Monthly Archives: May 2013

A Family for All Occasions. A Labyrinth Theater Company Production

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A LABYrinth Theatre Company production at the Bank Street Theatre

I thought that A Family for All Occasions, at the Bank Street Theatre (It’s run is completed.) was well acted and directed, but missed the mark with regard to a number of areas in the play that were obviously drop dead contrived.

The actors, with the help of the director, Philip Seymour Hoffman, managed to overcome this as best they could, but the dissonance still crept through. Jeffrey DeMunn held the piece, the family and the ensemble together beautifully. He tempered his portrayal of Howard well: always striving for goodness yet receding from it at various junctures, especially at the climax when he takes out the baseball bat and begin a smash riot. DeMunn’s performance was sustained, real and alive. (His character was also the one most fleshed out by the playwright.)

Deirdre O’Connell’s attempt at portraying her character’s neurosis and anxiety was one note. In the second act, when she is finally retiring from her job (The action of massaging her feet works beautifully.) she is somewhat humanized. At that point she was more believable and relaxed, helped by that simple massaging action. Her acting choices were not spot on; she pushed as a termagant, hollowing out the character’s substance instead of making choices that revealed layers to May’s underlying angst (not just about the job) and unhappiness. The actress cannot be expected to perform miracles; this portrayal fell down in the writing and the direction also.

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Deirdre O’Connell (May) Jeffrey DeMunn (Howard) Charlie Saxton (Sam)

Due to whatever, there was a problem with her characterization as there was in the relationships between and among the characters. I thought the relationship between Oz and Sue was too convenient; black man willing to do everything for this family. Oz is portrayed as Mr. Wonderful and Sue the convenient foil, a vapid, lost, presumptuous, willful blonde, demonstrating no redeemable inner characteristics (beyond attempting to find herself). The actress, Justine Lupe was remarkable and dealt with the stereotype as best she could; too bad the playwright didn’t give the character depth and substance. The character is so thinly drawn: how convenient she was orphaned by her mother who she might rather believe killed herself. How convenient she connects with no one, not even Oz and demonstrates utter selfishness. Where is her humanity, making us believe she is worthwhile? Sue is miserable before she meets Oz, but the misery is only relayed by her restlessness as a fluttering creature  who never lands. Again How convenient is the playwright’s characterization as the contrived: I’m young and I can be rebellious and this baby is tying me down. (Humans have souls, spirits and complexity. This was not even etch-a-sketched in the play.)

This surface portrayal makes her a characterization device to set up the plot as was the characterization of Oz, as the hero. Both are needed to bring in the baby, create some conflict and move the play along. There is no rational explanation given as to why, selfish as Sue is, she does not get an abortion on her own. We do not see the development of Oz’s relationship with her beyond the sex scene which Sue uses to lure him. If she is perpetrating revenge on her own daughter as a sort of Orestia “sins of the fathers,” this is not apparent or reinforced with symbols. Sue is not fleshed out toward this or any end.

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Jeffrey DeMunn

In fact with the exception of the father, the other characters are “types.” Just to exclaim, “Well, humans don’t have reasons why they behave as they do as an answer to the questions the play raises doesn’t cut it, especially when we see how full and deeply Howard is drawn. We know the same depth might have been added to the other characters; this is not beyond the playwright’s talents; the play doesn’t have to be lengthened to do this, either. The problem left the actors doing the best they could to fill in the gaps.

If the work is being revised and funded to go elsewhere, filling out the women characters (from their paper-thin renderings) is an imperative. We don’t need to see another caricature of a “dumb blonde slut” who abandons her baby and runs away; if she has characterized herself as this…how interesting…then this needs to be clarified through symbol, poignant dialogue, hopeless yearning. It wasn’t. What a shame. This is doubly unjust when the demonstrated home life shows no commensurate explanation for her actions except for a few convenient phrases about her past and at best we are told “she is finding herself.” Also, for the  characterization of May, we don’t need to see another termagant upset with her job: is she schizophrenic? Well, then, OK. Child of alcoholics? OK. Repudiated by past loves? All right? Challenged in some way besides having no college education? OK. Something? Nothing.

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A quiet moment before all hell breaks loose.

Is there a character who makes sense? The character of Sam is the perfect Geek as counterpoint and his begrudging relationship with his father comes  through due to Howard’s mea culpa admission he was wrong as he hugs his son before Sam leaves for college. There is something beyond his disgruntled existence and curt, abrupt anger. But what? The Geek stereotype is current and trending (if his phobia of being touched is pushed for effect) so the playwright can get away with it. With Howard’s well drawn characterization and Sam’s stereotype Geek carrying that portrayal, these two fare OK in the play; there is some attempt at connection, only due to Howard reaching out. As for Sam, again a one note stereotype tottering on the edge of human feeling.

