‘Autumn Royal’ at the Irish Repertory Theatre

John Keating and Maeve Higgins in Kevin Barry’s ‘Autumn Royal’ directed by Ciarǻn O’Reilly at the Irish Rep (Carol Rosegg)

Kevin Barry’s dark comedy Autumn Royal currently at the Irish Repertory Theatre’s Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage is a blend of dark and light humor centered around a poignant family dynamic: what do we do with cantankerous, ailing Pa when Ma left the family? Directed by Ciarǻn O’Reilly, the production builds with gradual LOL riot to an ironic conclusion that is also a tragic reflection of human nature now and for all time.

Barry, an award-winning novelist (most recently Night Boat to Tangier) and short story writer (most recent, That Old Country Music) launched out to write his first play, Autumn Royal. When they heard the news, artistic director Charlotte Moore and director Ciarǻn O’Reilly snapped it up for the live 2021 season after triumphantly producing superb digital productions seen globally during the pandemic.

Maeve Higgins in ‘Autumn Royal’ at the Irish Rep (Carol Rosegg)

Starring the comic actor and writer Maeve Higgins as May and company member of the Irish Rep John Keating as her sibling Timothy, the actors show their talents as they take the audience on a romp which is both surreal and symbolic. The characters’ journey takes them into past events whose revelations inform their present predicament. As the arc of their situation intensifies because of their emotional angst, we are engaged with the surprising and humorous dialogue and flashbacks as family mysteries that haunt the siblings become exposed. The revelations impact how they determine their way forward as they live with and take care of their father 24/7 while he languishes in his sick bed.

We discover by degrees the conflicts amongst family members, May and Timothy and their parents. Through their commentary and banter with each other, they reveal the puzzle pieces of their history which we cobble together to divine how and why they continue to live in Cork, Ireland with their father in his house, caring for his most intimate personal needs. Their father and mother we understand by inference, description and reaction via amazingly suggestive flashbacks, theatrically presented with the sounds of machinery and projections on the dreary walls of a downstairs room, courtesy of Charlie Corcoran’s set design, Michael Gottlieb’s lighting design, Ryan Rumery’s original music and sound design, Dan Scully’s projection design and Hidenori Nakajo’s sound design.

John Keating in ‘Autumn Royal’ at the Irish Rep (Carol Rosegg)

All elements of spectacle are expertly woven by the creative team to maximum an almost frightening effect. The theme of parental impact on their children’s emotions and psyche is driven home, but in a unique and stark way as May and Timothy struggle with themselves to expurgate or to suppress the parental damage that changed the course of their lives.

The images and sounds combine to represent the siblings’ imaginations and personal memories. The revelations are of their unique character; other individuals would flashback to events in a different way. This is Barry’s superior characterization. May’s and Timothy’s stories connect past and present. Their humor, a way to deal with the terrors of parental verbal abuse, arises from misery and torment.

John Keating and Maeve Higgins in Kevin Barry’s ‘Autumn Royal’ directed by Ciarǻn O’Reilly at the Irish Rep (Carol Rosegg)

From the dramatically imagistic connections we understand clearly how and why they approach their lives, each other, their parents, their dreams and the possibilities of their future portentous decisions. Interestingly, Barry never presents the mother and father onstage. They are like living ghosts, shadows of their former selves, once a lighthearted family of four before the darkness came.

As the ghostly unseen, the father rains dust down on May and Timothy in the room on the first floor as he bangs out tempestuous ructions in his upstairs bed. The mother, a dark figure wandering up the hill above their house never visits, though she lives somewhere in Cork and remains incommunicado by her own design. However, she once visits her husband in his sickbed and compliments Timothy when she comes downstairs again. Timothy reports this to May after she confronts him about their parents. Indeed, afterward we learn how May despises their mother as they note their father’s religious fanaticism.

John Keating and Maeve Higgins in Kevin Barry’s ‘Autumn Royal’ directed by Ciarǻn O’Reilly at the Irish Rep (Carol Rosegg)

There is no spoiler alert. The events progress as the siblings try to make cogent decisions about their father’s condition and theirs with humorous effect. To what extent do they determine to fail? To what extent do they interact with each other in combined stasis and nihilism to deliver a result they don’t want? Or do they want it? You will just have to see this superb production to discover the humor, the poignancy and the uncertainty inherent in Barry’s work, beautifully rendered by O’Reilly’s direction and Higgins’ and Keating’s performances.

John Keating in ‘Autumn Royal’ at the Irish Rep ( Carol Rosegg)

Barry’s work intrigues with its complexities. The actors make the characters authentic in their hellish prison which they impose on themselves and each other as they back themselves in a convenient corner. Their past, ironically suggested with symbolic flashbacks indicating a machinery which catches them up and spins them in circles of torment they cannot break, speaks to all of us. How caught up are we in past hurts delivered by individuals who have long since died? How much do we allow past events to determine how we relate to individuals in the present, who have vastly changed when the circumstances are also different? Or have the relationships we’ve developed over time worsened in revenge, self-punishment and unforgiveness? To what extent do we keep the machinery spinning because we don’t know how to stop it or won’t stop it?

John Keating and Maeve Higgins in Kevin Barry’s ‘Autumn Royal’ directed by Ciarǻn O’Reilly at the Irish Rep (Carol Rosegg)

The creative team, the director and the actors have brought to life the tragicomedy of a family in Barry’s powerful play. The production values enhance the themes and bring them home. As we laugh, the impact of May’s and Timothy’s reality drives into our hearts. This is a wonderful production to begin Irish Repertory’s return to live theater. Kudos to all involved. For tickets and times visit their website https://irishrep.org/

Romy Nordlinger is Alla Nazimova in ‘Garden of Alla’

Romy Nordlinger in ‘Garden of Alla’ 7:30 pm, Thursday October 21st, The Cutting Room-44 E 32nd St. (6:00 pm doors for live jazz cocktail hour)

I had seen Romy Nordlinger in her solo show PLACES! at 59E59th’s East of Edinburgh Festival and thought she was marvelous. Evolving her presentation before and after the pandemic, once again she is stepping out to bring to life the amazing Nazimova who lived and made her mark during the early twentieth century. With additional performances under the direction of Lorca Peress, Romy’s achieved new heights exploring the maverick woman who was a force in her time. Ahead of her 7:30 pm show on Thursday, October 21st at The Cutting Room on 44 E 32nd St. (arrive at 6:00 pm for the live jazz cocktail hour) I had the opportunity to interview Romy about this production which she has also written.

Romy Nordlinger as Alla Nazimova in ‘Garden of Alla,’ The Alla Nazimova Story (courtesy of the production)

Who is Alla Nazimova, the person you are bringing to life in your show?

Perhaps the greatest star you’ve never heard of, one of the brightest lights on America’s stage and cinema screen was actor, director, writer and producer Alla Nazimova. Few women, or men, rose to such great heights – but now she languishes largely forgotten. A student of Stanislavski, she fled from Tsarist Russia and an abusive father, to the Lower East Side, where she founded a Yiddish theatre – her play The Chosen People put her on the map.

From humble beginnings to a meteoric rise to stardom, she became Broadway’s biggest star, and in 1910-1911 made the Shuberts $4 million dollars in sold out runs (that’s 400 million dollars today). Described by Dorothy Parker as “the greatest Hedda Gabler” she helped to bring acclaim to playwrights such as Eugene O’ Neill, Chekhov, Ibsen, and Strindberg. She even inspired Tennessee Williams to become a playwright. The Shuberts then named the Broadway theatre after her, The Nazimova Theatre on 119 W. 39th St. Growing weary of the increasing pressure to perform in second rate commercial plays, she left the Shuberts and The Nazimova Theatre was renamed the 39th Street Theatre. It was finally torn down in 1926.

Nazimova went on to become the highest paid silent movie star in Tinseltown commanding a five year $13,000 a week salary in 1916. The first female director and producer in Hollywood and pioneer of the first art film, her stunningly avant-garde Salome was too “Wilde”  for 1926. Unapologetic about her bisexual decadence, she defied the moral and artistic codes of her time that eventually forced her into obscurity.

Her legendary Garden of Allah mansion in Hollywood was a haven of intellectual and sexual freedom with regulars such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, Garbo, Dietrich, Valentino, Chaplin, Rachmaninov – basically anybody who was anybody. There, she declared her all women’s “sewing circle” in open defiance, proclaiming her strength when women were relegated to silence. In financial and critical ruin after Salome, the press and the studios destroyed her. Finally, she rented a small bungalow in the grounds of the mansion she had built on Sunset Boulevard.

Her bold, trailblazing artistic legacy is unprecedented, unrepeated and under the radar. Her iconoclastic story of freedom and nonconformity was silenced under the smoldering rubble of forgotten history.

Romy Nordlinger as Alla Nazimova (courtesy of the production)

How did you “hear” about Nazimova?

