Category Archives: Lincoln Center Theater

‘The Old Man & The Pool,’ Saving Mike Birbiglia’s Life and Ours

Mike Birbiglia is back after his last Broadway outing four years ago, which centered around his daughter’s birth, in The New One. In his fifth collaboration directed by the superb Seth Barrish, Birbiglia shares his intimate health secrets. You know, the one’s that are confidential, only seen by Birbiglia’s doctors. This is territory Birbiglia has circled before because he gets great laughs, sharing his marred humanity. We understand. All of our bodies are a mass of quirks, glitches and imperfections, and this is especially so if we are what doctors can’t even refer to now as this thing called “healthy.” That’s because you may be the perfect specimen of MRI wellness and drop dead tomorrow of an undetected, congenital pre-disposition to flame out. The possibility of an unannounced dropping dead with alacrity is a point Birbiglia humorously makes during his one-man show, The Old Man & the Pool, currently at the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center.

The comedic writer/performer provides a wellspring of humor we heartily drink from. As we savor the long “draughts” (British spelling), from the mirth he serves with humility, we happily appreciate the refreshment for its healing power to make us forget the bedlam in the world, which Birbiglia avoids referencing. Wisely, no political topics are found in his show whose structure is less “stand-up” and more like an interactive one-act play. The interaction is the audience’s highly vocal, contented “purring,” of chortles and “lololols,” as we psychically enter each door Mike opens and receive a surprise at the abundance of gifts inside. Birbiglia is a great raconteur. Every detail connects with every other, so as we watch and listen, the golden mean spirals from beginning and comes back to smack us at the conclusion.

One key spiral centers around Mike’s stories of his bodily weaknesses. Physical perfection surrounds us in the bombardment of weight loss, cosmetic surgery, sports centers and various enhancement ads that remind us we need to improve and look “sparkling” and youthful. And then there’s Mike, showing up in jeans and a shirt pulled over his un-ripped musculature. He does not look like he can bench press 1000 pounds. How refreshing. And it is obvious his outfit has not been tailored to bulk up his physique. Here is a typical guy whose physical body is average, but whose mental acumen is exceptional. The night I saw The Old Man & The Pool, Mike’s hair was sticking up electrically, like it refused to obey the comb. How can you not like this guy? He is completely unpretentious, unpompous and easily relaxed (He has worked hard to achieve the look and the ethos.) His humor is just what we need right now. Welcome back, Mike Birbiglia!

It was about the fifth minute after Birbiglia started his riffs that I decided I loved the show. By this point I and my audience colleagues were drawn in, standing in his shoes with empathy, hooked by his magnanimity, great good will, wit, and wise self-perception. It was a pleasure to join in freely with audience members, chortling and at crucial junctures, shedding a tear or two at the poignant themes about family and his daughter. This was especially so after connecting with him over something we all have to confront, our mortal flesh and the fear of losing loved ones.

During the 80-minute performance, Birbiglia gives the audience free reign to walk with him on a guided tour into his most personal thoughts about death, dying, his childhood, wife and family. It’s a circuitous route beginning with a foray into medical charts during various doctors’ visits and dictums, that with his Type 2 diabetes and heart issues, he must do cardio. The heart issue is the first focus. This was reinforced and illustrated via projection onto a clever backdrop, a curved wall of white “graph paper” superimposed on the blue chlorinated pool (the chlorine turned into a funny riff). Breath test results were projected as a tell-tale line resembling the “normal” example of breath it takes to blow a ping pong ball up a tube (think of Ed Harris in the film The Right Stuff). Then we see Mike’s line which is short and rockets downward to oblivion.

Mike’s discussion about this is hysterical. The doctor translates the information saying the line looks like Mike is having a heart attack in the office. It’s a riotous presumption because Mike is upright and breathing normally. Meanwhile, the dialogue between Mike and the doctor about the chart line is a romp into the ridiculous. It is about this time when we think, well, maybe he should go to a Holistic doctor. When Mike tells us the doctor suggests cardio exercise, his response is even funnier. Then, we are off and running into acceptable exercise for Mike, which eventually becomes “the YMCA pool” and swimming, as all else has failed.

Let’s segue for a moment to consider the once in a life-time COVID-19 pandemic that we experienced and which is still going on, though few acknowledge it. After reading all I could discover about COVID-19, I get the significance of co-morbidities and heart issues and heart attacks (a frequent COVID-19 causation of death). Our health is everything and doing whatever we can to maximize staying alive for our families should be paramount. Our concern about living and losing life (How many of us lost loved ones because of COVID-19 or its after effects?) has been ratcheted up as a result of the over 1,100,000 deaths because of the virus that still is considered a “hoax” in some lunatic circles. So Birbiglia’s discussions about health were vital to the audience, and humorous as Mike uses it as a launching pad for the most important topics which he covers “down the road” of the show.

Somewhere between the belly laugh 15 or 16, we realize what Birbiglia is doing. He is helping us negotiate the rocky waters of existence and the existential conundrum that we had to confront shockingly these past years and still face. We are not immortal. Death may be more imminent than we realize. After the dire hell of COVID-19 for New Yorkers (Birbiglia lives in Brooklyn…he doesn’t have to mention COVID-19), we are acutely aware that as we live, we understand it is only for a blip in time and we may increase or decrease that blip as we so choose. It’s heady stuff.

Making the most of the time we have together is another theme that Birbiglia sneaks in sub rosa, as he tells stories about his health, heart disease issues in his family, the frozen silence as he says “Take care,” to his parents and never “I love you.” And most importantly, his love and the impact of his health on his daughter Oona, who is six to his forty-four.

Back to the review. Birbiglia’s storytelling and set up are heavy with detailed images that are unforgettable. There is one I’d like to evacuate from my mind, but I can’t for a number of reasons. These emerged by the end of the show. Mike describes the naked body of a man who sits on a bench in the men’s locker room at the YMCA that he saw when he was a kid around the age of six. Mike couldn’t help but stare at the man because it was the first time he had seen adult genitalia. It happened as things happen when we are kids, and the images stick with us forever and as such, we can describe them like it was yesterday. Mike’s storytelling process reveals how these “poetic” images of remembrance have a way of layering meaning through our lives. Ironically, they eventually come to bite us in the behind much later, when we have the age and experience behind us to meditate and reflect on the the past.

