Shakespeare’s comical plot of Measure for Measure radiates with riotous and melodic, exceptionalism in the glorious musical Desperate Measures. The musical currently at the York Theatre shines like no other rendition of Shakespeare’s work because of the adroit skill of the playwright Peter Kellogg who wrote the book and lyrics. Coupled with the musicality and memorable compositions by David Friedman, Desperate Measures is an incredible hit that is biding its time to make its mark on Broadway.
The comedy is non stop. The brilliant, clever story twists run rampant throughout.. Indeed, the Western update of Shakespeare’s work is lifted to satiric high farce. Set to an illustrative musical songscape which is both appealing and profound, Desperate Measures delivers moment to moment fun and enthralls with good will and joy.
Thus far, I have taken my measure of this production twice. Each time I’ve appreciated the specific, brilliant direction by Bill Castellino. His acting ensemble’s choreographed movements during the musical numbers are reminiscent of the amazing work of the great Graciela Daniele. Additionally, the six-member cast portray the spin-off Shakespearean characters with invested realism and inventiveness that revves up the humor and makes it a stand-out. The cast’s unparalleled singing and cavorting through the setting of the 1890s Old West transforms many of the fantastical elements into searing present-day themes.
For that reason alone. this production must be seen. Uplift and encouragement suggest hope throughout each Act. Above all Desperate Measures brings us the wonderful reminder that laughter provides goodness like a wholesome medicine. And bitterness dries up the bones. So! You need a dose of healthful chortles? This show sheds them in abundance.
In ‘The Ballad of Johnny Blood” the ensemble and Johnny (an adorable, multi-talented, effusive and expertly winning Conor Ryan), introduce the conflict. Prisoner Johnny will hang for the love of a woman who unwittingly caused his downfall when he shot his rival in self-defense. However, Johnny has an advocate in the Sheriff (the equally adorable, smooth, brilliant, reserved, heroic Peter Saide), who guards him. The Sheriff creates an effective plan to soften the law and order governor of the territory (the hilarious, preening, fascist, sexual predator Nick Wyman). The softener, Sister Mary Jo (the exquisitely voiced and excellent Emma Degerstedt), will plead for her brother’s release.
To convince the Sister to visit the governor, the Sheriff sings “That’s Just How It Is.” The superb lyrics of this tuneful, beautifully rendered song by Saide carry one of the vital themes of the production. The unfair culture creates economic injustice. The rich prosper. The children of the poor suffer. Rarely can one upturn this dynamic. However, every now and then a time comes when goodness can prevail. If people take a stand and “speak up,” they can make a difference. The demure and innocent Sister Mary Jo, persuaded by the Sheriff’s challenge decides to ask for her brother’s pardon.
Of course the novitiate, has no idea of the nefariousness of the governor. We recognize his qualities immediately with Wyman’s Governor’s “Some Day They Will Thank Me.” In the song, the arrogant, presumptive, martinet reveals he is a blaggard. As the Sheriff prompts her to be more convincing with the Governor, Susanna sings “Look in Your Heart.” Unfortunately, Wyman’s Governor confirms our worst fears about those in power. Because Susanna persuades him with her lyrical loveliness, the Governor ties her up in a Gordian knot. He will release Johnny for one night of Susanna’s love.
In the beautifully wrought “Good To Be Alive,” (a high-point among many in the show), Johnny begs his sister. Trade her chastity for his life. The humorous debate that ensues leaves Johnny facing death. And Susanna’s refusal to give her chastity to the Governor over her brother’s pleas appears cold-hearted. Nevertheless, once again, the brilliant Sheriff comes up with an ingenious (and hysterical), plan to obtain the pardon.
However, will this ridiculous and incredible plan work? To encourage themselves, Johnny the Sheriff and Susanna (Sister Mary Jo’s real name) are joined by the alcoholic atheistic priest (the hysterical Gary Marachek), to sing the uplifting “It Doesn’t Hurt to Try.” Indeed, since the risk of life and death is great, any plan that can stave off the hangman’s noose for Johnny is a boon. Thus, off Susanna and the Sheriff go to set the plan in motion eliciting the help of Johnny’s love Bella (the wonderful Lauren Molina), whose occupation as a saloon singer gives her special talents to work a miracle for Johnny’s life.
Following the basic plot of Measure for Measure, yet giving it a modern Old Western twist, Desperate Measures follows with the parallels yet adds its own flavor through the lyrics and tuneful songs. For example, in order to train Bella for her upcoming role where she switches places with Sister Mary Jo, the Sheriff assists Sister Mary Jo in teaching Bella how to present herself in “The Way You Feel on the Inside.” Additionally, as the situation to save her brother’s life has thrown the Sheriff and Sister Mary Jo together, we recognize a budding romance between them which neither wants to acknowledge. The Sheriff especially, a proud man, doesn’t even want to contemplate that he is attracted to Sister Mary Jo, who will be taking her vows to be a nun in the next few days. The memorable “Stop There” recalls the fear of unrequited love and identifies the reality of the pain of falling in love and allowing one’s imagination to run away before the love interest accepts being loved.
To conclude Act I the ensemble joins in the thrumming song “In the Dark.” As each individual identifies that the darkness is the place where anything can happen, they encourage themselves to hope for their desires. For Johnny it is his release. For the Governor it is a fulfillment of his passion for Sister Mary Jo. For Bella who is duping the Governor, she hopes for the ability to pull off the deception that she is Sister Mary Jo. For the Sheriff and Sister Mary Jo (Susanna) they secretly yearn for the hope that they might be able to love one another. The musical number beautifully caps the conflicts and themes of Act I and establishes the set up for the resolution of the conflicts in the second act.
The Governor’s fabulous seduction scene, the ensuing hi-jinks and the heroic actions of Johnny’s love, Bella, transport us to comedic heights. How the conflicts thread their way to the conclusion, bring the characters together and apart again. And they resolve in a hysterical climactic scene which brings down the house. The music of the second act is as heady as is the first. And once more, the various songs resonate as does the clever rhyming dialogue.
Memorable and engaging, this is a production where the smarmy villain receives his commuppance. And where an alcoholic, atheist priest manages to redeem himself. There is love, unique heroism, surprising justice, and redemption for even the wicked. Perhaps! As for the specifics, this review holds no spoiler alerts. You will just have to see this most superb musical production to discover the incredibly clever rhymes and production’s tremendous vibrance for yourself.
Can there be a better rollicking, musical update of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure? I think not!
I cannot say enough about the music (folks have asked when the CDs will go on sale), and the lyrics and book by this prodigiously adroit team of Kellogg and Friedman. The functional and minimalistic Western sets trope the humor, time and place, as do the costumes. Their simplicity carries the farce and comedy yet makes room for the dark, ironic undertones in the themes. Thankfully, the characters in this production suit the measure with which they have bestowed grace and beauty. However, such does not occur in life, as Kellogg reminds us and Shakespeare reminds us in Measure for Measure.
Nevertheless, the show’s currency resonates timelessness. Heroes may thwart villains. Innocence may triumph over corruption. Love may save. Justice might win out despite overwhelming odds. Does absolute power corrupt in Desperate Measures? Indeed, as it corrupts in Measure for Measure. Both works reflect the vicissitudes that confront individuals whether in the Old West 1890 or in our current world. However, when good men rise up to stand against lust, avarice and overweening privilege, the light of truth can disperse the darkness. That it does so tunefully, memorably, riotously in Desperate Measures is very welcome for us at this time.
Kudos to the musicians David Hancock Turner, Justin Rothberg, Joseph Wallace, Douglas Waterbury-Tieman. And accolades to the design team James Morgan, Nicole Wee, Paul Miller Julian Evans for their creative exploits on Desperate Measures. A word to the wise. The production most probably will be moving to a more expensive venue. This New York premiere has already enjoyed two extensions. See it now, so you will be able to see it again. You will be thrilled you did.
Desperate Measures runs with one intermission. It will be at The York Theatre (619 Lexington Avenue) until 26th November.
Hieronymus Bosch’s 15th century triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” never fails to amaze and intrigue. In Fisher Stevens’ exceptional Before The Flood which examines global warming/climate change and shadows Leonardo DiCaprio’s quest as United Nations Messenger of Peace on climate change, Stevens references Bosch’s work.