My normally perceptive sensibilities ran into confusion upon confusion the play never answered and bring the questions to the playwright’s door. Oz, as intelligent as he is selects Sue when there are so many phenomenal black/white/hispanic sexy women who are alluring and predatory as well. It is suggested Oz is naive with women (All the more reason for the question, why isn’t he snapped up by anyone else as he is engaging and adorable. Here come the cougars!) and is lured by her sexual gifts. Is this not the typical “black man attracted to the white, blonde woman?” obnoxious stereotype? If so it is subliminally racist. Either hone in on this with symbolism, revealing this is Oz’s problem, OR reveal that he is not a free black man who isn’t tied down by his own racial bondages and is there for another reason. The fact that Oz hangs around also because he never had the warm feelings of family? If that is the case, his actions at the end could have been made so poignant…she runs away, he stays because he has found love from Howard and May who accept him. (This is ironic and dubious, by the way.) We see no discussion or hint of any undercurrents he will stay. The end is disjointed at best, but again, that is supposed to be the charm of this free flowing mish mash. Unfortunately, life is much more dirty, specific, real, uncontrived and deep, soulful and complex, unless you tell me that all these people are on meds.

Overall, I think I would have swallowed the incongruities, if this play’s setting was a small, blue collar city in North Carolina, Ohio, Missouri, South Carolina or the Midwest in the 1990s. A Midsize Northeastern City, the present? I don’t think so. This setting was incongruous with the characters’ beings and sensibilities and behaviors. Additionally, the fact that technology was so absent from the play was another failing (Sue has no Android? or Oz? I know folks on the poverty level who sport Smart Phones. I TAUGHT THEM.)  And the only one who we see using a cheap mobile is Howard…he also gets an iPod from Oz, not at the suggestion of HIS GEEK SON? I don’t care how much of an isolated recluse he is…it’s technology, computers, smart phones. OMG.)2013-05-30 01.48.42

The setting as “the present” an eastern city is abjectly myopic and discordant with reality. I know 19th century practice in the theater TODAY prevents the use of Social and Mobile to its UTTER STUPID DETRIMENT. (Did you see Roman Tragedies at BAM? They integrated the use of Mobile devices for the audience..brilliantly. We took pictures {OMG, YES…THE TAKING OF PICTURES DURING A PERFORMANCE WAS ALLOWED! We promoted that production with the immediacy of Tweets and FB and Instagram. The audience was employed as the marketing arm of the producers.  FOLKS IT WAS FREE PUBLICITY!!!!  DUH!} I am glad European theater, once again, is MORE BRILLIANT than restrictive, enslaving,  feudalistic old media which must in greed and cupidity HAVE ITS PROFITS.  How utterly stupid. Go check out the Oreo brand and see what they’re doing if you want to be profitable.} NYC theater is downright Byzantine and Philistine and the death knell is coming as a result.)  But to eliminate mobile devices from the play and say this is the present? Well, it beggars all rationality.

IS ANYONE OUT THERE IN THE LIVE THEATRE LIVING IN THIS CENTURY? Or is there a rife schizophrenia in the theater community and no overlap between onstage works whose settings are supposed to be current and theater people’s own lives where they use Mobile and Social daily? Either change the setting or, change the setting or change the setting, Bob Glaudini. Then flesh out the characters and answer the incongruities you’ve raised beyond contrivance and convenience with specificity. For Oz… What is the unconscious glitch in his being? He knows “malefic”; has he not read the culture’s twistedness in Autobiography of Malcom X to understand his attraction to a clueless, blonde, white woman to forestall it? May? One note- tra, la, la? Sue- this is a very deep woman-where? Sam just isolated by his mother’s loss into geekiness and angry reticence? Again, too many questions and the playwright’s intent doesn’t even adequately hint at the deeper whys. We are left with demonizing Sue, happy Sam escaped…not sure what he escaped, as he’s taking everything with him, feeling sorry for Oz and hopeful for Howard and May’s coming years, especially since May’s chief cause for anxiety is over and she’ retiring. That is not even the beginning of irony for this “family for all occasions.”

I so wanted to really like this play because I appreciate the work of its Director, Philip Seymour Hoffman, the actors, the playwright Bob Glaudini and the usual daring of The LAByrinth Theater Company.  I was let down. I hope the play will evolve. It has possibilities if the kinks are ironed out. If no one notices these issues, all the better for them, especially if they receive backing to go farther. Visionary playwrights know this to be so and they seek ways to develop and evolve their work.  Will that happen for this play?

Pippin: Glad I Saw It Ahead of the Tony Awards 2013

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Program for Pippin

I saw Pippin last night at the Music Box Theatre on 45th Street. The show is beyond spectacular, and I don’t enjoy musicals for the most part. (I am not a great fan of Matilda currently up for a 2013 Tony for Original Musical). I was familiar with Pippin‘s score and book, though I didn’t see the 1970s stage version which made Ben Vereen a household name and which had the medieval template stamped all over it.2013-05-018

Well, this revival is one for the ages. Director Diane Paulus (Artistic Director of the American Rep. Theatre at Harvard, 2012 winner of Tony-revival the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess) along with Chet Walker (Choreographer) Gypsy Snider (Circus Creation) and others have evolved a breathtaking production. Phenomenal. The circus metaphor is pure genius (Is not the journey of life/career/war/hedonism/finding self a circus of distractions until one arrives at the end of oneself as Pippin eventually does?).

