Monthly Archives: June 2013

Classic Stage Company’s Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht

Once again the Classic Stage Company produced a play by Bertolt Brecht.  Last season the company presented Galileo starring F. Murray Abraham in an unusual translation by Brecht and the fine British actor Charles Laughton, now deceased. Abraham portrayed Galileo to sold out-crowds. He and the production were superlative. The current version of The Caucasian Chalk Circle stars, as The Singer and Azdak, Christopher Lloyd, the prolific theater actor who is still most noted for his role as “Doc” Brown in the Back to the Future trilogy and Uncle Fester in the Addams Family films.

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Jason Babinsky and Christopher Lloyd, courtesy of Joan Marcus, CSC website

The director Brian Kulick (who also helmed Galileo last season) has chosen to set Brecht’s play in the Soviet Union, right about the time of the fall of Communism and the partitioning of its satellite regions into their present independent states. The production’s ironic description of the time and place suggests the metaphors which choppily thread through the play and could have been developed with much greater import to make the conception more powerful: “Ancient Grusinia but also perhaps the fall of the Soviet Union, when the Hammer and Sickle were replaced by the Coca-Cola bottle.”

Because the setting is specific to this time period, the play’s universality, its satire of politics, government corruption and injustice, is unfortunately mitigated. The themes are convoluted and confused. The play’s significance related to our time, when global corporations and shadow global elites deliver a fascist repression of their own, is rendered faint indeed. With a bit more innovation, and connected theatricality of spectacle and costume, the tie-ins symbolized by the Coke bottle (meretricious mercantilism) supplanting the noble beginning of philosophical Marxism (devolving into corrupt, repressive Communism) would have been stupendous. But the conception is to a great extent washed out. Gimmicks (an interruptive blackout, ad hoc audience participation at a makeshift wedding, and the gloss of comedic Russian and Russian-accented English spoken to frame the fable) distract from the interesting conception. The lackluster effects sink the production’s impact and Brecht’s powerful theme that love and human kindness will and should overthrow political class systems whatever their stripe.

The play begins with a Stalinesque/Leninesque statue being toppled by citizens as the current governor and his wife (Mary Testa) flee the violent tumult and retaliation for his repressive rule. It is regime change. The question Brecht poses: Which devils will now come to rule? Testa, true to her comedic talent, lessens the sting of the wife’s cruelty and arrogance as she picks the dresses she will take – but in the chaos leaves her infant son behind.

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Christopher Lloyd as The Singer and Elizabeth A. Davis as Grusha. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The child (for expediency and symbolism, perhaps) is represented by a life-like puppet. The fate of the child is debated by a young servant girl who finds him. Grusha (Elizabeth A. Davis in a poignant though uneven performance) deliberates whether to save him. But in a typical Brechtian character tension, her humanity and the lower/middle class tenets of the Golden Rule prompt her to sacrifice her own wellbeing for the child whom she preserves. The main action of the play is the preservation of this puppet-child as she confronts danger and trials to get to her brother’s house for asylum, all the while keeping the child’s identity hidden.

The circumstances achieve a quieter resolution with strange moments of accidental kindness, and power reversal. Azdak (a hapless, loutish peasant portrayed forcefully and playfully by Christopher Lloyd) saves the disguised governor who has become his loutish, peasant equal. Through a series of inane ironies that only political revolutions can foment, Azdak turns himself in for saving the governor, but because the current political crazies have hanged all the former judges, he is in the right place at the right time to be selected as a new judge to decide matters of the law. Why not?

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Christopher Lloyd and Tom Riis Farrell, CSC website, Joan Marcus photo

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Tom Riis Farrell and Christopher Lloyd. Courtesy of CSC website, Joan Marcus photo.

The justice Azdak metes out is even nuttier (Lloyd shines at these moments), probably, then the decisions the former bribed, corrupt judges handed out, with one random exception. In appears that the true Just Judge (fortune, fate, God) exerts its will through this wild, roguish Azdak. The governor’s wife has returned to reclaim her child from Grusha. Azdak must make the final decision: Who is the appropriate mother? Is it the overweening, materialist, elite, selfish biological mother or the deeply human, loving peasant who exhibits the nobility, kindness and self-sacrificial traits that exemplify the finest qualities of the human spirit that we (the little people) aspire to? In a fit of Solomonic wisdom uncharacteristic of Azdak, this lout has a chalk circle drawn. Whoever is able to take the child out of the circle is the mother. This sets the competition as two women pull each arm of the child as if to tear him in half to prove “ownership.” And you know what happens.

