Category Archives: Global Theater News
Irish Repertory Theatre continually proves that it can do the extraordinary with skill, talent and enthusiasm, as it mesmerizes and endears its members, donors and global audience with exceptional productions. This is particularly amazing during a time when New York City theater is staying safe and waiting until the blessings of the COVID-19 vaccines mitigate the dangers of the pandemic which to date has killed 330,000 Americans.
Thus, we welcome being cheered up for the holiday season. And what better way than to peer into past reflections of hope when The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, unofficially the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, commemorated the 100th year of the Louisiana Purchase. The Fair, the last great international exposition before World War I, was an extravaganza that included hundreds of thousands of people, animals, unique items and displays. It magnified the bright future of industry and innovation from 63 exhibiting countries and 43 of the 45 United States.
Excitement about the St. Louis Fair, which is the central image highlighted in the titular song of the musical Meet Me in St. Louis, drives the beginning and finale of the Irish Rep production. The book by Hugh Wheeler and songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane are based on the Kensington Stories by Sally Benson and the 1944 MGM Motion Picture Meet Me in St Louis. Adapted and directed by Charlotte Moore with musical direction by John Bell, orchestrations by Josh Clayton and produced by Ciarán Reilly, this Holiday Special in Song and Screen can be appreciated again and again, whether with family or individually. You will never tire of the show because it is that wonderful.
The production values are sophisticated and spot-on. The orchestra’s superb technique performed seamlessly on zoom (thanks to the wizardry of musicians, Bell, M. Florian Staab and others) perfectly blends with the gorgeous voices of the cast, a tricky technical feat, especially with the ensemble numbers. The tuneful and lighthearted, upbeat songs (Trolley Song,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “Drunk Song,” “Touch of the Irish”) and in other instances poignant, familiar numbers (“The Boy Next Door”) are a pleasant remembrance, if you have seen the MGM film and the 1989 Broadway version which starred Charlotte Moore as Anne Smith.
Some of the songs in the Broadway version have been cut, a wise choice for a streaming production you watch via your tablet, phone or computer. But one song that had been cut from the 1989 Broadway show was added in the Irish Rep version (“You’ll Hear a Bell”). This song, reprised in the second act, is beautifully rendered by the golden-throated, imminently watchable Melissa Errico the mother. Anne Smith encourages her daughter Esther (Shereen Ahmed) about understanding and recognizing love based on her own experience with her husband, Alonzo Smith, Esther’s father.
Charlotte Moore shepherds the cast with precision. She astutely teases out winning performances and humor from Kylie Kuioka (Tootie) who is a fireball of joy and mischievousness, the perfect foil for the sedate, companionable, near-in-age, wry, older sister Agnes (Austyn Johnson). The marriageable sisters, Rose (the vibrant Ali Ewoldt) and linchpin of the production, Esther (the soulful, exciting Shereen Ahmed) propel the plot development. Theirs is newfound love with their prospective partners the reserved Warren Sheffield (Ian Holcomb in a fine portrayal) and the “boy next door” John Truitt (the affable, illimitable Max Von Essen).
As Esther expresses good will toward the family which is sorrowful about moving, she poignantly sings the profound (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) which is nostaligic under any circumstances and particularly heartbreaking under present circumstances of the pandemic. Shereen Ahmed’s Esther is particularly well wrought with her lyrical vocal instrument and authenticity of portrayal in the lead that Judy Garland played on film.
With the couples’ togetherness thrown down by Alonzo Smith’s moving the family to New York to make more money and raise their standard of living, we note this makes sense if seen through modern values that lift wealth and money above well being and happiness. However, Father Smith (Rufus Collins does a fine job in the concluding scene) in a throwback to old-fashioned values and economies of the past (only Dads worked) chooses to please his family by remaining in St. Louis. It is a gift that all adore beyond treasure and we yearn for in a culture that over the last two decades has been on the brink of losing its fundamental values of the preciousness of life, love and family.
William Bellamy, Kerry Conte, Kathy Fitzgerald, Jay Aubrey Jones and Ashley Robinson round out the cast of this marvelous production which was produced remotely with the dexterous application of green screens and lovely backdrops. In its technique, applied imagination and sheer audacity, the production, not streamed live from a stage, is a book musical with actors separate, home alone. filming, which has never having been done before. This was a realization which John Bell musical director affirmed to Melissa Errico who quipped in her New York Times article that Meet Me in St. Louis was a show where no one actually would meet in St. Louis or anywhere else. Read Melissa Errico’s account here.
Great praise goes to the cast, the creative team and director Charlotte Moore for this Christmas treasure. The Irish Repertory Theatre has exercised their vitality and prodigious cleverness to provide this most American of celebratory entertainments at a time when we crave affirmations of friendship, love, family, togetherness and joy present in the show’s themes. This is one you must not miss.
Irish Repertory Theatre’s Meet Me in St. Louis runs until Saturday, 2nd January. For tickets and times go to the Irish Repertory Theatre’s website. Click Here.
When playwright Rosary O’Neill was living in New York City, she was inspired to write Plane Love based on her own love relationship and the love relationship between Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. She mounted a number of successful readings of Plane Love at the National Arts Club, The Player’s Club, The Actor’s Studio and a few other venues. I attended a few of these readings and reviewed Plane Love which is an intriguing and beautifully written love story,
I had the opportunity to see Th McGowan Trilogy and review it on Blogcritics as an offering of The Origin Company’s 1st Irish Theater Festival 2014. Since then I have been in touch with Seamus Scanlon on social media and have kept up with his activities from time to time during posts. Finally, I caught up with him during the COVID-19 pandemic when we both had the time for me to interview him online via email.
