Domenia Feraud’s brilliantly constructed, intimate and fascinating Rinse Repeat, is about one woman’s attempt to grapple with a disease pervasive in our culture, but which few discuss and many keep hidden. Feraud’s play at Pershing Square’s Signature Center (The Linney) receives a cogent, eye-opening, much needed rendering in this astounding production expertly directed by by Kate Hopkins and exceptionally acted by an “in the moment,” acute, dynamic ensemble..
From the outset when Rachel (Domenica Feraud’s portrayal is specific, highly tuned and real) enters the home she has left for a season to return to her family, we are gripped by her tentative steps, her unsettled, hesitant manner. Surely, her unease comes out of something which has happened there; her expectation hovers in the air like a darkened cloud, and we pick up her imbalance which leaves us in a hushed suspense.
All this is put to rest, however, when beautiful mother Joan (the superb Florencia Lozano) and warm, loving father Peter (the heartfelt and engaging Michael Hayden) greet her enthusiastically and smother her in smiles and encouraging, welcoming comments about “how wonderful she looks” and how happy they are to see her and have her back. Yet, clues are dropped. Her mom asks if she may hug her: importuning if her daughter is ready to receive her affection? Curious! And her laconic, 18-year-old brother, the haphazardly funny Brody, whose response to his sister is frank and unapologetic, gives her a less than gracious hug that is cold and brief. This unsettles the atmosphere once more. We question: is that just Brody’s character or does it reflect “what happened” before Rachel left?
Jake Ryan Lozano’s portrayal as Brody garners laughs with his callow, humorous, teen-male demeanor, obsessed with his girlfriend and sports. (The portrayal blossoms in their quiet sister/brother time together later in the play when Lozano’s Brody allows his love and sensitivity to unfold with poignance.) Initially, Brody seems uninterested in her presence, but tips us off that her return is something he may fear when he implies he doesn’t want to introduce her to his girlfriend to scare her off and that her physical appearance the last time he saw her “was scary.”
As we watch these interactions, we synthesize the clues and the picture sharpens. Rachel has been in intense therapy that involved she be away from family. Before she left, she was in a wheelchair, too weak to walk. But now she appears physically fit. Therapy has saved her life. Back in the environment that bred her illness, can she maintain the health she has achieved or will she suffer a set back into her addiction?
The playwright gradually unfolds the mystery of what happened before that on the surface upended the loving, “normal” family. The family was never “normal;” nor was it unconditionally loving. Peter and Joan are rife with issues and problems in their relationship and in themselves; blindness, fear and anger have prevented them from confronting themselves honestly and this has spilled onto their relationships with their children.
Feraud has drawn the matrix of illness interrelating it with Rachel, Joan and Peter primarily. Ironically, the complications of Rachel’s addiction are the manifestation of profound issues with each of the family members. Like a festering boil which comes to a head then is burst so the infection is released, Rachel’s addiction has been burst to impact the family on a manifest level. However, for the infection to be eliminated, it must be excised at the root and that means Joan and Peter and even Brody must be excised in therapy with Rachel if she is to live with them in health. They are her addiction as well as being psychically ill themselves. However, only Rachel understands this.
For those who have suffered in similitude with Rachel’s illness, they will identify with her behaviors and immediately “get it.” And indeed, the “tell-tale” signs of how her sickness morphs her back toward unhealthy patterns explodes again and again during the weekend with Peter, Joan and Brody. During her discussion with Brody in a quiet time of night, we appreciate the serenity and honesty between the siblings, an honesty that is lacking in her relationship with her mother and father. Placed back into the family structure that is in effect a sham, Rachel and Brody huddle in their own corner of their lives. Peter’s and Joan’s marriage is crumbling with dishonesty. Brody and Rachel sense it and suffer, and will be happy to leave the festering wounds that work deep underground in the soils of their family’s lives and interrelationships.
The details of Rachel’s eating disorder are superbly portrayed. We note her family’s concern about Rachel’s eating as they sit down to a meal together all on their best behavior, playing the dutiful family members the first night. The turning point comes when Rachel speaks to her mother that evening and looks for a snack. Her mother pressures her about her career and the snack. The dutiful daughter, Rachel agrees with her mother and foregoes the snack, which she is not supposed to do according to the protocol of health set up for her by her therapists. The tiny detail and the seemingly benign interaction between mother and daughter spills controlling maternal poison that psychically infuses Rachel’s emotions and careens her back into her old self-damaging behaviors.
The next day, all unravels and the underpinnings of the problems that contributed to Rachel’s illness emerge. Back in an environment where she is the sacrifice and the target around which everyone places the blame, no one else appears to accept responsibility for their contributions in the matrix of self-destruction twining into Rachel’s addiction. Indeed, unless the others, especially Joan, who herself is eating disordered, reflect on their own psychic maladies and seek help to correct, Rachel is doomed to fail once more if she stays at home.
This is the anatomy of an illness that Feraud incisively chronicles with emotional power and intense, accurate specificity. As each event builds on the ones that have gone before we understand the magnitude and the complexity of why people die from Rachel’s anorexia, and chronic eating disorders. Feraud unravels the tapestry with an incredible precision of detailed acts that show how Rachel slides back into a routine of bulimia, binging/purging, excessive weighing and body dysmorphia, which Joan, unconsciously, neglectfully perpetrates with the controlling pressure on Rachel to do as she suggests regarding a legal career and eating less than she should.
On the other hand, though Peter, having gone to therapy at Renley with Rachel, appears to be sympathetic and concerned, he too drops the ball regarding monitoring her care. Both parents leave her alone to fend for herself, a violation of the protocol which therapists established to make sure she will not relapse. For those “unfamiliar” with eating disorders, Feraud ‘s characterization of the struggling Rachel is one for the ages. And as Rachel weighs the bagels and takes the smallest one, stuffs down the delicious French toast then spits it out, the looming psychology of why one must watch one’s weight and not “get fat,” reveals the self-fulfilling monster that is devouring the anorexic like Rachel from inside out.
Sadly, as Feraud points out in her “Note from the playwright,” Rachel is not alone. Thirty million people suffer from an eating disorder; truth be told, the numbers are most probably much larger considering the cultural obsession of the fashion, advertising, plastic surgery and billion dollar weight loss industries which ply their guilt on women to be thin and look sleek, young and beautiful at every age.
The play is filled with the signs of nefarious eating oddities that plague not only women of all ages but men as well. Perhaps the scene that most resonates, is one enacted incredibly by Florencia Lozano’s Joan. Having been too busy to eat, Joan, who deprives herself of food to maintain her lovely body comes home ravaged with uncontrollable hunger. We watch stunned as standing by the counter, too impatient to set a place for herself at the table while she cooks a meal (Peter does the cooking; she avoids it) she crams her face with anything low calorie to stave off her “insane” cravings. The hunger she expresses is a theme and metaphor, not only of her inability to be the beautiful person she intends to be, but of her starvation of self-love borne out by her obsessive need to “be the best, prettiest, slimmest, smartest, sharpest,” all the while believing inside that she is a miserable, loathsome worm.
This and the other scenes related to eating are so authentic their reality shocks us. Indeed, the truths in this production create vital theater exacted with brilliance by the director and actors. This is a production that must be seen for its themes of how parents “lovingly” encourage their children into self-loathing translating their own self-loathing onto them, to the cultural starvation through appearance fascism that commands that all conform to one physical appearance type and self-righteously condemn anyone who does not measure up. These themes and others and the characterizations and interrelationships Feraud has painstakingly drawn to perfection.
Another of the beauties of her well-crafted writing is that the themes evolve with revelation upon revelation. stacked upon each other. Then, at the end Rachel reaches a crescendo of rage that she releases in truths about her mother and father with such wisdom, it is breathtaking. All makes perfect sense; the family masks are off and Rachel returns to therapy leaving her parents standing naked in their own psychic self-loathing.
Kudos to Brittany Vasta whose functional, evocative scenic design conveys the household of perfection where imperfect individuals strive, lose, hurt and avoid each other with lies. Likewise, Nicole Slaven’s costume design, Oona Curley’s Lighting design and Ien Denio’s sound design/original compositions help to create such a memorable, indelible portrait of a family in crisis and one who is on the road to health, in spite of it.
Rinse, Repeat (precisely symbolic title for the chronic circularity of illness) has been extended until 24 of August and should be extended again, it is that superb. The play runs with no intermission at Pershing Square Signature Center. For tickets and times go to their website by CLICKING HERE.
The first few minutes of the way she spoke by Isaac Gomez directed by Jo Bonney are easy and humorous with light but discriminatory undertones. An actor comes in for a reading. She references that directors give her demeaning parts to read, for example, whores or prostitutes typified by characters named Cha Cha.
The turning point in this lightheartedness erupts with a stark description. Sporadic laughter morphs to horror as the actor moves into the pages of a script where there is the first mention of the graphic mutilation of women’s bodies identifying the brutal murder of eight Mexican women in Juárez, Mexico.
