Author Archives: caroleditosti
Harper Lee won the Pulitzer Prize for To Kill a Mockingbird. If there had been a Pulitzer during the time of the Civil War, Harriet Beecher Stowe would have been awarded it by the North for her incredibly heartfelt and powerful Uncle Tom’s Cabin. President Abraham Lincoln upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe greeted her with this famous quote, “So this is the little lady that started this great war.” At the time To Kill a Mockingbird slammed onto US bookshelves in 1960, its effect has been no less dynamic 100 years after the Civil War. As a full frontal expose of egregious Southern racism, the novel justified white support of the Civil Rights Movement.
Both Lee and Stowe impacted the culture of their time indelibly and irrevocably. And there is no going back regardless of how much certain groups long for the “nobility” of being at the top of a social structure ratified by “that peculiar institution” whose remnants live on today in the Trumpist era of right-wing white supremacy, the KKK and Neo Nazism hiding billionaire fascism.
It is to these modernized remnants that Aaron Sorkin gives obeisance to, in his “new” To Kill a Mockingbird which tweaks elements of Lee’s novel more than a little. However, the purpose of the production is grand and our political and social currents scream out for such a tweaking. The script’s divergence does so in the spirit and dynamism of the novel to serve theatrical spectacle, enthrall the audience and align the themes to emphasize our society and its once hidden hypocrisies now brought into the fore by the White House. Whether or not this is a positive or a negative for understanding the novel’s role as a vital imprimatur against racism for its place and time is moot.
The changes are Sorkin’s decision and codified within the heading of “A New Play.” And though as a former teacher and Adjunct professor who is a Mockingbird purist, I “get it” and understand the primal necessity of the how and why Sorkin made certain adjustments. I will save the discussion of Sorkin’s changes and how they slide away from Lee’s intentions in another article.
This review focuses on Sorkin’s new To Kill a Mockingbird at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre which serves us beautifully in its revelation of the story of Tom Robinson and Boo Radley, the quintessential mockingbirds of the play. Sorkin’s script is bar none in its delineation of the wisdom of seeing through a child’s lens, in its superb rendering of representative characters (Link Dees, Judge Taylor, the Ewells and others) and above all in how it configures and integrates many of the important events in the novel in a crystal clear weave that is magnificent, earth-shattering and poignant drama.
Sorkin’s wrangling with the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird to integrate it into a riveting and spellbinding play becomes exceptional in the adroit and genius apparatus of Bartlett Sher’s renowned expertise and direction. The staging which resettles from courtroom, to the porch and interiors of the Finch House, and to the outside of the county jail works seamlessly in transitions: the fly-away sets all smoothly functioning at maximum speed and pace without distractions. His dialogue brilliantly enacted by the cast (special kudos go to the children played by Celia Keenan-Bolger, Will Pullen, Gideon Glick) maintains the novel’s humor, the balanced irony, the essential linchpin themes, the dynamic action, the flavor of the Maycomb, Alabama townspeople. No part of the production should be underestimated from acting to lighting, for all cohere around the script and Sher’s interpretation of it: in short absolutely spectacular.
Having taught the novel for years, I am familiar with much of it the beloved story’s high and low points. The production manifests the crucial thematic threads and dramatizes Lee’s ironic, subtle description by having the children speak to the audience as confidantes. Though the play comes in at around two and one-half hours with one intermission, the pacing is measured and at no part did the action drag or wither with dry spots. The dramatic unities of spectacle fuse with high-powered vigor and flow from the characters’ organic feelings. Credit this to Sorkin’s ability to carve away the meat from a scene and spice it with sometimes hysterical moments and emotional tenor (fear, joy, suspense, foreboding) to create a delectable feast that inspires and engages. Also credit this movement with the gobsmacking performances by Celia Keenan-Bolger as Scout, Will Pullen as Jem and Gideon Glick as Dill.
Celia Keenan-Bolger credibly inhabits the spirit of Scout in her ebullience, her enthusiasm, her curiosity, her innocence. I loved the novel Scout, though not the film Scout. I do love Keenan-Bolger’s Scout with the subtle passion and care and am amazed at how Keenan-Bolger allows Scout’s quiet, moment-to-moment, emotional entrenchment to overtake her. In every scene she is present consciousness. She so convincingly wears Scout’s mantle that I couldn’t even guess her chronological age. We have all seen teenagers or adults portray caricatures of kids which are funny or laughable but not always credible. She is no caricature of Scout. She IS Scout. It is through Keenan-Bolger’s sheer energy, liveliness and truthful genius that the production has found its success which balances on her elucidation of innocence and child-like grace.
Likewise, Will Pullen’s Jem as her foil, older sibling and loving brother is equally spectacular. All the modulations and evolutions of Jem, Pullen has embraced authentically, especially in his growing enlightenment about Boo Radley, and in his excoriation and disbelief in Atticus’ naivete about the swirling dark undercurrents of Maycomb’s residents. His relationship with Dill (the very lovable Gideon Glick) is forged with humor and energy and as the “oldest” and protector of Scout he is the real deal.
Glick who has some of the best lines and gets the biggest laughs in the production is the sensitive, funny and tragic child that Lee has captured in her novel. Glick, Pullen and Keenan-Bolger are shining examples of characters living onstage; you want to adopt them and take them home convinced their advice and love may serve you in rough times. They and others in the ensemble are why we go to live theater, to empathize, to be thrilled, to cry.
As the modernized house manager/mother/sister Calpurnia (the wonderful LaTanya Richardson Jackson) and the brave and dutiful, loving father Atticus Finch (Jeff Daniels in a fine turn) we understand a relationship we have not seen in the novel, but one which cannot be any other way in our current socio-political milieu. Daniels’ Atticus at times appears to be able to put himself in the place of other individuals, but has an incredibly difficult time of settling in his own shoes. An interesting rendering and amazing uncomfortable irony. Daniels is strongest in the final courtroom scene and with his visits with Judge Taylor, and scolding and being scolded by Jem. Richardson Jackson’s Calpurnia is a favorite; we do enjoy hearing her call down Atticus, though in the time and place the Cal of the novel would not have done so.
A word about some terrific performances. Dakin Matthews is just great. It is a comfort to see a Southern Judge who appears to be decent, kind and human, though it is Southern justice’s purview that Robinson will get the electric chair if found guilty. Robinson is being sacrificed on the altar of justice and if he doesn’t bring in the goods, Atticus will emotionally “die” with him, like a number of characters in the novel caught between Scylla and Charybdis, though Atticus forestalls this thought clinging on to the notion of an appeal.
Neal Huff’s Link Deas, likewise, is poignant and revelatory. Both Matthews’ Judge Taylor and Huff’s Deas reveal so much about Maycomb residents and the Southern culture’s subtle, slippery folks who cleverly negotiate the noxious climate of hate. Erin Wilhelmi is beyond superb as Mayella Ewell in her self-righteousness, her fear fueled arrogance and pride. Frederick Weller’s Bob Ewell as the underappreciated villain of Maycomb is sinister and arrogant and bullying. Both manage to reveal the characters as sonorously evil individuals with such humanity, we understand or at least think we understand why they are apparently hateful. However, as Cal suggests, it is horrifying to simulate “walking around in their shoes.”
And then there’s Tom Robinson. All I have to say about Gbenga Akinnagbe’s performance is bravo with tears in my eyes. At the curtain call I was happy to see he has full movement of both arms. As for Boo Radley portrayed by Danny Wolohan who also portrays Mr. Cunningham, he is the appropriate quiet, peaceful, and sensitive mockingbird as Boo, and the misled, “down-and-out” farmer Mr. Cunningham we feel sad for. Through the actors fine portrayals we understand how cultural mores and economics impact the society for ill and keep everyone behind, especially soulfully.
Not enough can be said about Sher’s direction and craft in assembling the skillful and award-wining creative designers to manifest his and Sorkin’s vision for the new play To Kill a Mockingbird. These are Miriam Buether (Scenic Design) Ann Roth (Costume Design) Jennifer Tipton (Lighting Design) Scott Lehrer (Sound Design) Adam Guettel (Original Score) Luc Vershueren for Campbell Young Associates (Hair/Wig Design) Kimberly Grigsby (Music Director) and Kate Wilson (Dialect Coach). All are perfect in my book. I thought the costumes of the children were well thought out; the music is both thrilling and poignant.
Can you get tickets to this award garnering (in a few months) production? Of course and you should. It is a monumental and historical event which happens every night and it comes at a heart-breaking time in US History. Be watchful, be aware, the themes are prescient and prevalent in our everyday lives. The production runs over two hours which fly by and it has one intermission. You can get tickets by CLICKING HERE.
The doldrums of winter signify their passing with the arrival of the annual NYBG Orchid Show, whose splendid displays of orchids bring their cheer, and lift our spirits. For this 17th year of The Orchid Show: Singapore, the Garden selected an appropriate theme to go along with its year long festival of #plantlove by celebrating a city which prizes the creation of green spaces so that its populace can commune with nature, meditate and spiritually regenerate surrounded by wondrous botanical beauty.
Singapore is a city-state at the tip of the Malay peninsula between Malaysia and Indonesia in Southeast Asia. It comprises one main island and dozens of tiny ones in an area around the size of New York City. It is a nation whose forward-thinking ideas and ambition for speed-of-light progress moved it from a third-world country to first world status in one generation, thanks to its brilliant Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. The Prime Minister conceived of his island nation and its multicultural population as a lush urban oasis. He realized his dream with greening projects and innovations that included nature preserves, glorious parks, and spaces and places for the populace to relax in natural environs.
From this burgeoning vision, the nation has made it an imperative to recognize the importance of plants, nature and tropical gardens so that the city has become a veritable “City in a Garden.” Every new building, every new development must include plants and green places by law. Over the years Singapore has remained true to Prime Minister Yew’s conception so that today, it is recognized as the city with the greatest percentage of tree canopy cover anywhere in the world. And how it creates this tree canopy is absolutely gobsmacking. The orchids make it especially so..
