Monthly Archives: July 2013
The Westchester Collaborative Theater‘s innovative work never fails to amaze me. A collaborative of mostly professional artists, directors, actors and writers who gather each month to share, develop, promote and exchange ideas about their work, they are a vibrant regional theater laboratory. Instead of trying to “reinvent” shows that have been done before, often with lackluster results (I’ve seen more than my share of regional theater revivals and few are worth the trip and the time.) this group has persisted in what it does best: experiments, creates, dares to risk.
WCT premiers works, mostly one act plays, some longer. Many of these are developed through the lab which is the petri dish through which all the collaborators can hone their skills and perfect their craft. Oftentimes, the works continue being developed after premiers at their performance base in Ossining, with the thought of entering them in festivals in NYC and/or in other areas of the country or developing them further perhaps into full length works.
The WCT holds two major performances of plays, one in the summer and the other in the winter. This 2013 Summerfest of 5 one-act plays which was produced in late June reveals how far this collaborative has extended its reach, creativity and will. Each of the one-act productions showed the collaborators’ manifest effort and enjoyment with expressing their talent and artistry. It was obvious they were having fun and the crowd which was the largest I have seen to date at the WCT, demonstrated their enthusiasm and pleasure with the offerings.
I brought along three of my friends who are Broadway goers and who enjoy live theater. They are not dilettantes and each has a discerning nature and circumspect opinions. In other words they do not suffer through mediocre theater eagerly and two of them are “walk-outs.” They would rather sit in the lobby or go home than sustain performances that are slap-dash with little deliberation and effort or those that are misguided and whose logic is so skewed, the production just doesn’t work to uplift, entertain or enlighten.
They agreed that the night they spent at WCT was so much better than paid performances they’ve attended in Queens and even some on Broadway. (One walked out of Mary Stuart, and the other fell asleep during Beyond Miss Julie, to name a few.) Two of them especially expressed surprise at the energy, camaraderie and esprit de corps of the company which is a testament that not only is regional theater not a bust, it is thriving in the New York City area. They agreed with me that a collaborative is the right way to go, offering a continuum of progression that is free and integrated away from the constraints of ego machinations, financials and politics that unfortunately stifle NYC theater’s creative, innovative, risk-taking. In NYC though celebrity names are king, they do not provide insurance against ill-conceived or misdirected productions circled by fans and tourists out for a night of forgettable entertainment that is more for “show” and tourist talk-back to friends at home. Off Broadway presents more innovation, still with the caveat of expenses.
Here was WCT’s 2013 Summerfest roundup, all varying degrees of delightful, insightful, humorous, telling and clever.
Facebook Friends by Marshall Fine, directed by Karina Ramsey revisits for all school graduates the possibility of reunions with former lovers and friends awakened by the Facebook revolution. Facebook has brought us “face-to-face” online with those we thought we might never see again, and if we take it further, like characters Simon (Sherman Alpert) and Arlene (Tracey McAllister) do, we’ll dare to meet them in person with funny, poignant and awkward moments and final or not so final resolutions to part ways or see each other again.
Wander Inn by Virginia Reynolds, directed by Elaine Hartel is every woman’s dream of vindication come true. Charlotte (Sandra Lucas) returns to visit a former partner Tim (Deacon Hoy) at his financially down-and-out Wander Inn. She continually surprises him with a series of truths which peel back the onion on their past. Charlotte’s revelations are gleefully, ironically delivered and she relishes her triumphs over her past and him. Each reveal jolts him like a prod leading him to the final realization that he has made a complete mess of his life. It is a reversal of fortune with Charlotte on the top ladder rung and Tim on the bottom. When she proclaims that her final order will be to torch the place (She became the owner unbeknownst to him.) where their past was staged and he’s been in a cage ever since (at the Wander Inn) we are shocked and somehow relieved. Things can only get better for both of them, unless Tim devolves further. Based upon the clues, the play leaves it for us to decide the probabilities.