The Garden of Earthly Delights which hung over DiCaprio’s bed when he was a kid becomes a the monumentally symbolic metaphor at the central point of Before the Flood.. The director elucidates the triptych and reveals Bosch’s progression from panel to panel. Mankind was given the power of the beautiful Garden (our planet Earth) and in seeking forbidden knowledge of good and evil, created a nightmare world that his very nihilism and self-hate (sin) currently is effecting the destruction of his own species, every other species and the eco-systems of the planet, which results in a hellish state (panel three).
Corinne Donly’s Wood Calls Out to Wood, directed by Sarah Hughes currently at The Tank until 12 November presents a different interpretation of Bosch’s work. However, before one travels to The Tank to see the production which translates Bosch’s work from wood and paint into a live play creation, shimmering, colorful, fanciful and more, acutely review the Bosch triptych.
The assumption the playwright makes is that the audience carries around the detailed visual memory of the three panels and with that prodigious knowledge can correlate the dialogue, actors, sets, costumes and objects used with the various panels. I admit my own failing. Without nary a projection of Bosch’s triptych, I became hard pressed to recognize various associations. However, I gather, that was one theme of this work, as abstruse, opaque and self-possessed as it was.
The often poetic dialogue and nonsensical ramblings of the characters inspired by a few figures in Bosch’s work kept one interested by its sheer dense ridiculousness. Experimental theater reaching out for someone to make sense of it, to hang a truth on? OK. I can move with surrealism and absurdism. But even surreal, “out-there” work hangs on a point of revelation throughout and most importantly at its conclusion. Indeed, if the production was meant to end in a whimper, or a fabulous new insight, I confess, I missed it.
I do appreciate the exertions of the actors who seemed to have their sense memories and in-the-moment behaviors lined up appropriately. And the couple who love and comfort one another were adorable.
Of course the irony in all of this remains that Bosch’s triptych replete with spiritual symbolic significance of man’s own inhumanity to himself was no where to be viscerally found. Wood Calling Out to Wood exists as an exercise. It is an exercise in the fun, lively, innovative, experimental, weird, often incompletely executed extrapolation of the three panels because that is what it is attempting. In the attempt it becomes the esoteric for esoteric’s sake. A Foucault for those who would attempt to make meaning of it and get tripped up on their own inadequate philosophies. It perches on the edge of Fuzzy Thinking as a mind blowout for those who will go there. If one will, make sure to have enough rest. It may be a flip to follow along. But you may also flip into the unconscious and post haste, fall asleep. Have coffee beforehand, and preferably not decaf.
My reading of the script helped me to understand what the playwright had intended. If the production could be given a proper mounting, with visual projections of Bosch’s work for those like this obtuse writer, I do think that Corinne Donly’s Wood Calls Out to Wood might find itself marvelous.
As it is, if you enjoy supporting The Tank (312 West 36th St), and favor the sheer nonsensical fun of attempting to make heavy-duty meaning out of the curious, you will enjoy the silly, frenetic quality of Wood Calls Out to Wood which runs for 50 minutes without an intermission. As for Bosch? Well, don’t expect any of his magnificent visuals, so review his works, exercise your memory and go prepared.
Last weekend at the New York Botanical Garden was my last time to say goodbye to the Chihuly Exhibit. I have visited the exhibit a number of times, but each time is fresh and different. One reason is because Dale Chihuly’s outdoor sculptures refract and reflect the changes in sunlight during the changing seasons, from spring to fall.
Another reason is because no matter how closely you look at a piece, you will notice something unique every time. Perhaps it is the way the colors merge into each other on some pieces or the way the glass curves or projects starkly upward. With the sculptures that are housed indoors at the Enid A. Haupt conservatory, for example Macchia Forest, 2017, Chihuly’s vibrant colors startle in multi-colored tulip-shaped cups arising from iron-like stems in the conservatory’s indoor pond and fountain gorgeously arranged with hanging flowering plantings. One could remain there all day or in the evening with a drink during Chihuly Nights. The rich ambience delights and the sounds of water splaying in the fountain soothe. As with all of Chihuly’s sculptures thoughtfully arranged in or around water, the reflections dazzle and enthrall with their multi-dimensional views.
I will sorely miss this exhibit which stirs the imagination toward infinite and graceful fantasies that one conjures up in brilliant dreams. I have become used to catching the falling sunlight at dusk as it stirs the effervescence and evolving, sparkling, deep blue, shimmering hues on Sapphire Star 2010, NYBG 2017 amidst the darkening shadowy green of the landscape and deepening black shapes of the trees. Sapphire Star 2010, installed at NYBG 2017 is my favorite. I enjoyed seeing it in high noon brilliance or in the surrounding darkness enhanced with a few ground lights along the Garden path that is out of the Chronicles of Narnia. My imagination runs wild. And if I were indeed alone without anyone near me, I would expect a unicorn or centaur to jump out from behind a tree and admiringly gaze at this groundling star whose other-worldy beauty beckons.
This past weekend I also strayed beyond the Everett Children’s Adventure Garden to visit the Native Plant Garden where Chihuly’s Float Boat and Koda Studies #1 and #2 herald all that might be accomplished when the creative spirit is allowed to run wild amidst a natural platform. Again, Dale Chihuly combines contrasting shapes, sizes and forms. There are the comforting huge glass balls of every shining hue imaginable displayed in a an oblong vessel held up by a flowing water pond.. In the nighttime, the view widens its depth. Which is is solid? Which is fluid? And indeed physics will explain that both are double images of each other for all contain infinitesimal atoms which spin at incredible speeds and play havoc with what appears to be real but which is something else entirely. A true mind-blast and pageantry of excellence.
That evening a guitar player shared his repertoire as we hailed the Chihuly’s Koda Studies # 1 and 2. Chihuly designed these specifically for the exhibit, honoring his original Artpark installation designed with friend Seaver Leslie in Lewiston, New York in 1975. That significant installation launched Dale Chihuly as a glass artisan and he has been flying into glory ever since.
As we sauntered along the path viewing Chihuly’s muted dark fuschia, red and yellow glass panes pinging off the lengthy water display in the Native Plant Garden, our senses were regaled. The native grasses, wild herbs, shrubs and dying foliage exuded gorgeous aromas released in the humid night air. There was a sense of freedom and exploration I felt. Tell me where else in New York City can one travel safely along landscaped, tree-lined paths in the nighttime breathing clean air with heavenly scents except at a NYBG evening exhibit.
During the daytime I walked amongst the still-green trees which are here and there beginning to prepare for fall and winter. I stepped into the fun-filled Everett Children’s Adventure Garden and watched the kids enjoy themselves everywhere they went. The Children’s Garden was packed. The humongous pumpkins patiently sat as children scrambled on top of them and families posed for pictures. Each of the gigantic specimens were record-breakers. (see below for stats) Families sought and found enormous pumpkins, gourds, and squashes – it was also Giant Pumpkin Weekend, and families came to see these incredible natural wonders.
Kids and parents took pictures standing on them, climbing them, sitting on them, and standing next to them. Giant Pumpkin Weekend, arranged in collaboration with the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, showed off the growers’ skills at nurturing the hugest (I know that’s not a word), most fantabulous (or that either) pumpkins. Each of these record-breakers from around the world weighed in at more than a ton.
How these pumpkins’ DNA allows them to expand boggles the mind. Importantly, growers come to share how this happens in the growing process during Q&As.
Recapping the record-breakers and their growers for 2017.
This year’s largest pumpkin traveled from Sumner, Washington, bringing with it the North American all-time record. Nurtured by Joel Holland, the “Great Pumpkin” weighed in at 2,363 pounds.
The second-largest pumpkin ever grown came from the United Kingdom, with that country’s all-time record of 2,269 pounds. Ian Paton and Stuart Paton grew this lovely.
Finally, at the entrance of the Leon Levy Visitors Center you will find the largest squash grown in the world this year. This all-time record-breaker grown by Joe Jutras hails from North Scituate, Rhode Island. It weighs in at 2,118 pounds.
