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Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon directed by Arin Arbus spike Terrence McNally’s 1980s New York City “romance for the ages” Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune with organic authenticity and powerhouse performances. Both actors cleverly negotiate the difficulties of comedy by not playing for humor. Their characters are driven by overt and subterranean desires, and in that they are humorous. In not pushing for laughs, a grave danger in a play (the laughs change every night based upon a thousand audience variables) the actors come up with the most unexpected and surprising riffs. Considering that these moments are emotionally based, this shows their consummate technique and absolutely glorious listening/effecting. They are among the most talented and superlative of actors in portrayals that are precisely shepherded with adroit skill by Arbus to release their profound and moving sensibilities.
On a superficial level, we assume we know the play which was also made into a film starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer (1991); it’s been revived in New York City, most recently with Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci in 2002.
In this current time of sexting and posting fleshly photos on Social media “private” and then being hacked into and displayed, the play is downright quaint, even with the nudity. And yet these actors and the director transcend the quaintness, elevate the current thematic mores/trends/folkways, of romance and find the beauty of individuality which is what Terrence McNally strives for in Frankie & Johnny in the Claire De Lune.
What is it about this night, this couple? Distinction despite their “apparent” inconsequentiality in the era of Trumpism! With each other, their particularly shines. McNally brings this into intriguing relief, smartly realized by Arbus, Shannon and McDonald. Their humanity and what makes them who they are inherently is unique and poignant, as they confront the human condition of loneliness, doubt, self-torment and pain in relationships that have decayed like rotten fruit.
The play raises fascinating themes. One is that we underestimate our exceptionalism or convert it into a fear of the unknown in ourselves and a fear of our possibilities. In New York City (the setting of the play is NYC, 1980s) where over 8 million people live and work, the impulse is to maintain a familiar invisibility negotiating the sheer mass of people. Apart from this, many live their lives attempting to be like others in their social groups, even in their “intimate relationships” to the point where they don’t acknowledge soul differences nor respect them.
McNally explores this exceptionalism in two seemingly ordinary lower middle class individuals (a waitress, a short-order cook) that no one would find interesting, especially when folks are striving to become rich in an age of “greed is good.” McNally spins the vitality of these two by examining their depth, prompted by Johnny’s compulsion to realize the opportunity before him with Frankie; this active movement on his part creates the dynamic of their growing involvement with each other and shifting perception about themselves.
After intense love making, Johnny stops himself from disengaging from Frankie. Instead, he does not ignore her and dismiss what has just happened, which Frankie would prefer. He goes deep. In attempting to communicate with her to make sense of who they can be together, he finally explains his “vision” to a radio host convincing him to play the most beautiful music to get Frankie to connect with him. Johnny tells him (in Frankie’s hearing) that he stopped himself from the “usual rosary,” i.e. thinking of “the million reasons” why he should not love Frankie, why they wouldn’t work out.
The irony is that Johnny pursues what is on another level. They’re physical manifestation of love was “perfect.” And that is an indication of possibilities, of recognizing what is profound within each of their souls. Johnny senses her uniqueness. And for that reason he will not follow the path he followed many times before – forgetfulness, dismissal, staying superficial. With the courage of his convictions, he persists in attempting to persuade her to do the same: to go deep.
Johnny’s action which creates the arc of development has little to do with a repeat performance of “sex” and all to do with seeing each other on a soul/spiritual level. From Johnnie’s perspective, if they can achieve that, their relationship will be able to build and grow. It’s what Johnny means about “connection,” that ethereal thing that can happen during making love, but not always. He and Frankie have experienced it and for some reason Frankie fears or is defensive about a continued intimacy with conversation. In attempting to have Frankie “connect” with him again, Johnny intuits that they need to hear the music of transcendence to take them out of the mundane. That he hopes will ease the way back for her to engage on that other level once more. Indeed, it is that level on which the finest, most truthful relationships are based.
To miss the depth of what is happening between the characters is not doing justice to McNally’s play or the performances and direction. This is the focus that remains alive and present in this wonderful revival. Johnny believes in that profound level of connection. Frankie fears, eschews and resists it. McDonald and Shannon make us care why these two behave in their “compulsions.” They make us care whether they can become the couple for “all time,” “Frankie and Johnny.”
What I particularly appreciate is how McNally has reverse troped the characters of Frankie and Johnny in the backdrop of a culture which is uber jaded regarding “love” and “romance.” Arbus, Shannon and McDonald have mined the gold in McNally’s ironic twists and tweaks.
Here, the man wants intimacy, love and bonding. The woman just wants sex, a slam, bam, thanks, see ya. Frankie is beyond skeptical and doubtful about Johnny. She closes him out, doesn’t hear what he is saying, doesn’t “connect,” until after she slaps him.
Because of Frankie/Audra McDonald’s revelatory inner authenticity-her resistance to Johnny/Shannon’s importuning her to “go deep,” warning alarms go off. If one has studied or read the M.O. of abused women, they should “get” McDonald’s Frankie’s impulsive, defensive reactions and nervousness. She has been abused in a way that has damaged her psychically so that all bets for true intimacy are off. She can’t allow herself to take that risk again, regardless of the physical “something” between them. That can be dismissed as sex, nothing more which is precisely what Frankie seeks to do, but Johnny will not let her get away with it.
McNally’s characterization of Frankie resonates even more strongly today. Current sexual predation numbers despite all the #MeToo publicity and positive directions have not decreased. Physical/sexual abuse transcends economic and social class backgrounds. Wives of billionaires are abused as are women of partners of lower socioeconomic classes. Often women who have been abused cannot be intimate. They will have sex and may seek it out as a form of control. But the abuse must be worked through before intimacy becomes welcome.
Abuse from a former partner we discover is making Frankie resist Johnny which she reveals in Act II. Some have suggested the play can be done in one act. The intensity of the characterizations has eluded these critics; Frankie’s violence and then revelation about why she reacts as she does must come full bore in the modulations after the radio host plays a transcendent song that will “connect” them. And by the conclusion as we follow the journey of how they both work through their psychic damage, we see they are together and perhaps “perfectly” as Johnny suggests in Act I.
The development is crucial and needs the breadth that McNally gives it. At the end of Act I when Frankie appears to be persuaded by Johnny to become intimate in the way he wishes, she “controls” and pushes him to have sex which we discover at the beginning of Act II “fails.” Johnny’s “failure” is humorously rendered by the actors. However, this “failure” also reveals that “the connection” between them still isn’t trusted by Frankie. That doesn’t stop Johnny from persisting, and they both become adorable and familiar to each other in their gradual revelation of the truth of themselves.
McDonald’s portrayal of McNally’s Frankie is right-on: her fear of intimacy, her insistence to control sex, to control him is paramount. Her abusive reaction to him is also spot-on. Her breakthrough effected by both actors beautifully as Shannon stops the abuse and kisses the hand that slapped him is an important turning point. We know something happened to her in the past; Johnny senses it and is lovingly helping her work through it. His attempt to connect with her is scintillating. It is an irony that she converts the beauty of this moment back to sex and “wanting him.” In showing her “desire”, she is actually pushing him away. No wonder Johnny’s “manhood” fails him. He wants more than a little friction! Shannon is just terrific in effecting this with sensitivity and great feeling.
In Act II Johnny has another hurdle after she reveals she has been abused. He must convince her to move beyond the need to control using sex, and recognize that between them there is the opportunity for something transcendent and profound. In their uniqueness, such riches are available to them because of who they are together. This is rare, it isn’t possible for others and how fortunate/destined they are that they have “found” each other.
This sensitivity from a guy who seeks to make a connection on another level and eventually understands how to do this with a beautiful song to “get there,” is mind-blowing. One might say cynically, “Men are just not like this!” “The playwright is gay and writing his own fantasy male.” Or these characters are simply beyond the pale and this is a modern “fairy-tale!” Well, that is missing McNally’s searing point which Arbus and the actors have elicited in this production. This is possible. But what one must risk is failure, or being ego-less. Risking the pain of failure is frightening, especially if one has gone down that road before.
Arbus, Shannon and McDonald apply their brilliant talents seamlessly. The actors convince us Frankie and Johnny are possible because of the actors’ stunning and detailed inner logic which simmers with backstory. If it is possible for them, it might be available for other “Frankie and Johnny’s” in a universe of lonelyhearts. Their relationship is a beacon and a warning not to be like married couples who married out of fear and never “connected,” or who were matched up by others because they were “perfect” for one another, only they weren’t.
Perhaps one of the strongest themes of this production is found by looking at how Frankie and Johnny evolve together “magically” to achieve a level that many couples don’t achieve. The play begs the question, why are Frankie and Johnny so stellar and original? Why can’t their evolution be the norm, not the exception?
The reasons are multitudinous. But one of the reasons is that our culture and society warps men and women with platitudes and tropes and gender annihilation in some quarters. “Men don’t cry.” “Don’t be gay, be a manly man.” “Women are best being quiet and looking pretty.” Women who are feminists are feminazis. Women must look only a few ways to be feminine and beautiful.
The fact that the nullifying stereotypes behind such commentary still exist today is appalling; and now there is a Trumpist backlash that embraces such thought. On social media and beyond, there is an actual collective of Incels. On the opposite side of the spectrum, sexual predation and abuse are as old as time, and paternalism and misogyny. It is tragic that there is a necessity for a #MeToo movement because of the misogyny and paternalism inherent in our folkways and mores.
Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune flies in the face of all this noise. It reminds us of the humanity of individuals, not of the stereotypes of genders. This production encourages us to look into the souls of individuals and make those priceless connections which rebel against that which would attempt to defile the bounty of our humanity by slopping it on the trash heap of stereotypes and labels. Bravo, to McNally’s original vision and Arbus,’ Shannon’s and McDonald’s adherence to it, allowing the themes of the play to soar along with the incredible portrayals of these wonderful characters.
Kudos to all the artistic creatives: Riccardo Hernandez (Scenic Design) Emily Rebholz (Costume Design) Natasha Katz (Lighting Design) Nevin Steinberg (Sound Design) J. Jared Janas (Hair, Wig & Makeup Design) Claire Warden (Intimacy & Fight Director).
Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune runs with one intermission at the Broadhurst Theatre (44th Street between 7th and 8th) in a limited engagement until 25th August. For tickets and times go to their website by CLICKING HERE.