In one fell blow, Telemundo star Kate del Castillo in her electric solo performance strikes at the heart of the patriarchy and bloodletting against thousands of women in the way she spoke. These acts are the side effects of gang violence, power dominance and poverty. In this horrific unofficial civil war, women’s carcasses send messages. They cry out threats and triumphs. They are the most often poignant and innocent casualties, many unrecovered as their persons, after whatever torment and abuse they experienced while alive, are buried in loam in vacant fields that are vast burial grounds.
Gomez’s dramatic rendering, is staged by Bonney with appropriate projections against the stage’s brick wall, while del Castillo in measured crescendos and fades of emotion and woodenness, responds to the shock of what she’s reading so she eventually experiences the high sorrow of this hell. At emotional midpoints she stands and redirects to another part of the stage to enact a role, sometimes of a dastardly, cold killer. The music and the projections follow her and slip into silence with the resonance of her storytelling. The drama increases its intensity; she configures the eye-witness accounts so that they jump off the page, spin with her energy into our imaginations.
As del Castillo relates events, describes images, philosophizes and makes us feel a paralysis of horror about the terrible femicide in ,Juárez at a time when the drug cartels were most fierce, we understand. Regardless that the violence has been mitigated since then and murders have decreased a bit, the same happens elsewhere in the world. This is a theme that del Castillo/Gomez reiterate. This reality floats like a dagger before us; what can we do? Is awareness enough? The playwright has unloaded his revelations in this work. He is finished, for in the effort to gain and reveal evidence of our blood lusting nature, he has accepted a measure of responsibility. But where do we go from here? And how do we become involved in a fight of advocacy to ensure that such targeted bellicosity against women doesn’t happen again?
There is always the response to “do nothing and move on with our lives.” It is a survival response, to ignore, duck and cover, return to our pleasant lives and try to forget we ever heard such descriptions of a female holocaust impacting all ages. But we cannot. Gomez, del Castillo and Bonney grip us with the power of these women’s voices from beyond the grave. They make us care for the “invisible” women whom they transcribe into reality during the strongest segments of this production. The concrete images of hate, fear and gore unsettle our minds: they are the final evidence that the mutilation and murder of women, the givers of life, have at their core a blasphemy against all of humankind like no other. After our numbness, the outrage comes against the patriarchy that would not sanction this, against the misogyny that is ancient, inbred and unique to our species!
The material gleaned by the playwright from a series of interviews with various members of the Mexican community speaks for itself in the voices of the witnesses. And Gomez has cobbled it together thematically allowing the interviewees words conveyed with heartfelt grist by del Castillo to float like blood in water whose increasing droplets will not co-mingle or mix but retain their shape. And then suddenly, all is a dark red that stains our remembrance.
Kudos to the creative artists who assisted to make this a haunting presentation. They are Riccardo Hernandez (scenic design), Emilio Sosa (costume design), Lap Chi Chu (lighting design), Elisheba Ittoop (sound design), and Aaron Rhyne (projection design).
This production which Audible has recorded will be released as an audio play after its closing. Without visuals the words of the witnesses will explode in the hearer’s ears. They are both an encomium and a chronicle reconciling the dead to the light of a greater truth we are being forced to acknowledge in the hope of changing if even one life in the future.
In its final week the way she spoke is presented by Audible Theater at Minetta Lane Theatre (18 Minetta Lane between 6th Ave and McDougal St. in the West Village) until 18 August. For tickets and times go to their website by CLICKING HERE.
Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s apotheosis about a war monger who fires up for battle and yawns with boredom when he must live peaceably in the community brings to mind a ravaged soldier whose PTSD has so overcome him that he prefers living on the edge of death to energize himself to life. If he must choose between bloodshed, battle and calm, give Coriolanus carnage that he delivers, the gorier the better.
What does one do with such a Roman in a time of scarce resources on a planet ravaged by the doomsday scenario of global warming? Make him a politician to organize and straighten out issues in a time of great unrest in the most dire of conditions? Indeed, then watch him self destruct. For politicians must schmooze, flatter, promise, swallow crow, apologize and act with humanity and forbearance. Coriolanus is fit for battle, not for compromise, leader of his own personal autocracy which cannot be countermanded. Politics requires equanimity or the appearance of it. Of this he is incapable.
Shakespeare’s protagonist has a bit of the hero of The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 award winning film) without Jeremy Renner’s heartfelt agony and recognition of the mammoth loss of his former self before he signed up for war. Indeed, Coriolanus as portrayed by Jonathan Cake has much of the robotic machine killer with whom one has a devil of a time empathizing, especially as he rants and raves against those not born to a privileged background, from no fault of their own. Cake’s Coriolanus lacks interest, love or concern for others, except his wife (Nneka Okafor) son (Emeka Guindo) and mother (the wonderful Kate Burton). For his patrician friends he shows equal measure and latitude, for example Menenius Agrippa (Teagle F. Bougere) Cominius (Tom Nelis) and Titus Lartius (Chris Ghaffari) who advise him and fight with him. For his marvelously bellicose foes like Tullus Aufidius (Louis Canelmi) he bestows his complete veneration and worship.
As for the hurting, starving crowds clamoring for grain while the patricians’ storehouses flow with plenty? Let them eat each other in a zombie apocalypse. Coriolanus will none of it. Indeed, at the outset of the production, director Daniel Sullivan has placed a locked up barrel holding water downstage which the plebeians attempt to break into. But only Coriolanus holds the key to the lock and only he has access as he gives water to his son and denies his thirsty underlings. Charity stops first and last with self and family in a time of crisis such as that which confronts this deteriorating Rome, evocatively represented with a Mad Max scenic design by Beowulf Boritt of scattershot, burned out piles of garbage, remnants of the past, rather like Bob Ewell’s (To Kill a Mockingbird) scrummy playland hovel next to a massive town dump.
Because the rabble are deprived, there is civil unrest against the elites which if not quelled will threaten the security of the state, making it vulnerable to Rome’s enemies. However, Coriolanus answers the plebeians’ complaints with epithet and insult (they are curs and scabs) and argues that if he had the opportunity, he would slaughter them and create a mountain with their carcasses.
Some explanation is given for his wrath against the fickle, unreliable lower classes. His is an elitist patrician nature roiled by his aggressive, assertive mother. When he was a child she encouraged him to abusive dominance exemplified when he attacked the most beautiful and delicate of nature’s creatures by chomping off the wings of butterflies. Being so schooled against softness and generosity, he has no tolerance for the lazy, cowardly plebeians whose unmeritorious behaviors deserve no handouts. He states this to their faces in the opening scenes and we divine that his rancor is most grievous when he rails that he has provided the security of Rome while these poor and unfit do nothing to help him, but quailing in fear, flee even the thought of battle.
The situation is certainly egregious with the Volsces who come to attack. To get the corn they need to stem Rome’s hunger and murmurings, Coriolanus like a Titan hero single-handedly in “Incredible Hulk” fashion goes against these foes and delivers the goods without the help of the commons who slow him down. He emerges victorious from Beowulf Boritt’s ramshackle tin gates set, bloody and triumphant, but arrogant to the point of caricature!
Was ever there such a raging hero hewn from the trials of confronting daily doom as the populace struggles against diminishing resources in Sullivan’s fascinating, ominously foreboding vision? Never. And Shakespeare forges from his hyperbolic character the tragic flaw that caves in Coriolanus’ life, legacy and career: his overweening pride, and his fearsomeness in not being shy to express his superiority to those lowlife “deplorables” who hate him.
Coriolanus certainly is reminiscent of other leaders we know whose arrogance and inability to apologize runs before them. However, Coriolanus is intrepid, mighty and uber skilled in battle. In this he is admirable. The current arrogant and boastful who lead are 100% image and 0% substance, bullying, cowardly and shallow like those whom they represent. That both Coriolanus and the resident of the White House are unfit for politics is their only similarity. Coriolanus’ pride is based in fact and follows an important logic that is downright Puritan in a time of destitution. If one doesn’t contribute to the good of the society, then one is not worthy of the grain that others have supplied. Freeloaders are not welcome!
Shakespeare’s tragedy revolves around his protagonist being lured into the political sphere which he hates for he is not social. He is too “in your face” real to grovel in flowery phrases, alluring promises and imaginative disingenuousness to please the masses. He is direct, frank and authentic and cannot apologize or “fake it” to front those he despises.
However, he suppresses his best judgment and accepts a position which is offered to him. The conspiracy against him blows up when the Tribunes who despise him Sicinius (the excellent Jonathan Hadary) and Junius Brutus (the equal of the pair Enid Graham) incite the plebeians to revoke the offer of the position. This is upon condition that Coriolanus does not “bow” to the voice of the people. This untenable situation requires Coriolanus to be humble and compromising; this is an impossibility which results in his banishment by the Tribunes. Coriolanus counters with the statement that he banishes Rome from his presence and stature. With solemnity, he suggests that there is a place for him, away from Rome.