Birbiglia’s descriptive image of this man relates throughout. And of course, he makes sure that it comes to bite, not only him, but all of us, who by the conclusion have been so invested with appreciation for Mike’s wit, we recognize the most vital point of wisdom that Birbiglia weaves throughout. Momento mori. After the impact of having to stay home and quarantine for two months to stave even greater numbers from dying, one appreciates that reminder. And that is the thrust of Birbiglia’s pool exercise, his eating habits and his largesse at presenting himself as the key human target to laugh at. But when you figure that the only thing sacrificed is ego, which is an artificial construct to defend against death, hurt, insult, what better way to defend against these things than to ridicule and laugh at how they operate in ourselves. Nevertheless, eventually comes the reality that there is no defense against death, not even humor. This is another point Birbiglia makes. And as such, he emphasizes we must make each moment count.

Birbiglia closes with the image of the man in the locker room.. In deference to Mike because HE HATES SPOILER ALERTS, I will just comment that the guy in the locker room is one of the many threads, phrases, impressions, metaphors, images that he uses to eventually build up to the mountain top of revelation that is poignant and identifiable. The threaded metaphors beautifully set up future punchlines (though with him, his perceptions are so acute and wise, they are more than what is invoked by the word “punchline.”). They are pin pricks which sharpen and alert us to ourselves, alert us to the laziness with regard to things we should be on top of. The show combines laughter and revelation to shake us up. As Mike shares his experiences, he is saving himself, and he is throwing us a life preserver so we can follow his example and save ourselves with regard to those things in our personal lives that are not examples of “a house in order” but are examples of mess and chaos.

That said, immutable values and themes are paramount in The Old Man & the Pool. Laughing about how we deceive ourselves strengthens us in our humanity to face our mortality, which in living our lives, we tend to ignore. For example, Mike discusses how the form for the family will sat on the table for three years before he and his wife began to fill it out in earnest. This is one of those funny/unfunny stories which hit home for audience members who laughed in recognition. Mike and his wife couldn’t discuss dying. They didn’t want to think about what happens if one dies first and leaves the other spouse and that’s not even considering what happens to their daughter. Wills are tricky because we are too busy living our lives now. Culturally, we don’t really deal with death well. The best way is through humor and Mike’s show mentors how to deal with “it” through wisdom and a “healthy” dose of self-deprecation.

Birbiglia’s incredible worth is in helping us laugh about the things we fear like death or helping us receive the commonality of how a pizza (it’s incredibly bad for you), stays up and parties with you after you devoured five slices or more five hours before. Birbiglia reminds us that we need to laugh about the big and the little things because, believe it or not, they are related. We need to laugh about the fear we experience going into a doctor’s office, blowing into a tube and having such a rotten test score it charts as a heart attack. We need to chortle when our daughter shatters our self-esteem and tells us we have, “God forbid in our culture if you have this and are a celebrity, “yellow teeth.” Oona tells Mike this during one of their story times together.

Like all artists who are multifaceted (the program lists Mike as a comedian, director, actor and author who won a Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for Outstanding Solo Performance), Mike is an adept at understanding the wide breadth of human experience and how to share self-conscious stories which deal with immutable verities. Above all, his show, after the worst of COVID, reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously. We should be open to silliness and innocence as his daughter reminds him when they read together at night. (These sweet moments and his whispery lifting of his voice to imitate hers are some of the finest in the show.) What Birbiglia’s prodigious artistry does is help us love ourselves and commune with others, whose humanity it is OK to love, too. His is an exceptional mission of comfort in this tide of times.

Traveling with his show to other parts of the country, Birbiglia knows his audience and senses what it needs based on what he needs; the purr of laughter. Regardless of his political views (we don’t know them), we understand what counts: he is a father, husband and son. And his self-ridicule reveals that he lacks the ego to present himself as “all that.” His ethos retrenches to audience laughter which he provokes with mundanities and homely quips. Audience purrs and belly laughs pace at about about every 30 seconds or as long as it takes to relate the set-up, then settle to the uproarious and witty point. It’s more of an overall build with twists upon twists, until at the end, the last twist lands with an explosion.

In The Old Man & the Pool, Birgiglia hits it out of the ballpark. The solo performance flies by, despite everyone wanting him to slow down and “make it last.”

Kudos to all that makes this happen every night until Mike Birbiglia leaves Lincoln Center. The creative team reveals their mastery in Beowulf Boritt’s sensational, fun set, Toni-Leslie James “man of the street” costume design, Aaron Copp’s nuanced and symbolic lighting design, Kai Harada’s excellent sound design (I heard every word), Hana S. Kim’s superb, astute projection design. All thanks goes to the inimitable director Seth Barrish and Birbiglia’s collaboration.

This is a superb must-see especially if you need a laugh or two or hundreds. For tickets and times go to their website: https://mikebirbigliabroadway.com/

‘Notre Dame de Paris’ at Lincoln Center is Just Smashing!

(L to R): Angelo Del Vecchio, Daniel Lavoie, Hiba Tawaji, Yvan Pedneault/ in Notre Dame d Paris (Alessandro Dobici)

For the first time in its twenty-four year history since its premiere in Paris, France in 1998, Notre Dame de Paris makes its New York City debut. The acclaimed musical spectacular has toured internationally, featuring successful productions in Canada, Italy, Lebanon, Singapore, Japan, Turkey and China. Performed in 23 countries and translated into nine languages, accumulating an enthusiastic 15 million spectators worldwide, the production at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center premiered on the 13th of July and runs through, Sunday, 24 July.

Notre Dame de Paris extravagantly directed by Gilles Maheu is a transcendent, opera-styled musical rendering of Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Based on Hugo’s monumental work of passion, love, lust, jealousy, cultural transformation, racism, classism and misogyny, the Notre Dame cathedral is the centerpiece around which most of the whirling action of this spectacle takes place.

