Author Archives: caroleditosti
‘How to Defend Yourself’ at New York Theatre Workshop
In this decade of sexual extremes on a continuum from paranoia, political correctness, libertine licentiousness, the billion dollar pornography industry and casual permissiveness, one in four women is violated, sexually assaulted or physically/emotionally abused. As a strategic defense #metoo has been appropriately employed culturally, but it also has been wrongfully magnified as a double-edged sword of vengeance. In Liliana Padilla’s play How to Defend Yourself currently at New York Theatre Workshop, following a successful 2020 run at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theatre, Padilla confronts important issues about personal safety (emotional and physical). Incisively co-directed by the exceptional Rachel Chavkin, Liliana Padilla and Steph Paul, the hybrid comedy drama considers safety, consent and the litigated definitions of rape and harassment, which shift based upon geographical location, accuser and victim.
With the setting as a torpid and tumultuous college campus when individuals are beginning to define their goals, dreams and intentions, sexuality and choices remain fluid. A decision to be with someone can lead to devastation, especially around stimulants, alcohol and drugs at a testosterone-fueled frat party, where young women are pressured to compromise themselves. At the top of the play we are introduced to women in a self-defense class started by college junior Brandi (Talia Ryder). The confident, black belt with Social Media videos of herself disarming a bully with a gun, is a self-appointed, self-defense instructor, who decides to teach students the ways to protect themselves, after sorority sister Susannah is raped and hospitalized. The assault happened at a frat party with.
Much of the enjoyment of Padilla’s play is becoming acquainted with the buoyant women and two young men in the class. They reveal their humorous attitudes as they attempt to navigate a culture whose roiling currents are being defined from moment to moment, dislocating both men and women who may be easily overcome by intimate circumstances which they assume they have control over but don’t. Brandi, whose self-assurance, determination to do good and organized, talented, physical skills, not only looks dancer fit, but is also lovely. Admired and accepted by her peers, she is a member of a hot sorority and has the cache to hold self-defense sessions, which attract a few neophytes who are there to learn self-defense, and some for other reasons.
Brandi runs her sessions tightly with precision. She expects her peers to evolve toward her confidence level, so they understand that “anything can be used as a weapon,” and primarily, their own bodies are weapons. Along with her, Kara (Sarah Marie Rodriguez), who joins her BFF for moral support and fun, but lacks Brandi’s skill set, assists Brandi with chatter and chalkboard drawings in the college gym space (finely designed by You-Shin Chen) where Brandi holds classes.
Two students, who drift in anxious to get started, arrive before Brandi. We learn that freshman Diana is obsessed about defending herself against guns, and her BFF Mojdeh follows fast in her orbit. Humorous and sociable Diana ((Gabriela Ortega at the top of her game) and Mojdeh (Ariana Mahallati) are primarily there to become closer to Brandi who is a Zeta Chi, the sorority they would both like to rush. It escapes them that the group think atmosphere of sororities and fraternities are precisely the communities that can be toxic and abusive. However, Mojdeh craves to be identified with being “cool” and seeks the hot, popular individuals to ride their coattails to achieve acceptance as the fastest way to self-love. For her part Diana appears to be self-content, and is humorous in how she fetishizes guns to the point where by the the end of the play, she indulges in her passion.
The last young woman to join Brandi’s sessions is Nikki (Amaya Braganza) whose entrance provokes laughter because she appears super shy, hesitant and awkward. Throughout, she is mysterious and apparently reticent, until the conversation opens up and she admits she gave a “blow job” to a guy in a gasoline station. When Brandi and Kara attempt to kindly excuse her humiliating low status behavior as a mistake, she clearly states that she was fine with it and it was her idea. Whether she is lying or fronting is difficult to surmise. Hiding behind “it’s OK” is oftentimes the default response because it is too messy to get into who is responsible, who is to blame and what does being forced mean.
Kara indirectly insults her by stating that she has done such things, too, as mistakes. Nikki is nonplussed. Interestingly, Padilla’s characters veer off topic into personal discussions about what touching makes them uncomfortable and boundaries.
The play reveals that the idea of self-defense encompasses more than just a physical way of being. But young men and women are at sea with regard to “growing up” with their sexual identity that is forced upon them by the culture and their friends. Oftentimes, as Eggo suggests, they are clueless about what is the right or wrong way to conduct themselves, have relationships and fall in love during which sexuality isn’t necessarily the main ingredient that holds people together.
To add substance to the mix, Padilla includes the male perspective, having Brandi invite two fraternity brothers, Andy (Sebastian Delascasas) and Eggo (Jayson Lee). They are “down” with #metoo and are supportive of Susannah during her recuperation and the criminal charges against the fraternity brother who assaulted her. To distinguish themselves from the “sexual abuser types” roaming their campus, Andy and Eggo hysterically ply their sanctimonious “we support women” BS, the moment they enter the room and introduce themselves. Especially since their frat “bro” committed a crime which everyone is apprised of in the fraternities and sororities on campus, they are “running scared” that any behavior can be interpreted as predatory. Their loud moralistic approach toward women is hysterical and we expect they will marching in the next women’s protest to encourage female empowerment.
Padilla’s themes are not lost on us. Sexualized images and behaviors, part of the landscape of American culture in the entertainment industry and fashion industry were shattered by #metoo. The nascent revolution that sprang up after the Harvey Weinstein debacle shuttered a billion dollar company and gave pseudo power to women for a time, only in the parts of the country which are not Republican and are “woke.” For everywhere else, the men act as they please and the women go along with it, especially if they are proving they are not “socialist lefties.” In the play, the characters are diverse: three persons of color, a Mexican-American, an Iranian-American and two whites. They are stuck with having to deal with “woke” culture. Vitally, the discussion in the middle of the play about what consent means and the question about having to always check with a partner about boundaries, Kara blows it up with her suggestion that she finds there is nothing wrong with wanting S and M sex, though Brandi calls her out for being inappropriate.
Clearly, Kara has issues with alcohol and wanting to be hurt which hints at subterranean troubles that are never revealed. We note them when she doesn’t join in the physical sessions because she got “wasted” the previous evening. On the other hand she isn’t embarrassed about sharing that she enjoys rough sex, getting off on the shock value of telling others.
The most interesting segments of the production are the self-defense moves that Brandi teaches (well choreographed by Steph Paul, movement director) and the physical fight routines they accomplish together (at the guidance of Rocio Mendez). Late in the play there is a fight that breaks out between Diana and Kara that is well staged. The fight exemplifies that ego, charm and pride are always a competitive force. Between these two women, there is almost an intuitive impulse to dislike each other which eventually dissipates after Diana smashes Kara in the face.
The staging for these scenes works seamlessly and is powerful and exciting to watch as the movement is pitched to music which pumps up the characters and reveals they are gaining confidence about themselves. Additionally, when Brandi suggests they pair off to practice techniques, for example how to break an attacker’s wrist grip, the results are simultaneously wrought and the overlapping dialogue and action between the pairs makes for fascinating comparisons.
There are surprising turns throughout. Diana and Mojdeh discover things about each other that set their relationship on a different path so that they can’t be close anymore. Kara and Brandi have a disagreement about Susannah, and Andy reveals a secret to Eggo that he has been harboring since the attack on Susannah, that upsets them both. When Andy asks what he should do, Eggo is at a loss about what to tell him. Finally, after a number of sessions where Brandi’s “students” have made progress and she feels she has made inroads into making them feel safer, Nikki upends her assumptions and disturbs everyone with an event that she discusses happened to her.
In the conclusion which moves through flashbacks in stages of adolescence back to the age of innocence, we see the individuals at three parties during their teen years which move in reverse to a birthday party when they were in elementary school. The parties reveal the wildness from the drinking and sexual exploration when they were in high school back to the innocent days in elementary school. For the rapid set changes You-Shin Chen, Stacey Derosier lighting designer, Izumi Inaba costume design and Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design create a frenetic party atmosphere. And the tableau at the end reveals that the progression of their identities has sprung from love, security, family and well being. One might think that these create an assured line of defense to thwart any attack that might ever happen.
However, Padillia posits, security is never guaranteed. Though we may use our bodies as weapons, random and not so random acts of violence happen in a world of violence, where Diana most probably will arm herself with a licensed gun to answer it.
Co-directors Rachel Chavkin, Liliana Padilla & Steph Paul are responsible for the strengths of the production: its staging and thematic resonance. Their vision about the questions the play raises leaves us with even more questions and no clear answers. The actors are uniformly excellent and the physicality and staging of the various defense sessions make one want to get up and join the cast to try out all the moves.
This is an entertaining, humorous show with themes to give us pause and fine execution by the creatives. For tickets and times go to their website https://www.nytw.org/show/how-to-defend-yourself/tickets/
‘A Doll’s House,’ Jessica Chastain’s Nora is Brilliantly Unbound
As a masterpiece of modern theater Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House presciently foreshadowed the diminution of a women’s role as homemaker, obeying her husband’s every beck and call, like a robot/doll with no autonomy or identity of her own because she was delimited by traditional folkways. A maverick play at the time, A Doll’s House was considered controversial and Ibsen was forced to rewrite the ending for German audiences so it was acceptable.
What would those audiences have said about Amy Herzog and Jamie Lloyd’s stark, minimalist, conceptually powerful, metaphoric version currently at the Hudson Theatre? It is a version which relies on no distracting accoutrements of theatrical spectacle, i.e. period costumes and plush drapery. Nothing physically tangible assists with the unlacing of “the bodice” of Nora’s interior. With “little more” than cerebral irony, and emotional grist Nora displays her soul in a genius enactment by the inimitable Jessica Chastain, in their production of A Doll’s House which is a spare one hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission.
The plot development, characters and themes are Ibsen’s. Nora, a pampered, babied housewife, to save her husband’s life, unwittingly commits fraud by borrowing money from loan shark Krogstad (Okieriete Onaodowan who in the first scene needed to project his voice so as not to appear a weak character which Krogstad is not). Complications arise when Torvald (an exceptional Arian Moayed) receives a bank promotion and with the additional money, Nora plans to quickly pay back Krogstad. But the loan shark threatens to expose Nora’s secret unless she can save his job at the bank where her husband has just become his boss. Instead, Torvald fires Krogstad to hire Nora’s friend Kristine (Jesmille Darbouze). Nora must confront the situation with Torvald before Krogstad exposes her and destroys Torvald’s reputation and their marriage.
Lloyd and Herzog are a fine meld. Herzog strips extraneous words and phrases, though not the substance of the pared-down dialogue. Her version is striking with a natural, informal, unstilted speech for concentrated listening. There’s even a “fuck you” which Nora proclaims cheerfully to be bold, though not in Torvald’s hearing. The meat is Ibsen; the forks and knives to devour it are sleek and without ornamentation to distract. The themes and characterizations are bone chillingly articulate, which Herzog and Lloyd excavate with every word and phrase in this acute, breathtaking, ethereal, new version of A Doll’s House.
