Category Archives: NYC Theater Reviews
‘A Touch of the Poet’ The Irish Repertory Theatre’s Superb Revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Revelation of Class in America
The Irish Repertory Theatre’s activity during the COVID-19 pandemic is nothing short of award-winning. They have remained stalwart in presenting streaming live productions, filmed productions and filmed productions online by actors who have done their work solo from their own homes, which afterward are seamlessly brought together by technicians.
The latter phenomenon is perhaps the finest example of the tremendous effort the Irish Rep is ready to perform keeping in mind their unction to do no harm to actors, technicians and audience members during this incredibly dangerous time, where if you peruse statistics on Worldometer, the death toll in the U.S. marches toward the numbers of dead during four years of our involvement in WWII. Considering that the COVID atrocities have occurred over a 9 month period under the abdicated watch and depraved indifference of Donald J. Trump and the sleepwalking GOP, the death toll is staggering and egregious.
Thus, global watchers of Irish Repertory Theatre which hail from Australia to Ireland and all parts of the United States, are so grateful for the opportunities that engaged and talented actors and the Irish Rep’s creative team provide. As they unleash their talent and passion to create wonderful artistic performances, the productions help sustain us through this unprecedented crisis in our lives.
In their latest offering Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet, the Irish Rep used the magnificent set they had created that was ready for production when the pandemic hit and New York was put on pause. With painstaking coordination, director Ciarán O’Reilly, the actors, technicians and artistic team configured a maverick presentation that launches the Irish Rep into new territory and reveals to other theater companies a way to deal with the vicissitudes of social distancing in performance. Each of the actors filmed their portrayals solo with attention to the staging of their actor/character counterparts.
The result is gobsmacking and actors’ performances are treasures. How they accomplished this feat of interaction keeping it dynamic and vital is beyond entertainment. The production of A Touch of the Poet is a profound recognition that with genius and collaboration, the breathtaking can result. And their collaboration elevates what many consider to be one of O’Neill’s more mediocre plays to one of illustrious depth.
This revival elucidates that in O’Neill’s work there is much that is parallel to our time as we follow the misfortunes and revelations of the humanity of the Melody family. In themes and characterizations we identify with the expose of Con Melody’s self-betrayal. Striking is his wanton self-abuse and the abuse of his wife and daughter as he pursues fantasies that no longer support the vitality of their lives and, in fact, hinder their appreciation of who they are and what they might be.
O’Neill sets his drama in Boston around 1828. The Melody family headed up by the alcoholic, self-destructive fantasist “Con” Melody (exquisitely portrayed by Robert Cuccioli) runs a ramshackle Inn with attached bar. Along with “Con,” are Sara (Belle Aykroyd) the stunning, truth-telling, rebellious foil to her father and Nora ( Kate Forbes) his pliant, subservient, fawning wife. The four live hand to mouth because Con abides in his glory days when he was a fiery and intrepid Major in the Dragoons, serving under the eventually exalted Duke of Wellington.
At the outset of the play, Jamie Cregan (Andy Murray gives a fine performance of Melody’s soldier underling and partner in brawling) provides the backstory of Con’s inner and outer conflict that Con has been unable to confront his entire life. Jamie explains how Con is an erstwhile gentleman with roots from the Irish peasant class that his father struggled to escape from. The father eventually advances himself and carves out an inheritance for Melody who is lifted into the airs of landed gentry and rises to a position of power in the British military.
When Con’s philandering, drinking ways cause him to be sanctioned and ejected from his position as Major, Melody flees to the United States with Nora where they purchase the Inn and raise Sara. Swindled by a Yankee, who lies about the value and prosperity of the Inn, they barely scrape out an existence which is further impoverished by Con’s alcoholism and his inability to make his way in the United States.
