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White Noise, written by Suzan-Lori Parks, directed by Oskar Eustis is a long thrill-ride into the psyches of thirty-somethings reeling from the abuses of previous generations’ willful negligence, regarding racial and gender mythologies. These stereotypes and demeaning memes abide with a vengeance below the surface of friendship power dynamics and mixed-race love relationships. Indeed, Parks suggests these are embedded in the American cultural DNA. And not even elaborate experiments such as the one long-time friends Leo (Daveed Diggs-always the consummate actor/performer and a joy to watch) and Ralph (Thomas Sadowski acts with moment-to-moment precision) embark on to expurgate Leo’s fears of being shot while black, ameliorate issues of racial identity politics int heir psyches..
The ultimate message in Parks’ White Noise remains: if these race and gender myths abide among friends, then what hope is there to modify, redeem and heal the nullifying cultural divides that exist among races, genders and economic classes that are at odds with one another? This is especially so in the retrograde Trump era when noxious white supremacist groups have been empowered to embrace hate and fear by a president who finds upholding the constitution and civil rights laws loathsome and inconvenient.
The inherent sado-masochistic, master/slave ethos deep within the mindset of all who have white/black relationships and their gender derivatives are mostly covered by social veneers of liberalism. Parks lays bare this phenomenon in a gradual reveal that she stages within an artificial construct prompted by Leo after he has been traumatized by the police. However, it is an idea that Leo long thought about to deal with his inability to sleep which he attributes to an ambient fear begun at childhood. It is a fear that has morphed like a monster into unsettled apprehensions about being black and living in a repressive culture of white privilege.
To free himself of the apprehension and feel that he is empowered in his own identity apart from racial, socio-political constructs, Leo devises the Master/Slave freedom project. He finally convinces his professor/writer friend Ralph to contract his services as a slave. Leo believes that if he is owned by Ralph who will be his Master for 40 (a magically symbolic number) days, he will be psychologically secure in the knowledge that he is protected by his “Master” in a culture that promulgates institutional racism and brutality against blacks via the justice system, economic inequality and unequal opportunity. As a result of this experiment at the end of the 40 days, Leo believes he will move to the core of his own reality and become free of the stereotypes, memes, lies, matrixes, objectifications and internalizations of abuse inherent in the culture and society of America.
During their extended friendship over the years, Ralph and Leo believed they had risen above racial gender politics and achieved a state of being “cool” and close with each other. Their friends/girlfriends Misha (the humorous Sheria Irving) and Dawn (the crisp, on point Zoë Winters) whom they’ve also known for years and have swapped as partners provide the security and sanctity of love and help to be the glue that has kept the group together and flourishing.
But during Leo’s and Ralph’s Master/Slave experiment, the women learn that they have been lying to themselves and each other. Indeed, for Leo, Ralph, Misha and Dawn their outward congeniality, love and closeness is a ruse, a construct they have created for and with each other to keep the “outer hellishness” of the culture away from them.
But the ruse hasn’t worked. In one way or another all are lost and feel incomplete, despite their relative successes, a fact revealed by the conclusion of the master/slave project.
Indeed, the experiment overturns the foursome’s relationships, their perceptions of each other and ultimately how they view themselves. In the past they have fed off the group’s collective identity and while it has made them feel loved, it also has hindered them. Misha, Dawn and Ralph have cheated on each other and are incapable of fidelity, peace or joy. Though they were able to get around being “cheaters” with secrecy and forgiveness, they remain unfulfilled in love.
That each is searching is obvious, though they are not sure what they want or who they want it with, for they are identity challenged. Only Leo has been faithful to Dawn. Only Leo, Parks’ heroic protagonist has enough self-awareness to understand he is chained by the past in the present. He realizes that he will only be at peace by finding a way to free his being to live in harmony with himself.
Over the course of the master/slave project, Parks reveals how the dynamics of this foursome fragments. Their group identity together and with their partners cannot withstand their own hypocrisies which the project reveals. Ultimately, as Leo learns, they also learn how they’ve allowed the cultural constructs to imprison them. And their attempt to avoid these underlying hate-filled concepts that surreptitiously guide their behaviors in their friendships and love relationships with each other has thwarted their quest for peace and autonomy. Their ability to forge their own healthful identities and act on their self-knowledge with a confidence that will free them has been constrained.
After Leo and Ralph “progress” into their simulated journey back into history to effect the egregious acts of domination and subservience, the worm turns: the relationships between them and among their girlfriends morph. “Freed” to imprison himself within the soul crushing white privilege dynamics, Ralph throws himself into the “master” tropes and changes his attitude to become more bossy and edgy with Leo. Influenced by members of a White Club he joins as a secret society, he leases a punishment slave collar for Leo and pushes the master/slave behavior to levels of cruelty and exploitation he would not have thought possible of himself prior to their experiment.
Interestingly, Leo for a time is able to sleep and rest in this masochistic abuse of slavery because it is “out in the open,” and “in your face.” Above all, he is the “author and finisher” of his slave role having come up with the contract and agreeing to the amendments that Ralph suggests. By controlling the construct himself and choosing to be subservient, he empowers himself with what he learns. As he becomes freer, Ralph’s dignity and honor are compromised, though superficially he thinks he is empowered. However, by engaging as Leo’s “Master,” Ralph becomes more loathsome to himself. It is, a state which he fought his entire life, but was incapable of overcoming. Ironically, in the “Master” roll, he further enslaves himself as a hateful loser who “gets off” on being exploitive.
The lies and pretended altruisms end. Leo’s “cool” relationship with Dawn (Winters) is over and Misha’s (Irving) hidden sexual relationship with Dawn dissolves in a fight. However, Misha admits she will most probably still keep Ralph around because by having a white boyfriend, she feels protected as part of the privileged culture. That they will continue to be unfaithful to each other doesn’t matter.
By the conclusion of Parks’ dramatic polemic, Leo understands his personal self-imposed oppression he internalized from the culture’s oppressive mores. He also realizes that like his ancestors, in spite of it, he will thrive and prosper. On the other hand Ralph’s weakness so manifests to himself that he is broken. Indeed, white privilege which is meant to prosper white males in their dominance of all “under them in the culture,” actually weakens and enslaves them worse than those they attempt to victimize. The women who go along with the white privilege program are swept up in the abuse and are forced to live in a sub rosa muddle of lies and obfuscations which propel them into an abyss of misery and torment. Only if they work to extricate themselves from the fears that destroy their wholeness, will they become free to establish their own autonomy and identity.
Parks’ play is a powerhouse in its satiric elements and in its themes. She brilliantly presents her concepts through the interplay and active relationships between and among Dawn, Leo, Ralph and Misha. Eustis’ direction is insightful and illuminating. The performances, are solid; Daveed and Sadoswki are electric and the effect they produce is frightening. Irving and Winters continually surprise, and Irving’s program “Ask a Black” is absolutely hysterical. The satire throughout is astounding with just enough subtle rendering to punch you in the gut with a bit of truth to leave you breathless.
As a caveat, I nodded out during some of the solos which were expositional and might have been slimmed down to keep the pacing taught. I did find I was completely focused during Diggs’ opening monologue which was electric. His easy, relaxed bonding with the audience completely engaged me. The other solos were less so, not a fault of the actors or direction. It may have been the order in the overall arc of the play’s development. Or the solos might have been a tad redundant with explanation not dramatization.
Kudos to the design team that helps to bring the production to life. These include Clint Ramos (Senic Design) Toni-Leslie James (Costume Design) Xavier Pierce (Lighting Design) Dan Moses Schreier (Sound Design) Lucy Mackinnon (Projection Design) U. Jonathan Toppo (Fight Director) Michael Rossmy and Kelsey Rainwater (Intimacy Directors).
White Noise brings one-of-a-kind performances to a thought-provoking, memorable play about the subtle, historic mores and influences that control us if we are not introspective or self-examining. It is a must-see which runs with one intermission at the Public Theater until 5 May. For tickets go to the website by CLICKING HERE.
Once the insidious and malevolent corrupt buy their way into the halls of power, it seems impossible to oust or destroy them. However, The Cradle Will Rock by Marc Blitzstein, directed and designed by John Doyle currently at CSC, reminds us that all is not hopeless. Indeed, corruption and those who revel in the money and preeminence it fosters must irrevocably crash to their doom as their sphere of influence which propagates great harm eventually is overthrown by the just. Indeed, there are always a glorious few who face great risk for the greater public good.
This sleek version of The Cradle Will Rock, Director Doyle fashions using the template of the original production which employed no elaborate spectacle (see this article about the original production). The actors are staged so that they move in toward the piano and outward and in the round (the CSC playing area which is actually a square surrounded by the audience). The pianists (I was impressed by their talent and the number of the cast some who play with exquisite grace.) also do double duty and sing beautifully as members of the ensemble.
The entire play is sung as a quasi opera, in a Bertolt Brecht style with ferocity and near didacticism. The subject matter of how dirty money is used to fuel predation and victimize the culture is worthy for this stylization. Cradle’s themes are mythic; its protagonists and antagonists timeless. The arc of development elevates the plot to the spiritual warfare of good vs. evil. We watch how the uncorrupted-awoke fight to bring truth and majestical courage to the souls of the unenlightened. This is done in the hope of empowering and freeing them of their subservience to power domination and demeaning cult worship of the “leader.”
The Brechtian music effected by the pianists and ensemble pounds out the plot and themes which clearly resonate for us today. In every corner of the world, we note representative Mr. Misters (the warlord of Steeltown) akin to dictators, autocrats, warlords.