In this translation by James and Tania Tern, with original music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics by the poet W. H. Auden, the production has rare, clarified moments and muddied, miry ones. Coherence throughout is chopped. However, Lloyd should not be missed, and Elizabeth A. Davis manages to hew out a Grusha with whom we want to identify and who vindicates our belief in ethical intention and fine human instinct. And yes, she is rewarded for this when her love interest (Alex Hurt) reaches out to her, despite the complications. (She married a dyingman under false pretenses – his being that he was escaping the draft – then is stuck with him – but not for long.)

Article first published as Theater Review (NYC): ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’ by Bertolt Brecht on Blogcritics.

Brian Schorn Exhibit at Omega Institute

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Visitor Center
Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York

Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York is an amazing center for wellness, holistic studies and  sustainable living programs and practices. Omega’s beautiful environs and campus must be experienced to be believed. The institute offers workshops, conferences, online learning, retreats and getaways and  hosts programs in New York City and Costa Rica. Omega encompasses the world; it is a global community that “awakens the best in the human spirit and cultivates the extraordinary potential” that is in all of us.

My first visit to Omega was with a friend, Rosary O’Neill, who is teaching a scriptwriting workshop July 7-12, 2013. With her I had the opportunity to tour the campus and discover more about Omega’s mission and its programs. After my brief time there, I realized that Omega represents everything I embrace and have endorsed for a good part of my life, starting with health and wellness. I especially appreciate their forward momentum in implementing ways to support and integrate a sustainable lifestyle that replenishes, renews and regenerates a culture that is in harmony with the environment.

One of the opportunities open to me as I walked through the gardens and followed pathways over the stream (after a delicious organic cappuccino in the cafe) was to see Brian Schorn’s exhibit at the Ram Dass Library. Brian was one of the individuals Rosary and I met in the cafe and after sharing with us his journey of how he arrived at Omega, I was convinced that this accomplished Renaissance man who has engaged his senses in all realms of the fine arts and media is perfecting his life’s work, and that indeed, his life path is an artistic work unfolding.

To be able to let ourselves release into freedom is one of the greatest achievements we can attain as human beings. Often intense personal restrictions (after psychological cleansing) prevent us from “going over the cliff.” and finding ourselves. Over the cliff is not the great fall to fear. It is the free space allowing us to fly. Sharing time with Brian, I could easily see that he was soaring and I was gobsmacked at his courage to break out from the entangling personal labyrinths, to move to the edge and then leap.

And after the leap? New directions for his art some of which is currently being exhibited at Omega’s Ram Dass Library. Spurred by opportunities to live in the mountains of Colorado and Vermont, Schorn focused on his connection to the natural world. In the seclusion and beauty of various terrains, he could explore and delve into environmental art, deep ecology, natural history and outdoor adventure.  Previous artist residencies included Ox-Bow in Saugatuck, MI and I-Park Artists Enclave in East Haddam, CT. In a ‘fusion complement’ his experiences with natural environments directly informed a new body of work: audio field recordings, electronic music composition, outdoor performance, calligraphy, sculpture with natural materials, photography and computer-generated imaging.

Brian’s exhibit at the Ram Dass Library is entitled “Lost and Found.” His work includes sculpture, assemblages and calligraphy. To whet your appetite, a few examples are below.

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Brian Schorn
Heaven, Earth & Man Navigating Fear, I, II, III
sumi ink on paper

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Brian Schorn
Dirt Calligraphy I (left)
pine island dirt, smoke on paper
Enso (center)
sumi ink on paper
Dirt Calligraphy II
pine island dirt, smoke on paper

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Brian Schorn
Acorn Yin Yang
wood, acorns, acrylic, enamel

Brian Schorn’s exhibition opened Memorial Day to an enthusiastic reception. The selection of works and their presentation offer Brian’s unique vision and integrated approach employing a dichotomy of natural elements in a juxtaposition of artistic mediums. His works will be exhibited throughout the summer and into September. If you are in the area, drop by the library after availing yourself of a look see at Omega Institute’s Visitor’s Center to check out this phenomenal venue tucked away in the Hudson River Valley. You will thank yourself that you did.

Tony Awards. No Surprises as Tony’s Mirror Drama Desk Award Wins.

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Patina Miller won the Tony for Best Performance of a Leading Actress in a Musical Revival. When she signed my program, I told her I believed she would win the Tony. Turns out I was right. She is probably still shocked and sooo happy over her win.

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Pippin won the Tony for Best Musical Revival

 The Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall hosted by Neil Patrick Harris  held no surprises if you saw the Drama Desk Awards. The award wins echoed each other this year, as the winners of the Drama Desks and Tonys mirrored each other last year. It’s as if the separate award committees sat down with each other and agreed on the wins.