The performers are stunning, beautiful, iconic and truly magical which we have been told they would be by the Leading Player flawlessly performed by Patina Miller. I told her last night (Friday, May 18) she IS beautiful and magnificent, and if she doesn’t win the Tony  (Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical) I will have to kill someone. Her performance is eternally memorable. She is almost maniacally God-like in her construction of events, with a tinge of malevolence and sinister allure. She reminded me of the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret…caught up in the action, but strangely aloof, a player and a puppet master, all the while smiling and drawing us in closer, closer closer to and away from ourselves. While waiting for Playbill autographs, an enthusiastic audience member characterized her as “mesmerizing.” Yep! Was it Peter O’Toole who said, when a performer is onstage, “You should not be able to take your eyes off him/her?Well, that about sums up Patina Miller in the role of Leading Player. You have to see her. You just have to while she is still in the role. Please!!!!!

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Patina Miller is the Leading Player. She was so gracious and appreciative signing autographs and receiving much audience praise.

The show is two acts. The time flies. The dialogue, possibly through ad libbing morphs by the cast and tweaks by Paulus had moments of genius modernization and cultural reference. For example the Leading Player to justify the “Intermission,” quips a break is needed because the attention span of the audience is “shorter these days,” a reference to social media, computers, etc. and 80 minute plays with no intermissions. Andrea Martin in her superb, jaw dropping (She looks fabulous.) show stopping “No Time At All,” nudges Baby Boomers about looking great while reminding us how important it is to stay young as the time is passing. Martin received applause that did not stop until after a full five minutes. She is sixty-six (My fellow audience member quickly Googled this. It was just as Martin ad libbed in the show.) But folks, she looks like she’s in her 30s with a shape to match. She strips to her Gina Lollobrigida Trapeze outfit right before she is transported high in the air to a trapeze by her acrobatic, lithe partner who is sexy, strong, supple, marvelous. OMG. The two of them together did their act which reaffirmed the vitality of her agelessness, supported by the spinning, whirling, balancing, leaping, somersaulting, catapulting, gyrating Manson Trio (look them up, folks) and singers and dancers. It was a piece of heaven and an inspiration to all of us that we need to get back to the gym and into the Yoga and Pilates immediately and my God, jettison that last 10 pounds. Woo ooooo! And if Andrea Martin doesn’t win the Tony (Best Performance by an Featured Actress in a Musical) I’ll have to kill someone.  (That makes two deaths.)

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Theo, played by Ashton Woerz and Andrew Cekala. Not sure which one was on Friday night.

Along with the innovation of the circus metaphor, was the change in the conclusion/finale. The Leading Player keeps the actors steady and in focus in the play within a play structure conducting and orchestrating the flow of events and retelling of the story. An innovation comes after Pippin elects to not “Be Extraordinary,” (jumping into fire) but to be human in his desires and loves. The players leave the actors alone on stage and the lights are dimmed. There is no dialogue, only action. The son Theo (played by Andrew Cekala or Ashton Woerz) picks up Pippin’s cane or armor or whatever and you know that the cycle will repeat itself. Theo will take up where his step-father has left off.  Every generation must seek and find its own place, must strike out its own path, must become extraordinary. If not the father, then the son. The circle and cycle begins again and the center circus ring opens and an audience will be waiting to watch another time, another place, another magical historical hero or villain like Pippin. The show must go on. As the Brits say, “Brilliant!”

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Matthew James Thomas as Pippin. Told him it should win the Tony and he said in a beautiful British accent, “I hope so.”

Pippin is played beautifully by UK actor Matthew James Thomas who looks like he has been mentored by Hugh Jackman, for certainly, he is a young version (gorgeous, adorable, fit, with a voice and appropriate athletic presence). Thomas is so supple in his integration with the sheer physicality of being a part of the acrobatics at times, yet is believable as the rather naive and bumbling, disingenuous Pippin on the journey toward inner light and revelation of love and self awareness. This Pippin is matchless, ready for anything, living in the moment. During the shop stopping number by Martin, Thomas went with the flow, graceful, relaxed, in the moment (a reference by the Leading Player and granny-Martin) smiling at the five minute audience applause, appreciative for Martin. And somehow, Thomas never broke character. Now, in himself he was the character Pippin, played by an actor-performer of the circus troupe, as the actor Thomas. A bit of Pirandello thrown in for free in complete spontaneity and LIVE THEATRE MOMENT that can NEVER BE DUPLICATED. I absolutely loved it and so did the audience. I mean we were DOWN WITH HIM and MARTIN and the cast. A Wow moment. Later, signing programs, Thomas told us that he could tell the audience loved it. He said, “It was a good audience, tonight!” smiling at me. You mean there are BAD AUDIENCES?  Ha! You bet…dull, asleep, who’ve eaten too much, overweight and from the burbs. And they come for the matinees and snore as their listening devices go off. HELP!!!

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Rachel Bay Jones who is adorable and younger than the woman she played, Catherine. She was wonderful.

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Matthew James Thomas listening to more praise and well wishes.

(Side Note about Thomas’ comment) There is an electrical charge and rhythm that flows between a ready audience and the actors. Both feed off each other and both look for that telepathic connection and vibrant, spiritual merging. Audience and actors bask in those connective moments. Both adore it. It’s what makes live theatre so great and so matchlessly eternal. And when it doesn’t happen?  Live theatre becomes deadly and vacuous, rather like a computer screen that’s gone black and won’t light up IRRESPECTIVE of how much you press than “ON” butten. FRIGHTENING!!!!  Last night, the connections were popping. We saw and heard and felt and transmitted to the actors and they were pumped. I don’t think I’ll ever go on a Wednesday night to a live show again. I cannot be dragged to a Wednesday matinee, ever.