The New York Botanical Garden is perhaps the most exotic and forward-thinking, theatrical living museum of plants and one of the most magnificent green spaces in all of New York City rivaled only by Central Park. In presenting their largest botanical exhibition ever from June 8 -September 29, 2019, the New York Botanical Garden has achieved a seamless meld with a globally renowned, award-winning Brazilian modernist artist, Roberto Burle Marx (1909-1994).
For this wonderful exhibit, members get to go free on Friday, Member’s Day. See links below to the symposium on Friday.
The influential Brazilian modernist, landscape architect, plant explorer and cultural giant, is deserving of a celebration of his prodigious design work which features examples of the lush gardens he created throughout Brazil and the world. His unique and innovative modernist perspective gave birth to thousands of landscapes and private gardens, including the famous curving mosaic walkways at Copacabana Beach in Rio.The exhibition exemplifies every aspect of his artistry with a curated gallery of his eye-poppying paintings, drawings and textiles.
The amazing Burle Marx was a maverick in highlighting the importance of environmental preservation and particularly exotic plant species some found only in Amazonia a good part of which is in Brazil. In the NYBG horticultural tribute to Marx, the exhibition team pulled in experts like Raymond Jungles (FASLA) his protégé who personally knew Marx and worked with him, and those like Edward J. Sullivan, Ph.D., the Helen Gould Shepard Professor of Art History and Deputy Director, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, who has studied Marx extensively and who continues to write about him.
Jungles used his expertise and personal experience working with Marx to design the exotic tropical feel and immense grandeur of the installations revealed in three stages of the exhibition. The first is the Modernist Garden with striking, patterned paths that lead through extensive curvilinear planting beds to an open plaza with a reflecting pool backdropped by a wall. This wall design is inspired by a Burle Marx installation in the Banco Safra headquarters in São Paulo. The entire vibrant black, white and grey walkway and colorful, sweeping plantings are framed by spectacular palm trees that tower to their natural heights, many contributed by Jungles’ own personal collection.
The Explorer’s Garden in the conservatory showcase (not the Palms of the World Gallery whose dome is being refurbished) features the tropical rain forest plants among Burle Marx’s favorites as a bone fide “plant nerde.” These include those he adored, particular exotics which he constantly used in his installations to inform Brazilians about the natural world’s smackdown of diversity in their home country. With this he was constantly building up Brazilian’s sense of home pride.
The Water Garden evinces Burle Marx’s use of plants from a wide variety of tropical regions in his Brazilian designs and throughout the world. The reflecting pool is the natural habitat of temperate water lilies which are blooming in the variety of pastel colors. And it will include the more exotic water lilies that only basque in warm waters of Florida and the equatorial regions; these are of darker purple hues, etc.
Burle Marx’s Art and Garden Lifestyle Philosophy are extensively covered through film, and exhibits of his paintings, drawings, textiles and more all inspired by Brazilian culture. You will find this extensive exhibit in the Art Gallery and on the fourth floor of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library. This section of the exhibit reflects his work from the final 30 years of his career from 1964 to his death in 1994) and shows not only his evolution as a person but also as a titan who beautifully integrated all the finest of the cultural and wholistic elements of an individual rooted in every aspect of his country’s well being. In this section you will see the apotheosis of Burle Marx, the print maker, ecologist, naturalist, artist and musician as well as innovator whose modernist landscape architecture whose designs of parks and gardens lifted Brazil’s reputation and culture as an important contributor on the international scene.
Engaging public programming showcases the sights and sounds of Brazil and its lively contributions to music and dance evoking Rio de Janeiro, the “Cidade Maravilhosa” (“Wonderful City”) that Roberto Burle Marx called home and inspired his life and work. Expect to experience the dances, music, foods of Brazil at the NYBG for the length of the exhibition which runs from June 8 through September 29, 2019.
Details about the exhibition’s diverse and engaging schedule of public programming for all ages is available here:
Information about the Brazilian Modern Interactive Mobile Guide, supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, is available here:
New York Botanical Garden, 2900 Southern Blvd, Bronx, NY 10458 United States
Among its great treasures at the New York Botanical Garden, is The Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden. The rose garden has around 700 different roses and over 4000 plants.
Some of them are historical and others are hybrids that have been created and named and as in the case of the white rose called “The Divine Miss M” (named for Bette Middler) or “Purple Rain,” named in celebration of rock singer-songwriter, actor, record producer, Prince, his titular film and record album. Indeed, all of the roses planted have a fascinating story about its genesis or its development.
When I visited for Rose Weekend, which was this Saturday and Sunday, I lucked out. Stephen Scanniello who is the curator of the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden and world renowned author and expert on roses was present checking the roses for black spot (a fungal disease rampant in hot, humid weather that causes defoliation) and other issues. He graciously filled in for a guide who had to leave and he shared some of his vast knowledge about roses and specifically the ones at The Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden. He took us on a tour of a few of the unique plants that are found in the garden which you must look for when you come to visit.
For those unfamiliar with the superlative Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden, Stephen did mention a bit of its history which I will briefly summarize in this article and which you can find more information about HERE.
Before the rose garden settled at this present site, there were three other iterations. Two rose gardens were by the conservatory. One was there in 1907 and the other garden was opened in 1972 in front of the Conservatory and opposite the Perennial Gardens. Both didn’t last and the rose garden location that initially was selected in 1916 was returned to by 1986, 70 years later. Why this particular spot for the roses?
That was the location that renowned landscape designer Beatrix Farrand chose when founder of the NYBG Nathaniel Lord Britton asked her to design a new, larger, world class, rose garden. Farrand had built up her reputation by studying privately with Sprague Sargent, director of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum. To get design ideas she visited the great gardens of Europe. At the time Nathaniel Lord Britton spoke to her about a rose garden for the NYBG, Farrand had already designed the White House Garden in Washington, D.C. and many others.
Farrand chose the site where the garden stands today, a low lying “valley” near the barns of the old Lorillard estate where people believe that a rose garden pre-existed on the site, though there are no records to verify this. In 1918, Farrand’s rose garden opened. Her original design was influenced by the well known rose garden Roseraie du Val-de-Marne (or Roseraie de L’Haÿ) in L’Haÿ les Roses, France. The offset triangular-shaped formal garden she intended to establish included iron fencing framing the garden and enclosing the roses within, as well as a central gazebo.
However, the iron fencing and gazebo could not be included because of a lack of money. Nevertheless, John R. Brinley and John S. Holbrook designed the classic stone stairway leading from the top of the hill to the rose garden. In the later decades additional renovations were made until 1960 when to consolidate the formal gardens in one area, it was decided that the rose garden should be moved near the conservatory. By 1972 this third rose garden iteration was designed and planted in front of the conservatory. The other rose garden across from the Lorillard barns was abandoned.
Never say never again! Beatrix Ferrand’s garden design arose like a phoenix from the ashes of the old rose garden when in 1985, NYBG Board member Beth Straus saw the original Farrand design plans. Inspired, Straus convinced David Rockefeller to donate one million dollars to complete Farrand’s vision with the gazebo and the fencing and restore the rose garden to the location she selected for it. In 1988, after an irrigation system was put in, the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden opened to the public in honor of David’s wife, Peggy, a horticulturist and conservationist.
Stephen Scanniello mentioned some important facts about the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden and its collection. First, the location is a difficult one because it’s in a depression with higher elevations all around. As a result, there isn’t the greatest air circulation which roses require. Also, there is the moisture and humidity and heat that can cause fungal diseases. Since the NYBG is decreasing its chemical spraying, they are pumping up the condition and quality of the soil so that the rose bushes will be healthier and won’t be susceptible to insects and diseases. They are also putting in plants that are disease resistant and require no spraying because they are not liable to be taken down by black spot and other problems. Nevertheless, Stephen monitors each of the plants carefully and if plants have too many demerits against them, for example, foliage issues, beginnings of fungal issues, then the plant has to be pulled and another one put in.
Some highlights Stephen pointed out concerns the types of roses grown in the garden. Many are hybrid tea roses that have a lovely scent and have been created for the pleasure of the celebrities after which they are named. Stephen Scanniello showed us the beauty of The Divine Miss M, the “decadent bloom” that is named for the fabulous American singer, songwriter, actress, comedian and film producer who is still going strong at 73-years-old, Bette Midler.
It is a creamy white large-flower hybrid tea rose which has a scent of myrrh and lime. The new rose, “The Divine Miss M” has been described as whipped cream with overtones of antique white with a slight golden hue.” The rose celebrates not only Bette Midler’s life’s work and advocacy, but is in honor of the 40th anniversary of her 1979 breakout film, The Rose.
A few years ago, there was the celebration of the “Julie Andrews” a large flower hybrid tea rose that is a deep pink.
Along with the Julie Andrews, Stephen Scanniello pointed out that the “Julie Andrews” rose is planted near the rose named “Violet’s Pride,” a rose named for the character Violet Crawley played by Maggie Smith in the show Downtown Abbey. Two dames are planted near one another in the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden; reportedly Julie Andrews thought that was delightful.
Another fascinating story Stephen Scanniello told us is about the rose you will find by the entrance, facing the gazebo, on your left. It is the green rose. Yes a green rose. Through a mutation of a regular looking pink rose called “Old Blush,” (a derivative of a species called Rosa chinensis) which originated in China and was brought to Europe and the U.S. in the 1790s, a green rose was formed in the 1900s. People propagated it by grafting or cutting off pieces of stems and re-planting them to produce new plants. The green rose was formed when it never went through the normal genetic switches causing the male and female reproductive parts in the right order in the parent plant. The green rose’s development gets “stuck” at the sepal-making step and it is the sepals that form the “petals” of the green rose.
The mythology surrounding the green rose is that Quakers-abolitionists during the beginnings of the movement and after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed and into the period up to the Emancipation Proclamation, Quakers planted the green rose in their front yards as a signal that they were a part of the Underground Railroad network and were a “safe house” that would offer protection and the way to continue on to Canada for runaway slaves. This is a difficult fact to verify. However, in Baltimore there was a Quaker family that claimed that this story was true.
Stephen Scanniello told us that the roses are late this year because of the damp and colder spring weather. At this point the roses are at 65% until they peak so you still have perhaps a week or so depending on the weather. However, even if the roses are not at their peak, you should visit to see the celebrity roses. Another tip we heard about is the rose scents come out toward the evening, and the roses with the greatest scents are on the fencing at the back of the garden where the climbing roses are on trellises.
