaters

(L to R): Lauren Annunziata, Ty Molbak in ‘The Sabbath Girl’, by Cary Gitter, directed by Joe Brancato at 59E59 Theaters (Carol Rosegg)

The first man she encounters is Seth (Jeremy Rishe) an Orthodox Jewish gentleman who discovers his former Shabbos goy has moved and Angie is now his neighbor. A Shabbos goy is a Yiddish term for a non Jew who is asked by Jews to perform actions that are forbidden to them on Saturday, the Sabbath, i.e. turning on lights, electrical devices, etc.. Seth explains to Angie that his other neighbor was his regular Shabbos goy. Since Angie is his new neighbor, he asks her to turn on his air conditioning. They share a few insights and he leaves. However, Seth, who, too, is recovering from a bad relationship can’t get Angie out of his mind.

For her part Angie is uninterested in Seth because there is someone else on her horizon with whom she has art in common. This man is the awesome and cool Blake (Ty Molbak) an artist that Angie wishes to exhibit in her gallery, but who is holding out for the best offers from galleries in the city. Blake wears dark glasses to fuel his image. He manipulates Angie and claims that she will have to “woo” him before he exhibits in the gallery.

Nonna, like a fairy godmother who is gentle, funny and sweet, guides Angie and encourages her against Blake and toward Seth. Of course our own weaknesses sometimes lead us to be enamored of individuals who will hurt us, and reject others for whom we are well- suited. Angie is initially attracted to Blake and assesses that Seth is not her type and his religion is a barrier which she is not interested in climbing over.

Jeremy Rishe, Lauren Singerman, The Sabbath Girl, Cary Gitter, Joe Brancato, Penguin Rep Theatre, 59E59 Theaters

(L to R): Jeremy Rishe, Lauren Singerman in ‘The Sabbath Girl, by Cary Gitter, directed by Joe Brancato at 59E59 Theaters (Carol Rosegg)

How the playwright turns these developments on their head becomes the focal point in the action, with complications added by Rachel (Lauren Singerman) Seth’s sister after Angie begins to return Seth’s interest in her. Rachel is another aspect and voice of traditionalism. But unlike Nonna, hers is predicated not on love, but on fear. On the one hand, she wants her brother to move on with life after his divorce and dismiss the recriminations he feels against his parents who forced a marriage on him that he lacked the courage to prevent. Yet, traditionally, she believes Seth should be with a nice, safe, Orthodox Jewish girl, and she has the right woman for him. Furthermore, Rachel’s interference in her brother’s life is rather witchy. She discourages his interest in Angie and encourages him to return to his community in Riverdale that he moved away from prompted by the negativity and depression of his divorce.

Another complication is Blake’s facade of unreality. It masks his troubled nature and his doubts about where he is going with his art. Ultimately, when he is unmasked, his artistic ambivalence and his relationship with another woman deep six his moving forward with Angie as a love interest and as an exhibiting artist. It appears that despite Nonna’s good will, cheerfulness and her advice to Angie about hearing the music of love, her granddaughter is going to be alone. Indeed, both Seth and Blake turn away from her.

Jeremy Rishe, Lauren Annunziata, The Sabbath Girl,Cary Gitter, Joe Brancato, Penguin Rep Theatre, 59E59 Theaters

(L to R): Lauren Annunziata, Jeremy Rishe in ‘The Sabbath Girl, by Cary Gitter, directed by Joe Brancato at 59E59 Theaters (Carol Rosegg)

This is no spoiler alert. You will just have to see this endearing romantic comedy to discover how Gitter resolves the conflicts and discovers answers for those who are bound by traditions whether self-imposed or externally imposed by cultural mores that perhaps are less stringent than one might imagine. One has only to test the boundaries of love to understand whether such external mores enhance living as they are supposed to, or nullify it which runs counter to love. Also, one must reject the traditionalism of believing if love failed once, it will fail again because one is incapable of finding it. Sometimes, love arrives in the most surprising ways.

The ensemble brings home the laughter seamlessly and the jokes centered about being Jewish and Jewish men are particularly hysterical. For the staging (set design by Christopher and Justin Swader) boxes are employed to suggest Angie’s apartment, Seth and Rachel’s Knish shop, the gallery and more. The presentation is supplemented by apt video projections and music between various scene changes in an interesting, fanciful way. The props that serve to key in changes in the development of Angie’s relationship with Seth and Blake are well appointed and symbolic.

Gitter’s themes about love transcending internal and external traditions are important reminders in this social time of divides: progressive vs. reactionary. By the end of the play, Angie learns that Nonna was more progressive than Angie thought she was because of Angie’s inflexibility about relaxing her perceptions of men. Likewise, Rachel is taught a lesson by her brother and learns to relax her own inflexibility as Seth begins to hope his life will turn away from despair.

Kudos to the creative team who brought Brancato’s vision of Gitter’s humorous play to the stage: Christopher & Justin Swader (scenic designers) Gregory Gale (costume designer) Todd O. Wren (lighting designer) Matt Otto (original music/sound designer) Yana Birÿkova (projection designer) Buffy Cardoza (properties).

The Sabbath Girl is just what is needed to brighten our hearts and spirits during the doldrums of February. You may see The Sabbath Girl at 59E59 Theaters (59E59th St. between Madison and Park) before it closes on 8th March. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.

 

 

 

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‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,’ A Musical Comedy Based on the Titular Motion Picture

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Jonathan Marc Sherman, Duncan Sheik, Amanda Green Kelly Devine, Scott Elliott, Jennifer Damiano Jamie Mohamdein, Anna Nogueria, Joél Pérez, Suzanne Vega, Michael Zegen,

Joél Pérez, Anna Nogueira, Jennifer Damiano, Michael Zegen in ‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,’ based on the Columbia Pictures motion picture written by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker, music by Duncan Sheik, book by Jonathan Marc Sherman, lyrics by Duncan Sheik and A Asmanda Green, musical staging by Kelly Devine, direted by Scott Elliott at the Pershing Square Signature Center (Monique Carboni)

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice based on the Columbia Pictures film written by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker, with music by Duncan Sheik, book by Jonathan Marc Sherman and lyrics by Duncan Sheik and Amanda Green is a lightly satiric, musical comedy, with mellow, soulful  music. The production, like its titular film counterpart, hearkens back to an easier time before AIDS, STDS, the debacle of the Viet Nam War and the cultural stresses afterward, when the country faced chaotic divisiveness that was not easily answered by later political administrations.

Directed by Scott Elliott, the production is a delight with adorable actors portraying the thirty-something married couples Carol (Jennifer Damiano) and Bob (Joél Pérez), Ted (Michael Zegen) and Alice (Ana Nogueira) who try to redefine themselves according to the hot pants, younger generational trends which tout the rejection of binding sexual mores and strictures.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Jonathan Marc Sherman, Duncan Sheik, Amanda Green Kelly Devine, Scott Elliott, Jennifer Damiano Jamie Mohamdein, Anna Nogueria, Joél Pérez, Suzanne Vega, Michael Zegen,

(L to ): Joél Pérez, Jennifer Damiano ‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,’ based on the Columbia Pictures motion picture written by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker, music by Duncan Sheik, book by Jonathan Marc Sherman, lyrics by Duncan Sheik and Amanda Green, musical staging by Kelly Devine, direted by Scott Elliott at the Pershing Square Signature Center (Monique Carboni)

This was the time of open marriages, when free love was being embraced as revelational. Various generations either looked askance in horror or savored the sex with hallucinogens and weed. So instead of rotting in aging and being left behind, Bob and Carol take a break from the kids, go to a New Age type resort, and embrace the “new” concepts of this inner freedom and tranquility.

Bob and Carol begin the arc of the story development and conflicts after they return from their growth experience at the retreat (like Esalen) led by the director (who is also the band leader) portrayed by Suzanne Vega. The experience “opens” them up to a new world of freedom using the techniques we have all come to know today (meditation, primal screams, intense feeling expressions, etc.).