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Erik Altemus as Lewis and next to him Charlotte d’Amboise as Fastrada

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When I asked this incredible performer how long it took for him to train (balancing act extraordinaire) in a beautiful British accent (he’s from the UK) he said he started at 4 years-old. The act was chosen for him. Marvelous. Really buff, muscled as you would expect one has to be to perform such feats.

2013-05-17 10.03.53Terence Mann looks like he is enjoying the play. The audience didn’t want it to end, and it’s apparent he’s having fun and felt us loving him. He was wonderful as Pippin’s father, Charlemagne. I don’t know if he will win the Tony for Best Performance for a Featured Actor in a Musical. He should. However, I didn’t see Keith Carradine in Hands on a Hardbody. I did see Gabriel Ebert in Matilda the Musical. Unfortunately, I saw him in the second show on a Wednesday night, not a particularly good time to see a show. He was pushing; his performance was not Mann’s. Probably Keith Carradine will win the Tony for this category. I may have to hurt someone if Mann doesn’t win the Tony. Two deaths and an injury. Hmmm.

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Another circus performer. Wow. Dynamite, amazing flips, leaps acrobatics.

If you’re coming to town, get tickets. Don’t wait. This cast will be around for a while, but after the Tony wins, the production is nominated for 10 Tonys, they won’t stay much longer. The validation will bring new opportunities. So please! Do yourself a favor. See a fabulous musical. Then come back and tell me you did yourself good. Pippin. Who knew musical theatre could be that good?

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Signed program. Don’t ask me to identify the initials. 😉

Drama Desks Sunday, May 19th. Will Winners Overlap With Lucille Lortel Winners?

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Jake Gyllenhaal hugs Annie Funke for her win as Outstanding Featured Actress in the production where Gyllenhaal also starred: If There is I Haven’t Found it Yet.

The Drama Desk Awards like the Lucille Lortel awards are given annually. Unlike the Lortels which honor Off Broadway productions (over 100 this year, musicals, dramas, solo performances) The Drama Desks are the only major New York theater honors for which productions on Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway compete against each other in the same category. Because of the fierce competition, the Drama Desks are to be coveted because they are voted on by media people only and without any vested interests in the results. Though the Tonys are seen globally, they represent highly commercial theatre, which in effect is controlled by the entertainment industrial complex, fueled by corporates. That is why the commercial spots during the Tonys are pricey and the event is all showmanship, glitz and bling for a home audience as they trail in the shadow of the Oscars. For recognition of innovative, experimental, original theatre,  the Lucille Lortels and the Obie’s represent Off and Off Off Broadway, but the Drama Desks represent the best of all of NYC theatre.

A few of my predictions for the Lucille Lortels came about. Below are photos from the event.

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Ruben Santiago-Hudson (photo left thanking the cast) deservedly won for his phenomenal direction of The Piano Lesson. Annie Funke (pictured right with Gyllenhaal in the background) was marvelous in If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet and I was thrilled she was honored for her outstanding work. I had predicted both of these. I was surprised that the voting committee didn’t select Jake Gyllenhaal. I thought his performance was excellent and Off Broadway would give him a win in encouragement for the risk he took and because his presence and stature creates a vitality and interest for the smaller venue. Interestingly, the committee went with the fabulous performance of Chuck Cooper in The Piano Lesson, a well deserved win. I thought he didn’t have a chance, but in this instance, the committee members were just. His performance was moving and indeed incredible, and yes, I can agree that of the two performances, his was absolutely memorable.

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Chuck Cooper (photo left above acceptance speech. Gyllenhaal photo right, at the pre-show photo session) was so ecstatic that he won for Outstanding Featured Actor for The Piano Lesson he basked in the applause and chuckled that, “He might be there a while, because there was no clock.” The show was not televised at NYU’s Skirball Center nor was it streamed, so advertisements and time factor didn’t really intrude. He thanked director “Ruben, a force of nature,” and August Wilson, the Bard of Pittsburgh and the 10 plays that he left (The Piano Lesson won the 1990 Pulitzer for Drama).  Aasif Mandi, Master of Ceremonies along with Maura Tierney, (Aasif was nominated for his performance as Outstanding Lead Actor in Disgraced) joked after Chuck Cooper left that Cooper was still thanking people and carrying on backstage about how grateful he was.

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Signature Theatre’s Founding Artistic Director, James Houghton and Director, Ruben Santiago-Hudson receiving the award for Outstanding Revival The Piano Lesson by August Wilson.

I had predicted that The Piano Lesson would win the Lortel for Outstanding Revival and I was gratified to see the committee and I agreed about its being the best of the revivals. Though Vanessa Redgrave didn’t win for Outstanding Lead Actress for The Revisionist (I thought she was wonderful.) I wasn’t disappointed because the brilliant Roslyn Ruff won for The Piano Lesson.

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Roslyn Ruff accepting for Outstanding Lead Actress in The Piano Lesson.