Con’s relationship to Nora and Sara varies from drunken rages when he belittles and demeans both to guilty apologies and attempts to make amends with blandishments. Cuccioli balances the drunken bouts and insults with hasty apology that is both humorous and heartfelt. Through his spot-on portrayal we understand the impossibility of Con’s self-hatred and his attempt to escape both his alcoholism and his menial position in the new world as classism and discrimination drive him deeper into self-loathing. Cuccioli is particularly illuminating when he entertains the magical persona of “The Major.” As he affirms his exalted personage in a conveniently placed mirror, quoting Lord Byron, he imagines his long-lost greatness and gentility are still within.
Indeed, Cuccioli’s stance, mien, presence convince us that he was once an individual of great deeds and valor and has fallen on hard times but will remain unbroken and unbowed. Nora adores him for she has “won” this dignitary’s love and that raises her own identity and self-esteem. Kate Forbes is just incredible as she mediates Nora’s self-recriminations, with her subservience to Con as she waits on his every whim. She never reproaches him for his abusiveness, indeed, she accepts his cruelties and disdain as worthy of her low station.
Cuccioli and Forbes relay powerful portrayals of these two individuals as they complete the dance of superior to menial externally which becomes the reverse when we see that Con needs to believe he is genteel and honorable, the stiff-upper-lipped gentleman of quality. However, ultimately, Nora dominates; Nora obliges and encourages him to fulfill her own assumptions about his love, as he lowers himself to rages and miscreant behavior.
Belle Aykroyd’s Sara who challenges Con’s treatment of Nora adds spark and fire to the dynamic of the family. She is the flint that ignites Con and inflames his drunken rages. She fills out the charged, family interplay with an amazing performance of irony and savagery. An instance of this occurs when Sara mocks Con’s puffery and “superiority” by putting on an Irish brogue and acting the menial. Apparently, Con has attempted to teach both Nora and Sara the finer ways, but Nora is unwittingly inflexible and Sara, who “knows better” enjoys defying her father at every turn.
Sara stirs the cauldron of infamy when she entices the guest of a wealthy land-owner to fall in love while she nurses him to health. Through her pursuit of him we learn of Nora’s own desires of greatness realized through her love of Con which becomes the similar road that Sara travels down. To raise her self-esteem in her own eyes and self-love, she becomes sexually involved with Simon Hartford (a blasphemy at the time) despite the threat of his mother Deborah Hartford’s (Mary McCann) disapproval. Deborah Hartford will make sure their relationship is doomed because of their class and economic differences.
In the climax of the play which skirts the edges of physical confrontation, the actors seamlessly convey the action, considering each filmed his/her performance in their own homes. Thanks to the precise staging, it works when Con slaps Sara, when he caresses his wife at the conclusion with a new-found reverence of her patience and concern for him, and when he is physically bold in his attempts to kiss Deborah Hartford. Mary McCann’s staid and well-born Deborah Hartford is the perfect inducement for Con to entrap himself in one more perfidious and humiliating debasement.
From this juncture onward, we anticipate Con’s complete obliteration and the hope of a renewal. O’Neill satisfies; his ironic twists and Con’s ultimate affirmation of the foundations of his soul is as uplifting as it is cathartic. Now, his wife and daughter will have to adjust to this new day and redefine their expectations of their lives. Sara has already begun but the road she has chosen, like her mother’s is hard and treacherous with only her estimation of love to propel her onward.
Kudos to all the actors who negotiated the new medium of filmed staging on film and made it real. Likewise, kudos to the director who shepherded them through with extraordinary results. Last but not least are Alejo Vietti (costume design) Michael Gottlieb (lighting design) M. Florian Staab (sound design and mix) Ryan Rumery (original music) Sarah Nichols (video editor) April Anne Kline production coordinator.
This sensational collaboration magnifies the themes so you can greater appreciate O’Neill’s play of revelation and redemption through confronting one’s own shibboleths and destroying them. The revival shines a refreshing light on A Touch of the Poet and burnishes it with a new glory.