Singapore has one of the greatest and oldest orchid cultures in the world and is home to 220 distinct orchid species. The only nation that doesn’t have a wild plant species as the national flower, Singapore’s national flower is a hybrid orchid indicating how important hybrids are to their culture and economy.
The hybrid Vanda Miss Joaquim which produces striking purple-pink and flame-orange blooms throughout the year is named for its creator Agnes Joaquim (1854-1899) who was a member of Singapore’s small American community. Agnes Joaquim entered her orchid in Singapore’s annual Flower Show in 1899 which garnered a first prize as the rarest orchid. Subsequently, in 1981, Miss Joaquim was selected to represent Singapore as the national flower. Their choice of a hybrid honors the storied history of Singapore’s venerable orchid cultivation, and the multicultural and religious blend of its citizens.
Cultivators enjoy creating new orchid hybrids the total of which now numbers in the many thousands globally. Horticulturists have hybridized orchids in Singapore since the 19th century because the species naturally flourishes in the wet, tropical climate. Visiting Singapore one notices the daily orchid pageant as gorgeous varieties cling to trees and populate the gardens, parks and greens spaces. Each year growers export millions of stalks for the international flower market
This historical attention to plants and the gradual veneration of orchids began in 1859 when a group of horticulturists and agriculturists established the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Botanists at the Gardens experimented with utilitarian plants like the rubber tree which became a vital agricultural crop turned into a product used in industrial manufacturing. They began their serious experimentation and cultivation of orchids in 1928, developing groundbreaking techniques for propagation which helped to establish Singapore’s prodigious orchid cultivation industry. The Botanic Gardens have propagated and developed more than 630 hybrids. The National Orchid Garden displays thousands of orchids. Many of them have been created there. Also, they display more than 1000 species from around the world.
Paying homage to Singapore’s appreciation and love of plants, the NYBG fashioned its floral spectacular with features represented in two botanical gardens in Singapore: Gardens by the Bay and Singapore Botanic Gardens. Walking down the familiar paths in the NYBG Palms of the World Gallery and Reflecting Pool, to reach the Central Rotunda at the opposite end of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, one sees a panoply of orchids festooning simulations of the architectural elements found in Singapore’s famed gardens which the NYBG developed in partnership with them to create The Orchid Show: Singapore.
The Gardens by the Bay is a 250 acre public space in Singapore’s downtown area which opened in 2012 and is Singapore’s largest tourist attraction. The acreage comprises multiple gardens, futuristic glasshouses and a grove of Supertrees, Singapore’s paean to art, nature and technology. These Supertrees exemplify biomimicry in their design and engineering, modeled after natural forms and processes. The NYBG was inspired to create its own dynamic trees in celebration of Singapore’s amazing artistic/technological/horticultural sculptures, whose towering, 160 feet tall vertical gardens are unlike any other structure in the world. They are unparalleled for their utility and purpose which is to mimic the functions of trees using modern technology.
Cascading ribbons of rainbow colors of,Vandas, Oncidiums, Phalaenopsis, Dendrobiums and other plant varieties flow down from these massive, tree giants that are embedded with photovoltaic cells that harvest solar energy. Their wide canopies provide shade and a habitat for epiphytes like orchids and other plants which grow on trees high in the air rather than in soil. Supertrees collect and distribute rainwater and are fitted with solar panels that sustainably power dramatic light displays as real trees harvest the sun’s energy for photosynthesis. These Supertrees especially showcase that Singapore’s heart is in the right place with environmentally sustainable horticulture.
Two gorgeous Supertree models are in The Orchid Show: Singapore, at either end of the conservatory. In the central showcase of the Rotunda, you will see fabulous orchid theater: every shape, color and major species of orchid hybrid reaches upward toward the lattice dome of the greenhouse in a breathtaking tower. The second marvelous Supertree replica is in the Palms of the World Gallery and Reflecting Pool. Look into the waters of the pool to see the mirror of the tall tree massed with white orchids which are interspersed with lovely fillers of ferns and colorful bromeliads. The NYBG’s eye popping orchid architectures are 18 feet tall and symbolize Singapore’s incredible structures found throughout the “City in a Garden” and featured spectacularly in the Supertree grove of The Gardens by the Bay.
The other architectural element you will find in The Orchid Show: Singapore is inspired by the magnificent Arches of Singapore Botanic Gardens’ National Orchid Garden. In Singapore, the arches are radiantly festooned in the stunning yellow Singapore dancing lady hybrid (Oncidium Gloldiana). And these grow grow year-round. The replication of this design feature in the NYBG walkway stuns. On first glance in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory sauntering on the path to either Supertree Showcase, one understands immediately why the NYBG was inspired to include both architectural elements from Singapore in this year’s orchid show.
Following the passage from one Supertree to the other, you will move through five glorious arches clothed with hundreds of vibrant fuschias, blues, yellows, pinks, purples, golds of the various Vandas, Oncidiums, Phalaenopsis, Dendrobiums. The sheer number and abundance create breathtaking bowers along a stirring fantastical path which enthralls BECAUSE it is treasured living botanical art. The archway’s profusion of exotic, shimmering beauty and the effects of the flowing Spanish moss, dangling blooms and beckoning orchid faces recall a pleasure garden paradise.
If one can’t be a snowbird in February, then happily visit the NYBG a number of times in the next months until 28th of April to luxuriate in the tropics and allow your senses to revel in the exotic sights, smells and music, especially during Orchid Evenings (March 16, 23, 30; April 5, 6, 12, 13, 19, 20, 26 and 27 from 7-10 pm with entry times at 7, 7:30 and 8:00 pm.)
Kudos to Marc Hachadourian (The curator of NYBG’s Orchid Show: Singapore, Director of the Nolen Greenhouses for Living Collections and a staunch CITES advocate to preserve rare orchids and rescue them at NYBG) who oversees the orchid collections for the show.
And equal praise goes Christian Primeau (Manager of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory). Christian Primeau a few years ago mentioned that he likes the Paphiopedilums (Lady’s Slippers) and I noted their placement in key areas featured on rocks near reflecting pools, recalling their natural habitats. Marc and Christian collaborate to come up with the orchid selections to display most effectively in the architectural elements so that the exhibits will remain fresh and gorgeous. They and the entire staff work assiduously to get the show up and running after the Holiday Train Show is struck. The beds must be graded and prepared for the orchid plantings. Then comes the staff to complete the design and color coordinated exhibits in keeping with the current show’s theme. And having spoken to each of these experts over the years (see my previous posts on Blogcritics and Youtube) their #plantlove obviously has manifested in this extraordinary exhibit.
As has Karen Daubmann’s #plantlove (Associate Vice-President for Exhibitions and Public Engagement). Her extensive collaboration with Gardens by the Bay and Singapore Botanic Gardens to help make The Orchid Show: Singapore a success is apparent from the moment you enter the Palms of the World Gallery and Reflecting Pool. Karen mentioned that she had spent a bit of time in Singapore and attested to its forward innovations and emphasis in recognition of the vitality of plants, orchids, flowers everywhere you go in the “City in a Garden.”
A few last points follow here about the NYBG Orchid Show: Singapore. Along your journey through the various galleries of the conservatory, make sure to watch out for the sign indicating the Vanilla Orchid. Yes, vanilla comes from an orchid. And stop by to view the amazing variety of rare orchids (delicate, lovely) in their glass case which houses some of the Garden’s rescued orchids. Since 1990 the Garden has been a designated CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Plant Rescue Center.
The Garden preserves and rehabilitates orchids that have been rescued from poachers around the world (Brazil, Thailand, Peru, India, etc.) who exploit rare orchids from their native habitats and sell them. Because such rare orchids can bring a substantial price for the right buyer, poachers are constantly on the lookout, especially if they have an unethical collector at the ready. Coupled with their low growth densities in the wild and other threats to the species (deforestation, habitat destruction, climate change) wild orchids are among the most endangered plants in the world.
Words cannot easily define the wonder and hope that has been realized from Yew’s dream of an oasis. It is that wonder which now resides until April 28th at the New York Botanical Garden. That the Garden has extolled Yew’s vision of “The City in a Garden” vision and honored it this year with The Orchid Show: Singapore cannot be underestimated nor underappreciated. It must be understood for its symbolism, especially now that many of the institutions that have been created to preserve and protect our nation and its environs, parks, preserves, green spaces are being threatened by those in power obsessed with a different form of greenery. Though most Americans are abjectly opposed to the rapacity for the accumulation of profits in industries that are unsustainable and run counter to our planet’s well being, De-regulation in the wrong direction is happening in the US.
In light of this potential threat and the threat of Global Warming, Singapore shines an incredible light of hope in innovation, and faith that where “there’s a will, there’s a way” to create sustainable, fabulous green spaces to uplift and regenerate the citizens of a nation. Thanks to the NYBG, its scientists, botanists, researchers, horticulturists, staff and volunteers, all #plantlovers who constantly remind us of what we must not lose, the beauty of our planet whose flora and fauna are sacred and integral to ourselves.
The Orchid Show: Singapore has excellent activities that reflect the culture of Singapore in its music and dance during the daytime and especially during Orchid Evenings. Again, there will be the Bronx Night Market Pop-up featuring Barbecue, Vegan, Fried Chicken, Empanadas and other offerings to enjoy while listening to DJ’s perform and watching dancers freestyle. And if you are sick and tired of killing your orchids because you over-water them, you need to attend a few “Orchid Care Demonstrations” in the Conservatory’s GreenSchool on a Saturday or Sunday between 2:30-3:30 pm. Let an expert help you save your plants.
The Orchid Show: Singapore runs until 28th of April. For select programming, membership, children’s activities and more CLICK HERE.