Seamus, give the readers a bit of backstory about yourself.
My background is in science so I am a late convert to the arts. I am a first generation college goer in my family so gainful employment was the priority not frivolity (i.e. the creative arts). Science did appeal to me because it was definitive; equations and formulae were a great attraction for me. Also, my hand writing is appalling. I can’t even read it myself. I knew I would never be able to write papers or complete an analysis in college that a teacher could decipher.
Despite this, I recall playing a recording of Dylan Thomas reading Do Not Go Gentle Into That Night and I was immediately affected by it although I did not let on because our school was an artistic black hole. (In 2018, the Japanese production of The McGowan Trilogy played this recording during the performance which was an amazing surprise for me. I felt I had come full circle!) In English class we also read the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh – a self taught genius raised in poverty in rural County Monaghan. This poetry stirred me and remained with me despite my selection of science to pursue for a career
My hometown of Galway is an artistic epicenter with the Tony Award winning Druid Theater Company; the Galway International Arts Festival and The Cúirt International Festival of Literature. Nora Barnacle (James Joyce’s wife) was born there and Lady Gregory (Yeats’ mentor and co-founder of the Abbey Theater in Dublin) lived about 15 miles from Galway, Ireland. Galway county was the backdrop for Synge and Martin McDonagh. So there was no excuse for me not to be enamored of literature, but I just ignored it all. I was too timid to explore it.
How long did you work on the McGowan Trilogy?
Not very long. It was kick started by Nancy Manocherian’s Cell Theater Company Ltd (artistic director Kira Simring) who read a short play of mine Dancing at Lunacy and then staged it as part of the The Irish Cell event in March 2012. They then asked for a full play so I developed two other inter related one acts – The Long Wet Grass and Boys Swam Before Me. They were great to work with – two Jewish women interested in all things Irish. This was staged in Oct 2014 as part of the 1st Irish Theater Festival and was well received. The play was also published by Arlen House. Get a free digital copy here.
What experiences helped you frame the story?
I lived in Belfast for five years so I was exposed to the daily life of Army patrols, constantly hovering Army helicopters, riots, shootings, July 12th marches where the deep seated tribal differences are in full flow. Before living in Belfast I had been affected greatly by the Hunger Strike in Belfast where 7 IRA and 3 INLA political prisoners died. Hunger strikes in Ireland have a long tradition. They are doubly significant and symbolic in Ireland because of the Great Famine (1847) which killed 1.5 million and caused forced emigration of 1.5 million to the US. A therapist in Belfast treating ex gunmen (late teens and early twenties) who had killed for the ‘cause’ and were suffering major trauma after killing someone.
Where has it been produced since it premiered in the US?
After The Cell production in 2014, they brought it to Hastings (UK) to the Kino-Teatr owned by a devoted Russian Hibernophile, Olga Manonova. The same Summer it was staged in two venues in Galway, and in Westport’s Townhall.
The major surprise for me came in 2018. The McGowan Trilogy (in Japanese) play was staged in Japan (in Japanese) to full houses (the lead was a rising movie star so that helped!). I traveled to Tokyo to see it and it was an amazing experience. They were selling merchandise in the foyer so I felt like a rock star! Japan has an amazing richness of theater and other art forms.
In Ireland three amateur drama groups have staged parts of the Trilogy and the feed back is usually positive. Amateur drama in Ireland is a long standing cultural phenomenon.
In April 2020 a theater student, Molly Flanagan at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) was to direct The Long Wet Grass. I was very excited to see this but it had to be cancelled because of the COVID-19 situation. Our mixed genre presentation Galway: The Good, the Bad, The Ugly at the New York Irish Center for April 23 had to be cancelled as well as an April performance at Lehman College.
In addition to The McGowan Trilogy, what are some of your successes over the years of which you are most proud?
Since 2016 I have self produced The Long Wet Grass at a number of locations such as Lehman College, City College Downtown, Art House, An Beal Bocht, Hudson Valley Writers’ Center and The New York Irish Center.
In February 2020 I collaborated on the immersive theater event Echoes of Calling with the Japanese dancer and choreographer Akiko Kitamura. If the COVID-19 restrictions lift in time this may be staged again in the Fall.
I worked on two film projects The Long Wet Grass (Ireland/USA, 2017) and The Butterfly Love Song (Ireland/USA, 2019) which was a new medium for me and challenging. I learned a lot – mainly that I should stick to play writing!
My first art form was fiction so I managed to have seven pieces published in Akashic Books’ Mondays Are Murder slot.
What projects do you have in the works?
My next full length play The Blood Flow Game is a sequel to The McGowan Trilogy and is due for publication shortly. The end game for all plays is to have them produced so that is my goal. I have had four table readings of it as part of that process. I thought after The McGowan Trilogy success in Japan I would be a hot prospect but that is not the case!!
The radio play script of The Butterfly Love Song was short listed in Ireland in 2020 and that was a great thrill for me. It was the first radio play I had written. The Cell Theater, where I started off with Dancing at Lunacy, is going to develop it in Fall 2020 as a radio play/podcast.
I have few short films in the works including Three-Nil, Move Baby, Recycle This and The Resurrection Love Song.