If you missed this annual fun event the weekend of 21-22 October, don’t worry. The display continues through 31 October. And if you can’t make it this year, next year the Garden will be hosting amazing record-breaking specimens again. You know they will be even larger.
Another fun event at the Everett Children’s Adventure Garden involved costumes and goodies. Children dressed in costumes visited the Whole Foods Market® Trick-or-Treat Trail. Since Whole Foods offered the treats, you know they had to be nutritious and delicious. No candy corn could be found anywhere on those Whole Foods Market tables. Additionally, children could decorate a bag to collect their goodies, which included a “children’s sized” baby spider plant anxious to receive a new home.
One event I particularly enjoyed took place at the Clay Family Picnic Pavilions. Kids and parents came curious to see what creepy, spooky creatures of Halloween might crawl around, fly, or calm down to be petted. The live animal presentation revealed interesting reptiles from everywhere, perhaps even some backyards upstate or in the South.
In the photos are the popular Wilma, a lizard who sustained the children petting her with peace and calm, and Skittles the milk snake who also was petted by the children and remained peaceful throughout. One can see the various creatures Saturdays and Sundays, 1 & 3 p.m. until 29 October.
The New York Botanical Garden contains a fabulous and beautiful world of treasures for everyone. If you can catch the Chihuly Exhibit during the day, you will be thrilled. Unfortunately, tickets to Chihuly Nights have been sold out for the last week. However, if you go during the day over the weekend, make sure to get there early. The parking is limited. And even if it is a bit colder, New Yorkers and out-of-towners want to take a last breathtaking look at the NYBG Chihuly exhibit before it leaves. Thankfully, I took many pictures in remembrance. When winter approaches in earnest in New York City, I will look back at this article and my pictures in fond remembrance.
For events at the NYGB, CLICK HERE.
Tuesday, October 24th (doors open at 7 pm)
The Playroom Theater, 151 W 46th Street, 8th floor
Tuesday, October 24th (doors open at 7 pm)
The Playroom Theater, 151 W. 46th St. 8th floor
Tuesday, October 24th (doors open at 7 pm)
The Playroom Theater, 151 W. 46th St. 8th floor
Tuesday, October 24th (doors open at 7 pm)
The Playroom Theater, 151, W. 46th St., 8th floor
Tuesday, October 24th (doors open at 7 pm)
The Playroom Theater, 151, W. 46th St., 8th floor
1. Do women producers offer a different esthetic from their male counterparts?
2. Might more women producers mean more works by women and more women-centric stories?
3. Is commercial theater or not-for-profit theater more welcoming for women?
The evening is free for TRU members. For non members: $12.50. For members of Women in the Arts & Media Coalition $5.00.
‘Jazz and Chihuly, Songs of Protest & Reconciliation,’ New York Botanical Garden Summer Concert Series
Considering the Charlottesville, Virginia August 11th incidents and the tragic loss of one woman’s life, up through the president’s press conference of Tuesday, August 15th, these days of August have been tumultuous and divisive. Indeed, taking a stand to uphold human rights and decry hate groups that seek mainstream political power appears to be more vital than ever as protest marches this past weekend indicate. Symbolic action, whether it is through protest demonstrations or concerts is a reminder to all that Love trumps Hate. A great majority of Americans are committed to upholding the sanctity of every life, regardless of race or religion.
Serendipitiously, the final summer concert series at the New York Botanical Garden on Friday, 18 August was a majestic reminder of this citizen commitment. Despite the threatening thunderstorm and intermittent periods of rain throughout the day, the turnout to embrace Jazz and Chihuly, “Songs of Protest & Reconciliation” was overwhelming.
The tent was packed with a diverse crowd who were there to enjoy the all-star musical group led by award-winning pianist and vocalist, Damien Sneed, guest trumpeter Keyon Harrold and the other prodigiously talented musicians and vocal artists. Together, these individuals presented an evening of entertainment that was poignant and joyful. And after joining with them in celebrating some of the best songs created by greats of jazz, soul, gospel and contemporary music (including two composed by Damien Sneed), the audience was sent out into the night sans rain to appreciate the luminous Chihuly sculptures presented throughout the grounds and in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory.
This final concert in the summer series was co-produced by the Catskill Jazz Factory and Absolutely Live Entertainment. The Catskill Jazz Factory encompasses a dynamic jazz program whose mission is to aid some of the finest young jazz artists with year-round workshops, concerts, residencies and world-class performances in the Hudson Valley. Absolutely Live Entertainment is a festival, tour and concert production company spearheaded by Danny Melnick. Malnick is the Producer of the Newport Jazz Festival and the Artistic Director of Carnegie Halls’ The Shape of Jazz series.
Damien Sneed is a master of practically every musical genre and a 2014 recipient of the Sphinx Medal of Excellence honor which is presented annually to emerging Black and Latino leaders in classical music. His facility with jazz, gospel, pop, R & B, opera and musical theater and his work with Aretha Franklin, Wynton Marsalis, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross have served him in excellent stead.
Sneed facilely shepherded the ensemble of vocalists Chenee Campbell, Anitra McKinney, Djore Nance, Tiffany Stevenson, Matia Washington and musicians Stacy Dillard (saxophone) Corey Wilcox (trombone) Julius Rodriguez (Hammond B3 organ) John Matthew Clark (bass guitar), Mark Clark, Jr. (drums). The songs of protest “I Wish I knew How it Would Feel to Be Free” (Nina Simone), “Oh Freedom,” (African-American spiritual), “Follow the Drinking Gourd (Underground Railroad) and “Freedom (excerpt)” (Duke Ellington) for example, emphasized every individual’s yearning for freedom and what freedom means collectively and personally.
During the first half of the evening, an audience member brought up a T-Shirt and draped it on a music stand. The T-Shirt had the logo, “Black Lives Matter.” Her action was spontaneous and unstaged.
Interspersed with these songs of protest were the songs of reconciliation: “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (Simon and Garfunkel), “God Bless the Child, (Billie Holiday & Arthur Herzog, Jr., “Proud Mary,” (John Fogarty), “Is My Living in Vain,” (Twinkie Clark & The Clark Sisters) and more. Each number featured a powerful solo by one of the vocalists. The audience showed their appreciation with standing ovations.
During the second portion of the evening, Keyon Harrold performed a song he had composed. Harrold presented “When Will The Killing Stop?” as a dedication to Michael Brown and all the young, black men who have been killed for “no good reason.” His playing was at once soulful and poignant, his talent incredible. It is no wonder he has been featured on nearly 100 albums with a wide music range from jazz to R & B, from pop and gospel, to blues and hip-hop.
By the conclusion of the evening, the storm and rain had stopped and the audience had been refreshed and uplifted by the development of the program from seeking soul freedom to the process by which that freedom evolves: forgiveness, reconciliation and love.
On this night the evolution was inspired through music and exceptional artistry which united and uplifted a community of jazz, botanical and Chihuly enthusiasts. For audience members it was a clarification of the last few weeks and exemplification of all that is best in human hearts, further embodied by our wonderment at the fantastic, illuminated Chihuly sculptures.
It was a frightening time, the height of the Cold War! It was the division of Berlin into two sectors divided by a mammoth wall of concrete and barbed wire. West Berlin embraced everything economically viable through a market economy representative of Western culture. East Berlin was controlled by the East German police (the hated Stasi) who were the engines of the government of the German Democratic Republic, a repressive communist country beholden to U.S.S.R. ideologies. How does one resist oppression and the repression of personal freedoms? How does one deny adherence t and subservience to the state? A Wall Apart reveals that the resistance was established prominently in two ways: rock music and love.
In A Wall Apart, a thrilling production which premiered at the New York Musical Festival (Music and Lyrics by Lord Graham Russell of Air Supply; Book by Sam Goldstein and Craig Clyde), we recognize that in the twenty-eight years which spanned the time of the Berlin Wall and the oppression it represented, that rock music promoted the resistance against Communist tyranny. It did this subtly through its brash sounds and clashing, free-wheeling lyrics. Rock music expressed the yearned for liberty already inherent in the minds and souls of the younger generation. Its expression was life itself and in its clanging, smashing vibrations there could be heard the clarion call to revolt.