The brilliant theatre historian, author and founder of The Society for The Preservation of Theatrical History, Mari Lyn Henry was putting on a production of ‘Stage Struck’ about famous actresses from history. She asked me to pick an actress to research and write about and she suggested some wonderful actresses, but none really struck my fancy. They all were very blonde and talented, but I felt no relation to them – and then Mari Lyn said, “I’ve got it! Alla Nazimova!” I thought, “Who in the heck is that?”

I started reading about Nazimova. She is also Jewish and Belarusian as I am, and I felt an immediate kinship. I read her biography by Gavin Lambert which quotes from writings from her own journals. I was mesmerized by her humor, her story, and most of all, her zest for life! She was a survivor. This was a woman who lost everything, overcame the most horrible circumstances, became a star more meteoric than even Madonna and ended up a guest inside the mansion she used to own. She was a maverick ahead of her time, investing her money for the love of art/film and experimenting with new forms. Despite her losses, she kept her joie de vivre, having no regrets or bitterness. She remained full of wonder with the beauty of life.

THIS, I thought, THIS is a person who inspires me to risk, to dare to dream out loud and bring to life my dream. Most importantly, she inspired me to be myself in a material culture that is constantly trying to commoditize and sell, a society that values only your worth in money. This was a woman who valued herself and loved life to the fullest.

Romy Nordlinger (courtesy of the production)

Tell us about previous performances of the show.

I have performed the show in another incarnation under the title PLACES! at Edinburgh Fringe, HERE Theater, Dixon Place, The Players Club and the studio center at The Kennedy Center. This is the production where, although we’ve always been received very well, we really tell her story to the best of all we have. It’s a multimedia show that is like a live silent movie with absolutely beautiful and evocative video design by Adam Burns, a brilliant musical score by Nick T. Moore and directed by the very talented Lorca Peress.

Romy Nordlinger as Alla Nazimova (courtesy of the production)

How has your performance and understanding of Nazimova evolved?

As life is wont to do, the more you experience the joys, the sorrows, all life’s disparities, the more you “understand” the heights and depths of the characters you play. After undergoing many upheavals in my own life, ups and downs in careers, triumphs and flops, deaths and loss, and then of course the pandemic, I feel an even stronger kinship to Nazimova’s survival instinct. I understand and am inspired by her amazing capacity for feeling – pain, joy, love, anything and everything but boredom. I channel her and she makes me feel able to cope. She helps make me a better person. This production is a great labor of love and a lot of work. It takes everything I have to get up on stage and perform a solo show – and to “bring” Nazimova there. It’s all worth it, every moment, for both the audience, and myself. It is a cathartic experience, and now more than ever, it’s a valentine to theatre.

What would you like the audience to understand about Nazimova that your performance enhances?

I’d like the audience to realize that we are standing on the shoulders of giants. That the LGBTQ movement started long ago with brave people like Nazimova who stood up and demanded she be herself, but alone and without a Twitter account, and that we can all dare to dream – and fail – and rise again – and fail again. It’s all the same. It’s the journey that’s important. To anyone whose felt like the underdog, I want them to feel less alone, and to feel that they, too, can use their voice (whether out loud or in writing or however they express themselves) to be an instrument, an extension of themselves. Their life matters. Their differences are beautiful.

Romy Nordlinger will be channeling Alla Nazimova in her exceptional show at The Cutting Room 7:30 pm, Thursday, Oct 21. Arrive at 6:00 pm for the live jazz cocktail hour. The Cutting Room address is 44 E 32nd St., NY, NY.

The interview has been gently edited.

NYTW’S ‘Sanctuary City’ at the Lucille Lortel

NYTW Sanctuary City by Martyna Majok, directed by Rebecca Frecknall CAST Jasai Chase-Owens, Sharlene Cruz, Austin Smith, Scenic & Costume Design Tom Scutt, Lighting Design Isabella Byrd, Sound Design Mikaal Sulaiman (Joan Marcus)

One of the most fascinating elements of the superb Martyna Majok’s Sanctuary City, directed by Rebecca Frecknall is the stylization conveyed by the script that is rhythmic, poetic and a rap of eternal, brief moments of brilliance in time. Whether Majok is elucidating how relationships begin, not with long conversational pieces, but with connecting, truncated slips of thought, or that relationships evolve through the power of memory and imagination, the interactions between “B” (the adorable and heartfelt Jasal Chase-Owens) and the emotionally wired “G” (the wonderful Sharlene Cruz) prove fatal, fairy wisps in the first part of the production.

Frecknall’s staging on a bare, raised platform, sans props and any theatrical spectacle, requires that the audience focus on Majok’s words which, abstracted, are short, repetitive bursts. For emphasis and effect, Frecknall follows the brief, seven word or less sentences with brilliant strobe light flashes, denoting flashbacks and change of scene, situation and time. The intriguing lighting and set design are by Tom Scutt and Isabella Byrd with Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound design.

NYTW Sanctuary City by Martyna Majok, directed by Rebecca Frecknall CAST Jasai Chase-Owens, Sharlene Cruz, Austin Smith (Joan Marcus)

The effect, revealing the stress and anxiety of the characters, recalls the dislocation and alienation that characters experience in plays like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Such stylized dialogue brings to mind the mission of Theatre of the Absurdists, who highlighted the incapacity of language to convey emotion and heart when human beings experience trauma, internal isolation and nihilism to such an extent that verbalization seems impossible.

Thus, as teenagers “B” and “G” move and rearrange themselves and offer fragments recalling the past, we follow intently, discovering that they are illegal aliens. “B’s” mom is fed up and intends to return to a country that her son was too young to know. “G’s” mom is oppressed and abused by the partner she lives with who also wallops “G” for good measure when she gets in the way. “G” and “B” who are archetypes of dreamers everywhere have parents who are single women. Hampered by fear of reprisal and intimidation of deportation, the mothers  are unable to make comfortable lives for the children they brought into a cold, indecent, alien world of devastation without citizenship.

Sharlene Cruz, Jasai Chase-Owens in NYTW Sanctuary City by Martyna Majok, directed by Rebecca Frecknall (Joan Marcus)

We watch in the dim light and lightning-like flashes how “G” often climbs up the fire escape seeking “sanctuary” and help from “B.” The abuse, arguments and chaos at her apartment create phenomenal stress; she must leave. “B” welcomes her and eventually she sleeps in his bed and they have sex to make a connection so they feel less alone. Both confide in each other, encourage each other at school and “dream” of better times which eventually do happen for “G.”

The setting is New Jersey in 2006, in a country which ill uses its immigrants because political parties have exploited the issue of citizenship as a way to consolidate power. For “B” who fears getting caught and being deported, the emotional terrors are like a war of attrition that force him and his mother to live an impoverished pressure-cooker existence. They wait daily for the explosion to occur, of their being caught and deported.

Jasai Chase-Owens, Sharlene Cruz in NYTW Sanctuary City (Joan Marcus)

We discover through the light flashes and their circular movements on the platform, that “B” and “G” trace the chronology of their relationship in staccato bursts of memory which leads to the apotheosis of the play’s conclusion. We empathize with “B’s” concern for his mother who suffers abuse and bullying from her employer. She obeys his every word, and overlooks his skimping her pay. His disrespect is better than returning to the homeland, until she reaches a point of no return and decides it is enough.

Thus, Majok reminds us continually by examining the plight of “G’s” and “B’s” situation, that immigrant women are often sexually abused and beaten because they have no leverage. As in the case of “G’s” mother, orders of protection are useless because the partner can call INS (currently ICE) and have them deported if they don’t comply sexually. Indeed, once the partner exhausts the mother, the implication is that he will come for “G.” At times “G” shows up at “B’s” bleeding and bruised by his wanton brutality.

Sharlene Cruz in NYTW Sanctuary City by Martyna Majok, directed by Rebecca Frecknall (Joan Marcus)

However, hope does come. And in the same stylized format of language, “G” tells “B” that her mother got her papers and miraculously, “G” is a citizen. That moment of G’s” joy causes “B’s” searing pain. While “G” no longer fears discovery and looks forward to their moving away from her mom’s monstrous partner, we note “B’s” sadness and envy. He is stuck. His mother is going back to the “homeland” and his confidante and ersatz lover has “made it” to a more superior position in the immigrant pecking order, while he must wallow in her wake facing the shadows of fear and oppression alone.

It is at this juncture that a turning point occurs. The guilt “G” feels about her position in comparison to “B’s” situation wears on her and she forms the idea that as he has given her sanctuary, perhaps she can do the same for him. Her method is to select the way to citizenship immigrants have employed for decades. After all, she has feelings for him and is willing to risk her life offering to marry him, though, if discovered, she possibly would lose her own citizenship, be fined and jailed after he is deported.