Excess Baggage by Carol Mark and directed by Joe Lima is a joyful, humorous play with which all can identify, especially if they come from a larger family which is the clinging type whether in one’s mind or in actuality. Steve (Matt Silver) and Pam (Sara Colten) are on their honeymoon but their parents, Francine-Janice Kirkel, Edward-Jim Coakley, Margaret-Nancy Intrator, Chuck-Nick Pascarella, show up at the newlyweds’ hotel room to watch, supervise and help launch the marriage. The couple, ready for this “big night,” have to contend with their folks who interject, proclaim and interfere until they’re over themselves, and are ejected so Steve and Pam can finally be alone together. However, the question remains, will Steve and Pam ever be able to shed the carcass of childhood and parental intrusion? We are reminded, as the title suggests, that when we are united with our significant others, we also bring along the generations that have gone before us and this baggage, for good or ill, remains in ourselves and our relationships, unless we “jettison” it. The underlying message affirms that when it gets to be “crazy” with all the competing voices in our heads and our interactions and self become befuddled, then we need to take charge as Steve and Pam humorously and finally do. Do the couple continue this path during their marriage? The answer leaves us smiling and shaking our heads.
Hedge Fund by Csaba Teglas, directed by Richard Manichello is a humorous look at the Venus/Mars relationship between men and women against the backdrop of the not so recent financial debacle and fiduciary mismanagement prevalent during the Lehman, Bear Sterns, Washington Mutual, Countrywide Financial mess which is most likely still occurring today in varying degrees. Miss Prune (Enid Breis) is the demur secretary of James (Howard Weintraub) the preeminent, arrogant, know-it-all boss. Miss Prune acts the subservient, dutiful, coffee-making assistant until the tables are turned and we discover she has been surreptitiously brilliant while James and others have been twiddling their thumbs while the Roman market has been burning. Only Miss Prune was prescient and common sensical enough to take clever positions, short and long the market, and walk away with millions while the blindly incompetent “professionals, didn’t see looming disaster on the horizon.By degrees, Miss Prune sheds her demur, “button-down” collar to reveal the hottie she is, single-handedly saving the firm and her boss with the ultimate final position, taking over fiduciary responsibility and setting herself up to be his rich girlfriend (a mild tweak on sexual harassment). By the end of the play, she is in the catbird seat and James is getting her coffee. All the women in the audience applauded loudly. One of my friends thought the play might go the distance adding another act and developing the premise.
You Were Awesome by Bob Zaslow and directed by Michael Muldoon explores the hangover theme. Steven (Jeff Virgo) had a fabulous party but can’t remember any of it, in a stoned blackout of alcohol reeling brain bombing. Ruthie (Suzanne Ochs) was there and has a memory for explicit details, though she didn’t party as insanely as Steven. Anyway, someone has to chronicle the events, “spill the beans,” and get her man. Ruthie is joined by partiers Leesa (Shelley Lerea) and Dirk (Femi Alao) and their expose grows as Steven hangovers his head in shame. Ruthie in a partial state of disrobement (tying in what probably happened between them.) gives Steven each “blow by blow” description of his humiliatingly funny antics on this wild, drunken spree.
Ruthie underwrites each mounting event description with, “You were awesome!” By the play’s end after we have laughed at the excesses we put ourselves through, knowing that, like Steve, we’ll regret it in the morning, we come to this realization. Yeah, maybe it was awesome. During a spree we might be able to shed restrictive, up-tightness and be ourselves. In vino veritas! Too bad we need the alcohol or whatever to “Be Awesome!”