Have you been able to get around Covid 19 virtually as other playwrights and artists have done?
The Butterfly Love Song which premiered in NYC in October 2019 and was screened in Dublin in early March 2020 is now being screened offline by various film festivals so that is encouraging. Film lends itself to this more than any other artistic format. Watch the trailer and the full film free at Irish Film London.
What is the first thing you will do, once the medical profession and the government has a handle on Covid 19 and has decided that businesses can reopen along with bars and restaurants?
I am looking forward to getting back to job as a librarian at City College Downtown. It was set up by the Labor Unions in 1981. Many students are first time college goers (like myself), many are from blue collar backgrounds (like myself) so I have a natural affinity with these students. We offer BA, BS and MA programs. Classes run weekday evenings and Saturdays. We specialize in one-on-one advising from day one. Email email@example.com for more info.
I am pretty deaf so I can’t really hear anyone in a noisy café or bar. I write in cafés. My office in Galway – when I am home – is The Secret Garden where I accomplish a lot. I hope it is open by July or I will be in trouble.
I have no writing schedule or format or craft advice or a writing desk or writing techniques. I am probably the worst person to look at for guidance since I do not really know how I write etc. I did an MFA in City College in New York and that was very useful because I had writing deadlines so I had to produce.
You can update Seamus’ activities on his website at www.seamusscanlon.com
The Aran Islands J.M. Synge’s work adapted and directed by Joe O’Byrne in an extended run at the Irish Repertory Theatre through 6 August, first and foremost is a tome to the three, stark, wind-swept, rocky islands that are the sentinels of Galway Bay on the picturesque and green-lovely West Coast of Ireland. For millennia the Aran Islands have had as their mission to mitigate the ferocious and fickle storms, oppressive fogs and shattering clashes between air, land and sea. They provide a powerful breakfront for Galway City, so that it might prosper unhinged by the natural elements. Without the stolid, natural wall of Inishmaan, Inishmore and Inisheer, all the harshness of the weather and roaring sea would continually have battered Galway and perhaps lessened Irish interest to build an incredible, romantic, tourist friendly city that is currently flourishing and is a favored recommended spot of Irish citizens who suggest to visitors, “You must visit the west country.”
W.B. Yeats said the same to J. M. Synge when they met at the Sorbonne, Paris in 1896. Only with Yeats being Yeats and Synge being Synge, Yeats encouraged the younger writer to visit and spend time on the Aran Islands to get to know the people and their primitive culture and rural, seaward lifestyle. Yeats’ hope was that Synge’s visit would be the catalyst to spur the young man’s imagination and experience the profound themes of birth, life and death. How these central dynamisms of life teased and blasted the inhabitants directly, the fascinated Synge captured in his work. The islanders, who lived without the distractions and stimulations of city life, like the Aran Islands themselves, had to confront and withstand, as it were, the batterings of the elements with only the bulwark of their isolated community network and companionship of their fellow resisters.
Yeats most probably wanted Synge to also experience the symbolism of raging nature in confrontation with the stalwart, intrepid character of the lonely inhabitants who managed a meager daily subsistence in an unwelcoming land. There, they had to front the torments of sickness, ill health and old age at the edge of the world, which appeared to be going backward in man’s history when cities were beginning to experience electricity and modernism.
The fact that they were able to carve out a hard scrabble life was a luxury. Indeed, everywhere they went life and death were married in tortuous embrace and the residents, like a tribal people, used their myths and storytelling to fill the dreary nights and chronicle their relationships to each other and the land as life’s and death’s immutability clamped down upon all that they endeavored.
A visceral and memorable portrait of the natural elements, the people’ struggle and the barren, bleak, rock-hard lifestyle and landscape are indelibly portrayed in the cadences and rhythms of Synge’s description of the Aran Islands in O’Byrne’s incisive adaptation of Synge’s work, The Aran Islands, formerly a book length journal. The sheer poetic call of the undulations of the sea in its ferocity and tameness, the delicious descriptions and sound effects of language which are indelibly linked to Synge’s later work, have found a marvelous home in this travelog/adaptation. O’Byrne has reshaped it into a solo performance of an individual, the reaffirmation of Synge himself, who is a neophyte of all things “Aran.” As the production develops, this comes to mean all realms that flow easily among the levels of consciousness in stories told about the past in historical time and place, and which do represent the present, and are harbingers of the future.
I can imagine no one but Brendan Conroy to be the sojourner to the Aran Islands, an older Synge, whose face brightens as we might imagine Synge’s did when he saw the lands in the distance and eventually stepped off on to the pier and then on hardened, rocky ground. Conroy’s mastery of Synge’s poetic cadences and luscious images and his manipulation of pauses, digressions and silences transform him into the islands’ storytellers and ancient, wizened, rural magi (wise ones), who stories convey ever-present themes. Conroy beautifully renders the particularity of each with effortless realism.
I could understand and visualize every beat, every declension, every word spoken and inferred in the descriptions and characterizations of the islanders who shared eerie stories around the central core of every family, the hearth. Conroy’s insight and understanding of how aural power may transform the listener into his or her own visualist and imagist is greatly appreciated in a time when we may too often rely on visual effects selected by others to relate stories which we then can easily dismiss because we have not used our own imagination to power up the visuals.