This is a production you must not miss. After this evening’s performance at 8 pm there are three more performances, two Saturday 31 October, and one performance on 1 November at 3 pm. For tickets to the online performances go to the listed site .https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/32325?_ga=2.134261553.1367444511.160409768
Life is a whistle stop away from dissolution and death in the soulful, atmospheric, other-worldly Girl From The North Country by Conor McPherson (Shining City, The Seafarer) with music and lyrics by Bob Dylan. The production had an extended run off Broadway at The Public Theatre. With a few cast changes and a bit of slimming down, the McPherson/Dylan collaboration is an enlightened one as Dylan’s songs have found an amazing home threaded from decade to decade with McPherson’s canny naturalistic and spiritual characterizations
Dr. Walker (the fine Robert Joy) provides the frame of reference (like the narrator in Thorton Wilder’s Our Town) revealing the depression-era setting and introducing the lead characters. Interestingly, all of the characters by the end of the production must confront the state of their lives during the dire times during 1934 in Duluth, Minnesota. McPherson’s expert sense of story-telling and familiarity with the Depression-era literature of the time has enabled him to cobble together the John Steinbeck-like (Of Mice and Men, Grapes of Wrath) characters and storylines. These have been reinforced and inspired by Bob Dylan’s music from various decades. Together, theirs is a marvelous depiction of unity in desperation, longing in torment and hope in uncertainty. Finally, the musical’s theme of timelessness wafts like a beaming streak of gold throughout this must-see production.
A number of the actors double as musicians and Dylan’s song selection ranges in a combination of pop, country, folk and blues. All the songs are recognizable and illustrative of the mood and tone of this stirring piece about characters who yearn for a brighter tomorrow but know that the result will be a more challenging ever-presence of sorrows. Nevertheless, the characters snatch from the mouth of woe bits of humor, song and dance which create shining moments that move them to give solace to one another to help get them to the next day.
Chief among these every-day-heroes is boarding house owner, the stalwart, self-immolating Nick Laine (the fine Jay O. Sanders) who keeps a brood of homeless, down-and-outers together for a time, until they must all move on because Nick is broke and losing his home to the banks. The reference to Steinbeck’s Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath after they lose their house and prepare to leave for the “promised-land” of California is unmistakable.
Nick must negotiate his wife Elizabeth (the incredible Mare Winningham in a sterling performance). Elizabeth has dementia and ironically serves as Nick’s conscience, seamlessly moving in and out of sentience selecting a time when she can most effectively jab at Nick’s soul about his sister whose death he negligently caused and his mistress Mrs. Neilsen (the excellent Jeannette Bay Ardelle).
Mrs. Neilsen and Nick receive a respite from misery in each other’s arms as she rents a room and helps out with Elizabeth during the time she stays in Nick’s boarding house. Mrs. Neilsen lures Nick with her deceased husband’s scheduled inheritance which she dangles in front of him as bait to fulfill their dream of running away together. Ardelle easily slides into Dylan’s songs with full-throated abandon that is rich and lustrous.
Winningham’s Elizabeth is willful, prescient and edgily funny. She brings down the house with her rendition of “How Does It Feel,” as a foreboding reminder that fate comes for all of us and especially Nick and the various borders who are skulking away from life and the law in this temporary haven from both. She nails Mr. Perry for his sexually predatory abuse of her when she was a child. And she questions Nick why he would pimp off their adopted daughter Marianne Laine ( the wonderful Kimber Elayne Sprawl) to old Mr. Perry in a quid pro quo exchange of Marianne for the payments on their mortgage. Elizabeth to a large extent discourages the deal to Nick, Mr. Perry and her daughter, and though she will miss her, she doesn’t discourage Marianne from running off with boxer Joe Scott (Austin Scott) who blows in one desolate night looking for shelter at Nick’s place with his companion Reverend Marlowe (Matt McGrath).