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Vanessa Redgrave graciously answered questions right before taking her seat for the award ceremony. She arrived right on time, quickly moving through the pre-show photo shoot. She did stop to chat with nominees’ family and friends.

2013-05-05 07.37.13The only actor from The Piano Lesson who was nominated but who didn’t win for Outstanding Lead Actor was Brandon J. Dirden. I thought he would, but the committee gave the award to Shuler Hensley for playing the morbidly obese, gay, geeky (online tutor) recluse in The Whale.  How could that role not be empathetic and soulfully written? Having not seen his performance, I cannot weigh in (sorry for the pun) but I thought Dirden was unparalleled and I imagine he had a greater challenge because he created an empathy for his character that was NOT built in and padded as it was with Hensley’s character which seems to have every underdog trait piled into it to elicit the sympathy one would have for a run over pet. If that part were a female, lesbian, morbidly obese, geeky (online tutor) recluse, I doubt that the character would have been as empathetic to audiences.  A morbidly obese, lesbian, geeky (online tutor) female recluse not hidden from the view of the male/female audience? Hardly. Self-righteous, judgmental females would have found her disgusting. A male can get away with so much (gay, morbid obesity) that a female in our culture simply cannot. Do I sound biased? I am.  See why HERE. Dirden carried the play with magnificence; his role was the most complex, the richest and most nuanced. Hensley’s role was in the stereotype, a cake walk for an excellent actor. I am not taking anything away from Hensley by suggesting this…just highlighting the impossibility of equating two highly varied roles for the same award; an absurdity.

Off Broadway musicals were a varied range. My friends enjoyed Murder Ballad, but Dogfight beat it out in the competition. 2013-05-05 08.01.43Audience supporters were thrilled and the clips for the show did look awesome. I am sorry I missed both, and neither are nominated for Drama Desk Awards which include Lucille Lortel nominees The Other Josh Cohn and Giant one of which may take the Drama Desk. Though the field for the Drama Desk includes Broadway and totals two more musicals, a win for the Public Theatre’s Giant or Here Lies Love, touted by critics and friends alike is good. Those productions are up against Matilda which is a commercial audience favorite, but whose music might not be as lyrical, innovative or clever. Hands on a Hardbody which was unable to produce enough ticket sales to sustain the show which will probably be a total loss to investors never got up the steam to chug it through initial box office doldrums. A Drama Desk win would vindicate the production, though it isn’t likely.

Drama Desks Mirroring Lucille Lortels?

The offerings and categories are different among the Drama Desks and Lucille Lortels. My favorite for Outstanding Revival is still The Piano Lesson, though I loved the Broadway revivals of Golden Boy and Trip to Bountiful. I did not see Albee’s Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf; actor friends loved it. Shuler Hensley for The Whale is up against Tom Hanks for Lucky Guy, Nathan Lane for The Nance and other Outstanding Actor nominees (highly praised Tracey Letts  for Albee’s Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf).  CLICK HERE FOR COMPLETE LIST OF DRAMA DESK NOMINEES.  I did see Tom Hanks and Nathan Lane’s performances. I didn’t like Lucky Guy, CLICK HERE FOR REVIEW, but Hanks was amazing in a role that goes counter to his usual roles; I liked The Nance, but Nathan Lane is a natural and the role is typical for him, yet he is nuanced and marvelous. It’s a crap shoot, folks. I loved them both. Hanks and Lane. Someone put them in a play together!

I would love to see either an Outstanding Actress win for Cicely Tyson, A Trip to Bountiful (She is a tour de force.) or Vanessa Redgrave for The Revisionist. And for Outstanding Featured Actor my favorite is Tony Shalhoub (Golden Boy) who was so beautiful, loving, sweet and poignant as the father (He reminded me of my own).  Chuck Cooper (Piano Lesson) was wonderful and a favorite over two other actors I did see, The Big Knife’s Richard Kind and Brian F. O’Byrne for If There is I Haven’t Found it Yet. The fact that they’ve been nominated is a win, surely, though the Drama Desk is lovely on a mantle piece and an affirmation to continue or retire.

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Joel de la Fuente nominated for Best Solo Performance for Hold These Truths

A few words about the Drama Desk’s Outstanding Solo Performance. I reviewed Hold These Truths in the fall. I have been honored to see the evolution of this brilliant play written by Jeanne Sakata and the incredible performance by Joel de la Fuente (CLICK HERE FOR REVIEW) who portrays the journey of Gordon Hirabayashi, civil rights hero. Hirabayashi was one of three American citizens who defied the order for Japanese internment to the desolate camps in the American west during World War II. It was an infamous time when first generation American-Japanese citizens were swept up with naturalized Japanese – American citizens, and forced into the American version of racist concentration camps after they hurriedly gave up or sold their possessions and lost their homes. Joel de la Fuente’s performance does not only portray the young and old Gordon, it includes the portrayal of individuals along the pathways of Gordon’s life: his parents, his girlfriend/wife, friends, officers, judges, et. al. It is a veritable one man show of many characters and in the retelling you are uplifted to understanding the greatness of perseverance and the beauty and the loneliness of the struggle for human freedom and dignity.

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Joel de la Fuente and playwright of Hold These Truths, Jeanne Sakata.