But there is not. Though he joins Rome’s former enemy Tullus Aufidius of the Volsces intending to avenge his disgrace and dishonor of banishment by destroying Rome, it is a rush to judgment. The momentous decision means that he will destroy his mother, wife, son and friends who have not joined the Volsces. In the most insightful and powerful scene in the production (thanks to Kate Burton and Jonathan Cake’s whining “but mother” which reveals his enslavement to her dominance) Voluminia persuades him to betray Aufidius and fight for Rome not Volsces. It is Coriolanus’ act of sacrificial, stoic death. Aufidius will certainly kill him for his betrayal. That Voluminia has raised her son to war so that he can ultimately die to save her is unnatural and wicked for a mother. Doesn’t Voluminia and his family have other options? But their relationship as Cake and Burton portray it is fraught with issues of power dominance and abuse as the brute Coriolanus is reduced to a mewling weakling by his mother. He accedes to her wishes.
The production’s emphasis works at times and at other times is spotty. The rag-tag Costume Design by Kaye Voyce, Scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt, the Lighting Design by Japhy Weideman (strongest at the conclusion) the Soudd Design by Jessica Paz, the Composer Dan Moses Schreier’s music all convey Sullivan’s vision and themes soundly to resonate for us today. What happens to the haves and have nots when the law of diminishing returns lets loose annihilation because of the willful negligence and stupifying greed of previous generations’ corporate elites? Sullivan’s answering backdrop for the play is acute and frightening.
On the other hand, the empathy that we could feel for the plight of Coriolanus struggling against his own character wobbles perhaps because his character portrayal is one-note, at times cartoonish and lacking in depth. In the scenes with Burton’s Voluminia the depth of Cake’s Coriolanus shines, however. Shakespeare’s characterization reveals a character caught by his own ego between a rock and a hard place. He is betrayed by the Tribunes (his mother’s rant in their faces is largely ineffective) who capitalize on his arrogant weak character, lure him then back him into a humble pie corner from which he implodes.
And when he decides to punish Rome by depriving the society of the one way he has greatly benefited it by delivering death to its door? Once again he is thwarted, this time by his mother. And yet, there is no solace, nor sorrow nor identification at the conclusion that one might feel with Cake’s portrayal of a man who has undone himself. This is a weakness of the production which in all else especially Sullivan’s vision of the future is pointed.
Coriolanus is enjoying its last presentation today, 11 August. Performances have been sold out. However, there may be seats released if you are lucky and able to get to the Delacorte Theater well before curtain time at 8:00 pm.
Little Gem starring the wonderful Marsha Mason at the Irish Repertory Theatre is a poignant and comedic look at three generations of women from North Inner City Dublin. We follow along as the grandmother, daughter and granddaughter share their experiences, responses and perspectives at major turning points in their lives. Each tells their tale in six separate segments precipitated by a visit to the doctor’s office. In the final segment, the women, having gone through their own personal cataclysms, rally around the comfort of each other and sleep in the same bed, reunited in love and understanding.
The play written by Elaine Murphy premiered at the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2008, where it won the Fishamble New Writing Award before transferring to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This production directed by Marc Atkinson Borrull is essentially a solo tour de force for each character/actor. The only interaction among the characters occurs in the last segment. Only then do we see grandmother Kay (Marsha Mason is powerful, heartfelt and funny) daughter Lorraine (Brenda Meaney is ironic and nuanced) and Lauren O’Leary as the wise-cracking, sharp-tonged Amber relate to each other directly.
During the production, we listen to the narration of each woman separately. We revisit how each is at a different stage in her life (symbolic of women in general at different ages in their lives). We understand how she experiences the physical and emotional desires of needing and wanting to be in a relationship with someone who will care for her. And we note how each negotiates the wheel and woe of their personal relationships.
The women relate their stories in flashback in direct addresses to the audience. Initially, we discover the superficial reasons why they are in a doctor’s office. Amber has indigestion and throws up frequently in the mornings. Lorraine is emotionally mottled with stress and needs medications to calm her and resettle her life. Kay has a “personal itch down there.”
As the production unfolds the women by degrees go into their reveals during their story-telling turns with the youngest generation first, simulating the arc of life’s beginning. The forty-something Lorraine represents the middle stage of life and the sixty-something Kay represents the senior years. As they each address the audience, we understand the depth of their angst as they relate how their situations become the touchstones of their growth and realizations. The progression is an interesting one and thematically reminds us of the innocence and naiveté of youth (the fecund period) the transformation into recognizing deeper values in life and the winding down into menopause, and the increased sexual libido that often occurs for older women long after they’ve thrown off the aftereffects of child rearing.
In six segments Amber discusses the events with Paul which brought her to the doctor to help her during her pregnancy and afterward as she takes care of baby Jamie and he is accepted into the family. We discover how Lorraine’s stress precipitated by her lack of communication with Amber and worry centered around Amber’s sometimes wild behavior (like mother, like daughter) is somewhat mitigated when she follows her therapist’s suggestions to “get out of herself” and her miseries and goes dancing. After she meets someone, with Amber’s encouragement she goes on a date with him in what becomes a developing relationship.
At the doctor’s office Kay receives “the ok” to have sex without Little Gem who is too debilitated and ill to continue their fabulous sex life. She will do this via the help of a vibrator. Indeed, the scene when Mason effects this is one of the funniest in the play. And as Little Gem fades from this life and moves into the next, at the grave she grieves her husband and in the last scene of the play seeks the comfort of her daughter and granddaughter.
Elaine Murphy’s work is strongest in the concept of revelation and self-recognition and growth that occurs in each of the women’s lives. However, the playwright decides to keep the play largely expositional. This dissipates the drama that occurs in the family dynamic. We note the underlying levels of action, however they are reported; an example of this occurs when Lorraine discusses that she doesn’t communicate with her daughter. However, we never see the characters Lorraine and Amber demonstrate how or when this occurs actively. Likewise, the characters may talk about a family member who stands next to them, but there is no active dialogue or exchange between and among each of the characters until the end. The strongest exchange occurs only then when they get into bed after Little Gem dies and they comfort Kay to reveal they unite as a family.
For me any related emotional power and inherent possibility of empathy falls short with the playwright’s selection of this expositional structure predominately. Would the play have worked more dramatically and humorously with different staging and lighting as each woman takes a darkened stage stepping into the spotlight and sharing the import of her story? Somehow, the office setting was a banal distraction. Or was this the point since the women are vibrant and we are transfixed at various times during their revelations?
The actors stand out because through them, their characters’ stories are exposed. They remind all of us that we have a story to tell and it is representational and unique for our time and place. Meaney, O’Leary and Mason engage and keep us launched into remembering what has occurred previously. We must figure out how related events have bled into the current segments of their narration as they detail the specifics: Lorraine’s difficulties with her daughter, Amber’s difficulties with Paul after he discovers she’s pregnant, Little Gem’s sickness and dying. We become the catch-basin for all of their humorous/poignant story events. These are peaked with the tragicomedy of Amber’s, Lorraine’s and Kay’s feminine perspectives of their middle class lives which include the prickly narrative of their relationships: Amber’s reports of sometime boyfriend Paul, Lorraine’s report of a poignant conversation with junkie ex-husband Ray, and Kay’s explanation of her role as caretaker during Little Gem’s frustrating illness and heartbreaking death.
Little Gem is a portrait of women during crisis and the ways they look for the humor and uplift during the rough patches of life. The audience partners with them as we listen to their troubles like a good friend or neighbor. And in the telling of their stories there is the release, growth and hope that in the family all will be well as the next generation adds to the flavor of their future. And so it goes for us as well.
Little Gem is in a revival in New York from a run in 2010 and is in a limited engagement through 1 September. For tickets and times at the Irish Rep website CLICK HERE.
Luis Alfaro’s riveting update of the Greek Tragedy Medea spun out against our current immigrant crisis is authentic, primal and timely with exceptional direction and evocation by Chay Yew. I saw it this weekend, one day prior to the Trump announced ICE raids designed to terrorize and apprehend illegal immigrants, “wetbacks” (mojados) with the intention of incarcerating them until eventual deportation. The “raids” failed miserably in their execution, but not their intent to terrorize.
Alfaro adroitly reinterprets the migrant crisis and parallels it with the story of Medea, the sorceress who dispatches her children after her husband Jason dumps her and marries the king’s daughter. However, he makes significant changes in the characterizations, softening and humanizing Medea and Jason and removing the notions of vengeance and anger by changing it to despair, isolation, loneliness and desperation for the character of Medea. Additionally, unlike the classic Medea, Alfaro never leaves off Jason’s love and tender concern for Medea, shifting her enemy conflict away from Jason to her rival Pilar.