At the opening of the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden in 1988, Carl Totemeier, NYBG Vice President of Horticulture related the mission statement that has made the most sense for the rose garden when he said, “This [garden] will never be finished. We will always be striving to develop a collection with the best of old and new roses that are both attractive and well adapted to the site.” To see the best that the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden has to offer this season, go when the roses are at or near their peak and then follow the roses throughout the summer until they stop blooming and are cut back in late September. But even the remnant of the rose garden’s structure and setting in October is amazing. The NYBG lists the time for the roses from April – October.
To see the events happening at the NYBG and the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden daily as well as to follow the rose tracker, CLICK HERE.
Addicted to your phone, via Instagram? Text? Candy Crush? Reddit? 4Chan? World of Warcraft? In Octet by Dave Malloy directed by Annie Tippe, eight individuals who drop in to no-show Saul’s rehab in a homely church basement, find another hosting the weekly session. Thankfully, group leader Paula (the singer, songwriter Starr Busby) is nurturing and responsive to their cavernous disabling confessions. There, in a harmonious, ever fluid, richly sonorous song circle, they discuss their digital urges and expurgate them via the occult, each governed by a Tarot card designed for them and them alone. And sometimes the chorus joins in inspired by a soul hymn, encouraging the beauty of sharing in a non-judgmental like-mindedness.
What are they sharing? That which is maligned, misunderstood and apotheoiszed, the intimate, digital, hand-held which opens up their personal world like a hallucinogen and entraps them with their own emotional frailties. By the end of their epiphany-yielding, tonal and atonal harmonies (sung a capella and sometimes performed with pitch pipes, batons and other make-shift percussion items) they are lifted spiritually out of this world and “out of themselves.” They’ve achieved a healing peace in the community of others and the audience responds with a standing ovation for they, too, have been enlivened and awakened, having stayed off their phones for almost two hours.
Dave Malloy, the progenitor of this innovative, exceptional and robust musical has created a masterwork with little theatrical spectacle, certainly nowhere near the breadth of Natasha Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, his signature work. In Octet for which Malloy has deftly created the music, lyrics, book and vocal arrangements, he takes a complex and intricate subject of great currency and couches it within a simplistic, minimalistic structure so that the powerful message of community and our need for live interaction resonates. With the seating in the “round,” and featuring a one-walled back set which reveals community bulletins, community ads, a coffee pot, announcements, etc., we get the sense we are in a basement which by the end infuses the sanctity of each of us which must not be underestimated. Above all Octet is like a soul injection to promote our awareness of each other’s value and worth more than an $1000 phone.
Into the choir circle of healing comes various debilitated, physically whole, but spiritually wounded internet adherents. When all are gathered, they begin the refreshment and comfort of unity so that they eventually will be released to express their hearts in solo song. The “Hymn: The Forest” reflects The Moon Tarot card which represents “Intuition.” Indeed, each of the individuals are misaligned spiritually and need to be “made upright” especially with firing up and being guided by their own wisdom and not the addictive distractions of the world.
In the first solo, we learn that Jessica in “Refresh” has put herself out there on “YouTube” and has gotten a huge response for it by those who comment. Though controversy gets clicks and likes and dislikes, it is also obsessive and must be followed by more “rants,” which Margo Seibert’s Jessica is addicted to creating for the comments. Henry (Alex Gibson) sings about his addiction to video games, and Paula (Starr Busby) sings about her distraction from her marriage and her losing her interest or attentiveness to making it work.
Distraction, dislocation from the most important relationships in one’s life is one theme of this production. Of course, viewing a screen is easy. Relationships take time, effort, pain and suffering along with the joy and good times. To stay dynamically involved with friends and spouses, one often must work through the underlying reasons and foundations for why one chooses the particular individuals one does to populate one’s life. It’s much easier to click on one’s phone and be taken away from problems by video games and escape introspection with “rants” which Jessica, Henry and Paula seek to do.
In the representative songs of what being “plugged in” digitally means to these individuals, we understand that in the “Hymn: Monster” which everyone sings, they project their inner “devil” outward and ascribe that the internet is their addiction. “Being connected online” has become the monster that has destroyed and eaten up their lives. Of course the irony is that the monster was always there within, waiting to manifest. But the way to get rid of it which will have to be a continual process, first is the realization that they have a “devil” within, and second that it is a devourer.
Karly (Kim Blanck) and Ed (the deep-voiced Adam Bashian) sing “Solo” about love and hunger for love. Ed is an Incel, a nonconformist. He riffs about Stacys and Chads (which is funny/drop dead serious Incelspeak) and they both sing about internet porn and online sexual addiction and the narcissism of having a ton of males (Karly) on her apps. In “Actually,” sung by Toby (Justin Gregory Lopez) whose Tarot card is The Magician, we note how far one must go to achieve one’s destiny, arriving at their potential. Toby has been waylaid in any pursuit of fulfillment.
In Marvin’s “Little God,” there is an intersection of spirituality and science which I found engaging in the tensions posited. J.D. Mollison is humorous in his visualizing that God is an 11-year-old dressed or looking like a Mermaid. In this song Malloy throws in ideas from Alan Watts’ The Book, and moves with gyrations into Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and concepts from wherever. This he does throughout this intriguing, rich musical referencing games, podcasts, film, theater and books which he lists in the show’s Playbill insert.
However, as a cleanse from the confusion of the myriad voices that try to persuade, convince and entrap us online, Paula conducts a wonderful ceremonial tea (“Tower Tea Ceremony”). It is then all sit, savor, become present, become located within themselves and prosper in their souls with the help of a drug that takes them deep within, but only for a few minutes. The ceremony yields humorous and beautiful moments. As a justification that there is something good about the online delusion that has swept their souls from beyond their easy grasp of themselves, it takes a song circle and tea ceremony to bring them back to a healing.
It is after the tea ceremony that Velma (Kucho Verma) courageously sings of her angst. It is she who brings an interesting justification of the global reach of the internet. In all the world, online,she has found someone to love who loves her back and makes her feel accepted and not such an ugly freak. The song “Beautiful,” governed by the Tarot card of The Fool, magnetizes all the concepts that have gone before and represents “new beginnings” and faith. This, Velma encourages and with moderation, as with everything, we understand that the “monster” can be conquered.
The evening comes to a close with “Hymn: The Field,” which the ensemble sings. Aligned through restoration and staying off their phones for almost two hours, the “chamber choir” has melded into an illustrious community. They have displayed their sterling singing gifts with measured ease, enthusiasm and a lovely grace which the audience finds absolutely delicious.
Octet’s superb director is Annie Tippe. Or Matias brings the majesty of Dave Malloy’s music to life through his adroit music supervision and music direction. Octet has been extended a number of times and is scheduled to close on 30 June. However, it may extend again. It runs 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission at The Pershing Square Signature Center (42nd St. between 9th and 10th). For tickets and times go to their website by CLICKING HERE.
In Happy Talk by Jesse Eisenberg, adroitly directed by Scott Elliott, stealthy desperation that unravels into a high stakes gambit between employer Lorraine (Susan Sarandon) a Jewish community theater actress/housewife, and home health caretaker, Ljuba (Marin Ireland) climaxes by the end of the play. From the outset Eisenberg infers frenetic undercurrents in the dynamic between the two women. Lubja is the “happy,” compliant, illegal Serbian help and Lorraine negotiates the care of two individuals while she attempts a fantastic pretense that all is “well,” for the sake of the household. Both are fronting.
From their interactions at the top of the play, we divine a synergistic relationship between Ljuba and Lorraine. Ljuba is meticulous with Lorraine’s mom in her caretaking duties. Not in the country legally, Ljuba confides that she hopes to become a citizen via a green card marriage so that she might bring her daughter to the United States for a better life. Lorraine, whom we realize later in the play, is one step away from a nervous breakdown, has an upbeat attitude with Ljuba whom she treats as a friend. Importantly, she attempts to cheer up dour husband Bill, whose agonizing, degenerative MS is a depressive death sentence. Lorraine’s bedridden, incontinent mother is slowly dragging herself into the afterlife with Ljuba’s attentive care, feeding, changing and monitoring her. But in Lorraine’s daily existence, her mother is an afterthought, amidst her preparations for her role as “Bloody Mary” in the Jewish Community Center’s South Pacific.
Eisenberg’s arc of development between and among the characters is pegged to the gradual revelation of the deeper “ethos” of these two women and how they balance the precariousness of their daily emotional struggles to manage their inner tension and stress. They do this with “happy talk.” Though other songs from South Pacific are played with ironic intent during the dramatic interludes (“Bali H’ai,” “Twin Soliloquies,” Some Enchanted Evening,” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”) Eisenberg references the titular song sung by Bloody Mary. Initially, the analogy that Lorraine should be cast as Bloody Mary seems weird. But as the play unfolds, we understand the parallels of characterization flavored with trenchant sardonic humor. Both characters manifest underlying themes of manipulation, exploitation and desperation.
As the events unfold we realize that both Lorraine and Ljuba act to encourage themselves away from reality. One is easily recognizable because she wears “drama” on her sleeve and rambles on about the intentions and nuances of her role as Bloody Mary with her “co-star” Ronny (the fine Nico Santos). Ljuba is a joyful cipher who is unmasked by Jenny (Tedra Millan) Lorraine’s wrath-filled daughter whose condemnation of Lorraine is delivered in a rapid-fire series of punches. Jenny encourages Ljuba to be her real self, a painful prospect considering her circumstances.
The intrigue in this production is in its authenticity of Sarandon’s and Ireland’s, staged “happiness.” They mask their interactions with each other while they choke down their true feelings. Ljuba fears deportation. Lorraine fears losing everything to her husband’s sickness and death.
But as Eisenberg displays the characters in the first half, with the exception of taciturn Bill (the excellent Daniel Oreskes) there is no hint of debacle, desolation or tension. Lorraine and Ljuba are cheerful, “open,” convivial and warm and seem to genuinely care for each other. Lorraine’s “over-the-top” narcissism about her acting chops and Ljuba’s sweet generosity and friendliness incite humor. In their interplay Lorraine’s self-aggrandizement about acting appears shallow and we laugh at her presumptive “greatness.” Of course the irony that Susan Sarandon, who has a mile-long list of credits, praises her talent is rich. And Ireland playing hand maiden as an actress of lesser years and experience is equally ironic.