Lloyd eliminates the comforting, elaborate staging where actors move to and fro amongst luxurious furniture and eye-catching, gloriously-hued dramatic sets that show Torvald’s preferred, lifestyle which Nora scrimps from her own “allowance” to maintain. Instead, the ensemble’s movements are restrained as they step quietly around Soutra Gilmour’s set. Gilmour has distilled Lloyd’s vision to the back stage wall, top-half painted black, with attendant muted white painted on the bottom half of the wall. The flooring is grey. Predominant are the revolving platform and institutional-looking bland chairs which actors bring in and place on the sometime circling platform, or on its outer edges which don’t revolve.
Chastain appears twenty minutes before the production begins, seated in a chair revolving on the platform (I confess I should have counted the repetitions, but I didn’t.). Sitting, she fascinates. Initially, to me, she was invisible; I was distracted, while she quietly walked on bringing her chair. She was a part of the onstage background, muted, unremarkable. That is perhaps one of the many concepts Lloyd and Herzog suggest with this enlightened version that is memorable because it is metaphysical and conceptual, giving rise to themes about soul interiors. We travel in our own orbits, going in circles in our own perspectives, unseen and never truly known as psychically present, spiritual beings. And as Ibsen suggests, it takes an inner cataclysm such as Nora experiences to break from traditional mores and behavioral repetitions into a different consciousness and new way of being. This breakthrough, Nora attempts at the conclusion.
Amy Herzog’s modernized language version of A Doll’s House is one for the ages in focusing Ibsen’s power of developing characterizations with an opportunity for Lloyd’s preferred, stylized, avant-garde staging, similar to what he used in Betrayal (2019) and Cyrano (2022). It requires the audience to listen acutely to every word of the dialogue and scrutinize the actors splendid, nuanced emotions flicker across their faces. This is especially so of Chastain’s Nora, who is chained and bounded symbolically throughout, minimally using gestures or any physicality, as she sits in a chair facing the audience, predominately employing her voice and face to convey the interior-organ manifestation of Nora’s tortured, miserable psyche. For example when the wedding ring is returned, Nora and Torvald (Arian Moayed) do not move; there is no ring; they look at one another.
Even the tarantella Nora dances at the costume party, Chastain wrenches from herself sitting in the chair in a frantic nearly psychotic frenzy of shaking and kicking. The earthquake physicality that splits Chastain’s Nora apart is the only broad physical movement other than walking out of her stifling, meaningless existence, that Chastain and Lloyd effect at the conclusion with novel irony. The chair-dance is an explosive, rage-filled fit of exasperation, principally done for the purpose of distracting Torvald. Desperate to prevent his discovery of corrupt loan shark Krogstad’s blackmail plot, Nora’s diversion succeeds for a time. However, her fear and inner bleeding wounds only augment until her behavior is exposed and Torvald unleashes his fury vowing she must not infect the children with her poisonous corruption. Interestingly, the children ethereally “appear” as voices-in voice over recordings who Nora speaks to looking out in the direction of the audience. Hypocritically, he demands she stay away from the children, while remaining with the family to keep up appearances as his jeweled asset and prize doll.
With Lloyd’s symbolic staging Chastain’s Nora proves that body, soul and mind are inseparably engulfed in the trauma of a paternalistic culture represented by males who “love her the most” (her father and husband) and psychically straight-jacket and gaslight her to adopt their thoughts, behaviors and attitudes as right and true. To do this she nullifies her existence as a “human being.” In this production, Herzog, Lloyd, Chastain and the ensemble display this truth so it is undeniably representative of women in 1879, the projected number on the back wall of the stage that appears in the beginning of the production.
And when the number disappears, we understand that Soutra Gilmour’s black, white, grey set design, and Gilmour and Enver Chakartash’s costume design (modern dress black) functions to speed us through 140 + representative years to display the dominant patriarchal attitudes today, which still straight-jacket, demean and traumatize. If one thinks this is fatuous “woke” hyperbole that is long over, one has only to read the one in four statistics of women who are bound in violent relationships with male partners who beat or abuse them, yet cannot leave for fear of being alone or without the means to support themselves or their children. The LGBTQ community is not excepted from this. Humanity has a penchant for violence. If it is not externalized, psychic and emotional violence where not a hand is raised toward a partner, is perhaps more prevelant. It is the latter that Ibsen/LLoyd explore.
Whether in Ibsen’s historically, visually laden production of A Doll’s House, or in Lloyd’s naked, bleak and blasted version, it is a despotic spirit that demands obeisance, excluding other ways of being to exalt itself by oppressing and choking the life force from “the other” whether gender-conforming or LGBTQ. That Chastain has the chops to convince us that we are witnessing every stressed fiber of her nerve endings traumatized, as she inhabits one of the most well crafted characters in drama is astounding and not to be underestimated, as some have done, implying her Nora “cries too much.”
Suffice to say, those are not female critics, of which there are far too few. However, her performance is emotionally handicapped accessible for those without a hearing ear, who may need to see Jamie Lloyd’s phenomenally sensitive direction a few times to “get it.” And happily many men do get it. They stood, cheered and whooped during the curtain calls when I looked around to see who was standing at Wednesday’s March 14th matinee. More importantly, women also cheered and whooped.
Clearly, husbands/partners, who might be like Torvald, need to see this production if they suspect they are like him. Chastain’s Nora is an educational experience in how a particular woman suffers to the breaking point in order to be the prototype ideal wife and mother for a man’s “love” and acceptance. When Nora finally realizes she has the tools to free herself from the false and illusory prison of her own making, she throws off a life and role she believed made her happy to search for definitions of her own happiness. Moayed’s Torvald, who portrays the solipsistic, presumptuous, self-aggrandizing, martinet with likable charm (how he does this is incredible) exposes her to herself. He smashes her fantasies that he is a white knight who will do the “beautiful thing,” by sacrificing himself for her as she has done for him.
Unfortunately, the only one who would sacrifice himself for her is on his way out of life. Chastain’s scenes with Michael Patrick Thornton’s Dr. Rank, who is the couple’s terminally ill close friend are touching, warm and human, unlike her scenes with Torvald. They should be together, but she won’t push their light flirtations beyond, loyal to her fantasy of Torvald until she isn’t.
Interactions between Nora and Torvald are increasingly transparent as they devolve into Torvald’s eventual explosion and hatred directed at Nora after discovering the truth. The scenes between Krogstad and Kristine pointedly contrast and move in the opposite direction. Kristine’s persuasive love of Onaodowan’s Krogstad makes him swallow his “pride” and give up his extortion plan; truth is at the core of their love. Onaodowan and Darbouze are particularly strong and authentic in their scene together which reveals Kristine and Krogstad’s love has remained over the years. On the other hand Torvald and Nora’s toxic relationship functions in falsehoods. Lies are at its core and what is presumed to be love is convenience and objectification Torvald demands Nora be his dream doll and she obeys, though it demoralizes her soul.
Kristine’s troubled life has brought her to an understanding of herself in an honesty which Krogstad appreciates, for he wants to give up his corrupt way of life. That Lloyd has selected two Black actors to portray these characters reveals an underlying authenticity and exaltation for their love. Krogstad, who is in the shadows when we first meet him, as he sits behind Nora and blackmails her (unfortunately I had to read the script to understand these lines) appears the villain, made more villainous by the society’s ill treatment of him. His love for Kristine redeems him. Torvald’s inability to love Nora damns them both.
Ironically, when her friend’s love is rekindled, Nora’s love ends when she realizes Torvald’s true nature and relationship to her. Though he apologizes for “going off on her” in a diatribe superbly delivered by Moayed, Torvald’s narcissism which can’t abide anything hurting the Torvald “brand,” is egregious. His presumption is pathetic for she saved his life; he wouldn’t exist but for her.
Herzog’s spare dialogue reveals how loathsome he is in the last scene when Nora tells him she expected him to take the blame for her mistake and she would have killed herself to stop him. It is laughable when he says he would do anything for her, but he “won’t do that.” With conviction speaking for the entire tribe, Moayed states, “No man sacrifices his dignity for the person he loves.” Nora counters, “Hundreds of thousands of women have done that.” When Torvald begs her to stay for the children, he is the weak, despicable coward. The inconsequential children will be cared for by their Nanny Anne-Marie (Tasha Lawrence).
Nora allows Torvald’s toxic masculinity to forge the chains which she uses to bind herself in the confines of a paternalistic culture that supports attitudes about “the little wife,” Meanwhile, his little “birdy” lacks a being and ethos apart from him. The only freedom, identity and empowerment Chastain’s Nora will ever receive is one she fashions for herself. This, she ironically and joyously enforces at the play’s conclusion.
How are such incredible performances by Chastain, Moayed and the others so beautifully shepherded? Lloyd economizes to the essence of thought in the lines reworked by Herzog. The evocative minimalism heightens the play’s timelessness and draws into crystal clarity the subtle, “loving” oppressions and fantasies men and women (or whatever gender relationships) rely on to sustain power dynamics in their coupling. Without underlying truth and honesty to bolster the relationship and weather horrific storms, the illusions become insupportable and the personalities and relationships shatter.
Kudos to all in the creative team I may not have noted previously, including Jon Clark (lighting design) Ben & Max Ringham (sound design) with ominous, haunting music by Ryuichi Sakamoto & Alva Noto and dance choreography by Jennifer Rias. For tickets go to their website https://adollshousebroadway.com/
‘Crumbs From the Table of Joy’ Keen Company’s Revival of Lynn Nottage is a Must-See
From the excellent selection of music that fills the auditorium before Crumbs From the Table of Joy begins, to Ernestine Crump’s (Shanel Bailey) summation of the future after the roiling events with her family subsides, the Keen Company’s fine revival of Nottage’s play endears us. The playwright’s simplicity focuses on the hardships and relationship dynamics of a single father and two teenage daughters migrating from the Jim Crow South to a Brooklyn recovering from the vagaries of WW II. Directed by Colette Robert, the heartfelt, lyrical production runs with one intermission at Theatre Row until April 1. It is a must-see for its superb performances and incisive, sensitive and coherent direction.
Ernestine is our guide through the year-long experiences negotiating her mom’s death and the family trials without their beloved mother to seamlessly make their lives easier. Their mom is intensely missed by all, especially Godfrey Crump (Jason Bowen) who yearns for companionship and tries to suppress his grief by joining up with Father Divine’s Peace Mission fellowship. Ernestine’s poetic recollections of the grieving time and the year of transformation, reveal a witty, talented raconteur. Wise beyond her years, she makes the audience her confidante to reveal the frightening, unfamiliar city and “romantic Parisian apartment” which sister Ermina (Malika Samuel) calls ugly. Occasionally, she calls up in her imagination scenes as she’d like her life to be, which the actors show with humorous results. Then the unfortunate reality encroaches, and what she wishes dissolves to what is.
The family are fishes out of water in an alien environment that never seems welcoming. The Brooklyn schools put Ermina in a lower grade. The students ridicule their country braids and home made dresses sewn with love. Generally they are treated with disdain and indifference. Surrounded by Jewish neighbors who remain aloof in their whiteness, they dp become friendly with upstairs neighbors who ask them to be their Shabbos goys.