On another level this is a production about visualizing with the eye of consciousness, of employing one’s imagination to be transported through the rich medium of Synge’s figurative, elegant, word crafting. If one listens, then one cannot help but focus on Conroy’s dark, full-bodied, resonant, somber and sometimes higher pitched musical instrument of a voice which he modulates with just enough breath and lung power to reverberate and touch the hearts of the audience.
Conroy entices all to see encapsulated in the words, the airy visions which are transformed through the medium of sound. With focused attention and appreciation, Conroy provides us with a heightened awareness of Synge’s rich language, the sound effects (i.e. alliteration, onomotopoeia), and imagery. Conroy’s gestures and changes in posture convey the various island characters; he effects these characterizations with a minimalism that does not detract from the beauty of Synge’s words. We are rapt and caught up in the consciousness of Synge’s personal observations made real to us. It is of a time and place which is now gone but will be ever-present in the writer’s journal and O’Byrne’s adaptation.
If you enjoy Synge and love traveling to Ireland, even if, at this point, you have no intention of going, allow the Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of the Aran Islands to take you there. This adaption ably directed by O’Byrne, with the assistance of artistic team Margaret Nolan (set designer) Marie Tierney (costume design) Joe O’Byrne (lighting design) Kieran Duddy (original music) is incisively brought to life. Special kudos goes to Conroy’s performance effected by his prodigious talent and artistry. This presentation will bring the sentinels of Galway Bay to your imagination and deliver you to a time and place more viscerally felt than looking at historic sepia photographs.
The Aran Islands is currently at the Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd Street) until 6 August. It is around 100 minutes with one intermission. For tickets visit the Box Office in person or go to their website: CLICK HERE. You can order by phone at 212-727-2737
Soulpepper’s Adaptation, ‘Of Human Bondage’ by William Somerset Maugham at the Signature Theater, a Review
Love is a scourge if it becomes an obsession that devours one’s soul and fouls one’s career, friendships and very life. And what if the pursuit of the love object is never requited in sincerity and kindness? William Somerset Maugham’s masterpiece Of Human Bondage reveals the withering devastation wreaked by obsessive, twisted love’s sadism and masochism.
Though the work has been transferred to the medium of film three times, it has never made it to the stage. It took a renowned playwright from Canada, Vern Thiessen, and a visionary Artistic Director Albert Schultz (director) to meld hearts, minds and artistic genius during a lively discussion to create the work. And it took Canadian Soulpepper Theatre Company to have the will to commission Thiessen to write Of Human Bondage the play, so that the adaptation of this immemorial story of human desire and repudiation would be able to soar on stage.
Theirs is a remarkable effort. The production from beginning to end is breathtaking. How the playwright and director unfold Philip Carey’s (Gregory Prest is just stunning), journey of infatuation for Mildred Rogers (Michelle Monteith’s wickedness is infuriating) through emotional enslavement and out, is mesmerizing, voyeuristic, horrific. The characters’ devolution into the abyss which touches upon class strife, gender exploitation, the crippling derangement of inferiority, self-deception, soul entrapment, sadism and masochism is a tour de force that encapsulates the seminal themes of the novel. That Soulpepper Theatre Company has so vitally put such a production before its audiences to magnify the best and worst of human nature and human relationships in all of their exceptionalism, and to refract it through a visceral lens by the brilliant Maugham in what is an exaltation of his work, will remain unparalleled for a long while.
The play presented by this acclaimed civic theater company has won numerous Dora awards (equivalent to our Tonys) deservedly so. How Thiessen, Schultz, the transcendent cast, Lorenzo Savoini (Set and Lighting Designer), Erika Connor (Costume Designer), Mike Ross (Composer and Sound Designer) and others crystallized the novel’s essence and distilled its characters and story into the magnificence that is currently playing at The Pershing Square Signature Center, is most probably a fascinating story in itself.
How did all unite to shape this epic production which is akin to Greek Drama? For each there must have been their own singular talent, passion, focus and the understanding that they were/are still contributing to something of great moment. With the expertly conceived of and executed unity, harmony and coherence in the acting and the theatrical spectacle, from the sound effects, music, lighting, seamless staging, props and costuming, not only are we transported back into the historic period of Victorian England, we are elevated into the consciousness and realms of feeling and emotion of the characters, especially that of Carey and the pitiably proud Mildred Rogers.
Shame, embarrassment and self-consciousness about his club food have deformed Philip Carey’s personality and emotional nature, though he is a promising medical student who is wise and humane and has artistic talent which he has thrown over for medicine. Thiessen cleverly reveals the underbelly of Carey’s weaknesses that nearly destroy him: competitiveness, envy, slavishness, self-blindness to his own need to control others with manipulative acts. Thiessen also reveals his strengths: his artistic, soulful impulses, his life-long ties to artistic friends, his kindness, his perception, his insight.
Carey becomes entranced with his colleague’s object of infatuation, Monteith’s lower class, uneducated and exploitive gold digger waitress Mildred, who has no intentions of making a career plan or refining her inner emotional traits to encourage a more genteel way of living. We watch fascinated at how her sharpened claws prod and dig into Carey’s flesh; she entangles him and torments his soul. Their fates are sealed, regardless of the variety of sub-scenes which layer upon layer reveal Carey’s strengthened self-awareness which he gains with the help of his artistic friends as they show him the evolving corruption of Mildred’s soul and attitude. She presumptuously assumes she has the greater power over him because of his weak desires. This is a bitter mistake which destroys her.