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Jonathan Marc Sherman, Duncan Sheik, Amanda Green Kelly Devine, Scott Elliott, Jennifer Damiano Jamie Mohamdein, Anna Nogueria, Joél Pérez, Suzanne Vega, Michael Zegen,

(L to ): Joél Pérez, Jennifer Damiano ‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,’ based on the Columbia Pictures motion picture written by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker, music by Duncan Sheik, book by Jonathan Marc Sherman, lyrics by Duncan Sheik and Amanda Green, musical staging by Kelly Devine, direted by Scott Elliott at the Pershing Square Signature Center (Monique Carboni)

They return home believing that the experience translates into their daily lives by allowing them to understand their values, their “ethos,” and their capacity to break away into new experiences. Of course one of the most important is extending the boundaries of their marriage and expanding themselves to include acceptance of their partner’s actions whatever they may be. Bob initiates this extension by having sex, in an unfaithful act, which surprisingly Carol accepts and answers with one of her own. Both affirm, “It was just sex, not love.”

For Ted and Alice who essentially watch and don’t indulge, their learning is vicarious, but they can’t move beyond the boundaries of their own morals and sensibility of love. They judgmentally remain within the strictures of their marriage vows and monogamy. The contrast between the two couples is telling: here are the liberals and the conservatives. But beneath each conservative heart is the quest to be liberal. And in this production, it is no less so.

Suzanne Vega, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Jonathan Marc Sherman, Duncan Sheik, Amanda Green Kelly Devine, Scott Elliott,

Suzanne Vega in ‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,’ based on the Columbia Pictures motion picture written by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker, music by Duncan Sheik, book by Jonathan Marc Sherman, lyrics by Duncan Sheik and Amanda Green, musical staging by Kelly Devine, direted by Scott Elliott at the Pershing Square Signature Center (Monique Carboni)

As you watch the events unfold and empathize with the characters along their journeys of self-discovery, you can’t help but fall a bit in love with them. They are so cute in their questioning searches as they soldier on to their discoveries with quasi-comical seriousness. Watching liberal couple Bob and Carol explore the outer limits of love and marriage, extramarital affairs, infidelity, sexuality and enlightened contrast between love and sex, we are along for their ride because it is neither shocking nor lustful, nor pornographic. It just is.

Considering what has transpired between then (1969) and now, the perniciousness of sexual plagues and wildness of  Studio 54 that gave rise to them, which followed the “free love” generation, by comparison, these couples are sweet neophytes. The production mirrors this laid-back pleasantness in mood and tone delivered by Sheik’s balancing music, sung with fluidity,  smoothness and grace by Grammy winner Suzanne Vega, and with melodic lyricism by the ensemble.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Jonathan Marc Sherman, Duncan Sheik, Amanda Green Kelly Devine, Scott Elliott, Jennifer Damiano Jamie Mohamdein, Anna Nogueria, Joél Pérez, Suzanne Vega, Michael Zegen,

(L to R): Jennifer Daimiano, Joél Pérez, Anna Nogueira,, Michael Zegen in ‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,’ based on the Columbia Pictures motion picture written by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker, music by Duncan Sheik, book by Jonathan Marc Sherman, lyrics by Duncan Sheik and Amanda Green, musical staging by Kelly Devine, direted by Scott Elliott at the Pershing Square Signature Center (Monique Carboni)

The characters’ “new” sexual endeavors infuse the production with the mild raciness of the 1969 film. The original which spawned a later TV show was a comedy satire about the cultural mores transformation. A success at the box office, it did have Oscar-winning nominations for the actors who played Ted (Elliot Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon).

Overall, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is a retrospective and homage to the the culture and class who merely dipped lightly in with their toes as they approached the swirling currents of social change. They accomplished just enough to stimulate themselves, then slid back into their comfort zones measuring their lives with coffee spoons as they dabbled with introspection.

Ana Nogueira, Jennifer Damiano, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Jonathan Marc Sherman, Duncan Sheik, Amanda Green Kelly Devine, Scott Elliott,

(L to R): Ana Nogueira, Jennifer Damiano in ‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,’ based on the Columbia Pictures motion picture written by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker, music by Duncan Sheik, book by Jonathan Marc Sherman, lyrics by Duncan Sheik and Amanda Green, musical staging by Kelly Devine, direted by Scott Elliott at the Pershing Square Signature Center (Monique Carboni)

Sheik’s music and the ironic Suzanne Vega as band leader, “mistress of ceremonies” reintroduce for our time a derivation of pop’s easy listening. As the overarching guiding light of threaded musical commentary, Suzanne Vega’s lilting, sensuous voice reveals these four characters as she editorializes their journey beginning with Bob and Carol’s stay at the retreat and their “enlightened” return when they share their enlivening experiences with their conservative friends Ted and Alice.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Jonathan Marc Sherman, Duncan Sheik, Amanda Green Kelly Devine, Scott Elliott, Jennifer Damiano Jamie Mohamdein, Anna Nogueria, Michael Zegen,

Ana Nogueira, Michael Zegen in ‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,’ based on the Columbia Pictures motion picture written by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker, music by Duncan Sheik, book by Jonathan Marc Sherman, lyrics by Duncan Sheik and Amanda Green, musical staging by Kelly Devine, direted by Scott Elliott at the Pershing Square Signature Center (Monique Carboni

But as the bonds between the couples loosen, the audience becomes intrigued. Ted and Alice warm up to their friends’ “exploits.” Bob and Carol appear sophisticated, cool and free in their “open” marriage. The men and women separately sing about and discuss their sexuality and their spouses which leads each to consider their lives with their partners. The songs eventually reveal that each couple is inspired to reaffirm their love for each other.

But we know what’s coming: “monkey see, monkey do”! Humorously, the two couples push the envelope by spending a night together in the bedroom with interesting results. Ultimately, they discover the vitality of loving one individual with intimacy and true spiritual bonding which can only happen when each member of the couple reveals that they are vulnerable and need help to receive the intimacy and beauty of love from their spouse.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Jonathan Marc Sherman, Duncan Sheik, Amanda Green Kelly Devine, Scott Elliott, Jennifer Damiano Jamie Mohamdein, Anna Nogueria, Joél Pérez, Suzanne Vega, Michael Zegen,

‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,’ based on the Columbia Pictures motion picture written by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker, music by Duncan Sheik, book by Jonathan Marc Sherman, lyrics by Duncan Sheik and Amanda Green, musical staging by Kelly Devine, direted by Scott Elliott at the Pershing Square Signature Center (Monique Carboni)

The production works on many levels and is just what is needed at this time and place in a tumultuous social and political fabric that is too frightening to contemplate and whose nightly news and snarky, edgy, social and cultural reports are the antithesis of entertainment. Thus, the concept of “the open marriage” which Bob and Carol investigate with Ted and Alice with the quips and satiric jokes laced in with clever writing by Jonathan Marc Sherman’s book becomes a relief.

There is no heavy lifting here, nothing more profound and mysterious than how and why we fall in love with each other which is a wonderful “thing” to contemplate. It is this that engages us and immerses us with this throwback to another time. And as we contemplate and review this historical retrospective of the social and cultural mores of that time, we also enjoy the costumes and the California dreaming liquidity of the music so we are able to ride on the waves of the production’s serenity.

The ensemble and director have established the right tenor for the comedic elements. And Sheik’s music is subtly, appropriately emotional as the characters search themselves and each other to understand the mysteries of love.

Special kudos to Kelly Devine’s musical staging and to the following creatives: Derek McLane (scenic design) Jeff Mahshie (costume design) Jeff Croiter (lighting design) Jessica Paz (sound design). Additional kudos to Duncan Sheik for the orchestrations, Jason Hart for music supervision, vocal arrangements and additional orchestrations and Antoine Silverman for music coordination.

The New Group’s presentation of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice runs with no intermission until 22nd March. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.