Thankfully, Nick’s boarding house provides “a welcome for lost souls.” There, Nick feeds them, they celebrate Thanksgiving, they dance. However, Mrs. Burke (the fine Luba Mason), Mr. Burke ( the superb Marc Kudisch), and Elias Burke (the wonderful Todd Almond) hide secrets. So do the slippery Reverend Marlowe and accomplished boxer Joe Scott. Each of the characters is “on the run!” They carry the baggage of their fears, failures and hidden torments to Nick’s guesthouse where eventually their inner hell is exposed to the light and we feel and understand their suffering with empathy in a kind of redemptive soul evolution and hope.
Perhaps the most poignant of fears concerns the Burkes, whose strong, powerfully built son Elias manifests the mind of a three-year-old. Like the character Lennie in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, he understands little of his world around him and stumbles into heartbreaking trouble.
The poignance of his demise is uplifted when Todd Almond as Elias magnificently sings “Duquesne Whistle.” As a spirit he has gone to the afterlife. No more materialistic pain and suffering shackles his mind and heart in darkness. Dressed in a white suit, free of his mental challenges, he and the chorus celebrate that other dimension McPherson beautifully presents (a theme in many of his works). It is a full-on, gospel “coming home” ceremony. Elias (like his name-variant prophet Elijah), “makes it to the other side” of the Light in a wonderful capstone to Almond’s complex and nuanced portrayal.
Thanksgiving as an ironic celebration of a country that has not stood by any of them, initially is filled with song that follows fast with grim realities. At this juncture after the toasts come the tragic truths that explode all of their yearnings that are pipe dreams (in a reference to Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh). Though Marianne escapes with Joe Scott who airily convinces her he will protect her and her child in Chicago, it is one more grabbing at a brass ring on the merry-go-round of life that has stopped spinning and has lost its glory in a break down that will never be repaired.
Nick’s hopes shatter as his daughter Marianne runs off, leaving Mr. Perry without a wife and Nick without house payments. And the final blow is delivered by son Gene (Colton Ryan) whose alcoholism allows him to tell his father at the celebration that he lost the railroad job his father moved heaven and earth for him to get. Gene’s girlfriend Kate (Caitlin Houlahan) leaves him and he is left relying on his father when Nick has nothing more to give him and feels an abject failure at his inability to raise his children to help support the family which is now bereft. No wonder Nick considers suicide (Dr. Walker implies this) but is too dependent on Elizabeth needing him to take it beyond contemplation.
Only Elizabeth, after her marvelous speech about love and her marriage to Nick, afterward singing “Forever Young,” remains serene in her sentience and canny distraction. Indeed, with Nick’s help she has mastered the art of balance even in her dementia.
With finality, we look in the background at their last Thanksgiving together in tableau, as Dr. Walker narrates what he knows of the characters’ futures, again reminiscent of the narrator in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. And as McPherson is wont to do and does believably, Dr. Walker (Robert Joy) shares his passing to “the other side” in Christmas of 1934. We realize then that he has been speaking to us as a spirit, sharing with us his fond memories of the Laines, the guests, and that time.
What more can be said about this marvelous must-see Broadway premiere that has been directed by Conor McPherson and shepherded with care and love from The Old Vic, to The Public Theater, to the Belasco Theatre? The chorus/ensemble (Matthew Frederick Harris, Jennifer Blood, LawTerrell Dunford, Ben Mayne, Tom Nelis, Chiara Trentalange, Bob Walton, John Schiappa, Rachel Stern, Chelsea Lee Williams), are exceptional in voice and movement. Kudos to Rae Smith (scenic & costume design), Mark Henderson (lighting design), and Simon Baker (sound design). Simon Hale’s orchestrations and arrangements of Dylan’s music are exceptional. Additionally, without Dean Sharenow (music coordinator) Marco Paguia (music director) Lucy Hind (movement director) the actors who played in the band (Todd Almond, Marc Kudisch, Luba Mason), and musicians Martha McDonnell, Mary Ann McSweeney, and others, the full impact of the production would be lessened.