Though it appears to be the reverse, for a good part of the play, like Mildred, we are duped to believe that she controls and drains the lifeblood from Carey while he becomes more destitute and obsessed with her. He follows her whims which she blows up into storms or breezes and he is blown about by her, as her kite to drop when another more “princely” man comes near, even his own colleague. Though he meets other learned, more attractive women through his friends, who are interested in him, Carey goes back to Mildred when she is rejected by other suitors who dupe and dump her. Like an addict, he must get his Mildred fix, while she enjoys tormenting and acting superior to Carey’s club foot Quasimodo (his inferior perception of himself).
As each scene and interaction seamlessly slips into the next one, we are driven by the emotions of the characters whose fuses fire-up then blow out based upon their relationships with the protagonist Carey and the antagonist Mildred. Carey’s once pompous colleagues fall prey to their own addictions and failures, and Carey, is thrown out of his rooms and his medical school because he wastes his money on Mildred each time she returns to him. However, his artistic genius is still alive; can his corrupted soul be redeemed by a finer love?
Ironically, it is Carey who actually is the subtle master of the two characters. His passive, puppy dog, slavishness is the iron chain that binds Mildred into the sadistic domination to which he submits, a domination which self-destructively, she cannot do without. He is and always was the “better” person. Regardless of how much he allows her to feel her mastery over him, he controls that dominance and has her on a long lead. It is why she resents him, though she never has the self-awareness to realize why she hates him (she indeed hates her own weakness to oppress as the culture oppresses her). If she had gained self-awareness, she would have picked herself up from the gutter and attempted to change her life and annihilating ways.
As the play’s ending lifts us toward the light, the playwright reinforces the theme manifest through a symbolic object, a gift, Carey receives from his friend. He lost this possession when he was destitute, but it is restored to him. Thiessen has poignantly woven this symbol/object/theme throughout the play. It is whimsical and profound, beautiful and sad, it represents a conjunction of Carey’s life and it wraps around Carey’s new circumstances as it once wrapped around the skeleton Carey used for studying the human anatomy (another profound theme). This is Thiessen’s meta theme and it is heartbreaking and simply gorgeous.
The actors, especially Prest, Rogers, Oliver Dennis, Stuart Hughes, John Jarvis, Racquel Duffy, Sarah Wilson are smashing, but the ensemble who also play instruments, sing, perform sound effects (i.e. doves, horses sauntering, street noises) and generally tell the story and give it shape are all exquisite and fit together like the threads of a priceless tapestry. What hath the director Albert Schultz wrought? In a word? Majesty.
I can’t sing this production’s praises enough except to say see it, see it, see it while it is in town if you are in New York City. If you are not, look for their work in Toronto. They are a marvelous company. This production is gobsmackingly singular.
Of Human Bondage runs until 26 July at the Pershing Square Signature Center. It has one intermission. Tickets may be purchased at the Box Office on 42nd Street, by calling 888-898-1188 or online by clicking HERE.
Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie, devised by David M. Lutken with Nick Corley, Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein is an entertaining and poignant evening of music and story-telling. The production directed by Nick Corley with music direction by David M. Lutken, orchestrations and vocal arrangements by David M. Lutken, Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein, presents the life and work of the monumental musician and singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, whose work resonates for all Americans especially so when citizens feel they are powerless in the face of injustice.
With his ballads, political, traditional folk and country-blues songs and stories, Woody Guthrie chronicled the lives of Americans in the first half of the 20th century. He traveled across the country living with the little people with whom he identified and became a call sign. He recognized that the “salt of the earth” were the backbone of the nation squeezed by the banking industry and Wall Street. He sang of their economic tribulations and deprivation, their struggles through the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era which led to the California migration and the abuses of migrant farm workers by farm conglomerates such as they were at that juncture in our history.
Above all, he uplifted and encouraged that, “This land is your land, this land is my land…” With these words many were able to gather their forces, unionize and create movements to strengthen and consolidate their efforts in the struggle for economic equity.
Guthrie was the “Dust Bowl Troubadour” and advocate, whose songs excoriated the wealthy and their puppet politicians of both parties as the root of the farmers and little peoples’ hardships and evils. Though he flirted with communism and socialism and even wrote the column “Woody Sez” for the Communist paper People’s World (which appropriately is the title of this production) his music was his primary vehicle to uplift and exhort. He never joined any party and preferred to roam freely, always an observer and chronicler more than a participant who supported any one political cause. His cause was that of all of humanity. This production of Woody Sez highlights the finest and most endearing turning points in his life, always revealing the complexity of his nature in its most humorous, glorious and flawed states.
Act I starts with the Company’s singing “This Train is Bound for Glory.” It is an appropriate memorial of the journey of Guthrie’s glory that the actors/singers/musicians (stirring performances by Megan Loomis, David M. Lutken, Helen Jean Russell, Andy Teirstein) lead us through to understand the beauty and humanity of Guthrie. In a relaxed, down-to-earth performance style, Lutken assumes the persona of Guthrie first by introducing himself as one who venerates Guthrie. He becomes Woody through episodic narration as he relates the key points of Guthrie’s life and the songs that reveal major themes and issues Guthrie experiences.