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‘The Commons’ by Lily Akerman at 59E59 Theaters

Julia Greer, Olivia Khoshatefeh, Ben Newman, Ben Katz, The Commons, Lily Akerman, Emma Miller, 59E59 Theaters

(L to R): Julia Greer, Olivia Khoshatefeh, Ben Newman, Ben Katz, ‘The Commons,’ written by Lily Akerman, directed by Emma Miller, at 59E59 Theaters (Carol Rosegg)

How does one survive in New York City without being subsidized by one’s parents while making a modest income to pay the rent on a 300 square foot studio that is half of one’s income? One has housemates. That way one can afford a larger space at a reduced cost and actually be able to enjoy a finer lifestyle. There are problems, though. As the human numbers augument to share the space, conflicts arise as each must accommodate and subvert their own idiosyncrasies and proclivities to compromise with their housemates, especially when sharing the common areas (kitchen, bathroom, etc.). In the mix and melding of personalities who live together, what can result may be funny, dramatic or challenging, but it is never dull. And for some it sure beats living ALONE!

Ben Katz, Olivia Khoshatefeh, The Commons, Lily Akerman, Emma Miller, 59E59 Theaters

Ben Katz, Olivia Khoshatefeh in ‘The Commons,’ by Lily Akerman, directed by Emma Miller at 59E59 Theaters (Carol Rosegg)

Lily Akerman’s World Premiere comedy The Commons, presented by The Hearth and directed by Emma Miller, explores what happens when particular housemates attempt to survive in an environment of diminishing resources and increasingly complex habitats with limited space. In the play we note how the living situation becomes pressurized and the individuals become stressed by the mundane ordinary. Miniscule issues balloon to paramount proportion when housemates attempt to share responsibilities though there is no one in the lead and all must decide by gaining consensus. Housemates must “take up the slack” for each other, set rules, then hold each other accountable when there are violations. Something as simple as doing the dishes or making bread takes on significant heft and can cause hurt feelings and oppressed wills, unless individuals have the maturity and equanimity to reach viable agreements.

Julia Greer, Olivia Khoshatefeh, The Commons, Lily Akerman, Emma Miller, 59E59 Theaters

(L to R): Julia Greer, Olivia Khoshatefeh in ‘The Commons,’ by Lily Akerman, directed by Emma Miller at 59E59 Theaters (Carol Rosegg)

Akerman examines four characters Robyn (Ben Newman) Janira (Olivia Khoshatefeh) Dee (Julia Greer) and Cliff (Ben Katz) and sets them interacting with and against each other as they confront homely situations like cleaning, dish washing, making bread and struggling against a mouse invasion. Akerman adds a fifth character, Anna (Olivia Abiassi) who is a romantic interest for Cliff. Anna’s brief visit convolutes the mix of personalities who already strain to get along. None of the housemates are friends, so it becomes an unusual occasion when they decide to go out to a bar together and in another segment let loose and dance their stress away.

The vitality and comedy of the production resides in the fine acting of the ensemble who make the most seemingly ridiculous superficialities (a dirty stovetop burner) of mega importance with authenticity, as if the issue was a matter of “life and death.” The humor of dealing with a mouse that had to be killed and the tragedy of the creature losing its life as memorialized by Janira (Koshatefeh does a wonderful job with this comedic bit) is marvelous.

Julia Greer, Ben Newman, Ben Katz, The Commons, Lily Akerman, Emma Miller, 59E59 Theaters

(L to R): Ben Katz, Ben Newman, Julia Greer in ‘The Commons,’ written by Lily Akerman, directed by Emma Miller, at 59E59 Theaters (Carol Rosegg)

As we chortle at the characters having to deal with their particular angst at the problem of living with others, we can’t help but note that their embroilios are telling. The common areas are the centers which carry the stress when a particular housemate like Cliff or Janira don’t act with accountability to the “whole.” As housemates attempt to resolve the issues the comedy rises and we identify with how humans act and react with guilt, excuses, judgment, subterfuge and inner upset as they attempt to manipulate the situation to their own satisfaction. Also, the philosophical approaches of each of the housemates become superimposed on the living situation for each. This is especially ironic as Robyn expresses his opinion that living with housemates communally is healthier than couples living and raising their family in isolation.

Aikerman’s play however, is about much more than the characters attempting to work out their living arrangements with compromises, meetings and rules enforcements. It is a metaphor for how we adjust to others “living on top of us” as sources and space diminish and we must decide whether we should open our borders or close them, accept refugees to forestall the humanitarian crisis or let them perish or ignore  those who have been victimized by their own birth in third world countries. The Commons in microcosm is representative of the macrocosm. Behind the comedy bits and vignettes involving each of the characters in the hot seat, is the presentation of larger themes that Akerman highlights for all of us, whether we live in crowded cities with sparse affordable housing or less densely populated rural areas that hold few opportunities.

Ben Newman, Ben Katz, The Commons, Lily Akerman, Emma Miller, 59E59 Theaters

Ben Newman, Ben Katz in ‘The Commons,’ by Lily Akerman, directed by Emma Miller at 59E59 Theaters (Carol Rosegg)

Some of these questions follow on a symbolic level:  In the looming portent of climate change relocation, how will populations accommodate each other as refugees move from areas of devastation? How will dwindling resources prompted by global warming and weather weirding impact societies, turning the haves against the have nots who knock at their doors for help? Will cultures readily share or will there be genocide of ethnic groups? Do ethics and morality abide if leaders ignore human standards of right and wrong and replace them with money and power as the enforcement of decision making? Will everyone benefit if cultures shift to a “might is right” ethos or is that one more way of introducing self-destruction into the parameters of global reorganization necessitated by climate chaos which is already manifesting?

The Commons at its funniest reveals the base responses and reactions of housemates accused of their mistakes which are funny because they are exaggerated. But what becomes obvious is the dynamic of accountability. The housemates are accountable and responsible to each other. Selfishness no longer cuts it when one’s dishes are always left clogging up the sink and one is gobbling down another’s food because he or she forgot to go shopping. The results are humorous. But the underbelly of this is dark. In order to survive and thrive, we must live with each other and be responsible for our own actions as we contribute to the goodness of everyone else. Only by doing that do we all make our lives purposeful and valuable.

To fully appreciate Akerman’s larger themes, one must lift The Commons above the characters’ petty details to note the moral treatises underneath. Like the housemates who adjust to each other and hold each other accountable for their actions and “pull together,” so must we as nations globally do our part as contributors to each others’ greater good. Shirking our responsibility through science denial, moral and ethical turpitude, and negligence will only come back to haunt us in the end.

Kudos to the creative design team with scenic design by Emma Finckel, costume design by Dara Affholter, lighting design by Victoria Bain and sound design by Caroline Eng. The Commons runs with no intermission at 59E59 Theaters until 23rd February. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.

 

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‘Grand Horizons,’ a Ferociously Funny Vision of Senior Redefinition, Starring Jane Alexander and James Cromwell

Grand Horizons, Ashley Park, Michael Urie, Jane Alexander, James Cromwell, Bess Wohl, Leigh Silverman, 2NDSTAGE

(L to R): Ashley Park, Michael Urie, Jane Alexander, James Cromwell in ‘Grand Horizons,’ by Bess Wohl, directed by Leigh Silverman (Joan Marcus)

At last! There’s a new and improved perspective of “seniorhood” that doesn’t include steps up the ladder of infirmity and dementia: from independent living to the “Rose Court,” from memory care to the palliative slip-away into Hospice.  Indeed, as we appreciate and glory over the vibrant humor and comedic power of situation and characters in Bess Wohl’s Grand Horizons, we learn a thing or two about “old folks” and “the younger generation” in this rollicking yet profound play.

First, age is attitude. Second, the older one becomes, the more one must think outside of the box, especially out of the type found in replicated, independent living housing. Third, the closer one gets to the “end,” the more one should “rage against the dying of the light.” Fourth, one can experience in one’s later years a vision of life that is freeing, one that destroys the cages we created our entire lives: for they are a mere facsimile of living. Indeed, contrary to seniors who settle for the cardboard, cookie-cutter artificiality of existence in vegetative, pre-fabricated places like Grand Horizons, Wohl reveals that it is possible to make life-affirming changes even at the age of 80 years-old as does her protagonist, Nancy, the amazing Jane Alexander.