Joel de la Fuente’s is an intensely American performance. Hold These Truths is an intensely American play about a time of infamy in our recent history. He deserves the Drama Desk. I hope he wins it because, though Bette Midler was exciting and LOL funny as Sue Mengers in I’ll Eat You Last, and Taylor Holland was marvelous in Ann, a role she wrote and originated, Joel’s work is genius in recreating not one individual, but many. The necessity of capturing the unique individuals to tell Gordon’s story would be a tremendous challenge for any actor. de la Fuente honors Gordon Hirabayashi’s courage (He passed in January of 2012. Obama granted him The Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously on May 29, 2012.)  and makes the period and the people live in our hearts and minds. The performance is unforgettable.  As much as I appreciated Taylor Holland’s seminal work about the former Texas governor, Ann Richards, so much more was the vitality of Joel de la Fuente’s delineation of people, history and events from the 1930s to the 1980s in Jeanne Sakata’s amazing play, Hold These Truths.

Lucille Lortel Awards: My Predictions for Some of Off Broadway’s Best

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Vanessa Redgrave and Jesse Eisenberg. Redgrave is up for a Lortel Award.

Tonight Off Broadway receives its day in the sun. Some of the finest theater resides Off Broadway in smaller houses whose productions are less costly to mount. If a big name is attached to an Off Broadway production, all the better. This year, Vanessa Redgrave, Jesse Eisenberg, Jack Gyllenhaal and America Ferrera, renown for nominations and/or wins for sterling performances in other entertainment mediums acted in productions in the Village or in theaters away from Broadway central. We are blessed that they have given their support to these smaller venues, their name recognition helping to draw investors to risk their money on productions we might never have seen performed anywhere.

Though I was not able to see many of the productions, amongst the ones I did see, I do have my favorites. Will they win a Lortel Award? Well, they do have my vote. For Outstanding Play, amongst the picks three women playwrights offered their brilliance to the five nominated plays which you can find online: HERE. My vote was between Bethany, produced by the Women’s Project Theater and written by Laura Marks and Detroit produced by Playwrights Horizons and written by Lisa D’Amour. If either play receives the Lortel Award, I’ll be thrilled.

I did not see any of the musical productions, though I was tempted to and may still see Murder Ballad, which I heard friends rave about. I just couldn’t fit the production in my schedule. As for Outstanding Revival, I have two favorites, Signature Theatre productions: My Children My Africa written by Athol Fugard and The Piano Lesson written by August Wilson. Both were directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and I had the opportunity to go to the talk backs for both shows with Santiago-Hudson and the cast which were fascinating. However, I particularly thought The Piano Lesson was one of the finest, most alive, thrilling productions of August Wilson’s plays that I have seen in the last few years, even more phenomenal than Fences with Denzel Washington which I loved. So for me, The Piano Lesson blows away the rest of the competition and should win the Lortel for Outstanding Revival and Direction. Ruben Santiago-Hudson worked wonders in marshaling and inspiring his actors, Brandon J. Dirden (up for Outstanding Lead Actor) and Chuck Cooper (Outstanding Featured Actor) and Roslyn Ruff (Outstanding Lead Actress) to come alive onstage. I was drained and uplifted by their performances and the unforgettable production. Marvelous.

For Outstanding Lead Actress, I did see four of the performanes. Nominated are Quincy Tyler Bernstine for Neva, America Ferrera for Bethany, Vanessa Redgrave for The Revisionist, Roslyn Ruff for The Piano Lesson and Sharon Washington for Wild With Happy. I must say that it is very difficult to make any basis of comparison and all the actresses were exceptional. I thought Quincy Tyler Bernstine’s portrayal as Chekov’s wife was ironic, tempestuous, feeling and humorous. Roslyn Ruff was anointed in her portrayal; her exorcism of the demons which plague the family electrifying, acute, spiritual. Hers was the pivotal role around which all the other characters weave and she commanded turning with grace and subtly.

However, my favorite performance was Vanessa Redgrave’s for the old Polish woman harboring a secret which she attempts to keep even from herself, in The Revisionist. Given my proclivity for annoyance with Rattlestick Theater Company who mounted the production, I was not easily persuaded into enjoying the play’s brilliance, depth, and austere themes. Redgrave and Eisenberg were wonderful together, a great union there. I was particularly touched by Redgrave at the end as she so completely conveyed the gravitational pull of her character away from human love and connection: her necessity to remain alive and paradoxically remain numb and emotionally dead danced in a somber interplay, something only a truly accomplished and talented actress could execute without undermining the truth of her being onstage. Redgrave’s sensitivity was amazing and she conveyed this great pain-filled void of her character with great beauty. The result was Greek Drama: catharsis and empathy. An “Ahhhh.” moment.

A few words about If There is I Haven’t Found it Yet. I was happy that Jake Gyllenhaal performed in live theatre taking a tremendous risk to stretch his acting gifts. His presence and the lower cost of the venue brought many younger audience members to see the production and though it is a debatable concept, in this instance, many of these twenty-somethings probably would not have come to see the production otherwise. It is unfortunate and fortunate that he is competing with Chuck Cooper in The Piano Lesson. Both were so creative and so unique and alive and felt. They are both favorites of mine. I do think that Gyllenhaal will receive the award because his stature coming from film might be considered a vital and necessary promotional spur to bring publicity and celebrity to Off Broadway.