The plot thickens when Lorraine matches up Ljuba to Ronny as her green card husband and they create a backstory together complete with photographs, dates and events. There are twists and turns; the tension increases. We witness the severity of Bill’s illness and pain. Also, we note that Lorraine refuses to confront her mother’s illness and impending mortality. She avoids even looking in on her and only does so after daughter Jenny berates her about it.
Jenny’s sneaky arrival through the back garden sliding doors gyrates the play in another direction and twerks the cheerful atmosphere and humor. Tedra Millan drips bile as she notes the pretense between her mother and Ljuba. Her appalling relationship with Lorraine whom she hasn’t seen in six months becomes apparent, and we are swept into her authenticity, amazed at her reaction to Lorraine.
As Millan’s Jenny unloads a condemnatory rant in a fusillade of excoriations, with a self-justified tone of recrimination, she announces her permanent move to Costa Rica. Her brief visit to her grandmother and expression of love to Bill are almost ancillary. Her shooting target is Lorraine.
As divaish as Lorraine has been, Jenny assumes center stage; she a drama queen like her mother but with the intention to destroy. She shreds her mother until Lorraine has had enough and kicks her out, but not before Ljuba upbraids her. Nevertheless, Jenny has poisoned the well, and we look at the principals with a different perspective. Perhaps Jenny has clear-eyed vision in her suggestion that Ljuba is too compliant, too congenial in putting up with her mother. Perhaps Lorraine has another agenda in assisting Ljuba to obtain a green card marriage with Ronny.
In this highpoint of the play, the actors’ transformations are nuanced and real. Sarandon’s inner torment and guilt resonate with us and we shift toward her with empathy when she breaks down then recoups to carry on suppressing her pain so she will be able to go on. It’s an important moment during which Sarandon’s Lorraine becomes humanized.
Our estimation of Ljuba steps up when she defends Lorraine against what can only be a described as tragic hatred revealing traumatic hurt that Jenny has experienced growing up with Lorraine as her mother. Since we only hear Jenny’s side and see a humbled, guilty Lorraine who acts like a wounded animal, we cannot divine the truth. But we are on notice and watchful for additional signs of clarification.
Ireland and Sarandon play off each other like a chef and a sous chef that reverse the power dynamic now and again. The irony and sardonic humor laden with various tropes of middle class lifestyles gilding the darker aspects a “comfortable” life are jerked back at the end of the play. It is then we see the desperation and understand how economic hardship is the perennial wolf at the door. No amount of well meaning goodness can be sustained when the situation becomes a matter of life and death. Fear, panic and selfishness take over. And to survive, one must go along with what fate has dished up however terrible. When the masks are dropped, all becomes rotten and real and the “happy talk,” ends.
Happy Talk is a must see for the performances and the clever writing which changes on a dime to the unexpected and concludes with searing force into tragic collapse. The characterizations are grounded in the currency of the times and remind us that manipulations and secret agendas seek their own level of opportunity. The victims often have little recourse in the hands of unlikely predators whom one never sees coming.
Kudos to Derek McLane (Scenic Design) Clint Ramos (Costume Design) Jeff Croiter (Lighting Design, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen (Sound Design) Leah J. Loukas (Hair, Wig, Makeup Design).
Happy Talk presented by The New Group is at the Pershing Square Signature Center (42nd Street between 9th and 10th) until 16 June. For tickets and times at their website CLICK HERE.
Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class which appeared at the Public Theatre and won an Obie for Best New American Play during the 1976-1977 season, has been revived a number of times and is currently part of the Signature Theatre’s legacy program. Shepard often chronicled his family history weaving themes in and out of his “Family Tragedies.” These include dramas that are dynamic, intimate, intense dark plays: the titular play reviewed here, Buried Child (1979) True West (1980) Fool for Love (1983) and A Lie of the Mind (1985).
These dramas with often searing poetic elements and unusual twists, feature violent, dysfunctional familial relationships which are borderline insane but human. The emphasis on the destructive nerve endings of the human condition makes them sardonic and devastatingly humorous. The characters are representative of us, every-women, every-man despite their demographics. In the inner soul of the individuals, there is the same fear, want, loneliness and partition from their families that make them real, heartfelt and tragic. Their human “ilk,” is horrific yet understandable. Shepard’s characterization logic and Director Terry Kinney’s guidance of the actors to achieve these manifestation in this production are just superb.
In this first of the family series, Curse of the Starving Class, we note how a family rooted in farming and the land in rural California attempts to wrangle with their own emotional and psychological demons that have provided a wayward leading inheritance that they must either overcome or succumb to. Though each has the ambition to improve themselves, like Chekhovian characters who are out of place and time, they harbor their dreams while creating elaborate networks of self-destruction that divert their will and thwart their ability to manifest their goals into realities.
By the time Shepard’s characters amass the will and strength to better themselves, they select the wrong path. All ends in failure. Indeed, their own blood family members sabotage any possibility of their improvement. Worsening the situation the saboteurs explode with resentment-filled, passive aggressive rages that harm and incite the downward-spiraling over and over again.
The drama opens with a catastrophic explosion. The outer structure of the house splits apart. It is a symbolic rendering of an ancient and ancestral lesion that is ever-present in the bloodline of the family and can never be healed because there is no attempt to seek an intervention. This explosion reflects the curse of the family that they choose not to expurgate or exorcise because they don’t know how, nor do they have the tools to stop its cyclical repetition. The breaking apart of the house portends the threatening doom for each of the family members.
The lesion/curse is within each of them and spreads the horrific, hurtful, damage outward and among them. This trip wire provokes the other family members’ sadism and from day to night, torment and abuse infects like a poison (Weston, the father discusses this in a central aria) and destroys everything in its path.
In the family. which has managed to share the same space because they are not there together for one whole hour, there are a mother and father and two teenage children. The younger one is the intelligent Emma. The electric Lizzy Declement gives a performance that develops Emma from hope and contentment to resentment, rage, rebellion and spiritual devolvement. The older sibling is the dutiful Wesley who intends to maintain the farm and keep it a going concern despite the worsening conditions Weston’s addictions create. Wesley and Emma have hopes and dreams, though they do not necessarily include the family.
Emma’s efforts creating a school project indicate that she has ambition and the determination to “be somebody” in her life, if she can ever get away from the nullifying family and farm. After her mother and brother destroy her school project, she runs away on a horse that her mom says is crazy. She returns covered in mud and humiliated desperation. The horse (as emblematic crazy as her family) threw her off and dragged her “through the mud.”
This symbolic action forebodes how the family will treat her for attempting to rise above. After this, she makes negative, impulsive choices which will only exacerbate further damage. She and the other family members are practiced at this circularity, directing their decisions and actions from rage, depression and panic, rather than hope and peace.
Wesley (the dynamic and authentic Gilles Geary) who at the outset of the play and through the second act is trying to repair the door his father bashed in during a drunken, “out-of-control” binging rage-on, cares about the farm, the animals and the security of the family. His assiduous attempt to rebuild the door represents his desire to keep out animal or human interlopers and marauders who would steal from them or usurp the inheritance of the land which father Weston’s alcoholism threatens to encourage.
Weston (the superb David Warshofsky) an alcoholic, cannot lift the farm into thriving, organized prosperity. His relationship with his wife is abusive. Weston emphasizes he is a killer in his descriptions to his son about his role as a bombing pilot during the war. Most probably he is suffering from PTSD, though at the time Shepard wrote the play, this condition of returning combat VETS was never acknowledged. However, his entire destructive, hell-raising, yelling fits indicate he is most likely suffering from it. The culture didn’t help him after the war, and it, along with his negative learned behaviors contribute to the root of his self-hatred, despair and inability to get out from under his depressive, alcoholic malaise and lethargy.
Like the other members of her family the mother Ella (Maggie Siff portrays the mother with nuanced reality) negotiates the tense, hyper-aggressive atmosphere that each of them creates. She augments it by living in the fantasy of selling the property and running away. As her business person who would handle her affairs, she chooses a shyster who intends to defraud her.
The key factors that would make her motherly, accountability, a tidy home with food in the refrigerator, nurturing concern about each of the family members are absent. The refrigerator is empty and as she and the others discuss whether they are a part of the “starving class,” we understand that the empty refrigerator is symbolic. The culture at large deprives them of honor and respect and is the antithesis of soul nurturing. Thus, with their own inner weaknesses, it is nearly impossible for them to care for and nurture each other. Like her daughter who intends to escape, Ella plans to sell the house and take the kids to Europe, as fantastical as this dream is.
As Ella attempts to make arrangements behind Weston’s back, Weston, too, in a drunken fit thinks he makes a deal to sell the property and get a lot of money for it, but he is being defrauded. Wesley understands that the predators that want to buy their property will wreck the land, develop it and ruin its beauty while giving them a pittance, if that. The developers represent the meretricious empty mores influenced by the take over of corporate consumerism. And this consumeristic “curse” has displaced the country’s citizens from searching for the more profound values of life and has alienated them from their purpose and place in the universe, replacing it with being the slaves/pawns of wanton corporate America.
Thus, the land that once might have nurtured Weston and the family for a few generations, has been subject to Weston’s inner plague from the war which he attempts to ameliorate with alcohol, but can’t. And he receives no help from the greedy economic predators who see a mark and intend to take advantage of him.
The culture has failed him on many counts that he hasn’t the “where-with-all” to protect himself from the buzzards-the lawyers and real estate developers and thugs (Andrew Rothenberg, Esau Pritchett) who have entangled Weston with loans that they will extort and bully back from him. Any money that Weston gets from the sale of the property once his debts are paid off and the developers or other predators are done with him, will result in a negative balance.
Thematically, this production soars for its reality, authenticity and raw power. The Scenic Design by Julian Crouch is truly amazing in its functional and thematic purpose. The refrigerator is filthy; one wonders that the food kept in it is sanitary when it is eventually stocked. This adds to our horrified amazement when the starving Wesley ravages all the food in it after he kills the lamb with the intention of eating it. Indeed, his starvation as a member of the “starving class” represents the emotional hunger all of the family experience that manifests as ravenous physical hunger.
Though he and the others complain about not having food in the refrigerator, this “starvation” is not literal, it is soul starvation, spiritual starvation, cultural starvation. The society at large is responsible for this as Weston states and as Ella infers in her desire to go to Europe to escape; indeed, Europe is a place that is culturally rich and can provide unique stimulation.
Sadly, their daily lives have little spiritual or psychic sustenance and when Wesley and Emma attempt to satisfy their inner longings with hope, the other family members come around and either take it away (as Weston/Ella do in attempting to sell the farm) or piss on it (literally, in the case of Emma’s project which Wesley ruins with his urine).