Jasai Chase-Owens, Sharlene Cruz in NYTW Sanctuary City by Martyna Majok, directed by Rebecca Frecknall (Joan Marcus)

Majok’s script sags when the plans evolve for “G” to help “B.” Perhaps due to the continued flashes of light and whirl-y-gig staging, the sameness becomes tedious. However, there is the wonderful and welcome respite of their dancing and going to the prom with additional colorful lighting. The diversion from the stasis of the repetitive stagnant (the symbolism is apparent…no need to bludgeon the audience) might have come sooner.

And then comes the transformation of a three-year hiatus which Frecknall announces with sound effects and darkness both of which are symbolically ominous. Subsequently, Henry (the excellent Austin Smith) comes onto the threshold of “B’s” life to provide safety and emotional sustenance as “G” once had, until she returns and the three clash. In this second sequence of events, all is light and clarity. “B” and “G” no longer maneuver around each other. All is straightforward. And now, it is “G” who must sink or swim in her emotional guilt while “B” makes a decision about citizenship and sacrificing love.

Jasai Chase-Owens, Sharlene Cruz in NYTW Sanctuary City (Joan Marcus)

What happened to “G” and “B’s” compact, their relationship, their closeness? Majok presents the stark themes. Immigrants and illegal aliens are compelled by political forces to behave in ways counter to their nature, altruistic good will and sense of decency. Of course, this doesn’t just pertain to those trying for citizenship. It doubly applies to citizens who have become mentally and emotionally inert to the sensitivities of others because they are weighted down by materialism and consumerism, having forgotten “where they came from.” Ironically, the country then, no longer becomes a sanctuary, but a prison that has sucked their life force dry.

These themes are only a few of those that Majok covers in this play of antitheses: of connection and isolation, of compromise and extremism, of fear and hope, of dislocation and community, of alienation and unity.

Through various administrations, we’ve closed our borders following the need of politicians to use immigration and immigrants as playthings to boogeymen citizens and grow their political power base. Sanctuary City shines a unique light on the PTSD that arises for those who want a better life and are willing to risk their substance to dream big and/or help others who are lost in limbo between citizenship and deportation, those who wait for the light of deliverance. Majok’s writing is poetic and austere with the rhythms of immigrants and aliens voices and silences. If you can get down to Lucille Lortel to see Sanctuary City before it closes this weekend, you will be happy you did. For tickets and times go to their website. https://www.nytw.org/show/sanctuary-city/

‘Chicken & Biscuits’: Delicious Farcical Fare @ Circle in the Square

The cast of ‘Chicken & Biscuits’ (Emilio Madrid)

In this current time of COVID when our country faces daily crises of social disunity, dangerous political extremism, economic injustice and abdication of sound public health practices by craven Republican governors, Chicken & Biscuits written by Douglas Lyons, directed by Zhailon Levingston appears to lack currency on superficial inspection. Benign family squabbles, sibling rivalry, death and succession, a same-sex relationship, such subject matter at the heart of the play is quaint fare for a comedic entertainment that offends no one.

Except Chicken & Biscuits neither lacks currency nor is a quaint, “sitcom,” family comedy. Its levity and humor smacks of farce and satire with dead-on threads of truthfulness. However, if one is dreaming, much will slip past in the twinkling of an eye in this play about black culture, family and the foundations of faith that undergird the best hope for the black American experience in a racist culture that hovers invisibly and surfaces surreptitiously in Lyons’ one-liners.

(L to R): Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Michael Urie, Devere Rogers, Cleo King in ‘Chicken & Biscuits’ (Emilio Madrid)

The occasion is the funeral for the father of the Mabry family. He was the pastor of a Connecticut Pentecostal-type (there is a bit of dancing in the spirit) black church. Succeeding him in the position is Pastor Reginald (played with humor and oratorical fervor by Norm Lewis). The imposing, ambitious, dominant matriarch Baneatta (the funny Cleo King) whose resume would make any ignorant racist’s head spin, stands by his side in the church family.

Gathering with their parents are daughter and son: the accomplished Simone (Alana Raquel Bowers) and actor Kenny (Devere Rogers). Rounding out the family “going home” celebration are Baneatta’s hyper vivacious sister Beverly (the gloriously out there Ebony Marshall-Oliver) and Beverly’s enlightened, wise-cracking DJ daughter La ‘Trice Franklin (the buoyant Aigner Mizzelle). To spice up the explosive, sometimes irreverent proceedings are Kenny’s Jewish lover, Logan Leibowitz (the LOL Michael Urie) and mystery guest Brianna (sweet NaTasha Yvette Williams).

Alana Raquel Bowers, Devere Rogers in ‘Chicken & Biscuits’ (Emilio Madrid)

Before the guests arrive Reginald counsels Baneatta to relax and not become embroiled by family machinations. We note Baneatta’s stresses when she prays to God for patience in a humorous riff about her sister. During this preamble to the funeral service, others step in and out of the vestibule. They share their hysterical misgivings and woes about the family interactions to come.

Norm Lewis, Cleo King in ‘Chicken & Biscuits’ (Emilio Madrid)

The staging at the Circle in the Square is finely employed; the flexible set design by Lawrence E. Moten III and clever rearrangement of furniture and props serve as a church basement, sanctuary, nave and more. The modern stained glass windows and wood paneling upstage center, flanked by paintings of a black Jesus and crosses on both sides, serve to create the atmosphere of a thriving church. The underlying symbolism is superb as is the assertion of freedom from the typical forms of bondage Christianity.

(L to R): Alana Raquel Bowers, Aigner Mizzelle in ‘Chicken & Biscuits’ (Emilio Madrid)

Each family member, an ironic stereotype of themselves, identifies the complications that will arise as emotional storm clouds threaten on the horizon of the funeral and aftermath. Kenny attempts to soothe Logan who has been disrespected and largely ignored by Baneatta and Simone who cannot brook Kenny’s being gay, nor his attraction to a Jewish white man. When we see them in action with Logan, we note their austerity of warmth with mincing words and behaviors. As they watch him founder in blackland Christendom with two strikes against him, his whiteness and his gay Jewishness, he crumples instead of standing to and giving it back for fear of offense. These scenes are just hysterical and we see beyond to the strength and character of the individuals and their weaknesses.

The cast of ‘Chicken & Biscuits’ (Emilio Madrid)

As Logan, Urie’s ironic, humorous complaints to Kenny when they are alone, set up the tropes and jokes which follow as we watch how Baneatta and Simone treat him like a rare breed of exotic who must give obeisance. Hysterically, Kenny breezily abandons Logan to their clutches: it’s sink or swim time for Logan. Urie plays this to the hilt authentically, riotously with partners, King and Alana Raquel Bowers as the straight women who “bring it.” Watching this is both funny and upsetting. The women are intentionally clever. Their response is anything but Christian, loving and warm, but who is playing whom? We are reminded of the hypocrisy of evangelical churches to the LGBT community who engage in political Republican actions. Though this is a church in Connecticut and its members are most probably Democrats, the similar odor is clear. We wonder, can the situation evolve for the better? Can they achieve common ground?

(L to R): Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Michael Urie, Aigner Mizzelle in ‘Chicken & Biscuits’ (Emilio Madrid)

The only one who accepts Logan with Christ’s unconditional love and hugs is Pastor Reginald. And Logan longingly remembers that Reginald’s Dad (who we discover to be a waggish, wild pastor) showed the same love. For Logan it is no small comfort, but apparently this open behavior was typical of the deceased pastor’s liberalism and Christian equanimity.

Obvious is the clash between lifestyles and personalities of the sisters: the educated achievement-oriented Baneatta, and the wild, flashily dressed, divorced and “out-there” Beverly and her DJ, hip, savvy, “ready for her social media celebrity” La ‘Trice. Mother and daughter counsel each other to “shut it,” projecting widely but not seeing their own faults and outrageousness to care to change. They do it because they are funny and they laugh at themselves. Do they have anything better to do being who they are? Marshall-Oliver and Mizzelle make for a great mother-daughter team.

Truly, the women dominate this world as the service, the sermon and eulogies get underway. Their behaviors and actions are at various proportions of farcical and funny as are all these typical, atypically drawn individuals.

Norm Lewis and the cast of ‘Chicken & Biscuits’ (Emilio Madrid)

Nevertheless, underlying the laughter and stealthy ridicule of each character being themselves, we get the importance of family and faith community. Despite the miry clay conflicts that emerge as part of the whirlwind of events that race through the play to the end revelation, these individuals have each other’s backs. And entry into the family, as Logan discovers, is not easily won. However, when it’s won, it’s forever.

The service is down-home (different from evangelical) with the hope of less hypocrisy via a more spiritual relationship with God. Thus, when the Pastor preaches in the spirit and dances a bit in the spirit, the audience even takes up the “Amens” in concordance. Indeed, the hope of a better way flows from Pastor Reginald’s fountain of faith. And by the conclusion of Chicken & Biscuits, a better way has been found in the dynamic of each of the family relationships, catalyzed by a mystery guest that Baneatta feared and kept secret for most of their lives.