In the setting of Steeltown, USA, the 1930s during the height of the depression, Mr. Mister, we learn from those whom he’s battered and destroyed (Harry the druggist-Tony Yazbeck) gained power and control through devious means. The action takes place over one night in a Steeltown jail during an action to unionize. When Moll (Lara Pulver) is thrown in jail rather than to give her favors to a corrupt cop (Eddie Cooper), she is befriended by Harry the druggist. In flashback scenes the ensemble enacts, we learn how Mr. Mister (David Garrison) surreptitiously grabbed power. Harry explains Mr. Mister’s machinations to the mistakenly jailed Liberty Committee (the ensemble). They are Mr. Mister’s fandom anti-union support group, who wait for Mr. Mister to bail them out; they are not as police thought part of the pro-union protest.
The flashbacks identify how any corrupt power broker operates…surreptitiously, without the light of truth being shined on their oppressive, coercive, fraudulent actions. Thus, the ensemble reveals the events of how Mr. Mister’s wife (Sally Ann Triplett) buys support and influence to solidify his power network corralling important institutions like the press (Editor Daily-Ken Barnett), the church (Reverend Salvation-Benjamin Eakeley) the factory and social organizations.
Harry points up the ruthlessness of Mr. Mister who killed a newly elected union leader and his family in a fire bombing and caused Harry to lose his business and drop into hopelessness and despair. Of course the irony is in not blowing the whistle on Mr. Mister and risking death for his testimony, Harry ends up being destroyed in a living death by Mr. Mister who coerces him into his own mewling self-destruction. Indeed, the revelatory theme is better to die a martyr in the hope of bringing down evil than sustain a living death while the corrupt grow and evolve like monsters engulfing all in their path to get what they want which never includes the public good.
Eventually, all of the prominent and influential members of Steeltown join Mr. Mister’s fandom Liberty Committee and this entrenched power structure runs roughshod over the “little people.” We learn for example that Mr. Mister bullies and commands others like President Prexey (Ken Barnett) to adhere to and foment his political policies. We also learn of cover-ups of accidents despite witnesses (Rema Webb) because of Mr. Mister’s negligence. His lack of accountability is legend which he keeps in the shadows buying off the press and threatening others with harm if they “spill the beans.”
The heroes of Cradle, Moll who is a conduit and listener of truth, Harry who knows the truth but waits too late to reveal it, Ella Hammer who witnessed a death and cover-up and courageous union leader Larry Foreman (Tony Yazbeck in an ironic choice for he also plays the devastated Harry). The union leader activist is arrested and brought to the jail for distributing leaflets. All of these individuals stand against the Liberty Committee whom they try to persuade against Mr. Mister.
However, when Mr. Mister comes to free the committee from jail, we understand that his fan base has neither the intelligence, the spiritual will, the courage, nor the understanding to recognize that a nefarious, demoralizing, psychotic sociopath is a danger to their own well being and freedom. The title of the Liberty Committee is a sardonic Orwellian touch for they are too blind to be free. Blitzstein’s work is one sardonic trope after another. As for the duped committee, they live trapped in their outer material selves, not in their souls or extended consciousness, mind, will.
Meanwhile, Mr. Mister also offers to bail out Larry Foreman. Accepting the bail money has a price: join Mr. Mister’s extended perfidious enterprise and work against the union, a work to enslave the community, not free it. Foreman rejects Mr. Mister’s offer. The Liberty Committee excoriates/ridicules him for his courage which they interpret as stupidity. But Foreman who takes the high road and remains in jail makes a sterling prophecy to himself and to us. With defiance he predicts that Mr. Mister’s oppressive, corrupt power over Steeltown will end.
Indeed, the implication is clear in every century, in every time and place. The warning for such infantile autocrats who must control all at their own whim like a petulant child is “The Cradle Will Rock!” And as surely as the wind blows with increasing strength, that cradle inevitably, will fall bringing down dictator baby.
This production certainly speaks for our time and we may take heart, if we wish, that Larry Foreman’s prophecy is an inevitability. I enjoyed the minimalism of props which the actors use seamlessly. And I enjoyed the use of greenbacks which dominate the scenes to illustrate how Mr. Mister’s wife, et. al buys his influence from those equally corrupt who take the money and support his rise in exchange for their freedom of choice to stop him.
The greenbacks which eventually end up in a big pile (the symbol of velvet destruction) in the center of the playing space, are left by the head of the Steelworker’s Union, Larry Foreman. He cannot be bought. The money is an appropriate symbol of what can make human beings like Mr. Mister and his minions in Steeltown pernicious, callous, hardened and wicked.
“Apparently” fewer in number, there are those like Moll, Harry the druggist, Ella Hammer and Larry Foreman who eschew the “love of money” to kill/defraud/lie/steal for it or be complicit with those who do. How many have the strength of purpose, unction and anointing to do follow their heroic example and create a better world? Many, though it appears to be easier to go the way of Mr. Mister’s Liberty Committee. By the conclusion it is to the unseen “many” of like minded individuals that Larry Foreman makes his prophecies. In them lies the hope of the fierce wind that will rock the cradle.
Blitzstein’s work initiated as a result of the debacle of The Great Depression, then and now highlights how economic inequality was and is a by-product of power elites who purchase institutions (religious, press, law enforcement, industry, social networks) to hold sway. In a time of economic prosperity it is impossible to corral people to do one’s bidding. Thus, the push for economic equality, the production reveals, encourages a strong and stable social system which discourages autocracy, plutocracy, dictatorship, “one-man rule.” Indeed, who pushes the culture in order to exacerbate economic inequality which is the lifeblood of instability and divisiveness? Who indeed!
This is a fine production thanks to these talented actors: Ken Barnett, Eddie Cooper, Benjamin Eakeley, David Garrison, Ian Lowe, Kara Mikula, Lara Pulver, Sally Ann Triplett, Rema Webb, Tony Yazbec. Doyle’s direction/staging/design is spot-on. And kudos go those creatives responsible for Costume Design (Ann Hould-Ward) Lighting (Jane Cox, Tesse James) Music Supervisor (Gregg Jarrett) Associate Scenic Design (David L. Arsenault) Associate Costume Design (Amy Price).
Here is a caveat for this production. The lyrics to the songs are gems. The voices of the actors, the gemcutters. The more precisely enunciated with authenticity, the more beautiful the overall piece of jewelry (the song). Indeed, we long for exquisite, priceless pieces. At times, the gemcutters in the production, were imprecise; the song lyrics were garbled. When the cutters were precision sharp and clear, the songs soared and thrilled. This is a potentially stunning production which fell a bit short for that reason and that alone.
Nevertheless, it is a must-see as a trenchant allegory for our time. The Cradle Will Rock runs with no intermission about 90 minutes. The show closes on 19 May. You can purchase tickets at their website by CLICKING HERE.
A few years ago the Public Theatre did a sardonic version of Julius Caesar using directed ridicule to lay bare some parallels between Caesar’s power grab with that of the new Trump administration. In that iteration blonde, pompous Caesar wore a dark suit and long, red tie and Calpurnia flounced around in designer clothing. The allusions were clear as were the themes. Overweening power unchecked in a representative government leads to civil strife, chaos and future oppression. Though Theatre for a New Audience’s rendition of Julius Caesar offers no such national twists, the production’s finely tuned staging, set design, incisive acting by the principals and superb use of the ensemble ratchet the themes of political intrigue and civil strife to a much more nuanced and foreboding level.
This version is novel in costume design, sound design and scenic design with sterling efforts by Raquel Barreto (costumes) Sibyl Wickersheimer (set) Paul James Prendergast (sound). Though the costumes are predominately in modern dress, the impact of the characters’ roles is inherent in their design. The masks and wigs headgear of the ensemble are dramatic and eye-catching in the opening scene with the crowds celebrating the Feast of Lupercal. The same occurs later during Brutus’ and Mark Antony’s funeral orations.
The director Shana Cooper brilliantly employs the ensemble during the mob scenes and crowd scenes in Act I and Act III and then in the battle scenes in the last acts. The staging is riveting and in the first half of the play, the ensemble enacts the lower class plebeians with acute meaning and power. The mob action is a vital aspect not only of the arc of development in the action of Julius Caesar, but also as emblematic of Shakespeare’s themes about governance, leadership and control of the public will.
For example Caesar (an appropriately arrogant Rocco Sisto) is a master manipulator of the crowd which he plays upon like “the actors in the theater” according to the humorous Caska (the ironic, churlish Stephen Michael Spencer). Of course their will is Caesar’s command and it is how and why he will be “crowned” by the senators who understand the extent to which Caesar has gained the people’s trust and love. Shana Cooper conveys this theme of crowd manipulation trenchantly. For the first time in the numerous productions I have seen of Caesar, she most coherently understands Shakespeare’s portrayal of the crowd as a preeminent character.
How the crowd/rag-tag people are manipulated by Caesar, Brutus and Antony recalls how every charismatic leader gains and maintains power: he/she infuses the will of the people with the direction of his/her own desires, neatly disguised. Though Brutus (Brandon J. Dirden is superb as the high-minded, conflicted betrayer of his friend), launches himself into the pulpit at Caesar’s funeral, his honesty doesn’t allow him to use the clever, ironic rhetorical strategies of Mark Antony (Jordan Barbour is super as the passionate rogue who stirs the emotions of the mob). Antony’s duplicity as he turns the crowd away from praising the “honorable” Brutus to damning him is a masterwork of leadership genius.
Mark Antony enrages the crowd into seething, blind violence for his self-dealing purposes. The speech is one of Shakespeare’s greats and Barbour does it justice. As counterpoints to each other in this Act III climax of Caesar’s funeral, Dirden’s Brutus and Barbour’s Antony reveal exceptional talents in voice and in their living moment-to-moment in the skins of these admirable and incredible Romans, whom we come to appreciate as leaders of that time, far occluding current politicians of our time.