Dramaturgs are most probably familiar with the tribulations of the 1981 version of Merrily We Roll Along, book by George Furth, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, produced by Harold Prince. The musical, based on the titular play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart essentially extols youthful ambitions and artistic dreams which may become subverted by practical considerations once success and financial security are achieved. The original Furth/Sondheim musical lacked measured focus but was noted by some for its wonderful score. Though the show closed after more previews than performances, it was nominated for awards and won two.
The concepts highlighted by Sondheim’s music and lyrics are timeless and made especially so in their reworked version of Merrily We Roll Along (1994) which grounds the adapted iteration presented by Roundabout and engendered by the sterling efforts of Fiasco Theater. From the superlative, exciting performances by a “gang of six” headed up by the three principals, Jessie Austrian, Manu Narayan and Ben Steinfeld and directed with precision and adroit sensitivity by Noah Brody, this thematically poignant production resoundingly works (rare praise coming from a lukewarm Sondheim fan). I found the energetic pace, incredible plot structure and imaginative set design that paid tribute to theaters of the past (and Sondheim’s work) delightful and funny. Altogether, the artistic design, staging, costumes, sound design, and the ensemble’s superlative acting and singing unfold seamlessly in the service of uniquely structured storytelling that many should appreciate.
Certainly, the sheer number of theatrical props on library bookself-style floor to ceiling walls covering three sides of the stage intrigue. The props, haphazardly arranged appear akin to a “behind-the-scenes” look into symbolic take-aways of the characters’ lives. The theatrical design and tropes provide a fascinating backdrop to the action, the arc of which spins linchpin events in a reverse chronology from 1980 to 1957. It is a period of time which encompasses seven transitions to the precipitating incident when the three protagonists (Mary-Jessie Austrian, Charley-Manu Narayan, Frank-Ben Steinfeld) first meet on a rooftop that turns out to hold a lasting symbolism for them. The flashbacks to crucial years, highlight the melds and fractures of these immensely talented individuals whose dreams, personalities and synergies help to solidify an artistic fount of creativity. It is from this fountain of creativity and their interlocking aspirations that their successes spring forth.
However, without their symbiotic energies weaving and flowing together, the fountain dries up. As we follow the events backward in time, we note the progression and conclude that the waters that once revived them dissipated as did the joy, hope and vibrance of creative, encouraging friendship. It is this that Frank remembers at the outset of the play and which is the initiating incident of all the scenes that flow back into the past. We shadow Frank as he relives and remembers key times and places that led to his separation from his friends. The three when we meet them in 1980 are successful and rest on their laurels. However, their greatness which is embedded in their friendship with each other is behind them. It is this tri-parte greatness that Frank (the excellent Ben Steinfeld) seeks in the beginning of Merrily We Roll Along.
And it is this greatness that Frank understands he has lost in an epiphany at the conclusion of the extended flashback which switches back into the present. He knows when his friendship ended with Mary (Austrian is absolutely wonderful) and Charley (Narayan brings down the house with “Franklin Shepard, Inc.”), that he lost the best part of himself. Whether he makes a determined effort to rekindle his relationship with Mary and Charley to recapture what they had is uncertain and sadly, not even alluded to as the lights dim.
The play’s structure as we chronicle the journey back to their first sparks of friendship is revelatory. When we witness the older individuals and their various partners at the outset of the play, these successful people are “played out,” grossly unspectacular and unoriginal. We do not relate to them, and feel disengaged from Frank’s “matter-of-fact” attitude as he sings “Rich and Happy.” But the song belies the truth and he and others question how they arrived at their aggressive and truly unhappy, unfulfilled state. There is a “movie-like” rewind (a transition which segues into the past), and the characters get to experience what most of us don’t get to see: the pivotal events that cause them to be where they are, when they don’t wish to be there at all.
In the brilliance of the play’s structure we chronicle Frank’s and the other’s flashback to the greatness they lost with various songs (“Like It Was,” “Franklin Shephard, Inc.”, “Old Friends,” “Growing Up,” through to “Our Time”). With the songs and transitional refrain (“Merrily We Roll Along”) taking us to their former times, the characters fill out and become personable individuals with whom we readily identify. Because of the ensemble’s acting skills and the director’s attention to detail, we joy to their humanity and feel ebullient with them, witnessing how they “made it.” However, we realize there is a caveat: success is another type of failure if one allows it to overthrow priorities and values that are based in goodness.
When we finally witness Mary’s, Frank’s and Charley’s serendipitous meet up on the rooftop when they solidify an uncanny unity, we make the connection to their twenty years later selves. Yes, years later they have “grown up.” But they have sacrificed, not their youthfulness, but their hope. They’ve lost the eternal innocence that initially ignited their artistic ambitions and happiness when they “found” each other.
It was this eternal innocence that synergistically drove them, encouraged them, sustained them through the “hard” years before they achieved success. However, after each becomes successful in their own right, they allowed their friendship to be sacrificed on the altar of celebrity. Their triumph is hollow, their latter-day efforts are uninspired. It is an incredible irony that in “the seeking” is the fun and adventure. With success comes another myriad of torments. And without your friends to hear you out and go through the miseries with you, it is especially painful. So it is for Mary, Charley and Frank.
To round out the acting “gang of six” are Brittany Bradford who portrays Beth, Meg and K.T. Her “Not a Day Goes By,” is just great in its emotional power and resonance. Paul L. Coffey and Emily Young are excellent as foils to each other portraying the producer, husband, actress, divorced and devolved. Carefully they authenticate the specifics of these individuals that confound Mary’s, Charley’s and Frank’s friendships with each other.
Coffey’s upward development of Joe from failed producer to top of the world success is great (rewinding from the present to the past). Young’s upward development of neophyte actress and wife, who throws over Joe for Frank is excellent. The ebb and flow of success and failure in the marriages and relationships between Frank, Beth, Gussie, Joe characterizes the show business life. Meanwhile, Charley and Mary manage to hang on to their steady state (though Mary never marries). The contrast between the two groups is fascinating. It is clear how the demands of the producing/acting/songwriting lifestyles overthrow stability as these characters swim and tread water in an ever-changing sea of transitions.
Fiasco Theater’s re-imagining of Merrily We Roll Along is sharp, engaging, humorous, heartbreaking. The themes of friendship, regret and loss examined using flashbacks are clearly drawn through the music which is dynamic and exceptional. Sondheim touched upon the ineffability of friendship’s innocence and beauty and used that to drive the show forward into the remembrances of the past. The transitions beginning with the “Big Rewind” are excellent as the “gang of six” “rolls merrily along further into the convoluted turning points that got them to where they are decades later.
Some numbers are riotous, for example Austrian’s transformation into her thinner, unalcoholic self. Her vomiting up the booze “in the rewind” is super smart and hilarious. “Bobby and Jackie and Jack,” a song Charley, Beth, Frank and Mary perform at the Downtown Club is fun, and nostalgic for those who remember the Kennedys. The excitement of “It’s a Hit!” sung by Joe, Charley, Frank, Mary and Beth when their show is a success is exuberant and effervescent. And “Old Friends” is just spectacular. emotional and stirring. It is the kindling of the show’s fiery brightness.
Most importantly, the cast authentically, magnetically fulfills in their various portrayals what Sondheim and Furth wanted to express: themes about friendship gained and lost, the synergies of creativity, the wonder of manifesting the creative process, and the corruptions that undermine the best of one’s self, for example prizing financial gain above all else.
The production is complex and rich. It should be seen, especially if you saw another version of Merrily We Roll Along. Fiasco Theater’s smashing adaptation is not to be missed. And if you didn’t see an earlier version, be happily enthralled while enjoying the depth of this production which is a clever, profoundly poignant “every-person” memoir of gaining and losing oneself. Finally, the work is a paean to friendship which in this show starts in the forever and ends up with protagonist Frank and the others staring into the abyss of regret. Is there a warning here in the “Age of Trumpism?”
Special Kudos to all creatives and The Band: Conductor/Piano-Emily Whitaker and these musicians: Giuseppe Fusco, Ansy Francois, Jeremy Miloszewicz, Jami Dauber, Hidayat Honari, Matt Aronoff, Janna Graham. Music Coordinator: Meg Zervoulis; Music Preparation: Conor Keelan.
Merrily We Roll Along runs without an intermission at the Laura Pels Theatre, Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre (111 West 46th Street) until 7 April. You can purchase tickets at (212) 392-6308 or at their website by clicking HERE.
Without bringing it square and center in his latest work The Neurology of the Soul, a must-see currently at A.R.T., playwright Edward Einhorn thematically relays what Tom Stoppard focused on in his work about neuroscience’s inability to deal with consciousness in The Hard Problem. Indeed, in The Neurology of the Soul Einhorn’s presents a neuroscientist’s search to empirically measure consciousness (love) with brain scans. Einhorn also directs this exceptional play which delivers humor, boundless verve and exciting ideas that on closer inspection are concerning.
Why are neuroscientists, marketers and art gallery owners (representatives of whom Einhorn acquaints us with in the play) assiduously and feverishly working to find the next great “discovery?” The profit motive in all of its sinister, opaque, nullifying effects which bind us to cultural norms that are often destructive to our souls. With an intriguing backdrop linking neuroscience, art, marketing/branding and human relationships, Einhorn raises questions about ethics and justice in his beautifully constructed, dynamic and mind-blowing work.
This is Einhorn’s newest play and it is as trenchant as much of his earlier work, perhaps even more so. For by identifying a loving couple’s relationship in the petri dish of our time, then agitating it with other individuals and circumstances, he explores the hideaway crevasses of the human spirit and soul. And he reveals how ultimately, consciousness and feelings of love are beyond the kin of empiricism (quantifiable, material data production) which science clings to with ferocity and an almost paranoid, discriminatory blindness. His exploration is at once humorous and frightening, if one considers the implications of what the art world, marketing and neuroscientists may intend. Each have their own siren songs which Einhorn gently presents to allow us to form our own conclusions. And even if the results are unsettling and uncertain, indeed the considerations are limitless and fascinating. Above all, his play alerts us to be on guard.