(L to R): Cleo King, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, NaTasha Yvette Williams in ‘Chicken & Biscuits’ (Emilio Madrid)

Chicken & Biscuits serves on many levels. For those who enjoy a riotous comedy/farce with characters that tickle one’s funny bone continually, this is the perfect play. For those who enjoy being entertained, yet also enjoy the illumination that comes when thematic truths about life and people are cleverly revealed without preachy presentments, then this play surely delivers. For those who value the unity of family that never devolves to hatred, division, anger and bitter insult and rancor, the play is a portrait of a black family which resonates through the medium of satire and good will.

Michael Urie, Aigner Mizzelle in ‘Chicken & Biscuits’ (Emilio Madrid)

Kudos to Nikiya Mathis for her hair/wig and makeup designs: I loved her cool hair design for La ‘Trice, and Baneatta’s sober, contrasting hair and hat, to Beverly’s unsanctimonious hair and feathery headpiece. Simone’s hair design was just luscious. And additional kudos to Dede Ayite’s great, character revealing costume designs, Adam Honoré’s beautiful lighting design and Twi McCallum’s sound design. Their assistance was superb in making this a wonderful romp with circumspection if you divine it.

You need to see Chicken & Biscuits for the cast’s excellent ensemble work, Levingston’s direction and Lyons’ uproarious writing. In all its satiric humor about family “types,” the production took me away from divisive political rancor and stereotypes that follow. Chicken & Biscuits is a welcome joy. For tickets and times go to their website. https://chickenandbiscuitsbway.com/

SIX the Musical, Theater Review

The Queens of SIX the Musical at the Brooks Atkinson (courtesy of the production)

It took over 500 years for the six wives of Henry VIII to finally remix history and set the record straight nightly on Broadway in SIX the Musical at the Brooks Atkinson. What a phenomenal fun time to join these Ex-Wives in their exclusive club as they dish up the failed monarch, driven to upend the Catholic Church, lie, steal and kill in the name of gaining a male heir. We’ve had enough mansplaining about Henry’s actions. It’s time for the ladies!

The Queens of SIX the Musical at the Brooks Atkinson (courtesy of the production)

 Gloriously, these Exs take back their queenly power, rudely wrenched from them by Henry’s cruel hands in divorce, decapitation and expulsion. And in sisterly collaboration they raise their voices in a chorus of jubilation and foot stomping exuberance to vacate the patriarchal, historical perspective and lift up their identities, apart from the monarch who never got the best of them. With their audience fandom singing along, whooping and applauding rhythmically during the songs and especially in the final song “Six,” it is enough to rock Henry VIII in his moldering grave in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. Can you hear them, Henry?

Adrianna Hicks as Catherine of Aragon in SIX the Musical (courtesy of the production)

Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss in an inspirational fit of glory have come up with one of the most joyous and meaningful concepts that wraps history in a modern, insightful, revealing perspective, as told by women who are great in their own right. And in the retelling of their stories, we realize because of who these women were/are, Henry VIII is one of the most written about monarchs in  British history and media (TV, plays, movies). The women are the central focus in SIX the Musical as they should be. This marvelous production is mind-blowing, refreshing, profound.

Why do Marlow and Moss, and Moss and Jamie Armitage who both directed, succeed in this show first presented at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017? They enjoin historical facts with hot rhymes and rhythms and rock/pop concert fever topped off with a dynamic, explosive, vibrant, “It’s showtime” cast and creatives.

Abby Mueller as Jane Seymour in SIX the Musical (courtesy of the production)

The design, look and feel of this Renaissance of light and sound knocks the audience’s enjoyment into the heavens. All design elements cohere with the theme, showcasing these women as stars. The women’s story deserves this futuristic retelling. Hence the sparkles and spangles and beads and sci-fi metallic-looking brilliance, thanks to Gabriella Slade’s out-of-this-world costume design which makes sense. Indeed, with Emma Bailey’s sensational set design and Tim Deiling’s equally eye-popping lighting design, the exuberant grandeur is fanciful, magical and funny. It has all the smattering of the Renaissance royal court in a mash up of pop/rock elegance.

Importantly, we’ve come to hear each of the women relate their story, especially the ones we are least familiar with. Initially, they tell us this is a competition of songs and virtuoso singing. Who is the most miserably treated by the cruel Henry? And we get to vote our favorable, miserable Queen to aggrandize her fame above the others, perhaps to make up for Henry’s malevolence.

The Queens in SIX the Musical (courtesy of the production)

They sing in order of their marriages after they introduce the funny and rousing fact that they are “Ex-Wives.” However, the tone is all about being “out there!” And we realize from their sassiness and boldness, being an Ex of a monarch is something to take pride in.

Catherine of Aragon, the dynamic Adrianna Hicks dishes on Henry in “No Way” in the Queenspiration style of Beyoncé and Shakira. The feisty Andrea Macasaet as Anne Boleyn insists she lost her head in the hysterical “Don’t Lose Ur Head.” Thus, no one can “top” Boleyn she quips; she feels she’s already won the prize as the most miserable of the Ex-wife sufferers. Many jokes follow her separation from her head as the running-joke that never tires. Her Queenspiration style follows Lily Allen and Avril Lavigne, but she is all Andrea Macasaet, a spit-fire, not really standing in anyone else’s shoes.

Brittney Mack as Anna of Cleves in SIX the Musical (courtesy of the production)

At this juncture, Marlow and Moss create a pause in the rollicking, pop/rock song and hip-hop movement ballyhoo. It is an appropriate change up. After all, history wrapped in music and shining light is never hackneyed or the same. Thus, Jane Seymour (the soulful Abby Mueller) appears not to be disabused by Henry like the others. She’s the one “he truly loved.” Obviously, she can’t parade herself as the most victimized. So she sings a beautiful ballad “Heart of Stone” of Henry’s love and her loyalty to him, but so soon lost in childbirth. Abby Mueller’s song style is Adele and Sia.

One of the most LOL and Social Media twitting of the queens is Brittney Mack’s Anna of Cleves, who must take back her power after all the queens mock her in the song “Haus of Holbein.” Henry famously went to Germany for this wife, fell in love with her portrait in oil and proposed via his officials. When she showed up in person, Henry rejected her outright as unattractive.

Andrea Macasaet as Anne Boleyn in SIX the Musical (courtesy of the production)

In “Get Down” are some of the funniest lyrics as Anna of Cleves reveals her great good fortune sitting on the throne in her castle living in luxury without having to deal with the bruiser Henry. “You said I tricked ya, cause I didn’t look like my profile picture,” hearkens to all the dating sites and social media sites where folks don’t put up their most recent pictures. In the style of Nicki Minaj and Rihanna, the sensational Brittney Mack has a blast stomping Henry.

Perhaps the most memorable song and the most true to life is what the beheaded Katherine Howard (Courtney Mack was terrific when I saw it October 6th) sings, “All You Wanna Do.” Kathrine Howard had many affairs and sings of the men who importune her sexually, then leave her “high and dry.” Of course, Henry, finding out about her former promiscuity, creates an act to punish her for her sexual experience and knowledge. “It’s off with her head, too!” The double standard here goes beyond the pale with Henry sewing his wild oats in every village and town in his kingdom. The song meaning in the style of Ariana Grande and Brittney Spears sung by Mack is powerful and beautiful.

Anna Uzele as Catherine Parr in SIX the Musical (courtesy of the production)

Catherine Parr (the brassy Anna Uzele) brings on the 4th Wave feminist revelation. Why should there be a contest, a male construct of oppression to divide and conquer? Catherine Parr singing “I don’t Need Your Love,’ is the modern woman who can make it on her own. Indeed, the first woman in England to publish books in her own name, Catherine Parr rocks. Also, she outlived Henry and his penchant to divorce and behead. Anna Uzele sings in the style of Alicia Keys and Emeli Sandé.

By the concluding song, “Six,” even men stand up, applaud and clap to the finale. The cast and the wonderful Ladies in Waiting all girl band (Julia Schade, Michelle Osbourne, Kimi Hayes, Elena Bonomo) help to explode male presumptions and make sure the message is clear: patriarchy has no place in a kinder, gentler, decent society and culture where equanimity is a key goal.

This production and its creatives can’t be praised enough. See it twice. For tickets and times go to https://sixonbroadway.com/

Photos by Joan Marcus

Wes Craven’s ‘The French Dispatch’ a 59th New York Film Festival Review

Timothée Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Fans of the inimitable Wes Anderson’s droll wit and pixie capriciousness will enjoy The French Dispatch, though it diverges from his other films. Truly, this amazing work spins off Craven’s usual stylistic nuances into the realm of the cinematic magazine. Craven directed and wrote the screenplay with story help from Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola.

Importantly, The French Dispatch pays homage to the magazine he riffs, The New Yorker and the renowned writers from the past (James Baldwin) receive more than a nod. Chock full of references, Craven employs his choice mediums (animated car chase, cartoons, cut out color sets, dead on camera framing) and adds the magazine format. This extraordinary film which engrosses, ridicules, satirizes, mourns, praises, and twits writers past and present screens at the 2021 NYFF until 10 October.