The production structure is essentially a flashback of his life. It is framed by Guthrie’s time in New York City in 1940 with Guthrie’s stint on a radio show at Rockefeller Center which a friend helped secure for him. The first scene includes the ensemble. They portray various roles throughout the production: Megan Loomis, Andy Teirstein, Helen Jean Russell. Guthrie (Lutken) sings one of his political songs on the radio which ridicules the wealthy. We are introduced to Guthrie’s freedom-loving personality. He is incapable of compromising his values, his dreams, his autonomy to tow the conservative line and accept censorship of his politics and criticism of Wall Street bankers and old J.D., the scion of Rockefeller Center. When Guthrie is fired, we are transported to the past to envision how Guthrie became that revolutionary individual.
Guthrie/Lutken discusses that he was born in Okemah, Oklahoma. We are introduced to his mother and siblings in song, the ensemble filling in the roles. We learn of the family’s troubles and the tragedies they faced with his mother’s evolving illness. The narration is simple yet heart-breaking and is also chilling. The ensemble and Lutken backdrop the prose with the dynamic of themed songs that are powerful and touching.
Guthrie’s journey continues through their impoverishment and his resilience attempting to “sing for money” during the boom town years when oil was discovered in Okemah. But their family situation worsens with death and more tragedy and eventually Guthrie strikes out on his own as a teenager discovering who he is and what he is made of. He travels to Texas to see his relatives and Dad. He sings in a makeshift band with his uncle and makes some money and even gets married.
But the April Dust Storm of 1935 overwhelms, and all is lost in a country that has been consumed by dust and sand. Everyone’s bank accounts are fallow as the bankers come for the land to pay off the farmers’ debts. Once again Guthrie travels, hopping a freight to California where he sees thousands of Americans traveling across the country. Their hopes and dreams of survival must be found at the precipice of the country’s Pacific Ocean border in California, the new Eden. After that, there is nowhere else to go.
By the end of Act I, Guthrie’s young eyes have been opened, and his political discernment solidified. Life and success are about money which the working man can never obtain without credit and which gamblers seem to be luxuriating in despite their craven, wanton existence of selfishness. It is an ever-recurring theme throughout the production, threaded through various songs.
In Act II Guthrie has gained notoriety as a voice of the people. By this point he has accepted his identity that this is where he belongs as their advocate and more importantly, a mirror to validate their experiences as human beings who must never lose their power in hope. This time of American farmer migrants is represented in such songs as “I Ain’t Got No Home” “The Ballad of Tom Joad” (sung throughout the production), “Vigilante Man,” and “Union Maid” the last two based on true stories which reveal the oppression of the working class against the businessmen owners and the violent abuse they sustain when they attempt to assert their rights as human beings to obtain a living wage through organizing unions.
It is in this act that Guthrie’s legacy takes flight. He sings with Pete Seeger’s group The Almanacs and uses his voice and guitar to fight Hitler during WWII with a sign on his guitar, “This machine fights fascists.” The emphasis is on fighting fascism at home and abroad to support peace with songs which ring loudly and clearly against American and foreign war lords who would sacrifice their countrymen to make money. He records various songs and though he copywrites his music, he encourages others to sing his songs, even without paying him. This has led to controversial copywrite wars up to the last decade and represents a rapacity that Guthrie would abhor. As the production winds down to the conclusion, we discover how Guthrie’s music and recordings triumph despite his being rendered silent by the same illness that engulfed his mother. The production reminds us of this iconic man and helps us appreciate the wealth of historic moments captured for all time by his songs.
With a minimalistic set and adaptive, flexible staging, the ensemble brings together their sterling musical skills on every string instrument that rings out Guthrie’s country, folk, blues from violin to banjo, from guitar to harmonica and more. The performers’ voices soar with the haunting melodies and joyful rhythms of 20th century Americana that have been taken up by everyone from Bob Dylan to Billy Bragg.
The production reveals why tributes are continually held to honor Woody Guthrie’s music and life. His work is imminently universal and timeless. He is a beacon for future generations as long as economic injustice blankets any area of the planet. Indeed, as this production of Woody Sez thematically indicates, “the chickens have surely come home to roost.” A researcher in 2016 discovered in the archives of the Woody Guthrie Center in Oklahoma that Guthrie criticized Fred Trump, father of President Donald Trump, revealing his disgust with the father as a landlord. In song lyrics, Guthrie accuses Fred Trump of stirring up racial hate “in the bloodpot of human hearts.”
Guthrie’s words will continue to reverberate in our hearts and minds. The injunctions in his songs are a welcome anodyne to get us through the next day or over a rough patch to eventually take the stand necessary in our own lives and for our culture and nation.
This fine production of Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie (one intermission) runs at the Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd) until 23 July. You may purchase tickets HERE.
The League of Professional Theatre Women’s Pat Addiss and Sophia Romma again have successfully collaborated with Betty Corwin, who produces the New York Public Library’s Oral History Interviews, to present an enlightening, joyous evening with one of Broadway’s hottest playwrights, Paula Vogel. In conversation with Linda Winer, long-standing theater critic of Newsday, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright discussed her life, her work and the journey of her play Indecent from conceptualization through development, regional theater production and Off Broadway right up to its current run at Broadway’s Cort Theatre. The immutably themed Indecent has been nominated for a Tony Award in the category of Best Play. It is not only a must-see, it is a must-see two or three times over for its metaphors, themes and sheer genius.