Stephen (a superbly developed performance by Matthew Trumbull) a cognitive neuroscientist, works for a university as a researcher. He is obsessed with attempting to chart consciousness, specifically the emotions of love. He is using brain scans (fMRI) to do so. That he employs his wife Amy (Ashley Griffin is equally brilliant in the give and take with Trumbull) as his research subject to gauge her reactions and brain responses to his expressions of love, appears sweet. On deeper inspection, Matthew’s Stephen remains removed and aloof as a researcher in the lab. And hearing his “matter-of-fact” atonal love expressions is humorous. It is antithetical to any expression of emotional love and desire which might arise during the normal course of two people interacting in a more intimate setting. (How Einhorn evolves this character and shepherds Trumbull’s adroit, incisive acting skills to bring him to surprising emotionalism is fabulous! Bravo to both!)
Amy, a “failed” artist who signs on for the experiment, for she, too, wants to see how “love” lights up her brain, at the outset appears to be the more sensitive of the two. As Stephen gauges her responses, Amy speaks her feelings and thoughts to the audience and engages us as her confidante. She remains the impassive subject on a research table. We and Stephen can view her on a television screen and Stephen charts her brain responses. Nevertheless, she is two people: the interior and the exterior. For during the scene, when Stephen speaks love phrases to her, Amy’s interior feelings (which she relates to us) and thoughts are very active. Indeed, they are not about him or her love for him, but about the process of being “a subject.”
Einhorn’s having Amy speak to the audience is intriguing. Is this foreshadowing how from the outset, the scientific mapping is not only primitive, but is most probably heading in the direction of a complete disconnect? Einhorn surreptitiously sneaks in through Amy’s address/aside to the the audience (a dramatic technique with more than a typically Shakespearean purpose) that the human being is not a machine easily measurable. Nor is a human being easily controllable, manipulated, or understood. Her thoughts are unseen to Stephen, but revealed to us as she flashes back to a time when she modeled nude for art classes. This “disconnect,” is at the crux of the play and provides the action that propels it to the climax (when Amy and Stephen “scream” in recognition of their hurt and what they fear they have lost).
Increasingly, during Stephen’s experimentation of charting love, his love relationship with Amy is impacted. The observation of their love strangely changes it, recalling to mind the “observer effect” in Physics; the observation of a situation or phenomenon impacts and changes it.
Immediately, in the next segment Einhorn introduces Mark, the head of a neuromarketing firm who speaks before a “Digital Leadership Convention.” As Mark, Mick O’Brien is frighteningly believable as the narcissist with an overweening ego convinced of his own perfection and the justice of brainwashing people whom he uses for his own agenda. With clips of older TV advertisements, Mark convinces us how facile it is to manipulate consumers to buy product. Mark brilliantly persuades his audience (us) in the direction of using the expertise of his neuromarketing firm for whatever purpose, for example, selling product or something else. As Mark’s selling segments alternate with the research sessions between Amy and Stephen, the inevitable happens. Mark eventually hires Stephen for a lot of money to conduct research for his firm with the quid pro quo that Stephen can continue his research with Amy.
The delicious irony that Einhorn reveals with Mark’s characterization is that Mark “believes” that by employing visual and aural propaganda and brainwashing techniques, consumers are completely pliable and suggestive. That this is a “belief” or “theory” and not a 100% proven fact is lost on him. There is no uncertainty with him. He is convinced of the reality he creates to lure his listeners (Amy, Stephen, us) and himself.
Though Amy does not trust him initially, Stephen and she relocate to an apartment in New York City. Mark persuades Amy to use her brain scans to create art which will be shown in a gallery he co-owns with his former wife Claire (a fine performance by Yvonne Roen as the congenial art dealer who ameliorates Amy’s misgivings and suspicions about Mark). Altruism doesn’t play into Mark’s “concern” for Amy’s talent or artistry. He convinces her she is lucky meeting him and that his is an opportunity she shouldn’t refuse. When she doesn’t, of course, he profits from the exhibition of her work and insinuates himself into her relationship with Stephen. Additionally, her art and herself become a commodity to be branded and marketed. Amy and her art are objectified, but the price for this process of bringing her brain scans (soul?) into art is worth it she believes. The irony is duly noted and we are reminded that promoters and marketers control how art and people rise and fall as trending commodities.
The inevitable affair does not occur between Mark and Amy; though how this doesn’t occur is as complicated and uncertain as the wind. Stephen in the process of measuring Amy’s scans convinces himself that he sees in her scans a diminishing love response. And this he interprets to mean that she is falling out of love with him. Ultimately, there is a separation of living arrangements. With all this scientific measuring, belief, assumption, and second guesses encroach. It is a great irony of this play that the characters reveal how unobjective and unscientific they are in typical human fashion.
Despite the persuasive talents of Mark who is convinced of his own invincibility, Amy’s love is for one man only. Once more our faith is restored in what is unknowable, unscientific and spiritual (love). Amy’s art does receive an uplift; about that, as Claire suggested, Mark’s invincibility appears to be correct.
The Neurology of the Soul startles, thrills and absolutely shimmers with light. The themes Einhorn suggests are heady and profound. To what extent must we question the ethics about neuroscientific information in the employ of unscrupulous “neuromarketers” like representative Mark? If science captivates human beings’ unconscious proclivities with the intention of handing over the data to corporate entities who will then use it to brainwash social groups to consume their products, shouldn’t this be regulated? What if such data is turned over to digital companies to manipulate individuals to vote a certain way or support a certain political group over others? Isn’t this injudicious? Undemocratic? Should scientific ethics be left to scientists to self-regulate or independent panels of retired scientists? How do scientists regulate themselves to prevent abuses?
Science removed from philosophy and ethics and morality because those are quaint historic notions is a dangerous “science”. Such science is akin to its own philosophy and belief system which then could be used to justify anything. Without moral and ethical considerations, primitive neuroscience is still in its infancy. But what happens if certain emotions and consciousnesses can be mapped? As for now, the mind is unknown. Consciousness is a “hard problem.” And emotions like love, as Einhorn shows by the conclusion of his play, are beyond measure.
Einhorn’s The Neurology of the Soul is incredibly prescient and current. Think of social media’s use of memes, tropes, visuals and hot button rhetoric pegged to unconscious impulses to manipulate with disastrous results, especially when social groups are being targeted. Regulation is an imperative. But what happens when corporates and other leading social actors resist regulation for their own ends?
All of these themes and many more Einhorn sweepingly covers in this incredible and memorable work, made more exceptional with the production team’s artistry. All these listed are well shepherded by Einhorn’s direction. Kudos to Jim Boutin (Set Designer); Magnus Pind Bjerre (Video Designer); Ramona Ponce (Costume Designer); Jeff Nash (Lighting Designer); Sadah Espii Proctor (Sound Designer); Tiffany Lee (Asst. Video); Eric Mueller (Neurosales Logo) and all who contributed their efforts.
The Neurology of the Soul runs with no intermission until 2nd of March at A.R.T. (53rd between 10th and 11th). For tickets to this amazing production go to the website: Click Here.
The Price of Thomas Scott, currently at Theatre Row is an interesting period piece which has at its core central issues about conscience, upholding the values one professes to believe in and sacrificing material well being for spiritual health and soul wholeness. Written by Elizabeth Baker (1876-1962) the playwright who hailed from a religious family wrote in the early last century about London’s working classes, shop girls, clerks and the ambitiously upwardly mobile.
In focusing a spotlight on their dreams, foibles and mores, Baker entertains with an eye to unraveling key theses about the human condition. Despite fashion and social folkways, if you transplant her characters in a modern prototypical setting, the results would initially appear vastly different, but the similarities in the characters’ issues would be stark and familiar. The reason why is because the moral, ethical and personal questions her characters confront, are issues we also confront at one time or another, if we have a conscience. There’s the rub!
The setting is the back parlor of Thomas Scott’s Draper’s shop (cloth wholesaler, haberdasher) where daughter Annie Scott (the delightful and winning Emma Geer) and son Leonard (the vibrant Nick LaMedica) discuss their ambitions and dreams, all of which require a large amount of money that their father does not have. The Scotts are part of the declining middle class and the children are strivers. However, Thomas Scott’s business is not doing well because his competitors drive down the prices, and the costs, as always, seem to eat into any profits. In short, Scott wishes to sell his business, retire and go to a beautiful place in Wales, something his wife has been longing for as she is tired of city living.
One factor that we note immediately is that this is a religious family and Mr. Scott (Donald Corren’s portrayal is modulated and has none of the self-righteous tone of the “religious”) upholds his beliefs and encourages his family to attend church and eschew all the latest fads and fashions, even attending theater performances. Though he doesn’t view theater as sinful, actually, he characterizes it as immoral (this gets a laugh from the audience). He suggests he can read the about it and that time and money could be spent better with other pursuits.
After a scene where lodger Johnny Tite (Andrew Fallaize) and his friend Hartley Peters (Josh Goulding) waltz with Annie and her friend May (Ayana Workman), as brother Leonard plays for them, we understand that the young people wish to break away from the repressed culture in which they live. A waltz seems harmless enough. But we realize from the paranoid and hurried way that they rearrange the furniture which they moved to dance, that Mr. Scott would not be pleased to see them carrying on. Apparently, he doesn’t approve of dancing either. The focal point of his life seems to be church, praying, Bible study and singing religious hymns and he encourages his family to follow his upright example which they do to his face with a few lapses behind his back.