Mirrors, the superb play by Azure D. Osborne-Lee, seminally directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser is currently at NEXT DOOR @NYTW. In the production Osborne-Lee examines how painful reflections that mirror hidden events from our past often pour out from our souls to impact our current lives. Though the events may be buried deep in our unconscious, they are ever-present to haunt us. However, if fate and truth have their way and we are open and flexible, these reflections of past events force themselves into a resolution. The truth that we may have feared, when confronted unfolds like a flower to encourage us to redeem our dark guilt and work toward achieving peace and contentment.
Azure D. Osborne-Lee weaves a profound tale of sorrow, memory and haunting in which the protagonist Bird Wilson (Suzanne Darrell in a wonderful performance) confronts what she views as a tragedy of her identity that she never really accepts until she reveals the truth to another. When she does this, ultimately she is able to free herself.
The play moves seamlessly from the present where we discover there has been a death, to the past that unravels the story of Bird’s love relationship with Belle. Throughout the arc of development, the play fuses both the past and the present and moves between the two worlds through flashbacks and flashforwards. And there is also the “other world” where resides the ghost that haunts Bird and eventually influences her to face a truth she has been suppressing. Only when Bird confronts the truth is the ghost allowed to return to a place of peace which Bird, too, achieves.
Because the play takes place in the sleepy town of Etheridge, Mississippi, in the summer of 1960, we note that this is the racist, Jim Crow South, where voting rights had not been established for individuals like the three African-American women. There, they are “separate but equal” in an “equality that is not only discriminatory, but is outright abusive. Despite this, in their strength and wisdom, they end up understanding each other in a fullness never achieved before by the conclusion of the play.
Not only were black women second-class citizens, at that time, they were expected to fit in to the rigid gender roles, and the mores of the African American culture. For the individual who does not fit in, they are discriminated against and treated as an outcast. This is particularly unjust for a woman of color to be rejected not only by the white race, but by African Americans as well.
For Bird Wilson, a gay woman who lives in her own house and works to support herself, to be like other black women is an impossibility. Rather than to attempt to slide into a world which is contrary to her choice of sexuality, she carves out a place for herself and adapts friendships and relationships to cohere to her life’s decisions. For example we discover that she enjoyed a deep, loving relationship with Belle. However, events happened that caused a separation. When Belle dies, Bird must take in Belle’s daughter and give her a home as well as attend to the funeral arrangements and wake which takes place in Bird’s home.
Osborne-Lee delineates Bird as a strong, vital and energetic woman who is willing to take in Alma Jean, Belle’s daughter and give her a home through this difficult period of time that Alma Jean is mourning her mother. Initially, we surmise that though Bird and Belle had been estranged after Alma Jean was born, in the goodness of Bird’s heart, she buries the painful past so that she might give Alma Jean the security and comfort she needs to overcome this chaotic time without her mother. However, theirs is no easy relationship. And Bird is unsettled, uncomfortable and upset with Alma Jean’s presence in the house which also elicits the spirit of Belle, who haunts Bird and watches her daughter’s interactions with her.
Ashley Noel Jones and Suzanne Darrell create an appropriate tension and division between the two women. And gradually we understand that Bird sees Alma Jean as a mirrored reflection of her mother Belle in her wildness, wanting to be available to her boyfriend Ray (Anthony Goss).
The symbolism of the mirror has a number of interpretations. Bird tells Alma Jean that the large mirror in Bird’s living room is one that Belle loved to preen in front of. Bird has covered it up as a part of the folklore of death and burial to allow Belle to pass to the other world. Later, it is this same mirror that Alma Jean breaks which stresses out Bird because she fears that Belle will not be able to achieve peace in the afterlife and thus, neither will Bird. So the mirror represents the soul’s reflections of events on earth which must be covered over so the spirit can understand it must go to the afterlife.
The mirror also represents that which reflects the truth and identity of the characters. Bird appears to believe that Alma Jean is a reflection of Belle with regard to men. Just as Belle solicited the attentions of men which upset Bird, so does Alma solicit the attention of the undeserving Ray. After meeting Ray, Bird is convinced that he is “playing” Alma Jean for a fool and she attempts to chide her into understanding Ray isn’t someone trustworthy to see Alma Jean as valuable. However, by the conclusion of the play, we understand that the reflection Bird sees in Alma Jean is something else entirely.