Alfaro’s Medea is the the indigenous Mexican “mojada” portrayed by the always present and heartfelt Sabina Zúñiga Varela. Varela gives an exceptional, thrilling portrayal of the emotionally driven and abused spiritualist who has been raped on their journey to the United States and still psychologically suffers from the trauma. Her servant/family member tells us early on in the play that despite the herbs she gives her, she cannot heal. Later, as Medea revisits her horrific journey to “freedom” in America in a flashback sequence, we discover why she cannot “heal;” the trauma has frozen her soul and filled her with fear and death.
Medea’s partner Jason (the excellent, charming Alex Hernandez) is one she adores. Despite the sacrifice of her wholeness and happiness, she stays with him and they finish their journey North with their son Acan (the lively, adorable Benjamin Luis McCracken) and their servant Tita (the humorous, wonderful Socorro Santiago) so Jason may fulfill his ambitions. In a later reveal, we discover why Medea had to leave. When Jason suggests they start over in America, she has little choice but to join him and remain under his protection. However, Medea is confused and unable to self analyze and straighten out her severe emotional problems after their arrival.
Early on in the production we discover that Jason wants “the American Dream.” Clinging to Jason and her family as her only hope, Medea believes in Jason’s love and good will. She indulges his promises of a better life for her and their son in the alien American culture. As the play begins, all appears calm for they have settled in Jackson Heights, New York and both have jobs and earn money while Tita cares for Acan. Jason works construction and Medea works at home, all of which is a divergence from the classic play Medea which begins after Jason and Medea end their marriage.
Alfaro seeks to represent his Mexican Medea with a strong faith in herbal medicine that Tita concocts as well as a ritual morning obeisance to the four winds which she practices with Acan as an incantation, a recitation to recall their past life and infuse it with them in the present so they never forget what they have given up. As an indigenous Mexican, Medea is close to the spiritual plane. Her incantation’s powerful symbolism to her mind strengthens the connection with their homeland to which Medea daily seeks a return, despite Jason’s successful forward direction in becoming prosperous and in encouraging a better life so they may become American citizens. Though Alfaro’s Medea lacks the status of a princess, his portrayal of her beauty, innocence and purity (she is in white throughout the play) represents an everywoman. His depiction symbolizes the core ethos of what makes women noble and sanctified. Varela embodies these traits and heightens the honor of Alfaro’s vision for this character which makes her desperate, hopeless fall from grace all the more tragic and poignant.
Medea, a professional level seamstress, works diligently at supplementing their family income by creating a veritable sweatshop in their home where she makes gorgeous clothing at a pittance while her “bosses” reap a substantial profit for each item and exploit her labor because of her non-status as an illegal immigrant without a green card or work visa. The theme of workers being exploited for their cheap labor while greedy individuals who prey upon their circumstances reminds us of the timeless status quo of the workers vs. their corporate overseers and highlights the plight of undocumented workers. It also is reminiscent of the greed of corporate America which refuses to pay the proper value for their workforce that makes them profitable while paying their CEOs who largely schmooze and network lazily 300 times the amount.
In Medea’s life as an undocumented worker is the everpresent fear that she, her son and Tita may be turned in and deported. This haunts Medea and contributes to her agoraphobia so that she prefers to stay at home in Queens away from the chaos of New York City life that is unfamiliar to her. Her status oppresses her for she has no way to bargain with her employers who “call the shots” and pay her the minimum locking her into an indentured servitude. She has no recourse if she doesn’t like her wage to ask for more. They will go to another undocumented worker or have her deported. Her circumstances make her their slave.
All the general details of Medea, Jason and Acan, Tita relates to the audience chorus-like in a humorous narrative in which she pines for the old country and identifies the difference between the old ways and the inferior American lifestyle. Having been sold to take care of Medea since her mother died as a baby, Tita acknowledges her servile position, but reinforces her authority as a healer who has taught Medea everything she knows. Tita loves Medea who is her obligation. But she fears for her as an innocent and questions Medea’s blind loyalty to Jason whom she believes is not worthy of Medea’s trust. Tita is not only a healer, she is telepathic and she sees what Medea refuses to recognize because if she does, all that Medea has experienced to get to America is in vain, above all the pain and torment she endured on the trip and the misery she feels as an outsider who fits in nowhere in except in Jason’s arms and Acan’s reliance on her.
The arc of development jolts forward after we meet Jason and note how Medea and Jason greet each other, with the calls of the guaco, a bird that lives in the southwest. Their cries to each other are haunting and beautiful. We recognize the bond between them that is ethereal and powerful. Alex remains affectionate and loving to her as Alfaro diverges from Euripides’ classic tragedy in that their family which has been in the U.S. for about a year appears to be united and prospering. Jason is fearless in his desire to be someone and take Medea, Acan and Tita with him on this uplifted path to citizenship. He appears honorable and we assume theirs is the happy whole, until we discover the cracks in the foundation that earthquake and drive the family apart by the end of the play.
The cracks of the foundation are revealed in flashbacks. At one point Medea asks Jason to make love to her under the stars out in the open but she stops herself, and the tender Jason understands and is patient with her. In the extended flashback which Medea narrates, we discover how they struggled to make it to the border, but not before Medea is violated by Mexican soldiers. But that is not the worst that could have happened. Another young woman along the journey is not only gang raped, she is killed and dumped in an unmarked grave. The ordeals migrants go through seeking a better life for themselves is clarified dramatically during this vital segment without polemic or dogma. The ensemble’s acting during these scenes brings the audience to the edge of horror and beyond.
It is Medea’s relationship with Jason that receives the most dynamic upturn in the development of the conflict which Alfaro gradually unravels as we glean the events from Medea’s perspective. Alfaro cleverly occludes the truth as Jason has obfuscated the reality of his personal circumstances to Medea. On the surface we only see that Jason chides her for not going out, and seeks her love and support for his working late nights for the family’s benefit. Even though gossipy comedic Luisa, a neighborhood vendor from Puerto Rico (vibrantly acted by Vanessa Aspillaga) intimates that she is glad her own husband is ugly because Jason’s good looks would be catnip to women, Medea laughs but doesn’t get the message. And the playwright gives no hint of deception until deep in the play so that when its revelation comes, we are shocked and devastated for her.
In a splendid and relevant turn for the culture he writes about, Alfaro shifts the conflict away from the aspect of revenge and justification for vengeance that the classic Euripides’ Medea emphasizes. In Mojado, Alfaro focuses on the bond between Jason and Medea, always as a loving one so that Jason’s betrayal lands like a bomb, and even then, Jason’s charm and sweet, urgent pleas almost convince Medea that he means well in his actions.
Medea’s true enemy is “the other woman” who is Jason’s wealthy boss Pilar (the forceful, slyly arrogant Ada Maris) who has turned her life into the success that Jason intends for himself. Pilar represents all that is noxious about immigrants who embrace the “American Dream,” assimilate and lose their souls to the pursuit of power and money. They become even more treacherous and corrupt than the dolorous white citizens who have been in the country for generations, some of whom have failed and refuse to pick themselves up but instead, blame the migrants for stealing jobs that their own lack of effort would never “lower” them to take, for they are too “superior” to do such labor. This notion abides sub rosa as we watch Pilar and Jason discuss business and note the tremendous industry that Pilar, Jason and Medea embody in their diligence and effort to make money and prosper. Undocumented migrants are synonymous with an incredible almost Puritan work ethic in this play. It is a truism that partisan politics to tickle the ears of the dolorous white supremacists turn on its head.
Pilar comes to diner and reminds Medea that she is staying in one of Pilar’s many houses. Pilar implies she is to be appreciated for not charging Medea fees for making the home into a sweat shop. She infers that it is only her reliance on Jason whom she intends to promote who deflects Pilar from taking a percentage of the money Medea makes. Again, the theme of the exploitation and predation of immigrant bosses who have “made it” taking advantage of undocumented migrant brothers’ and sisters’ industry and resourcefulness is brought to the fore.
When Pilar greets Acan with affection that reveals they have been together a number of times, Medea still remains blind. It is only when Jason reveals that he has married Pilar does Medea begin to understand the forces ranging against her. Medea and Jason never married. Medea believes their union is a spiritual force that would keep them together forever. A marriage paper for their life in Mexico was not necessary; they are bonded by their love and the fruit of their union, Acan. However, in America, legality is paramount so that their spiritual union is nullified by the absence of a piece of paper. The crass American values of money, power, materialism over spirituality, loyalty and love overcome Medea’s hope of survival. Her only way out of the misery and desperation Pilar and the corrupted Jason have bestowed on her as her fate is to take the only power she has left and use it.
In the incredible scene between Pilar and Medea, all of the undercurrents of a woman used to demanding her own way crashes into the innocent Medea’s consciousness. Pilar’s rivalry with this woman who is still loved by her man is acute. It is either Medea or her and unless Medea “gets lost” she will have her deported. The choice for her is no choice. An even more dire fate awaits Medea in Mexico in her home town.