The conflict slowly develops. Mr. Scott fears running down his business to bankruptcy. And the only way out for his and his children’s dreams to come true would be to sell. However, no one is interested. And because of the other sales of neighbors’ business it appears he will not get a particularly good price for his shop. The quandray stresses him and his family who understand the stakes and the potential doom if there is no buyer.
When a buyer appears as a recommendation from elsewhere, Mr. Scott is thrilled as is the family. Following the adjurations of his friend to ask for an excellent price, he holds out for a price which would answer all of the desires of the family. Indeed, money answers all things, a Biblical scripture the play does not allude to. The 500 pound settlement would allow him to retire to Wales with his wife, set his son on a fine career path and pay for his daughter’s dream to go to Paris to learn the latest styles and return to London to employ her craft.
However, there is a fly in the ointment which may prevent their dreams from ever being realized. And the huge fly is Mr. Scott’s values and conscience. He is not enamored of the buyer or his trade.
His wife Ellen (the fine Tracy Sallows) respects him as do his children. However, if he allows his conscience to rule over their happiness, then their dreams and his own will turn to ashes. Unless a buyer shows up that he approves of, he may go bankrupt and have to close the shop without any money to forestall their downward economic decline. He is a religious man. He will have to turn to His God and his conscience for his final decision and after that the outcome which will be “good” or “ill.” When in trouble, rely on miracles!
Mr. Scott’s choices and decisions mirror those conundrums faced by every world leader, every businessman, every head of the household who has control of others’ economic well being. If one is ethical and moral, the choices are actually harder. If one is amoral and believes that it is all right to wipe all competitors and settle for an “I win you lose” result, then there is no problem making the decision, but a huge problem with the result especially if the rule of law is in force. On the other hand morality, ethics and conscience create immense problems and crises. Living by one’s own standards stolidly without hypocrisy is the problem especially if there are temptations. And it is especially the problem if one expects others to live by one’s own standards though theirs may be different. Of course if the standards are high moral ones then it should be clear and the individual should be respected for living up to them. But relativity creeps in depending upon the situation and definition of “high moral standards.”
For example racists believe their discrimination is for the common good and a “high moral standard.” Conservative religious individuals believe the LBGTQ crowd are twisted and sick and should be rejected until they are turned to normal heterosexuality. A head of the household believes he must live by his values though it will impoverish his family and take food out of their mouths. These individuals, if they stick to their beliefs unequivocally, are not hypocrites selling their souls to be accepted by others. They have defined their actions as belief and conviction, though their actions would be described in the culture at large as discriminatory and loathsome. In the case of the head of the household, money and family are less important than his/her conscience. Some might argue that this man should not even have a family if he does not properly take care of them. Questions of ethics, morality and following one’s conscience are invariably complex, as playwright Baker intriguingly points out.
Above all the play is fascinating in the questions it asks. The Mr. Scotts of the world who follow conscience to the exclusion of other reasonable considerations are as extreme as the amoralists whose greed and self-dealing may cause death, misery and devastation. Applying Baker’s questions to a current problem today, might be as follows. To fight against corporate hegemony and abuse of other cultures must one eschew all technology because of its inherent slave footprint to not be a hypocrite or amoralist as well? Can one completely eliminate one’s slave footprint and abide in First World country status knowing that other cultures do without allowing us to “do with?” Thus, living in social modernity carried to this absurd conclusion means living as a hypocrite unlike Mr. Thomas or living as a self-dealing amoralist who ignores the ramifications of his behavior.
The Price of Thomas Scott brings to life the ethics and morality of “modern” living in exposing the human condition which is as ancient as “Adam and Eve in the “Garden.” And though the play concludes on an upward note with the next generation “resolving” the issues in a lighthearted way, what they do is “in your face” ironic and rebellious by the standards of Mr. Scott. In that rebellion lays the foundation of a greater crisis of the culture which in a decade or so moves into the excesses of “The Roaring Twenties,” eventual crash and great Depression which was effected as a partial response to the reactionary time of prohibition, religious revivalism and strict morality that Mr. Scott embraces. For every action there is a reaction, especially when ethics, morality, hypocrisy and soul selling are at issue.
The production by The Mint Theater Company gives precise attention to the spectacle of theatrical performance and time period which is as always a pleasure to see from the props to the staging. Kudos to Vicki R. Davis (Sets) Hunter Kaczorowski (Costumes) Christian Deangelis (Lights) Jane Shaw Sound & Musical Arrangements) and others which helped to make this a beautifully rendered production. The hats are magnificent and made me wish for a time beyond weddings and funerals when such hats were in vogue. (not really…just the hats)
Special kudos to the director Jonathan Banks and the cast who deliver a measured and authentic view into the past of how individuals like Mr. Scott and his family made hard decisions and stuck by them without taint of hypocrisy or corruption of their own consciences. Would that current day politicos were more like Mr. Scott who quails at selling his soul for Mammon. (The question in the play is, is that what he really is doing or that he believes he is doing?) In light of our president and the actors who surround him in the administration and influencers in foreign lands, Mr. Scott’s problem with (X) appears quaint. So much more the irony of this play being produced now when the problems of selling one’s soul for betraying a nation and its democratic processes are paramount. Bravo, Mint Theater Company!
Renowned award winning novelist, essayist and short story writer, Patricia Highsmith isolates herself in Switzerland with views of the gorgeous snow-capped Alps glinting beams of light cheerily toward her house. As her desk and old-fashioned typewriter face opposite the window, we understand the writer is not in Switzerland for a pleasant reprieve from the United States which she often excoriated in newspaper articles and editorials.
No! She is there for another purpose. As we hop on the erratic train ride of her mind over the peaks and valleys of Highsmith’s jagged mental state fueled by alcohol, we discover what that purpose is in the Hudson Stage Company production of Switzerland. Highsmith’s goal emerges from the thrust and parry of her cruel, epithetical witticisms directed at guest Edward Ridgeway’s ineffective, mewling arguments.
From the opening of Switzerland (written by Joanna Murray-Smith) as Highsmith fronts off against Edward Ridgeway and continues until the conclusion, their menacing pas de deux fascinates and thrills. Theirs is a standoff that requires no compromise, just “a winner take all” attitude to finish off the opponent. In her inimical and irrevocable way, Highsmith finally triumphs.
Ridgeway (Daniel Petzold’s performance surprises and titillates) has been sent by her publisher who intends for Highsmith (the irascible and cantankerous Peggy J. Scott) to write one more crime novel in the globally successful series about mesmerizing murderer Tom Ripley. Ridgeway employs the typical mundanely unsophisticated patter of an underling sent on an impossible mission to get Highsmith to sign a last contract. Highsmith flays his emotional skin and carves up his pride like a parboiled turkey and dumps the carcass in the toilet as dung. The process is humorous to watch as he sinks further into himself and she blossoms with the sardonic verve of a yellow-jacket wasp tearing at a stink weed flower.
Nevertheless, Ridgeway sustains her sneering barbs about his age, US society and more. He persists and gradually threads together the spot-on phrases and allurements to seduce Highsmith. What initially intrigues Highsmith is that Ridgeway may be psychologically traumatized by the loss of his parents in a car accident. She points out that he must be an orphan for he plays the part of an orphan willing to please. Intrigued and puffed up at her accurate assumptions about him, Highsmith cruelly revels with glee as she penetrates his emotions forcing him to rehash the accident’s how, when and where like a criminal investigator. Her enthusiastic reactions to his morbid retelling are humorous and we become as interested as she about this first appearances milk-toast who seemed to fit in with the furniture until she drew him out.
During the course of Ridgeway’s sojourn into this indelicate persuasion to seduce Highsmith to do what for a decade she has chosen not to, we learn of her noxious views and stances which are racist, anti-semitic, and somewhat homophobic, though she herself is admittedly gay. Joanna Murray-Smith paints this dark portrait of the beloved writer’s underbelly which reflects the truth if one reads her fans’ and detractors’ commentary about her personal life. As Ridgeway continues his persuasion, Highsmith gradually is pulled in and accedes after he suggests plot points for the new work. She takes the bait and they contrive together. He stays the night and the scene converts and heads in a completely different direction in the morning. It is then we realize that up is down, black is white and appearances like books cannot be judged by their covers.
What emerges Murray-Smith cleverly twists into high intrigue. The logic of this turning point is exacting and perfect. And the shock of it is succinctly and boldly enacted by Petzold’s adroit, flexible and admirable acting chops. Scott deftly works in concert holding her own with commensurate power and delight. Confronting this plot switch on a switch with hints of magical realism, Highsmith enters into her glory. Her enthusiasm is boundless once more, as if she has been given a new lease on a life that she had grown weary of in its sameness, inane vanities and boredoms.
Directed by Dan Foster, the staging, the choices of the actors and director in a pacing of revelations shine especially at the beginning and the conclusion of the production. After the “switch” the scenes evolve rapidly. And we are riveted when the music shifts and Petzold’s Ridgeway and Scott’s Highsmith move in a delicious tango with a hints of love and attraction.
There are no spoiler alerts here. You will have to appreciate for yourself the excellent acting and the superb ensemble work of Scott and Petzold who listen, react, nuance and rightly divide their tone to enjoy the fun and humor of the relationship that they create between these characters.
Kudos to the creative team. I thought the music was a particularly fine choice (Garrett Hood is responsible for the Sound Design and Composing). Kudos go to James J. Fenton for his thoughtful set design, to Charlotte Palmer-Lane who creates the Highsmith “look” and Ridgeway’s clothing finesses; and to Andrew Gmoser for apt, suggestive lighting design.
The production in its New York City premiere is a must-see for Highsmith fans and mystery fans. And for those who may have seen a few of Highsmith’s works made into films like the Ripley series, Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock version, 1951) and wacky comedic take-offs like Throw Momma From the Train (Danny DeVito version, 1987), you will appreciate how Murray-Smith generates this fascinating piece which is well-shepherded by Dan Foster and finely rendered by Peggy J. Scott and Daniel Petzold.