It is a time when the artists, actors, directors in the NYC theatre community long for repertory companies, long for sure venues to mount experimental, innovative productions, long for alternatives to the grind of finding investors and being told, “No it can’t be done!” Over the last decades the Philistines have forced belt tightening in the extreme. Only love and obsession for live theater drives this artistic community to commit to creating the unique theatrical experiences. Their hunger for money does not, not that the lure of riches ever drove brilliant artists and art. Yet, it is an exciting time. It is a time when shifting paradigms and mega social media and the internet threaten the way things have been done for decades. Thus, the Philistines are being attacked on all sides, and I do think if the young are able to capitalize on this, theatre WILL OUT because those from the old paradigm are confused and disconcerted at the loss of market share. They will be forced to listen to innovators and youthful-minded integrators to compromise and use the new medium to massage theatre into a new era.

Will the arbiters of old entertainment media learn how to embrace new trends in the new paradigm? (For example, using social media during performances to promote and create interest about the productions. No folks. It isn’t distracting if you are not in the first three rows. That is a myth perpetuated supposedly to keep control of revenue, when it actually prevents revenue. And where are productions’ Twitter/Tweet and FB teams?) I don’t know.  I do know that this concept rules investors:  celebrity names give credibility to live theatre and bring revenue (the costs also drive the younger crowd away and hamper revenue) by drawing a larger audience. (This is debatable. The greatness of a production is what draws. Well placed and thought out social media strategy can help, but it hasn’t been used to any well meaning extent.) We will probably see more of this (currently Tom Hanks is in Lucky Guy) until traditional, old paradigm threads into new paradigm and the shift is made.

The Signature Theatre has received the funding to take a modicum of risk in its selection of performers by highlighting established and upcoming playwrights. They select playwrights (some living) in residence (Hwang, Albee, Katori Hall, Fugard) and directors like Ruben Santiago-Hudson have followed through with their verve and creative energy to put on interesting and brilliant productions. That is what we need more of. We also need to see more renown film actors taking risks Off Broadway, like Gyllenhaal, though of course, for them, the work is tantamount to doing pro bono. For that reason, I think Gyllenhaal will win, though I do think that Cooper was astounding. However, this is Off Broadway. You never know.

Finally, I do know that Annie Funke will win for Outstanding Featured Actress in If There is I haven’t Found it Yet. She played the obese teenage family member set adrift in familial landscape of oblivion and negligence, where all except her uncle (Gyllenhaal) are drowning. (see my review) Her performance was without parallel. If she doesn’t get the Lortel, I’ll be pissed. Will keep you posted as to whether my favorites and those of the voting members of the Off Broadway League jive.

The Testament of Mary. Why Protest This Tony Nominated Production?

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I saw The Testament of Mary starring Fiona Shaw a few weeks ago. It was the opening night of the previews and as I walked up to the theater, there was a huge commotion on the opposite side of the street. Members of  a branch/sect of the Catholic Church were protesting the production. It reminded me of the protests for Martin Scorsese’s film, The Last Temptation of Christ which was in theaters for a brief period and then scuttled away in shame, quickly forgotten.

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That was a travesty. The Last Temptation of Christ is a brilliant film, stirring and iconic in its imagery, thought provoking and incredibly spiritual. What other film about Christ so aptly deals with the realm of carnality in Jesus Christ’s human side? The fleshly, carnal nature is something the Catholic Church seems to have a huge problem with and as a result, certainly should have encouraged their membership to see the film and learn HOW TO THWART FLESHLY TEMPTATION. They were too afraid what the film might reveal to them, apparently, and like ostrich’s, put their heads in the sands of protest and the studio and distributors backed down, so the church prevailed and didn’t see the film. Ironically, in the years that followed, more of their membership and clergy committed acts of carnality and submitted to fleshly desires. If they had seen the film, it may have been an expurgating and healing experience.

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With these thoughts in mind, I took pictures of the protesters and wondered if the same fate would befall The Testament of Mary, as it did Last Temptation, a brief run, sparse audience, excoriation, hell and condemnation.

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After seeing the production, I thought the run might be longer. This is 2013. The Catholic Church’s credibility is plummeting into the abyss, self-damned with the exposure of its abusive  clergy, nuns, et.al. and the wide swath of deceitful cover-ups of the abuse.

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The play doesn’t have a wide release like a film and can’t be widely protested; this is New York City, and the play could draw an amazingly tolerant, urbane, thinking audience, albeit it is not a fluffy, touristd musical.  Turns out for whatever reason, most likely money, the production which has been nominated for a number of awards, including a Tony for best play and a few other lesser categories, the play is shuttering on May 5th, in four days. I urge you to see it, especially if you are a person of faith, Catholic, an atheist and/or an agnostic.