The contrasting scenes which feature the wives of the leaders, Calphurnia (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart) and Portia (Merritt Janson) indicate the human side of Caesar and Brutus away from their roles as leaders of the people. In their importuning their husbands, both Stewart and Janson are sensitive and heartfelt.
The power and beauty of Portia’s pleas to get Brutus to tell her his secrets lest she only be his “harlet” and not his “true wife” is a standout. Cooper’s astute direction of Portia who reaches behind Brutus to take his knife and give herself the wound which convinces him to “tell all,” is cogent and precise. Merritt Janson and Brandon J. Dirden rock the house in this poignant, well-wrought scene which reveals their love and concern for each other and which also gives credence to why Portia kills herself violently after Brutus flees Rome.
Likewise, the love and concern expressed in the bath scene between Calphurnia and Caesar is well thought out and delivered. We are heartened that Calphurnia has discovered a “face-saving” way to convince Caesar not to go to the senate. But all ends in the exchange between proud Caesar and Calphurnia after she is foiled by the clever Decius (an exceptional Barret O’Brien who is on point throughout this high energy scene as well as before and after the assassination). She wilts like a dead flower as Caesar chides her for his caving in to her fears; and at that moment, Caesar is a dead man unless he accepts the truth of warnings of the Soothsayer and Artemidorus.
Calphurnia’s angry cry after Caesar’s death in waving the bloody scarf at her husband’s corpse is the perfect acting choice. Indeed, how many times do wives correctly advise their husbands who ignore them only to be proven right after it is too late? If Caesar had only listened to her, she would not be staring down at his mangled body, mourning him.
Cooper’s staging of the conspirators around Caesar before and during the assassination is enlightened and sizzles with power. A brilliant touch which may rankle traditionalists is that Antony brings Calphurnia to Caesar’s funeral so she may respond, with anger, remorse and tears. It is the epitome of logic that reveals Antony’s character and foreshadows the future. She is one more prop that Antony uses to manipulate the crowd to such mutiny that in the next scene they beat to death a poor innocent poet (Armando McClain) in an amazingly choreographed scene.
The direction of the ensemble and principals throughout the first part of the play creates tension and engagement with great purpose in elucidating themes. For example as Antony works his mischief to stir the crowd to bloodshed so “mothers will but smile when they see their sons quartered…” Cooper has Caesar rise with the help of Calphurnia and walk off. This is prodigious direction/staging. Symbolically, we understand that Caesar’s spirit has been evoked/resurrected by Antony to roam the land seeking vengeance in the capture or death of the conspirators and all those in concert with them. This ghost of Caesar threads through to the final Acts and foreshadows Caesar’s haunting Brutus at various times and finally when he appears in Brutus’ tent and embraces him before the disastrous battle of Philippi.
The last acts of Julius Caesar have been characterized as throw-away. Not so in this production which has streamlined and strengthened them. The argument between Brutus and his once close friend now “enemy” Cassius, Matthew Amendt (Cassius) and Dirden (Brutus) deliver with power. As Cassius, Matthew Amendt’s portrayal is spot-on, though at times I felt he could project more. This is not the conniving Cassius we witnessed in the first act. Amendt’s Cassius is hurting, disturbed, humanized. On the other hand, Brutus has become a bellicose emotional lightening rod. As the two quarrel, we empathize with Cassius and then we discover why brutish Brutus is attacking his former close friend, now fellow soldier.
Cooper avoids the problems with the last acts also by consolidating characters to keep the character list leaner than the original play. She also exemplifies and symbolizes how the spirit of vengeance and war range against each other in stylized battle scenes which are exceptionally choreographed by Erika Chong Shuch with the ensemble in modern army camouflage and make-up.
These scenes especially heighten the excitement, tension and energy. Also, they manifest and represent the sheer adrenaline expended during wartime. The fact that Cooper uses no blood or physical violence is symbolic more of the spirit of war that seems eternally present in every era. In their actions the ensemble steps in unison, in their arm, hand, leg movements and gestures in military fashion without weapons.
The overall effect is frightening in what it suggests, the fierce will and hot determination to war against one’s countrymen who were once brothers/colleagues. The lighting effects are exceptional thanks to Christopher Akerlind especially in these scenes. The music and sound are portentous.
The bloody assassination scene is contrasted with the stylized battle scenes which have no direct physical contact or blood. The pivotal character is Caesar, a god. Stabbed thirty-three times, he bleeds; no other character does. Symbolic parallels are drawn between animals sacrificed to predict the future, or gain favor with the gods or heal a nation. The contrasts and irony emphasized in this Tragedy of Julius Caesar are dire; the republic is not healed, but destroyed with his bloodletting. And the bloodless fighting of the ensemble indicates that the spirit of power domination, and war as an effective tool of “dominion” is integral to human society and must be checked through wise governance.
Caesar is the sacrifice. By the time his spirit of vengeance has consumed all who would stand in the way of peace, 100 senators are dead, even the most rational and erudite Cicero. And his vengeance won’t be finished until Octavius (the martial Benjamin Bonenfant) purges his enemies and becomes Caesar Augustus. (Emperor Augustus decreed August 15 should be celebrated as his festival Ferragosto. From that time to this, all Italy closes down to celebrate.)
The production concludes with the stylized choreography and the comments that Brutus killed for the good of Rome. But Cooper’s staging makes clear that the killing will continue. Thematically, we acknowledge that the spirit of war, political intrigue and vengeance will carry through Augustus’ reign and beyond.
Cooper’s production best highlights Shakespeare’s inherent prophecy that war and assassination as political exigencies are perhaps inevitable. The show which runs until April 28th is a must-see for its daring risks that shake tradition, elucidate new concepts and provide exciting, vibrant theater. You can purchase tickets to The Tragedy of Julius Caesar which runs with one intermission at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center (Ashland Place Brooklyn, NY) by CLICKING HERE.
The documentary I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter in its World Premiere at SXSW 2019 is a provocative and compelling look at a case which stunned New England. Directed by Erin Lee Carr, presented in the Spotlight Section, the filmmaker examines two different perspectives of the case against Michelle Carter who the court found culpable in the death of her friend/boyfriend Conrad Roy III. Carr features the prosecutions arguments, replete with video clips taken from the courtroom. Also, the filmmaker features the arguments presented by the defense in the courtroom. She does some follow-up interviews of the witnesses on both sides.
The eighteen-year-old, Conrad Roy III, was found in his pick up truck asphyxiated by carbon monoxide at his own hand. He had purchased a generator which trapped the carbon monoxide from his car’s cabin as he sat parked behind a local K-Mart. He didn’t leave a suicide note. Instead, he and Michelle Carter left 60,000 text messages of their relationship, feelings for one another, their mental states, fantasies about being like Romeo and Juliet and more.
However, as the texts made clear, Roy III was in pain and wanted to commit suicide. He was being treated for depression and he was on the medication Prozac which has been tied to suicide deaths. Whether as a friend, help-meet, or as a self-serving, dastardly and willful individual looking for attention as the prosecution painted her, some of Michelle Carter’s final text messages encouraged him to finish his goal to end his life. What was never recorded was the final phone conversation they had together. Whether this was up until the moments of his death is unclear. Only the text messages remain as evidence.
In the first segment, Carr presents an outline of the backstory of the texting relationship between Carter and Conrad Roy III who only saw each other face to face around 5-6 times, but in teenspeak were “talking” which meant they were close. Indeed, Michelle Carter referred to him as her boyfriend. In the first segment Carr includes many of their texts, out of order in following the prosecution’s case to hone in on various arguments. They often texted that they loved each other. Carr culled through the approximately 60,000 texts between the two individuals. She uses their texts and sound effects on a black screen for full effect in both segments of the HBO presentation.
Carr uses video clips from the public hearings during the case. She interviews Conrad Roy III’s family members. There was difficulty between his parents who were divorced and were with other individuals. Clearly, Conrad Roy III didn’t have an idyllic home life, however, the extent to which this contributed to his pain and wanting to commit suicide was only alluded to by Carr briefly in the film. Michelle Carter’s family life was not covered, but her parents are together and supporting her throughout the ordeal and civil lawsuit by Conrad Roy III’s family.
Interestingly, there was no jury trial, but three judges decided the case. Since the media had garnered such an outcry spiking controversy against her, the Defense decided no jury trial was in her best interests. In Part II of the series which is an HBO Showcase and scheduled to air some time in the summer, the documentarian presents the Defense’s perspective why Michelle Carter should not be held accountable for Conrad Roy III’s suicide..
Michelle Carter never gave voice to her own feelings testifying before the judges in court. Nor was she interviewed for the film. Her testimony, the missing piece of the puzzle, may never be revealed now that she is serving her prison sentence after she lost her appeal.
Carr chronicles the events mirroring each perspective. The film is structured precisely to allow the audience to decide where they land, in support of Michelle Carter or in favor of the prosecution. I found both arguments riveting, but the situation is extremely complex and the film does not evidence the complexity. One must “see” between the lines.
The femme fatale image of Carter whipped up by a media hungry for clicks and viewers tragically skewed the case beyond a proper examination of the mental background related to both Conrade Roy III and Carter. Carr includes the Defense testimony of the doctor who discusses Conrad Roy III’s mental state. Also this witness ties in the effects of Prozac which in some individuals create suicidal tendencies. However, in this area, the film and perhaps the defense’s medical strategy doesn’t go far enough.
I know of at least three individuals who were on Prozac who either attempted or succeeded in committing suicide; these were adults. Conrad Roy III was 18-years-old and it is unclear the extent to which this drug exacerbated his pain on his young mind.
Nevertheless, the focal point of the prosecution’s argument became Michelle Carter’s encouragement of Conrad Roy III in the last hour and one–half of his life to choose death, not life. The Defense strategy used a freedom of speech argument saying Michelle Carter’s speech was protected, and couldn’t be used against her, even though it was morally reprehensible to encourage someone else to commit suicide.