Perhaps more importantly, this production also reveals the power in resisting with love. In A Wall Apart we see that love and family unity ultimately triumph over allegiance to an oppressive government and the acceptance of its lies that subvert one’s humanity. From the opening song “Our City” we are reminded of the dreams of liberty that are inherent in every soul and which are the driving force that cannot be overthrown ,despite the attempt of governments to control that force through external structures and the threat of destruction.
This force is manifested in each of the characters, perhaps most symbolically through Mickey (Josh Tolle gives a powerful sustained performance throughout) whose rock band plays at The Bunker in West Berlin. The Bunker is the place of symbolic birth, life and hope in the liberty of the rock music of the West. Mickey’s band, The Angels, represents all the goodness of Mickey’s own character. It has led him to a loving relationship with Suzanne (Emily Behny’s portrayal is soulfully rendered) and collaboration with his brother Kurt (the excellent Jordan Bondurant). It is at The Bunker where the bond between Kurt and Esther (the superb Maddie Shea Baldwin) is initiated, and all seems to be going swimmingly except for the rumors that Berlin is being divided, revealed to Kurt by their brother Hans (Darren Ritchie gives a bravura performance as the Stasi who must negotiate the conflict between love and obligation to the state in his own heart).
The most stalwart and loving of the characters is Tante (Leslie Backer is nothing short of astonishing). She is the glue that holds the family together; she mediates the troubles among the brothers and provides wisdom when Kurt and Mickey are caught in the East after the Berlin Wall is built and there is no getting out. Kurt and Mickey cannot abandon Tante who raised them when their parents were killed. Kurt especially is pressured by circumstances for he has left Esther in the West and will not join her but instead, joins the Stasi with Hans so that together they can put food on the table and obtain greater stockpiles of coal for heating. It is a devil’s bargain.
Material safety and support are not enough for Mickey who has to be free to express his being though his artistry and music. With Kurt’s information about which routes to take to get over the Wall, Mickey and a pregnant Suzanne make an escape attempt. What happens is irrevocable. And once again, we are reminded that individuals are willing to take grave risks when freedoms and personal identity are at stake. Ultimately, the risk is worth it for a difference is made in the lives touched by sacrifice.
A Wall Apart follows the resistance of the family and Hans’ conflict at having to perform the obligations of being a Stasi when his heart is elsewhere. It journeys with Kurt’s resignation from the Stasi and his affirmation to join the revolt from within East Germany to bring down the totalitarian structures external and internal which would oppress individuals’ rights to follow their own path. And somehow, the love between Kurt and Esther finds a way to grow though the wall divides them physically. It is intriguing how this occurs and as there is no spoiler alert here, you will just have to see the production when it moves to another venue (which it should) at some point in the future.
This is a finely wrought production whose music (Lord Graham Russell of Air Supply created the music and lyrics) is gobsmackingly good in its variety, its power and its touching poignancy. The book by Sam Goldstein and Craig Clyde highlights the period. It is aptly enhanced through the staging, sets, props and visual projections of archived black and white photographs, and video newsreel clips of the time. The fictionalized chronicle of one family’s struggles through tremendous economic and social upheaval is not only a vital remembrance of the past, it is a reminder of the tyranny of walls and what might happen in the future if fascism (in the guise of communism or any ism) is allowed to rear its ugly head.
The production is incredibly current. As we understand the uselessness of the Berlin Wall to serve its mission, we acknowledge that the inhuman, fascist separation of humanity is fear for fear’s sake. Fear is counterproductive, restriction retards innovation and stops the move toward progress. Regardless, freedom will triumph, love will triumph whether the resistance be through music or any means possible. Walls are symbolic of powerlessness in the face of humankind’s indelible desire for freedom and betterment. Barricades don’t work. Indeed, they inspire others to seek freedom despite the risk to themselves.
I would hope that this production sees a continuation elsewhere. It is that good especially in that its themes presented through the music and book are profoundly transcendent. Kudos to the skillful, adroit and versatile musicians (Jonathan Ivie, Matt Brown, Lavondo Thomas, Daniel Ryan, T-Bone Motta), exceptional ensemble and the uber talented Keith Andrews, whose direction and choreography was insightful and spot-on great. I loved this production, for what it says and how the design team, ensemble, musicians all shepherded by the director collaborated to say it! A resounding yes, you get my vote! A must-see which I am counting on seeing again.
After attending the last performance of the superb Temple of the Souls at the New York Musical Festival, I had the opportunity to conduct an email interview with its director/producer/writer Lorca Peress who discussed how she and her team evolved the Broadway quality, award-winning production which was honored in its competitive acceptance at the New York Music Festival. (see my review of the production by clicking here)
I am most curious to know how this wonderful production evolved. I know that is answering so many questions with one. This would cover.
How did you, Anita and Anika work the collaboration for the book?
Anita Velez-Mitchell was born in Vieques, Puerto Rico in 1916. Anita is Anika’s and my grandmother. Anita and I began working on the opera libretto of Temple of the Souls in 2009 through my theatre company MultiStages’ Script Development Series. We presented a reading of the script (no music existed) and received a standing ovation from the audience of over 100 people. In the audience, were 25 members of one of the Taino tribes in New York City. Anita had been working with the Taino Cacique chief on cultural authenticity, and he and his tribe members jumped to their feet at the end of the reading. During the Q & A that I moderated with guests Anita and the Cacique, one of the audience members said, “We are all descendants of Guario and Amada.” They applauded and I knew then that we had something special, novel, and important.
Anita asked a composer to write music to the opera libretto of Temple of the Souls (it took him one year to write 2 arias), and he said it was too big a task for him to complete given her advanced age. In 2010 Anita suggested we contact Anika and Dean to be the composers. Anika had written music for several MultiStages productions, but Dean had never been involved in or composed for musical theatre. I flew out to meet with them in Los Angeles, and pitched/performed the script, discussing what type of song might exist here, who sings it, etc. They wrote the Temple finale first. They sent it to Anita and me by email. We listened to the song and burst into tears. We knew this was it!
We decided a musical would be better than an opera, and Anika began working with Anita on the lyrics (much done via phone as Anika and Dean live in LA). Anika eventually joined on the development of the book, and she and Dean wrote several of the songs/lyrics independently as well.
Who had the original idea for the story and how was it developed?
On Anita’s last trip home to the Island, she visited the caves and El Yunque Rain Forest. She told me she felt the cries of the Taino souls and heard their tears dripping from the stalactites. She felt their spirits surrounding her and wrote a poem called “Totem Taino,” which she then turned into an opera libretto (described above). Anita had always been fascinated by the history of the Taino people, but for me, a Puerto Rican born in NYC, I was not as aware of the culture as I wish I had been.
Once I read Anita’s story, I went on a research mission. After reading books and finding information online, I flew to Puerto Rico to meet with Anita’s friend, Dr. Ricardo Alegria in San Juan. Dr. Alegria is an anthropologist and archaeologist, Wikipedia calls him the “father of modern Puerto Rican archaeology.” I was honored to interview/question him in his home surrounded by relics, art, and the history of our people. I was also given a private tour of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture which he founded, and learned even more. My trip to the El Yunque Rain Forest was eye-opening. I saw where the Tainos had taken refuge in the mountains, and where thousands took their lives by jumping off the mountain cliffs. Back in New York, I visited the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian which also has a good Taino collection (though not as extensive as the one at the Institute in Puerto Rico) and Museo deo Barrio, which I had been to numerous times.
One of the most fascinating things I have learned about the culture is the great debate over how many Tainos existed, and how many were killed, died of disease, or took their lives. We have seen records as large as hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands killed. The Sixteenth Century census was limited because so many people hid in El Yunque and were never counted. Suffice it to say, the Spaniards decimated the majority of Tainos. Those who live as Tainos today are mostly genetically mixed. But, how one personally identifies and lives is what keeps traditions and culture alive. And today there are thousands of Puerto Rican and Dominican natives in NYC and on the islands who live their lives as Taino.