It is there in front of the massive stones being set in the opening scene, Gingoire (the exceptional Gian Marco Schiaretti), introduces the cathedral in “Le Temps des cathedrals.” In the square in front of Notre Dame we meet the stratified economic classes of Paris, i.e. the undocumented immigrants who seek asylum and sleep in front of the cathedral. It is from there that the action leads out to the streets of Paris, beyond and back again. Thus, throughout, the cathedral becomes a moral, spiritual, ironic presence. It signifies a religion that encourages brotherly/sisterly love but rarely lives up to its aspirations in the actions of the clerics and the classist citizenry we meet.

Angelo Del Vecchio, Hiba Tawaji in Notre Dame de Paris (Alessandro Dobici)

Luc Plamondon’s lyrics propel the arc of development in composer Richard Cocciante’s sung-through, pop-rock, people’s opera. Generally, the almost three hour production follows Hugo’s novel, omitting minor characters that lightly impact the plot of the original work.

Cocciante’s florid music and Plamondon’s pop-rock lyrics comprise a total of 51 separate songs. Many of these are lyrical ballads describing the principal characters’ feelings about the situations they find themselves in. Others are powerful anthems, like the gorgeous signature song “La Temps des cathedrals,” and “Florence,” when Frollo and Gingoire discuss how Gutenberg’s printing press and Luther’s 95 Thesis will kill the old Paris and the cathedral as they make way for the new in the roiling undercurrents of society, as immigrants flood the city bringing with them new trends and transformations as they swell the population of Paris.

Live musicians accompany pre-recorded tracks performed in French with English surtitles provided on two screens to the left and right of the stage. Unlike opera the performers’ voices are electronically enhanced. At times one focuses more on sound than the quality of the performance. But all the principals have gorgeous voices and their talents are memorable and exquisite for this amazing, iconic musical epic.

The Company of Notre Dame de Paris (Alessandro Dobici)

There are seven principal characters who represent the inner and outer circles of the populace. These include Gingoire the poet and narrator who codifies the settings around Paris and introduces the characters and situations. Gingoire is the herald who announces the shifts in action. He moves among the Parisians and is a friend of those who have status like Frollo the Archdeacon of Notre Dame (the superb Daniel Lavoie). Floating among the undocumented immigrants Gingoire gets to know Clopin and Esmeralda in Act I, proving he is no respecter of classes and persons. In Act II he informs Clopin (Jay), the leader of the undocumented immigrants, that Esmeralda is in prison. Gringoire is present to understand how the immigrants try to come to Esmeralda’s aid to no avail. Her gender, her striking beauty, her class and above all her destiny, damns her.

In his movements around the city when Gringoire stumbles into the wretched Court of Miracles, it is then he becomes acquainted with Clopin (Jay) and Esmeralda (Hiba Tawaji). Situated outside the city walls, the ironically named court is the den of the impoverished undocumented, and the city’s outcasts. Clopin has created his own set of rules for the Court of Miracles that those who live there must follow. Kindly, he protects teenager Esmeralda allowing her to take refuge in the Court. Like a brother, he warns her against being too trusting of men.

Hiba Tawaji in Notre Dame de Paris (Alessandro Dobici)

Emeralda, a Bohemian from Spain is the catalyst who moves the action and emblazons the passions of men to love, hate or exploit her. As she prettily dances in the square, she unfortunately attracts the attention of the men of power, Archdeacon Frollo and Phoebus (Yvan Pedneault), captain of the King’s cavalry. They both want her. She becomes the vulnerable pawn who they attempt to exploit, abuse, then expediently toss away. Her youth, innocence and beauty are the fatal instruments that contribute to effecting her demise as the men wantonly pursue her sexual affections. The only one whose love she returns is Phoebus. However, he is pledged to marry a woman of consequence and class, Fleur-de-Lys (Emma Lépine). Eventually, he chooses a life of unhappiness with Fleur-de Lys because it is one which satisfies his need for stature and security though it is empty of love and pleasure.

Quasimodo, the lame, hunchback bell ringer also notes Esmeralda’s beauty and unhappily contrasts himself with her. She is someone he wishes to love but he knows it would be an impossibility. To confirm his “celebrity” as the most externally loathsome of all creatures, he is crowned “The King of Fools” in the songs “La Fête des fous” and “Le Pape des fous.”

Staged as frenetic, wildly antic numbers that involve the large cast, we watch as five acrobats, two breakers, and sixteen dancers, all of them marvelously talented, hurl themselves across the stage, spin and gyrate. These two numbers are visually exciting as most of the songs which combine dance are. Importantly, they create empathy, revealing how Quasimodo is treated by a world that worships physical loveliness and eschews deformity. However, Esmeralda has a kind heart and wishes that all humanity could become like brothers/sisters with no boundaries. She makes a connection of consciousness with him. Quasimodo becomes Esmeralda’s chief protector after she gives him a drink during his punishment for attempting to kidnap her on Frollo’s orders.

Angelo Del Vecchio in Notre Dame de Paris (Alessandro Dobici)

Quasimodo is Frollo’s puppet, having been raised by the cleric when he was orphaned as a baby. Whatever Frollo says to do he does because he is indebted to him. In the powerful and beautiful “Belle,” Frollo, Quasimodo and Phoebus secretly reveal their love of Esmeralda, claiming her for themselves. However, only Quasimodo loves her unselfishly without seeking to take anything from her, unlike Frollo and Phoebus.

The conflict intensifies when Frollo, unable to deal with his unholy, sexual feelings for Esmeralda attempts to take her for himself in an act of self-destruction and sinfulness, “Tu vas me détruire.” He has her falsely arrested for killing Phoebus, a lie. He knows she loves Phoebus and his jealousy enrages and victimizes him. His desire for her turns to hatred. Frollo visits her in jail where he propositions her to give herself to him and reclaim her life. Frollo has given up his identity and holiness embracing the hypocrisy of his lust and murderous jealousy of Phoebus. He is Archdeacon only in his robes and title. For her part Esmeralda realizes she fulfills her destiny loving Phoebus and sacrificing her life.