The judges ruled against Carter using as evidence her texts of encouragement. She urged Conrad Roy III to get back into the truck and finish what he set out to do as the carbon monoxide was filling up the cabin. Because she did not encourage him against killing himself, she was given the sentence she received. The Defense could disprove the prosecution’s faulty logic, however, there was no answer for what the judges deemed in their opinions indefensible, which was her encouragement to suicide.
Obviously, Conrad Roy III had doubts the last hour of his life whether to kill himself or not. Interestingly, he sought out Michelle Carter precisely for what she gave him: support in his endeavor. He did not call his parents, his sister, or go on youtube where he would have been discouraged. His parents notified? He would have been put in the Psych Ward. His will to choose one who would support him kill himself is clear: indeed, in that he holds the ultimate responsibility, the ultimate choice of texting her, of phoning her and not someone who would stand in the way and prevent his wishes.
However, in that the judges obviated and ignored his obvious, willful selection and damned her. Her texts were used as the weapon to kill him, not his own will, determination, previous texts, treatment for depression, known wishes to commit suicide and the youtube video he posted about “social anxiety.” The evident misogyny in not looking at Conrad’s ultimate selection of Michelle Carter to get what he needed in the last moments of his life is apparent. It was his choice; the responsibility was his, and he took her down with him.
Indeed, the judges and prosecution believed that Michelle Carter should have “gone on record” inspiring Conrad Roy III toward life, though clearly the fact that Conrad Roy III purchased the generator and sat in the pick-up and eventually stayed in the cabin to inhale enough of the poison to kill himself, ultimately revealed that his will was toward death, as heinous as that may seem. The tragic irony is that the text messages “appear” to reveal what happened. However, not even Michelle Carter knew what was going on in the final moments with Conrad Roy III. She only responded to what he told her. Only he knew what he did, for only he was present. Thus, though her Defense didn’t enforce this argument, Carter was swept up in what is largely circumstantial evidence.
Following the judges’ logic, examine the instance of a jumper at the top of a building who is cursed at and screamed at with encouraging phrases to jump by the crowd below. If he jumps, all in the crowd should be held responsible for his death. They are not. Ultimately, the choice whether to jump or not is in the mind/will of the jumper.
The filmmaker by the very nature of her selection process cannot be objective, though she tries. She includes some trial clips over others and interviews of Conrad Roy III’s parents and Michelle Carter’s friends over others. She also interviews the reporters who covered the case.
However, in presenting the clips, to my mind questions are raised about the adequacy of the defense and the adequacy of the testimony of the mental health professionals in the cross examination of the prosecution’s medical professional. There should have been more health professionals testifying about Conrad Roy III’s mental health, the side effects of Prozac, and Michelle Carter’s mental health, etc.
In attempting to organize the series into two parts and “leaving it up to the viewer to decide” the approach is a quick and dirty way to further sensationalize this tragedy and “involve” folks in the “harmless” game of having an “opinion” about Michelle Carter. To actually dig deeper and approach the subjects from another angle would have been more profound and elucidating. The question remains. Where is Michelle Carter’s viewpoint, opinion and testimony in all of this?
Though this isn’t a focal point, the film does raise additional questions philosophically as to whether it is “right” to assist someone else in their wish to commit suicide to escape extreme mental anguish. If the person appears to aver, should one encourage them in support, or take the opportunity to help them stop their plans, knowing they will try again, perhaps until they succeed? Indeed, teen rates of suicide are increasing as suicide rates overall are increasing in our nation, and especially for those veterans who have PTSD. What is the law’s stance regarding suicide? Did Michelle Carter know? Or is this a matter of human rights and one’s autonomous decision?
Suicide is a slippery slope. Taking into consideration the ages of these individuals (Conrad Roy III was of age), Michelle Carter at the time was younger, the teen mind set, the teen subculture, the lack of communication with parents and siblings of both families, the effects of Prozac, many variables need to be examined to understand better what may have happened. However, Conrad Roy III enacted all of the steps he needed to kill himself, even elected to use carbon monoxide and not a gun or pills. Michelle Carter a supportive friend/girlfriend reacted to what he told her with her texts. But no one was present except Conrad Roy III.
Carr’s work is intriguing in relaying teen social constructs that are current. She focuses on raising the specter of suicide that haunts our culture. The clips of Roy speaking on social media are particularly gut-wrenching. Did his parents see these? Now, more than ever, parents need take note and make sure lines of communication are always open with their children. If this had been the case, would Conrad Roy III have taken the ultimate path he choose for himself?.
The organization of the documentary is sufficient for what the filmmaker’s intended purpose may be, to “have the audience decide.” Another approach might have yielded much more information. The documentary will air in the summer on HBO.
The Day Shall Come directed by Chris Morris, co-written by Chris Morris and Jesse Armstrong takes real-live accounts of how the FBI attempts to trap terrorists and hate groups and spins a fantastical yarn that is in whole is frighteningly realistic. Indeed, Morris culled research from stories which run to the overarching plot of this film, NOT the specifics. The events recall dastardly Keystone Cops episodes of law enforcement who entrap faux criminals, while real killers, i.e Parkland, 911, Columbine, Tree of Life Synagogue, Las Vegas, etc. have their way with US citizens.
Chris Morris creates a complicated, humorous and sardonic plot to send a powerful message to us about real terrorists and the convenient conversion of folks into harmless, safe, FBI-styled terrorists in the wake of the Bush era “war on terror” and Trump era terrorists on the border mantras used to herd the brains of American Citizens. At the bottom of Morris’ contentions? If we are not circumspect watchmen, law enforcement can become overweaning and abuse its powers. This is especially so when the risk reward ratios are tied to terrorist quotas which allow agents to convert folks to terrorism rather than locate actual terrorists and skillfully infiltrate their groups which takes years/decades.
In The Day Shall Come, Morris’ compact film resounds with currency, insanity and selects as its hero a black man. Considering historically blacks have proportionately not engaged in terrorist activities and have continually been victimized by law enforcement, this is an extremely satiric choice.
Moses, a self-proclaimed Floridian preacher, his wife Venus and four saintly “soldiers” attempt to raise up a religious following and by peaceful means, overcome the corrupt white culture that is displacing hundreds with gentrification and soulless development that decries affordable housing. On a wing and a prayer, some meds for bi-polar disorder, his converts and his raggedy church/farm that sells eggs and chickens to make ends meet, Moses (a hysterical and well-paced performance by Marchánt Davis) attempts to stop the continual threats of eviction and sell-out to developers with a shuck and jive routine that grows tired even for his once empathetic landlord.
Money is king. Money is the soul and song of existence in a culture which has extruded Moses and his church from its society and left them on the precipice of humanity. Without money, one cannot live even a meager existence with dignity. And Moses rag tag group Star of Six, cannot even begin to think about activism with any viability.
Desperate to forestall the end of his ministry and the abject misery of extreme poverty for himself, his children and his church family becoming like the thousands of Floridian homeless, Moses is driven to use “any means necessary” to fulfill his destiny and keep his church in the promised land where God has placed him. But where will he come up with the rent?
Enter a slimy pedophile miscreant with a taste for teenage girls and the FBI’s immunity to abuse them in a continual quid pro quo. Reza (Kayvan Novak) is the enslaved puppet informant of the FBI whom they send out with gobs of taxpayer cash to lure, entrap and capture those groveling for their last dimes (like Moses) to turn them into “enemies of the state” and terrorists. Terrorists are needed to prove this branch of the FBI “are worthy” of their budget and the jobs they hold.
In the case of Moses who goes off his meds to speak to God and Satan and refuses to carry rifles, AK-47s, glock pistols or anything that shoots bullets, the impoverished preacher, his wife and four congregants are hard cases to prove as terrorists, even though they are an uber tiny “radical” group. The nature of who the FBI is willing to convert to terrorism is beyond the pale. But Reza is the perfect foil for his handlers to squeeze. He is stressed to come up with a ready plot to snag Moses, though a three-year-old can see Moses has mega mental issues and terrorism is not one of them.
But desperate to continue his sexual abuse of teen girls, Reza’s urges compel him to work quickly or his equally amoral, slimy handlers Kendra Glack (Anna Kendrick), Andy (Dennis O’Hare) and other FBI officials will cut off his chick supply and throw him in a greasy Florida jail with worse perverts. That they are more into “fighting” terrorism with the most unlikely of candidates than get a red, hot, live sex offender, is ironic and damning. But, hey, this is credible considering the backlash against the #metoo movement and rampant world sex trafficking that could be ameliorated if… but it is not considered that important, nor is rape, for that matter.
With Reza’s lust working overtime, a plan is conceived to snare Moses who by this time, enveloped with stress about money, has gone off his meds and is convinced the lightening strike on a large crane in a development zone is God’s sign that he is with Moses whatever he does. How Moses goes from a poor, non-violent preacher who means well to an FBI terrorist supplying arms to the KKK is the stuff of satiric greatness that only a Brit like Chris Morris could evolve with horrific authenticity, supple comedy and riotous laughter. The coda at the end which identifies what happens to Moses, his wife, his four congregants and the FBI agents is both sickening and too realistic.
The Peter Principle is alive and well according to Chris Morris in The Day Shall Come, which also proves that in a septic tank, the really big turd chunks rise to the top. By comparison, Moses and his church are crystal clear water preyed upon by evil creatures twisted by their own hellishness.
The actors who portray the agents are depicted with skill. We dislike them immediately once we understand their self-dealing intentions. And indeed, Davis’ comedic “performance with a purpose” as the bi-polar preacher who hears from God and Satan is truly exceptional. The supporting cast and wife Venus (Danielle Brooks) do their wacko leader proud.