As multicultural director, it is important that we understand the responsibility of stepping into another culture and world. I feel blessed and honored to bring elements of the Taino history to life in our musical, which has received great support and praise from the Taino community in NYC. Anita and I each received a Taino Award, and were honored at a Taino Areyto at the Museo del Barrio.
Some background on development:
TWO SHOWCASES AND AWARDS – 2011-14
AEA Showcase in December 2011 at the West End Theater, NYC, produced by MultiStages, directed by Lorca Peress. Talk backs with: Taíno tribe member Jorge Estaban, lecturer and co-curatory of The Museum of the American Indian Smithsonian Institution; and Cacike Cibanakan (NY Taíno Tribal chief) and members perform a music/dance demonstration. We were honored at an Areyto (a Taíno ceremony) at the Museo del Barrio.
- MultiStages receives Manhattan Community Arts Fund Grant from LMCC/DCA.
- 4 HOLA Awards (Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors): 2012 Gilberto Zaldivar Outstanding Production Award, Outstanding Choreography and Lighting, Special Recognition for Music for the production.
- Anita Velez-Mitchell and choreographer Milteri Tucker receive the Taíno Areyto Drama Award.
AEA Showcase in September 2014 at Theatre for the New City, NYC, produced by MultiStages, directed by Lorca Peress. Talk Back and Taíno musical demonstration with Roman Guaraguaorix (Redhawk) Perez, Cacique Chief of the Maisiti Yukayeke Taíno, a tribe of the Taíno Nation in the Bronx, NY.
- MultiStages receives Manhattan Community Arts Fund Grant from LMCC/DCA.
- Six Innovative Theatre Award Nominations: Outstanding Production (MultiStages and Co.), Outstanding Original Music (Dean Landon and Anika Paris), Outstanding Original Script (Anita Velez-Mitchell, Lorca Peress, Anika Paris), Outstanding Innovative Design (masks, Marla Speer), Outstanding Costume Design (Marla Speer), Best Lead Actress (Debra Cardona).
- Lorca Peress receives a Taíno Areyto Drama Award at the NYC Bronx Museum of Art in recognition of her work in support of the Taíno culture and its legacy.
- Anita Velez-Mitchell receives the proclamation from the Governor of Puerto Rico at the memorial concert in her honor, with songs from Temple of the Souls.
2016 – DIVERSITY IN THE ARTS CONCERT
We are invited to perform selections from Temple of the Souls with narration, at the Diversity in the Arts event at Hunter, NYC.
2017 – NEXT LINK PROJECT OF NYMF 2017
We are chosen as a Next Link Project for NYMF (New York Musical Festival). Only 10 Next Link Project musicals were chosen from over 200 submissions. An interesting marketing phenomenon to note, 80% of the ticketing audience for Temple of the Souls is of Latino heritage. We are highlighted on several Taino Facebook pages, and have a broad audience of followers over the years.
When the songs were created, were they added after the book was first created? Or was it a holistic process?
The majority of song lyrics came from the book. We continued updating the script, and new songs and lyrics were added.
How many years were you working on this together? separately?
Anita died in 2015. Lorca and Anika began reworking the book in 2016. Anika and Dean joined the project in 2010, Lorca and Anita began collaborating in 2009, Anita completed the first draft of the libretto in 2007.
Had you always planned to bring it to NYMF?
After the two showcases I produced and directed in 2011 and 2014 through MultiStages, we wanted another opportunity to present the piece and introduce it to theatre producers. I applied to NYMF and we were accepted as a Next Link Project (only 10 were chosen as Next Link Projects from over 200 submissions, which included a dramaturg and a $5000 grant toward the NYMF production).
What was the casting process like?
We attended a NYMF open casting in May, and cast one ensemble actor. We hired Michael Cassara, who had cast the 2014 production. We kept the two leads Noellia Hernandez as Amada and Andres Quintero as Guario, and two ensemble members, Theresa Burns and Miguel A. Sierra from the 2014 production. Lorraine Velez (Nana) was introduced to me through a mutual colleague and we were thrilled when she accepted the role of Nana. We opened the auditions for the remaining roles, and built a terrific cast.
Did you have to cut songs or other scenes to bring it in under the NYMF time limit?
We cut some songs, added in a few, created a stronger underscore and incidental music, and made it one act. We had the orchestrations that Dean created transformed into musical parts for a four-piece live orchestra.
Did Dean Landon and Anika Paris come onto the project early on? How are you familiar with their work? (I thought the music was smashing).
Discussed above. They are brilliant platinum and gold song writers and we are thrilled with their music.
What is the most rewarding part of the process? The final product or the journey?
For me personally the greatest reward has been to collaborate with my family. We have all had professional careers independent of each other, so collaborating on this piece has been so personal to us. Losing Anita has been very difficult. We love her dearly, but feel she is with us as we continue sharing her story and making music and art to share with all. At the sitz probe session (first opportunity for the cast to sing with the band), I pulled up Anita’s photo on my I-pad, and had her on the table during the session. In the play, we talk about souls and ancestors, and thoroughly believe she is still a part of this musical and our world.
Where do you plan to go from here?
We are setting up meetings with producers and experts who have gone through the process of moving a musical forward to brainstorm and find the next best direction for the show. There are many possibilities for this musical and we look forward to continuing its development. We are interested in international tours and want to translate the musical into Spanish.
How did you fund the production?
We raised funds through private donations from over 100 generous people and received grant support. We held a fundraising event in May where cast members sang a medley of songs, and we presented an example of the dancing Enrique was choreographing. The guests wrote checks and gave us their blessing. This NYMF production has been the most expensive I have undertaken as a producer to date. There is much more to raise going forward and we’re building a team.
To learn more about Lorca Peress, click HERE.
The New York Musical Festival is one of the most anticipated theater festivals in the city for good reason. The musical productions are top drawer, professional from start to finish. People enjoy seeing which shows are shepherded along to eventually make it to Off Broadway, Los Angeles, and Regional Theater. And sometimes Broadway producers are interested, though considering what it takes to mount a Broadway production these days, it would seem to be an incredible dream. But dreams do come true.
One offering that I do hope will be shepherded in this fashion is the profoundly moving musical Temple of The Souls which ran from July 17- 23rd at the Acorn Theater, one of the venues where the New York Musical Festival is taking place until 6 August. The multiple award winning Temple of The Souls is absolutely smashing. I don’t want to even consider that this production may not not continue to garner a wide audience. It is superb.
The stirring, enlightened book by Anita Velez-Mitchell, Lorca Peress and Anika Paris and entrancing, vibrant and hypnotic score (music by Dean Landon & Anika Paris, lyrics by Anita Velez-Mitchell & Anika Paris) warrants support beyond its New York City run at the NYMF. The time for such a production to gain a larger audience is fast upon us because of interest in the historical record of North America’s beginnings and the influences that have helped to shape our nation’s and its territories’ greatness.
Temple of The Souls is not only grounded in historical fact, the iconic, forbidden love story between a man and a woman of two disparate cultures, is reminiscent of love stories through the ages. Indeed from Scotland to Rome, the people of various tribes and societies have been joined together with offspring from forbidden love arrangements. Such stories resonate for us today because of their inherent truths. Love does not see with the materialistic eye, it sees with the heart. Unbounded, love seeks an exalted level away from embedded social folkways that encourage hatred and violence. The triumph of love to unify nations and dispel racism, discrimination and hatred is the key theme of this incredible musical. How worthy, how wise, how current for our times.
Temple of The Souls begins in the present on a tour of the mysterious El Yunque, the magical and gorgeous rain forest in Puerto Rico at whose top on an outcropping of rock and a high cliff, there exists a cave and area known as the Temple of The Souls. The tour guide (Lorraine Velez), explains the significance of the area. Lorraine Velez also portrays Nana and as the symbolic earth mother encapsulates beautifully the movement of this production in her presence from its beginning to its conclusion. She is breathtaking, exquisite, poignant, brilliant.
As the guide, Velez tells of the legend of love between Guario, a Taino (an indigenous native of the island) and Amada, a nubile sixteen-year-old, whose Spanish father represents all the abuses of Colonial Spain and its goodness as well. When Guario and Amada fall in love, taboos are broken, folkways are destroyed, and the spirits of the island who oversee the history of Spain’s horrific murders, rapes and enslavements, encourage the melding between old and new: the culture of violent bondage and the culture of pacific freedom, the paternalistic society and the gender friendly Taino society of men and women as partners.