Gian Marco Schiaretti in Notre Dame de Paris (Alessandro Dobici)

Daniel Lavoie who originated the role of Frollo masterfully reveals the character’s self torment, rage and incredible hurt, throwing off any mantel of faith to possess Esmeralda. In his portrayal Lavoie reveals Frollo’s doom as he blasphemes his religion, all in the shadows of Notre Dame. Though Quasimodo realizes Frollo’s malevolence and impulse to hang Esmeralda, there is little he can do to stop Frollo’s actions. Only after she hangs does he answer Frollo’s wickedness.

Notre Dame de Paris is a fitting title for this incredible production. The cathedral represents the chief moral and structural backdrop of the themes, characters and conflicts that reveal how religion, unless lived spiritually is a damnation. Also, it is upon this backdrop that we understand how fate and destiny unravel for Esmeralda, Frollo, Quasimodo and Phoebus, as they struggle to find but ultimately lose their place in the dynamically changing Paris of 1482.

Jay and The Company of Notre Dame de Paris (Alessandro Dobici)

This version is incredibly current in its attention to the plight of the undocumented immigrants, a situation that will only worsen globally with climate change and Putin’s War in Ukraine. Also, the production reveals the plight of women in the hands of men who have the power to abuse and destroy them. Hugo’s attention to humanity and the incompetence of religion to deny decency and hope to individuals who are stateless, classless and viewed by citizens as lower than worms is all the more striking because the situation still abides. One asks the question does anything change except the progress of science and technology when it delivers monetarily? Only the gargoyles can answer. Since this production was first mounted in 1998, progress reveals how much our humanity has deteriorated and even the cathedral itself has suffered a cataclysm that will never return it to its former ancient glory.

Kudos to the the director Gilles Maheu whose vision was faithfully melded in the staging, choreography by Martino Müller, set design by Christian Rätz, costume design by Caroline Van Assche, lighting design by Alain Lortie and hair and wig design by Sébastien Quinet. Praise also goes to musical director Matthew Brind and surtitles by Jeremy Sams. The production takes one’s breath away and every song is exceptionally beautiful in French and poetically lyrical if one understands the language.

Though Notre Dame de Paris has finished its New York City run you may catch it elsewhere as it is on tour and heading to Canada. Check out their various websites: https://nac-cna.ca/en/event/20729 http://www.avenircentre.com/ and look for it to return to the U.S. and perhaps New York City in the future.

‘Epiphany,’ Subtle, Understated, Irony, a Review

(L to R): Jonathan Hadary, C.J. Wilson, Heather Burns, Marylouise Burke and Omar Metwally in Epiphany (Jeremy Daniel)

At the outset of Epiphany by Brian Watkins, directed by Tyne Rafaeli, we hear a thunderous, rumbling, like a breaking apart of the ethers, that signifies something momentous may occur. After all on one level, the title references the traditional yearly celebration after Christmas when the Magi acknowledged the divinity of the Christ child. On the other hand certainly, the play’s themes will stimulate us to have an “epiphany” about our own lives. As we sit in the dark theater, we wait to be moved by what may be some great stirring.

In the shaking and weird roaring noise that lasts a few seconds at the top of the play, we have a chance to peruse Morkan’s (Marylouise Burke) expansive, circular, den-dining room in her idyllic, barn-like mansion somewhere in the woods near a river. The place has been renovated and repainted, long-time friend Ames (the wonderful Jonathan Hadary) reveals during the course of the evening. Two large floor to ceiling windows are set equidistant to the right and left of the central staircase. They look out on an immense tangle of dark, surreal tree limbs and bushes upon which snow falls but never sticks. John Lee Beatty’s set is a magnificent throwback to a former Americana of dark, rich, wood paneled loveliness whose central point is three staircases: one short leap of stairs from the entrance opening onto the main floor, and two massive staircases leading to the second story presumably of bedrooms and a bathroom with a novel Japanese toilet that Freddy (C.J. Wilson) admires.

C. J. Wilson, Heather Burns in Epiphany (Jeremy Daniel)

On January 6th, each year millions celebrate the Epiphany world-wide but not in America, the dinner hostess Morkan informs all her company after they have arrived. She has invited her friends and grand nephew Gabriel (name reference-the angelic messenger who announced the Christ child’s birth) to this unique January 6th dinner party for a celebration of the Epiphany during which her grandnephew will officiate. She doesn’t quite remember the significance of the day but thought it appropriate to have a gathering of friends she hasn’t seen for a long while to celebrate because the date is located in the dark loneliness of winter, after Christmas and the season of light.

However, Gabriel lets his aunt down. He can’t make the party, so he can’t officiate and Morkan is left to be mistress of ceremonies on this occasion, that no one in the group has celebrated before or even understands. However, she tries to guide the festivities and does so humorously in fits and starts. Interestingly, Gabriel makes up for his absence by sending his partner Aran (Carmen Zilles) the symbolic stranger (think “The Dead” by James Joyce that Watkins’ set up suggests). She is the only one to be able to relay something about Epiphany, manifestly suggesting its true meaning of the Magi bringing gifts to the Christ child, and referencing a layered meaning: the confluence of the divine in humanity by the play’s end.

The Company of Epiphany (Jeremy Daniel)

The festivities that Morkan planned, whose order has been sent in an attachment to her friends that no one read, happen with the quirky turn of her mind. As she tries to remember them, she informs the guests that remembering is becoming harder because of her lack of focus. Nevertheless, she takes charge and this lovely evening among individuals not initially friends who become friends unfolds with beauty and poignancy encouraged by Morkan’s generous hospitality, openness and humanity (in divinity).

Watkins via director Rafaeli’s vision, cleverly, ironically misleads us throughout, beginning with the early fanfare to expect “greatness.” However, Watkins sidelines our anticipation for “the momentous” with the humorous interactions of the guests. We listen to Morkan’s prating about why she must confiscate their cell phones to everyone’s horror. To move the “epiphany celebration” along, she suggests they sing the related song. No one knows it.