Alfaro has written an amazing play referencing the classical tragedy. He has adopted his work to the Mexican/Latino culture and in so doing expertly gives us an appreciation for what immigrants endure for a better life. Additionally, we empathize because his work covers timeless themes about the powerless vulnerability of migrants like Medea/la mojada. He spins out the familiar tale but enhances it with great depth of feeling so that his protagonist (spoiler alert) restores her own honor and delivers herself to freedom by her acts which proceed more from desperation and sorrow than vengeance. She empowers herself through suicide, something that the sorceress Medea would never contemplate. But in la mojada’s choice there is dignity and sanctity, but at great cost. And at the last moments which are breathtaking she calls out with the cry of the guaco from the realm of spirit. And the response is her tragedy and fall from grace.
From the performances to the authentic, realistic sets and Chay Yew’s fine directorial choices, Mojada is Alfaro’s monumental vision for our times through the lens of Euripides powerful tragedy Medea. In effecting his version Alfaro reveals the great nobility and honor in those who seek to evolve to a different life in another culture, often not completely understanding that the life they seek is filled with corruption, devastation and dishonor. However, to not try is worse. To remain and never know or never learn is naive and a submission to fear and death. The greatness of Alfaro’s character Medea is in her attempt to hold on to the little health/innocence she has and endure. When evil threatens to overwhelm her and her family completely, she defends herself in the only way she knows how. And we are uplifted and sorrowed for her choice.
Kudos goes to the creative team for their fine evocation of the family’s lifestyle through minimalism: Arnulfo Maldonado (Scenic Designer) Haydee Zelideth (Costume Designer) David Weiner (Lighting Designer) Mikhail Fiksel (Sound Designer) Stephan Mazurek (Projetion Designer) Earon Chew Nealey (Hair Style Consultant & Wig Designer) Unkledaves Fight0House (Fight & Intimacy Director).
The New York Music Festival 2019, now in its 16th year (July 8-August 4) remains the premiere musical theatre festival in the world. During the past sixteen years, thousands of artists and administrators have participated in over 400 new musicals some of which have moved to a renewed life Off Broadway. Others have toured the country and found venues elsewhere, perhaps landing back in NYC to achieve a finer calling after being tested on the road. Indeed, a very few like Next To Normal make it to Broadway audiences.
The possibilities for Buried, this year’s only musical which hails from the UK are trenchant and wide-ranging, depending upon the continued energy and fervor of its creators. The music and lyrics are by Cordelia O’Driscoll, book and lyrics by Tom Williams (he also directs) with fine orchestrations and musical direction by Olivia Doust. Buried, a black comedy/musical/drama was twice presented at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and it has won awards. I have missed this production these past three years I’ve attended the Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe Festival. I’m glad it found a home at NYMF 2019 so I could see its promise and hear the lyrical music.
I am intrigued by the initial concept of serial killers falling in love. However, how Rose (Lindsay Manion) and Harry (Sebastian Belli) eventually, slowly fall in love is problematic. Perhaps the stakes are not high enough, the protagonists not alluring and scintillating enough because they are too self-engrossed in their issues and pasts. Considering there is no rational justification for being a serial killer, the psychological angle could have been turned on its head regarding the protagonists in the scenes they have with each other. The digression into the comedic examination of the psychology of killing with the doctor/professor and his questioner (ensemble-Laurence Hunt and Wilf Walsworth) is witty. Indeed, the one song they sing provides the interposition of a much needed variety with the rest of the score.
However, the self-examined life of Rose and Harry as they discuss who they are and why they are with one another becomes repetitive after the initial songs. There is a matter-of-fact irony lyrically carried by the music that reveals the thrust of their togetherness to be that they kill and are outsiders. More is needed. They are able to front to get their prey and can fit in enough to get dates. But allure and charm is wanting; the sociopath, the psychopath are hungry; they are compelled; they manipulate.
These protagonists are drawn in a halfhearted measure. If theirs could be a love at all costs which it is not, we might have been completely enthralled. And in that identification, the theme, which faltered in this production would be enhanced. Where is the revulsion that we may be attracted to the allure of another soul, no matter how damaged or self-destructive and the fact that that soul may have as its intent to lure us to kill us?
The concept of the show is original. On a level beyond its purely fantastic entertainment value (and it is entertaining without a doubt) I considered that the production should either pull back or go to its most extreme sardonic limit. Because the tension and conflict doesn’t rise to a pinnacle, it gets lost in the limbo of relationship doldrums between the two protagonists, which I drifted out of in the middle of the show. However, I came back to them at the powerful conclusion which was dynamic with the external conflict adding tension. The beginning was strong as was the ending with shining moments as Rose and Harry select their final destination.
The book could use a reworking of the arc of development to make it more powerful and in the moment. Additionally, it needs to pump up the possibilities for incredible, “kill-em” black humor to give it the grist to engage throughout. If the creators could add in new songs, perhaps with a different music style and swap out those that sometimes become lyrically redundant, the score would be various and lifted. The music is gorgeous. However, it becomes repetitive. The full appreciation of its beauty, as a result, diminishes.
All the above is couched from the perspective that the show is good enough to deserve reworking so that its inherent possibilities can be manifested and taken to additional venues and go far. The cast is excellent. Manion and Belli engaged us especially in the beginning and the ending. However fine their skills are, they could not overcome the show’s middle section which speaks more to the conflict and development of the book’s structure, not their fine performances or lustrous voices. The same may be said for the fine efforts of Hunt and Wallsworth, Niamh Finan and Rebecca Yau who performed seamlessly to Tom Williams able direction.
Buried, part of the 2019 New York Musical Festival, should be seen because it is an entertainment that is fun and delights with humor. It is a show with tremendous potential. Kudos to all involved!
Buried runs with no intermission from July 9-14 at The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Imagine being so excellent at baseball you have to join a boys’ team because no one on the girls’ team can hold a candle to you! Toni Stone was the first African American female to distinguish herself and play pro ball ball in the Negro Leagues. No other woman of any race topped her skill, pluck or stamina in 1953, not that any women even conceived that they should try. Based on the biography Curveball, The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone by Martha Ackmann, Roundabout’s humorous, intriguing and illuminating production about baseball, race, gender, inspiration and ambition, Toni Stone, written by Lydia R. Diamond, is currently at the Laura Pels Theatre until the 11th of August.
Starring Obie Award Winner April Matthis, who transforms herself into the feisty, wise-cracking, straight-talking, female baseball maverick in the two act production that runs with one intermission, we learn Toni’s inside perspective about what it was like to break into the prestigious negro leagues. She was the only woman to do exploits with her male teammates playing the game she adored and gave the best years of her life to in the late 1940s to 1954. Hired to play second base with The Clowns in 1953, Toni Stone took over the position that Hank Aaron had played the previous year and rocked it in 50 outings, slamming a hit off the legendary pitcher Satchel Paige. Matthis as Stone is incredible, moment-to-moment, real.
The structure of Toni Stone is picaresque and dramatic. It spans the years from the 1920s to the 1950s in various locations around the country. With superb, athleticism by the actors, the movements are precision, characteristically baseball as the actors represent the players on Toni’s exhibition team The Clowns (like the Harlem Globetrotters in the basketball world today). The Choreography by Camille A. Brown in Act I is taut as we watch the players practice their fielding, throwing, catching, swinging as professional ball players with the fierce pride and confidence to match any professional today. They and Brown’s choreography are impressive. Director Pam MacKinnon’s staging segues from bit to bit with fast paced spin in the first act, and less precision in the second act which becomes more ponderous.
The Lighting (Allen Lee Hughes) and Set Design (Riccardo Hernandez) echoe where Tony strived to spend the best years of her life, on the ball field, with lights blaring down (at the right moment) and with bleachers for the full effect and accoutrements, i.e. uniforms (Dede Ayite) caps, gloves, bats minus the ball which is held in mime invisibly as the players “throw” and “catch.” The minimalism is effective in lifting the subject of what has been described as the only true American sport. The lack of extraneous spectacle draws our attention to the dialogue between and among the players and other characters. Without the razzle dazzle, we focus on Toni Stone’s narration during which she confides to us about salient details of her life and events which reveal the themes of the production: steadfastly overcoming the odds, ambition as everything, female success in a man’s world, and effort and hard work pays off if one keeps focused.
April Matthis has the accent, the drawl, the humor to evoke Toni’s persona and let us in on the secrets of her baseball obsession and efforts to be the best. She’s not as good as Jackie Robinson whom the players reference moving from the Negro Leagues in a leap over the line of segregation to Major League baseball as the first African American to integrate the Majors. Nevertheless, Toni was a one-of-a-kind celebrity and superb ball player. It is that particularity that playwright Diamond characterizes and Pat MacKinnon highlights through her direction so that it explodes on stage and holds our interest.