The mirror is only a reflection. It is not the substance of the truth. Cleverly, the symbol becomes a metaphor for something deeper. And only through Bird’s loving relationship with Louise (the marvelous Joyia D. Bradley) is Bird able to reconcile the substance of her life with Belle and the truth of her relationship with the resistant Alma Jean.
This is a dynamic and powerful production made all the more incredible and poignant by the performances of Suzanne Darrell and Joyia D. Bradley. Both actors wonderfully convey the love in Bird’s and Louise’s relationship. They infuse the caring closeness and unity between these two women who must walk the line of respectability carefully. Their expressions of love at the conclusion of the play are spot-on touching and authentic.
Ashley Noel Jones’ Alma Jean is troubled, annoyed and then accepting at the moment of Bird’s revelation. Her performance, well shepherded by Villar-Hauser is heightened by Osborne-Lee’s precise and detailed dialogue which Ashley Noel Jones infuses with emotional grist that parallels Belle’s. Thus, we see the connections between Belle and Alma Jean and how/why their behavior sets off Bird.
In spanning the worlds of memory, the spirit realm and reality in the flashbacks to Bird’s and Belle’s relationship in the past, Kayland Jordan as Belle manages to be serenely charismatic, lovely and stately. She is believable in her haunting presence, always watching and ” in the moment.” Her performance effects the mood of the play and conveys elements of magical realism with surreality. When Bird and Belle dance together, the moment is loving and we understand their closeness and why Belle responds to Bird in her extreme time of need.
Natalie Jacobs as Constance Jenkins and AnJu Hyppolite as Mabel round out the townsfolk as the town gossips and church busy-bodies. In such a community, they reinforce the strength and power of Bird’s character to live in her own identity in a town that is petty, judgmental and self-righteous.
Villar-Hauser’s vision of the Osborne-Lee’s play is one which is delivered with power and poignancy by her collaboration with the excellent actors and fine creative team. Kudos to Jamie Nicole Larson for her spot-on, specific and functional set design and Sabrina Bianca Guillaume for her wonderful, detailed costume design. Rounding out the team are Miriam Nilofa Crowe for lighting design and Twi McCallum for sound design. The latter designers really worked beautifully with the choral music in setting the somber tone. The selection of music and the singing was atmospheric and exceptional thanks to Ashley Noel Jones as music director.
This is one you should not miss. It runs with one intermission at New Door @NYTW on 83 East 4th Street until 22nd March. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
West Side Story based on a conception by Jerome Robbins with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein (orchestrations by Sid Ramin, Irwin Kostal) and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim is a groundbreaking classic that garnered awards when it opened on Broadway in 1957 to a flurry of praise and glory. Its overwhelming success continued when it was made into the 1961 titular film winning 10 Academy Awards. Since then it has seen numerous global productions and has been revived on Broadway twice in 1980, and in 2009 with Spanish lyrics and dialogue weaved into the English Libretto.
Once again in revival directed by the maverick sensation Ivo Van Hove (Network, The Crucible) and choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, West Side Story has proven its timelessness with Van Hove highlighting its immutable themes. Van Hove’s direction sounds these thematic notes with his stylistic tuning fork to ping the deepest chords of human nature with which we must identify, as he explores the mortal boundaries of love, tribalism, power, bigotry, alienation, fear, self-loathing and hatred.
Van Hove’s modernization of West Side Story should not be underestimated. He unravels the underlying perils of “the outsider” theme that resonate with currency for us today. He gives this principal conceptualization a novel rendering by employing video projection (video design by Luke Halls) and the “close-up” to elicit an intimacy and connection with the characters not readily available before. The intimate portrayals of the Sharks and Jets (delivered by close-up) as well as their objectified view that encompasses their using the entire stage, reflects the insider and outsider viewpoint. In the intimate view these individuals are young men, hurting, afraid, alone. In the outsider view they are non-human, throw-away people who have embraced the world of criminality and violence because that gives them a rush of comfort in power and identity that the culture denies to them.