Shephard shows that his characters are so deprived and so used to being deprived and “starving” they starve themselves and each other of love, familial companionship, warmth, compliments, joy, humor, the list is long and comprehensive. As a representative family in this country after WWII, they manifest the status quo. And this is so regardless of economic class, though Shepard uses them, a lower middle class family, to illustrate his themes which actually transcend class when they are viewed from a more profound level.
The acting of the principals is spot-on, moment-to-moment. All of them hit the bulls-eye as they evoke our empathy, pathos, fear, disapproval, shock and horror. The climax is particularly upsetting, but it is also understandable. All are responsible and have contributed to each other’s demise. As they pursue their own desperate goals and desires to escape from their inner masochistic, nihilistic impulses, they collapse in on themselves. Because they are not nurtured to do so, they never reach out to help or to receive help from those who might take them out of their misery.
Terry Kinney guides this production meticulously and has found the right artistic designers to collaborate with to portray Shepard’s tragic almost nihilistic vision from which there is no escape. The costume design by Sarah J. Holden, the lighting design by Natasha Katz, the sound design and original music by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeed (just wow) and William Berloni’s lamb round out this production and do justice to Shepard’s legacy as a playwright uncovering the underbelly of this nation’s ills in this family microcosm.
Curse of the Starving Class runs with one intermission at the Pershing Square Signature Center on 42nd Street between 9th and 10th. It has been extended until 2nd June. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Tortoise in a Nutshell, an Edinburgh-based visual theater company has finally been able to coordinate with 59E59 Theaters for its 2019 Brits Off Broadway season. The company, which first premiered Feral at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is a multi-award-winning group which combines film, and digital theatricals. These include watching the technicians as performers create a show with pre-set miniature pieces which they then animate to tell a story.
The company which travels far and wide and has presented its works not only in the UK, but also in Denmark, Austria and Mexico enjoys creating productions that are unique, innovative and impossible to categorize. Feral in its U.S. Premiere is one such production that combines a use of miniature puppetry, small digital video cameras, live camera action projected on a screen. The productions include background lighting of the set pieces and sound effects as well as a mixed musical score that enhances the story-telling.
Feral, which Tortoise in a Nutshell is presenting in an original co-production with Cumbernauld Theatre, focuses on a family. Sister Dawn, brother Joe and their mum live in a town by the sea. They are symbolic and representative as is their town whose “town fathers” decide to allow developers to come in and open a “Supercade.”
What happens as a result of this development becomes disastrous. The picturesque landscape eventually is marred by the types of people who come to the “Supercade.” The quaint shops and daily life of the town’s citizens are wrecked and increasingly law enforcement must be called in to stop muggings, thefts, violent crimes, sexual assaults and general vandalism that occurs. Additionally, it is suggested that the developers used chicanery to bribe the officials or worm their way into the area. This corruption has been overlooked and the Supercade occludes everything. Though we don’t know whom, someone has probably become very rich at the expense of the citizens undermining the tenor and gracefulness of a once peaceful place.
The townspeople attempt to protest what is going on to little effect. And the once lovely beginnings have tragic endings as the wildness in human nature takes over spurred on by the Supercade. However, the production doesn’t end on a completely nihilistic note. There is always hope.
The ingenuity of Feral is not in the “what” but in the “how.” Process is everything with this theater company. The miniatures used are tiny by comparison to average sized puppets. This enhances our interest in them. The model town is all of a piece, the same type of delicate architecture and color and made from the same materials. The beauty of this work is in how the collaborators put the setting together and effect the characters operation in it.
It takes a while for the town and its individuals to be introduced by the cast (Alex Bird, Jim Harbourne, Aaran Howie, Matthew Leonard and Ross Mackay) who build the setting with the houses and shops and then place the inhabitants in their appropriate settings or work the music and background sound effects. This set-up is an important part of the presentation because we see the Hair Shop, the Bakery, the Lighting Shop, the Church, etc., the typical patrons and even some of the animals as familiar, homely residents. We readily identify.
As the cast completes the initial set it up, we do appreciate how adorable the miniatures appear and the camera work that focuses on them in close-up so that we are present on the same level with the characters. Thus, we become a part of what can only be described as a sweet, functioning, bucolic, little piece of heaven where the inhabitants are contented and enjoy their placement there in the universe.
However, we only see the externals. The presentation never proceeds into anything deeper within the individuals. It is a parable with a larger symbolic focus, that of the microcosm reflecting the macrocosm. In miniature, the cast, creative team and production team have engendered what happens when a town’s equilibrium is upset by development that has, at its basis, corruption and malfeasance. And when the goals do not align with human beings’ needs, desires and well being, catastrophe occurs.
In Feral the wild impulse is diverted in the goal to make money without consideration for how the “development” whether it be digital-technological (the iPhone, Facebook, Amazon) or a material “play-land,” “Gentleman’s Club” or casino will impact the community at large. Thus, we understand that the inhabitants are acted upon by unforeseen forces that in the guise of “developmental prosperity” actually foment destruction as a by-product. The wild impulses the entertainment is designed to exploit for money overwhelm. Once the Supercade opens, entropy lopes in and takes over.
Feral is obviously a labor of love by the creative team: Amelia Bird (Scenic Design) Simon Wilkinson (Lighting Design) and Jim Harbourne (Original Music and Sound Design) and theri director Ross Mackay. Their innovative, human-friendly designs immediately convey the audience into the creators’ world of imagination. To its credit, the designers work to make the audience an integral part of the ongoing events as the camera angles move our vision from a distant perspective closer and closer into Dawn’s and Joe’s house to see their kitty cat and close to see the interiors of the various shops. The camera moves our vision into the beauty parlor, around the park and pier and into an adorableness that includes our watching a cute squirrel fed daily by the pastor of the town church.
Thus, as we identify with this mini corner of the universe, we are engaged and become concerned when the “Supercade” is built despite protest. Most probably money changes hands surreptitiously for the entertainment palace to be built. It is then the themes shift to the macrocosm as we consider what has transpired in the last 10 years almost exponentially along waterfronts and elsewhere.
Such displacing, nefarious development is happening in too many cities and towns across the globe. Those who have the most to lose are overcome by those who have the money and power to do what they want and not be held accountable for the damages. Indeed, though it is not clear in this production, most developers live in their own bucolic paradise surrounded by three-acres, with security teams, gates and high walls to keep out the “riff-raff” whom they prey upon to fund their selfishness, the “riff-raff” being these townspeople who just want to live life with some modicum of happiness..
Feral is imaginative, particular and profound if not disconcerting. The creators’ process is complicated but it delivers a simple metaphor of our times in identifiable human terms. Bravo to both the creative team listed above and the production team Andrew Gannon (Technical Diretor) and AEA Stage Manager (Alyssa K. Howard).
Tortoise in a Nutshell’s Feral runs for 50 minutes with no intermission at 59E59 Theaters until 9 June. For tickets and times go to their website by CLICKING HERE.
When Fiddler on the Roof premiered on Broadway in 1964 (winning 9 Tony awards) it took the theater world by storm and the larger world with gradual stealth augumenting to an avalanche of global premieres and subsequent revivals. With the original cast starring the wildly zany Zero Mostel as Tevye the milkman, the wryly funny Bea Arthur (the future Golden Girl) as Yente, and Austin Pendleton as Motl Kamzoyl, the Tailor, the production was set in humorous stone and held a warm place in countless hearts. It ran with various casts for nearly eight years, went on tour and was made into an Oscar winning film.
Since then Fiddler (Book by Joseph Stein, Music by Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick) has been in revival mostly every year either in the U.S. or somewhere in the world in high schools, colleges or regional theater. The most recent revival landed on Broadway (2016) in a stellar production starring Danny Burstein with an emphasis on the poignant issues enveloping growing populations of displaced refugees and immigrants.
Accordingly, the revivals reflect the times and the current social attitudes. Into this day that echoes anti-semitic chants, “Jews will not replace us” by white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia and recent attacks against US synagogues, comes a revival of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish that is monolithic. The Yiddish National Theatre Folksbein’s production in Yiddish has supertitles in English and Russian. In its authenticity of language and grounding in the ethnicity inherent in Sholem Aleihem’s source material on which it’s based, the production which effuses the choreography of Jerome Robbins with Staś Kmieć’s additions, is one for the ages in its transcendent humanity and spiritual resonance.
What is it about this Fiddler that is unlike all others? Directed by the superb, insightful Tony/Oscar award winner Joel Grey, the production is a moral imperative! It is for our time and all time in its simplicity, grace and spare, unadorned beauty and emotionally taut, intimate, soul crushing power.
Grey’s vision personalizes and authenticates the complexity of faith as it moves Tevye (an unparalleled Steven Skybell) through the challenges of negotiating the daily uncertainties of life in a rapidly changing world, while retaining the core values of his religious beliefs that have been codified for thousands of years (exemplified in the gorgeous number “Shabes Brokhe” (Sabbath Prayer).
Tevye’s, is the iconic hero’s journey of life’s rhythms, of the wheel and woe and back again. By distilling the musical to its most searingly gut-wrenching, basic elements, Grey has elevated Tevye and his family to a timeless universality. With levity and poignancy Grey stirs us to empathize with the characters’ plight, as we experience the “happiness and tears” reflected throughout and especially in the song “Tog-any, Tog-oys” (“Sunrise/Sunset”). The number, rendered with sonorous beauty by Tevye, Golde (the golden, lyrical soprano Jennifer Babiak) and the company just before the Russian officials effect a mini-pogrom is a harbinger of things to come.
Tevye and his family and village speak in Yiddish though at the time in a place like “Anatevke” (Anatevka) they also most probably spoke German and Russian as well. An interesting derivation turns up in the song Tevye sings to his God, “Ven ikh bin a Rotshild”) the translation of which is “If I Were a Rothchild.” The irony of Tevye’s dreaming to be like the uber wealthy Rothchild banking family who were also Jewish is hysterical. Would he sacrifice his faith for money? Would he have to? Indeed! Skybell’s rendition of this funny, poor man’s lament to God is priceless.
The question becomes: is the Yiddish a distraction making it more difficult to engage with the characters? The irony is we pay attention because the language is unfamiliar and we must not take anything for granted. As we begin to pick up words read from the supertitles on panels to the right/left of the stage, we connect with another time and place, which materially is unlike our own, while discovering that the characters symbolically represented are like ourselves.