Switzerland runs with no intermission (1 hour 30 minutes) at 59E59 Theaters (Fifty-nine East 59th Street) until 3 March. For tickets you may call 59E59 Theaters at 212-753 5959 or go online by CLICKING HERE
HBO DOCUMENTARY FILM THE APOLLO ON WEDNESDAY, APRIL 24
Academy Award® winning director Roger Ross Williams’ film celebrates the historic New York City cultural landmark where musical legends were discovered
Features interviews with Pharrell Williams, Jamie Foxx, Patti LaBelle, Ta-Nehisi Coates and more
NEW YORK, NY – February 13, 2019 – The Tribeca Film Festival, presented by AT&T, will open its 18th edition with the world premiere of the HBO Documentary Film The Apollo. Helmed by Academy and Emmy Award-winning director Roger Ross Williams, The Apollo chronicles the unique history and contemporary legacy of the New York City landmark, the Apollo Theater. The film will debut at the iconic theater itself on Wednesday, April 24, 2019 and later this year on HBO. The feature-length documentary weaves together archival footage, music, comedy and dance performances, and behind-the-scenes verité with the team that makes the theater run. The Apollo features interviews with artists including Patti LaBelle, Pharrell Williams, Smokey Robinson, and Jamie Foxx. The documentary is produced by Lisa Cortés, Nigel Sinclair’s White Horse Pictures, and Williams. The 2019 Tribeca Film Festival runs April 24-May 5.
The Apollo covers the rich history of the storied performance space over its 85 years and follows a new production of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me as it comes to the theater’s grand stage. The creation of this vibrant multi-media stage show frames the way in which The Apollo explores the current struggle of black lives in America, the role that art plays in that struggle and the broad range of African American achievement that the Apollo Theater represents.
The Apollo Theater is internationally renowned for having influenced American and pop culture more than any other entertainment venue. The space has created opportunities for new talent to be seen and has served as a launchpad for a myriad of artists including Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson 5, Luther Vandross, Dave Chappelle, Lauryn Hill, Jimi Hendrix, and more.
“We’re excited to finally be going uptown to play the Apollo,” said Jane Rosenthal, Co-Founder and CEO of the Tribeca Film Festival. “The Apollo gives audiences an inside look at the major role this institution has played for the past 85 years. It’s seen the emergence of everything from Jazz to R&B to Soul and Gospel – all quintessential American music genres, and this is the time to remind people of our nation’s rich history. ”
“The Apollo is about so much more than just music, it’s about how we used music and art to lift ourselves out of oppression,“ commented director Roger Ross Williams. “The story of the Apollo is the story of the evolution of black American identity and how it grew to become the defining cultural movement of our time. I was fortunate to make my first film with HBO and I am thrilled to be coming back home with The Apollo. Premiering at The Tribeca Film Festival, at the Apollo Theater in Harlem is a dream come true.”
“The Apollo Theater is a symbol of the creative spirit of New York and beyond, and I’m very happy that we’re kicking off our 18th Festival celebrating it with this documentary from Roger Ross Williams,” said Tribeca Co-Founder Robert De Niro.
The Apollo, directed by Academy Award-winning and Tribeca alumnus Roger Ross Williams (Music by Prudence; Life, Animated) and is produced by Lisa Cortés (Precious), White Horse’s Nigel Sinclair (George Harrison: Living in the Material World; Undefeated), Jeanne Elfant Festa (Foo Fighters: Back and Forth, Pavarotti) and Cassidy Hartmann (The Beatles: Eight Days A Week, Pavarotti) along with Williams.
The Apollo will have additional screenings during the Festival. Passes and packages to attend the Festival go on sale on February 19, 2019.
The 2019 Tribeca Film Festival will announce its feature film slate on March 5.
Sean O’Casey’s compelling The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), the first play of his Dublin Trilogy, has been selected by the Irish Repertory Theatre as the “send off” to introduce their Sean O’Casey Season which has been running from January 30 and will continue through May 25,2019. The first play of the O’Casey Cycle is presented in repertory along with O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars on the Irish Rep’s main stage (132 West 22nd Street).
The plays of the trilogy take place during three pivotal and violent confrontations between Ireland and the United Kingdom: The Irish War of Independence (January 21, 1919-July 11, 1921); The Irish Civil War (June 1922-May 1923) and The Easter Rising (April 24-29, 1916). These wars led to the Republic of Ireland achieving independence from the United Kingdom. However the tribal wounds and ferocious heartbreak and resentments incurred centuries ago that exploded into these wars and ended in an uncertain peace, still abide to this day.
The Irish Rep has chosen to celebrate its 30th anniversary by featuring O’Casey’s trilogy which chronicles the impact of dire events on the impoverished tenement dwellers of Dublin who were often the casualties of war. Revisiting the plays remains important for our time because as O’Casey highlights the effects of division and internecine hatreds, he raises questions about the nature of freedom, sacrifice, art, nationalism, Republicanism and more. Always in the background is the price average individuals are “willing” to pay to achieve self-governance and negotiate the political power plays of forces, organizations and governments not readily understandable nor controllable.
The Shadow of a Gunman ably and concisely directed by Ciarán O’Reilly to achieve O’Casey’s maximum intended effect has as its setting Dublin during the Irish War of Independence (see dates above). The largely guerilla warfare campaigns encompassed brutal clashes between the IRA (referred to as the Old IRA today) appointed as the enforcers of Irish Independence, and many former British WWI veterans known as the “Black and Tans.” These British military units were “volunteered” by England to safeguard Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. However, their undisciplined and harsh tactics exacerbated the conflicts so that repeated incidents of bloodshed and devastation were wrecked upon Dublin society by the IRA and the British military.
How the innocent tenement dwellers of Dublin suffer for the price of a freedom and economic independence that largely remains beyond them is brilliantly chronicled by O’Casey. And indeed, through the excellent work of the ensemble and shepherding of the fine performances by Ciarán O’Reilly, we experience the ironic tragicomedy of happenstance and the true terror of being caught between two ranging enemies who do not care who is swept up in the brutality or destroyed.
The comedy resides largely in the human interactions of the residents of a rooming house and how they present themselves as they negotiate their own political positions and participation or lack of interest in effecting a free Ireland. One central irony is that they underestimate the danger of the warfare that surrounds them until it is too late. In their naivete they assume that struggling writer and poet Donal Davoren (James Russell in a sensitive, angst-ridden and nuanced portrayal) is a member of the IRA and the titular “gunman” of the play.
Davoren, who has newly arrived to the boarding house and is the roommate of Seumus Shields (the humorous, hapless and unwitting Michael Mellamphy whose cowardice is recognizable and empathetic) is treated with dignity and great respect by the other residents. Minnie Powell (Meg Hennessy renders a feisty, sweet and charming portrait of innocence and bravery) especially finds Donal irresistible for she is enamored of the romantic notions of heroism and courage that gunman fighting for a free Ireland display. Of course, the irony O’Casey delivers in blow after blow by the end of the play dispels everyone’s romantic notions of freedom fighters. And we are reminded that dying for freedom and liberty are propaganda, especially when there is a shortage of brave and courageous souls who are willing to take risks facing off against a loaded gun.
O’Casey presents the issues and themes immediately. He introduces the Everyman’s perspective which many of the renters embrace, particularly Mellamphy’s Shields. And the playwright fronts that view against the poet/philosopher’s pacifist view of Donal Davoren whom the renters believe to be with the IRA. The irony, if followed to its absurd conclusion in O’Casey’s plot, rings with horrific truth, considering the results and follow-through of their beliefs about him.
Meanwhile, discounting their attitudes about, yet slyly thinking to capture Minnie’s heart by saying little, to Shields Donal beats his breast and cries of the miseries and pains of being a poet. He rails against the commoners for whom he creates his art to little effect. Through him O’Casey reveals an ironic addendum. For all the angst and pain artists go through to create the beauties of art and literature, the works may or may not assert a place of importance in the hearts of citizens in a time of war. (Is O’Casey perhaps being sardonic about the importance of his own work through this character’s mewlings?)
Director O’Reilly gives attention to each of these characters. In his rendition of Casey’s work, we understand that they represent symbolic types in the human panoply of characters that manifest the cowardice and hypocrisy of those who inhabit every society in the throes of violent revolutionary change.
All of them reveal in one way or another the flaws that contribute to the tragedy that occurs by the play’s end. For example the kowtowing, gossiping Tommy Owens (Ed Malone in a humorous turn) exemplifies the toady and hypocrite who brings on the trouble. The alcoholic and abusive husband Mr. Grigson screams out his position as an “Orangeman” sympathetic to the opposite side. John Keating manages to be sincere in his drunkenness and hysterical to boot. However, we note another side of him when Mr. Grigson and Shields swap stories of their bravery in the face of the British, who in actuality frighten them out of their wits. Only Donal remains silent and renders himself invisible in the face of terror. Though the lying bravado is typically understandable, it is also cringe-worthy. For men should be stronger, should they not? O’Casey smashes this notion by the play’s end with a resounding exclamation point which this production succeeds in spearing through our hearts and minds.
Terry Donnelly as the long-suffering Mrs. Grigson delivers a superbly heartfelt, broken and poignant portrayal that takes us into a tragedy that we will remember long after the lights come up. Most importantly, the second act thrums with rapid pacing, suspense and “edge-of-your-seat” fear. We empathize with the Dubliners throughout the experience O’Reilly and the company put us through as they moment-to-moment envelop us with the emotion and horror of unfolding events in real time.
This immediacy is a vital element of O’Casey’s work and the ensemble and the production team render it superbly. For it is the terrifying experience that delivers our epiphany of what the historic Dubliners went through and what occupying troops in Syria and Yemen put innocents through today. The civilians are gun fodder for wars they have not willingly signed on for. Surely, they do not anticipate their lives threatened and lifestyles destroyed by both sides of the warring factions on streets and in homes where children once played and all was safe and secure. Surely, they do not choose between the Scylla and Charybdis of becoming an escaping refugee or staying to be numbered among the dead or disappeared. It was so in Ireland, then, it is so in wars that dot our planet and fuel defense manufacturers’ profits today.