WCT has scheduled events in addition to their bi-monthly labs, development of new work and guest speakers. In July guests Ossining Mayor William Hanauer (July 11th) and renown theater director Mara Mills (July 18th) spoke. Make sure to mark your calendar and try to attend the fun events and meet the WCT directors, playwrights and actors. This regional theater group enjoys schmoozing with the public and discovering those who appreciate the arts and innovative theater. Their annual fundraiser is scheduled for Saturday September 28 at 7:30PM at the OAC Steamer Firehouse, 117 Main St. in Ossining. Entertainment for the event will be cabaret inspired.
For the month of October, the WCT will present a Living Art Exhibit in conjunction with the Ossining Arts Council. The Exhibit is being held on Saturday October 19. Playwrights have selected artworks to inspire their imagination in creating new plays. They have been busily completing their submissions for an August 1 deadline.
Regional theater on the move, WCT will continue with its winter programs and labs. If you are in the area and are interested, first check out their Facebook page. You will always be welcome as a visitor to their performances and you may always donate as the WCT is a non profit and is carried along solely by public donations. And if you are a director, actor or playwright, you may apply to join the talented innovators of this collaborative.
I like to think of the WCT as riding over the top of the Philistines who have done much to suppress wonderful artists, writers, actors, playwrights by insisting on curtailing funding programs to the arts. Live theater inspires our humanity and keeps us involved, enlightened and purposeful in our culture. Whether you are an audience member, actor, playwright or director, the feeling communication is electric during a live performance. Here is a theater group which can be supported for their daring and enthusiasm in putting on quality shows, and doing it on the good graces of their supporters. Bravo WCT!
The Nance is a heavenly vehicle for comedic singer/ dramatic actor Nathan Lane, who plays 1930s vaudeville performer Chauncey Miles in the Lincoln Center production now at the Lyceum Theatre on 45th Street. Supported by an exceptional ensemble – Jonny Orsini (Ned), Lewis J. Stadlen (Efram), Cady Huffman (Sylvie), Jenni Barber (Joan), and Andrea Burns (Carmen) – Lane’s performance is a powerhouse, expressing a variegated population of emotions that stretch the audience along a rubber band from zany belly-laughs to poignant tears as we identify with this gay burlesque performer who forces himself to walk a tightrope of contradictory impulses toward love and hate, cynicism and hope, self-acceptance and self-loathing, empowerment and weakness.
Douglas Carter Beane, it has been reported, wrote the play with Nathan Lane in mind. Who better to portray a caricatured “Nance,” the stereotypical, effeminate “pansy” (usually in vaudeville played by a straight man) of burlesque, who spurs on laughs with double entendres and quippy one-liners between female strip acts, cooling down the steam stoked by bare women who must change for their next peeling reveal. Who better than a “Nance” to encourage the audience males about their virility as they ogle the strippers’ nudity, enjoy the sexual thrill of it and laugh at the “bloke” who is more interested in watching them than the tasseled nipples of the lightly clad ladies. Who better than Nathan Lane to play a “Nance”? Didn’t this amazing chameleon-like showman catapult us into a laugh track with his broad histrionics and heart-opening portrayal of lovable Albert Goldman in the Mike Nichols film The Birdcage (1996)? Beane has spun circles around this irony and delivered an amazing play and the director, Jack O’Brien, with Glen Kelly (Original Music), Joey Pizzi (Choreography), John Lee Beatty (Sets), and Ann Roth (Costumes) to name a few, have brought together a magnificent conceptualization with a tragi-comical punch line as the dominoes of irony tumble on each other at the play’s symbolic conclusion.
The theme and tensions of duality between what is real and what is masked pretense thread throughout the entire production performed with aptly giltless sets including a revolving platform upon which Chauncey unfolds the roiling aspects of his existence traveling between his fun, madcap, self-deprecatory “fag” antics onstage (that are poignant and real) and offstage as the straight, intellectual poseur, a frame to enclose his surreptitious gay affairs, moments enacted in an automat, staging ground for covert gay trysts where one can secretly troll for sex partners who are then brought back to the privacy of Chauncey’s apartment.