The supertitles in English and Russian from the Yiddish Translation by Shraga Friedman (first performed in Israel in the 1960s) reinforce our understanding along with the actors’ gestures (Skybell is particularly superb) expressions and crystal clear intentions. The ensemble is letter perfect in its portrayals. Additionally, Yiddish is one of the most onomatopoetic of languages; its very sounds convey the meanings which we counterintuitively glean. During the song and dance numbers, the plosive consonants and guttural, rolled rrrrrs express a vibrancy and excitement which adds to their energy and joy.
Of course, it helps that the actors are wholly present and “in-the-moment.” The audience can’t help but be engaged and enthralled as we employ more of our senses, so as not to miss a word or thought for fear of losing out.
Importantly, Joel Grey has brilliantly shepherded this production and has acutely grounded it in the power of fundamental principles of equanimity. We are precisely aware that the production’s underscored intrinsic values encourage all people to overcome and move through the dark times. These are the basic truths which we cling to as we live our lives in Anatevke, Russia 1905 or NYC 2019. In this essentially clear-eyed, genuine, heartfelt production, faith and love emerge like pillars of fire; they guide Tevye and his daughters, and drive the arc of the play’s development.
During the course of the play Tevye learns ancient faith and modern love are not mutually exclusive; they are one. Steven Skybell’s Tevye (Skybell’s is an inspired, precise, brilliant portrayal of the witty journeyman) exercises faith daily in his discussions and personal relationship with God. Love, Tevye discovers by witnessing how it blossoms in his daughters’ lives and marriages. In a touching moment that lingers with sweetness Skybell’s Tevye and wife Golde (Jennifer Babiak) sing about what love is in their personal relationship. “Libst Mikh, Sertse?” (Do You Love Me). They discover that they have been bonded in love which has provided the security and contentment which helps them weather a hardscrabble existence, partners to the last.
Both faith and love embody the instrumental forces which drive the uneducated milkman and his family toward hope despite uncertainty. By the conclusion of the production, we understand that only with faith and love can they confront the anti-semitism of the Russian Orthodox community which fearfully has expelled them. Only with faith and love can they move on stoically without bitterness, believing that it will be better in their new home in America because they have each other. And Tevye, by keeping his fervent relationship with God, will continue to keep his balance as “a fiddler on the roof” despite the precarious times they will face in the new world with possibly more persecution and discrimination.
Wisely, Grey strips all unnecessary elements that Fiddler on the Roof might represent as a “Broadway show,” and solidifies the themes and alternating tenor and moods of laughter and sadness with a minimalist set, whose backdrop of parchment and cloth panels retains the most important word in the play and the only word which is not in Yiddish.
It is in Hebrew, painted in black Hebrew letters across the central banner. And it symbolizes what in effect Tevye looks for when he talks to an invisible God whom he must believe hears him and through received wisdom, answers Tevye. It is the Hebrew word signifying The Torah, God’s truth, God’s guidance to navigate a world which is in constant upheaval and is often hostile. It is particularly during intimate and animated discussions with God that Skybell’s Tevye depends upon his faith to provide the enlightenment he needs to make the right decisions for himself and his family. Every one of these discussions Tevye has, we believe that he believes God listens. These conversations imply the depth and irrevocability of Tevye’s faith and are a crucial part of the profoundness of this production.
But faith is a private matter between a man and/or woman and his/her God. So Tevye to explain himself in communal terms that relate to the society in which he lives, employs the simile to explain how he withstands his hard scrabble life. He does it precariously like “a fiddler on the roof” while conveying a bit of his own musical identity. And he’s able to stand living on the edge because of “one Torah, one God, one word…tradition.” As the ensemble joins in the song”Traditsye” we are introduced to Tevye’s ethnic cultural folkways that have existed in Anatevka for generations. We presume these “traditions” are reflected in The Torah.
Interestingly, during the course of the play, we, Tevye and the community learn that the folkways of Anatevka are not necessarily God’s ways of the Torah. In fact, they can be abused and lead to misery, as even Yente implies with her unhappy marriage and as we discover with the other unhappy marriages in the village, i.e. Leyzer-Volf’s marriage to Frume Sore who was a bitter woman. In fact, we and Tevye learn there can be happiness in marriage if there is love. And that is what God is all about.
As Motl (the fine Ben Liebert) suggests with wisdom given to him by Tsaytl (Rachel Zatcoff), “even a tailor deserves a little happiness.” Tevye after an enlightened discussion with God, and his daughter and Motl, throws off a stubborn adherence to Anatevka’s folkways, and follows a greater wisdom and acceptance because he loves his daughter and wants her to be happy in her marriage to a man she loves.
Reinforcing that love is God’s way, Motl’s faith is strengthened. Having the courage to stand up to Tevye and step out in faith for Tsaytl’s hand is miraculous, like the Biblical miracles (manna in the wilderness, etc.). He sings the vibrant “Nisimlekh-Veniflo’ oys” (Miracle of Miracles), the greatest miracle being that God has made the way for him to marry Tsaytl, serving as a beacon of light for the rest of the town.
To assuage and convince Golde of the rightness of this decision, Tevye has “Der Kholem” (The Dream). With the skills of this adroit company, in one of the marvelous highpoints of the production. Frume Sore is a larger than life spirit, a fiend (on stilts) with oversized body looming in a shrouded, wild costume, witchy hands, wild hair and exaggerated, ghostly make-up. She is wonderful and the company echoes her screams and questions with humorous frightfulness. As Tevye recounts the dream and the ensemble enacts it, Frume Sore portends a curse on Tsaytl if she marries Leyzer-Volf. It is so horrifying, Golde wants her daughter to avoid any curse; and receive the blessing her sweet spirit ancestor bestowed on the marriage. In this incredible scene, the traditional folkway of the matchmaker making a match is vitiated and love becomes the preeminent value.
This production clearly makes a distinction between faith of the Torah and folkways of Anatevka. Grey beautifully effects this through lighting, Skybell’s forceful discussions with his God, the sets (the backdrop panels) and the staging. Tevye’s faith and relationship with the God of The Torah who gives enlightened wisdom is not the same as the ancestral cultural folkways of Anatevka which have sprung up and been integrated from the surrounding society for economic purposes.
The learned Pertshik (the wonderful Drew Seigla) infers that love supersedes the matchmaker Yente (the wry, saleswoman of unappealing spouses-Jackie Hoffman). The Rabbi indirectly affirms this at the wedding at Tevye’s insistence by wisely not ruling on it. Nevertheless, the underlying message is that matchmakers are not in the Torah; God puts love in the hearts of people for each other. Tevye later confirms for Pertshik’s future marriage with Hodl, the old ways don’t apply as he evokes the metaphor of Adam and Even whose matchmaker was God. Another tradition that has little to do with the Torah is mixed dancing. Petshik dances with his beloved Hodl declaring it is not a “sin” which the Rabbi confirms. It is not in the Torah (the guide). And the men and women dance inspired by Tevye and Golde to initiate the dance which begins and incredible dance celebration at Tsaytl’s and Motl’s wedding.
Grey’s genius in selecting the painted Hebrew word “The Torah” as the focal point of the setting is so logical it’s breathtaking. The symbolism is magnificent. Not only is Tevye guided by his faith in God during trying times when the traditions they have followed for centuries are being overthrown by modernism. We, likewise, are being instructed in Tevye’s trials of faith. We, too, receive the wisdom he gains after he wrangles with God over vital decisions concerning his daughters’ marriages.
Indeed, this overarching theme of The Torah, God’s guidance, is present throughout as the panel never moves, never is taken down. That is why when the Russian constable comes in and his officers wreck the celebration and one of them tears the panel with the word Torah, it is horrifically chilling. To not be able to actively practice their faith threatens their ethos; they will be evicted. But why stay in a place tears out the very fabric of who they are? Though in the next act the panel has been sewed where it has been ripped, “the handwriting is on the panel.” The warning the constable has been giving to Tevye is coming to pass. And not even Khavele’s (Rosie Jo Neddy) relationship with Russian Orthodox Fyedke (Cameron Johnson’s dancing is spectacular) can save Tevye and the community from eviction.
This blow to his relationship with God, Tevye cannot brook. That his daughter would be with one of that faith is a death. This is not a custom, this goes much deeper and is a great trial. However, Goldie and his daughters will work on him, as is obvious when they say goodbye. Meanwhile, the dance sequence as Tevye mourns the loss of Khavele in the song “Khavele” (Khavele) is beyond poignant.
Every decision Grey has made informs the profound themes in this work and emphasizes what is vital for life to thrive despite loss. This is exemplified in the simple, uniform, dark tables and chairs which structure the scenes in Tevye’s home, the wedding hall, Motl Kamzoyl’s shop, the Russian/Jewish mixed cafe where Tevye meets Leyzer-Volf and they sing the marvelous “Lekhayim” (To Life, Lekhayim) and the Russians join in with vigorous, athletic dancing that is so joyful and celebratory, that for a tiny moment we actually think that the Russians and the Jews can have peace. Also the accoutrements-props, like candles, a washbasin, drinking glasses, the milk pales and cart-without a horse, etc., are used to round out the action when needed.
The message is clear. The material objects of life are movable and transient. The Torah, God’s guidance is forever for those who seek it and believe they receive His answers, as the vibrantly alive, humorous, enthusiastic “man for all seasons,” Steven Skybell’s Tevye believes he does.
Another superb element of this production is the use of the lovely fiddler portrayed by Lauren Jeanne Thomas whose portrayal is not to be underestimated, but is beautifully soulful and evocative. When Tevye is having a crisis and must go to his God for a talk, the nimble, sylph-like graceful Der Fidler (Lauren Jeanne Thomas as the fiddler) leans in slyly, sweetly and dances around Tevye as her playing soars with the poignance of the melody of “Traditsye,” as the music swells with the custom which is falling away. These moments are absolutely heartbreaking for Tevye must call upon his faith to guide him through the uncertainty, confusion and darkness. And of course as they leave Anatevke singing their song about a place they’ve identified with and can do no longer, Tevye motions for the Der Fidler to go with them. The customs of the Russian village they leave behind. But The Torah, God’s guidance is with them forever.
The production is a spiritual revelation that is extraordinary and miraculous. Special kudos to the orchestra, conducted by Zalmen Mlotek and Associate Conductor Andrew Wheeler. Just wow.