They envy the elderly Levys, who seem joyful and full of laughter as they listen to radio and watch their TV programs. On the other hand Godfrey denies Ernestine and Ermina any entertainments on Sundays. Godfrey is an adherent of Father Divine’s principles which require sobriety and living abstemiously with few pleasures except Father Divine’s holy word. Thus, Ernestine’s misery is acute. but she overcomes her upset through humor and irony. Nottage bonds us to her heroine because of her alertly sage descriptions and authenticity, which never devolves into self pity. To support her dad and sister whom she loves, she keeps her own counsel and studies hard to finish high school. A senior she becomes engrossed with making her graduation dress by hand, working her seamstress skills. Hers will be the celebration of the first family member to receive a diploma.
While Ernestine applies herself in school, Ermina, who is 15-years old, fights her way into the social set and eventually becomes interested in boys. To establish that she won’t take sass from anyone, Ermina has her first successful fight and brings home the spoils of war in her pockets: a handful of greasy relaxed hair and a piece of grey cashmere sweater.
For his part their dad weeps, works nights at his job at the bakery, and loyally follows Father Divine. He counts on the minister to help him heal from the agonizing loss of his wife. Ernestine tells us that Father Divine has so enamored Godfrey that to be closer to him, he moved them to New York where he mistakenly thinks Father Divine lives because of a return address on the newsletter he receives as a subscriber. Their dad believes Divine’s “wisdom” is from God and he adheres to Divine’s principles to live cleanly, without alcohol or dancing or drugs, and be as devoted as a monk with celibacy as a badge of honor. Ernestine quips that this behavior is embraced by Godfrey, who never went to church or tipped his hat to a lady before they moved to Brooklyn. As for the other behaviors she doesn’t mention, we assume he did them all before their mother died.
Their home life revolves around Father Divine as their father attempts to become more spiritual and understand as much as possible under Divine’s tutelage which he seeks as he writes letters to him asking God’s advice to traverse this rough time in a bigoted environment of white people. That it was worse in the South doesn’t quite register and Nottage doesn’t make it a point. What she does indicate is that Godfrey doesn’t note the differences. For her part Ernestine appreciates that she is able to sit between two white girls touching shoulders in a movie theater, where this is not possible in a Jim Crow South which we infer from her excitement and enthusiasm. Also, she and Ermina like their nice neighbors upstairs who give them quarters for turning on the lights and the TV which they sometimes get to watch. However, to Godfrey, “white people” are a universal stereotype to be avoided and mumbled about.
Ironically, Ernestine points out his hypocrisy about selective criticism. He accepts Father Divine’s choice of a white wife to be another perfection of Godliness. Ernestine, who distrusts Father Divine, points out the difference between the God-like, elite Divine’s privilege to have a white wife, yet criticize white people to his Black followers. Meanwhile, her dad is just a poor Black man who sucks up a few crumbs from under the table of his life, which appears a drudgery especially with no woman at his side.
Enter Lily Ann Green (Sharina Martin) their mom’s deceased sister, who blows in unannounced, with values contrary to Father Divine/Godfrey and behaviors which upset Godfrey and put him on edge. Ernestine is thrilled she is there, even though Lily crashes with them, is completely self-absorbed and pushes her communistic beliefs wherever she goes,which is why she can’t hold a job. Interestingly, Nottage floats the two disparate philosophies which were to bring salvation to the Black society in America in the 1950s as sold and marketed by both: religion and the communist party.
Both preachers and communist leaders embraced the African American cause and, at their most egregious, exploited it for their own use. When Ernestine uses communist ideas in an essay that she hears Lily spout (this was during Senator Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare) her teacher is in an uproar. Likewise, Lily Ann ends up compromising Godfrey’s situation at work. Ernestine is forced to apologize as is Godfrey, who argues with Lily about not pushing communism vociferously to his daughters and others. He believes she is only making trouble. Though Lily Ann is interested in Godfrey and makes a play for him, he rejects her because he doesn’t agree with her politics and she dislikes Father Divine.
When the circumstances between them explode, Godfrey takes off a few from the family in frustration. During this respite, he meets Gerte Schulte (Natalia Payne) who emigrated from Germany after the war. Like Godfrey she is desperate for companionship and looking for someone to take care of her. Godfrey opens his heart and shares his circumstances. When he discusses Father Divine, she is receptive and together they seem to meld because of Gerte’s flexibility and charm. She is the antithesis of Lily Ann’s loose lifestyle, political determinism and stubbornness in having the upper hand with men.
Where Lily Ann is a catalyst and mentor for Ernestine and Ermina, Gerte becomes the catalyst to change their lives and split them apart. Nottage leaps her play’s action quickly forward when Godfrey brings Gerte home to introduce her to his daughters and Lily Ann. With her seductive, sweet charms, Gerte ingratiates herself into Godfrey’s life, moving herself from girlfriend to wife in a matter of a few days. The siblings are shocked as is Lily Ann. Godfrey expects all of them to live together and accept Gerte as his new wife. The results are not only humorous, they are necessary for Ernestine’s and Godfrey’s growth, as well as Lily Ann’s movement away from the dream of settling down with her sister’s husband.
As Ernestine Crump, Shanel Bailey is a phenomenon. Her narration is on-point, sensitive, nuanced and heartbreaking, especially at the end when she discusses what happens to each of the family members. Mindful of the narrative’s lovely poetic phrases, Bailey travels forward in character portraying Ernestine’s feelings in active dialogue with her dad, Lily Ann and Gerte, then seamlessly transfers to narrating her ironic perspective of them with grace. Bailey is winning and the production which hinges on her broad acting talents is strengthened with her brilliance of authenticity.
Though all of the ensemble shines, held together through Robert’s fine direction, another standout is Natalia Payne’s Gerte. Her accent is near perfect as a a German swanning through English. Payne makes Gerte likeable in her color blindness and utter humanity, as she forges a path for herself after the war. Though Nottage doesn’t fill in much of her backstory, we see she is a charming operator with resilience and an ability to read and understand situations, a survivalist. She and Godfrey end up with each other as a mutual benefit and by the end of the play, they move toward the intimacy and companionship they seek and need.
Malika Samuel’s Ermina is a breath of joyful fresh air. Her role is an addendum. It is a shame that she doesn’t have more dialogue for her funny, bright personality is winsome and the relationship Samuel and Bailey effect together rings with authenticity.
Nottage’s mouthpiece for her ideas, Lily Ann, is the most difficult of the characters to like because underneath her rhetoric, she is the most evasive. Though we attempt to infer the subtext of her character, Nottage doesn’t give us much to go on past what she stands for and says she believes in. However, her actions speak louder than her words and when Ernestine attempts to find the Harlem location of the communist party, the address that Lily Ann gives her doesn’t ring true. As Lily Ann, Sharina Martin is tough, manipulative, seductive and open-hearted with the sisters. She also layers Lily Ann’s personality so that we are wary that she is fronting and not delivering the truth to the family as she should be.
Jason Bowen’s Godfrey is spot-on believable and inhabits the role of the father desperate for answers in a world whose corrupt values make no sense except to be an incalculable frustration. His faith in Father Divine is believable to the point where we want Divine to be real. If he is duping Godfrey, who is vulnerable and heartbroken, it is a bitter and enraging Black on Black exploitation, skirting criminality. Because we empathize with Bowen’s Godfrey, we want the best for him. As Ernestine does we question his weak desperation falling for Gerte and marrying her so quickly. However, both are so needy. In the last scene Ernestine notes that Godfrey’s celibacy ends when Gerte and he make up after fighting. Bowen and Natalia Payne convey a roller coaster of emotions in their last scene together.
Kudos to the Keen Company’s creative team who bring together Colette Robert’s vision of the other 1950s America and how to prosper in spite of it. Creatives include Brendan Gonzales Boston’s spare, functional period scenic design, Johanna Pan’s costume design, Anshuman Bhatia’s lighting design, Broken Chord’s sound design and Nikiya Mathis’ wig design.
Crumbs from the Table of Joy continues until April 1 at Theatre Row. For tickets go to their website: https://www.keencompany.org/crumbsfromthetableofjoy
‘The Fire That Took Her,’ The Judy Malinowski Documentary at Athena Film Festival
The Judy Malinowski story by filmmaker Patricia Gillespie which screened at Athena Film Festival with a filmmaker Q and A afterward is like other women’s stories that involve abuse by heinous and monstrous men. One in four women in the nation suffer some form of emotional and physical abuse and violence from their partners or spouses.
In the Fire That Took Her, Judy Malinowski’s story is particularly egregious. The 31-year-old mother of two was in an abusive relationship with a man with a criminal history. After an argument, he doused her with gasoline, then burned her alive. This story separates from most women’s stories in its incredible and heartbreaking outcome that produced a landmark case and laws in the right direction helping women abused by men. After her death Judy’s video testimony about her murder was played before judge and jury and helped to sentence murderer Michael Slager to life without parole, which Judy felt was just. He would have received the death penalty if he had pleaded innocent, but his defense attorney insisted he plead guilty in case Judy died of her horrific injuries. She did.
Gillespie’s amazing work, which she also produced, chronicles a portrait of this brave, Franklin County Ohio woman told in video clips of her childhood, archived family photos and interviews with her galvanizing mom Bonnie Bowes, her sister Danielle Gorman and Judy’s two daughters Kaylyn and Maddie. In these comprehensive videos, the family relates their feelings about Judy, emphasizing that she did well in school and she was a social butterfly growing up. Her situation started to go downhill after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and unbeknownst to her became addicted to pain medication. After she met Slager, she fell apart because she used heroin to take the place of Oxycontin prescribed to her after her surgeries. When the doctors cut her off Oxycontin, her use of heroin instigated by Michael Slager as a control feature of their abusive relationship began.
Through interviews principally with Bonnie Bowes and sister Danielle, Gillespie unravels the story. Slager became Judy’s “go-to” drug guy and sometimes paid for heroin to keep her addicted and close. The relationship grew so abusive that she became afraid of him. The day he attacked her, he was driving her to rehab where she was actually going to escape him and be safe. He knew it and most probably, it enraged him. When he insinuated himself on her to take her to rehab, as a weakness, so often found in abusive relationships between women and their partners, she allowed Slager to drive her to rehab. It was the last time she was to see life under normal circumstances ever again.
Bonnie Bowes and Judy’s sister Danielle during this segment profiling Judy discuss Slager and Judy’s toxic relationship. Slager manipulated and controlled her using with the drugs and “got off” on the power he felt as a result. The mother and sister give an account of the Judy’s deteriorating state of mind and physical condition, which was not only emblematic of the emotional abuse she was experiencing, but it was evidence of his negativity and condemnation which exacerbated her depression, low self-esteem and fear of him. To say their relationship was the antithesis of beneficial is an understatement. Though Slager’s attack on her was beyond calculation, he gained power through his sadism and keeping her under his own surveillance using her drug dependence. And when she tried to disengage or hide from him, he always found a way back to her.