Paula Vogel, a renowned professor of playwriting (Brown-two decades, currently Eugene O’Neill Professor of Playwriting (adjunct) at Yale School of Drama, Playwright-in-residence at Yale Rep) generously shares her time and dynamism with global communities. She conducts playwriting “boot camps,” and playwriting intensives with various organizations, theater companies and writers around the world. What is smashing is that Vogel not only is a charming, vibrant raconteur, she is an ebullient, electricity-filled advocate of the artist within all of us.
In her philosophy and approach toward theater, we are all story tellers, we are all playwright,s and we must cultivate the citizen artist within to insure that the theater arts are accessible and relevant to all cultures and populations, not just the “haves.” What she discussed about the current state of theater arts past and present was profound and prescient in response to why it took her so long to get to Broadway. Vogel reminded the audience that in the 1980s there were about 50 innovative, theme-rich plays on Broadway exemplified by The Elephant Man and M Butterfly. Such plays dealt with difficult issues that brought audiences together in a profound communal experience. Currently in 2017 there are a handful of productions that effect this. Commercialism has enveloped Broadway.
Hence, Vogel expressed a motivating joy that perhaps we should all entertain. We should roll up our sleeves to fight the good fight against philistine commercialism and consumerism and Byzantine gender and racial bias. Such dampening restrictions and discriminations parade behind the notion that film and theater are essentially liberal mediums. Vogel introduced the thought that they are the opposite. To her way of thinking there is a profligate conservatism akin to that of corporate America that hampers theater innovation and prevents provocative theater production to readily make it to Broadway.
However, she did affirm that the next generation of playwrights, whether older or younger, are seeing an explosion of work featured Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway which is where a lot of the innovation and experimentation has found a home. That aspect of the theater is thriving and in the upcoming years we can expect an elegance of defining work that will have an illuminating impact on Broadway.
A believer of reverse capitalism, that supply increases demand, Vogel’s ideas and effervescence are contagious. She “spreads the word” and brings the community of theater wherever she visits, from Austin, Texas to Sewanee, Shanghai Theatre Academy in China, from Minneapolis to the neighborhood near the Vineyard Theatre in New York City. And together she and her audience of all ages across the communities (from 15-90), of seasoned writers and playwrights and neophytes alike, experiment, grow and enjoy writing and reading plays during her intensives.
Her current playwriting boot camps (they used to take a week to do) to make live theater a communal experiment much like its original creative form as a social, cathartic experience resonate today. They make complete sense especially at a time when artistic shallowness manifested in some entertainment forms has achieved a noxious superfluidity that really needs to die a death (my thoughts).
Some of the highlights of Paula Vogel’s discussion with Linda Winer, who was a wonderful interviewer, revolved around how she conducts her “bootcamps,” culminating in bakeoffs to spur on a fountain of creativity. In response to how her Pulitzer Prize-winning play Learning How to Drive was produced Off Broadway but never made the transfer to Broadway, she repeated an incisive comment from the past, “How often do the girls get to play with the big expensive toys?”
Now that Vogel’s Indecent and colleague Lynn Nottage’s play Sweat also transferred to Broadway from the Public Theater, Vogel laughingly acknowledged that for both of them, the expensive toys are “a lot of fun.” Vogel stated that when one acclimates to the house size, whether the play is in a 60 seat theater or a 200 seat theater, the effort and the intensity of the work process is the same. Vogel joked, “The only difference is I’m not sleeping on a sofa bed.” Indeed, with Indecent, Vogel has graduated to a mattress and a bed, “more expensive toys.”
Vogel discussed the evolution of Indecent which was fascinating. In her twenties she had read The God of Vengeance, by Sholem Asch, the play upon which Indecent revolves. She was mesmerized by the transcendent love scene between the pious Jewish father’s daughter and one of the prostitutes who works for him in the brothel below their apartment. When the world renowned Yiddish play was translated into English and brought to Broadway in 1923, the cast, director and producer were arrested for obscenity, even though some of the love scenes were cut. The play received a greater following and lasted 133 performances, but there was a trial after the play closed. The Court of Appeals overturned the convictions of the director and producer in 1925.
Twenty years after Vogel read Asch’s play, she learned that Rebecca Taichman was attempting to direct the obscenity trial for her thesis. Vogel learned of her work and pronounced her a genius. Vogel was inspired when she received a call from Taichman to collaborate on a play about the events surrounding the trial of Asch’s play. During their conversation Vogel had a lightening-like vision seeing a scene from the play which she stated “always happens” (it happened with Learning How to Drive) when she knows she can write a particular play. Having read up on Yiddish Theater, she told Taichman, “I think this is a play way beyond an obscenity trial.” Taichman was thrilled at her enthusiasm. Vogel admitted that this was around nine years and 40 drafts ago.
They workshopped at Sundance Theatre Lab (2013) and after many drafts and other workshops they put it on at Yale Repertory for the first time with the music, choreography and staging. Vogel joked the “flop sweat” was prodigious. Taichman’s and Vogel’s shirts were sticking to their backs. Since then it has moved on and was performed at La Jolla Playhouse in Fall 2015 and in May 2016 was produced at the Vineyard Theatre in New York City.
There is such enthusiasm for the production since Yale (2015) that the ensemble, the musicians, the stage manager and the assistants have remained together. As Vogel says, “We’ve all moved together as one.” This never happens with a production that transfers to Broadway. If it does, it is extremely rare. Vogel laughingly joked they have become a family. When two children were born during the evolution of Indecent, Vogel commented she has become like a godmother to both.