As O’Casey reveals most acutely in the action conveyed by the actors, designers and director of this production, this is THE TERROR. And as the characters experience the horror, uncertainty and helplessness in the face of the oppression and tyranny from both sides, we experience it as well. The tragedy becomes that all who are present as witnesses become the accountable participants and they must live with the regrets imprinted on their souls until they are washed away, if ever.
Kudos to all in the acting ensemble who contribute to making this a soul-sonorous production. Kudos to the design team: Charlie Corcoran (scenic), Linda Fisher & David Toser (costume) Michael Gottlieb (lighting) Ryan Rumery & M. Florian Staab (sound) Ryan Rumery (original music).
This is a must-see, especially if you are unfamiliar with Shadow of a Gunman which runs with one intermission. The production is a wonderful introduction to Sean O’Casey and if you have been a forever fan, you will be very pleased. Additionally, the Irish Rep in celebration of the playwright is conducting free readings, symposiums, lectures, film screenings and music exhibitions. For more information on the Sean O’Casey Cycle and for tickets to the Dublin Trilogy, check the website.
The Classic Shakespeare Company is presenting two 19th century plays by August Strindberg in Repertory. The Dance of Death (see my review by “clicking here” in a new version by the award winning Conor McPherson) and Mies Julie in an adaptation by the award winning South African director and playwright Yaël Farber.
Farber has given Strindberg’s Miss Julie a renovation in texture, location, structure and dynamic by intensifying the conflict and shortening the arc of the play’s development. Inherent in this production directed by Shariffa Ali is the force and power to further elucidate the themes about classism, chauvinism, oppression, economic injustice, racism, white supremacy and cyclical revenge with the backdrop of a new setting, South Africa, 2012. Additionally. she has changed the characterization of Christine from Jean’s fiancee to John’s mother, and worldly servant Jean to Xhosa farm worker John, intriguingly characterizing him as one who grew up with Mies Julie on the farm that Julie’s father owns.
Christine has raised Mies Julie alongside her own son when Julie’s mother abandoned her daughter suffering from severe depression. The mother, alienated and isolated from the strangeness of the colonial women with whom she never could feel comfortable, the difficulty of the farming life and her own inner regrets caved in her soul. Without any sense of purpose or the obligation of duty to take care of her own child, she shoots herself and little Julie finds the disastrous ruin of the woman. Mies Julie thinks she is responsible for her mother’s death, but is nurtured by Christine’s love to eventually recover.
Nevertheless, Mies Julie bears the scars of the trauma. And during the course of the play we intuit that her rebellious behavior and impulsiveness suppresses an inner pain as she careens through her life. If not for Christiane’s love and an emotional attachment to Christine’s son John, who protects her and secretly, hopelessly loves her, Mies Julie might follow in her mother’s footsteps. The character of Mies Julie is most similar to Strindberg’s Miss Julie in ethos, however, the fascinating twists of transformation of setting reshape all of her actions and give them additional resonance and thematic richness.
Farber’s adaptation opens in a farmhouse kitchen in Eastern Cape, Karoo, South Africa on Freedom Day, 27 of April 2012, almost 20 years after all South Africans were give the right to vote in 1994. The day is a vital symbol integral to the complex themes of this adaptation. For the blacks of South Africa, the price of freedom was purchased by blood and suffering. The black culture’s redemption and return to the land of their ancestors will also be paid for by blood and suffering in a twisted karmic resolution in Farber’s Mies Julie.
Indeed, ancestors in the form of a ghostly grandmother seek revenge as she haunts the house which was built upon ancestral graves. Although this is not effected in the set design, Christine refers to the great tree which was cut down to make way for the house, but whose roots retained life and now break through the tiles of the floor of the kitchen and continue to grow in defiance of the white, man-made structure. The symbolism of the tree as representational of the Xhosa family which belongs on the land and whose culture can never be erased is a focal point. Unfortunately, without evidence of the tree breaking through the floor (due to the repertory’s need for minimalism) an important theme of Farber’s work is diminished, opaquely realized through Christine’s dialogue which becomes too easily lost in the hum of action.
Farber presents the underlying conflict when the workers on the farm and some squatters who have returned to the land that their ancestors lived on before the colonials came, have been celebrating and dancing on Freedom Day. Mies Julie dances with the workers a bold and inappropriate act. Because her father is away, she rebelliously revels in these liberties which lower her stature and respect in the workers’ eyes. When John attempts to admonish her, we see the emotional tensions between them and realize that the relationship they have developed in many ways runs past master/servant and portends elements of love or sado-masochism or both.
During the course of the production we discover that the South African’s hope is to one day take back the land from the colonials like Julie’s father. They consider this an act of restitution for the terrible bloodshed and misery caused in the years of usurpation which brought about cultural devastation. The economic struggles continue in the present day for the workers like John and Christine must still submit to servitude to survive. Decades of economic injustice and inequality have delayed their accumulation of enough capital to purchase the land that their ancestors lived on centuries ago.
Though John has educated himself and wants the freedom to be able to prosper beyond his “class and race,” he is not the urbane, world traveler of the Jean of Strindberg’s work. And though he has had women, he has loved Mies Julie from childhood. It is this night that erupts in a culmination of many subterranean wants and desires for both Mies Julie and for John. And of course it is this night of freedom that lifts up Mies Julie’s “Afrikaaner race” out from under the degradation and debasement of oppressing the Xhosa.
John and Julie are representative of their race and class. On one level Mies Julie becomes the sacrifice to expiate the “sins” of her forefathers when she chooses to become equal and unite in a physical consummation of love with John. Likewise for John, it is a night where he asserts his privilege to repossess the land (symbolized by Mies Julie’s body) and achieve a lifelong dream to be restored to his true sense of self-worth, identity and power.
The beauty and tragedy of portraying their relationship as Farber does in layer upon layer of intricate psychological and social texture is that we understand before the characters do that perhaps decades need to pass before the destructive social MATRIX in which both live and have their being disintegrates. John comes to this realization sooner than Mies Julie, who is impaled on the immediacy and unreality of wanting an idyllic life with John away from the farm. She intends to run away with him and use her father’s money that she’s stolen from the safe. John cannot trust Mies Julie enough to leave his mother and the stultifying but familiar identity that has oppressed him his entire life. The two are trapped and their end appears to be an inevitability. The time is surely “out of joint.” And only a few options remain for them to take before Julie’s father returns the next day and stasis consumes their lives once more.
In this adaption, Farber presents some of Strindberg’s themes front and center and then embellishes and expands them. Farber suggests the following. In order for the injustices between and among economic classes to ever be resolved, the classes themselves must be dissolved. For all human beings, the trials overcoming the miseries of childhood and the nullifying stricture of social mores, are uneasily won. For outsiders who are economically challenged, the trials are even greater. Only gradually through the passing of the generations will there ever be economic and social parity between and among disparate races and ethnic groups.
Christine knows this. She treasures her job and is willing to abide in her faith believing that for her son’s generation it will be better, but for her generation, it is finished. John wants change immediately and by fathering Mies Julie’s child he will overthrow the status quo, though he risks her father’s wrath. They must leave, for if a baby comes, her father will kill them both.
The harder he and Julie attempt to extricate themselves from the binding circumstances, the more they become mired in fear. It is a truism that they must leave or die. They cannot forge new identities in the same place where old hatreds and resentments float like ghosts above the blood-soaked land. Mies Julie wisely commands that they run away from her father and the farm’s oppression and migrate to a new identity and new existence in the city. But John is stuck. Christine adjures that she will never leave the farm. John must choose. Either he abandons his mother and goes with Mies Julie to freedom, or he remains with Christine in servitude. If there is a baby, all three will die.
Farber’s adaptation presented by the CSC and directed by Shariffa Ali enthralls with strong, emotional performances by James Udon as John, Elise Kibler as Mies Julie and Patrice Johnson-Chavannes as Christine. And when the ghost of the grandmother walks the kitchen, Vinnie Burrows is uncanny and foreboding. Because of her presence, we understand that a fearful retribution is coming, but it remains unclear until the play’s conclusion.
The production runs like a bullet train on a collusion course toward destruction especially in the scenes where Kibler and Udon spar, seek to dominate and control, then relent, succumbing to their tenuous love for each other. Kibler is effective in her smoldering, wild longing. Udon is sensitive and caring as the “fool” for love, then angry and rebellious in believing he is Mies Julie’s plaything. These emotions provide a field for incredible contrasts. On the one hand Julie and John collide with their fear of abandonment and betrayal. Then they fly to each other then fly to reinforce a love perches on the edge of desperation. These tensions and the heightened interplay between Kibler’s Mies Julie and Udon’s John is wrought with ferocious zeal.
A note of warning. Some of the dialect and the accents are muffled and strained. I found that swaths of dialogue were garbled because of an overemphasis to “get the accents right.” I am not referring to the words of Afrikaans or Indigenous words in Xhosa, but the heavily accented English. The accents are vital for they introduce the setting. However, the use remained problematic. When the emotion was presented organically, the dialogue followed and the actors were easily understood.
Finally, the set design was spare and adequate as it should be in this repertory Strindberg cycle. However, the incredible symbolism of the tree should be included as an important thematic thread of the play. The music, the effects, make-up and costumes are apt. When the ghostly presence enters and leaves, all these design elements effect the supernatural wonderfully.
Mies Julie and The Dance of Death alternate in repertory at CSC (13th Street between 3rd and 4th) until 10 March. Mies Julie is a spare 75 minutes with no intermission. You can pick up tickets at their website.