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A bit of comparison between the Scorsese film and this production, because thematically, they are similar. Both uplift faith and in no way deny the deity of Christ and the spiritual purpose of Mary. What they do reveal is the tremendous humanity and fleshly temptations of Christ and Mary, Jesus’ mother. Both represent the scriptures to a fault. How the Catholic Church could protest such revelation of the humanity of Mary and Jesus is beyond my comprehension. It is with the humanity that we inevitably identify. God? He is far from us. Only through Christ, Mary, Paul and the other very human disciples do we comprehend how to grow into a more loving, compassionate and empathetic nature. If they did it through faith, belief and prayer and forgiveness of self and others, then perhaps we can begin to relate and improve our lives and the lives of those we touch.  As they were subject to failure and temptation, even to doubt, then we can relate our very humble existence to theirs. Both the play and the film highlight their humility, above all, very much in keeping with scripture.

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Colim Toibin’s The Testament of Mary at Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theatre stars Fiona Shaw and is directed by Deborah Warner.  Based on Toibin’s novella of the same name, The Testament of Mary tells the unheard story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who is being guarded and protected in the city of Ephesus after her son’s Crucifixion. The one-woman performance will have played 27 previews and 16 performances when it closes May 5th.

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Before the play begins, Mary dressed in an iconic blue drape is behind a glass case, the very picture of the mother of God depicted in paintings. Under glass, she is the somber woman deified for all time. Mary under glass recalls tacky lawn ornaments. As the figure of Mary with plastic flowers Shaw poses and prays reverently, an emblem of the religion removed from humanity. While Shaw is behind the glass case, the audience, if they like, can go up on stage and view her and walk around. Also, present on stage is a chained up (so he won’t fly away) turkey buzzard, a predatory bird referred to later in Mary’s testament about the events leading up to the crucifixion. She refers to seeing a bird of prey gouge out the eyes of a rabbit and then eviscerate the animal, killing it in blood and gore. In context, it is what is done to Jesus, her son, which she laments and wishes had not happened.

The play begins after Shaw comes out from under the glass and becomes the human Mary. She takes away the bird of prey and begins her story of what happened to her, to her son and her ultimate lament that she wished it had not, a very contrary view, not to the Bible, necessarily, but certainly to the Catholic portrayal of Mary as the iconic wonder woman who birthed God.

Throughout the testimony, we do not see or hear the exultant Mary happy her son is the savior, an all-knowing Mary who understands flawlessly and effortlessly without a smidgeon of doubt her son’s purpose. This is a human Mary, filled with doubt. As she recounts the story in flashback, she laments as she tells us she had seen the “writing on the wall” when Lazarus was raised from the dead. She knew the envy and jealousy of the religious leaders. She knew they would go after Him because of the miracles He performed. This human Mary is fearful for her son because He is too loving, too kind, to wise, too beautiful, too knowledgeable and too just. And she intuits that He will be killed for it all especially because of His fan club and followers’ love.

The rabbit eviscerated in gore is her son eviscerated and left bloody. She doesn’t hail the blood of Christ as that of the lamb slain for the world that the religions (Christian) rejoice about. She rues his blood shed. He is first and last her beloved human son. All the more poignant is the scripture of Jesus when he looks down upon Mary from the cross, saying, “Mother, behold your son.” For Mary, it is a great sorrow that her innocent son went to His death, for what? Not even Pilot wanted Him dead, and in fact was warned by his wife not to “kill that innocent man.” How much more a mother suffers when her son is destroyed for what she knows is jealousy and envy. She knows the price  that her son will have to pay to heal, cleanse, comfort, make water into wine, and especially to raise from the dead. She knows that the religious leaders will punish him and exact a blood penalty. She shares what motivates her son and what motivates the religious leaders who put burdens on the people that they themselves cannot relieve. She knows her son is the “real thing,” and that they, motivated by greed, money and power will destroy him. Her son’s death is not salvation; for her it is torture.

Can Mary the “mother of God” be allowed to speak as a human mother when she is  portrayed by some religious leaders (Catholicism) as even greater than Jesus? Is it fair that she be human, that she show fear and run away like Peter who denied Christ? Is this not blasphemous? And yet in the scripture, she mourns and grieves her son as the women and disciples did. The production is not contrary to the scripture, even with regard to the resurrection of Christ.

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So what’s the fuss? Fiona Shaw is absolutely brilliant, touching, painful, monumental in her portrayal. The play taken from the scripture is electrifying. Mary was indeed human and she is divine. We are human and have the potential to achieve great goodness, perhaps even divinity counting a few miraculous prayers answered. What the play intentions through the beauty of Shaw’s cry of humanity is that the divine be brought into our reach and that we identify and become ennobled by this understanding. That we too, given the concept of world salvation by a son, would rather have the son with us…forget the world. Let it rot. All the more the sacrifice, was Christ’s to have been paid at such a great cost: the suffering of a mother who, knowing who her son is and understanding what He can accomplish must lose him to brutality, jealously, all the sins of the world? No wonder Mary’s lament; no wonder she disputes God’s purpose. No wonder she questions and wishes a reversal of events. Wouldn’t we? And isn’t that the point?

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But as in The Last Temptation of Christ, there is no going back. Christ defeated temptation. His work was finished on the cross and He fulfilled God’s purpose. And likewise, Mary may rant, she is human, but her rant too is finished. And though she is an icon, Mary lives and prays in Spirit. Nothing can be taken from her nor is it in this production. The beauty is in the addition of her wonderful humanity in the paradox of divinity. There is hope for us yet.

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