Wryly narrated by Anjelica Huston, the film opens by defining “The French Dispatch” as an eponymous expatriate journal published on behalf of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. Ironically, Craven has named the journal’s place of publication as the fictional 20th century French city, Ennui-sur-Blasé. (Ennui=the city, Blasé=the river)  Roughly, Ennui-sur-Blasé translates as boredom of the worldy-wise apathetic, a superb irony.

Thus, “The French Dispatch” attempts to make middle-America’s readers acculturated cosmopolitans. By way of explaining the periodical’s cleverness, Craven’s film brings to life a collection of stories from the final print issue. Indeed, this lively anthology serves as an encomium to the death of its editor-in-chief, the big “gun” Arthur Howitzer, Jr (Bill Murray). Thematically, while highlighting the time in France (1950s-1970s) Craven weaves dark ironies that reference the current times.

Using waggish and epigrammatic descriptions, the narrator presents the quirky, peculiar press corps, writers of the wildly over the top stories activated by Craven. After the director introduces us to the meticulous Howitzer Jr. and others (look for the writer diagramming sentences on a blackboard) we meet cyclist Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson). Craven uses opportunities for humor through double entendre, with names that have nuanced meanings. For example, “Sazerac” is a beloved bourbon or rye cocktail of New Orleanians.

As Sazerac cycles us via a travelogue through Ennui-sur-Blasé, with shots from the past (black and white) and future (color) we note its dinginess (terraced rat dwellings) poverty, underworld pimps and prostitutes and other charms. In other words, the city reeks of humanity which remains forever unchanging. Of course, “The French Dispatch” reports on stories that identify the weirdest and most comically contradictory of the denizens of humanity.

First, Huston introduces a story, assisted with a lecture at a symposium given by J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) cultural reporter of the “The French Dispatch” arts section. Berensen relates an amazing tale. One of the foremost contributors to modern art remains hitherto for unknown: psychotic criminal artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro). On the brink of suicide, Moses finds his answer to life and love via his sadistic prison guard lover Léa Seydoux

With the unpredictable guard as his muse, Moses immortalizes her in abstracts he paints on the concrete walls of the prison. Like Banksy, Moses prevents his greedy, exploitive art dealer (Adrien Brody) from easily trafficking his art by painting his frescos on a building making them unremovable. During an investors’ showing in the prison, the prisoners riot to muscle in on Moses’ elite visitors and hold them hostage. Moses’s violent nature, which put him in prison serves him well. With brute force Moses destroys the rioters stopping their attack of the dealer and wealthy purchaser Upshur Clampette (Lois Smith). With his investors saved, Moses receives parole. He has provided his unique contribution to the Clampette Museum, representing abstract fine art at its incredibly ironic, violent best.

Next in the collection, the story of student revolutionaries of 1968 compels its reporter Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) to have an “objective” affair with star revolutionary Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet). Helping to straighten out his befuddled theories and justifications to revise his “manifesto,” Krementz as the “older woman,” influences Zeffrielli. Eventually, he succumbs to his nemesis, the beautiful counterrevolutionary Juliette (Lyna Khoudri) and they stay together until tragedy strikes. Nevertheless, the created manifesto lives on as does Krementz’ reportage, thoughto the revolution, the revolutionaries and their Utopian ideals fade from memory into a fever dream of unreality.

Finally, Huston sets up the story of the dinner with a police commissioner (Mathieu Amalric) and his personal chef Lieutenant Nescafier (Steven Park). Gourmand writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) intends to report on the delectable cuisine of the famous Nescafier. However, complications arise when the commissioner, a veritable Jacques Clouseau, has the tables turned on him and criminals kidnap his son. Finally, locating the son, Chef Nescafier prepares a snack which poisons all but the son, the chef and the chauffeur (Ed Norton). The ensuing car chase (a humorous Craven animation) ends with a crash and the son rejoins his father.

At this juncture Howitzer Jr. chides Wright for not describing Nescafier’s cuisine. Wright avers. And thus occurs an incredible moment that alludes to the writing of James Baldwin. Succinctly, Wright describes that he cut out the chef’s words because as an expatriate, the chef, another expatriate made him sad. When Wright repeats Nescafier’s words that he cut, Howitzer Jr. notes with passion that it must not be excluded. He insists the Chef’s extraordinary, philosophical observation about the poison in the dish is the only valuable part of the Wright’s work.

Profoundly, in the flash of a moment, we understand why Howitzer Jr. left for this strange outpost in Ennui-sur-Blasé. Fulfilling his goals, he configured a magazine with a global readership that published the profound, the unique, the revelatory. And it included those bits and pieces of life whose revelations edified and informed with a keen, accurate eye. Amazingly, in a brief span of a few moments, Craven says it all about writing and writers, finding the elusive and bringing it to our consciousness. Of course, this question Craven asks silently with The French Dispatch.  What happens when censorship, and an absence of prescience, wisdom and freedom runs the presses as they do currently in the U.S.?

The French Dispatch bears seeing a few times to catch its luxuriant richness. Not only does Craven employ fanciful images in contradictions journalistically, the resonance of language and word choice is satiric, sardonic and powerful. So is the mosh of well-thought out cinematography and scenic design. For tickets and times at the 2021 New York Film Festival website. https://www.filmlinc.org/nyff2021/films/the-french-dispatch/

‘Pass Over’ at the August Wilson Theatre is Glorious

(L to R) Jon Michael Hill, Gabriel Ebert, Namir Smallwood in Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over, directed by Danya Taymor (Joan Marcus)

Two men standing on a desolate street corner with a lamppost shining on a blasted, deserted, space save for a garbage can, a patch of weeds, a tire, a wire milk carton. Such is the material/empirical setting reminiscent in its isolation and abstract loneliness of Samuel Beckett’s setting in ‘Waiting For Godot.’ Likewise the comedic and clown-like Moses (the brilliant Jon Michael Hill) and his Homie, clowning sidekick Kitch (the brilliant Namir Smallwood) appear similar to Vladimir and Estragon. However, they are not. They are black. And where Vladimir and Estragon “wait,” unafraid, bored, wiling away the hours, Moses and Kitch exist in a hellish landscape afraid of death at the hands of the “PoPos,” shorthand for police.

Whether one has seen Beckett’s Godot or not, doesn’t matter. The isolation of these two individuals and their express desires to leave this heartless existence that holds the terror of black men dying by a simulated “justice” which is tantamount to the injustice of lynching is conveyed with empathy and poignancy by the creative team of actors and director Danya Taymor. With acute care, emotional grist, comedic genius and dynamic drama, they bring to stark, felt life, Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s haunting, memorable dialogue in Pass Over, currently running at the August Wilson Theatre in a cool, streamlined no intermission production.

Jon Michael Hill in Antoinette Chionye Nwandu’s Pass Over, directed by Danya Taymor (Joan Marcus)

When we first meet the likable Moses and Kitch, we understand their camaraderie and support for one another, as well as the similarity of their desires, fantasizing about the finer things of a luxurious, material, elite lifestyle. Though Moses is the leader and Kitch is his follower and admirer, their synchronicity and dependency is clear, for they wish to “pass over,” to get to the “promised land,” the “land of milk and honey” represented by the “American Dream.”

And whether we have eaten lobster or drank Crystal, like they wish to, we, too, have craved the finer things of life and may even feel a sense of superiority that we have experienced them, where these impoverished of the ghetto block can only entertain themselves and each other by dreaming about such extravagances in a humorous and ironic game which has become a way of bonding between them.

(L to R): Namir Smallwood and Jon Michael Hill in Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over, directed by Danya Taymor (Joan Marcus)

Fifteen minutes in to the thrust and parry of humor, the gaming is interrupted by a Pavlovian signal that has brainwashed them to fear: the stage floods momentarily with a steely light and a dull, blaring warning sound. (It reminded me of Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film War of the Worlds, when there sounds a far-reaching alarm announcing the aliens’ presence.) We learn later that Moses and Kitch recognize this alarm as the sound of death; that another black friend or acquaintance in their neighborhood has been killed by police. They cower and crouch in fear until the light and sound normalizes to the stasis of desolation, and once again they return to humor and the grace of planning to escape and go somewhere where they can live free from fear in a greater abundance of prosperity than their current existence.

However, there are two caveats. They must elude the PoPos, as Moses led the Israelites to elude the angel of death which “passed over” the the First Born if the blood of the lamb was on the doorposts of the Israelites’ homes. Secondly, the PoPos expect them to remain on the block to never escape their oppression and misery. Thus, they are free only in their games, humor and imagination, while their physical bodies are subject to the reality of their dire existence with the threat of death hanging over their lives. Will they be able to “pass over” and escape death? The symbolism is spiritual with possibilities for escaping all of what the playwright infers elements of the death state is in this life.