When it premiered at The Abbey Theatre in 1926, The Plough and the Stars initially opened to acclaim. However, word got out that O’Casey had written a play critical of Irish nationalism and religion, and the acclaim turned to disapprobation. O’Casey elected to focus on the hapless Dubliners, many women and children, who had been swept up in the bloodshed of the Easter Rising of 1916. During the five days of fierce fighting between the British and the Irish Citizen Army and Irish Republican Brotherhood, the British who had brought in heavy artillery, machine guns and bombshells with over nine times the troop strength of the Irish converted central Dublin and the tenements where citizens lived into a war zone. Because of the hundreds of citizen fatalities and thousands injured, the Irish rebels surrendered to save the city. The British took revenge with arrests and summary executions of the organizers, sealing the ill-will of Ireland and guaranteeing the irrevocability of Irish Independence.
In this last production of the Dublin Trilogy, the Irish Repertory Theatre, which has presented an amazing season of Sean O’Casey’s works, ends with its most masterful and emotional production to date. Directed by Charlotte Moore, O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars remains a sterling and representative human drama that soars into the heavens with the timeless message that there are no victors when members of the human family take up arms and kill each other. Assuredly, it is the innocent trying to make it to the next day, who become the casualties of violent conflicts. Those who die achieve a final peace; the living have to deal with the horrible memories and consequences of the aftermath of war.
The actors expertly shepherded by Moore effect O’Casey’s themes with emotional grist and power. As an ensemble their work together is exquisite, paced, focused, present. Because of their attention to moment-to-moment living onstage, the impact that rises from scene to scene and especially in the last scenes when the conflict and suspense are greatest are breathtakingly real and tragic.
The play follows the homely interactions of tenement dwellers in the latter part of 1915 and during the Easter Rebellion of 1916. These scenes of the every day lives of the tenement dwellers draw our empathy. In their discussions we become apprised that there are marches and meetings of various Irish groups who are gathering to amass political sentiment in support of the hoped for Irish rebellion and move toward independence. The meetings which have gained fervent advocates eventually come to a head and the play’s action shifts to events in Dublin during Easter Week 1916. It is then that O’Casey most acutely and poignantly reveals how these horrific events impact the lives of the Dubliners who live and hide in the tenements as they are shelled, shot at and warred against by the British Tommies who attempt to quash the rebellion.
In the first part of the production we note how O’Casey illustrates the divisions among the Irish citizens living in one lower middle class Dublin tenement. These characterizations develop and remain the focal point of the play. Some of the Dubliners have antithetical political affiliations like protestant, pro-British Bessie Burgess (the wonderful Maryann Plunkett who gives a heartfelt, frenzied, emotional portrayal throughout). Bessie’s son fought and died with the British as a Dublin Fusilier during early battles of The Great War. Her expressed rage and fury at the supporters of Irish Independence is understandable, though the other tenants think she is loathsome. Indeed, by the play’s end O’Casey’s twist of characterization proves her a formidable human being; and Maryann Plunkett brings this out in spades.
Others, like fiesty Peter Flynn (the humorous Robert Langdon Lloyd), the life-worn Mrs. Gogan (the fine Una Clancy) and Fluther Good (Michael Mellamphy is spot-on in his rousing portrayal of the carpenter who represents the typical working man) empathize with the Irish cause of independence as Catholics. Meanwhile, The Young Covey (the excellent James Russell) is the critical, anti-religious, acerbic intellectual who strafes the cause of independence with his caustic remarks. He is frustrated that the socialist cause he advocates has been redirected from the Worker’s of the World uniting to overthrow the capitalistic system.
Much of the humor in the first part of the play centers around O’Casey’s identification of the cross section of individuals who are disparate from one another in beliefs, religion and intellectual ethos. Yet they live in Dublin tenements and make up the culture and society of the city as they remain economically oppressed and without a voice in the government. We laugh as they carp and criticize each other to the extent that one wonders how the country will unite against the British at any level. Into this convulsed and funny hodgepodge of characters come the newly weds, the sweet, romantic Nora (Clare O’Malley gives a fervent, emotional and powerful performance throughout) and husband Jack (the sensitive and forceful Adam Petherbridge) who eventually, despite Nora’s surreptitious attempts to prevent this, is proudly made Commandant in the Irish Citizen Army.
Jack, infuriated that Nora withheld information of his promotion out of fear for his death, argues with her vehemently. Indeed, her self-interest and duplicity push him right into the arms of his mates. The scene where she admits she lied is dynamic and powerful. O’Casey’s characterizations are authentic and the actors (O’Malley and Petherbridge) are so letter perfect that we imagine such scenes playing out in households throughout Dublin and in a universal sense that this occurs in every war fought regardless of politics or nation. The timeless quality of war as a sacrifice of innocents is everpresent and beautifully rendered thematically in this scene.
As Young Covey, Fluther and Flynn meet and have drinks in a Public House after listening to speakers and continuing to listen to them from inside the pub, we meet additional Dublin denizens who will be impacted by the coming rebellion. These are the “lady of the night” Rosie Redmond (Sarah Street) and the Bartender who also plays Sargent Tinley (Harry Smith). In this interlude at the pub, the tension outside is rising and we note the success of the march and the rousing political speeches meant to mobilize the crowds.
When Jack and his mates come into the pub and conclude the scene with their nationalistic cries, they wave the flag (The Plough and the Stars, and the Tricolor Flag of Irish Independence). As these volunteers uphold their allegiance to a free Ireland, they put their family, wives and homes second. Nora is abandoned and forgotten as Ireland becomes Jack’s family.
In the next scenes that take place during the Easter week, April 1916, the irony of Jack’s heady, ebullient nationalistic sentiment is pitted against the frightful horrors that these volunteers and tenement dwellers face in the violence during the five days they confront heavy artillery and machine guns. The booming sounds are heard in the distance. Nora who looks for Jack to bring him home (an ignominious, selfish and cowardly action from Jack’s perspective) proclaims that she sees the fear in the Irish soldiers’ eyes while the soldiers she meets tell her she is shaming Jack.
In this fabulously directed scene that is tense, frightful, poignant and rage-filled, Nora struggles physically with Jack to keep him with her. And Bessie screams epithets and insults at Jack, Captain Brennan (John Keating) and the wounded dying Lieutenant Langon (Ed Malone). At the height of the drama, Jack berates Nora for attempting to keep him from fighting the cause, then he and the others leave to look for a doctor. Bessie who has a turn of empathy for Nora brings her safely inside, then runs for a doctor to help Mrs. Gogan’s dying daughter Mollser (Meg Hennessy). Kudos to the superb ensemble and the principals whose urgency and focus create the incredible tension in the scene. The audience is enthralled throughout.
As marvelous as Act III is, O’Casey’s climax in Act IV is without parallel and Moore and the actors are beyond exceptional in bringing the conclusion to its final glowing draw-down. O’Casey hammers his themes. These, he has seeded earlier in the play. In the final act they foment with the growing chaos which sweeps up various individuals unwittingly caught in the rebellion, i.e. The Woman from Rathmines (Terry Donnelly). Everyone who can be represented is. O’Casey reveals the tragedy and futility of innocents dying as they are mistaken for “the enemy.” In this last act of this most incredibly paced and dramatically written of his plays, we understand the genius of his message to humanity, which has been ignored and will continue to be ignored long into the next century.
There is no spoiler alert. You will just have to see how the conclusion unfolds ironically in this must-see production which is truly magnificent and fiercely trenchant and timely. I cannot praise this production with high enough encomiums for the director and cast except to say it will be a damn shame if you miss it.
Charlie Cororan (Scenic Design) Linda Fisher and David Toser (Costume Design) Michael Gottlieb (Lighting Design) Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab (Sound Design) and Ryan Rumery (Original Music) and others on the artistic team do a superb job in bringing about the authenticity of this production.
The Plough and the Stars (with one intermission) and the entire Dublin Trilogy can be seen until 22nd June at the Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd). For tickets and times go to the website by CLICKING HERE.
William Shakespeare’s King Lear directed by Sam Gold is a must-see for its principal performances and its particular, stylized artistic design (scenic, sound, costume) which cleverly emphasizes the themes, symbolism and metaphors of the play. Above all, you should not miss Glenda Jackson who is a gobsmacking dynamo as the king who throws off the shackles of corruption and confronts his mortality to gain the wisdom of foolishness.
Jackson fits the titular role like it is made of her own flesh. This is a “once upon a lifetime” production that is astute, profound, if sometimes opaquely realized with regard to integrating Philip Glass’ music. Nevertheless, the director’s vision and design suggests overarching themes about appearance vs. reality, lies vs. truth, duplicity vs. authenticity, wisdom in madness and madness in wisdom.
Throughout, Jackson is a magnificent, who always rises to perform with sentience and power. Her Tony award winning portrayals in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women last year were unforgettable. Likewise, her performance in King Lear follows with equal ferocity and fervor.
Shakespeare’s characterization of the foolish king is among the most searing, poignant and challenging of roles. Only someone with the breadth, knowledge, sensitivity and prodigious talent like Ms. Jackson’s should attempt it. And that is why, from a woman’s perspective, her performance of this man who is a king and a fool is almost counterintuitive. It is no ready coincidence that Jackson’s Lear exemplifies a startling emotional grist that moves the king’s ethos from corruption to madness to wisdom with breathtaking logic and moment-to-moment life.
In her every action, every breath and movement, every grimace and expression of inner torment and fury, we search out Lear’s evolving humanity as we feel his pain and empathize with him. Shakespeare’s characterization of Lear engineers the development of the play.
It is Lear who creates the self-destructive vortex and whirls violently in it during the arc of his soul journey, buffeted by its abuse, yet buoyed up by a stalwart inner core of moral outrage and self-righteous fury. It is the recognition of his own corrupted judgment and the expose of his daughters’ wickedness that keeps him from drowning in complete madness. He is kept from this abyss by the Earl of Kent (the exquisite john Douglas Thompson) his Fool (Ruth Wilson in a humorous turn) the supportive Earl of Gloucester (the poignant and superb Jayne Houdyshell) and Gloucester’s son Edgar (Sean Carvajal) in a beautifully rendered performance) who becomes like the Biblical lunatic to escape the wrath of the court.