Just the highligts are repeated here, of the Best Musical, Best Musical Revival, Best Play, Best Play Revival and the Actor awards. I’m thrilled for the Kinky Boots win for Best Original Musical and Cindi Lauper’s score win for Kinky Boots. I’m glad it won over Mathilda which I didn’t think was as great as it was touted to be when I saw it. I have yet to see the production of Kinky Boots, but will get tickets as soon as possible. Billy Porter now has a Tony to add to his Drama Desk Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical. The trailer posted online with him dressed in drag is a show stopping number and looks like a deserved win. He, as many of the performers did, thanked his family and God for sustaining him throughout to bring him to the stage and the wins.

Pippin won for Best Musical Revival. I’m thrilled.  See my review of Pippin here!  I predicted wins for Andrea Martin (Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical Revival) Diane Paulus (Best Director for Musical Revival) and Patina Miller (Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical Revival). I am so thrilled because I had the opportunity to tell Andrea Martin and Patina Miller that I hope they won because they were fabulous. Their wins bring viability and credibility to their careers and will most probably sky-rocket them to other roles in film or Broadway. I’m absolutely joyous for them. They and Diane Paulus so deserve it for their efforts.

Cicely Tyson (Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play ) received the Tony to go with her Drama Desk for her incredible, moving performance in A Trip to Bountiful. She was absolutely stunning and heart-wrenching. Judith Light received a Tony to go with her Drama Desk for her humorous character portrayal in The Assembled Parties. Likewise, Tracey Letts (Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play) won the Tony, adding to his award shelf that already holds a Drama Desk and other awards for his performance of George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  The play’s director, Pam MacKinnon, also won the Tony as she did the Drama Desk.

Courtney B. Vance from Lucky Guy by Nora Ephron brought home the Tony for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play. He was excellent, though I did want Tony Shalhoub to win in that category for Golden Boy. Shalhoub’s portrayal of the father (too bad it was so early in the season) was exceptional; he was dynamic and powerful in his soft-spoken, loving, nuanced portrayal. His was a pivotal character, the conscience and the theme of Odets’ play. He brought together the elements brilliantly in a living, vital performance. It was a shame he didn’t win; he was breathtaking. Vance, though fine, didn’t do it for me, where Hanks, actually, was touching and wonderful…enhancing Ephron’s somewhat lackluster characterization of McAlary. (See my review.) If not for Hanks, the play would have been a yawn. But Letts was the favorite and I unfortunately missed this supposedly iconic Virginia Woolf.  After all the nominations, Matilda did receive a win for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical (Gabriel Ebert). For me, it was a toss up between Terrance Mann (Pippin) and Ebert, but I didn’t see the other performances, so I can’t say. I did think that Ebert was pushing for laughs as was Mann…both comedic roles. Comedy is very, very hard to do well.

The finest remarks in the evening were delivered by Tracey Letts as he thanked the ATW. He said something to the effect that the others in the category were not his competitors, they were his peers. He was absolutely correct: Tom Hanks (Lucky Guy) David Hyde Pierce (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike) Nathan Lane (The Nance) and Tom Sturridge (Orphans)? I saw each production and there is absolutely no way I would have been able to select from these. Of course, I did not see Letts. And the Best Play? Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. What can I say? I loved it and of the four nominees, it was my favorite.

As a show, The Tony Awards was better than the Oscars which lasts forever in its own self-indulgent mode. But then I only watched two hours of The Tonys while I was online doing other things. It is how I watch TV, if I watch it at all, which is extremely seldom. I prefer streaming or the interactivity of social or mobile. The more alive, the better. That is why I love theater, but am annoyed that they have not entered the Social Media age of living, breathing interactivity during performances. They (the theater police) don’t trust the rabble to not throw things, I guess.

Don’t they understand about Macros flash settings and texting and silent mode on mobile? Don’t they get it that interactivity from fans IS THE BEST PROMOTION AND ADVERTISING OUT THERE FOR A BROADWAY SHOW?  Maybe not. NASA gets it. They have Tweet teams. A play is a potential TWEET TEAM LAUNCH ON SOCIAL Yawn. I’m waiting for them to “get it.” It may take years.

Westchester Collaborative Theatre: New Season, New Innovations

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WCT announcement for Summerfest 2013

The Westchester Collaborative Theatre has been on a whirlwind beginning January when Alan Lutwin and Marshall Fine received a 2013 Arts Alive Grant from ArtsWestchester! The WCT is officially a non-profit 501C3 corporation and will be able to intensify its fund raising efforts and continued integration with the New York City theatre community in Westchester. This inspiring and vital group theatre continues to evolve productions and projects, some of which with further development may move to New York City venues. The artistic symmetry and free flowing energy between and among artists in Westchester and New York City move their currents back and forth. This company is open and flexible and inspired by its artists’ innovations. It is apparent they will not limit themselves.