The guide shares the history which underscores that many Tainos refused to bow to the oppression of the Spanish and instead committed suicide by jumping from the cliffs to their deaths in the sea. Suddenly, the scene is transformed. We no longer hear the echoes of the Tainos’ music and drums or see the spirits of the Tainos watching the guide and tourists. We are flashed back to the historic time of the 15th century in a Spanish colonial settlement on the verge of El Yunque.
It is a colorful, joyful day, the first day of celebration of La Fiesta de San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist announced and Baptized Christ as the embodiment of love). The celebration is ironic for the oppressive culture and religion do not represent the alleged Christian values in their discrimination, abuse and violence toward the Tainos. However, the production reveals the turning point when things begin to change and hope arrives in the union of love between Guario (Andres Quintero’s singing and acting talent establish him as a rising star; he’s just great) and Amada (Noellia Hernandez’s superb performance, sustained with power and lyricism throughout, is his equal).
Quintero’s Guario is part of the oppressed class who rejects his servitude and goes to El Yunque and the Temple of the Souls to discover who he is. During his travels through the town to eventually get to his destination, he runs into Nemesio (the excellent Jacob Gutierrez), and his cabal of repressive, abusive and discriminatory Spanish overlords. They threaten Guario and warn him not to return, a command reaffirmed by Amada’s father, Don Severo (the amazing Danny Bolero), the conquistador who governs the town. However, as Guario leaves, he and Amada see one another; it is “love at first sight,” or at the least curiosity at first sight. Nevertheless, the spark is ignited and the burning passion which grows between them creates a cataclysm that engulfs Guario’s, Nemesio’s, Amada’s, Don Severo’s and Nana’s lives and brings about the recompense of innocent bloodshed, the blood which cries out for a cessation which can only be delivered by love.
The next hour and one-half flies as we watch the characters struggle with themselves and against each other in conflicts still being experienced today between indigenous populations and “the colonials”-us! From moment to moment we are enthralled with the acting and voices of the fine ensemble, the gorgeous music, the theatrical spectacle and the intensity of the story’s dynamic between love and hate, lies and truth, oppression and freedom, lasciviousness and genuine, sincere love.
The director and artistic team have filled our senses and one cannot help but be moved to empathy, even to feel for Don Severo (Danny Bolero is commanding, vibrant, appropriately wicked, yet loving in his redemption) and Nemesio (Jacob Guitierrez’s “Nobody Makes a Fool of Me” is superb) who are the chief architects of evil, yet who reveal that they too, have compassion and are human.
The sterling balance of humanity which the writers crafted for these characters so that the actors might more easily breathe life into them captures us. We readily identify with them as people we know and take to heart. Each character is rich, each manifests complex shadows of multifaceted good and evil.
A fallout of this great writing of the book and lyrics and attendant music scoring is that the multiple themes are clearly, simply revealed. One theme is that oppressors ultimately destroy themselves with their own oppression. An additional theme is that there is no lie that should be allowed to separate familial relationships, because of the sickness and wickedness of the external culture. A third is that there should be no room for divisiveness which embitters and destroys everyone it touches.
These are indelible themes the audience recognizes. Thus, they are able to walk away inspired but chastened, moved but counseled to reaffirm the love within their own lives. The production above all reminds us of our ancestry and whether it is colonial or indigenous native, all of us are related if not by blood, by empathy as human beings.
I can only capstone this review by suggesting that the production is in hiatus until the next time. Look for it and if it is produced in another venue which is anywhere near you, see it. You will be uplifted and enlightened and reminded of all that is a blessing in your own life. The Temple of The Souls is wonderful entertainment with a vital message that all of us need to hear and see again and again.
Corruption, bribery, pay offs siphoning off citizens’ taxes and lifeblood in a small town? What could be more symbolically representative of politics, whether such machinations take place in Russia or the United States today? In good times, officials steal roundly and with less accountability because citizens are economically well placed to go about their lives. In harsh economic times the sub rosa avarice of bureaucrats who serve themselves first and serve the public never, always raises a hue and cry. When the little people are squeezed, they pressure their overlords to uphold the “sanctity of their positions.” Usually, the miscreants don’t and must be brought to heel. And sometimes there is even justice.
For playwright Nikolai Gogol, such a scenario, laden with hypocrisy and condemnation was a golden treasure trove of comedy. He has proven this with Revizor adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher into The Government Inspector, currently enjoying an extended run at New World Stages.
What a marvelous production this is. It is relevant to our political times which encapsulate the play’s themes. This satire of small town government officials and their general incompetence and corrupt misapplication of their mission and public service is a relief and respite from disheartening nightly news. For that alone, it is a must-see. Apart from that, this production is a must-see because it is just terrific.
For Jeffrey Hatcher who was commissioned to adapt Gogol’s Revizor into a version which would be performed for the 2008 Guthrie season, it was a “kick.” He clarifies that it was an election year. The barnyard of democrats and republicans was in full cacophonic frenzy. Hatcher’s enjoyment is evident in this adroit adaptation. Indeed, he steps up Gogol’s humorous scenario of malevolent politicians who have the tables turned on them, as they conspire to cover-up their cronyism, graft and malfeasance.
Hatcher delivers the best of Gogol and allows the Russian playwright’s genius to shine. With finely tuned direction (Jesse Berger) and exceptional ensemble work, The Government Inspector is madcap, zany and high comedic exhilaration.. Hatcher nimbly tweaks the playwright’s work just enough to enhance the hysteria in the comedy, acute jokes and incredible witticisms. His writing makes this production so completely sumptuous, you will want to feed on it again and catch a second time the artful ironies and slick phrases that ring with truth and reality at every laugh riot of a turn.
How satisfying it is to see the petty, self-dealing bureaucrats hoisted on their own greedy petard when they are duped by one of their own, who is even more mercenary than they. This is a normally improbable justice that we are privy to see, as it is unwittingly launched by error. When the government officials receive their own comeuppance, we are assured that the lofty are most greatly impugned and punished by their own shame, humiliation and self-deception. At this time in our social and political history, we are thrilled to laugh riotously at the characters’ machinations and their unhappy conclusions which remind us that “what goes around comes around.” What a pleasure!
The performances are the jewels that provide the glitter and the piquant vibrancy of the production. Without this ensemble, the jokes would scintillate but not with the power to strike as hard and send us as furiously as they do into the comic heavenlies.
In the first scene, we are introduced to the conflict and meet the dastardly mayor (Michael McGrath is wonderfully on point with every hysterical line, every turn of phrase) and his legion of nefarious officials, the illuminating and funny Tom Alan Robbins, William Youmans, Stephen Derosa, James Rana, Luis Moreno. Hatcher/Gogol pull back the veil as the politicians chatter and conspire and we are allowed to see where they have buried all the financial duplicities and discover who is taking what and how the mandate and mission of the judge, the principal, the hospital and law enforcement have been mismanaged to a preposterous degree. (It’s kind of like appointing an EPA director who will dismantle all of the environmental regulations to fund anti-green corporations.)
As for privacy concerns? All the town gossip, all of the secrecies and personal intimacies and weaknesses are explored and savored for broadcast by The Postmaster (the unforgettable Arnie Burton) who enthusiastically reads every line in each letter, sharing the juiciest and most damning information with his cronies for entertainment. Burton’s portrayal of the Postmaster is moment to moment LMAO; the comedy comes out of the personality of the character which makes his performance absolutely sublime. In this town there is no detail which is not known or kept quiet that Arnie’s Postmaster doesn’t blabber with gusto. He certainly is a tool of the corrupt political machine; he helps it keep abreast of its enemies to forestall any dangers to its power structure.
At the meeting of these wicked corrupt, they discuss their grave problem which is a threat to their livelihood and career positions. An investigator has come to the town in disguise to explore the level of malfeasance. They fear that he will hold them to account. All the officials and even two local landowners (the funny Ben Mehl and Ryan Garbayo) must work together, discover the hidden identity of this “spy” and turn him over to their side with bribes and payoffs. It is an intrigue that holds danger for the officials and promise for the little people who we don’t really see as we are in thick with the conspirators, a completely enjoyable and refreshing sardonic view.