(L to R): Carmen Zilles, C.J. Wilson, Colby Minifie, Marylouise Burke, Omar Metwally and David Ryan Smith in Epiphany (Jeremy Daniel)

We relax into the off handed conversational comments as guests help themselves to alcohol. We watch the very visual piano interpretation of a piece by Kelly (Heather Burns) which is a hysterically cacophonous substitute for the song of epiphany that no one learned. And to honor the celebration, Sam (Omar Metwally) brings out a galette des rois he has prepared, explaining someone must go under the table to call out who gets the first slice. Additionally, Sam shares that all must look for the surprise inside which if they find it, means they are the King or Queen of the celebration. Ames volunteers to go under the table and call out a name. And then we forget about him when Sam and Aran discuss the finer points of empiricism and the ineffable which are relational to the miracle of the epiphany.

And just when we think the play is about to take a really profound turn, Morkan shuffles up the cards and calls out “Who wants a slice of the galette.?” What occurs is the comical high point point of the production, seamlessly directed by Rafaeli and enacted by Jonathan Hadary’s Ames, Marylouise Burke’s Morkan and the others, like Loren (Colby Minifie) who stem the bleeding and help quell the chaos.

The Company of Epiphany (Jeremy Daniel)

By the time the food arrives on the table, we understand that something fascinating is going on. The shining moments of meaning that signify joy that the tradition encourages should happen happen. Indeed, much happens in the apparent little insignificances. Individuals listen and respond to each other and enjoy each other. The moments move serendipitously during the evening of this diverse, wacky group of individuals who have been divorced from their phones by Morkan so they can relate to each other in a live, spontaneous interactive dynamic. That alone is miraculous for her to insist upon, and of course, grandly funny.

As the food is passed around and they comment the goose is dark, toward the end of the meal the subject turns into the years one has yet to live. And as Ames recalls a humorous story, at the end of it Morkan’s revelations about her sister abruptly emerge. They are still a shock to her and they are a shock to her friends who begin to understand Morkan’s comments about lack of focus and her need for company during the darkest time of the year.

Marylouise Burke in Epiphany (Jeremy Daniel)

Nevertheless, continuing the celebratory spirit, Morkan, ever the thoughtful hostess brings out the dessert which she insists they eat. And it is during the dessert, she explains the devastation she has been feeling, the need of forgiving herself and the importance of forgiveness in her life, in everyone’s lives. These feelings which she shares are made all the more real for herself and her friends in their public revelation. Her deeply intimate confession touches their hearts and is codified by Aran as an “epiphany.” The theme of revelation coalesces into the symbolism of the miraculous that Morkan seeks. And the recognition of her friends to celebrate the Epiphany the following year as a tradition indicates that they seek that divine in humanity in the sharing of community. The last moments are particularly heart wrenching.

This is one to see for the terrific ensemble work and smart, smooth direction by Rafaeli, the sets, humorous moments and atmospheric tone poetry suggested by the lighting among other elements. Kudos to Beatty for his sets, Montana Levi Blanco for costumes, Isabella Byrd for lighting, Daniel Kluger for original music and sound. Epiphany runs with no intermission and ends July 23rd. Don’t miss it. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.lct.org/shows/epiphany/

‘The Skin of Our Teeth,’ a Zany Exploration of the Fate of Humanity at Lincoln Center

Gabby Beans in The Skin of Our Teeth (Julieta Cervantes)

Thorton Wilder’s Pulitizer Prize winning The Skin of Our Teeth currently in revival at Lincoln Center’s Viviane Beaumont, presents the fate of the human race in three segments when the human family represented by the Antrobuses (Greek for man or human), faces extinction. The first debacle is the ice age; the second is the great deluge; the third is a seven years war. The play leaves off in uncertainty for surely humanity will continue to face threats of extermination and will continue to shake these off, repair itself and scientifically progress to greater heights and lower depths in its struggle to survive as a species. Though Wilder leaves this conclusion uncertain through the character of Sabina (the vibrant and versatile Gabby Beans), the very fact that the characters make it as far as they do is a witness to human resilience and tenacity.

(L to R): Julian Robertson, Roslyn Ruff, Paige Gilbert in The Skin of Our Teeth, ( Julieta Cervantes)

The production, one of spectacle and moment, whimsy and humor is acutely directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz for maximum effect. It succeeds in various instances, to be poignant and profound as the Antrobus family (James Vincent Meredith-Dad, Roslyn Ruff-Mom, Julian Robertson-Henry, Paige Gilbert-Gladys) and their maid Sabina (Gabby Beans), the narrator who breaks the fourth wall to address the audience, claw their way through history to survive. These “every men” and “every women” archetypes experience representative cataclysms, all the while confronting the questions about the human race and their place in history until the end of time.

Though Wilder references Bible figures like Cain, suggests Adam, Eve and Lilith (Lily Sabina), and the disasters that have foundations in tribal religious mythology (the great flood myth is recorded in most indigenous cultures), other cataclysms are scientifically and historically referenced (the ice age, dinosaur extinction, seven year’s war between England and France). Wilder is intentionally out of chronological order, suggestive, melding various historical/cultural documents of literature and religion with scientific discovery. Throughout, the vital thread is humanity’s survival.

(L to R): Roslyn Ruff, Julian Robertson, James Vincent Meredith, Paige Gilbert in The Skin of Our Teeth (Julieta Cervantes)

The questions the characters raise which float throughout each act are philosophical and moral. For example is the human race worth saving from the struggles, trials and horrors which will continue to threaten both people and their environment? Should humanity just throw in the towel, lay down and refuse to repair itself or evolve technologically, artistically, scientifically? Given the rapacity and murderous ruthlessness of son Henry (aka the Biblical Cain, the spirit of murder in humanity), will the human race just exterminate itself with weapons of its own making? Or as humanity’s mother, Ruff’s Mrs. Antrobus suggests, will the family unit sustain the human species, enabling it to succeed in each progressive and evolving era?