Michael Urie, Maulik Pancholy, Grand Horizons, Ashley Park, Michael Urie, Jane Alexander, James Cromwell, Bess Wohl, Leigh Silverman, 2NDSTAGE

Michael Urie, Maulik Pancholy in ‘Grand Horizons,’ by Bess Wohl, directed by Leigh Silverman (Joan Marcus)

The playwright’s brilliant script is cleverly paced by Leigh Silverman’s precise direction of the superb ensemble. Masters of the comedy of real, of humor springing from grounded, soulful authenticity, the actors led by Jane Alexander and James Crowmwell pop the quips, jokes, one-liners, twists and turns of phrase and mood to keep the audience laughter rolling in waves of joy. Wohl’s well-crafted writing absolutely sings with comedic grace and profound themes, sharply channeled by Silverman. These include the importance of breaking through the stereotypical concepts of aging, family, parenting, marriage, love, intimacy, individuality and autonomy.

The play’s situation is common enough. Nancy and Bill, a “typical,” retired, fifty-year married couple have taken the next steps toward their journey’s end by moving into an independent senior living community. Is it the replication of row after row of modestly, flimsily built homes in a vast similitude (Bryce Cutler’s projection design) that sets off Nancy? Or perhaps what triggers her is the whitewashed, pleasant kitchen/dining nook/living room interior of “peaceful” uniformity (Clint Ramos’ set design) though it is festooned by artificial greenery.

Grand Horizons, Ashley Park, Michael Urie, Jane Alexander, James Cromwell, Bess Wohl, Leigh Silverman, 2NDSTAGE

Jane Alexander, James Cromwell in ‘Grand Horizons,’ by Bess Wohl, directed by Leigh Silverman (Joan Marcus)

We learn later in a profound and symbolic irony, that the lovely plants don’t even have the opportunity to die bio-dynamically as a result of Nancy’s over or under watering. They just go on and on and on in lifeless “eternity.” Nancy’s eyes open to their fake permanence later in the play, after she has confronted herself, her children and Bill with the truth. Her ironic comment about their artificiality has to do with the realizations of her own growth.

The vast sterility of this community is only heightened by the play’s opening of Nancy’s and Bill’s dinner that is choreographed to reveal a mutually synchronized preparation that they execute silently with near robotic precision. Well, enough is enough in this perfect haven of deadness. I could hear Nancy’s thoughts as she looked at Bill as they, with synced movements in unison, took out their napkins, then began to drink and eat. What more could anyone their age wish want? They appear to have it all. But is this the exuberance of life we wish for?

At this point Alexander’s Nancy lets the desires of her heart explode from her lips and the train moves onto the express track and doesn’t stop until she achieves what she wants, sort of, by the play’s end. Jane Alexander’s delivery of the opening lines of conflict are spot-on humorous and ominous: “I think I want a divorce.”

Ben McKenzie, Grand Horizons, Ashley Park, Michael Urie, Jane Alexander, James Cromwell, Bess Wohl, Leigh Silverman, 2NDSTAGE

Ashley Park, Ben McKenzie in ‘Grand Horizons,’ by Bess Wohl, directed by Leigh Silverman (Joan Marcus)

The excitement of what Nancy envisions to be on her grand horizon for the future is in imagining its open-ended possibilities, even if it is merely sitting in a restaurant and enjoying a meal by herself. Clearly, she wants no more imprisonment by the chains of coupling. She wants to know her own power, strength and autonomy apart from defining herself as Bill’s wife. As the play progresses, we discover she has already established her autonomy away from her family, though she has kept it secret. Interestingly, perhaps as a long awaited response, Bill is striking out on his own in this senior community by taking stand up comedy classes and enjoying a relationship with Carla (Priscilla Lopez). We learn later that this may be his response to what he has known all along of Nancy’s secrets.

As these details are gradually revealed we enjoy watching the incredulous sons, Brian (the wonderfully funny Michael Urie) and Ben (Ben McKenzie is the harried lawyer control freak who can’t relax). Both are shattered by the announcement of the divorce. Ironically, they don’t want their parents to leave their comfortable “mom” and “dad” roles to be individuals, redefining who they want to be. They want stasis, not for their parents’ happiness but for their own comfort and assurance. Brian’s and Ben’s perceptions of their parents living apart from each other are at odds with their parents’ expectations. For Nancy and Bill divorce will be a positive experience. The sons cannot wrap their heads around this, especially that Nancy is planning to live in an Air Bnb. Their mom in an Air BnB: a horror!

Priscilla Lopez, Jane Alexander, Grand Horizons, Bess Wohl, Leigh Silverman

(L to R): Priscella Lopez, Jane Alexander in ‘Grand Horizons,’ by Bess Wohl, directed by Leigh Silverman (Joan Marcus)

Wohl takes advantage of this set-up in a refreshing way. In an ironic reversal, with the help of Jess (Ashley Park) Ben’s wife, Brian and Ben don the parental roles. They attempt to gauge what has recently happened, as they try  to square away what mom and dad must do to resurrect the bloom on their long-dead marriage. Their failed attempts are humorous. Adroitly, the actors bounce off each of their characters’ stress-filled emotions with peppery dynamism and wit.

Brian’s neediness is easily identifiable throughout and is integral to his character as a theater teacher who creates 200 characters in The Crucible so “no kid will be left behind to feel left out.” It is Brian who is so dislocated by his parents’ future divorce, he worries about where he will spend Thanksgiving which is six months away. His sensitivity exceeds his parents’ emotionalism. The dichotomy is hysterical, yet heartfelt.

Michael Urie, Grand Horizons, Bess Wohl, Lee Silverman, 2NDSTAGE

Michael Urie in ‘Grand Horizons,’ by Bess Wohl, directed by Leigh Silverman (Joan Marcus)

Ben’s eczema flares as he attempts to take control of where each of his parents will live. And then there is Jess providing the counseling so Nancy and Bill can return to their once affectionate times with each other. With Ben and Brian looking on with hope at Jess’ powers, the results that follow are riotous. As their visit with Bill and Nancy to persuade them not to divorce lengthens, Jess begins to look at her relationship with Ben differently as he reverts to Bill and Nancy’s son. Where has her husband gone or is this just hormones because she is pregnant?

The resistance of the younger generation to the divorce is a powerful obstacle which the parents find impossible to answer to their children’s’ satisfaction. It provides conflicts among the characters from which Wohl tweaks and teases thematic tropes. What are the phases and stages of our lives? How do we define them apart from cultural stereotypes and familiar roles that appear to offer comfort, but are actually binding and nullifying? What price do we pay to create our families and sacrifice for children with expectations that are unreasonable, or worse, false? From parenting to aging, no one can provide a guideline for what to do that will resonate completely with our individual lives. Every family, every person in that family is different. We fail, but perhaps it is worth it because we learn and if we are open to it, we heal.

Nancy’s desire for a divorce sets the entire family roiling except for Bill, who appears to remain calm. Of course Wohl is always pushing the envelope to get the maximum surprise and intrigue from her characters, who remain interesting and intensely human.

James Cromwell, Jane Alexander, Grand Horizons, Bess Wohl, Leigh Silverman, 2NDSTAGE

James Cromwell, Jane Alexander in ‘Grand Horizons,’ by Bess Wohl, directed by Leigh Silverman (Joan Marcus)

The audience’s gales of laughter organically spring from Nancy’s revelations that she has pursued her desires and dreams despite the intrusions of raising her two sons and making a home for her husband Bill. Indeed, the mother they believed she was, is not who she presented herself to be. She had another love. And when she expresses the importance of her closeness and intimacy with this lover to Brian (Urie brings down the house with his responses to her sexual descriptions) in the hope of explaining why she is leaving Bill, he cannot cope with understanding that his mother is perhaps a woman first.