(L to R): Namir Smallwood and Jon Michael Hill in Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over directed by Danya Taymor (Joan Marcus)

Into their ghetto corner (which the playwright suggests symbolizes as historical oppression and redemption-a river’s edge, a plantation, a desert city built by slaves and a new world on the horizon) comes Mister who slips up and calls himself Master (the wonderful Gabriel Ebert). Taymor has him ironically dressed in a white suit and vest, such as gentlemen of the Old South used to wear on or off the plantation. Mister, intending to visit his ill mother with a picnic basket of food, inexplicably gets lost and arrives with his bounty to the ghetto block.

At first Moses, whom his religion teacher encouraged to live up to his namesake, the Biblical Moses, proudly eschews Mister’s offer of food charity, though both he and Kitch are hungry. However, sociable, “good-natured” Mister cajoles and tempts them. And after he massages their egos with charm and humility, he shares some of the delicious food in his basket with Moses and Kitch in a wonderfully humorous staged scene.

(L to R): Namir Smallwood, Jon Michael Hill in Pass Over (Joan Marcus)

We note the roles between the individuals and hints of seduction and exploitation, expecting some catastrophe, however, Nwandu has tricks up her sleeve and the situation with Mister is as it appears. Mister worms his way into their hearts and they become friendly. And for a fascinating moment they forget about “getting off the block,” and being all they can be, lulled by the food. Intriguingly, Mister chides them for abusing their use of the “N” word which he cannot use, because as Moses suggests, he doesn’t own that word.

It is an ironic gesture since it is perhaps the only “thing” Mister doesn’t “own,” as a representative of the dominant oppressor race. Though Mister doesn’t “own” their black identity which they have accepted as their own, is it something which is good for them or is it another trick of oppression? After Mister leaves, Moses and Kitch realize that adopting that identity is a trick of the white culture and the PoPos, for by inference, the “N” label associates with low-down and/or slovenly criminal behavior, regardless of whether they are deserving of such labels or not. Ironically, they have proudly accepted that term as their identity, but it has resulted in black male deaths at the hands of the police.

Deciding to cover for themselves, using Mister’s gentile manners, they avoid trouble, when Ossifer (a police officer played by Gabriel Ebert who is the different side of the same coin as Mister) shows up. Moses and Kitch become “gentlemen” in word and action, imitating Mister. It works. Ossifer leaves them alone and protects them as culturally “white” until Kitch slips up and uses the “N” word triggering the brutality of the police officer who confronts them as their oppressor to control, belittle and demean. Under these circumstances we feel the depressive desolation of the historical and current inferior “slave.” And Ossifer terrorizes them reminding them that their lives are only useful for living in fear and misery as “the controlled.” The only respite Moses and Kitch have is the humor and hope Kitch and Moses stir up within themselves and share with each other to make existence bearable until they can “pass over.”

(L to R): Namir Smallwood and Jon Michael Hill in Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over directed by Danya Taymor (Joan Marcus)

In an amazing turning point, Nwandu clarifies a new meaning for the term Moses references from the Bible, “pass over.” It is a spiritual one that Moses convinces Kitch they must now seek, no longer wanting to deal with the despair and long trial of a desolate existence.

Taymor, shepherding Hill, Smallwood and Ebert creates extreme tension throughout. Especially when Ebert as Mister and Ossifer shows up. The atmosphere is that of a pressure cooker sizzling until it seethes into an explosion which does occur. We, like Moses and Kitch, expect the blast after every joke, around every game they play, especially when the alarm sounds and lights flare up that the PoPos have killed another black man. Nwandu cleverly distorts the thrust of the heat and danger providing extraordinary twists in the turn of evolving events. These become revelatory, magical and lead to the unexpected and heartfelt.

The beauty of the conclusion is in its realization of a return to an ideal which isn’t actually some pie in the sky fantasy, but is present and real. In the production it occurs with the help of and extraordinary supernatural intervention as happened to the Biblical Moses. Taking one step forward after another, Moses, Kitch and Ossifer (a reborn Christopher) are released and the imagined consciousness comes into being. However, the lure of what’s past beckons. One must not turn around to be enticed, or everything will be lost in the material plane where the human race has crashed and burned for millennia.

Pass Over is a must see for its fantastic performances, its uniqueness, its joy, despair, thematic truths and its wonderful faith and hope in human nature. I could not help but be gratified that there were no female characters. Their absence is lyrically pointed. The production is mesmerizing and I have nothing but praise for how the playwright, director and actors connected with the truth of what we face as a multifaceted and diverse society that is desperately crying out for healing and redemption. But as Nwandu suggests, the promised land is already here. We must look to our own inner strengths and step out to cross that “river”and never turn back.

Kudos to the creative team that made this production fly and whose effects helped to send chills down my spine and tears down my face. They include Wilson Chin (scenic design) Sarafina Bush (costume design) Marcus Doshi (lighting design) and Justin Ellington (sound design). Pass Over runs until the 10th of October. This is one you cannot miss. For tickets and times go to the Pass Over website by clicking HERE.

‘The Body Fights Back,’ Documentary Review

Mojo, ‘The Body Fights Back’ (courtesy of the film)

How do you feel about your physical body? Are you slim, gorgeous, buff, married to a hot man or woman? Or do you fear getting on the scale or if you’re a guy, looking in the mirror because you haven’t been able to work out for two weeks and you know that the flab is growing in leaps and bounds around your middle? Do you have an inner voice that screams don’t eat another piece of pizza or have that cronut? Or do you annihilate that voice and go unconscious eating everything in the fridge after being “careful” and eating only salad and a small piece of fish for your entire food calories daily for one week, though you go to bed hungry?

Cat Walk in Trafalgar Square in 'The Body Fights Back' (courtesy of the film)
Cat Walk in Trafalgar Square in ‘The Body Fights Back’ (courtesy of the film)

The Body Fights Back written and directed by Marian Vosumets shadows five individuals from diverse backgrounds that represent all of us at one point or another in our lives as we confront issues of weight, appearance guilt, body shaming, appearance perfection and the subterranean condemnation that the media lays on men and women through the marketing industry, the fashion industry and most predominately the weight loss industry. And this includes you, too, icon of “superior weight loss,” Weight Watchers.

If that is a mouthful about what Vosumets tackles in her documentary, it is because she highlights all of the problems the culture presents for everyone as they attempt to find happiness in getting to the next day. Meanwhile, they must navigate through the dangerous rocks, the images of perfection that are everywhere and that brainwash and bamboozle everyone to internalize self-condemnation because their appearance just “doesn’t have what it takes to get anywhere.”

Rory, 'The Body Fights Back' (courtesy of the film)
Rory, ‘The Body Fights Back,’ (courtesy of the film)

Vosumets interviews Mojo, a feisty, adorable, overweight black woman, Rory Brown a buff-looking white male, Hannah Webb, a thin, quiet-speaking, young white woman, Imogen Fox, a thin, out-spoken, confident gay white woman, Tenisha Pascal, a confident, bubbly overweight black woman and Michaela Gingel an outgoing, overweight white woman. Each of these individuals is a courageous star who has confronted and battled body shaming, self-ridicule and unhappiness with their appearance identify which was beaten into them by the diet industry and culture at large. Mind you, diets don’t work. Indeed, as one researcher in the film points out, 85% of the individuals who diet again and again go back to their former weight and many gain even more weight. Of course, the diet culture keeps that statistic under wraps.

Recording her subjects’ prescient and brilliantly honest presence and commentary, the documentarian gets at what the diet culture and all of its octopus tentacles (the fashion industry, marketing industry, media in all its forms, health industry) do to destroy the souls of millions of individuals, predominately in the U.K., U.S. and Australia by making them feel inferior and deserving of condemnation, unless they look perfect. Appearance is everything to the diet culture octopus. Unless one fits the image in the billboards, magazines, media, people are the equivalent of worms to be outcast from community and companionship. Importantly, they are not deserving of love, most importantly self-love. Thus, they HAVE to go on a diet to look better. Their lives, which are boiled down to appearance only, and never includes their treasured souls, depend on dieting to look good. If they don’t diet, they face the outer darkness.

Cat Walk, The Body Fights Back (courtesy of the film)
Cat Walk ‘The Body Fights Back,’ (courtesy of the film)

If this sounds like hyperbole, it is. Diet culture and all of its psychotic means to make billions of dollars a year exploiting fear of fat, will stop at nothing to twist the minds and hearts of everyone. Let’s face it, women, if you’re not a BMI 18-20, you’re a pig. The sacrosanct thin people who fit this weight category are most probably in some form of eating disorder or addicted to pills, cocaine, smoking, crack, heroin, etc. Celebrities have revealed their disorders and addictions to stay thin: anorexia, bulimia, binging and purging, cocaine addiction, speed addiction, crack, heroin and more.