After Lear spurns his third daughter Cordelia (Ruth Wilson) his daughter Goneril (the excellent Elizabeth Marvel) and daughter Regan (the equally fine Aisling O’Sullivan) presumptuously usurp his authority. They command that he heel to their authority, despite his generous bestowal of wealth and lands upon them. Rather than accept his retinue that follows him to his daughters’ castles, they provoke their father’s wrath to pursue their own agendas.
Maintaining his nobility and identity, Jackson’s Lear refuses to “live” under their terms. Homeless, he braves the stormy abyss of his own soul damnation reflected in the harsh elements with the help of his Fool and the Earl of Kent, disguised as a servant. Ruth Wilson’s Fool comforts Lear, chides him and peppers his rages at Goneril’s and Regan’s ignominous treatment with humorous jibes and quips which strip Lear of his courtly pretensions. Indeed, the Fool guides him toward humility and brings this lofty king into an endearment with his own “base” but noble humanity.
Gold’s version of Lear stylizes the trope that Cordelia and the Fool are similar by having Wilson expertly play both parts. If this is, in Lear’s mind, an unconscious projection of remorse, self-flagellation and wish fulfillment to forgive his loving Cordelia and keep her near, the doubling of roles is sensible. Certainly, Cordelia is the only daughter who loves him. Thus, it is appropriate that Cordelia-the Fool leads the foolish old man into wisdom to help perfect his soul and expurgate the corruptions he has internalized, surrounded by treacherous courtiers and family in a lifestyle that has caved in his better person.
During Lear’s journey into the dark storms of mental uncertainty deranged by a gilded, false life in the gaudy kingdom that he must leave behind (mentally) to grow, he stumbles upon his real self. Centered in truths he never experienced before in his court, Lear strives to maintain his autonomy and identity. He eventually comes to realize what is important in his life-his humanity/mortality/liability to err in judgment which he is able to forgive as he presents himself as “a foolish old man.”
Gold’s decision (Miriam Bljether’s Senic Design) to regale the court in pretentious splendor hints at a surface gloss and artificiality/artfulness that distracts from confronting the underlying wickedness and greed in Lear’s court and kingdom. They are “dressing to impress” to cover up the incompetence, nihilism and emptiness within themselves. All that glitters is fool’s gold; it lacks value and worth in an inherently weak kingdom whose underlying principles (if there are any) do not guard against self-destruction and annihilation. Thus, in the stylization the director reveals the seeds of corruption and foreshadows the devolution of the kingdom that will follow hard and fast.
In this setting of “fool’s gold” we meet the commanding Lear and his three daughters at a celebration during which the string quartet stuffed into a corner plays the gorgeous music (original music by Philip Glass) which the courtiers and family neither acknowledge nor appreciate but treat as background noise to be ignored as they raise their voices over it. The family’s general lack of appreciation for their lavish lifestyle and their dismissal of the importance of the depth of their royal duties is reflected in their reaction to all the court accoutrements including a most civil tea service later in the play, held at an incongruent and ridiculous time and place. They are the arrogant, the privileged. Only Cordelia differs.
Thus, when Cordelia reminds the court of her loyalty to her father invested in her role as his daughter, we take this to heart. Do the others, after receiving their inheritance realize the obligations their father’s gift entails?
Hardly. Regan and Goneril from the outset are principally concerned with “getting all they can” through false pretense. They could care less about the rights and duties invested in their father’s gift of an early inheritance. It is no small wonder that Goneril and Regan rail about Lear’s visits with his soldiers. They want the inheritance with no strings attached, wishing to be free of their father forever. Rather than pay homage and give extended hospitality to a vibrant, authoritative king, they take advantage of his public punishment of Cordelia and suggest that he is off balance. It follows that they will provoke his wrath and become his enemies, so that their unconscious desire that he dies sooner rather than later becomes a reality.
An overarching metaphor the director emphasizes throughout the play, is the irony of incongruence-in the court’s lack of probity and unseemly excessiveness. Incongruence is everywhere represented by the “out-of-place” music at the celebration and elsewhere, music which never quite melds throughout the arc of the play’s development. The “over-the-top,” ostentatious, meretricious faux “gold” walls and the formal outfits (Ann Roth-Costume Design) exchanged for less formal ones as the kingdom devolves and the characters’ wicked selves are exposed, also appear incongruous as they are presented. So do the huge ceramic dog and lion.
The gilt walls are present throughout the play with a similarly hued curtain that characters stand before during various scenes (a further emphasis of the themes of incongruity and fool’s gold or an idea that Shakespeare often uses that appears in The Merchant of Venice: “all that glitters is not gold”). The “fool’s gold” walls and audience curtain are the ironic, anomalous backdrop against which the characters are measured and either found wanting in that they exemplify the trope or are antithetical to it.
These artistic elements reflect the malfeasant influence his daughters and husbands have over Lear, an influence which is shaken out of him on his stormy journey coming to the end of himself.
As the daughters and their husbands abuse the kingdom for their own nefarious ends all becomes rubble, wrecked by the familial divisions and war. The walls are the only remnants of the former “glory” of the court perhaps suggesting a universal concept. This kingdom is finished, but the spirit of duplicity (faux gold) of leaders’ pretense which they use to control their minions is present in every age. Eventually, by the conclusion the back gold wall takes on a different hue changed by shifts in lighting. Interpret this as you will, the hue doesn’t gleam, but suggests small points of light (starlight?) amidst characters comments (i.e. Kent: ‘The stars above us govern our condition”).
In the fateful universe of Shakespeare’s play, the arrogant, self-centered human beings are thwarted in the pursuit of their own wicked desires which are founded upon worthless principles (“fool’s gold”) and lies. This development is evident in the characterizations of Goneril, Edmund, Regan, the Duke of Cornwall. The other characters (Edgar, the Duke of Albany) who do not follow their lust for power rise to triumph. As object lessons, Cordelia, Kent, Gloucester, Lear are caught up in the hazard, subjects of poignant tragedy.
And it all begins in the “golden” court, when Lear pronounces his inheritance to his inherently wicked daughters enticing them to flatter him in a misaligned quid pro quo as if to prove his greatness and their fealty to him. Goneril and Regan oblige him; Cordelia does not. In that fell act, treason and wickedness are exposed. The wrong daughters receive the bulk of the inheritance, the right daughter is disinherited. The world is in chaos, turned upside down as duplicity usurps love and order.
Lear makes a public show of Cordelia’s punishment sealing his misaligned judgment which the others see may be further abused. Indeed, Lear’s malignity is revealed in a court which embraces and exploits it. And this evil sets in motion the parallel plot with the Earl of Gloucester and his treacherous, conniving son Edmund (the wonderful, insidious Pedro Pascal) who usurps brother Edgar’s inheritance and place in his father’s affections and legal authority.
In this secondary plot the illegitimate Edmund, who despises the goodness of his father, lies on his brother Edgar who is forced to escape with his life and go into hiding disguised as the madman beggar “poor Tom.” It is only when Lear, Kent and the Fool meet up with Edgar and take shelter in a hovel does Lear begin to understand his condition in light of poor Tom who is much worse off. In this beggar lunatic, he sees his true ethos without the vanities of the world and his court.
Lear journeys through his “madness” gaining wisdom and gradually throws off the misaligned corruptions of the “courtly mind,” represented by the “fool’s gold” set design. Lear becomes the humble, kingly fool. These scenes among Lear, the Fool, Kent and Edgar are particularly wonderful. The scenes between Carvajal’s Edgar and Houdyshell’s Earl of Gloucester when the blind Earl seeks his death are magnificently rendered by Houdyshell and Carvajal and incredibly touching and poignant.
Thus, the deeper evils of this court once hidden in the hearts of Goneril and Regan and her husband and Edmund, feed on themselves and grow as the villains wreck everything to gain the advantage, an advantage which is never sustained with the good sense and order to keep it. The director correctly has the nihilistic Goneril, Regan, The Duke of Cornwall and Edmund contribute to demolishing all order in the kingdom symbolized by the ripped up set interiors as the court is rocked from within and without by war. Considering that they annihilate their inheritance and the goodness of Lear’s gift to them, portraying their father as their enemy, that evil which was hidden by glamour and civility explodes full bore by the play’s conclusion.
Goneril’s mocking lasciviousness expresses her unrestrained wildness “going over to the dark side.” Marvel’s development of characterization is superb. Likewise O’Sullivan’s Regan as the raging, screaming shrew (evolving from the sweeter sister at the outset) appears even more “off the beam” crazy than her father, Lear. And so does her husband the Duke of Cornwall (Russell Harvard’s signing is emotionally powerful) whose rage is at times inarticulate and can only be expressed with frantic signing and frustrated slamming.
By the end, the court reaches its true level of craven wantonness. The debased Goneril and Edmund have sordid sex on the floor reveling in the chaos and rubble. Regan and Edmund plot against Goneril in the disordered wreckage which no one bothers to clear out. Cornwall is stabbed as the actors pick their way around the debris of the once “glorious” court, followed by Regan’s poisoning by Goneril for Edmund’s love. The director again reinforces the theme that wicked amorality has no tenability nor the substance to sustain order. As those who deserve to rule, Edgar and the Duke of Albany (Dion Johnstone) prove themselves wise and just in restoring a kingdom ruined by greed, lies, usurpation, corruption and treachery.
In his humbled, state after the madness of wisdom shines a truth he has learned, Lear states a key theme about his royal court: “robes and furr’d gowns hide all.” In another quote he states: “plate sin with gold, and the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks.” To “plate” sin with gold (as he had allowed) makes justice weak and breaks it.
By the end Lear gains the revelations of foolish wisdom for he has humbled himself with self-recriminations of his pride at discounting Cordelia’s goodness. We are uplifted by his reconciliation with Cordelia. We rejoice with him as she forgives him, and sorrow with him at her death which he follows with his own. In all of these emotional modulations of this iconic human being that is the recovered foolish king, Ms. Jackson just wipes out the audience.
Ms. Jackson accomplishes this because from the first scene to the last she assumes the mantle of the salty, unhoused, unbridled, tragic Lear and never strays in her focus and determination. As Ms. Jackson’s Lear comes to the end of himself, he manifests the truth that he is, as all men (and women) are great and small, a fool. In this human portrayal, we recognize we too are the kingly fools of our own universe. And we stink of our own mortal desires, mistakes, frailties. And perhaps that is in itself our royalty of revelation. It doesn’t get any better than that!
King Lear runs with one twenty minute intermission, three and one-half hours at the Cort Theatre (48th St.) You may find tickets and times at the website by CLICKING HERE.