In the segments where Gillespie explores Judy’s condition in the hospital, she uses commentary from interviews with the nurse who took care of her. Stacy Best describes burn wounds as the most horrifically painful to overcome. She discusses how the hospital gave probability stats on burn patients based upon the proportion of their body that was burned. When Judy came in, she was burned over 95% of her body. Her prognosis was very poor and they didn’t expect her to live. Judy continually amazed Best and those medical staff who took care of her. Best lifts up Judy as a strong, courageous woman and affirms that Judy’s fight to remain alive through the trial and presentation of video testimony that would convict Slager was miraculous.
Considering that she was in a coma for many months through her many surgeries and skin grafts, that she lived for two years after the attack was a testament to her extraordinary will and bravery. Best saw how Judy endured the psychological and physical trauma that she had to face each day she woke up to an unrecognizable face and searing, screaming pain coursing through her body. Nevertheless, she pushed through each day to become the integral witness to Slager’s felonious assault trial which moved to a murder trial after she died. The filmmaker uses salient film clips of the trial in her documentary.
At the beginning of the documentary outlining Slager’s fiery attack, Gillespie relies on interviews with Detective Chad Cohagen. He describes watching the ATM videos which captured a cinema verite account of of Slager’s diabolical, murderous assault on Judy at a Speedway gas station. Cohagen says how he couldn’t get the scenes out of his mind and was haunted by their remembrance which indicated the brutality and hatefulness of Slager’s violence. The ATM videos were used at the Slager trials and provided the prosecution with the evidence of Slager’s behavior. Importantly, they confirmed that he was lying about how the fire occurred which he said was an accident. He insisted (Gillespie includes this video of Slager in a hospital bed spouting his innocence) that he didn’t intentionally burn Judy. He claimed when she asked him to light her cigarette, somehow in doing that, she was ignited. That Judy would even ask to have an open flame around her while she was drenched in gasoline whose fumes can ignite, places the blame on Judy and makes her appear the provocative aggressor and Slager the victim of her suicidal request.
Misogyny always places the blame on women for the violent acts men do to them. “They made me do it,” becomes a common refrain: from “she wanted it dressed like that,” to it was “an accident that she tripped down the stairs and broke open her skull.” The likelihood in a relationship filled with violence and abuse is that the man once more violated his partner. Oftentimes, women cover up men’s abusive physical behavior out of humiliation. That the men instigate this pattern with women, who minimize it, reveals the likelihood that there will especially be an attempt to to cover up a violent action if the result is death.
Throughout her documentary, Gillespsie refers to the ATM videos. In them we see Judy has an argument with Michael Slager during which she throws a cup of soda on him. His retaliation, psychotically out of proportion to her soda throwing, is to get a gasoline canister from the back of his truck, then douse Judy with the gasoline starting from the top of the head and down her back. After some seconds elapse, he ignites her and there is an explosion of flame with Judy struggling under the conflagration and begging for help.
Gillespie explores Detective Cohagen’s examination of Slager’s lies about intent which would help to get him off for first degree murder as to motive. The filmmaker also includes clips of the prosecution’s and Slager’s defense attorney Bob Krapence. Their discussion centers around Slager’s innocence versus willfully, knowingly, intentionally lighting her on fire to punish her for throwing soda on him. According to Krapence, Slager didn’t mean to harm Judy. The fact that he poured gasoline over her starting from her head wasn’t enough of an intent. The live flame was. And the video gives proof that he was not innocent about the open flame. Gillespie has law enforcement give a shot by shot explanation which confirms Judy’s testimony that she recorded in a deposition in the hospital before she died. Certainly, her injuries confirm what the video shows which is Slager’s intent to torture her.
Slager also lied about when he got a fire extinguisher to put out the flames, which he says he did immediately which proves his intent was to do no harm. However, the ATM video shows that it was only until a Good Samaritan bystander who witnessed his actions and screamed for help returned him to a consciousness of his own guilty actions. Then, he got a fire extinguisher and put out the fire that engulfed the woman that he said he loved. Prior to the bystander he waited and ignored Judy’s cries for help, watching her immolation.
The ATM videos were key pieces of evidence. In her interviews, Bonnie Bowes states she was in shock, finding it difficult to believe such an action could be done by human hands. Each of the subjects that Gillepsie interviews defines Slager’s actions to be reprehensible and beyond logic. Even Michael Slager’s defense attorney Bob Krapence, who futilely tries to contend that Michael didn’t mean to do Judy harm admits to Gillespsie in an interview that the film showing Slager’s actions is practically impossible to overcome. Thus, he leads Slager to take a guilty plea, knowing the possibility that Judy will die and he will be convicted of murder.
Judy’s deposition, taken in the last months of her life by the prosecution, was done with little pain medication. Thus, her agonized testimony is delivered in excruciating pain because prosecutors didn’t want it to be interpreted by the defense that the pain meds made her a euphoric liar. Gillespie includes the video taped deposition in her documentary. In the deposition Judy states how Slager’s eyes turned black and he was a personification of evil. Clearly, Slager’s prior record which goes on for pages indicates a personality of control and criminality. That he was not stopped before this event is a testament to the ineffective justice system and law enforcement. That the police didn’t focus on Slager as capable of such an act even though Judy repeatedly told them he was going to kill her and had to go in hiding from him indicates that law enforcement, as in many instances with violence toward women, doesn’t take domestic abuse and the threats to kill as seriously as it should.
Patricia Gillespie intersperses the interviews by the subjects with the trial video of the judge, Slager with his attorney and his family’s upset at the verdict of life without parole.The sentence of life without parole was what Judy wanted for him before she passed away. She didn’t want him to get the death penalty. Ironically, Judy was more merciful to him than he was to her which is one aspect of her personality which the superb documentary The Fire That Took Her reveals. Another aspect is how even after her death, she still is exerting her influence on the laws in Ohio and the federal jurisprudence system with Judy’s Foundation established by Judy’s family.
The maximum sentence that Slager would have received in Ohio was 11 years behind bars. While she was still alive, with her mother and family, Judy helped Ohio representatives pass a bill into law that would make assaults like Slager’s come with longer prison sentences for violent criminals who intentionally disfigure their victims by using accelerants to set them on fire. Prior to Judy’s campaign to get the law passed, a car had the same rights as a woman. One could light a car on fire and for that receive 11 years behind bars. What is a human being worth? Under the law the same value as a car. This is an egregious example of the justice system that doesn’t work.
Ohio’s HB 63, a.k.a. Judy’s Law, passed in May 2017, just a month before Judy’s death. Judy’s Foundation currently is working to federalize the Ohio law stiffening sentences and penalties so that victims are worth more than a car.
This is a vital documentary. Gillespie highlights the horrific permissiveness in the justice system that continually fails women when dealing with violent crimes committed against them. What Judy Malinowski had to do was die and leave testimony taken under horrifically painful circumstances to make sure her killer received the sentence she felt he deserved. Judy’s Law is a step in the right direction. However, folkways in this nation in many states which uplifted paternalism and viewed women with no rights as men’s chattel die hard. Gillespie points this out in the film’s themes which reveal the mistreatment of women has far reaching effects on the families, individual women and culture at large. That Big Pharma was an integral but hidden part of that mistreatment and abuse is another indictment found in the documentary.
This is one to see. It is a spur for us to continue to fight the good fight and to speak out and take agency and power when violent abuse and mistreatment is ignored and/or the perpetrators shielded. Judy Malinowski did not die in vain. As a force for goodness and Light, she lives on in the work being done with Judy’s Foundation.
You can see it streaming on your favorite channels.
‘Elyria,’ by Deepa Purohit, a Gujarati Diaspora in Ohio, Review
The gorgeously vibrant sarees and salwar kameez take center stage as the characters spin and move exotically to traditional garba music. This is a festival celebration by Gujarati diasporans and other Indians who have found their way to Elyria, Ohio by 1982, the setting of the the titular play by Deepa Purohit. Currently in its World Premere at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Off Broadway Linda Gross Theater until March 19th, Elyria is incisively directed by Awoye Timpo and runs with one intermission. .
At its most powerful, Elyria captures the cultural nuances and shifting values gradually shaping the diasporans as they migrate from Kenya to London to Elyria. Through stylization and minimal, almost expressionistic set design, the play’s central tenet, how the past shakes itself into the present, unfolds in the imaginations of the characters, as they visualize their past interactions in flashbacks, which inform and drive their present behaviors.
Elyria never descends completely into a melodrama of a threesome gone awry. This is because of the director’s elusive suggestion of the principals’ younger versions of themselves, portrayed by Mahima Saigal, Avanthika Srinivasan and Sanskar Agarwal, in flashbacks symbolically staged with accompanying music. The wistful compositions by Neel Murgai convey timber and moment. They are especially effective in the first act and in the flashbacks. For it is the nuance and surrealism of the past which lift Elyria beyond the mundane. As a result the evocative scenes present a dream-state atmosphere, like a series of meditations through which we intuit that Dhatta (Gulshan Mia) and Vasanta (Nilanjana Bose) make peace with themselves and each other by the play’s end.
Into the celebration of dance and happy festivities, Vasanta emerges on the dance floor to confront Dhatta and briefly move with her as they share awkward, stilted greetings. We anticipate from their encounter that they have known each other in another time and place, as it turns out when they were growing up together in Kenya. Though the contrast between the two women is not apparent initially, after they have additional encounters, we learn that Dhatta comes from an upper class strata of Gujarati society and Vasanta comes from a family with little means. As the play gradually unfolds, we learn that traditional cultural folkways bleed into the relationships and interactions of the characters, defining their social positions, identities and behaviors.
Without slamming rhetorical intrusions into the love triangle which developed elsewhere and ended after Dhatta married Charu (Bhavesh Patel) the playwright gradually reveals the surreptitious bonds among the characters, using Vasanta as the catalyst. Though she promised she wouldn’t, Vasanta follows Dhatta and Charu all the way to Elyria to confront them about Rohan (Mohit Gautam) who is the child of Vasanta and Charu’s love relationship. Dhatta has told Rohan that she is not his birth mother, but she is his mother forever. Rohan tells his college friend Hassanali (Omar Shafiuzzaman) that he plans to locate his birth parents after he and Hassanali graduate from college. Hassanali, a self-proclaimed computer genius, promises that he will help Rohan locate them on the “Interweb.”
Two ironies immediately present themselves. Rohan and Hassanali will be searching globally on the nascent and clunky forerunner of the internet whose communication protocols were not yet standardized (the internet was born in 1983). Ironically, Rohan’s birth parents are in his backyard and he could know them if someone would just “spill the beans.” However, revealing the secret is a monumental endeavor for the one carrying it, a happening more far flung then landing a spaceship on Neptune.
But even mountains move and an upset Vasanta finds the means financially with her hairdresser skills to make it to Elyria, supporting charming, con man husband Shiv (Sanjit De Silva) to proclaim her truth and see her grown-up child. Thus, the forward momentum of Purohit’s delicate unfolding plot complication unravels and destroys Dhatta’s world.