This is something many children have difficulty with unless the parents, with good will and flexibility, help them to understand love, sexuality and intimacy. Bill and Nancy never considered going into these discussions with Brian and Ben because they never went there with each other. It is a telling irony that catches up with all of them at this juncture.

Clearly, Nancy runs deep as does Bill, who is a cypher that Wohl reveals by the conclusion, when we learn that both Bill and Nancy have kept intimacies and secrets to themselves. Yet, they do love one another. The humor and pathos come when we note how difficult it is for Ben and Brian to understand their parent’s particularities when they believed the packaged family meme that “togetherness is happiness.” That meme when they admit it, satisfied none of them, least of all their parents.

All of this eventually tumbles out after Brian, Ben and Jess visit, stay and don’t leave until Bill and Nancy politely tell them to go and reassure them that they are going to be all right. By the end of the play, Wohl opens the door to hope. Even if they live apart, maybe Bill and Nancy can begin to see each other outside of the roles that threatened to box them in “til death did them part.”

Grand Horizons is a mixture of uproarious fun and thoughtful poignance. Shepherded by Leigh Silverman’s vision the actors deliver, with sterling performances by Alexander and Cromwell and with high marks for McKenzie, Urie, Park and in secondary roles as Tommy (Maulik Pancholy) and Carla (Priscilla Lopez). Additional kudos to the creative team:  Clint Ramos (scenic design) Linda Cho (costume design) Jen Schriever (lighting design) Palmer Hefferan (sound design) Bryce Cutler (production design).

Grand Horizons runs with one intermission at Second Stage Theater, The Helen Hayes Theater on 44th Street between 7th and 8th until March 1. For tickets and times to this LOL production CLICK HERE.

 

 

‘A Soldier’s Play,’ Bravura Performances by Blair Underwood and David Alan Grier

David Alan Grier, Blair Underwood, Billy Eugene Jones, A Soldier's Play, Charles Fuller, Kenny Leon Roundabout Theatre Company

(L to R): David Alan Grier, Blair Underwood, Billy Eugene Jones in ‘A Soldier’s Play, by Charles Fuller, directed by Kenny Leon, Roundabout Theatre Company, American Airlines Theatre (Joan Marcus)

When the Negro Ensemble Company presented Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play in its Off Broadway premiere in 1981, the production garnered a number of theater awards and Fuller won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama the following year. Norman Jewison directed the film version retitled A Soldier’s Story in 1984 where it was nominated for numerous awards. It has been produced in two revivals Off Broadway in subsequent decades. At last Fuller’s searing, profound work about race prejudice internalized has received its premiere on Broadway, thirty-nine years later. It is currently running at American Airlines Theatre.

With exceptional direction by the amazing Kenny Leon (Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare in the Park 2019) and sterling ensemble work headed up with masterful performances by David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood, A Soldier’s Play has come to Broadway with vibrant force and vigor. The dramatic arc of development revolves around solving a murder mystery. The body of Tech/Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (David Alan Grier portrays the unlikable, brutal, tragic Sergeant) is found with two bullet holes. The murder case is solved through flashbacks of scenes during the testimony of witnesses, narration and scenes unfolding in the present day 1944, Fort Neal, Louisiana.

David Alan Grier, A Soldier's Play, Charles Fuller, Kenny Leon, Roundabout Theatre Company

David Alan Grier in ‘A Soldier’s Play,’ by Charles Fuller, directed by Kenny Leon, Roundabout Theatre Company, American Airlines Theatre (Joan Marcus)

Captain Charles Taylor (Jerry O’Connell in a fine performance) and his superiors take precautions with the men of Waters’ platoon Company B, 221st Chemical Smoke Generating Company. They fear that Waters’ men may engage in revenge killings against red necks in the area of Fort Neal, Louisiana. It is not clear at the outset, but Waters may have been lynched by the KKK or good ole boys who intend to keep blacks bowing and scraping. Until his murder is investigated, and more is discovered about what may have happened, Waters’ men are guarded by MPs who surround their barracks so that none of them get entangled with white townspeople. Private Hensen suggests that the Klan killed Waters because lynchings have been happening since he arrived at Fort Neal. But he may have been murdered by white officers in a racial killing. As a result, commanding officers on the base have given the case a “low priority status,” and are ready to sweep all they discover under the rug.

The consideration makes sense in 1944 during WW II. At the Fort Neal and on every base in the U.S. military, black and white soldiers are segregated in their living quarters, platoons and companies. Service in the military is as discriminatory as the “separate but equal” oppressions of the Jim Crow South. In the day to day operations, the black companies are detailed with doing the scut work and menial assignments in order to confirm that they are the inferior race. Indeed, the men have not yet been sent to Europe to fight. This is another racist assumption that they cannot be trusted, but fit the stereotypic mischaracterization of blacks being lazy, shiftless, mentally slow and cowardly.

Fuller’s play focuses on the nullifying effects of racism as blacks attempt to rise in a culture that oppresses them, and counter-productively rejects or ignores their gifts and contributions. Using the lens of the past during WWII and the backdrop of segregation in the military, Fuller brilliantly emphasizes the psychological impacts of racism which creates annihilating divisions not only between blacks and whites, but especially between blacks and blacks. An inferred theme is that as the fascist Nazis did for Germany, these behaviors also, are  incredibly destructive to “the master race.”

Blair Underwood, A Soldier's Play, Charles Fuller, David Alan Grier, Kenny Leon, Roundabout Theatre Company

Blair Underwood in ‘A Soldier’s Play,’ by Charles Fuller, directed by Kenny Leon, Roundabout Theatre Company, American Airlines Theatre (Joan Marcus)

Fuller’s play reveals a richness of themes, characterizations and conflicts that timelessly reflect great currency for us today with underlying institutional racism and the increasing evidence of racism unleashed by the White House. Fuller also digs deeply into the black on black abuse and crime that evidences the internalization of white oppression and denigrating values and attitudes that blacks unconsciously accept as they seek to redefine themselves culturally apart from the mordant ethics of white culture.

Leon, highlights these themes with his superb direction and vision of Fuller’s play. His is a fascinating and nuanced iteration that includes symbolism and foreshadowing manifested by Allen Lee Hughes’ lighting design and the music rendered in song by the on-point cast, elucidated by the excellent sound design of Dan Moses Schreier. At appropriate junctures in the production, beginning from the outset, Leon has the soldiers in Company B sing. We come to understand later that they are mourning one of their own. The music ties them together in a unity that cannot be breached by the racist white officers.

However, this unity must be breached by Captain Richard Davenport (Blair Underwood) a lawyer assigned to the 343 Military Police Corp Unit, if he is to discover who murdered Waters. In a devastatingly powerful, psychologically sensitive and heartfelt performance, Underwood introduces us to the racial dynamic he must confront as he analyzes the situation with objective tolerance, restraint and courage. It is an irony that in Davenport’s encounters with white officers, who would abuse his rank and his education, he stands his own ground with dignity and grace, employing the full force of his culture’s weapons (including a rumor that Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall is behind the investigation). No publicity is good publicity; if the case, which has been given low priority, is not handled properly, it could embarrass the military in a time of war.

Jerry O'Connell, Blair Underwood, Roundabout Theatre Company, A Soldier's Play, Charles Fuller, Kenny Leon

Jerry O’Connell, Blair Underwood in ‘A Soldier’s Play,’ by Charles Fuller, directed by Kenny Leon, Roundabout Theatre Company, American Airlines Theatre (Joan Marcus)

Davenport, who is a maverick outlier, confounds the racist military officers who don’t know what to do with him and how to behave around him. He is a confident, self-realized, unbowed black man who is educationally superior to them, having achieved a law degree in addition to four years of college. Davenport’s talking “like a white man” and his staid nature and inner power particularly annoy Captain Taylor who dislikes that Davenport outranks him in intelligence and education, though they are on equal footing as Captains.