The themes Morris touches upon are numerous, varied and styled with clever twists. Many vital concepts about human nature and the human condition, good vs. evil reversals, abide with humor in this clever work. Most importantly, we understand how corruption self breeds like a toxic bacteria once it begins. When there is no moral force to oversee the rabidly power-hungry and abusive who are supposed to be caretakers of the law, every wicked trope, every sick meme congregates on the warped and diseased host, then spreads. This is not a pretty portrait of the FBI, but it is a darkly wicked one which will resonate. Physician? Heal thyself or your own disease will rot you from within.
The Day Shall Come will be released later in the year. Don’t miss this sardonic, zany and “too-true-to-look-away” film. And do not in any way confuse it with satire against black activist organizations. This is aimed front and center at the FBI. Moses and his group are cast in the most extreme and crazy light possible to reveal “how” terrorists are made and how economic inequality and overweaning power structures mold harmless, faux “terrorists” into bogey men then use them in their institutional PR campaigns.
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.
Chita Rivera is a Broadway legend and one of the most gracious and prodigious theatrical talents one would want to meet. Richard Ridge is the lead correspondent for Broadway World the go-to place online to find everything you want to know about Broadway, its stars, its happenings. For those who were there on Monday evening, 7 May they received a great treat. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center in collaboration with the League of Professional Theatre Women presented Chita Rivera in conversation with Richard Ridge. After the interview, members discussed with Co-Chairs Pat Addiss and Sophia Romma who produced the event how they appreciated Chita Rivera’s authenticity and great good will, and Richard Ridge’s superbly guided questions.
Much of the evening which was too good to miss is captured here with some edits. I chose to sum up the beginning and conclude on a positive affirmation that strikes me as suffusing all that Chita Rivera has accomplished in her amazing life with her last comment in this piece. It is why she is who she is, after all is said and done!
The interview began with Richard Ridge asking Chita Rivera the “sixty-four thousand dollar question,” how she became a dancer. Chita Rivera’s answer is one for the ages. She said that she was a tomboy. And one day jumping from the chair to the coffee table, she missed her mark. Exasperated her mother said, “That’s it. You’re out of here. You’re going to Doris Jones.” From a time perspective and having raised children, Chita Rivera surmises, “I had no idea my mother was so smart. She wanted to save the house.”
Apparently, her mom who had exquisite legs and the most beautiful turnout, wanted to be a dancer, but chose to raise five children. However, she championed her daughter Chita to do that which she thought might work out to keep her daughter entertained and “the house saved.” What follows is Richard Ridge’s wonderfully knowledgeable and finely researched informal interview with the inimitable Chita Rivera.
So it was Doris Jones who took you to New York for your audition for George Balanchine? What was that like?
Well, we were very obedient in those days to adults and when you have someone wonderful like Miss Jones, it’s easy. Louis Johnson was really the first male, black dancer in the New York City ballet. He was my partner in Ms. Jones’ school. So the two of us won a scholarship to audition that day. I got out of the elevator and saw this gorgeous girl with legs up to my shoulders and so skinny and so beautiful and so calm. I looked at Ms. Jones and said, I’m scared. And Ms. Jones said, “Just stay in your lane.” And I’ve been staying in my lane ever since. You find out who you are by being who you are.
So you accompany a friend to the touring audition to Call Me Madam. What happened when you got there.
Well, Helen (I can’t remember her last name)…approached me in class and said, “Chita, I’m not on scholarship. I have no money. Will you go with me? I’m scared to death.” I said, “Absolutely.” I wasn’t frightened because it didn’t mean anything to me except it was an experience. I got the job but Helen didn’t! I haven’t heard from her since. So if anyone hears from her, let me know. (laughter) So I went home and told my mother, “They’ve offered me $250 dollars a week to go on the road with a woman by the name of Elaine Stritch!” I don’t think at the time I had even seen a Broadway show. But I loved it. It was an exciting time to be doing the choreography. The choreographer’s name was Jerome Robbins. And I got one of the four principal dancers. So I just continued to do what I was told and it was an amazing experience. It was the beginning of everything.
Doris Jones had performances when we were in her school. So I had the opportunity to dance during concerts and on point. But I never got the chance to dance with the New York City Ballet. I’ve thought about that. And I’m just fine about it. (laughter) And Ms. Jones, God love her, she had gorgeous schools. I invited her to see my shows and she never came. And one day, when I was doing Kiss of the Spider Woman, I was in a restaurant and there was Ms. Jones. I said why haven’t you come to see me? Are you ashamed of me? She said, “I’m busy making little Chita Riveras (laughter). I just let you out into the world.” So I give Ms. Jones all the credit. (applause)
You did Guys and Dolls and then Can Can when you started your life-long friendship with Gwen Verdon. What did you learn from her. And that day you were called into her dressing room what did she say to you?
I’ve always said that if I am reincarnated, I’d like to come back as the carriage instead of the horse. I think most dancers would like to be the carriage because the horse pulls and pulls and does the hard work…the carriage gets to carry the amazing people…what was the question? (laughter)
The dressing room when Gwen Verdon called you.
Michael Kidd choreographed the show. She was extraordinary. I lived in the wings of every show I ever did and learned so much that way. She called me into her room. At that time you didn’t cross a star’s threshold, not unless someone asked you to. You didn’t just presume. And so I went in. I remember her clearly saying to me, “Chita, you should be brave enough to go out and look for parts you can create for yourself.” I realized she was giving me courage and making me go out and find out who I am. And shortly after that, I did get a part. The fabulous Gwen Verdon! And the next time I saw her we were behind the amazing Tony Walton set and there we were in top hat and canes and I looked at the back of her head and thought, “Oh my God.” I’m standing next to Gwen Verdon. It was amazing. You don’t realize it until you’re in it and then you go, “Yeah!” And you don’t want to be anywhere else. You want to be there. She was a phenomenal artist and great friend.
Well the role that catapulted you to stardom was Anita in the groundbreaking musical West Side Story. (applause) We just celebrated Jerome Robbins’ 100th Anniversary.
Right and this is the 61st Anniversary of West Side Story. I always say, I’ve been running around living the life of a 35 year-old all these years and I never realized how old I was. So for age? Don’t count it, unless it’s 5, 6, 7, 8 (laughter/applause). We worked hard at the auditions and we didn’t realize we were working hard. We just were because that’s what you do. There were several auditions. It was Kenny Leroy as Bernardo. We had to be matched up with our guys. We didn’t realize we didn’t know how to sing. We were taught on the spot. And of course dancing is acting. And suddenly we had words. It was extraordinary. It was tough but it was good because we learned.
At what point during that process did you realize that the show was a such a phenomenon.
I don’t know if I realized it. I was so busy living it. You don’t have much time to realize it unless you’re looking at a fellow actor and you get those responses. We got to Washington, DC and “America” stopped the show dead. We didn’t know what to do with that. We said to Jerry, “What do we do?” Jerry said go downstairs, change your clothes and get ready for the next scene. That was the first time we got any kind of feeling about the response. But all along it was being built, the value of the words, the excitement. “Cool” was better than “America” but “Cool” came after “America.” “Cool was an extraordinarily choreographed piece. I watched from the wings when I wasn’t onstage.
You went to Leonard Bernstein’s apartment and learned a song at his piano?
I sure did. It’s kind of fun to say, “Lenny” and think that I knew him and that this amazing genius is a kind, giving soul. Well, I rang the buzzer. He escorted me to his music room, and I sat next to him on the piano and was nervous. And I carry little angels with me on my shoulders. One tells me what to do, the other tells me, “Don’t do that.” I remember one of them said to me, “You know you’re sitting next to Leonard Bernstein.” And the other one said, “Do exactly what he says.” So I listened to him and it was then I heard my own voice. He pulled it out. He just had a way of making you find yourself. And making you feel comfortable in your own shoes. He had the excitement for himself and the show. He was directing the quintet and we were all on the set. He was in the pit standing on a chair and he got so enthusiastic that he went straight through the chair. But dancers love to laugh anyhow, so we had a good laugh.
Could you sum up the best part of working with Jerome Robbins, what it was for you?
I don’t know because there are so many things. I used to call him “Big Daddy.” He had all the answers as far as I was concerned. I remember one time I was standing downstage. He was giving us a five minute break which I rarely took. Mickey Calin was gorgeous and several girls were hovering. I saw Jerry looking at Mickey and I got very nervous and I walked past him and said, “Don’t do it.” He was about to kill him, slaughter him. And we had a laugh and he said, “You’re a witch. You’re just a witch.” We had that kind of relationship because we all had respect for each other. And we were working so hard. And there’s nothing better than working hard and finding out that you can do it. What a creator he was. He introduced us to words and music and worlds we never knew. And feelings we never knew we had. That’s how you build your canvas, your life.
You created the role of Rose in the Broadway smash, Bye, Bye Birdie. (applause) You almost turned that show down, didn’t you?
Well, I read the script. Really! Who’s going to sit up there as a parent and let all these kids talk on the telephone? I wouldn’t let my daughter talk on the phone that long. I also learned that we don’t know what we’re talking about. Shut up and do your job. (laughter) Let them do theirs, you do yours. Gower Champion! He brought technicolor, he brought humor, he brought class, he brought Hollywood. And of course, then there was that funny person Dick Van Dyke. I just watched him. I am a great thief and I will steal. I have been around extraordinary people, so I just watched and learned a lot from them. And Dick is one of the funniest, kindest, most giving people in the theater. He’s 92 and he still going strong. He’s still funny. Don’t lose your sense of humor.
You’ve received many great phone calls during your career. Tell us about the phone call you received from Cy Coleman, Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse.