This is a continuation of the conversation that took place at the Bruno Walter Auditorium, Lincoln Center as presented in collaboration by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the League of Professional Theatre Women. The event was produced by Ludovica Villar-Hauser and Sophia Romma. For Part I Click this LINK.
Elisabeth Vincentelli: Could you talk about Mlima’s Tale. It was another different approach you took.
Lynn Nottage: It was commissioned by film director Katherine Bigelow (award winning director of Hurt Locker). And we were developing it together. She has incredible passion about elephants. Mlima’s Tale is told from the point of view of an elephant that’s been poached. And the play tracks the elephant’s tusks from the hands of the people who poach him to the hands of the people in China who buy his tusks. It’s a very stylized piece. Jo Bonny came in. And we decided that we wanted to make the piece very differently. It was based on my working with designers that was very collaborative. We decided that we wanted to work with designers from beginning to end which almost never happens. Usually what happens is that designers speak to the director during the first draft of the script and then they come back into the process during tech week. We thought we don’t want to make it that way. We want designers to be there very single day which is why I think the piece is more holistic and integrated on all levels. We were talking to each other and making creative decisions in the moment which was very exciting.
It was very imaginative with the lighting, music and movement.
We worked with a composer who had never done theater before. The equipment was all set up. During the first preview, a musician felt very deeply and he didn’t know he couldn’t just spontaneously sing. We had to say “Wait, you can’t do that.” (laughter)
What are the new musicals you are working on?
The first one is The Secret Life of Bees which is an adaptation of the book by Sue Monk with composer Duncan Sheik who did the music for Spring Awakening and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead who did Jelly’s Last Jam. Sam Gold is directing it and it will be at the Atlantic Theater Company in the Spring. And we’ve been working on it for a couple of years and it’s very beautiful.
Then you’re working on another musical of Intimate Apparel.
Well, it’s not exactly a musical. It’s an opera which is a co-commission between the Met Opera and Lincoln Center Theatre. It’s been interesting developing something which is kind of a hybrid and having Peter Gelb from the Met giving notes and Andre Bishop from the theater. Both of them have very different needs. (laughter) And Ricky Ian Gordon, the composer, is doing a brilliant job.
The third one which has been announced is?
The Michael Jackson musical. I’m writing the book on the Michael Jackson Musical. Michael Jackson’s written the music. (laughter)
What are the challenges for working on the book of a musical or opera,
The opera which is an adaptation of working on my own play Intimate Apparel? The challenge was in figuring out how to write a libretto from material I was so attached to. I didn’t want to let go of anything. And working with Ricky, the first time I handed him my libretto he said, ‘You’ve re-written the play.’ The second time I handed him the libretto he said, ‘You’ve re-written the play, again.’ And I asked, ‘How do I do this?’ He said, ‘You’re not trusting your collaborator. You have to understand in musical theater and opera, the music does 50% of the work. It is what makes it expansive. Trust that I’m going to allow people to feel and teach people to feel through my music.’ And once I trusted him, I was able to make some of those cuts and get rid of the exposition. I had to let him be the collaborator that he is, and allow him to do some of the heavy lifting. I had to let him do the story telling. He does beautiful story telling which allowed me to step away.
What about with Sue Monk’s Secret Life of Bees? How was it writing book for a work that was not yours?
Well Sue Monk gave us the license to do whatever we wanted. She was like ‘I’ve written the book.’ We made it clear that we made some massive changes and that we were not doing a strict adaptation of the book. We told her that we’re creating a piece that is inspired by the book that honors all her characters without making replicas of those characters.
How do you approach the writing of the book?
From my position of writing the book? I’m the architect of the narrative. It is my job to make sure that all the pieces come together. So I’m kind of like the contractor. I am there to make sure that everything is exactly as we want it.
How did you feel writing book for that musical?
It’s incredible and liberating as a book writer. So if get to a difficult point, I can turn to Susan (lyricist) and say, “You got this right?” (laughter) It’s the lyricist that’s doing a lot of the important story telling. I throw her the ball and she does the “slam dunk.”
You said you learned at Yale what “to do as a playwright and what not to do.” Could you elaborate on that?
Sure. When I arrived at Yale I had just gone from college to graduate school. So my assumptions when I was there was that they had a blueprint about how to be a good playwright. I learned a lot about structure, but I also think I also became imprisoned by a lot of what I learned because I didn’t realize I had the freedom to make my own decisions. I think that is what I meant.
Writing the play into a libretto are you turning it into prose or are you turning it into poetry?
I think it’s both. Some of it is definitely prose and some of it is definitely poetry. It’s a combination.
From the perspective of film how does that approach differ? What is the difference between a word and an image and what is special about each one?
The way in which film and theater function differently is clear. In theater we do a lot of problem solving through language. In film a lot of the problem solving is done through images. I think particularly in film there is the short cut you can take that you don’t have the luxury of doing onstage in the theater. You can quickly convey something by taking a character somewhere else in film, but because of the limitations of the stage, we have to use language sometimes to describe the visuals.
You were raised to appreciate the arts. What are you doing to advocate for young people in the arts?
I’ve been a professor for 17 years. I’m a teacher. And I think that’s the primary way to nurture young artists, because when I was young artist I didn’t feel that there were a lot of people to nurture young African American artists. I feel it’s essential to nurture the next generation and I’ve put in a lot of time and effort into helping directors and playwrights who are up and coming and emerging.
Which characters do you use to get their stories told?
I use the characters that assert themselves. The characters that come back and demand to be represented on the stage are ultimately the ones who win out.
Do you have a specific audience in mind that you are writing for?
I like to think that I’m writing for an audience who are friends. My friends are a very diverse group of people. So those are the friends I write for. But Intimate Apparel was very specific. It was for my mother. I don’t think I’ve written anything else with that kind of intention. I did this adaptation for this film director Lars Von Trier. (laughter) He would talk to me on the phone, but he would never direct any comments or questions to me. He wanted to speak to me through his producer. And this was on the telephone. The three of us would be on the phone and he would say, “Tell Lynn. . .” And I would respond, “I can hear you.” (laughter) The film was Manderlay.
Did you have any influencers?
I did have influencers. I had my parents who took me to theater. As a professional playwright, I didn’t have mentors who helped me nurture this career.
Now you’ve reached a certain point in your career, is there another medium you would like to work in?
Because of the past year or two that I’ve become so overwhelmed and busy, I don’t feel that I have the time to nurture my self. I haven’t had the time to read books and to ruminate. I have to endeavor, in the next couple of years, just to make time to think and think about what it is I want to do.
Did you have a sense that those two pieces that won your Pulitzers would stand out in some way.
The Pultizer came as a complete and total surprise. Technically, the Pulitzer is supposed to be a play that deals with American culture. And Ruined is set in the Congo. So when I got that phone call it was an absolute surprise. For Sweat I never thought that lightening was going to strike twice. So that was a total surprise as well.
Could you still comment on the lack of production opportunities for women in theater. We’re still below 20% and women of color are really at the bottom.
I think you put it very well. (laughter) It is a fact there is work to be done. And very recently there was another survey about theater and women. I can’t speak to the specifics of this in all the other areas, but for women playwrights they found that for white women throughout the country, there’s been an increase to almost parity. But for women of color and men of color, the numbers are still staggeringly low.
How can we change the dynamics of theater pricing?
I think there is a way to make theater more affordable and more accessible, as we did in Sweat. I teach a course called American Spectacle about how to evolve beyond the proscenium. And I teach it because of my incredible frustration with we as playwrights and directors and artists. We craft our productions very specifically for the stage and proscenium of Off Broadway Theaters that are limited in space and also limited in the audience that they reach. The audience that I want to reach doesn’t necessarily relate to the audience that I look and see is watching my play.
One of the things I realized is that I don’t have to be locked into that problem. We can be incredibly flexible. We can take theater to the people. And that’s what we discovered with the mobile unit. We can break out of the proscenium and bring theater into a gym and if there’s an audience for it, we’ve broken away from that limitation. The very first production that we did in Pennsylvania, people showed up with their kids. They had not been to theater. They didn’t know they were going to sit for two and 1/2 hours and so Stephanie Ybarra, the Artistic Director of the mobile unit, and I ended up holding people’s babies while people watched theater (laughter).
And I thought, ‘This is great. Why can’t we do this in Off Broadway theaters.’ The other establishing fact was we realized that most of those folks had never been to theater before. Not a single cell phone rang. People sat rapt. And I thought ‘…there’s something about that audience that’s different from New York audiences because they want to be there and not because they bought a subscription and have to meet the quota of plays’ (laughter). They are there because they want this entire experience. I think that in some way we have to re-educate the audiences that see theater in New York. I think that there are really bad habits that are being nurtured and we have to change that. (applause)
I’m here from a class at NYU and I want to know if you consider yourself a feminist?
I do consider myself a feminist. My mother was a feminist. And she was very outspoken on women’s rights and so I’ve been a feminist since the time I can remember.
Are you inspired by to write about what is going on in current politics and what is going on at the border and the lies that we’re hearing.
Yes. I’d like to write about it. At the very end of the mobile unit tour, we ended at a Native American reservation and one of the elders stood up and said something incredibly moving. He said, “I don’t understand what this border wall is. There are no borders in America. These fences that they’ve erected where they arrest people if they cross over mean nothing.” He and others understand that these obstructions shouldn’t mean anything because this is land that has no boundaries. That’s how I feel. And there’s part of me that wants to do a Walkabout and walk the length of the border and talk to people and collect their stories but it would probably take a very long time. (applause and cheering)
You can see Lynn Nottage’s play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark at the Pershing Square Signature Center, Irene Diamond Stage. For a schedule of where Lynn’s plays are being produced and to learn more about Lynn, go to her website: CLICK HERE.
For more about The League of Professional Theatre Women or to become a member CLICK HERE.