The secret is not revealed to Rohan during the play. Rohan believes that he was adopted by both Charu and Dhatta. It is his misfortune that he never receives the information that Charu is his real father with his mother’s childhood friend Vasanta as his birth mother. Dhatta is responsible for sharing the information that she promised Vasanta she would share. She doesn’t because she can’t; she is afraid. She knows that Charu loved Vasanta more, but until she begins to reconcile her past younger self with her older self’s experience, she can’t confront her husband about that love or the child it produced. The play is the revelation of the truth about Rohan and how it has impacted the characters and their love of themselves. Until they confront the truth, the guilt and self-loathing they’ve experienced keeping secrets from each other fester inside their souls and psyches.
At the heart of the complications, emotional problems and self-revulsion that each of the characters feel, are Indian cultural folkways. These (arranged marriages, economic status, paternalism) have oppressed both Vasanta and Dhatta and have damned Charu to a life of remote isolation from his son and his wife, as he perfunctorily performs his role as a father and husband. Indeed, Dhatta has devoted all of her love to Rohan and has unconsciously closed out Charu. He accuses her of foiling their marriage and giving all her attention to Rohan in a dynamic scene where Dhatta finally is able to tell him she knows about Vasanta. Admitting that she has raised up his son from a woman he still loves clears the air. On the other hand the truth heaps recriminations on Charu for clearly Dhatta is the better person, despite his accusations that accepting Rohan and raising him as her own son has negatively impacted their marriage.
Eventually, we discover their past and the traditions that bound them and still bind them making Charu culpable in what has happened. Years before Elyria and his marriage to Dhatta, Charu and Vasanta were lovers. However, their future marriage was doomed by her parent’s financial status and inability to pay the high dowry price required. Thus, Charu must marry someone financially well-off, in an economically viable arranged marriage of which his parents and Dhatta’s parents approve. Vasanta keeps secret her pregnancy and when Rohan is born, she delivers her son to Dhatta, keeping the baby with at least one birth parent, that is, if Dhatta agrees to the secrecy, which Vasanta eventually wants to be divulged to everyone.
Of course human beings don’t keep their promises, as we learn from the brief conversations between Bose’s Vasanta and Mia’s Dhatta. Dhatta never tells Charu she knows about his love for Vasanta. In the complication of generously swallowing dishonor and raising her husband’s former lover’s child, the secret lays dormant and calcifies her marriage and relationship with Charu. Interestingly, they aren’t able to have another child. To what extent this is because of the burden of secrets that Dhatta carries is unclear. However, when Vasanta’s stalks Dhatta and Charu to Elyria, she, too, breaks the promise that she would never pursue them or interfere in their marriage. Spending the time and money to hunt them down, then dragging along her unsuspecting, career failed husband Shiv to Elyria, we recognize how high the stakes are for her to reconcile with her son and former lover.
Both women must receive satisfaction; one to remain in darkness, the other to expose Rohan to the light. The result is devastaing and wonderful. The upheaval at the top of the play which sets in motion a dynamic that could have unfolded in a more forceful way is not the intent of Purohit’s subtle, delicate work, which meanders and flows until a final truth emerges on the brink of revelation. Who will be the first to bravely speak it out?
There are many themes in Elyria. One is an indictment of the mores whose strictures create problems for families, binding individual in fear. Charu is a traditional, conservative man who refuses to marry Vasanta though he loves her. He chooses to stay with his parent’s ways, hurting himself and all involved. Adhering to these folkways threatens to derail Rohan’s circumstances in the future because Charu wants Rohan to marry a woman of economic means, matching if not exceeding his own lifestyle as a surgeon. In one scene Charu attempts to steer Rohan toward beginning to get serious about meeting a girl he will marry. However, in his interactions with Hassanali, we discover Rohan is attracted to men. Unless the family is truthful and frees itself from such bondages, more trouble, pain and sorrow will follow them.
Kudos to Elyria‘s creative team which includes Parijat Desai (choreography) Jason Ardizzone-West (sets) Sarita Fellows (costumes) Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew (lighting) Amatus Karim-Ali (sound) Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew (projections) Nikiya Mathis (hair design) Neel Murgai (compositions). Praise to the ensemble, who are vibrant and on-point, and the director whose vision brings Purohit’s work to life and endears us to her characters’ movement toward reconciliation.
For tickets go to the Atlantic Theater Company website https://atlantictheater.org/
‘The Trees,’ Agnes Borinsky’s Fantasy of Stasis, a Review
The abstract white, platformed set design (Parker Lutz) appears stark and majestic with arched rectangular pillars proscribing a curvilinear playing area center and downstage. The set is a symbolic representation of a park, interestingly absent any greenery. It’s a fine space to present a metaphoric fantasy like Agnes Borinsky’s The Trees, directed by Tina Satter, currently at Playwrights Horizons.
The Trees opens with the possibilities of a unique, mysterious conflict, and ends in medias res, as Borinsky mines the central conceit adding various layers and meandering back and forth with no seeming resolution, though there is one that is abstract and philosophical. As the playwright suggests she is wont to do, The Trees avoids a developed plot. It concerns the logistics of arranging the movement of players and supplies around the static protagonists whose human condition changes at the top of the play.
Brother David (Jess Barbagallo) and sister Sheila (Crystal Dickinson) who is visiting from Seattle, return home from a party playfully drunk. Appreciative of the night’s beauty and environs, they decide to stay outside and spend some enjoyable time in the park adjacent to their family home, which they’ve inherited from their father, who recently died. Overnight, a cataclysm occurs without rhyme or reason that neither we nor the characters are a party to. It involves a mega change that defies description.
Absurdly, David and Sheila awake the next morning in horrified shock to find themselves rooted to the soil, their feet immobilized and frozen in place. Theirs is an unexplained miraculous transmogrification from flesh to plant matter, though they retain cellular structures of both humans and trees. They refer to their tree selves as humans and identify as humans, however, physically in defiance of reality, they are also trees.
In this hyper-state of existence, the siblings learn to overcome the conflict of former identities abutting their new beings. Gradually, their consciousness expands. They accept their new lives, but cannot move nor take care of their past identities, activities and relationships. For Sheila this means having to give up her life and work in Seattle. For David this entails perhaps never having sex again. Sheila reveals a nature that is flexible, accepts, goes with the flow, makes the best and follows all the cliches people use in life when there is nothing they can do to change things. However, David resists and is not happy with “what is.” In fact after David’s transformation, his old lover Jared (Sean Donovan) throws him over for someone else, though they still remain friends and Jared joins the community which sprouts up to nurture and care for Sheila and David. David learns to accept, but he always complains and resists before he settles into the status quo.
The playwright asks us to suspend our disbelief by suggesting anything is possible in her her fairy tale. In the twinkling of a few hours worlds can come and go, consciousnesses can be raised and a new perspective and ethos might be a pleasant, happy experience that exists in and of itself for the purpose of whimsy, if we are open-minded. Indeed and perhaps.
This appears to be one of Borinsky’s themes in The Trees. The circumstances are because they are and exist despite all defiance to science and logic. For that reason alone, The Trees is worthy of presentation. Understanding it as an allegory of human experience and the human condition, one is able to translate the metaphors and reactions of the protagonists to the unusual, whether in the play’s instance they have turned into a tree or in another instance, someone has been turned into deteriorating flesh through disease, drugs and their side effects.
Acutely directed by Tina Satter, who shepherds the actors, all do a yeoman’s job with the fantastic elements and fluid happenings that take place representationally over a seven year period. This is especially so of Crystal Dickinson and Jess Barbagallo, who make sense of the absurd, as we watch how Sheila and David confront their new genetic transformation.
Fortunately, when word gets around, friends help the tree/humans with food and other necessities. No logical sensibility is relayed as to why they need human food, why they need clothing, etc. They are immobilized in the trans-state of human/tree and achieve a status quo state of being in the park, where events transpire around them, where people enter and join them in community, while they are stuck and going nowhere. All seamlessly coheres as the thrust of Borinsky’s conceit. With these friends, neighbors and strangers, David and Sheila might live forever. Certainly, trees can live longer than human beings, if their environment is not undone by commercialization, fire and development. These possible undoings do threaten David and Sheila’s community as we see later in the play.
The fairy-tale elements of The Trees are heavily fantastical and provide some of the humor and most of the conundrum of illogical occurrences as David and Sheila grow a network of friends, who appreciate how they have embraced a back to nature, celebration of the earth lifestyle as tree/humans.
Those who visit feel an affinity to the siblings and become friends. These include Julian (Nile Harris) who makes a documentary on the siblings and Tavish (Pauli Pontrelli) who saves David and Sheila’s grandmother from a fire. As their Grandmother, Danusia Trevino speaks the entire role in Polish and references the mystical elements of David and Sheila’s “back to nature” movement as an inherent part of their ancestry. Others include Norm (Ray Anthony Thomas) a gay man cruising in the park, and importantly, Saul (Max Gordon Moore) a rabbi who believes in the miracle of their transformation by God and eventually marries Sheila and has Ezra (Xander Fenyes) with her. Lastly are friend Charlotte (Becky Yamamoto) and Sheryl (Marcia Debonis) a member of the Rabbi’s former congregation, whose heartfelt description of her Dad quickens Sheila in remembrance of her father.
The interesting villain who actually joins the community of friends begins as Vendor (Sam Breslin Wright). He hawks chips, pretzels and water to park visitors. As Wright’s Vendor ingratiates himself to the community eventually, he presents plans which would protect their human/tree status. Ironically, as quickly as they morphed into trees, he becomes the developer whose thrust is to build a mall in the park that will house David and Sheila. When the community that initially accepted the Vendor’s plans come to the final decision about the mall, there is another magnificent change. Sheila, David and their community decide that they don’t want a mall in the park. They want the park to remain undeveloped.
In a superb rant decrying how their decision is disloyal and has caused him time and money (he has been giving them checks for their support) Wright’s Vendor expertly magnifies all the hope and despair of progress and the destruction of land and environment for a questionable result.
The community and specifically David and Sheila have lost his friendship which Sheila is sanguine about, a reflection of her nature. She has been flexible about all that life and the situation has thrown at them. When David questions what will happen, Borinsky’s main theme comes to the fore. Love and community have been sustained by their transformation into trees, as they have provided an ecosystem that gives and receives, is nurtured and has nurtured. David counters that a mall will destroy what they’ve built with love. However, Sheila reminds him that nothing is certain. Truly, when they unwittingly began their fantastical adventure, goodness and love abounded from it because they accepted it instead of calling up woodcutters to chop off their legs.
Though at times the play appears illogical, the characterizations as uneven as some of them are give the play a quirky and exotic rhythm. In appearing to go “nowhere” the playwright takes her characters to an open ended conclusion which emphasizes love, community and the inability to know much of anything in the vast future which can turn on a dime overnight. Sometimes, even when malls are being scheduled to be built, they never materialize. And that’s a good thing, especially if the love of the surrounding community has petitioned their demise.