What has been a boisterous and satiric introduction is jettisoned into a hyperbole of hilarity in the next scene where we meet a lowly civil servant, the ineffectual would-be suicide Hlestakov (the unforgettable and prodigiously talented Michael Urie) and his clever servant Osip (the versatile Arnie Burton). Hlestakov can’t quite “do the job” with a pistol to free himself of this unrequitable earthly plane, his gambling debts and the ignominy of a meager, zero-of-a-life, which he has badly used.
Because Hlestakov is incompetent at suicide, we have an hour and one-half of side-splitting laughter. Urie fashions comical uproariousness by using all the acting tools of his instrument. He flawlessly surfs the cresting waves of farcical action which he has helped to inflate. He is rather like a fine composer assisted by the incredible accompaniment of the ensemble, who spin their superbly tuned acting instruments into a wild symphony of raucous delight.
In this production Urie has stretched his talents to new heights. He is reminiscent of some of the comic greats; select any one of them in film, television or theater. He distills the substance of his lines then infuses them with the character of Hlestakov filtered through and around himself so that the civil servant who dupes the corrupted officials, and he, Michael Urie, are indivisible. Not only does Urie have seamless timing, he anticipates the power of pauses which he capitalizes on with grace, fluidity and an uncanny communication with the watchful, listening audience. Very simply, he captures Hlestakov’s being and rounds it out with Chaplinesque force and will.
As grand accompaniments, Mary Lou Rosato (various roles), Kelly Hutchinson (various roles), Mary Testa (the mayor’s wife) and Talene Monahon (the mayor’s daughter) are divine comedians. Without them the production would fly at a lower pitch. They are integral to the revelation of pretense behind the mayor, who is a wanna-be aspiring to nobility but must wallow in the mud of his position as a small-town functionary. And they (Testa, Monahon) provide the grist upon which Urie’s Hlestakov bakes the fabulous bread we devour to nurture our souls with exuberance and glee.
Indeed, all of the servant portrayals, each one more clever and shrewd than their masters/mistresses, are exceptionally delineated as characters and specifically portrayed by the actors. If one considers that in less than one hundred years what they are to “inherit” after the Revolution, there are no insignificant characters here, but they are the most prescient in biding their time waiting, in due season to dispatch here and there the fools they serve.
The dynamic arc of the play’s development is expertly unfolded so that by the conclusion, we have feasted and are sated. We recognize how thrilling it is to take our part in this rollicking spectacle which is perfectly congenial in its staging, set design, lighting, costuming and the thematic symbolism of its physical, emotional and intellectual levels. This seemingly effortless and easy production took loving care, sagacity and genius to effect the terror of its satire, the bounty of its humor, the innovation of its celebrated cast. Kudos to Jesse Berger who magnificently brought this together and who had the quick-witted spirit and grace to understand how to let it “all hang out,” using the structure of these artists’ inner freedom to live within the boundaries of Gogol’s classic.
If you don’t see this production you will have missed something truly wonderful and riotous. If you do see it, expect the audience to break into laughter and applause frequently because the infection of joy is abundant and bounces liberally between audience and cast. The two hours with one intermission race by.
When Donald Trump won the 2016 election, Oskar Eustis decided that he would present the opening of the summer season of The Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park with the timeless production where Shakespeare asks through conspirators who just assassinated Julius Caesar, “How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown!” If Shakespeare could have conceived of his work being done to reflect the current social and political times of one of the foremost nation’s on the planet, a state not born in Shakespeare’s time, he would have appreciated how the director and cast presented his immutable themes about power, violence, greed, political dynamics with a current spin to make the audience think. To an admirable extent, Eustis’ direction “got it right!”
The assassination of a political figure, especially one as accomplished, militarily gifted and innately brilliant as the real Julius Caesar contains lessons for every era and generation of humanity. Considering Shakespeare’s concentration on the very human issues of envy, injustice, pride and ease with which the witless masses are manipulated by politicians, all of which his work emphasizes, the US version of Julius Caesar presented by the Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park in its modern day interpretation sits as a clarion call. It is a harbinger not of things to come, but is an echo of what has been and what will always be.
For as long as there are governments, political factions, power players and the will to murder and commit genocide to secure riches and power, Julius Caesar will be an iconic play. If human nature could only embrace the man who came after Julius Caesar born in Judea in the time of Augustus. Would that humanity could embody His spirit and virtues to change the very core of its flawed essence. Then Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar would be a quaint history play, an almost irrelevance. But such as humanity is, the play will always resound in studied human hearts and Caesar will bleed in sport on global stages for centuries to come..
Whether you dress Caesar up in a suit and long, red tie to mimicry and satirize the current fake and pompous American “man who would be king” or you costume Caesar in a toga replicating the times of Rome, there is much to understand about human beings and politics in this play, if one has the eyes to see, the ears to hear. If you managed to score a ticket to watch this very fine production which amassed responses of praise, excoriation and lukewarm dismissal during its controversial run, you would have been treated to a rousing occasion and would have judged for yourself whether it was offensive, too over the top or innovatively enlightened.
Indeed, the furor of misinterpretation by those who never saw it and complained in error about what they thought the production advocated prompted a few sponsors to pull their support from a play which normally draws yawns and zzzzs after the climax in Act III. That Eustis could raise controversy because of his directorial choices is to his credit and speaks to his courage, ingeniousness and focus on the purpose of great drama: to raise awareness, to show us ourselves and to encourage us toward amendment.
The outcry by those who most likely would not have appreciated the production’s cleverness, are probably not at the head of the class in understanding Shakespeare, his language, the subject, the poetic cadences, the metaphors, symbolism, themes, ironies and more. That is the real tragedy. For the commoners in Shakespeare’s time did recognize the poetic language, rhythms, the themes and even the psychological guilt in Brutus’ soul when Caesar’s ghost shows up to predict his death. Shakespeare’s work, unlike our atomized entertainment, was aimed at the working class and royalty alike; he wrote for everyone and his audience of Queen Elizabeth I and the groundlings appreciated and understood his plays.
Today, the intellect of commoners in the US who can or cannot appreciate Shakespeare knows no economic latitude and longitude. One may be a wealthy or poor Philistine: the vilifiers of Eustis’ production did not suppress their ire. They misunderstood his work with abandon, thinking it rightly due that they could uplift uninformed opinions though they didn’t see the performances. Right behind them the Russian trolls and bots stirred up cauldrons of boiling virtual mud online via fake social media accounts. So be it. They too, like Marc Antony will stumble over their own carcasses en route to an unhappy grave (the bots and trolls). Despite the hoopla, this presentation was a roaring fire and our nation and culture are better for it.
Eustis chose to accoutre his production with elements from our culture. He included these to poke fun at the chaos and clownish behaviors emanating from the United States’ once venerable seat of power, the White House, whose nobility has been sucked dry by the head canker worm with the red tie, and the other parasites that occupy the halls of power. Thus, from cell phones and twitter feeds to graffiti walls on subway stations where dissidents (ordinary citizens, protestors, Occupy Wall Street et. al.) wrote encouraging messages to counteract the disgust they felt after the 2016 election, the play manifests the struggle of American citizens on both the left and the right to solidify their agendas and make their voices known. The production emphasizes the horrific violence on both sides of the Roman coin which leads to the demise of the Roman republic and the rise of autocratic rule. That is the key warning for our age.
Some parallels between Julius Caesar’s Rome and U.S. politics are fascinating, but by no means does Eustis suggest the undercurrents of the tide and times are the same. Though he does make foreboding suggestions for our democracy, the US does not hang in the balance, certainly, not like Rome did. However, if there is a foreign power influencing our elections (this is not in Julius Caesar) to promote the demise of our two party system and push it against the principles of the constitution, then this must be looked into as a new type of warfare. We need to follow the example of our European allies who are currently working against Russia on many fronts including teaching children how to recognize fake sources of online news and the hallmark signs of propaganda. Ukraine and all of the EU nations are farther ahead of us who have not even recognized there is a devil in our virtual house, let alone protected against it.