His duality manifests when we watch Chauncey’s “poseur” persona lure young, beautiful, down-on-his-luck Ned, who Chauncey, with carefully nuanced signals and occult gay innuendo and subterfuge (part of the act) brings to his apartment. Despite Chauncey’s reluctance (his poseur self) and desire to maintain the orderly division between what is real and what is acting, he violates his best intentions allowing Ned to stay. He is falling in love. The tearing of the curtain between reality and illusion between life and art has begun in their morning after scene when Lane brilliantly begins the morph from the initially strained, cynically laced, intellectually conservative Republican straight Chauncey into the increasingly truthful, loving, caring Chauncey, a harmless, humorous, gifted “Nance” (as seen by the culture, but who the audience sees as the eternally, mystical, tragic-comic clown/fool).
Beane’s dual threads are fraught with complexity and can easily be underestimated because of the subtle interplay between Chauncey’s burlesque pansy act and Chauncey’s real life straight poseur which he acts out as a conservative Republican who glorifies NYC Mayor La Guardia. The shifts between onstage reality and offstage acting are reminiscent of Cabaret, but here function as an amazing reversal of the Candor and Ebb musical; the Nance act is the real thing, the real life is the act, until a certain character, Ned, shows up. The truth which Ned forces Chauncey to confront is his faux existence and after Chauncey falls hard for Ned, he no longer wants to be two different people.
Beane reveals the evolution of Chauncey and Lane is spot on as he unhappily struggles to be the poseur, a closeted gay man, who has fallen in love with married Ned, a discovering gay, as both are forced to live the lies of straights while masking their feelings, identities, beings. Lane’s Chauncey helplessly entangles himself in his true love for Ned. He becomes enraged and dislocated. Not only has he shredded the curtain between his real self and the act which ensured his former easy existence and world view, he no longer wants to repair the curtain sustaining the two person duality and its emotionally disastrous attendant issues. He enjoys the singularity of love and its feeling truths and his new, free statehood.
With this freedom has come empowerment. He becomes upfront about despising hypocrites like prudish Paul Moss (a failed theatrical, lifelong bachelor and “dandy.”) Mayor La Guardia’s watchdog mandated to curtail stage indecency, closing down perverse “Nance” acts. Moss and the La Guardia administration have labeled as perverted the love that healed the schism in Chauncey’s soul, a schism that had made him emotionally unfeeling and alien. Though Ned’s uncomplicated, authentic, self nurtured Chauncey’s individuality into a healthier state, Chauncey’s new identity/truth explodes with rage and vision. Like an artist out of his time, he is doomed for it. Of course, the irony of the play’s action is that the more Ned and Chauncey love, come alive and receive authenticity from each other, the more their straight “act” falls away. The new fusion jeopardizes their lives and both must be sacrificed on an alter of oppression.
All semblance of the curtain separating his duality is completely destroyed by Chauncey when, during his act onstage, Moss shows up and Chauncey lathered in fury shouts out at the audience and Moss With a singular will and determination he provokes his own arrest and in-jail brutality. We later discover the rumors of his love relationship with Ned have suggested he is a real pansy, an illegality the La Guardia administration in NYC will not tolerate if it is exposed.
The second act opens with Chauncey alone in front of the Lyceum theatre stage curtain. He is in court and we hear the loud gavel as if banging down on his head; the judge is silent and Chauncey responds as if the judge’s questions were audible to us, though they are not. In seething, bile-filled humor he puts on his (No one is there…in a way the scene represents Chauncey’s battle struggling between his duality: the judge/Republican poseur and the Nance) poseur straight act. He justifies the harmlessness of double entendres in the pansy act which make folks laugh. Though he makes it out of court, Chauncey has lost hold of his ordered former existence where he could easily move himself in and out of offstage illusion and onstage reality. During the court scene and after, we see he is at the end of his rope, but not the end of his very raw emotional state which has blossomed because of his relationship with Ned. Chauncey must survive: he has “to get his act together” and leave show business or put the curtain down between his two personas and live his former life of duality. Will he be able to after having been healed to oneness in the freedom of love?