They disagree continually about Davenport’s mission, his competence, his confidence bucking the system and his insistence in interrogating and arresting white officers who might be charged with Waters’ murder. Underwood’s Davenport and O’Connell’s Taylor are authentic in their head-to-head arguments which intensify as Davenport incisively moves through his investigation. Both actors contribute to creating suspense and heightening the themes about why Waters was murdered, which gives rise to the underlying psychological and racial components that his murder reveals.

Rob Demery, J. Alphonse Nicholson, McKinley Belcher III, A Soldier's Play, Roundabout Theatre Company, Charles Fuller, Kenny Leon

(L to R): J. Alphonse Nicholson, Rob Demery, McKinley Belcher III in ‘A Soldier’s Play,’ by Charles Fuller, directed by Kenny Leon, Roundabout Theatre Company, American Airlines Theatre (Joan Marcus)

Fuller’s depth of characterization, his wisdom and his clear-eyed perception of what it means to be black in the military and in America then and now is only enhanced and codified in this insightful rendering shepherded by Kenny Leon to perfection. Each of the relationships between and among the enlisted soldiers of Company B, Waters and the white officers reflect explosive, vital issues. The irony of the setting is that America, which is mandated to fight and destroy fascism, of course refuses to adequately confront its racist fascism at home. The white culture forces susceptible blacks to obviate their own identity and culture to embrace white culture to “thrive.” Of course by doing this, blacks must reject their own people, their own very being as they internalize the value of being white and act white to get ahead, destroying their very valuable spirit and the soul of blackness.

This mistaken assumption is exemplified by Sergeant Waters. David Alan Grier’s perceptive understanding of Waters reveals the character’s limitations and sorrows. His cruelty toward some of the men in his company is an outgrowth of venerating white values and not defining himself as having worth apart from the white cultural “successes”. Grier’s portrayal is complex and rich with nuanced meaning. He reveals Waters’ realization of how he has destroyed himself and others as the great tragedy of the play. He is stunning and sardonic in his provocation of the white officers, and it is then we realize that he cannot get untangled from the morass he has created in abusing himself and others. He has become the epitome as the white man’s creature who perpetrates the most pernicious elements of discrimination and hatred by oppressing himself and attacking his own people.

Warner Miller, Nnamdi Asomugha, Blair Underwood, A Soldier's Play, Charles Fuller, Kenny Leon, Roundabout Theatre Company

(L to R): Warner Miller, Nnamdi Asomugha, Blair Underwood, ‘A Soldier’s Play,’ by Charles Fuller, directed by Kenny Leon, Roundabout Theatre Company (Joan Marcus)

Grier’s Waters is miserable and is looking to be put out of this hell he has created. And the execution he cannot effect for himself in a suicide, he provokes another to accomplish for him. His death is paralleled with another in the production. The other death is senseless genocide that Waters prompts, of course, because daily, Waters must cut out his black identity from his own soul. And in a twisted, passive aggressive revenge against blacks, whom he sees as not rising to the white man’s standards, he obliterates them. It is a slow, horrific process of self-destruction and fraud that the men in his company recognize, but cannot articulate. If they could they might be able to beneficially codify how to stop the genocidal practice of destroying oneself to “fit in” which Waters exemplifies.

In addition to the exceptional performances already mentioned are the performances of J. Alphonse Nicholson portraying Private C. J. Memphis and Rob Demery portraying Corporal Bernard Cobb. Nicholson’s Memphis is sensitive, loving and accepting. His speech to his close friend Corporal Cobb (who, too, is kind and elucidating) is poignant and filled with longing. We immediately understand where he is going in his life and why; his choice is symbolic and consequential; it is the cry of freedom from strictures which have so bound up Waters as to make him daily harm himself and target those like Memphis and Cobb.

The Company, A Soldier's Play, Charles Fuller, Kenny Leon, Roundabout Theatre Company

The Company in ‘A Soldier’s Play,’ by Charles Fuller, directed by Kenny Leon, Roundabout Theatre Company, American Airlines Theatre (Joan Marcus)

Waters’ act of provocation and Memphis’ act are different sides of the same coin. That their behavior is directed against themselves and the black race in genocidal acts caused by racism and fascism, runs to the soul of American and is Leon’s and Fuller’s indictment against white supremacy. Indeed, if we look hard and deep enough in our justice system, in our economic inequality, in our educational inequality, the same threads of injustice prevail today. They are frighteningly manifest in the fascism of white supremacists who look to find their “place in the sun” which they fear they have lost. It is an incredible irony considering that they are blind, deaf and dumb to their own cultural creations and backwash reflected by institutional racism and discrimination that ultimately is destroying the white culture along with the black in a nihilistic seething inhumanity.

The conclusion delivered by Underwood’s Davenport that sums up the case findings and aftermath is emotionally riveting. It is as heartfelt and poignant as Nicholson’s speech as Private C. J. Memphis. But where Memphis has chosen his decision, Davenport is both blessed and cursed with infinite understanding. Indeed, we see that his recounting of what has transpired in Fort Neal is a memorial to these individuals. Also, it is triumphant in its prophesy for the future of civil rights achievements and the hoped for end of racism and discrimination which has yet to be realized even to this day in America. And finally it is a cry of anguish from the depths of Davenport’s soul: of frustration, of anger, of a cry to the heavens for justice. The interpretations are many as a capstone to this incredible production whose themes are paramount for us today.

Thankfully, Fuller’s play and this production put these themes front and center. It is impossible not to feel them, see them, know them, especially in recognizing current attempts to destroy our imperfectly realized democratic form of government by moving it toward fascism and dictatorship.

Once again kudos to the ensemble acting whose unity and and realism helped to create a memorable, thrilling night at the theater. And kudos also go to the creative team: Derek McLane (set design) Dede Ayite (costume design) Allen Lee Hughes (lighting design) Dan Moses Schreier (sound design) Thomas Schall (fight choreographer).

The must-see A Soldier’s Play is running at American Airlines Theatre (42nd St. between 7th and 8th) with one intermission until 15 March. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘My Name is Lucy Barton,’ Laura Linney Fuels a Richness of the Titular Character With Nuanced Depth

 

Laura Linney, My Name is Lucy Barton, Richard Eyre, Rona Munro, Elizabeth Strout

Laura Linney in ‘My Name is Lucy Barton,’ by Elizabeth Strout, adapted by Rona Munro, directed by Richard Eyre, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Matthew Murphy)

In Manhattan Theatre Club’s presentation of My Name is Lucy Barton, Rona Munro’s adaptation of the bestselling novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout, nothing is obvious. Indeed, a comparison to the novel may be a misdirection from what has been achieved in this sterling production, acted in a solo performance by the unparalleled Laura Linney. Linney  flawlessly manifests director Richard Eyre’s vision for the titular character, and in doing so enhances Munro’s fine adaptation and Strout’s incredible, heart-felt characterization.

As the lights dim, we gaze upon the minimalistically staged hospital room whose large 3 D window spreads to almost cover the entire back wall, an indication of its importance to reflect Barton’s memories through three time lenses. Throughout the 90 minute play, projections of location scenes (NYC brownstone, corn/soybean fields, etc.) will splay, each enhancing and signifying Lucy Barton’s life (materially and symbolically).

When, Linney makes her entrance, stage left, her vital presence smashes through the sterility of the room and the possibilities of what being hospitalized portends. Her walk is confident, forthright, determined, with perhaps a hint of ruthlessness (this relates to what a friend told her about her career). And from that moment on, Linney secures our focus with her character’s articulate, well-hewn descriptions. She bewitches us by infusing Lucy Barton’s masterful story-telling with spot-on passion and seemingly open-hearted truthfulness. Our attention remains transfixed, throughout. And, at times, during her intimate, heartbreaking monologue, the audience remains hushed and still, avidly gleaning revelatory peeks into Barton’s miserable childhood of poverty, loneliness and fear while she grew, like the corn and soybean fields surrounding their ill-kempt, noisome home, into teenage-hood in Amgash, Illinois.