It was from Cy. It is amazing that I know these people. It is wonderful to know them. They asked if I would take the original of Sweet Charity on the road. There was Ben Vereen, Thelma Oliver and the greatest chorus of dancers. So we did it. That was a great phone call.
Then you got to do the film version.
The cherry on the top was that it was a wonderful experience to do the entire show for almost a year and another cherry to be with my buddy Shirley MacLaine. She always had a great sense of humor and we always made fun of her right to her face. Once when we were filming, we were supposed to head up to the rooftops, turn on a dime, run down a ramp. The lineup was Shirley was in the front, less to travel, then I was next, then Paula Kelly who was extraordinary. She had the furthest to travel. I loved to dance with the boys. They had the power, but I couldn’t travel like that. But Paula could. She was amazing. We were pulled aside and told, do exactly what they said for the shoot. So we hit it the first couple of times and on the third time, that was the final take. I said, “Damn.” I knew I wanted to travel further. It would fulfill my faith in myself. (laughter) I knew Paula was flying. I saw her out of the corner of my eye. That’s what the chorus does to you. You can see 360 degrees. Shirley said, “What’s wrong, kid?” I said it just didn’t feel right. She asked the director, “Can we do another take?” So we did it again. That was just great!
You received your second Tony nomination the original for Velma Kelly in Chicago, John Kander and Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse. (applause) What happened the first time you heard the vamp to your number?
Well, I knew John Kander wrote great vamps. No one writes great vamps like John Kander. When you hear Liza’s vamp in Cabaret, it’s John Kander’s. When you hear Joel Grey’s vamp, you know John Kander wrote it. I said in my head, “Oh, I want a vamp.” John comes in and says, “Come on I want to play your opening number for you.” We go down to the theater and he started with Dum, dum…and I was so excited. And he said, “Wait Chita, that’s just the vamp. Wait for the song.” (laughter) It was just an amazing song. And when the curtain opens up on Tony Walton’s fabulous set? The theater is just greatest place in the world. (applause) You can go to so many different worlds, see so many different things, tell so many wonderful stories. I remember when my mother passed away. I was in Merlin. It got terrible reviews, but it was a magical show. When she passed, I don’t know what I would have done. But I went to the theater and I was placed in another world and it saved me. It saved me. So I’m very, very grateful.
You were in another world when you played Anna at a roller skating rink in John Kander and Fred Ebb’s The Rink.
They called and said, “We have another show, Chita, and want to know if you’d like to be a part of it?” I said, Well, let me think about it…Yes. They said, “You’ll have a co-star. How would you feel about Liza Minelli?” I said, well, I really have to think about that…(laughter) Of course! We’ve always wanted to play girlfriends. There was silence. They said, “Well, gee. It’s not girlfriends.” I asked what? They said, “It’s mother and daughter.” I asked who plays the mother? (laughter) Keep your sense of humor! But it was great. Every once in a while I found myself standing in front of Liza who was a joy to work with. I had met her mother. Make sure you’re there! Don’t miss the knowledge of those moments.
Your leg was broken during a car accident. It was broken in twelve places which required 18 screws. You were told you’d never dance again. You know many stars have life-threatening things happen to them. What got you through that experience?
I think my mom and my family. And I think of the example of Ms Jones, the way she taught us. I clearly remember going into the Emergency Room in shock. The X ray technician said, “Oh how nice to meet you.” (laughter) She takes the picture and comes out and says, “Oh, you did a good job on yourself.” I clearly remember shifting gears. I remember saying, “Oh shit.” And the climate of my mind totally changed. Then I thought, “What’s next.” Then Gary Chris who is a friend of mine and beautiful dancer talked to me. I realized it’s one of life’s lessons. Every single day, things change. You accept things for what they are and you just keep going. And I don’t think I could have kept going without learning from my teachers. It’s incredible to be recuperating in bed and feeling the healing happening gradually.
You accepted another Tony Award for Aurora in Kander and Ebb’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. (applause) Aurora was difficult to find because she is made up of fragments.
Yes. Fragments. When I finally realized not to become too desperate to find out who she was, to just be patient, one day, I realized that I was in his mind, his imagination. Then I found the character. It was his imagination because he envisioned her. I had the support of the amazing actors and Rob Marshall’s choreography and Hal Prince’s direction. It was so beautiful. The story was extraordinary. It was a story I wanted to make sure was heard. It was beautiful to look at. I wondered how was I going to be in the web? They said, you’ll see. It was a projection and I was standing in the center of the stage and I looked as though I was hanging on this web. I did do a lot of climbing. But my name is Chita. (applause) I’m lucky, really lucky to be around at the time these great shows were created and to work with such amazing people.
You played opposite Antonio Banderas in the stunning revival Nine. Everyone in the audience wants to know what was it like sharing the stage with Antonio Banderas.
I had several people say, you did that tango with Antonio and you did that high kick split. How did you do that? I said, you would be able to do that too if you were with Antonio Banderas. (laughter) Antonio Banderas was so extraordinary in that show and so was Raul Julia in the original. Extraordinary. I loved what Tommy Tune created. Raul? I could have done that split with Raoul. Antonio is the lover we have seen on screen. He was so perfect, so beautiful. So for my audiences, I tell them everything you’ve dreamed about Antonio is true. He was great to work with, sang, never missed a show. You know he’s a wonderful actor.
You received your ninth nomination on Broadway for Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life (book by Terrance McNally) What gave you the great pleasure of performing the show across the country for people who couldn’t get to New York.
First of all there are so many sensational theaters across the country. Those people are theater hungry. So it’s a joy to bring a show that you’re proud of to them. And they really appreciated it. So when someone asked about doing it? I thought, initially, what do I have to offer? You’re so busy, you don’t step back and look at your body of work and yourself because it’s you and you live it. The story is the adventure of my life. It’s God’s way of letting me realize what I have. Four brothers and sisters, music everywhere, my father’s a musician in a white suit, I’m telling it and hearing it at the same time. I think damn! This is interesting. It’s a lot of music when music means so much. We had a great time. Dancing on the kitchen table with a lot of hungry kids and Graciella Danielle’s imagination? Wonderful.
You recived your 10th Tony nomination for your emotionally moving and mesmerizing performance in John Kander, Fred Ebb and Terence McNally’s The Visit.
You know I say, I don’t need any more friends. I have enough friends. It’s a responsibility to return those calls. But Roger Rees who left us is a friend I got to know only a little bit, but I did have some time with him. He was a wonderful man and a wonderful actor. The piece was so dark that people thought the show was about revenge. No. It was about love. Yes, some people died, but it doesn’t mean it wasn’t about love. And the truth comes out that they have made mistakes themselves in the “Yellow Shoe” song. My character buys the town up. But she arrives with the casket empty and leaves with him in the casket. But she makes the entire town realize that he did love her. I just loved it. I thought John Doyle did an extraordinary job. And the score that John Kander wrote was wild and wonderful. The production and the characters are really what theater is all about.
What do those three men, John Kander, Fred Ebb and Terrance McNally mean to you?
Well, they knew things about myself that I didn’t know. They allowed me to get to know me. They put words in my mouth I might not have said, but I certainly grew to understand. Freddy knew my sense of humor. John writes the most beautiful music you could ever hope to sing. Terrance, I don’t remember meeting him 60 years ago. I learned so much from him. They made me feel good about myself. They cared and they became like partners in life. Fred is not with us anymore. But in a way he still is.
In 2009 Barack Obama awarded you with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (applause) What was it like to be in the room?
Oh please! Barack and Michelle Obama? I remember watching him when he and Michelle were dancing…he had a little bop. A tiny bop. I said to Michelle, is that a bop? I know that bop! I think it’s just great. And Michelle said, “Yeah. That’s his bop. It’s the only step he’s got.” (laughter) But to be in the same room? I think after a while, you just have to say, “Thank you God!”
Shakespeare’s comical plot of Measure for Measure radiates with riotous and melodic, exceptionalism in the glorious musical Desperate Measures. The musical currently at the York Theatre shines like no other rendition of Shakespeare’s work because of the adroit skill of the playwright Peter Kellogg who wrote the book and lyrics. Coupled with the musicality and memorable compositions by David Friedman, Desperate Measures is an incredible hit that is biding its time to make its mark on Broadway.
The comedy is non stop. The brilliant, clever story twists run rampant throughout. Indeed, the Western update of Shakespeare’s work is lifted to satiric high farce. Set to an illustrative musical songscape which is both appealing and profound, Desperate Measures delivers moment to moment fun and enthralls with good will and joy.
Thus far, I have taken my measure of this production twice. Each time I’ve appreciated the specific, brilliant direction by Bill Castellino. His acting ensemble’s choreographed movements during the musical numbers are reminiscent of the amazing work of the great Graciela Daniele. Additionally, the six-member cast portray the spin-off Shakespearean characters with invested realism and inventiveness that reves up the humor and makes it a stand-out. The cast’s unparalleled singing and cavorting through the setting of the 1890s Old West transforms many of the fantastical elements into searing present-day themes.
For that reason alone. this production must be seen. Uplift and encouragement suggest hope throughout each Act. Above all Desperate Measures brings us the wonderful reminder that laughter provides goodness like a wholesome medicine. And bitterness dries up the bones. So! You need a dose of healthful chortles? This show sheds them in abundance.
In ‘The Ballad of Johnny Blood” the ensemble and Johnny (an adorable, multi-talented, effusive and expertly winning Conor Ryan), introduce the conflict. Prisoner Johnny will hang for the love of a woman who unwittingly caused his downfall when he shot his rival in self-defense. However, Johnny has an advocate in the Sheriff (the equally adorable, smooth, brilliant, reserved, heroic Peter Saide), who guards him. The Sheriff creates an effective plan to soften the law and order governor of the territory (the hilarious, preening, fascist, sexual predator Nick Wyman). The softener, Sister Mary Jo (the exquisitely voiced and excellent Emma Degerstedt), will plead for her brother’s release.