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Alan Lutwin, discussing upcoming events at WCT.

LABS, where great work continues to be read and presented and where guest artists conduct workshops, now follow a new tri-monthly schedule. On March 21st Sheila Speller conducted an acting seminar workshop and on April 11th, John Pielmeier, author of Agnes of God was the Guest Artist. Buddy Crutchfield, director of the Off-Broadway hit Freckleface Strawberry, was the Guest Artist at the May 23 Lab.

During May, two events enabled WCT to contribute its energy and engage its directing and acting talent. One was in celebration of the Village of Ossining’s two hundred year birthday. Actors (including the current mayor) directed by Alan Lutwin dramatically recreated the first Ossinging Willage Board Meeting that was held in 1813. The event, “The Village of Sing-Sing, How It All Began,” was produced in the Town of Ossining Justice Court. WCT actor members who were in the production were Sherman Alpert, Jon Barb, Marilyn Colazzo, Janice Kirkel, Joe Lima, Ward Riley, Jeff Virgo and Howard Weintraub. These individuals linked their gifts to Ossinging’s history and had a ball. Lutwin who researched the project discovered, among many other interesting facts that some of Ossinging’s early residents had slaves. All slavery was banned in New York State on July 4, 1827.

Playwright Rosary O'Neill

Playwright Rosary O’Neill

The second event was a full length reading premier of White Suits on Sunday, a play by New Orleans/New York City playwright Rosary O’Neill directed by WCT member (actress and director) Elaine Hartel.

Elaine Hartel, Director

Elaine Hartel, Director

With the help of WCT, O’Neill has been developing the play and was thrilled that actors were able to portray the characters, allowing her to understand what sections of the play resonated and what dialogue, if any, needed tweaking. After the reading, discussion followed. Initially, O’Neill thought to entitle the play, Exposition Boulevard, referring to the play’s setting in the elite section of New Orleans. Then she reconsidered (She was raised in New Orleans in a wealthy family.) because those living on the real “Exposition Boulevard” might be offended. O’Neill’s play, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work, The Great Gatsby, peels the onion on the culture of wealth, but in New Orleans. (The play has themes similar to a TV series O’Neill also wrote, Heirs. The series is currently being option shopped by Executive Producers Wendy Kram and David Black.) O’Neill’s writings (plays, the TV series) about New Orleans reveal the rages, complexities, machinations of families in this elite class with often humorous results. It is a familiar subject dear to O’Neill’s heart.

O'Neill and Lutwin after the reading listening to audience feedback.

O’Neill and Lutwin after the reading listening to audience feedback.

The discussion after the reading which held praise for the playwright, the play, the director and actors also pinpointed that the title “Exposition Boulevard,” resonated with the action and themes. Considering the current productions about New Orleans on cable TV (Treme) the widest latitude about the cultural life of that amazing city should be explored and O’Neill’s work does that with humor, grace and depth. Hers is a rare look at New Orleans’ economic strata and a reminder that the gaps among rich and poor can only be melded if they are first examined.

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Deacon Hoy, Sharon Rowe, Janice Kirkel, Evelyn Mertens, Enid Breis

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Margie Ferris, Marilyn Collazo, Deacon Hoy, Sharon Rowe, Janice Kirkel

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Cathy Jewell-Fischer, Margie Ferris, Marilyn Collazo

The WCT continued June 1st, with its dynamic Spring Fundraiser at the Steamer Firehouse with their theme “Trash n’ Vaudeville.” Members dressed for the fun event in offbeat attire and enjoyed the food and drink during and after entertainment.  The fundraiser signals that the summer season is in full swing. The SUMMERFEST 2013 plays which were announced in May are currently being worked on by the directors and actors and will be presented on Friday, June 28th at 7:30 pm and Saturday, June 29th at 2:00 PM. Five selected plays that participated in the Lab process will be performed: You Were Awesome by Bob Zaslow, Hedge Fund by Csaba Teglas, Excess Baggage by Carol Mark, Facebook Friends by Marshall Fine and Wander Inn by Ginny Reynolds.

The Friday and Saturday performances will be at the Budarz Theater in Ossinging. Additional performances are planned at Atria-on-the-Hudson on Saturday June 22 at 2 PM and Briarcliff Atria on Sunday, June 30 at 2PM.
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While other theater groups languish for lack of vision, the Westchester Collaborative Theatre continues to move forward innovating, growing, pulsating life.  WCT is fed by the creativity, ingenuity and vitality of its members. All are sustained by an immense passion for theater and the enjoyment and community of creative endeavor. This is a group to watch, nurture and hold dear. You “ain’t seen nothing, yet!”

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