The top of the play begins with her teammates on the Indianapolis Clowns who introduce her and then she introduces them with humorous quips and prods. As the men move like poetry as they practice behind her, Toni gives an overview of the game with a rhythm all her own in description and enumeration of details. Her full on discussion of the ball, likening it to that which is a part of her hand and which she balances by its weight, shape and feel is typically mind-bending. It indicates how one can be engrossed by that which one loves to go very deep! Indeed, she remarks that as the girls in high school were obsessed about boys, she could only see, hear and think about baseball. A fiend she spends her waking moments on the baseball fields of St. Paul where her tom boyishness and fervor were accepted by the guys who “let” her play with them.
However, when she did break into pro baseball, the players gave her “what for.” Some of the intriguing elements of the production occur when Toni hones in on confronting difficulties. She prides herself on “taking it” i.e. the male-on-female abuse. She kept a stoic outlook and sustained the bruising and battering she got when the players treated her like a guy, but more so. In one segment, her friend, prostitute Millie (an exceptional Kenn E. Head) is with her as she applies cream on a bruise she receives from a player out to “get her.” In that brief moment is the tip of the iceberg of what she went through as the singular woman among the burly, smelly, macho men. Yet, she felt that she was one of them but through the years many of them treated her as “the other.” Indeed, she wasn’t allowed in the locker room and had to change in spaces they had to find for her as they traveled on the road.
Playing on the Negro Leagues, the players encountered the usual “hospitality” of the Jim Crow South; they were banned from white hotels, motels and bathrooms and subjected to racist, discriminatory abuse. In one town the only hotel they were accepted in was one that catered to sex workers. This is the place where she meets Millie, replete with flowery robes courtesy of Dede Ayite’s Costume Design, albeit Head wears them over his Clowns’ uniform. The interactions between Kenn E. Head’s Millie (his feminine gestures are humorous, but real) and Matthis’ Toni are poignant and revelatory. Head particularly has superb timing with his looks, his one-liners.
There are sensitive illustrious moments drawn between the two, for example when Millie gives her tips on how to do her hair. And as Toni questions Millie for her wisdom regarding men, we note that her attitude is unrelenting and strong. We never see her break down even with Millie; she can’t afford that luxury. And very simply, it is not the “Toni Stone” style.
In another segment the playwright examines Toni’s relationships, in particular Alberga (portrayed by the superb, likable Harvy Blanks) who she allows to buy her drinks in a bar. How these scenes are simplistically staged using two players to hold a board is part of the fun. It is obvious that Alberga intends to sweet-talk her and ply her with alcohol which doesn’t understand until Millie explains it to her. Eventually, Toni abruptly calls him down on it and distracts him by talking “baseball.” Taken aback by her honesty and unpretentious, unfeminine, unflirty demeanor, they continue to “hang out” whenever she is in town.
Toni decides to marry him; it is the right time. When he and she are tired of smelling the man-sweat wreak of her own exertions on her clothes, coupled with sweaty, noxious odors of her male baseball counterparts, it is one more element that helps her decide to leave baseball. The last straw occurs after she is traded to the Kansas City Monarchs and benched most of the time sitting next to teammates whose dislike for her is obvious. Toni Stone leaves for a civilian life with her husband and never returns to baseball again.
Perhaps the most searing effect of this production is in how the playwright weaves in the details of the history of our nation’s racism during the accounts of her life on the field and in pro baseball. These thread everpresently throughout. In one instance Toni editorializes about the discrimination and it is here where the director and choreographer work their magic, starkly in a memorable finality to Act I. Toni stares out at the audience and comments about the “spectacle” of exhibition games where they were to make the audience laugh. The players “dance” behind her as grinning “clowns,” though one imagines that each and every one of the players is “crying inside.”
The depth and beauty of the sport she loves is compromised by the stereotypical, racial attitudes. The indictment is clear as Matthis’Toni stares out at the audience. We are a throwback to the historical audience who wanted the “negroes” to entertain them. It is then, the playwright infers little has changed regarding discriminatory racial stereotypes and bigoted acts. The tragedy of this is the stereotype obviates the profound depth of what African Americans/blacks were/are but are locked out from “becoming.” It is a vital moment in the play and the perfect end of the first act. The second act does not end as strongly.
Kudos to the creative team not already mentioned: Broken Chord (Original Music & Sound Design) Cookie Jordan (Hair & Wig Designer) Thomas Schall (Fight Director).
Toni Stone runs with one intermission at the Laura Pels Theatre, the Harold and Miriam STeinberg Center for Theatre on 46th Street between 6th and 7 Avenue until the 11th of August. For tickets and times go to the Roundabout Website by CLICKING HERE.
The World Premiere of The Secret Life of Bees (Book by Lynn Nottage, Music by Duncan Sheik, Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead) spins Sue Monk Kidd’s best-selling novel into “A River of Melting Sun,” a metaphor for love, sweetness and redemption that is established in the opening lyrical musical number. Sung by the ensemble who elicit the audience to join them on a mythic and personal a journey they might wish to take, the song reinforces primary themes. These ripple throughout the story of Rosaleen (a sensational Saycon Sengbloh) and the troubled heart-broken Lily (Elizabeth Teeter’s lyrical voice is perfect for the role) both of whom must reconcile the wounds from their motherless childhood that threaten to destroy them.
The production directed by Sam Gold (Fun Home) is uniquely metaphysical. The director has chosen to keep the staging and set design (Mimi Lien) illustratively spiritual, functionally minimalistic and suggestive. The characters. pull out the props from the back wall use them to reflect and evoke events as they conduct the action organically. The book melds together the music and lyrics with characterizations. Sheik’s music with Birkenhead’s lyrics are sensitively drawn and vibrantly anointed in a mix of styles (gospel, blues, ballads, rock and pop pieces). This musical inspires and thrills.
Ultimately, the healing power of many of the melodies, infused by the gorgeously, heady voices of the inimitable LaChanze (August Boatwright) Saycon Sengbloh (Rosaleen) Elizabeth Teeter (Lily) Eisa Davis (June) and Anastacia McCleskey (June) become the golden threads that provoke us to understanding that we too can share in “The Secret Life of Bees” and be purveyors of the honey of joy, moving down our own byways of life impacting others positively within our own sphere of influence.
The symbolism in the “A River of Melting Sun” has a myriad of layers as evocative as the messages in this adaptation enhanced with the emotionalism of Sheik’s score and veteran Birkenhead’s stirring lyrics. On one level the melting sun represents the golden honey that expert beekeeper August Boatwright (LaChanze) draws from hundreds of bee hives which is processed into the pure, amber sweetness from which she and her sisters, the broken-hearted May, and the hypercritical, austere June make their living in the county around Tiburon, South Carolina.
The melting sun also alludes to the mysterious power of sunlight that impacts the bees before and after they gather the pollen from the flowers whose plants, require the radiant rays’ energy to blossom and lure their pollinators to complete the vital rhythmic cycle of propagation that has persisted for thousands of years.
As the bees follow the rhythms of nature, so do the characters. The bee puppets shimmering in the expert lighting against the dark backdrop are effective, especially accompanied with the lyrical, flowing “bee theme.” In this musical as in the novel, both bees and humans are symbolic counterparts. Both focus on and require support from (their bee queen, the Black Madonna, Mother Mary). The honey, the bees produce for themselves and their queen; the honey represents the strength and love as well as the product central to August’s business. Importantly, the honey is the “sunlight” theme of the underlying love, unity, equanimity and community that sustains life. Without these elements, human beings will wither and die from displacement, isolation, disunity and emotional malnutrition. The same applies for the bee colonies.
Rosaleen and Lily are amazed and learn from the community of healing love from which the praying, spiritual Daughters of Mary find sustenance in, despite an oppressive, bigoted, hateful culture. Without their unity and faith there would be a return to misery, torment and depression, the likes of which May experiences and must continually be lifted away from. The metaphor of melting sun also alludes to the heat/warmth/enlightenment/encouragement/hope/faith extended by August and the Daughters of Mary to the broader community. This symbolic “melting sun” is received by Rosaleen and Lily after the runaways allow faith to transform their souls and heal their brokenness through love and peace.
Nottage’s book serves to frame the arc of development, elucidate the characterizations and manifest the themes. Cleverly, she employs a delicate, slim, suggestive rendering. She quickly establishes the setting as 1964, South Carolina. For those unfamiliar with the history, we learn through radio announcements salient news details; these news events are tied to the action. Those familiar with the Civil Rights Movement, will recall the year was a time of roiling fury for Southern white supremacists who opposed the passage of President Johnson’s Voting Rights Act and retaliated with bombings and killings to spread fear and stop blacks from registering to vote.