Kudos to the creative team which includes Parker Lutz (scenic design) Enver Chakartash (costume design) Thomas Dunn (lighting design) Tei Blow (sound design) Amanda Villalobos (puppet designer) and Nazareth Hassan (original music). The Trees runs until March 19th. For tickets go to their website https://www.playwrightshorizons.org/tickets-packages/buy-show-tickets/
‘A Bright New Boise’ by Samuel D. Hunter, Sardonic, Devastating and Profound, a Review
In A Bright New Boise, Samuel D. Hunter’s sardonic, dark play about events that take take place in a Hobby Lobby break room, the award-winning playwright (A Bright New Boise, The Whale) acquaints us with characters that may be more alien to our cultural beliefs and economic well being than individuals we might converse with in another country. Acutely directed by Oliver Butler and currently running in its Off Broadway Premiere at the Signature Theatre until March 12th, Hunter and Butler reveal a sometimes funny but mostly tragic, portrait, and a cross-section of another America reflected in the 90 minute play’s characterizations, plot and themes.
Hunter opens the play with protagonist Will (the superb Peter Mark Kendall) who, facing the audience, stands at the side of the road, eyes closed, concentrating. Then, he says one word as if to call into existence, time and place, “something.” Four times he says, “Now.” By the play’s conclusion, we understand his cryptic pronouncement which produces only a vast emptiness and “never works.”
In the second scene we meet the feisty, hyper-organized, store manager Pauline, portrayed by the excellent and humorously volatile Eva Kaminsky. Pauline interviews Will for a sales position in the break room at Hobby Lobby, Boise which in 2010 (the setting) is owned by an Evangelical CEO who runs the company as a Christian organization. During the interview Pauline makes Hobby Lobby’s conservatism clear when she reminds Will, “no unions,” explaining that a Hobby Lobby in Kansas was shut down when employees tried to unionize. The economy is struggling, there is little opportunity for those without a college education and the big box stores like Hobby Lobby are the expansive grand employers of the moment. Thus, the minimum wage that Will readily accepts (under $8.00 an hour) is the best for his circumstances and is an offer he dare not refuse for a reason more important than financial. This, we learn with the introduction of another character in the break room, taciturn teenager Alex (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio).
Will’s apparent emotional dislocation is made clear in Kendall’s superb performance. From his evasive and contradictory responses to Pauline’s questions, we understand he needs money and appears to be in unusual life circumstances because he is unable to give her a reference or emergency contact. However, he is hired so that Pauline can continue to run her “tight ship.” He begins to socially settle in by striking up a conversation about music with Alex who is taking his break and wishes not to be disturbed.
Hunter immediately establishes Will’s additional intentions and enjoins the main conceit of the play, “abandonment” and “loss,” setting in motion the conflicts with a shocking surprise. Spoiler Alert: Will announces he is Alex’s father and he proclaims that Alex was named after him so his real name is also Will. Fortunately, Pauline returns and interrupts Will’s announcement. Simultaneously, the TV whose satellite glitches vie between graphic surgeries and monotonous conversations between two Hobby Lobby male employees, snaps back to the Hobby Lobby’s conversational monotony about how to sell products. And a disturbed Alex walks out as Pauline tries to make a joke most Americans would understand, if they have been culturally plugged in for the last two decades.
However, Will doesn’t get the joke or the celebrity associated with it, and even if he did, Kendall’s Will appears overwhelmed about introducing himself to his son. He could care less about Pauline’s attempt to make him feel comfortable and appears lost in his thoughts about how he will negotiate and respond to the brutal questions from Alex that are sure to come.
Will’s deadened reaction is another clue that ties in to Hunter’s characterization of a hapless, unsound father, whose adopted son he has desperately sought out by getting a job at a Hobby Lobby, instead of using another means to contact him that is less traumatizing. From this first turning point of many, the revelations between and among characters spin out as surprises continue in a grotesque emotional and psychological maze that Alex, Leroy, Alex’s brother (Angus O’Brien) and employee Anna (Anna Baryshnikov) inhabit in the coldly remote, depersonalized break room of the Boise, Idaho Hobby Lobby. The sterile, severely lit space is perfectly ironic as a symbolic setting where they attempt to go to relieve the stress of their job, but end up frantically confronting a hellish swamp filled with regrets from their past. The result exacerbates the demeaned alienation of each of the characters who have lost their way and whose religion is unable to help and in fact makes things worse.
By degrees we learn the backstory of Alex and Will. Instead of clarifying toward comfort in a way to salve emotional hurts, by degrees Alex with stress and strain in his questions puts together the puzzle why Will has come to establish a relationship with him. Eventually, after Will reveals the truth of where he lives, the joy his church gave him and the events which transpired there, Alex appears to forgive him and defend him to his brother Leroy who fears Will has another motive for wanting to see Alex. In a secondary plot to enhance the characterizations, Anna and Will stumble upon each other in a darkened break room after hours, which seems even more sinister (the TV is still on vying between blood and guts and boring Hobby Lobby guys).
Anna sneaks her way in beyond closing hours by hiding in various sections of the huge store unnoticed. We learn she does this to avoid her father and brother’s criticism of her always reading and we get the sense that she is a misfit without a medium to feel comfortable in until she has a few conversations with Will whom she likes. Will is homeless; we eventually learn why and what happened to him. Furthermore, he is afraid to sleep in his car.
Their conversation gives occasion for Will to read parts of his Evangelical “End Times” blog to her, which he intends to make into a novel. Anna is taken up with the notion she has met a writer whose work she likes and she encourages him. It is then we understand the extent of his beliefs and his hope of being taken up in the Rapture (often used as a fund raising tactic by Evangelical Mega Churches) away from the wicked hell that has been perpetrated in the culture and on the earth by sinners who must be saved or perish in damnation. We also understand that he feels he has a purpose in converting people before it’s too late. He tells Alex he has to believe in God because the alternative is terrible. He would have to look at himself as an utter failure as a father, whose triumph is working in Hobby Lobby, while he lives in his car. Will tells Alex, “There are greater things in life. There have to be.”
Will gradually works his way into Alex’s world by asking to hear the song Alex wrote with his friend. He praises some of Alex’s poetry. However, Leroy is incensed about Will after he reads articles about Will’s former church and especially after Alex appears to favor Will over his adoptive family and tells Leroy he is changing his life plans. Leroy lashes out in revenge against Will after Pauline affirmed that it doesn’t matter what people’s personal beliefs are, as long as they are on time and do their jobs. However, Leroy involves Hobby Lobby in his revenge, making it impossible for Will to work there. Leroy and Will’s conflict has broken Pauline’s rule to maintain order as the status quo. After working for four years to make the store profitable and organized, she will not allow their conflict to drag it into the chaos that Will has brought with his presence. (Eva Kaminsky’s affirmation speech about Pauline’s taking the store to profitability earlier in the play is corporately magisterial and humorous.) Thus, Will, the last to be hired will be the first to be fired, aside from the fact that Alex and Leroy’s talents make them indispensable.
How events further evolve are both surprising and expected. However, when Leroy confronts Will about Alex, the result is uncertain and unpredictable. Hunter’s writing is freshly wrought and organic. The characters are well-crafted and their motley and unique differences meld well with each other for maximum tension, which abides throughout. By the conclusion Hunter ties Will’s injunction to God, “Now,” and explores another reason why Will seeks out Alex for comfort in a relationship that is not destined to grow closer or even continue unless Will makes a decision to change.
The play is wonderful on many levels. Hunter allows us to get under Will’s skin and into his soul which is both horrifying and sadly authentically truthful if one has been around certain Evangelical sects for more than a few days. Importantly, though we might not be able to put ourselves in Will’s shoes, Kendall portrays Will with empathy and pathos thanks to Butler’s incisive direction. Thus, we can understand his emotional guilt and torment and his desire to be a better person, the point of his religious journey, which becomes sidelined. The relationships Hunter establishes are woven with heightened drama. Alex feels a misfit and is emotionally traumatized by Will moving on a roller coaster of emotions through to the play’s conclusion. That Will doesn’t consider another way to get in touch with Alex speaks to his inner turmoil and disregard for Alex’s feelings and response. However, Will’s need to see Alex is urgent and has to do with the “Now” that is the final puzzle piece that unfolds in the flashback at the very end.
The terrific and terrifying set design by Wilson Chin and jarring fluorescent lighting and vibrant neon lighting in the road scenes by Jen Schriever are evocative and symbolic. That the appliances (i.e. microwave, VCR, etc.) barely function and little attention is given to popping up the color to make a unique, interesting or warm environment speaks volumes about Hobby Lobby, the employees and Pauline who is the epitome of the loyal, harried worker bee manager. The break room set, props and lighting reference the respect that the corporate officials have for their employees in a nullifying environment that is neither challenging, purposeful or life affirming. Hunter conveys the sense of Big Brother when Eva explains to Will as a blind, deaf and dumb team player that it’s a “pretty great company” that knows how to run a business, because everything is “hooked up to the corporate office.” Then, she cheerfully states, “We can’t even turn the air conditioning on without calling Oklahoma.”
The Hobby Lobby envisioned by the director and playwright and what fuels it, also reflects the nature of the commercial culture that creates consumer robots whose function least of all is a purposefully human one. That Will, Alex and Leroy refer to a job there as something loathsome by which to define oneself is further irony because the store is incredibly profitable, if money is its Christian measure of success as the prosperity gospel likes to portray. That Will has accepted religious rhetoric as his mantle and believes the world needs to be destroyed becomes particularly sardonic considering Hobby Lobby’s function and value system as a Christian organization with tenets about love, forgiveness and acceptance.
Another of the themes of the play is manifest in the characterization of these conservative Christians who are devout, yet are incapable of applying the tenets of the religion to their lives to achieve peace and fulfillment. Along with the themes of abandonment, isolation, and purposelessness that nullifies comes the important irony that Hunter relates at a time (2010) before the religious political movement grew into what it is today in 2023 in the culture wars, book bannings and civil rights curtailments. The hypocrisy, spiritual unhappiness and emptiness tied to a culture that is broken and breaks those who live in it to seek other ways to escape (through the belief of the Rapture) Hunter’s ironic play underscores. The play was humorously prescient then, more frightening now. A Bright New Boise is an ironic expose of the worst of Christian sects’ hold on the minds of those like Will and others.
Kudos to the creative team not mentioned before which include April M. Hickman (costume design) Christopher Darbassie (sound design) Stefania Bulbarella (projection and video design). This is one to see especially for the ensemble work, the fine performances and direction that teased out the actors’ efforts to be spot-on authentic. The creatives did a smashing job to fulfill the director’s vision of A Bright New Boise. For tickets go to their website.