Given the latest foray into extinction by Vladimir Putin as he attempts to obliterate Ukraine into the dust bin of history, bully democratic countries to heel to his genocide, and bribe apologist lackeys in the extreme global radical right, including the QAnon members of the Republican Party, Wilder’s overriding questions are current. This is especially so in the last segment when Ruff’s Mrs. Antrobus and daughter Paige Gilbert’s Gladys emerge from the basement where they’ve been sheltering for a seven years war to reunite with Sabina (Gabby Beans). All welcome the new peace. However, they consider how they will rebuild as they view the burned wreckage of their bombed out home.

The Company of The Skin of Our Teeth (Julieta Cervantes)

As the curtain of the last act rises on the devastation, one can’t help think of Ukrainian towns (the Russian soldiers have since left), and Mariupol, where Ukrainian families and soldiers shelter in basements and in a steel factory, as they suffer Putin’s inhumane starvation, while bombs blast above, uselessly pulverizing dust. The irony is so beyond the pale; Putin bombs dust in helpless fury while every minute the heroism, bravery and resilience of Ukraine’s “Antrobus” spirit thrusts into the heavens, memorializing that Ukraine will never capitulate to the likes of Putin. It is a humiliation for Russia. They for allowed such a serial killer to usurp power, genocide women and children and bomb dust because the Ukrainians embody the slogan, “live free or die,”refusing to bow to one man rule and an abdication of their human rights.

Electing to die honorable Roman deaths, rather than submit to Putin’s vengeful, psychotic temper tantrums, they shame those officials who pretend to uphold democracy but, like Putin, vitiate human rights with lies. Uncannily, what’s happening in Mariupol dovetails with Wilder’s prescient theme, that the human race will never capitulate to fires, floods, and its own murderous instincts.

Though Sabina grouses that she’s sick and tired of being sick and tired as she begins the first lines at the top of the play again, the wheel of irrevocable change and life goes around once more with new things for humanity to learn in a new way that is never a repetition of the past. However, Sabina doesn’t see that human history is a spiral and not a circle. She is blind to the human experiment, which Wilder suggests we must understand beyond her limited vision.

Priscilla Lopez in The Skin of Our Teeth (Julieta Cervantes)

Indeed, no human being desires going into survival mode. But cataclysm squeezes out benefit from humanity’s collective soul during great trials. Wilder suggests it is worth the price. Through these actors’ sterling portrayals, we understand that human tenacity and hope propel the human race to make it to the next day. And as the species collectively moves through the days, weeks and years, it evolves a finer wisdom, strength and efficacy. Wilder suggests, this is confirmed again and again and again with each debacle, each disaster, each cataclysm, each deranged maniac that would make war on his brothers and himself.

Some scenes in this enlightened production are particularly adorable. The representative sentient beings of the ice age, the dinosaur and mammoth are the most lovable pets thanks to the brilliant puppeteers (Jeremy Gallardo, Beau Thom, Alphonso Walker Jr., Sarin Monae West).

The Company of The Skin of Our Teeth (Julieta Cervantes)

Unfortunately, Antrobus (the solid James Vincent Meredith), tells the dinosaur and mammoth to leave the warmth of their Jersey home so he has room to take in refugees like prophet Moses, the ancient Greek poet Homer and the three Muses: Melete, “Practice,” Mneme, “Memory” and Aoide, “Song,” who would otherwise freeze to death. The dinosaur’s and mammoth’s expulsion is heartbreaking; the ice age destroys their kind. However, Wilder ties their extinction to necessity. Humanity gave up some unique, particular species and from that arose incalculable value. In this instance the preservation includes the foundation of human laws of civilization, timeless poetry and the spirits who inspire art to soothe the collective human soul and generate its hope and creativity.

The sounds of the ice shelf moving, the projection of the towers of ice and the smashing of the home are particularly compelling thanks to the technical team, as the Antrobus family and their maid and sometime object of Mr. Antrobus’ affections escape, “by the skin of their teeth.”

(L to R): Roslyn Ruff, Julian Robertson, Paige Gilbert, James Vincent Meredith in The Skin of Our Teeth (Julieta Cervantes)

Wilder’s zany, human account has the same setting of bucolic New Jersey throughout. In Act II it’s still New Jersey, but it’s the wild equivalent of sin city in Atlantic City and the boardwalk that has a carnival atmosphere with a lovely gypsy fortune teller (Priscilla Lopez) who warns Antrobus that she can tell him his future, but his past is lost and incomprehensible. It is an interesting notion because one then thinks of the adjuration, “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” However, this doesn’t quite follow for the Antrobus family who are forward moving in progress.

Lopez’s Fortune Teller predicts the great deluge. Terrifying warning sounds rendered by a huge mechanism register the wind velocity and impending storm ferocity. The sounding of the alarm of the impending deluge is scarily effected. Warnings are ignored by the tourists and those who enjoy the fun, dancing, drugging and alluring lights of the Atlantic City boardwalk. As doom approaches, they party. Of course the Antrobus family flees to a boat after pursuing their natures (slippery Robertson’s Henry has killed someone else). Gabby Beans’ Sabina follows them, a veritable member of the family in her seductions of Antrobus, manifested in Act II, hinted at in Act I.

James Vincent Meredith, Roslyn Ruff in The Skin of Our Teeth (Julieta Cervantes)

A powerful scene in Act III occurs after the war is over and the Antrobuses convene at what’s left of their Jersey home. Henry confronts his father, for he is the enemy and Antrobus senior threatens to kill him. Of all the characters, the murderous Henry is the most useless. The daughter is the golden child as was the child they no longer speak of, the beautiful, gifted Abel who Henry resentfully killed. But in Act III, after Henry expresses his feelings of isolation, loneliness and desolation being insulted and demeaned by his father, there is a breakthrough and resolution which is heartening. The scene, beautifully rendered by Julian Robertson, who is in his element as the enraged and hurt son and James Vincent Meredith as the commanding then empathetic father, suggests that hope and love are possible through communication.

Director Lileana-Blain Cruz shepherds her fine, spot-on cast with aplomb to performances that never appear off focus or muted for Wilder’s unique characterizations.