To convince the Sister to visit the governor, the Sheriff sings “That’s Just How It Is.” The superb lyrics of this tuneful, beautifully rendered song by Saide carry one of the vital themes of the production. The unfair culture creates economic injustice. The rich prosper. The children of the poor suffer. Rarely can one upturn this dynamic. However, every now and then a time comes when goodness can prevail. If people take a stand and “speak up,” they can make a difference. The demure and innocent Sister Mary Jo, persuaded by the Sheriff’s challenge decides to ask for her brother’s pardon.
Of course the novitiate, has no idea of the nefariousness of the governor. We recognize his qualities immediately with Wyman’s Governor’s “Some Day They Will Thank Me.” In the song, the arrogant, presumptive, martinet reveals he is a blaggard. As the Sheriff prompts her to be more convincing with the Governor, Susanna sings “Look in Your Heart.” Unfortunately, Wyman’s Governor confirms our worst fears about those in power. Because Susanna persuades him with her lyrical loveliness, the Governor ties her up in a Gordian knot. He will release Johnny for one night of Susanna’s love.
In the beautifully wrought “Good To Be Alive,” (a high-point among many in the show), Johnny begs his sister. Trade her chastity for his life. The humorous debate that ensues leaves Johnny facing death. And Susanna’s refusal to give her chastity to the Governor over her brother’s pleas appears cold-hearted. Nevertheless, once again, the brilliant Sheriff comes up with an ingenious (and hysterical), plan to obtain the pardon.
However, will this ridiculous and incredible plan work? To encourage themselves, Johnny the Sheriff and Susanna (Sister Mary Jo’s real name) are joined by the alcoholic, atheistic priest (the hysterical Gary Marachek), to sing the uplifting “It Doesn’t Hurt to Try.” Indeed, since the risk of life and death is great, any plan that can stave off the hangman’s noose for Johnny is a boon. Thus, off Susanna and the Sheriff go to set the plan in motion eliciting the help of Johnny’s love Bella (the wonderful Lauren Molina), whose occupation as a saloon singer gives her special talents to work a miracle for Johnny’s life.
Following the basic plot of Measure for Measure, yet giving it a modern Old Western twist, Desperate Measures follows with the parallels yet adds its own flavor through the lyrics and tuneful songs. For example, in order to train Bella for her upcoming role where she switches places with Sister Mary Jo, the Sheriff assists Sister Mary Jo in teaching Bella how to present herself in “The Way You Feel on the Inside.” Additionally, as the situation to save her brother’s life has thrown the Sheriff and Sister Mary Jo together, we recognize a budding romance between them which neither wants to acknowledge. The Sheriff especially, a proud man, doesn’t even want to contemplate that he is attracted to Sister Mary Jo, who will be taking her vows to be a nun in the next few days. The memorable “Stop There” recalls the fear of unrequited love and identifies the reality of the pain of falling in love and allowing one’s imagination to run away before the love interest accepts being loved.
To conclude Act I the ensemble joins in the thrumming song “In the Dark.” As each individual identifies that the darkness is the place where anything can happen, they encourage themselves to hope for their desires. For Johnny it is his release. For the Governor it is a fulfillment of his passion for Sister Mary Jo. For Bella who is duping the Governor, she hopes for the ability to pull off the deception that she is Sister Mary Jo. For the Sheriff and Sister Mary Jo (Susanna) they secretly yearn for the hope that they might be able to love one another. The musical number beautifully caps the conflicts and themes of Act I and establishes the set up for the resolution of the conflicts in the second act.
The Governor’s fabulous seduction scene, the ensuing hi-jinks and the heroic actions of Johnny’s love, Bella, transport us to comedic heights. How the conflicts thread their way to the conclusion, bring the characters together and apart again. And they resolve in a hysterical climactic scene which brings down the house. The music of the second act is as heady as is the first. And once more, the various songs resonate as does the clever rhyming dialogue.
Memorable and engaging, this is a production where the smarmy villain receives his comeuppance. And where an alcoholic, atheist priest manages to redeem himself. There is love, unique heroism, surprising justice, and redemption for even the wicked. Perhaps! As for the specifics, this review holds no spoiler alerts. You will just have to see this most superb musical production to discover the incredibly clever rhymes and production’s tremendous vibrance for yourself.
Can there be a better rollicking, musical update of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure? I think not!
I cannot say enough about the music (folks have asked when the CDs will go on sale), and the lyrics and book by this prodigiously adroit team of Kellogg and Friedman. The functional and minimalistic Western sets trope the humor, time and place, as do the costumes. Their simplicity carries the farce and comedy, yet makes room for the dark, ironic undertones in the themes. Thankfully, the characters in this production suit the measure with which they have bestowed grace and beauty. However, such does not occur in life, as Kellogg reminds us and Shakespeare reminds us in Measure for Measure.
Nevertheless, the show’s currency resonates timelessness. Heroes may thwart villains. Innocence may triumph over corruption. Love may save. Justice might win out despite overwhelming odds. Does absolute power corrupt in Desperate Measures? Indeed, as it corrupts in Measure for Measure. Both works reflect the vicissitudes that confront individuals whether in the Old West 1890 or in our current world. However, when good men rise up to stand against lust, avarice and overweening privilege, the light of truth can disperse the darkness. That it does so tunefully, memorably, riotously in Desperate Measures is very welcome for us at this time.
Kudos to the musicians David Hancock Turner, Justin Rothberg, Joseph Wallace, Douglas Waterbury-Tieman. And accolades to the design team James Morgan, Nicole Wee, Paul Miller Julian Evans for their creative exploits on Desperate Measures. A word to the wise. The production most probably will be moving to a more expensive venue. This New York premiere has already enjoyed two extensions. See it now, so you will be able to see it again. You will be thrilled you did.
Desperate Measures runs with one intermission. It will be at The York Theatre (619 Lexington Avenue) until 26th November.
Playwright and celebrated writer A.A. Milne (of Winnie the Pooh renown), pursues the concept of what exactly it means to have fortune favor you when those “blessings” become a club that family members use at will for their manipulative pleasure. How is praise used? To taunt others and shower fulsome blandishments more for the one praising or in sincerity to encourage and support? In the Mint Theater Company’s fine presentation of The Lucky One, we have the opportunity to see into the soul of the one whose blinding achievements dazzle and spur on familial fawning, but only after disastrous sibling rivalry explodes in vengeance and wrecks havoc on an entire family.
Amidst a beautifully appointed stage set and lovely period costumes characteristic of The Mint Theater Company productions, we are introduced to the Farringdon household, a family that appears to be successful and at peace with themselves and each other. Much of this pretense circles around the youngest son, Gerald Farringdon (Robert David Grant), upon whose sterling coattails family and friends are happy to ride. In the play’s initial sequences, with the assistance of Henry Wentworth (Michael Frederic), Thomas Todd (Andrew Fallaize), Letty Herbert (Mia Hutchinson-Shaw) and parents Sir James Farringdon (Wynn Harmon) and Lady Farringdon (Deanne Lorette) who all turn in competent performances, we are given a tremendous build up to the family star, Gerald. He is betrothed to Pamela Carey (the lovely, feeling Paton Ashbrook) whom we are led to believe is more than his equal in perfection and grace.
The first act painstakingly outlines the dynamic between the siblings, the older Bob Farringdon (Ari Brand is heart-broken, jealous and constricted as the love-deprived brother), who works in the city and Gerald (Robert David Grant in an intriguing and constrained portrayal) who works for the foreign office. The play gradually reveals the layers of personality of each, and dark, swirling currents between siblings as changing events transform their interactions. Their perceptions of each other are further impacted by family pressure, influence and malevolence which both begin to confront by the play’s end.
Initially, portrayed by friends and family with a heavy emphasis on outer external behaviors and accomplishments, we divine that there is nothing Gerald can’t accomplish; he is the charming, shining success who will probably be Ambassador to the U.S. before thirty-five. Of course Pamela dazzles and sparkles. The universe pivots around them as they cultivate solid favor with the ease and regularity of sunshine (albeit above England’s cloud cover). The irony in Milne’s cleverly depicted family matrix is that Gerald’s perfection irks. We are grateful when the great-aunt, Miss Farringdon (a terrific performance by Cynthia Harris), is edgy with Gerald, and does not quite embrace the family’s views of his exalted state. This he bares with good will as seems to be his characteristic response to everyone.
Miss Farringdon’s twitting of Gerald, and her down-to-earth nature for an “uppity” Brit is not only appealing, it is a welcome relief. It is a reality we have been looking for. We have had enough of the parents’ and friends’ fawning over Gerald. How dare he be flying so high above us lowly plebeians? He doesn’t even look the part! He should be more stunning, more fantastic, more wonderful. What is going on?
This is a clever turn by the director Jesse Marchese and his apt casting and shepherding of the actors to reveal the layers beneath Milne’s characterizations and the ironies as we battle with our own presumptions about greatness, image, likeability, and family perspectives. Indeed, if not for the family reaction to Gerald and his contrast with Bob who is the invisible one, Gerald would fly a normal pitch. It is the contrast that sets Gerald on a heavenly course, a wicked injustice for Bob with whom we have a predisposition to empathize, and to whom we look forward to meeting when he finally arrives. The irony we do not consider is that Gerald’s elevation is not easy for him either, and perhaps it is even more wearing, for he must be the perfect one. Who better than he knows this is not the case.