Hannah Webb truthfully discusses how doctors missed her eating disorder because they, too, had fallen for the lie that healthy people are always thin people. She weighed within a normal range of BMI, which is not an accurate indicator of health; other factors must be taken into consideration. Thus, Hannah lived a lie which made her miserable until she confronted it. In poignant discussions with her mother captured by Vosumets, she discusses battling her issues with eating, for example, a croissant and constant fears of gaining weight. With her disorder she was on the verge of life and death. Yet, she was able to come out of it with the help of her family and therapy.

Hannah is the opposite side of the same coin as Mojo, Michaela, Tenisha and Imogen, all of whom had or have issues about weight. Imogen also battled a disability and discusses that when she was heavier, the hospital staff were very insulting and annihilating about getting her a gown to fit (get her a man’s gown which is bigger) and other obnoxious calumny in front of her face, almost as if they enjoyed and felt sanctified in their sadism.

But this is par for the course. Overweight in the culture is anathema and grounds for banishment from normal society. It deserves vilification, ridicule, jokes and shaming. How unhealthy these fatties are!!! Of course, this emerges from colonialism, white male paternalism (women must be quiet, thin, beautiful and sexually available 24/7 and perfect until they can be thrown away for another model) and capitalism-make that money even if you have to step over the bodies of those you kill in the process.

TRAILER The Body Fights Back OUT July 13 from The Body Fights Back on Vimeo.

The diet culture, thus, reinforces the most nihilistic of values at the expense of truth and health. Vosumets has researchers and scientists comment that one could be thin and on the verge of death; overweight is not correlated to healthiness. Indeed, based upon appearance, Hannah and Imogen who are at the epitome of thin (according to the diet culture and Octopus standards) are perfect and sanctified. Ironically, they are not; one battled for her life just to eat certain foods without fear and the other is disabled. Thus, the diet culture lies. It is its own profitable myth. (diets don’t work) And this is one of the key points in Vosumets’ wonderful documentary. What is healthy should include physical, mental, emotional, psychic well being. We are, after all, not only a body; we have a soul and spirit. And indeed, the body disintegrates. However, what are we doing about the interior of our lives? No wonder with eating obsessions individuals are miserable, regardless of how thin and buff they appear.

Vosumets cleverly includes Rory Brown to show that he, too, is a slave to conformity. For men the idea that you have to be buff and gorgeous is what life is all about. Yet, he confides that as he goes to the gym, he is depressed. As he looks in the mirror, he is glad he looks “great,” but he can’t carry a mirror around with him every second of the day. He’s worked on his exterior, but his interior is miserable. Like Mojo, Hannah, Michaela, Tenisha and Imogen they have all been enslaved to the octopus (the diet culture and its attendant industries) who siphons off their emotional well being and eventually their physical well being. Sadly, the brainwashing of not being able to measure up to perfection has been internalized. Each discusses how daily, they’ve lived with judgment, self-condemnation, self-loathing and fear.

Vosumets’ editing is thematic and she builds in an arc employing the commentary of her stars to chronicle the beginning of the problem, usually with parents and upbringing. The stories then evolve so that we understand how the subjects began to realize what they were up against in themselves from rebellion, to acceptance, to self-love. Interspersed with these interviews of Mojo, Hannah, Rory, Tenisha and Imogen she interviews researchers, doctors, therapists, journalists who have written on the subject or who counsel individuals with eating disorders. They identify first hand from the testimony of their clients the noxious attitudes of the diet culture octopus. And they explain how once internalized early on, the attitudes and voices become the self-destroying tormentors within the souls of those who wrangle with emotional issues at the heart of body image problems and eating disorders.

One of the most enlightening and uplifting final segments in the film is the sequence with Rebecca Young’s Anti-Diet Riot Club and the Cat Walk. With the Cat Walk, men and women, some disabled, many of all shapes and sizes and colors and races go on a Cat Walk wearing whatever they like to proudly present who they are. They are not their bodies only but their beings who ask that they be recognized holistically. It is truly a celebratory experience to see them receive the applause from an appreciative audience of onlookers. Vosumets also examines the Anti-Diet Riot Club as a force for change. Weight and rejection of bodies has been a political and economic and health issue, it seems, since colonialism rose and is finally setting into a sea of oblivion, eventualy.

Researchers make important points that must be considered. Eating disorder issues arise when there are tremendous gaps between the rich and the poor. For example fast foods are mostly found in lower socioeconomic areas (food deserts) where there aren’t markets like Whole Foods. Thus the unhealthier food is offered to encourage the lower classes to fit the inferior body image that the more wealthy class can look down on in addition to shaming them with regard to health. Mojo poses interesting questions about why around dinner time there are so many McDonald’s commercials and fast food commercials but few commercials about organic foods and no commercials about Whole Foods. Also, the point is made that fast foods are easy and convenient to feed families when single parents are working two jobs. Families who are wealthier can have home cooked meals that take longer to prepare.

Things are changing. For some not fast enough because the younger generations are suffering from the abuses of the older paternalistic, Colonialistic, white supremacist generations whose fascist images of perfection have been used to exploit people and make them feel inferior for profit. However, Vosumets ends on an uplifting note. Change is coming and the backlash will be present as old myths and money die hard. But change must come because too many have lived lives of quiet desperation internalizing the lies of the criminal profiteers who have sold their souls to enslave others for money. The young are aware and they are throwing off the lies and myths so the generations after them can live and breathe with the freedom and joy of self-love.

The Body Fights Back is a must-see film especially if you have ever felt to go on a diet to lose weight or you looked in the mirror and were not overjoyed at the image that stared back at you. It is streaming on all platforms. For more information and to stream CLICK HERE.

‘Love Type D’ A Semi-Satire About ‘Born Losers in Love’

Obsessive love stinks. When women or men are attacked by Cupid, they may move on a scale from fools to killers. Love is potent stuff. But what happens if you have a gene to be “lucky in cards and unlucky in love?” Love Type D written and directed by Sasha Collington is a crowd pleaser that removes you from reality which is a necessity, but it also disavows the serious topics it touches upon with a too light tone. A missed opportunity for this comedic, ironic film.

The premise is high concept; it is easy to understand how the pitch for this film worked. However, in its execution, the plot has dead spots, ups and downs, moving from laugh riot (infrequently) to gentle gruntles to “yeah, ho hum.” If only it mined the gold in the themes it touches upon! The group ensemble scenes work well as do some of the implausible farcical moments. The background music “mostly lighthearted” not so much.

Frankie Browne (Maeve Dermody) winsome, twenty-something in love with Thomas Lacey (Oliver Farnsworth) waits for him at a lovely London restaurant for their romantic dinner. Surprised by 11-year-old Harry Potteresque Wilbur (Rory Stroud) Thomas’ brother, she wilts at the message Wilbur gives her. To avoid a scene, Thomas has sent the pipsqueak to break up with Frankie forever in a humiliating, abrupt, “let her down hard so she can’t come back to bug me” way. The devastated Frankie attempts to discover why Thomas has dumped her to no avail.

To make matters worse, Wilbur who is involved with his friend in a research competition takes advantage of her neediness. He eventually reveals (Frankie pries it out of him) that she most probably has a “loser love gene.” Her love relationships starting with tweenhood have ended worse than badly; she reflects about her past loves. Collington fills in her heartbreaks with two flashbacks. Look for Natacha Basset playing the young Frankie.

As many women are wont to do, Frankie judges her past eleven breakups through the eyes of her failed relationship with Thomas. She must have an inherent fault as a “love loser,” a liability in her DNA, says scientist Dr. Elsa Blomgren (a scary Tovah Feldshuh). She is a Type D (the dumped on type). As commercials do subliminally, the ones made by Epigenica featuring Dr. Elsa promote guilt and pile on condemnatory negativity, converting watchers to losers in every aspect of their lives, particularly in love. Affirmed again and again as a loser, Frankie watches the sales pitches and becomes convinced that via Type D, she irrevocably has been and will be dumped in love relationships. It’s terribly depressing, and an imperative to purchase a $500.00 test to see if genetically she is destined to be dumped eternally.

In human beings’ worst moments, including suicidal moments, the misery of humiliation, the thought of being a loser, and feeling that things will never change have persuaded more than a few to end it. The film flirts with this notion of love’s impossibility and nihilism in the human heart and mind. And it flirts with the gene theory of irrevocable inherent inferiority (rather fascist, master race stuff) as a subliminal, noxious message. However, this message is converted mildly to farce and keeps that terror at bay with light humor.

There is a missed opportunity here. The farce could have been broader and more extreme. That Frankie so willingly accepts this “scientific” designation is alarming. And somehow, the signals are muddied as we laugh. If the humor was darker, more sardonic, the film’s themes would have been strengthened. But that involves adding a character with a critical, observer’s eye and that character of reason is absent in the midst of those who are either “perfect” or “inferior.” (a main problem with the plot and themes of the film)

Frankie, with the help of Wilbur, eventually goes through a journey of twists and turns, some of which are hackneyed, others surprising. First, after getting tested for the gene and finding she is irrevocably a loser, she collaborates with her work colleagues in a love loser cult of “woe is me.” Some of these ensemble moments are beautifully paced and LOL funny.