Though there are hints at a comparison between Rome and the current US political situation, they are more for sardonic, dramatic and tonal purposes. Sadly, there is little to compare if one seriously considers the political players. Would that our current president and the politicians in our Senate and House be worthy of the exceptionalism, military soldiering, courage, erudition and genius of Julius Caesar and the senators of that day. Indeed, over the past devolution of decades, the current lot of politicians are more akin to the rabble of citizens (illiterate lower classes) who are easily swayed by the last speaker and motivated by gifts (Antony offers the citizens gold from Caesar’s treasuries to sway them to violence, and later reneges on his promise). Our current political “heroes” lack the honor, the soul power, the majesty, the courage, the talents, the skills and solidity of character that their equivalents in the play demonstrate.
By no means is the greatness of Caesar who led his legions, fought in battles next to his men and distinguished himself as an extraordinary individual who enriched the Roman empire to be lessened by a suggested reflection in the current president. If critics who so excoriated this production knew a bit about ancient history, Julius Caesar, the Roman senators, etc., they would have understood that the contrast between Donald Trump and Julius Caesar is indeed laughable to the extreme of hyperbole.
To think that Eustis is fomenting violence against the current president is even more laughable. And that is the point. This is one at whom one laughs, ridicules and mocks, for his actions are worthy of little more. Cutouts do not stand. They fall brought down by themselves. Julius Caesar the real man was very, very different. He was someone worthy, someone dangerous. His track record verifying this was miles long. The only wit who laughs about Caesar is Casca, no one else does in the play. The president’s behavior is imminently laughable and even more so that he does it to gain publicity which has been based on infamous shameless and untoward behavior unfit for the venerable office he holds and continually demeans.
There is no comparison between the two men. The fact that Eustis costumes the Caesar character in the tell-tale suit and red tie drives at the very cardboard cutout the president is proud to be: all show, all outer appearance, all image, no inner substance, no character, no strength, no courage, no bravery, not one wit of who Julius Caesar was, except perhaps in Shakespeare’s delineating his pride in not wanting to appear weak which is the fatal flaw that leads to Caesar’s death.
But even then Caesar had to be cleverly manipulated by a “close confidante” to turn against his own better judgment and go to the senate where death awaited him. Indeed, he goes because he is fatalistic. He has braved death many times in battle. He does not fear death, as he says, “The valiant fears death only once,” so let it be with Caesar. This man Julius tailors himself to fit the fullness of the role of Caesar which he respects and attempts to live up to, but cannot because he is mortal. The current president cannot fit the role of president, is unfit for that role and would shape it to fit the role of the leadership of another country whose oligarchy, fascism and tyranny is well documented.
Unlike the White House knave, Caesar was deserving of his honors. He earned them and was indeed a self-made man, a courageous leader, exceptional diplomat and lover of the reputed to be most beautiful woman in the world, Cleopatra. How he rose to power was daunting. And even if you consider that the Roman legions didn’t take BS from anyone, if he had proven himself less worthy, they would have just as soon slit his throat than suffer any clownish foolishness he might lay on them which in his nobility and stature he would never entertain. Again the contrast with the current president is wider than the ocean and Eustas’ production proves their difference in character and spirit to be galactic. And that key theme is screamed out with irony and sardonic humor.
By the time Shakespeare introduces Caesar in the production, the very Roman republic is thought by some to be at stake (an argument Cassius uses to convince Brutus to join the conspirators, which is hypothetical) because a majority of the Roman senators intend to proclaim Caesar emperor. Caesar, wisely, will not wear his crown in Rome, maintaining an apparent equality with the other rulers of Rome which he astutely understands want to keep Rome a republic. Nevertheless, it is because some senators supported Pompeii, the previous Roman ruler who Caesar fought during a civil war and killed in Gaul, that he has enemies. Rather than to kill many of Pompeii’s supporters (Cassius and the other conspirators) he pardons them. It is a fatal mistake because it is his enemies led by the noble, idealistic, impractical Brutus who kill him; only Brutus does so to preserve the republic. Brutus’ fatal error in fact destroys the Roman Republic forever.
As a result of the assassination, massive rioting takes over Rome, stirred up by Marc Antony who with Octavian and Lepidus foment another civil war between the old Pompeii supporters led by Brutus’ and Cassius’ legions versus Marc Antony’s, Lepidus’ and Octavian’s armies which eventually win against the conspirators. However, the cost in bloodshed is incalculable and Octavian/Augustus proves to be the very thing that Brutus and Cassius intended to prevent with Caesar’s assassination. In fact Octavian as a tyrannical autocrat is worse than Caesar would have been. Caesar’s grandnephew, Octavian, later Augustus, learned from his granduncle’s mistake of granting pardons. When he attains the leadership of Rome, after getting Antony to commit suicide and wiping out his “enemies” in battle, at home he rounds up anyone who would even whisper against him, not even allowing them a trial. The genocidal purge wipes out the best of Rome and leads to his Pax Romana (an irony as peace was purchased by bloodshed and kept by fear) and autocratic rule.
The Roman republic is destroyed. The catalyst is the assassination. If the conspiratorial senators had not taken matters into their own hands through violence, but trusted the very powerful democratic tools they had to strengthen their republic, thousands of lives would have been saved, and the intelligentsia would not have been wiped out as a potential threat to Augustus Caesar’s power base. Shakespeare’s principle theme that violence begets violence and a republic cannot be safeguarded by civil war is a powerful lesson he puts forth for future global generations.
Eustis’ production is assisted by fine performances by the ensemble and especially the standouts: the insidious, hypocritical Elizabeth Marvel as Marc Antony (with a southern voice, kind of like Jeff Sessions/Mitch McConnell and Strom Thurmond) Corey Stoll as Brutus, and John Douglas Thompson as Cassius. The latter two both portray a humanity and intelligence in their characters that is moving and real. In its entirety, Eustis’ Julius Caesar gives us a powerful reminder of the beauty of our democracy and constitution and the great tragedy if we lose it through violent means. ( or the new violence, cyber warfare).
Also, throughout this seminal, witty and sardonic presentation, there is an underlying, subtle exhortation to those who would govern us today, here and now: adhere to the constitution, respect the voices of the people, promote equity and justice through a free and accurate press, and insure solid educational opportunity which promotes a greater drive toward economic equity for all. To not do so encourages the hopelessness that begets violence and conspiracy such as made evident in Julius Caesar. Indeed, as this production and Shakespeare so tellingly relate, a country’s leadership is directly responsible for the evolution or devolution of its nation, because the leaders manipulate the people who are invariably less educated and have less power than they.
Shakespeare/Eustis also reinforces that those in power who would manipulate and use the commons to kill for them in the hope of securing power through violent civil strife and assassination, only sow their own demise and the demise of the republic.. With each act of bloodshed, with each body slain, with each bellicose threat of citizen against citizen, a republic and/or a democracy is weakened, as this production reveals. To interpret this work as anything but belies a senselessness and negligent/willful misinterpretation of Shakespeare’s great play and Eustis’ production which interprets Shakespeare’s immutable themes with a currency that encourages us to think, to meditate and delve beyond brainwashing pap uplifted in some media outlets.
The Public Theater is to be credited for its steadfastness to withstand the intense pressure to remove funding because of a production predominately miscued by those who didn’t see it. The controversy, used to generate publicity about an individual whose shamelessness and lack of respect for himself and the office he holds actually validated Eustis’ sardonic interpretation, is a further irony. I, for one, appreciate The Public’s undaunted courage to persist with their vision and mission to stand up for freedom of the press and the sanctity of artistic endeavor to bring a unique, fresh and ironic spin to a play that is often cast as a droll, frozen, rendering of antiquity, easily dismissed because it happened over 2000 years ago.
Eustis encouraged a new veneration for Shakespeare’s timeless work. And he unlike the head corporate philistine of Broadway who holds The Great White Way for ransom, follows in the venerated footsteps of its founder Joseph Papp. They offer sterling artistic works at a lower price and Shakespeare for FREE each year, if you cue up for it democratically. Bravo!