‘The Lost King,’ Athena Film Festival Review of a Superb Film
In the superb hybrid comedy-drama-mystery The Lost King, based on Philippa Langley and Michael Jones’ non-fiction book The King’s Grave: The Search for Richard III (2013), one can see a marvelous Frears film (director) and discover information about Richard III beyond William Shakespeare’s titular play and the Tudor’s 500 +-years-old smear of him. One will also be delighted with fine views of London, Edinburgh, the Edinburgh castle and Mon’s Meg (the Medieval cannon on display). The film, an offering presented at Athena Film Festival 2023, also had a talk-back with a panel of women with journalism and film production backgrounds.
After the screening the panel briefly focused on “Uncovering Stories Lost to History.” Compelling stories that must be told often find them by serendipity. Also discussed were important themes of the film, principally how women have been silenced while men, especially those in academia, have stomped their way around them making mistake after mistake, when they should have had the humility to listen with a collaborative spirit, the hallmark of wisdom.
Written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope The Lost King premiered at Toronto International film Festival and was released in UK cinemas in October. It will be released by IFC in theaters on March 19th and will then be on streaming services.
The film is special for many reasons. First, for its heroine, protagonist Philippa Langley (portrayed by the always incredible Sally Hawkins), who must stand her ground and fight against the male academic establishment, which nearly thwarts the triumphant discovery of the body of King Richard III. But for the will, wisdom and mystical consciousness of Philippa Langley, Frears and screenwriters make crystal clear that the body of Richard III would not have been discovered in the right area. And then, when it was uncovered, pride and the need for the power to “be right” would have ignored and dismissed the remains to be an insignificant personage, instead of the real king whose skeleton revealed the truth of his deformity.
The importance of the film and its themes have been underestimated by critics. Frears emphasizes vital elements about academia and research that unfortunately appear accurate in Philippa Langley’s case. More important than degrees which numb one to institutional group think, power games and cover ups, there is the passion required for historical research and inquiry that can move mountains and land on crucial discoveries. Sometimes the passion becomes an obsession, almost like a divine anointing which is what happens to Philippa, who becomes enamored of the story of Richard III, after she sees a production of Shakespeare’s play and begins to do her own research because the actor who plays the king (Harry Lloyd) elicits sympathy from her.
Philippa asks the right questions on her search, and she collaborates with others as she learns to question what the “experts” and the crackpots alike say. Her passion leads her to fund her own project as an independent researcher. She is not beholden to institutions who “control” history and deem which stories are “worthy” to be told for various reasons. The credibility and viability of well documented, independent, detailed, factual research is supported roundly by this film. Likewise, the corruption and support of shoddy research with an agenda, or skewed research to glean certain results and not others, which occurs in educational institutions dependent upon corporate donors, is excoriated by this film. The latter is a siren song and warning which has been taken to task by the very institution which took acclaim for the project, and sidelined Philippa.
Langley’s journey into information not normally known to the public and which, even historical scholars following established canon find challenging, is exciting. The conceit of Richard III’s spirit moving her is symbolic and profound. Each time the spirit appears, she acts. She joins a society in Edinburgh which believes the same as she, that Richard III was not the usurper of history but was maligned for corrupt purposes by those contending for the throne. Additionally, she discovers that Richard III has never been entombed or properly recognized as a King of England. His reputation of legend is as a wicked murderer of his nephews in the Tower of London. Additional rumors had it that his body either was thrown into the River Soar or buried in the Greyfriars Priory somewhere in Leicester, which was later destroyed by modernization, in a London paved over by roads and buildings in subsequent centuries. Nevertheless, spurred by visions and dreams of the actor who portrayed Richard III as emblematic of the king’s spirit reaching for proper recognition and burial from beyond the grave, she grows determined that perhaps she might locate the burial site of Richard III.
Her research and passion to uncover the grave and other truths about Richard III lead her to lectures where she meets professors, some dismissive of her ideas, others accepting and open to her lack of degrees and passion about discovering Richard III’s grave. An accepting professor she meets is Dr. Ashdown-Hill. He is publishing a genetic genealogical study on a Canadian direct descendant of Richard III’s sister. Ashdown-Hill tells her to look for Richard in open spaces in Leicester. Because of superstition and reverence, old abbeys were preserved after the buildings crumbled; it was unacceptable to build over them. So in open fields or spaces in cities, abbeys most often could be found.
Driven by a mystical sense and intuition, and encouraged by her work with the Richard III Society in Edinburgh, Philippa Langley raises the funds and contacts other professors (archeologists) who at first express it’s a noble idea but decline involvement. Then circumstances change when their funding is cut and they rush to become involved in her project which she commissions and funds, all the while working with the Richard III Society and recording her journey. Following seven and a half years of research and investigation, during which she reads Annette Carson’s Richard III: The Maligned King, she identifies the site of the church and grave and leads the dig, insisting after they ignore the remains in one of three trenches, that they dig in the first trench where she determined intuitively the body was buried. After hours, they proved she was right. Her triumphant discovery was the first of its kind searching for the lost grave of an anointed King of England, by someone who was not an institutional academic.
Though the film takes place over a decade, filmmakers highlight Langley’s obstacles and life’s intrusions, the gradual acceptance and help from her former husband John (Steve Coogan) and the physical difficulties from ME disease and exhaustion Hawkins’ Langley must overcome. A galling noteworthy point emphasized by Langley and screenwriters are the recalcitrant, closed-minded prejudgments by academia who diminish her efforts and lift up their own to the point of gaslighting for their own glory. Naturally, the professors in question dispute the film’s account, though it is indeed on record as an alarming fact that they sought glory, when they held a global press conference to announce “what they had done.”
However, they excluded Philippa Langley’s presence. She wasn’t informed about the press conference. They did not have the grace to invite her to the conference to speak about her commissioning the project, her extensive research, her passion and will to find the site and even her insistence that they not ignore the remains they found, where she said she believed they would be. To not have her present is damning evidence that they intended to minimize her efforts, which comprises a scene in the film. This scene and the ending scenes of the film are superb as Frears shows what the institutional academics celebrate and what Philippa celebrates. Rightly so, Queen Elizabeth had a ceremonial investiture for Philippa and Dr. Ash-Down Hill. Both received an MBE in the 2015 Birthday Honors for “services to the exhumation and identification of Richard III.”
Frears and the screenwriters emphasize this craven disregard of academia for the independently funded research by one who had a much greater passion for truth than those controlled by institutional handlers. But the point is made that there are fine academics, who are unlike those who undeservedly look for glory. With the help of like-minded Dr. Ash-Down Hill, those in the Richard III Society and other independent female researchers like Annette Carson, after 500 years, a lost king has been found.
For more photos and information about the dig and Philippa Langley, go to her website: https://www.philippalangley.co.uk/gallery.html
The film is a triumph and should be shown in universities everywhere. Frears’ heroine breaks through past institutional knowledge whose “guardians” not only repeatedly miss the mark, but intentionally, to maintain their power, botch and blunder investigative research. In this instance and in the record of events, it is at the last minute when, about to be embarrassed by their own stupidity, the individuals barrel in and attempt to take all the credit.
The film is a testament to independent researchers, female pluck and intuitive mysticism, and those men who know when to listen and assist to get the job done. It is also an excoriation of institutional learning and universities, a fount of crass, meretricious commercialism, which sets up undeserved memorials to itself and academics while doing little to uplift their mission. Their mission should be to research, discover and be open to the unbiased, unblemished, uncorrupted paths toward truth and knowledge, not for the riches and notoriety to be garnered.
British archeologist and academic Michael Pitt’s response to a favorable Guardian review of The Lost King, indeed appears to be “protesting too much” when he insists, “Contrary to movie PR and most media coverage, however, its key thread is fiction: the “bubble of academic arrogance” is a fantasy of the film’s anti-intellectual agenda.” What Pitt’s overbroad, misguided opinion fails to note is, it is also possible to be anti-intellectual because one is beholden to those funding one’s research. Thought happens in spite of academia not because of it. An open, collaborative, passionately investigative spirit is what the film uplifts, a practice followed by Philippa Langley. The closed system, the anti-intellectual group think among researchers that takes over institutions when careers are more important than truths, is what the film decries. Bravo! See it on March 19th in NYC.
‘Moving On’ at Athena Film Festival, Starring Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda
Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, whose duo and friendship has been shining in films and TV for decades, work their magic in Paul Weiz’ hilarious comedy Moving On which Athena Film Festival presented in the film’s New York City premiere at Barnard College the third day of the four-day festival. Moving On premiere screened at Toronto Film Festival in September and will be showing in US theaters on March 17th. Athena Film Festival’s Artistic Director and Co-founder Melissa Silverstein also held a talk back via Zoom with director/writer Paul Weiz about the actors, the concept and a humorous take on Malcolm McDowell’s great good will in an always authentic performance playing the villain Howard that audiences love to despise.
Academy Award®-nominated* writer Paul Weitz admitted the conceit to Melissa Silverstein that had been haunted him for a few years before he wrote the film then set out to cast it with Academy Award® winner Jane Fonda and Academy Award® nominee Lily Tomlin. Beware, here comes a spoiler alert. The dialogue, which Weiz says he hears first rather than sees images, entranced him. “I’m going to kill you Howard,” was the phrase which Claire (Fonda is sparky white wig which she chose as revelatory to the character) says to her deceased friend’s widower (a crusty, petulant Malcolm McDowell) at the the funeral. The set-up is humorous as Claire’s Fonda looks angrily determined and McDowell appears both alarmed and annoyed to be so interfered with at a high moment of grieving with guests gathered around. We assume that Claire isn’t actually serious about her threat and perhaps is upset and delivering a quasi chiding threat.
However, when Tomlin’s Evelyn sees Claire and the two estranged friends begin to warm up to each, Claire reveals that her intentions are not only serious, she has thought about how she is going to kill Howard. At this juncture the film becomes a hybrid comedy, mystery, thriller. Will she be able to pull off Howard’s murder without out getting caught which she doesn’t particularly care about? Why does she want to kill Howard? And will Evelyn’s and Claire’s friendship bond once more over Claire’s pursuing revenge, which Evelyn doubts she has the “guts” to do since she never followed through on plans she confided in Evelyn years ago.
How Weiz, Tomlin, Fonda, McDowell and Richard Roundtree who portrays Ralph, Claire’s second husband, unfold the comic, poignant, sardonic and quasi suspenseful series of events to answer the questions makes for an entertaining and LOL romp into relationships, suppressed secrets, estrangements and reunions, truth-telling and love and concern for each other when most needed.
Weiz’s characters are authentic and true-to-life and the actors portray them with specificity and detail down to their costumes which Weiz discussed the actors had a hand in developing. Tomlin’s Evelyn is humorous and ironic, yet poignant as she confronts aging in an Assisted Living Center where she comes and goes as she pleases and eventually brings Claire to, though she is embarrassed about it and in their initial meeting lied telling Claire that she still lived in her adorable house. A former classical cellist who has arthritis and now finds it painful to play, Evelyn also lies about having continued her performances with a symphony. The scene where she attempts to play and can’t is a cruel one and a reminder of aging vicissitudes which have no answer except to endure them.