However, in her attempt to still reconcile with Thomas, who has picked a lovely winner for his girlfriend (an astronaut, fit, brilliant, to be envied) she eventually works with Wilbur to find a solution to the “love loser” problem. Wilbur and his friend have discovered if the losers dump their first love to reverse the “curse” of being dumped and do this with all those who dumped them, then the gene will somehow switch off. It is at this point that the plot goes into the stratosphere and not necessarily in a good way. However, for all those who have “lost” in love, been defamed, humiliated, reduced to worms and slugs, the idea to “dump the dumper” is appealing, if not vengeful and psychically/emotionally unregenerative and narcissistic.

Frankie is such a loser that she is “stuck” on trying to get Thomas to love her. She uses every deception with the help of Wilbur (hypnosis to name one) to get close enough to “dump” him. However, Cupid’s arrow is so deep, she’s a hopeless case. Her obsession is so ridiculous, that he is forced to take out a restraining order against her. By this point older, seasoned women will throw up their hands in exasperation, while younger women will be rooting for her, indignant at the cruel and heartless Thomas. Meanwhile, Frankie’s work colleagues have been successful at going back and reversing the tables with former boyfriends/girlfriends by dumping them.

In a Deus Ex Machina (the miraculous intervention) solution, Wilbur and his friend develop a liquid “Love Potion Number 9” made of pheromones at “elephant strength,” (that’s how much of a turn-off Frankie has made herself to Thomas) to use on Thomas to get close enough to dump him and trigger a reversal of the gene. The scene at the nightclub where Frankie croaks out a song which the power of the potion converts so that she has the voice and allure of Katy Perry (all the men including Thomas are entranced) is hysterical.

The conclusion ties up neatly with a protagonist who walks into the camera speaking her wisdom philosophically. But the depth of what she has learned is surface and the danger of what she and others have missed in all of the machinations of cultural definitions of success and failure, genetic engineering for “success,” and mastering ourselves so that we love ourselves “for who we are,” remain unsatisfactory. But, since it’s all in good fun, it doesn’t really matter what we consume, does it?

Love Type D screened at the Charlotte Film Festival, Manchester International Film Festival, RiverRun International Film Festival and Washington DC Independent Film Festival where it won awards. Look for it screening online 9th July.

‘Ghosting’ Streaming at The Irish Repertory Theatre

Anne O'Riordan in 'Ghosting,' presented by Theatre Royal Waterford, Thrown Shapes and Irish Repertory Theatre (courtesy of the theaters)
Anne O’Riordan in ‘Ghosting,’ presented by Theatre Royal Waterford, Thrown Shapes and Irish Repertory Theatre (courtesy of the production)

Theatermania has referred to the Irish Repertory Theatre as the “Leader of Streaming Theater,” during the pandemic. Its shows have been top notch during the unprecedented New York City theater shutdown. Ghosting written by Jamie Beamsh and Anne O’Riordan, performed by Anne O’Riordan is an intriguing and thoughtful provoking offering. Recorded live at Theatre Royal Waterford in Ireland, that theater, Thrown Shapes and the Irish Repertory Theatre collaborated to stream the presentation which concludes in a few days. (4th July)

Anne O’Riordan’s performance is nuanced, personal and superb. She personifies the voice and demeanor of various characters with the exception of one, for a symbolic reason. Sheila, nicknamed “She” for short, left Waterford for London and has been there for six years. We gradually discover the reason why, though she initially misleads us and we think it is because her former boyfriend who took her virginity then “ghosted” her. In the vernacular, ghosting means an individual cuts off all communication and ends a relationship without explaining why, without going through miserable late night begging sessions to “stay together.” In other words, he cut her off and never spoke to her again.

Anne O'Riordan in 'Ghosting,' presented by Theatre Royal Waterford, Thrown Shapes and Irish Repertory Theatre (courtesy of the theater)
Anne O’Riordan in ‘Ghosting,’ presented by Theatre Royal Waterford, Thrown Shapes and Irish Repertory Theatre (courtesy of the production)

From her position at work, we note she is irascible and unapproachable. She doesn’t have any friends, nor does she have any hobbies or interests that she discusses. She essentially complains about her co-worker who clearly cares about her and with whom she might establish a relationship. She is uninterested and aloof. We consider is it him or her. As Sheila confides in us she slips information discussing that she can’t sleep at night. Perhaps, her irate attitude is because she hasn’t been home to Ireland in six years. Perhaps it is because she has not kept up with family after her mother died. Thus, we determine she grieves. Some people never end their grieving for a parent. No communication is easier than tears and longing for who will never retrun.

The turning point comes when she can’t sleep one night and someone shows up at the foot of her bed. Is this a dream? Is this reality? Is she hallucinating because she has gone insane? We follow along for the ride not wanting to believe that Sheila is psycho, though in some circles, she immediately would be given medication and confront her obviously deep-seated issues with group or individual psychotherapy. But this is different. Sheila is rational; her story, thus far, is logical and we accept that her former boyfriend at the foot of her bed is a ghost or has emerged out of her dream to stop ghosting her by ghosting her. The irony is humorous.

Anne O'Riordan in 'Ghosting,' presented by Theatre Royal Waterford, Thrown Shapes and Irish Repertory Theatre (courtesy of the theater)
Anne O’Riordan in ‘Ghosting,’ presented by Theatre Royal Waterford, Thrown Shapes and Irish Repertory Theatre (courtesy of the production)

From there the twists and turns gyrate and we whirl along in Sheila’s adventure as she maneuvers a journey back to Ireland. What happens there becomes an examination of her admission that she has been the one ghosting. She’s ghosted her father, her family and friends there. Most importantly, she’s ghosted herself. She realizes she’s been living a non-living reality, not existing so that she deferred grappling with herself, her destiny and future. Does she make plans and enjoy the moments and breaths of her life? No. She has been a shadow person, beyond a state of hibernation. And the only way that she comes out of it is through someone else’s sacrifice and a supernatural visitation, an earthquake that shakes her unto herself to show her what she’s been doing.

When Sheila returns to Waterford, her hometown, she’s drawn home for an urgent reason (to her) via a text her sister sends her. She meets her sister in a bar but she vows not to see her father. Startling and embarrassing, emotional events occur. The miraculous visitations continue until she is brought to a reconciliation with herself and her family after she returns to her home in London.

Anne O'Riordan in 'Ghosting,' presented by Theatre Royal Waterford, Thrown Shapes and Irish Repertory Theatre (courtesy of the theater)
Anne O’Riordan in ‘Ghosting,’ presented by Theatre Royal Waterford, Thrown Shapes and Irish Repertory Theatre (courtesy of the production)

Beamish and O’Riordan’s writing has elements of the philosophical poetical. The direction of the visitation scenes is spot on. The scenes are powerful and remain atmospheric and suspenseful as we wonder, like the character of Sheila, where we are being taken. Importantly, the issues of why Sheila left Waterford, why Mark, her boyfriend ghosted her are eventually answered, though other mysteries are opquae.

The beauty of this work is the meld of the supernatural with reality; the sacred and the profane delivered through the lighting effects, projections and sound design (Beamish effected most of it with Dermot Quinn taking care of the lighting design). Vitally, it is O’Riordan’s authentic and finely hued performance which makes us believe and go along with her on this wild, exceptional journey. We remain curious and engaged with her as she touches the shadows of another consciousness which is hers, her boyfriend’s her father’s. Importantly, we are astounded at the human capacity for love despite misery and unredeemed emotional pain, and the ability to want to heal, even if it means stirring spirits from the other side to help us.,

Anne O'Riordan in 'Ghosting,' presented by Thrown Shapes, Theatre Royal Waterford and Irish Repertory Theatre
(courtesy of the production)
Anne O’Riordan in ‘Ghosting,’ presented by Theatre Royal Waterford, Thrown Shapes and Irish Repertory Theatre (courtesy of the production)

Ghosting reminds us with paramount intention that our actions have dualistic purposes that we may not understand, initially. But if we hang on long enough, the answers come and we can confront ourselves, evaluate and be gentle to our sensitive inner being which needs care. Sheila, by the conclusion of Ghosting resolves the emotional pain, though it will always be with her. However, the miraculous helps her look at it and stop ghosting herself, by making herself more present to accept actions which she once loathed about herself.

This is one you shouldn’t miss for O’Riordan’s performance which is memorable, for the production values and for the direction. Jamie Beamish directed the livestream. Aidan Kelly directed the original stage production. Ghosting streams until Sunday, 4 July unless they extend it. In order to make reservations go to Irish Repertory Theatre.

Check out the production and the 2021 seasonal offerings coming up. Theater in NYC is going live full blast in September. The Irish Repertory will be a part of that celebration. However, it’s appeal has now become global and most probably they will continue to stream performances during their season so if you are in Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Ireland, you won’t miss out. Donations are always welcome . CLICK HERE for details in the pull down menu.

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