What a memorable evening! Vogel is about fun, about community about connections, about living and creating whatever comes next. That spontaneity and flexibility is like jumping off into the darkness, knowing you will land on soft ground at sunrise. The moment you think about the jump, you stop yourself. Vogel is not about stopping. She’s there already and beckoning us to join her. Why not?
People clamor that it is good to be busy. Sometimes I question that thought, especially when I have press deadlines, when cinema publicists are wondering where their reviews and articles are and I’m exhausted from seeing a play on Broadway that I must review the following day.
So my travel to Paris in September of this year was exquisite because it took me away from the NYC helter skelter night life of an entertainment journalist. In Paris, la Rive Gauche, the pace is not as fast, the imperative not as overwhelming.
I could casually take photographs of the rainbow colored and salubrious fresh vegetables, sumptuous steaming paella flavoring the air with delicious spices along with other items folks lined up for in the open air markets.
I did write but at a more leisurely pace. I could do casual interviews of musicians and star Anne Carrere of Piaf! The Show.
I could have a casual chat with Rita Duffy about her brilliant installation The Souvenir Shop-marking the 1916 Rebellion, at the Irish Cultural Center. At the Irish Cultural Center, I could speak with Irish poet Pat Boran, and I could cover the goings and comings of playwright Rosary O’Neill in her celebration of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett and Impressionist painter Edgar Degas.
Rosary O’Neill has more than a cursory connection to Beckett and Degas. She has thoroughly researched both men’s lives and has written plays about each. Her play about Beckett, Beckett at Greystones Bay received a focused reading in Paris in a downtown venue this September. It was directed and acted by Brendan McCall.
Earlier in the summer Barrett O’Brien directed and acted in the role of Beckett in a staged production of Beckett at Greystones Bay at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. As a result of that production, O’Neill collaborated with the director and upon his suggestion, expanded the work into two acts. O’Neill’s Beckett is being developed for future focused readings and productions in Paris and back in the US.
O’Neill’s love of Degas began when she first appreciated his work as a young child. It blossomed when she was a Drama Professor at Loyola in New Orleans, Louisiana where she founded the nonprofit theater company, Southern Repertory which produced a number of her plays.
It was during the time she ran Southern Rep, that she researched Degas’s life and discovered that he had strong familial ties to New Orleans where he stayed for about six months during the tumultuous era of reconstruction seven years after the Civil War. Fascinated by Degas’ relationship with his brother Rene’s wife, Estelle Musson, and intrigued by Rene’s spendthrift lifestyle which bankrupted the Degas fortune along with the crash in the cotton markets during and after the war, O’Neill marshaled her talents and wrote Degas in New Orleans
This year marks the centennial year of Degas’ death. O’Neill, who has collaborated on productions of her two act play Degas in New Orleans has enjoyed seeing her work performed in regional theater in Texas and Louisiana. The play has received focused readings in New York City and New York where it caught the attention of professional musician and Bard College professor David Albert Temple, who wrote music for the play and collaborated with O’Neill to make Degas in New Orleans, The Musical.
Their collaboration which included producer/director Deborah Temple and a cast from a regional performing arts high school, brought the musical to New York City where it was performed in a one-night-only show. Prior to its New York premiere, the production was performed in upstate New York at Bard College’s Black Box Theater.
The musical like the play focuses on Edgar Degas’ time spent with his mother’s relatives, the Mussons. It intimates the potential for a love relationship with his brother’s wife, Estelle. Surely, if his brother had not bankrupted the family fortune after the crash of the cotton trade (a painting of the family’s cotton office hangs in the New Orleans Museum of Art, as does his portrait of Estelle Musson with lovely red peonies), the situation would have been very different for the painter. Degas would most likely have stayed in New Orleans to pursue the possibilities of love with Estelle and to help her pick up the pieces after his brother Rene deserted her for her maid America. His painterly subjects would have been of the city of New Orleans, family portraits and perhaps even his cousin Norbert and his wife who were mixed race and free persons of color. But alas, Edgar had to return home to financially support his father, who was suffering a near breakdown because of Rene’s wantonness wracking up gambling debts.
It would have been a magnificent tribute to Degas to mount a production of either the play or the musical Degas in New Orleans in New York City in celebration of the centennial of Degas’ death on September 27, 1917. Currently, the process is on hold. However, O’Neill’s play about Degas and the strong cultural ties between New Orleans and Paris are being studied by the students at the Sorbonne. French Professor of Contemporary Literature Joseph Danan will be examining Degas in New Orleans as contemporary literature. Additionally, the play will have a focused reading in French at Columbia University’s center at the Sorbonne at Reid Hall. It is an event that is a first-of-its-kind.
Rosary O’Neill has made friends of visiting artists in residence at the Irish Cultural Center where she will be staying as her work is being studied and performed in Paris. She will continue to write, speak and share with the visiting Irish artists in residency at the Center, and be stimulated by their support and brilliance.
The Irish Cultural Center is the go-to place for events that highlight the strongly rooted Irish experience in Paris. It serves as an amazing resource for the community, students from the Sorbonne and visiting artists who are looking to feel at home in Paris. O’Neill is enthusiastic about her stay at the Center, and is happy that she, in a small way, is continuing to affirm links among the learning centers of the Sorbonne, the Irish Cultural Center and New Orleans. It will be a pleasure to cover the readings of her plays Beckett at Greystones Bay and Degas in New Orleans.