The darkly brooding personality in the family, cultivated and referred to by the unsettling adjective “poor,” as in “poor Bob,” is apparently filled with dour rain as Bob is introduced to us. He has just cause; Pamela was “his” before she fell under the spell of Gerald’s charm and scintillating shimmer. No wonder he twitches in their presence and appears forlorn and unsettled. He is like an open wound.
Because of everyone’s presumptions about Gerald, and his lack of feeling in taking Pamela from Bob, we are appalled that the family has been so unloving and insupportably cruel. It is apparent they have thrown over Bob, who hasn’t quite turned out as they expected, for the grand Gerald, the younger, brilliant, lucky one who has exceeded all of their expectations. Will someone teach this family how to be nice to one another and not play favorites? We cringe for Bob who is indeed, “poor.”
We are even more distressed when Bob asks for Gerald’s help and Gerald isn’t immediately forthcoming. By that point we applaud Bob’s powerful, though obviously manipulative, deceitful and perhaps even malicious wooing back of Pamela whom he importunes to be his friend. She promises to support him through the dire circumstances he has “unwittingly” gotten himself into and for which he childishly blames his upbringing, his parents’ favoring his brother over him and his ill placement in an environment which he also blames for causing his weakness of character. Not once does he accept responsibility for his own choices or acknowledge that he is accountable for his own life. Indeed, in the flux and flow, Gerald appears to be sympathetic to Bob, though Bob doesn’t acknowledge it, nor does he show his brother any affection when Gerald extends it.
A.A. Milne’s characters are drawn with insightful subtly. We swallow Bob’s whining excuses and agree with his dishonorable manipulation of Pamela toward his cause that she is his only friend. We realize as the events unfold in the second act how neither brother has been accurately portrayed or understood by their family whose superficiality is noxious and lacks vision.
When the brothers confront one another in the last moments of the play, our eyes are opened. We are abashed that we allowed ourselves to be blinded by the light to miss the profound aspect of how Gerald has been navigating his parents’ expectations with challenges at every turn, and how Bob has perhaps, like much of the world today used excuse, manipulation and guilt to pursue his own duplicitous desires, not really understanding his own weaknesses because he justifies them at every turn.
Milne’s work and the Mint Theater Company production follow many vital themes which thread through all of our lives: selfishness in family relationships, sibling rivalry, self-blindness, willful ignorance of the complexity of human nature, weakness of character, manipulation, deceit and more. The play resonates deeply in its characterizations and propels us to look into our own souls, but that requires some thought and introspection.
Upon first consideration, I didn’t realize the first act is carefully constructed to set up the revelations in the second act. I thought it slow, but the fault was my lack of focus on the ironic mystery being presented. Indeed, I was too quickly drawn into the surface reality by A. A. Milne’s superb writing of characters, like the family members, who presume and judge. By the play’s conclusion, the questions Milne raises about our misapprehension of personality and perception of others and especially those close to us come into crashing focus. Milne leaves us with few answers.
Kudos to the Mint Theater Company for taking on this richly complicated work and executing a presentation of which Milne couldn’t help but be proud. The production runs with one intermission until 2 July at The Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. You can find tickets if you CLICK HERE.
Anthony Bourdain (star of Parts Unknown), is his edgy, humorous self in Wasted! The Story of Food Waste. The film, which screened in its world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, Bourdain produced with Zero Point Zero Productions’ partners Lydia Tenaglia, Christopher Collins, Joe Caterini and co-director Nari Kye (Anna Chai also directed). However, Bourdain whose narration threads through the key issues about food waste globally and in the U.S. is more acerbic and ripping than ever I imagined he could be. But he, Dan Barber (Stone Barnes, Blue Hill), Mario Batali, Eric Ripert (Le Bernardin), Danny Bowien (Mission Chinese), Massimo Bottura (Osteria Francescana), Tristan Stewart (Toast Ale) and others who are in the forefront of trying to figure out how to rescue food and use it to create delicious meals, must tell it like it is. The situation is bleak.
Food waste is perhaps the most dire problem we face as Americans that we can do something about right now. Consider a few of these facts that directors bring out through interviews and celebrity chef comments in the initial segments of their amazing documentary.
Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for “people consumption” (approximately 1.3 billion tonnes yearly), gets lost or wasted. Food losses and waste amounts to around US$ 680 billion in industrialized countries and US$310 billion in developing countries. Ninety percent of the food produced ends up in landfills. According to Anthony Bourdain, all along the processing of food for consumption, there is waste at every junction from the farm, and the harvest, to the distribution, to the grocery story or green market, to the preparation, to the dinner table, to the leftovers.
And where does this food predominately end up? In landfills. In garbage dumps. If we could only redistribute the unused food to those who need it. Even if just one-fourth of the food currently lost or wasted globally could be rescued, there would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people in the world. But globally, people are not just hungry. It is a tragedy that globally, thousands of individuals face chronic starvation and die from disease and malnutrition. In the U.S. one in six individuals is food insecure, (in Europe it is 1 in 20). These are not just lazy, “good-for-nothings” as politocos would have us believe so we can dismiss them and de-fund programs which they label entitlements. The families are working in low paying jobs (an employment situation which has never been recovered since the second Great Depression), and many of them are white. In the film, Mario Batali looks dead into the camera (in the US we are the worst perpetrator), and he brings the problem right into our homes. He says, “This waste is criminal!”
Anna Chai and Nari Kye’s efforts are subtly brilliant because of how they have structured their film and carried us along a journey of discovery to recognize the staggering numbers and the criminality of food waste that resonates profoundly for our own lives. First they identify the unimaginable and make it visible. They outline the causes (taking us to farms, showing the process of food distribution, etc.), then bring us to the end of the line-the food devastation in landfills.
This is where the concept of food waste goes exponentially unconscionable and Batali is not kidding when he points out the egregiousness of waste as not only “stealing” food from the hungry, but also wantonly, negligently stealing all of the resources our planet offers for us to make it to the next generation. We won’t get there if the situation continues into the next decades if we continue to be as brazenly stupid as we have been culturally.
Filmmakers and experts reveal how food in landfills exacerbates global warming-climate change. As the food decomposes methane gasses are released. Methane, heavier than CO2 is a worse pollutant of clean air. It erodes oxygen supplies, acidifies the oceans, chokes off marine life, harms ecosystems that sustain plants, animals and us. You didn’t note any discussion about the higher degree temperatures increasing glacial melt did you? We won’t acknowledge that is happening for fear of offending those government leaders who think global warming is a matter of belief.
You thought you had handled the problem of plastic by shopping with your cloth bags? Well, what about the food you are throwing away? Filmmakers point out that one head of lettuce in a landfill takes twenty-five years to break down. You have to throw away some lettuce because your guests won’t eat wilted leaves? Throw it in your composting bin or bring it to your green market for them to compost. If you multiply your leaves and that head of lettuce you threw in the garbage last week with thousands upon thousands of heads that got wilted and that grocery stores daily en masse throw away because housewives like their lettuce crisp and fresh-looking (even though it has no taste and the wilted leaves at the green market have much more nutrition and taste because they were picket in the morning), then you begin to see the extent of the problem of why food waste is so endemic.
Filmmakers show that unsustainable farming practices expend and do not replenish resources (air, water, rich soil). Think of the water wasted to irrigate veggies that end up in your waste-can and end up in a landfill. The amount of money that can be saved with careful planning and husbanding water, crop yields, etc., not only can be realized by farmers and businesses and grocery stores and distribution centers, but it also filters but can also filter down to families if thoughtful planning is accomplished and if consumers don’t mind selecting some bruised fruit at a lower price (often more delicious), than the perfect apples and oranges with no taste.
Food and resource waste directly correlating to global warming and climate change, whether deaf, dumb and blind politicians acknowledge this or not, insidiously correlates to shifting population migrations as refugees challenged by drought, famine and war in a subtle and complicated connection with dwindling resources (food, clean water) seek areas to live that are not under such duress. When Bourdain implies that everything about food is tied to everything else, the message not only “hits home,” filmmakers have brought you to a place where you need to see interventions and programs and innovations that are eliminating and reducing our criminality of food waste.
The interviews and visits with celebrity chefs are legendary. They follow Tristam Stewart to England as he shows how he recovers 900,000 tons of bread wasted a year by making artisinal beer). They travel to Modena, Italy and then Milan to see Massimo Battura who created Food For the Soul and the divine concept of the artistry of the Refettorios. With beauty and elegance he has found a way to touch the hearts of the “invisible needy” that rivals dining at The Four Seasons and uplifts their souls. At the outset they visit Dan Barber who takes us through his guided veggie discoveries and tastes as he educates us to the egregiousness of food waste with produce (fruits and vegetables, roots and tubers have the highest wastage rates of any food). And they shadow Danny Bowien’s travels to Japan where chefs surprise him with delicious dishes that use unbelievable cuts from the animal that he never tried including the uterus and vows to take home to his restaurant.
These entertaining, enlightening and uplifting segments of the film, which are woven into the dialogue about food waste, dissolve the “doom and gloom” of the underlying problems by showing there is much we can do. Indeed, entrepreneurs and innovators, spurred by funds from the Rockefeller Foundation (which is supplying grants through YieldWise) are working to ameliorate the situation and move the paradigm to Zero Food Waste in the next decades, regardless of the lack of political will that recently has been demonstrated. The uplifting examples of how other countries and individuals are curtailing food waste are inspiring. They encourage us to toward activism on a personal and local level: at the very least composting, wiser food shopping and more.
This is a must-see film for its clarity, for its inspiration, for its no-holds-barred revelations, for its love and good will, for its energy. Its unforgettable incisiveness magnifies the importance of our individual and national global food waste imprint. Its generosity and positive outlook spur us to become leaders in our own lives and communities so that we can have a global impact. The situation is bleak, but it is not without hope. We can positively shape our future and the future of the generations that come after us. It is only a matter of starting today.
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