After jail, Chauncey returns to his friends, muddled. Theatrical protests are forming to “save the Nance acts.” Chauncey has refused to protest, pooh-poohing any hope of success with his conservative poseur sardonic self and we are duped into believing him as the others crowd around the radio to hear the results, never once considering he is back in his straight “act” for a good reason. He has been bullied there. He can’t protest; he has been on the front lines in jail and has seen the face of discriminatory brutality. Repression and abuse have stymied him. When the protest fails, his “I told you sos” ring clear. Banned, his stage act is over; his offstage act must go on. But how can it if Ned is around?
Through oppressive cultural circumstances, Chauncey converts his reality of love to a lie; call it his material survival and soul death. Onstage, his act which had once been more real than his offstage life has taken a turn into hyperbole when he is forced to play a role that ridicules both sexes. Not only has the Nance gone undercover, he has engaged the double-edged ridicule of men and women (a further perversion wrought by an oppressive government). This ridicule of both sexes is heightened in his portrayal of drag queen Hortense. A Nance in drag, he is neither convincing, good-looking or adorable as he once was, though his humor is in tact. Nevertheless, the irony is impeccable. In drag as Hortense, Chauncey has become freakish, unfeminine, weak and unlovable. He is barely capable of carrying through with his act because it is so far removed from himself. In ridiculing the ridiculed and oppressed (women) he receives no empowerment, only the inherent humorous degradation of taking on the xx chromosome. As the Nance, he was free to be himself onstage and in a role that both empowered and uplifted him to get to the next day, the next tryst, the next stage performance.
We understand how the Hortense act stifles Chauncey’s real impulses and provides no outlet for his true self (as the Nance) when, during his Hortense “act” reality intrudes. Chauncey breaks down and sobs. He has lost himself, Ned, freedom and love. But the oppressive show must go on. He recoups after a long pause and with a one-liner gets a belly laugh. The audience gets what they came for, an hour to forget their troubles. And this tragic fool on the stage? He gets to see the curtain going down on a most wondrous part of his life and his ability to be real anywhere.
The playwright has so aptly woven the notes of Chauncey’s character with perfect writing and Lane hits every single one of them with a sledgehammer, nailing down Chauncey’s spiritual/soulish coffin. By the end, as Chauncey packs up his parapherenalia to return home, there is a huge bang-crash. A fixture drops nearly on his head, barely missing him. He looks off staring into the future. When I first saw the production, I missed an important detail that I caught the second time I saw it when I was sitting in the front row: the black shadow of a rope tied in a noose, swinging high from the backstage rafters.
The symbolism is furtive with multiple meanings foreshadowed. Certainly, the noose shadow suggests the La Guardia administration’s unforgiving and brutal noose tightening toward homosexuals, a cultural attitude which only loosened after the 1990s and hard won battles to break down injustices against gays. In parts of the country, the noose is still hanging; certainly the online bullying of gay youngsters has caused one too many to take their own lives. Related to Chauncey (Chancey) it is moot whether he will be able to maintain the curtain separating his dual selves. Will he be able to forgive himself, knowing all he has been forced to give up and has allowed himself to give up, the stereotype of a weak willed woman? Will his bitterness and self-hatred get the best of him one dark night when he decides it is better not to live at all than to live a life of lies onstage and off with no outlet for his soul’s fulfillment?
It’s all there and more in Lane’s and cast’s performances, in the direction and spectacle, in Beane’s writing, and it’s marvelous to behold. If you love Lane don’t miss this. Treat yourself to this work of art which won three Tony Awards and the performance of a lifetime by Nathan Lane who won the Outer Circle Critics Award and the Drama League Award.
The Nance runs through August 11, 2013 in an extended performance.
Production photo credits by Jean Marcus.