This social and cultural backdrop magnifies the conflicts for Lily, the confused white teenager who sings “The Girl Who Killed Her Mother” and Rosaleen who works for Lily’s father T-Ray and who intends to vote (“Sign My Name.”) challenging racist bullies who have maintained their oppressive, genocidal power structure since Plessy v. Ferguson in a Jim Crow South. During the musical, we learn that Rosaleen and Lily have been abandoned by their mothers and suffer from emotional and spiritual traumas that destroy their confidence and wholeness so they cannot progress.
Escalating conflicts force Lily and Rosaleen to take the risk of running away together. Tired of her father’s physical and emotional abuse, and in her quest for the truth about her mother who has died, Lily solicits Rosaleen’s companionship and they leave Sylvan without T-Ray’s permission. Manoel Felciano as T-Ray aptly delivers the brutish, hurtful father convincingly.
They follow the only clue Lily has about her mother’s past, a paper honey label stamped with a Black Madonna with the printed location of Tiburon, South Carolina. Though tired and worn, they believe and hope in their future (“Better Than This”). For feisty Rosaleen who spit on a red-neck’s shoe when he prevented her from registering to vote after she brings down the house with “Sign My Name,” escape may lead to power. For Lily escape means the freedom to seek her mother’s identity away from the gnawing terrors of a childhood event that is too traumatic to remember. Her lack of memory is why T-Ray opaquely tortures her about it without being entirely truthful.
Rosaleen’s and Lily’s travels lead them to the mysterious, striking, holy scene, a ritualized church service of dance and song that is a powerful prayer to Mother Mary (a Black Madonna carved in driftwood). The Black Madonna is a contact point of faith, enlightenment and love. The anointed song “Tek A Hol A My Soul” is rhythmic and profound. It thrums with the pulsation of sweeping currents that uplift and energize the Daughters of Mary (ensemble and the sisters) and Neil (a heartfelt, humorous, sensitive portrayal by Nathaniel Stampley). Neil is a like-minded “brother”who prays and sings with them; he is also the principal of the school where June teaches. The song is a soul shaker, just fabulous in providing the dramatic focus from which the action centralizes.
When the singers (August, June, May, Neil, Queenie, Sugar Girl, Violet, Neil) see Rosaleen and Lily are enthralled, August (she represents the Queen Mother, the educated entrepreneur whose encouragement and wisdom undergirds the community of educated black women) invites them to work for room and board. The ensemble sings “The Secret Life of Bees,” the thematic mantra which represents the unity of all things through love, hope and decency, and all that is life affirming and purposeful, if one has the eyes to see and the ears to hear the secrets/mysteries to obtain the honey goodness.
Rosaleen and Lily gratefully accept the invitation and in exchange for lodging, they assist with the housework and beekeeping. As they gradually become a part of the family, they confront their troubles and embrace peace and self-love through August’s nurturing. This becomes problematic for Lily because of June’s skepticism about taking in a white girl who obviously will bring trouble into their sanctuary. Lily must overcome June’s negative attitude with the help/love of August and her own soul searching and prayers to Mother Mary. She grows in empathy toward the broken-hearted May (the golden voiced Anastacia Mcleskey) who also has gone through a terrorizing, event. In the lovely “Frogs and Fireflies” and they encourage one another
Rosaleen’s and Lily’s arrival at the farm is a major turning point in which the interactions between and among May, June and August entertain and teach us about the women’s industry, resourcefulness and determination to strive in a culture that would otherwise annihilate their souls and identities. LaChance’s August (accent on the second syllable means sage) is spot-on brilliant. She delivers a nuanced performance that drips with wisdom, steadfastness, inner mystical knowledge and power through inner peace. Her portrayal is transcendent. She sets the tone for the metaphysical underpinnings, revelations and healings which might not be gleaned if one is “scientifically,” empirically-minded. Her singing is absolutely grand.
Saycon Sengbloh is a whirlwind, likable, effusive and joyful as Rosaleen, a true overcomer. Her chiding Lily’s selfishness into true friendship in “All about You,” is superbly, forcefully delivered. Her other solo “Who Knew?” as she receives grace and heals her sorrows is another highpoint of the production in its development of her character that makes crystalline sense.
Her white counterpart in “becoming,” Lily, is her equal in redemption after Zachary (the adorable Brett Gray and Lily’s potential love interest) has been found alive. When he and Lily are pulled over and officers brutalize Zachary and arrest him for nothing, he nearly loses his life, but for the help of a white client of August, who wields power in the county. The currency of this scene is painful to watch considering how many times such unjust violence spilled from the past into today and it is ongoing. Many times the outcome is not as it is in the play; the victim is tortured, abused and murdered with impunity. The Daughters of Mary understand what is at stake and do all they can to free the innocent Zachary.
That Lily importunes Mother Mary and has a conversion experience praying for Zachary is an indication of her growth away from selfishness toward healing and self-love. In this powerful scene, she activates the substance of her own faith as it joins with the Daughters of Mary who also pray for Zachary’s return. However, any hope she may have to be with Zachary will never be realized as long as the atmosphere of hatred and injustice is an entrenched, “legal” social more.
Brett Gray’s Zachary “rocks it” with Lily in two musical numbers which show their bonds: “Fifty-Five Fairlane,” and “What Do You Love?” Their exuberance in the first and their sweetness in the second provide a side story of budding love which avoids the syrupy and remains authentic. The second love story, between Neil (Nathaniel Stampley) and June (Eisa Davis) is LOL hysterical as Neil persists in wooing June and she rejects him a whopping number of times out of fear of being hurt again as she was before. “Marry Me” is just fabulous. The men in the play empathize with Neil and chortled around me at the humor and were tense at June’s answers. This is no spoiler alert; you will have to see the musical to find out if June and Neil join forces. And you will have to see it to discover what happens when T-Ray shows up to confront Lily about her mother’s death to take her back home.
The Secret Life of Bees is an ethereal, spiritual adaptation with little spectacle of the type that “dazzles” and then is easily forgotten. It is an evocative and suggestive view of a time that is near timeless as it reflects the same horrific events that are happening today (voter suppression, police brutality, racial abuse, women’s oppression). But the adaptation carefully elicits the substance of faith and its power evidenced in a mystical group of educated, “sisters” and a “brother” who have found a way to negotiate the hellish genocidal racists and best them beyond “religiosity” and a form of godliness that has no power. Nottage’s selection of events in the style she’s chosen is right on as is Sheik’s music and Birkenhead’s lyrics, aptly shepherded by Sam Gold.
Kudos to the company, and to the creative artists Chris Walker (choreography) Dede Ayite (costumes) Jane Cox (lights) Dan Moses Schreier (sound) AchesonWalsh Studios (puppets) Jason Hart (music director) Antoine Silverman (music contractor) Duncan Sheik & John Clancy (orchestrations) Jason Hart (vocal arrangements) Cookie Jordan (hair, makeup & special effects) UnkleDave’s Fight House (fight director).
This must see musical production runs with one intermission at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater (West 20th Street) until 21 July. It should be extended or another venue found. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Oh the tragedy of being a brilliant woman out of her time and place who must, with probity, slip into “becoming” without making too many waves! Kate Hamill’s profound update of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is presented by Primary Stages at The Cherry Lane Theatre as a two act comedy/drama that reveals how the March sisters adapt or transform the gender roles that the culture dictates for them. The play focuses on Alcott’s view of women during the Civil War when hardship was plentiful and economic pressures were acutely felt by families such as the financially strapped Marches.
Hamill’s update speaks with currency for our time revitalizing the novel with forward-thinking elements as it highlights the 4 sisters and draws comparisons between and among them. Interestingly, Hamill develops their personalities revisiting Alcott’s plot structure and character foundation. But her characterizations gain breadth when she teases out themes and traits relevant to woman today.
The play parallels the salient turn of events in the novel and examines the “little women” as they age into their own perceptions of “womanhood” with regard to the role limitations afforded to women when the only careers available to them were as governesses, caretakers, wives and mothers. Women could not vote, were considered mental inferiors to men who could have them committed to an asylum if they “got out of line.” As wives they were men’s property, chattel to do with them as they pleased, command them as they would under the law. Fortunate are the Marches whose father is an abolitionist and a pastor who is loving toward his wife and children and does not batter them.
In Hamill’s reconfiguration there is an understanding of each of the sisters with an eye on the present. The play’s development concerns how Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy adopt the roles that they will choose and perhaps inhabit for life. In this Hamill has extracted key concepts and fleshed them out to examine the underlying threads of what Alcott inferred but could not write about extensively in order to negotiate the accepted folkways and mores of her culture at the time.
The playwright highlights Beth (a heartfelt performance by Paola Sanchez Abreu) as the spiritual one whose physical weakness and confrontation with the death of the Hummel baby impact her understanding of life’s mutability. As Jo (Kristolyn Lloyd) dubs her “the conscience.” Beth is the one who speaks truth to power quietly, solidly, steadfastly. Bravely, she alone visits Mr. Laurence (John Lenartz) and softens his heart toward allowing Laurie (Nate Mann) to become a part of their family. Wisely, she soothes Laurie’s wounds when Joe spurns his marriage offer. Insistently, she encourages Jo to write from her heart’s core, not from fantastic plots that glorify the male gender and make women into weak creatures. She reconciles the family during quarrels, especially the final explosive argument between the two most antithetical women in the family, Jo and Amy (Carmen Zilles).