Laura Linney, My Name is Lucy Barton, Richard Eyre, Rona Munro, Elizabeth Strout

Laura Linney in ‘My Name is Lucy Barton,’ by Elizabeth Strout, adapted by Rona Munro, directed by Richard Eyre, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Matthew Murphy)

Barton’s story is not particularly exciting or eventful in the “average” way. It begins in the vibrant, present day. The arc of development moves in flashback to the time when Barton was married with two daughters and, after an appendectomy, is weirdly unable to systemically recover her health. Barton’s story-telling is filled with mystery in its exploration of her relationship with her mother. Linney portrays both women and seamlessly steps from present to flashback clearly designating the time intervals through Eyre’s staging, the mother’s Amgash accent and Munro’s pointed time transitions as Barton recalls or reflects on memories in the present time, then segues to the past for another dip into hope, loneliness and redemption.

Barton’s story is relatable to a cross-section of humanity, even the wealthy who suffer emotional trauma and abuse from parents. Some might argue Lucy Barton’s narrative transcends gender because it’s generalizable to relationships between parents and children, beyond stereotype and myth in the family dynamic. In other words, its sensitive, emotional and human universality appeals. What individual does not feel, if they dare to admit it, that their parents did not give them enough love, understanding, wisdom, and material and spiritual protection that they hungered for at various points in their lives? What individual does not feel remorse at not being able to have lived happily, growing up in a “Father Knows Best” loving, emotionally magnanimous family experience? Indeed, how much more duress does one feel if one’s material and emotional well-being was continually jeopardized by parents/siblings, what has been described euphemistically as being a member of a dysfunctional family?

Munro’s adaptation retains Strout’s searing, uber-subtle fervency as Lucy relates “her story,” which we discover is an attempt to expurgate devastating emotional pain to reconcile past memories of dire consequence which she has suppressed and which might have  killed her, but for her mother’s 5-day visit, when Barton’s hospital stay moved past the normal recuperation period: she can’t eat, has blockages and grows thinner and weaker. Barton’s husband, who has been too traumatized by death and dying in hospitals to visit her regularly, calls her mother who shows up “out-of-the-blue” and sits in a chair, at the foot of the bed eschewing a cot to be with her, 24/7.

It is during this life changing visit, that her mother relates stories about the neighbors or relatives, all of them attached with a negative, inferred lesson critical to Lucy’s life. It is also during this time and in the retelling of “her story” that Lucy recalls memories that are so unendurable, she cannot fully relate the details clearly. Interestingly, her mother also refuses to answer some of Lucy’s questions about the time when her children grew up. Her mother closes her eyes and pretends to sleep so Lucy doesn’t persist. There are some places where both dare not go, perhaps because the emotions are so incredibly raw, they might never recover their balance and attempted “control” over their lives.

Laura Linney, My Name is Lucy Barton, Richard Eyre, Rona Munro, Elizabeth Strout

Laura Linney in ‘My Name is Lucy Barton,’ by Elizabeth Strout, adapted by Rona Munro, directed by Richard Eyre, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Matthew Murphy)

Ancillary comments quietly expose a mountain of affection between Lucy and her mother, expressed uneasily by Lucy and in repressed undercurrents by her mother. Indeed, since Lucy’s marriage, they have been estranged. Clearly, though Lucy leaves this unspoken, the home where she grew up is noxious (it smells, it is freezing, it is stinks of loneliness and alienation). She has been relentless about never seeing her parents and gaining success as a writer, until she withers psychically and needs her mother’s love, as imperfect and ill-formed as it is. Her mother puts resentments aside and brings a healing balm; it’s time.

For nine years, her mother and father have never come to Manhattan and she hasn’t been home. Her parents resent that Lucy got a scholarship, went to college to become a writer, got married and left them in the morass of hopelessness and weirdness that they had to confront after she left: another unspoken self-recrimination against her/against them. They can hardly blame her for leaving, but resent her for doing it all the same. Her rejection of what they represent and her identity in their family unit is too much for her to bear. And then, she becomes ill; it is a metaphoric illness, systemic and psychic that requires a “healing touch and kindness” which her doctor delivers assisted by her mom.

Ironically, it is a testament of her mother’s love for her that she drops in (Lucy’s husband paid the plane ticket) despite her fear of flying to be Lucy’s much needed emotional support and prophetess who proclaims that Lucy will live, “though her marriage will have troubles.” A highpoint of reconciliation for her mom is her admission and apology about having to raise her three children under the strains of severe poverty (they eat molasses on bread regularly, can’t afford a warm or clean home, and are too poor for a TV).

Linney portrays her mother, at times humorously, with an Amgash, Illinois accent. As Barton moves in “her story” from immediate present which is years after her parents have died, then flashes back as Lucy reflects upon one of the most important moments. It is when her mother nudges her to affirm her own life, despite the gnawing darkness and despair that threatens to overcome her and despite her material success which is a canard and no cover for the abyss within, unbeknownst to her.

Laura Linney, My Name is Lucy Barton, Richard Eyre, Rona Munro, Elizabeth Strout

Laura Linney in ‘My Name is Lucy Barton,’ by Elizabeth Strout, adapted by Rona Munro, directed by Richard Eyre, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Matthew Murphy)

Eyre’s use of lighting (Peter Mumford) his staging and the projections (Luke Halls created the video design) bring in the other-worldly aspect of memory and remind us that Lucy Barton, as solid and stalwart and sincere as she appears to be, is the narrator of her own story. And all solo narrators embellish, exaggerate some details and leave gaping omissions. For all their ability to explain, the emotional content is so laden with stark bleakness, it cannot be accessed easily or articulated. Perhaps it takes a lifetime to do so or maybe never. Thus, the arc of Lucy’s story development as she discusses her relationship with her mother is a shining example of her ability to codify what she can live with (reflected in the hopefulness of the Chrysler Building the hospital window peers out on).

Indeed, Lucy Barton has made the building a beacon of success in her life, up from the oppression of her past, something her mother agrees with. And she has used that and other symbols (projections of corn fields, lightening sky) to manifest her identity as a successful writer who at this juncture is able to confront herself by going public. That is who Lucy Barton wants to be and that’s who she is.

Linney makes this unreliability, this shakiness brilliantly apparent. She allows it to pop up and back. She moderates it, especially when Barton cannot articulate the most traumatic memories of abuse in her past. And it flops back into the story-telling when she heartbreakingly remembers calling for her mom, as her daughter called for her when she saw the second plane crash into the World Trade Center. It is also apparent when Linney aptly philosophizes as Barton about the statue at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Sculpture Garden. The statue is of a distressed, starving father and his children, seeing only him, are willing to sacrifice their own bodies and feed him to arrest his starvation. So bonded are children with their parents. So entangled will Lucy Barton always be with her mother, father and siblings. Because of them, she is Lucy Barton.

Kudos to all the creatives who worked on this production and brought it to life. In addition to those already mentioned are Bob Crowley (scenic and ccostume design) and John Leonard (sound design). My Name is Lucy Barton is running in a limited engagement at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (47th Street between Broadway and 8th Ave.) with no intermission until 29 February. It is a must-see for Laura Linney’s amazing portrayal and Eyre’s and Munro’s bringing home Elizabeth Strout’s best-selling novel with grace and power. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.

 

‘How to Load a Musket,’ a Striking Look at History by Talene Monahon at 59E59 Theaters

The Company, How to Load a Musket,ad am Chanler-Berat, 59E59 Theaters, Talene Monahon, Jaki Bradley

The Company, Adam Chanler-Berat in ‘How to Load a Musket,’ by Talene Monahon, directed by Jaki Bradley at 59E59 Theaters (Russ Rowland)

Why would anyone want to reenact  the most bloody battles of American History? In the World Premiere of How to Load a Musket, currently at 59E59 Theaters until 26 January (unless it is extended which it should be) playwright Talene Monahon examines the nature and viewpoints of American citizens who devote time, energy, money and passion to acting out various historical wartime confrontations that founded and preserved our United States of America.

The play that Monahon configured relates perspectives based upon her interviews with reenactors in Massachusetts, New York and Virginia. With exceptional actors portraying the individuals she interviewed, director Jaki Bradley brilliantly stages a production that is vibrant, humorous, at times chilling and always memorable.