The fun of this production also is in the set design, aptly configured by Adam Rigg, effervescent and vibrant in the first two acts, symbolic and moving in Act III. The colorful costumes by Montana Levi reveal the time periods. Act I presents suburban housewife and family and children with happy-go-lucky flowery dresses, with the appropriate fur coat and stylized costumes for Homer, Moses and the others. Act II presents the 1920s flapper style and for the men the orange pin stripes typically emotive for officials of the Convention for Mammals. The lovely Fortune Teller outfit is glamorous, as she is like a Hollywood celebrity and Sabina is the seductress in shimmering red. In Act III the outfits are back to the housewife/mother and maid look similar to the costumes in Act I. Levi’s stylized flair takes in the themes of the act and threads the overall survival mode of the play with precision and care.

With Blanco, Yi Zhao’s accompanying lighting, Palmer Hefferan’s terrific sound design and the integrated, vital projections by Hannah Wasileski, the artistic technical team provides the canvas which sets off the events and the performances, making them more striking. Even more fun are the expert puppeteers who made me fall in love with the animals and shed a tear at their demise. I am calling out these individuals again, BRAVO to Jeremy Gallardo, Beau Thom, Alphonso Walker Jr., Sarin Monae West.

I’ve said enough. Go see it. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.lct.org/shows/skin-our-teeth/

‘Intimate Apparel’ a New Opera, a Must-See at Lincoln Center Theater

Kearstin Piper Brown, Naomi Louisa O’Connell in Intimate Apparel A New Opera, Music by Ricky Ian Gordon, Libretto by Lynn Nottage (T. Charles Erickson)

Lynn Nottage’s superb play Intimate Apparel won an Outer Critic’s Circle Award and New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award. It is a play about women circa the turn of the century, the parallels and disparities between race and class, black and white, wealthy and struggling. For the women, gender is the equalizer. This is especially so in Intimate Apparel the opera presented at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse until the 6th of March. As such this new work is dramatic, taut with undercurrents and themes propelled by Ricky Ian Gordon’s thrilling music and Nottage’s memorable libretto.

Nottage has streamlined her poetic work for Gordon whose music is stylized and hybrid, born out of Nottage’s characterizations to elucidate profound themes that resonate with the audience. Gordon and Nottage are a pairing made in heaven. The production, well thought out by director Bartlett Sher, is all that one might want in raw emotional grace, generated by Gordon’s luscious notes, conveyed by the beautiful, heartfelt voices of the leads and their chorus counterparts.

Sher’s staging features stylized economy and nuance, unencumbered by the extraneous to allow the themes and characterizations to strike with impact. The action takes place on Michael Yeargan’s revolving turntable stage as the world of these characters is circular. The props are efficiently rolled out. Highly specific to the story, they are inconsequential once their purpose has been fulfilled and they dissipate into memory, supplanted by another scene and other props. All reflects an impermanence and hint of symbolic meaning, the tip of the iceberg, like the photographs that appear at the end of each act that Nottage has moved from play to libretto. It is a smashing touch that adheres thematically when we see the floor to ceiling size pictures of the characters “unidentified,” though we have been privileged to have their lives unfold during the opera.

The characters, like us, are subject to their time and place and though they appear to move forward, they remain static, even going backward psychically (George Armstrong, Mayme, Mrs. Van Buran). Forward movement and progress is an illusion, especially for unmarried Negro seamstress, Esther (Kearstin Piper Brown). Nottage effectively draws her arc of development so that Esther is fated to return back to the same setting by the opera’s conclusion. It is in the boarding house of Mrs. Dickson (the superb Adrienne Danrich), when we first meet Brown’s unhappy Esther.

Kearstin Piper Brown in Intimate Apparel A New Opera, Music by Ricky Ian Gordon, Libretto by Lynn Nottage (T. Charles Erickson)

Nottage’s message is clear. Throughout Esther has been through an emotional cataclysm as many black women experienced at the time, marching without notice through history, bearing up against what the society dealt out. Yet, Esther comes through it. And though she ends up in the same place, she is strengthened, stoic, heroic, independent and dignified. Indeed, Esther lands on her feet, perhaps wearily, but she will continue. And it is this delineation of character that Nottage, Sher and Gordon understand in their bones, so that they translate her characterization magnificently into this heartfelt operatic presentation.

From the outset we recognize that Esther is unlike the other women in the boarding house where Corinna Mae’s wedding ceremony is being held. Esther supports herself and is alone, working continually to make her way, not distracted by friends or entertainments which she cannot afford. Thus, she isn’t tempted by the ragtime music that we hear “downstairs.” Throughout, she avoids Mrs. Dickson’s encouragement to meet with one man or another to settle down. Ironically, when she should take Mrs. Dickson’s advice, she doesn’t and pays the price for it.

As the opera opens Esther, annoyed and jealous at Corinna Mae’s marriage, admits to Mrs. Dickson she doesn’t feel she will be loved. Nottage’s libretto melds with Gordon’s party ragtime, as it flows into refrains, “I hate her laughter,” “I hate her happiness.” The libretto throughout is lyrical and grounded in emotional realism as Gordon’s recitative rises to meet the character’s desires and feelings. In this case, Esther yearns to be loved, but feels it is hopeless. But by the end of the scene, she receives a letter given to her from Mrs. Dickson. Perhaps, it will satisfy her longings. Brown’s voice and acting targets our emotions and draws us in to her hopes and concerns. She is wonderful.

Kearstin Piper Brown, Justin Austin in Intimate Apparel A New Opera, Music by Ricky Ian Gordon, Libretto by Lynn Nottage (Julieta Cervantes)

The letter is from laborer George Armstrong (Jorell Williams on Sunday matinee when I saw it). From Barbados, working on the Panama Canal, George Armstrong is an acquaintance friend of someone she knows in her church. The letter becomes the driving force of the action in the opera as it is in Nottage’s titular play. Esther, who can’t read or write, solicits help from two of her clients who are literate. Both women, opposite sides of the same coin, make their living from men, unlike Esther. One is the white elite society woman, the wealthy Mrs. Van Buren (the fine Naomi Louisa O’Connell), whose husband supports her in style but who is disassociated from his life emotionally, psychically and physically. The other is Mayme (Tesia Kwarteng on Sunday matinee when I saw it), who sells her sexual favors and takes beatings from the men who pay her for her services, one of which is to abuse her. She, too, is removed from the men to whom she plies her trade in an incredible irony of intimacy.