In her adaptation Hamill enhances Beth’s wisdom and beauty and highlights the strength of her soul. This is a wonderful teasing out of the characteristics of who she is, the first to be herself and eschew female “type” changing for no one, not even Jo who changes for her. That all the family accept Beth, even Amy, clearly emphasizes her dominion.
The costume design by Valerie Therese Bart superbly reflects each of the characters as Hamill has drawn them. Jo is forever in pants; in polite company, she wears a skirt over her pants. Beth doesn’t wear the outfits the others wear. She is more soul and spirit and thus, she wears invalid gowns of her physical weakness throughout the play. Of all the sisters Beth is perhaps the most actualized. She has “become” before our eyes and thus, is the strong woman which we might take for granted as weak or inconsequential.
Following Hamill’s characterization and apt direction by Sarna Lapine, Abreu’s Beth is subtle strength and quiet wisdom. Yet, she is vibrant and determined when she needs to be in Act II, forcefully chiding Jo (the vibrant, exquisite Kristolyn Lloyd) to shake off self-pity and stir herself to her life’s work as a mature writer with a unique, personal style. She is the sister that is “the rock,” not Jo who is a performer, writer, actor, but mush within, less “together” than the Jo of the novel. This is especially so when her novel is rejected and Beth gives her the resolve and courage to persist and write about what she knows best, the wonderful memories of her family.
The characterization of Meg enacted with with precision and humor by Kate Hamill who portrays Meg, provides the view of womanhood as poised perfection, feminine and graceful. She is the “perfect lady.” Indeed, Meg’s putting on airs at the dance and reminding a bored Jo by coughing to alert her to correct her unlady-like behavior is one of the hysterical highpoints of the production. But her poise at the dance is shattered when she takes off her glasses and becomes dislocated, having to be led around by Brooks (Michael Crane) Laurie’s tutor whom she eventually marries.
The irony of having to be led around by a man because of her myopia is symbolic of what ails women who too easily swallow the culture’s gender roles. Meg has proudly fit herself into the wifely mold until she collapses hammered by the reality of the role’s oppression in a superbly portrayed scene by Hamill, Crane and Lloyd. Meg leaves Brooks and returns home, confiding to Jo her desperation because she is overcome by the impossible reality of domestic life, motherhood and male expectations that the household be run in perfect order every day.
Hamill’s “freak-out” as Meg is both humorous and dramatic. Her fine performance of the scene first with Jo and then with Brooks who is contrite and apologetic, strikes like lightening. Meg goes back to him after she has asserted what she will and won’t put up with and we sense he is a reasonable man; thus, the development of a relationship that is the hope of a partnership of give and take forms. Michael Crane is excellent as Brooks and authentic in his portrayal of the retiring, erudite tutor who, too, falls prey to the gender roles of the time to not fully recognize that he needs to “man up” and help out Meg.
For her part Jo has witnessed in Meg’s and Brook’s quarreling, what she will never put herself through. Her identity, encouraged by Beth, Marmie (the wonderful Mary Bacon) and Meg’s trials with Brooks convince her she must forge her own sense of self and career path that is equivalent to those men which men achieve. Meg’s troubles assure her that her decision not to flirt with, capture a man’s heart then be oppressed and saddled with drudgery the rest of her life as his handmaid will never be her portion.
Kristolyn Lloyd’s Jo is a dominant force, a powerhouse who is driven to express herself. With her soul, will and determination throughout the play again and again, Lloyd succinctly portrays how it is Jo’s nature to eschew being the passive, demure, “lady” who must portray an illusion to catch a man, then spend the rest of her life with him overthrowing that lie. Unlike Amy and Meg, she and Beth reject the repressive folkways which dictate how women must act, how they must look, what they must wear and do, as they take their final “resting place” at the bottom of society, absent power and authority, never to be heard from again. That is a death Jo and Beth will never die!
Initially, when Laurie (the vibrant Nate Mann makes the character charming, endearing, sensitive and adorable) joins the family and takes part as a swashbuckler in Jo’s plays, he accepts Jo’s strong identity though she continually throws off “being” the passive feminine. Laurie finds her enthralling and exciting company and adjusts his growing friendship by being real and loving. He notes that Joe sees herself like him and he appears to understand that she covets male power, authority and the freedom to take women’s freedom from them. This is why she revels acting the preeminent roles in her plays with Meg as the “damsel in distress” that she fights Laurie for.
The “play” scenes are humorous and cogently, precisely directed by Sarna Lapine and well-acted by Mann, Hamill, Abreu, Lloyd and Carmen Zilles as Amy who largely is their audience. These scenes establish each of the characters and reveal the undercurrents of why Jo must take on the dominant parts. We understand it is an attempt to work through what she finds completely obnoxious in the gender role of the passive, submissive, weak and helpless little lady that men find so alluring for they can come to their rescue and be the macho man. The artificiality and unreality of these roles annoys Jo, though Mann’s Laurie, inculcated to them since boyhood attempts to get Jo to play the damsel when Meg gets married. Her refusal is telling in another superb scene by Mann and Lloyd which foreshadows their maturation and Laurie’s love for her which Jo will never return as a lover. (Mann’s heartfelt upset when Lloyd’s Jo rejects him is beautifully rendered.)
The reversals are hysterical, as is Jo’s need to change the fake male-female dynamic. The humor in the overacting of Hamill’s Meg and Lloyd’s Jo to heighten the fake gender displacement is priceless and profound. That the enactment of the plays serves to reveal that Jo defines herself as equal to a man. Indeed, she intends to have the same notoriety and authority by making herself “someone recognized.” Though the culture would deny her, she will find a way, something Marmie, Meg (she is agreeable to join in the acting) and Beth encourage her to do with their acceptance and support. These scenes are powerful and filled with moment!
The only one who does not accept Jo’s definition of herself and her way of being is Amy. Carmen Zilles convincingly portrays Amy as a spoiled, insistent, victim of Jo. Their disagreements not only move beyond rivalry, they represent opposing forces of womanhood. Amy has no ambition beyond marriage; and in a few funny bits aptly staged by Lapine, we see how she sets her designs on Laurie as she tries to get him to kiss her by standing under the mistletoe. At the conclusion of the play Amy insults Jo’s entire being and encourages her to give up her ambitions. We side with Jo’s anger against Amy; the burning of Jo’s book is tantamount to a blasphemy.
Amy brings to mind conservative women who marry well and stand by their man without a clue, staunchly upholding him regardless of the incorrectness of his position. She is Jo’s foil and their fights are inevitable so convinced are they of their definitions of themselves as women: Amy traditional, Jo a maverick forward thinker who wishes equality with men.
Jo’s behavior at Aunt March’s (Mary Bacon is superb as the crotchety old woman) causes Amy to be taken to Europe instead of Jo. Amy’s vengeful burning of Jo’s only copy of her novel is the perfect raison d’etre for Jo to launch out on a new endeavor and succeed. Zilles and Lloyd shine in these dynamic scenes of argument and insult. Amy and Jo’s sustained oppositions spur each other on in the paths they’ve chosen with irony and humor. Without Jo, Amy would not be who she is; likewise for Jo. Their’s is a perfect match brought into focus in this fine rendering of Hamill’s Little Women whose elucidations of the themes and characterizations are revelatory and uniquely realized. Just marvelous.
Hamill’s adaptation of Little Women and Lloyd’s portrayal of Jo, Abreu’s Beth, Hamill’s Meg and Zilles’ Amy enlighten us to the power of entrenched gender roles whose folkways and stereotypes we wrestle with our entire lives. The ironies and themes of how each sister deals with these mores is incredible and found in no other adaptation of the novel that I have seen. Gobsmacking! Whether viewing for the depth of understanding or the pure fun and enjoyment and in Act II pathos of the family March, Little Women is a wondrous must see.
Special kudos to Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams for the functional and minimalistic set design. Much praise goes to Valerie Therese Bart’s superbly thought-out costumes and Paul Whitaker’s lighting design whose candles in Act II are heartfelt and atmospheric. Additional kudos to Leon Rothenberg for sound design, Dave Bova for wig and hair design, Michael G. Chin’s fight direction. Deborah Abramson’s original music between scenes is exceptional, atmospheric, lyrical. Without it the action would not have achieved such a seamless flow. The exuberance of Act I and the mellow seriousness of Act II would have been diminished in tone and tenor.
Little Women runs with one intermission at Cherry Lane Theatre (Commerce St.) until 29th June. Get your tickets before it is too late by CLICKING HERE.