Weiz devotes time to rounding out both Evelyn and Claire with just enough backstory to spill into the present conflicts they have with each other as well as their interior hurts and difficulties in the decades since they’ve seen each other. For example Evelyn who is gay is friendly with an adorable youngster who is the grandson of one of the clients in the Assisted Living Center. The youngster loves putting on women’s clothes and Evelyn obliged him in a previous encounter while his parents visited his grandfather. Evelyn gives him earrings which he loves wearing and which become a point of contention with his parents later in the film. In a brief encounter with the parents, the youngster and Evelyn, we understand the decades of repression and rejection Evelyn as a gay woman experienced which the youngster’s parents are subjecting him to. Evelyn provides a hug and much needed warmth as they say goodbye with the scowling parents looking on after he returns the earrings to her.
The scene is a powerful one and substantiates the side-plot of how Evelyn as a gay woman for years had to be selective about her friends with whom she could and couldn’t reveal her identity with. Weiz’s fullness, clarity and profound writing strikes many chords about friendship, prejudice and love. And the character a perfect fit for Tomlin humorously reveals that she, too needs to get in on Claire’s revenge on Howard.
Weiz gradually reveals the mystery of why Claire intends to kill Howard. Key in bringing the truth to the fore is the relationship that Claire reestablishes with her former husband Roundtree’s Ralph, who she left because of what Howard did. The scenes between Roundtree’s Ralph and Fonda’s Claire are sensitively acted, enjoyable and humorous. Roundtree and Fonda are classic and modern and Weiz’s direction establishes him as a perceptive, incisive and philosophical humorous who is able to tease out the strengths of his actors to effect superb performances.
Likewise, Weiz shepherds the actors present their characters with spot-on authenticity in the scenes between Tomlin and Fonda in the planning of Howard’s death to the moment when Claire’s Fonda confronts McDowell’s Howard with an incident that occurred between them that changed her life. As we are kept in suspense about the revelations of what happened between them at the point when Claire threatens to kill him, we become shocked at their different responses to the incident. Howard, a reformed alcoholic was drunk and barely remembers what occurred. What he does recall from his different perspective, makes a case that Claire was blowing the situation out of proportion with the “hysterical woman” syndrome. The scene is symbolic, the actors fantastic and the profound meaning historic though the situation is as real as it gets. The writing, the acting and the direction are just great.
As a villain who is an everyman and charming individual, McDowell’s Howard walks the tight-rope of husband, father and lover of his deceased wife with sensitivity humor and complete normalcy. His shock and alarm at Claire’s accusations are humorous, his indignation hysterical. His is the most difficult role because we know the least about him with which to empathize, yet the director and actor make the necessary accommodations to reveal just enough so that the conclusion of the film when all the puzzle pieces are wrapped up is both hysterical and delightful
Weiz in his Q and A with Silverstein commented on the “beatings” that both Fonda and Tomlin delivered to McDowell were humorous if ferocious. And McDowell was “OK” about it. The title Weiz said affirmed that forgiveness, redemption and healing as themes of the film, which Evelyn and especially Claire experience, allow them to move forward with their renewed relationships and different perspectives about their past, key pieces of which would never have happened if they didn’t attend their friend’s funeral and take a stand for the truth publicly. The scene where Tomlin’e Evelyn speaks truth to power at the funeral is priceless and yields something glorious about who she is. Also, Weiz mentioned that governed by the dialogue and voices of the characters he was writing that moved him, once the initial line at the funeral emerged from his consciousness, the characterizations and situations unfolded and he finished the script quickly.
This is an enjoyable, classic film that is more current than the Marvel movies that populate screens globally and whose fantasy sometimes never transcends a puerile audience. Moving On is an exceptional effort by the actors and director and seamlessly entertains with humor, great comedic timing and overall good will. See it in theaters March 17th.
‘The Seagull/Woodstock, NY’ Review
The Seagull by Anton Chekhov is a favorite that receives productions and has been made into films, an opera and ballet performed all over the world. Some productions (with Ian McKellen at BAM in 2007) have been absolutely brilliant. What’s not to love about Chekhov with his dynamic and ironic character interactions, sardonic humor, enthralling conflicts that unspool gradually, then conclude with an ending that explodes and carries with it devastation and heartbreak. These elements cemented in Chekhov’s work since its initial production in 1896 represent what Chekhov himself described as a comedy.
Thomas Bradshaw, an obvious lover of Chekov’s The Seagull, has updated and adapted Chekhov’s work in the world premiere The Seagull/Woodstock, NY presented by The New Group. The playwright, who has previously worked with director Scott Elliott (Intimacy, Burning) has configured the characterizations, entertainment industry tropes, humor and setting in the hope of capturing Chekhov’s timelessness to more acutely evoke our time with trenchant dark ironies that are laughable. As he slants the humor and pops up the sexuality, which Chekhov largely kept on a subterranean level, Bradshaw has added another dimension to view the themes of one of Chekhov’s finest plays. Directed by Scott Elliott with a cast that boasts Parker Posey, Hari Nef, David Cale, Nat Wolff, Aleyse Shannon and Ato Essandoh as the principal cast, The Seagull/Woodstock, NY, at the Pershing Square Signature Theater has been extended to April 9th.
The play’s action takes place in a bucolic area in the Hudson Valley. Woodstock is the convenient “home away from home” of celebrities who live, work and fly between Los Angeles and Manhattan, and who feel they need to take a break between jobs, or just take a break from the stress of performance and helter skelter pressures and BS of the industry. The house where they retreat to is peopled by the family, caretakers, guests and a neighbor. The individuals are based on Chekhov’s characters, brother Soron, sister, actress Arkadina and son Constantine, who Bradshaw has renamed Samuel (David Cale) Irene (Parker Posey) and Kevin (Nat Wolff). Chekhov’s Trigoren, Arkadina’s lover, Bradshaw renames William, who is portrayed by Ato Essandoh. Nina, whose Chekhov name Bradshaw keeps is portrayed by Aleyse Shannon. Chekhov’s Masha becomes Bradshaw’s Sasha (Hari Nef).
In his update Bradshaw streamlines some of Chekhov’s dialogue and upturns the emphasis of conversation into the trivial without Chekhov’s character elucidation, as he spins these individuals into his own vision. The cuts truncate the depth of the characters, making them more shallow without resonance or humanity with which we might identify on a deeper level. However, that is Bradshaw’s point in relaying who they are and how they are a product of the noxious culture and the times we live in, unable to escape or rectify their being.
For example the initial opening conversation between Samuel (David Cale) and Kevin (Nat Wolff) loses the feeling of the protective bond between uncle and nephew scored with nuance and fine notes in Chekhov’s Seagull. Additionally, in their discussion of actress Irene, Kevin’s criticism of his mother emphasizes her faults and superficiality. In the Chekhovian version, the son expresses his feelings of inferiority in the company of the artists at his mother’s gatherings. Because of the son’s admissions we immediately understand his inner weakness and hopelessness, feelings which set up the rationale for his devastation of Nina’s abandonment and his suicide attempts later in the play.
Chekhov’s characterization of the actress and mother is tremendously subtle and cleverly humorous. Bradshaw’s iteration of the celebrity actress, her lover, the ingenue Nina and Irene’s brother become lost in the eager translation into comedy without the emotional grist and grief which fuels the humorous ironies of human frailty. Again, as we watch Bradshaw’s points about these individuals which reflect our modern selves, we laugh not with them ruefully, but at them for their obnoxiousness and blind hypocrisy.
Such points appear to be inconsequential and minor, however, the overall impact of Bradshaw’s characterizations makes them appear to be stereotypes of artificiality rather than individuals who are believably sensitive, vulnerable and hypocritical so that we care about them, yet find humor in their bleakness. Irene adds up to a figure of sometime cartoonish arrogance and pomposity without the sagacity and nobility of Chekhov’s Arkadina, who nevertheless is intentionally “oblivious” to herself out of desperation, hiding behind her facade, which on another level reveals a tragic individual. The same may be said for the characters of William and Nina who deliver the forward momentum of the work in their relationship that symbolically and sexually culminates in a bathtub on the stage where Nina previously masturbated as a key element of Kevin’s play. Their characters remain artificial and shallow, and the play’s conclusion and Nina’s collapse follows flatly without the drama and moment so ironically spun out in Chekhov’s Seagull.
Indeed, the meaning of Bradshaw’s work is clear. There has been a diminution of artistic greatness and sensibility, moment and nobility in our cultural ethos, which makes these players as inconsequential and LOL as he has drawn them. They are caricatures who wallow in artificiality and purposelessness, not of their own making. They have been caught up in the tide of the times and the vapid culture they seek to be celebrated in. That some of the actors push for laughs which don’t appear to come from organic, moment-to-moment portrayals makes complete sense. Theirs is a high-wire act and anything is up for grabs. Whatever laughter can be teased out, must be attempted. That is who these people are in The Seagull/Woodstock, NY.
Though the actors (especially Posey who portrays Irene with the similitude of other pompous, self-satisfied characters we’ve come to associate her with) attempt to get past the linearity of Bradshaw’s update, they sometimes become stuck, hampered by the staging, the playing area and direction whose action perhaps might have alternated between stage left and stage right (the audience is on three sides). Most of the action and conversation (facing the upstage curtain where Kevin puts on his play in the first act) takes place stage right. Since the set is minimalist and stylized with rugs, chairs and other props forming the indoor and outdoor spaces, the stage design might have been more fluid so that the various conversations were centralized. Unfortunately, some of the dialogue became swallowed up and the actors didn’t project to accommodate for the staging.
Only Nat Wolff’s portrayal of Kevin rang the most real and authentic. However, this is in keeping with the overall conceit that the playwright and director are conveying. Wolff doesn’t push for laughs and his portrayal of Kevin’s intentions are spot on. As a contrast with the other characters, he is a standout and again, this appears to be Bradshaw’s laden message. Kevin is driven to suicide by the situation, his mother, William’s remote selfishness and Nina’s devastation which she has brought upon herself. He is happier to be away from them. And perhaps Irene will be relieved, after all is said and done, that he has finally succeeded to end his misery. As Bradshaw has drawn her and as the director and Posey have characterized her, Irene has an incredible penchant for obliviousness.
At times the production is uneven and the tone is muddled. At its worst The Seagull/Woodstock, NY is a send up of Chekhov’s The Seagull that doesn’t quite make it. At its finest Bradshaw, Elliott and the ensemble reveal the times we live in are destroying us as we attempt to escape but can find no release nor sanctuary from out own artificiality and meaninglessness, as particularly evidenced in the characters of Irene, William and Nina. Only Kevin appears to have true intentions for his art but is stymied by the crassness of those considered to be exceptional but are mediocre. As in all great artistic achievement, only time is the arbiter of true genius. Perhaps Kevin’s time for recognition will come long after Nina, Irene and William are dead.
The creative team for The Seagull/Woodstock, NY includes Derek McLane (scenic design) Qween Jean (costume design) Cha See (lighting design) Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen (sound design) UnkleDave’s Fight-House (fight and intimacy director). For tickets and times go to the website https://thenewgroup.org/production/the-seagull-woodstock-ny/