As Esther sews the same beautifully made “intimate apparel” (calling forth what true intimacy might mean), so they can attract the males in their lives, both help her write the letters to George. Mrs. Van Buren supplies the technical expertise and Mayme supplies the romantic allurements and sugar. During the process Esther becomes their confidante and she becomes theirs. The relationships are enlightening and Nottage reveals the parallels among the women, who the men dominate and abuse emotionally, psychically and physically. Thus, there is no difference between Mrs. Van Buren or Mayme; though the disparities in economic and financial well-being and respect based on race and class are galaxies apart. The women’s scenes with Brown’s Esther and her clients portrayed by O’Connell and Kwarteng are well drawn and ironic, as they move the action forward.

Both “kept women” ply their sexual trade, and though there is the appearance of a vast difference, certainly prompted by women elitists, the women, who are representative of their classes are oppressed. Esther is less so because of her independence and dominant attitude not to embrace the values that keep women enslaved to men. However, Esther, too falls from that grace, and the opera is an affirmation that she must learn that what she has achieved is indomitable and superior to the other women at this time and place.

Krysty Swann and the company of Intimate Apparel A New Opera, Music by Ricky Ian Gordon, Libretto by Lynn Nottage (T. Charles Erickson)

Ironically, Mrs. Van Buren asks Esther if she is a suffragette when she makes a remark that sounds like women’s empowerment. Esther, in spite of herself, encourages Mrs. Van Buren not to “let him do you that way.” For her part Mrs. Van Buren is stuck in the psyche of her “feminine” class stature. She must fit into the stereotypical cut-outs of elite women. She will be the last to realize the vitality of empowering gender identity and women’s rights. She is her husband’s chattel, dependent on him for support, choosing not to work or seek out a skill which is beneath her. Mayme, like Mrs. Van Buren, is oppressed by the men who pay her. Without a skill to support themselves, Mayme and Mrs. Van Buren are sisters born of the same mother of servitude, soul demeaned without independence.

Esther’s scenes with O’Connell’s Mrs. Van Buren and Kwarteng’s Mayme resonate powerfully. During these scenes especially we understand how the women lure Brown’s Esther (though she has asked for it). Stirred by Mrs. Dickson’s values of a woman’s world defined by a man who keeps her, she and Mayme encourage Esther to “fall in love” with George who is a figment of all their imaginations. This is rendered beautifully in the aria when Mayme and Esther sing about the discovered George who has been with both women. It is then Esther tells Mayme not to let him in the door (symbolizing the door of her heart). “Let him go. He’s an unanswered letter, a feather on the wind, you’ll be chasing him forever.” Brown’s emotional highs and lows tear at our hearts; Nottage’s libretto is poetically striking.

To Mrs. Van Buren Esther represents a freedom and openness she craves in her life. However, the three women sing “I fear I love someone,” a melodic song signifying the love is a symbolic, forbidden creation of their hears and minds. For Esther her forbidden love is Mr. Marks (the wonderfully authentic Arnold Livingston Geis). Marks is the orthodox fabric seller on Orchard Street with whom Brown’s Esther forms a spiritual attachment. For Mrs. Van Buren it is the allure of the forbidden (spoiler alert), Esther who makes her feel accepted and loved for herself. For Mayme it is George’s razzle dazzle manly male, who flashes his money (actually Esther’s money), so they can enjoy themselves. His manipulations have convinced Mayme that he is her “Songbird,” though he is married to Esther.

The love Esther, Mrs. Van Buren and Mayme sing of cannot be purchased; it remains outside of their reach. They are confined by folkways and unable to cross those lines in 1905. Love remains that which is a financial and business arrangement pragmatically as Mrs. Dickson suggests happened in her life. Or it is a fantasy that little girls are taught to dream of to anticipate marriage, which in reality is a bondage, they cannot easily escape after marriage.

Kearstin Piper Brown, Arnold Livingston Geis in Intimate Apparel A New Opera, Music by Ricky Ian Gordon, Libretto by Lynn Nottage ((Julieta Cervantes)

Esther’s relationship with Mr. Marks is vibrantly drawn by Nottage’s libretto and sonorously, poignantly brought to life by Brown and Geis. Sensitively, the actors delineate their mystical union, which is limited by folkways. The fabrics Mr. Marks saves for her carry great meaning and sensuality. Their closeness is beyond professional as their glances and smiles reveal they yearn for each other. Just a casual touch is significant. After Esther is married she tells Mr. Marks she can’t see him anymore and her answer when he asks, “Why not?” carries the weight of the world, “I think you know why.”

However, their last meeting occurs when Brown’s Esther gives Geis’ Mr. Marks the smoking jacket that she gave to George, that George gave to Mayme and that Esther took back from Mayme. It is then that we know the value of “intimate apparel,” and how the symbol has final closure. Intimacy isn’t necessarily in a physical acquaintance, it is soulful and spiritual. Esther, who made the jacket on his recommendation tells him, “It was made for you.” His wearing it will have symbolic meaning for him and for her of a love that was never consummated, but a transcendent love that prospers, regardless of nullifying strictures, prejudices and folkways. What a poignant, memorable satisfying moment, superlatively performed by Brown and Geis. Just smashing!

The finely wrought and beautifully designed costumes by Catherine Zuber are characters unto themselves, measuring out the symbolism, conflicts and themes of class, gender and relationships. From lighting (Jennifer Tipton), to sound (Marc Salzberg), to projections (59 Productions), the technical effects are right on, enhancing this exceptional production. Placing the pianos on platforms above the playing area is enlightened, as the music and musicians are integral to the action, driving it, supporting it. Their visibility is dynamic. Kudos to Steven Osgood’s music direction and Dianne McIntyre’s choreography.

Intimate Apparel closes on March 6th unless it is extended which it should be. Though the audience was packed, more individuals need to see this production which hits it out of the ballpark. For tickets and times go to their website https://www.lct.org/shows/intimate-apparel/

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