Monahan interviewed individuals addicted to portraying historic events principally those occurring during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. What she discovered turned out to be fascinating portraits of a unique group of impassioned citizens who “got the bug” to participate in reenactments, some for the past thirty years. In her interviews, she gleaned their demographics, their interest in American history and their views about our country, formed during and after their extensive research and their activities with others to conduct reenactments for an audience of history and battle lovers.

Lucy Taylor, How to Load a Musket, Talene Monahon, Jaki Bradley, 59E59 Theaters

Lucy Taylor in ‘How to Load a Musket,’ by Talene Monahon, directed by Jaki Bradley at 59E59 Theaters (Russ Rowland)

The production entertains us with these quirky, odd individuals, who put on battle dress and show us how to load and shoot a musket. In initial sequences related to the Revolutionary War, individuals familiarize us with this clannish hobby and identify the levels of those who engage in the fun of it. There are those who went out and did extensive research and are incredibly serious about “getting back into the past,” to the point of attempting to relive it with accuracy. These folks eat hardtack, sew their own outfits and starve themselves as happened because Congress didn’t allot enough provisions for our soldiers during the Revolutionary War. And then there are the “Farbies.” These folks are not authentic or historically accurate. So as Larry says, “For some of us, as we get older, we want a little more comforts of home; so when my ten flap is closed at night, it’s not 1776. It’s 2015.”

We learn about the typical positions of reenactors, from those who play fifes, to those who portray George and Martha Washington, British soldiers and even King George. The sheer fun of it is escapism, to remove oneself from the stresses of modernity and imagine a time when the air and water were cleaner. Of course, that is the male perspective. One of the women reenactors, the fifes-woman (Lucy Taylor) reminds us that women died in childbirth, oftentimes, and there were horrific childhood diseases that killed, “back in the day”. The beauty of reenactments is that one can imagine oneself living in a desired time and place as another individual for a few hours, and yet return to the comforts of one’s modern life.

Richard Topol, Nicole Villamil, How to Load a Musket, Talene Monahon, Jaki Bradley, 59E59 Theaters

(L to R): Richard Topol, Nicole Villamil, ‘How to Load a Musket,’ by Talene Monahon, directed by Jaki Bradley at 59E59 Theaters (Russ Rowland)

From these interviewed the playwright teases out reactions fomented from the political climate, and the increasing social and cultural divide, after the 2016 election shifted participants’ attitudes and feelings. Their notions reflect the deepening discourse about the nation’s founders as slaveholders, the increasing acts of white supremacy under this presidency, and the confluence of racism and symbols of the confederacy, i.e. the flag, once thought harmless, now viewed by many as egregious remnants of our nation’s inglorious and inhuman past. Naturally, there are those who find these sentiments appalling, as if to nullify a history that is painful but moving in the progressive direction of “freedom for all.” Without the Civil War, no slaves would have been freed until many years later. The price paid, of course, is incalculable.

During the production which spans the years from Fall of 2015 through July 2017, and up to 2019, those interviewed discuss the present divisions in the country that reveal their roots in the Civil War, including the events in Charlottesville and the white supremacist marchers opposed to the “tearing down” of Robert E. Lee’s statue. Interestingly, for the first time ever after another reenactment, there is a bomb incident. This threatened violence for what once was a fun, staged event and hobby, indicates that spirits are darkening in the country. Those who are interviewed, note these changes with alarm.

Andy Taylor, Ryan Spahn, How to Load a Musket, Jaki Bradley, Talene Monahon, 59E59 Theaters

(L to R): Andy Taylor, Ryan Spahn in ‘How to Load a Musket,’ by Talene Monahon, directed by Jaki Bradley at 59E59 Theaters (Russ Rowland)

Cleverly, Monahon uses issues to raise questions and reveal themes. Some of these concern our ideas about the formation of our nation to gain freedom. Others reveal divergent perspectives of citizens from the South and North. Interestingly, the interviewed (who are “characters”) point out, after a Revolutionary War enactment, the idea that America is an experiment which may or may not last. Throughout, issues related to slavery and its attendant racism are brought up stirring questions about what this means for us today. The actors portraying real people are reflected through the prism of changing trends based upon our social climate. Vitally, the playwright reveals the cultural shift in how these individuals view what the reenactments mean to them during the past five years.

Adam Chanler-Berat, How to Load a Musket, Jaki Bradley, Talene Monahon, 59E59 Theaters

Adam Chanler-Berat in ‘How to Load a Musket,’ by Talene Monahon, directed by Jaki Bradley (Russ Rowland)

Eight actors portray the individual reenactors, switching into various parts. These are a cross-section: old, young, male, female, black, Hispanic, mother-son, father-son, educated, working class. The dialogue is lightly edited from the interviews. Essentially, the playwright quotes individuals verbatim. Thus, the accents, the humor, the chilling commentary ring with authenticity to reveal what folks in our country believe and think. Importantly, without the exceptional and adroit acting by the ensemble (Carolyn Braver, Adam Chanler-Berat, David J. Cork, Ryan Spahn, Andy Taylor, Lucy Taylor, Richard Topol and Nicole Villamil) who bring this production to its sweet spot, none of the import and power of the themes would resound as fully or shine as vitally, especially the theme about the encroaching violence in our culture.

The production from its scenic design (Lawrence E. Moten III) costumes (Olivia Vaughn Hern) lighting (Stacey Derosier) sound design (Jim Petty) original music (Zoe Sarnak) to staging is superior. Artifacts from the various periods of history adorn two walls of the set, including the costumes and hats the actors use throughout. Actors take their entrances and exists from three different sides of the set, two of which the audience surrounds as two sides of a rectangle; This is minimalistic and smart. The intimate setting allows the audience to feel a part of the action as the actors, at times, interact and directly address comments to them.

Carolyn Braver, David J. Cork, How to Load a Musket, Jaki Bradley, Talene Monahon, 59E59 Theaters ,

Carolyn Braver, David J. Cork in ‘How to Load a Musket,’ by Talene Monahon, directed by Jaki Bradley at 59E59 Theaters (Russ Rowland)

As a capstone to the ideas that are presented, Monahon introduces TM, the playwright, as a character (portrayed by Carolyn Braver). On a subway, TM and artist Dread Scott (David J. Cork) discuss the idea of genocide. An Armenian, she discusses its meaning to her (the Turks conducted a genocide and expulsion campaign against the Armenians (1914-1923). Indeed, as a black man Dread understands the meaning of genocide related to what happened during the American institution of slavery. As an important part of American History, he invites her to his proposed 1811 Slave Rebellion reenactment in New Orleans which TM attends two months after their subway meeting.

This powerful conclusion is telling. As an Armenian, TM is struck by Jeffrey’s (Richard Topol) use of the word “genocide” to indicate how he feels about his southern ancestry being vitiated with the removal of the confederate flag and statues of confederate soldiers from parks and federal buildings in the south. The application of Jeffrey’s “genocide” in juxtaposition with Dread’s idea to reenact the rebellion which has been removed from US history books and the Armenian genocide which has been largely left out of the History of Western Civilization is ironic. In a weird confluence, all have understood what being “wiped out,” means, and there is a unity. Perhaps, as Dread states at the end, it is a portentous recognition that “heroes in seeking liberation, receive mercy.” This is especially so in reenactments.

The production that rings with great truth provides a jumping off point for us to consider what our country means to each of us and how we can reconcile that meaning. Above all, the playwright, director and actors inspire us to broaden our understanding of aspects of our society beyond the stereotypic “Red States” and “Blue States” that we may not have considered before. As we question attitudes that may not resonate with ours, nevertheless, we must stand in each other’s shoes, especially those that we may have previously disdained.

How to Load a Musket is a must-see for its originality, ingeniousness and wonderful performances shepherded beautifully by Jaki Bradley. It is running with no intermission at 59E59 Theaters until 26 January. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.

 

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