For example in the Prologue we meet in close-ups the key players: Riff (the fabulous Dharon E. Jones) of the Sharks, Bernardo (his marvelous equivalent Amar Ramasar) of the Jets, and their gang members. We note their proud and stalwart personas; they could be CEOs of a company in another time and place. We see their branding, the combat gear of their identities: their piercings, their haircuts, the intricacy of their tattoos. And beyond that as the camera pans the two tribes, we note their sneering bravado, their violence and something else behind their staring eyes-perhaps fear.
These Prologue close-ups in real time, before the tremendous opening number of the stylized, vigorous fight sequence in which a Jet is injured, humanize the erstwhile stereotyped ethnicity of the “Puerto Rican” Sharks and their urban, mixed race counterpart, the Jets. They appear interchangeable. Van Hove’s enlightened casting suggests they are not bonded by ethnicity since there are black, white, Latino members in both gangs, but by inner necessity. They cling to their tribe out of fear, isolation, alienation and the trauma of cultural self-loathing, of being outside, of being the “other.”
We especially note the need to belong in the “Jet Song” which answers the call to be a part of something “bigger” than oneself, even if it is bloodthirsty and destructive. By extension, the Sharks are mixed race and indistinguishable from the Jets except that they “came” from Puerto Rico.
With the exception of a few scenes and songs where the backdrop is black and a rainy mist falls down to perhaps symbolize the eternal/immutable/spiritual, the video design-both live and pre-recorded prevails throughout. The events are streamlined and strengthened. The arc of development moves over a two-day period and falls into the resolution we all know is coming, but still remains surprising and poignant. The song “I Feel Pretty” has been excised and the cut gives the musical an edgier, less digressive, less whimsical feel, which the song conveyed almost as an afterthought. That song in particular is off tenor with Van Hove’s dark vision of this lurid, scary world the gangs occupy, a vision which messages the nihilism of impoverished youth/citizens in this time of Trumpism, I.C.E., Black Lives Matter, The Wall, all of whose memes appear at various and pointed junctures in the production.
Thus, we note how the Sharks and Jets attempt to gain a position of power through violence to carve out a place where they can feel safe walking and being. Certainly, in the video projection of dark, lonely streets, a stylized version of the threatening landscape in each of the gang member’s minds, it is revealed that fear surrounds them and they must posture and swagger and image themselves into courage while inside they are cowering children.
For the Sharks, carving out a plot of land is acceptance in the country that views them as trash. As the cast sings “America” and the exceptional Yesenia Ayala as Anita and Amar Ramasar as Bernardo vocally duel out their positions for or against the US, Van Hove’s projections are pointed and riveting. These encompass haunting images of a damaged Puerto Rico left ripped and forgotten after the negligent response of the US to Hurricane Maria. The projections represent the truth; the dance number and song reveals the courage of Anita to hope and the realism of Bernardo to highlight the discrimination and bigotry of third and fourth generation citizens against them. Throughout, Van Hove uses the projections in juxtaposition with the staging to encourage a novel understanding of how the inner person and their outer image operates. We see the two perspectives- the truth and a presentation of the image that is hoped will help one survive in a forbidding city.
The clips of devastation of Puerto Rico are inter cut with various related video clips, one of the final ones referencing miles and miles of the wall at the southern border. The wall is the everpresent reminder that outsiders/illegals are potential thugs and criminals, regardless of their status as asylum seekers, regardless of their status as US citizens. Of course the irony, as Van Hove’s striking version indicates, through the attitudes of Lt. Shrank (Thomas Jay Ryan) and Officer Krupke (Danny Wolohan) that both Sharks and Jets are the unwanted trash, not just the Sharks. That is why they struggle against each other to maintain “face,” and identity in their gang until they are dead and the soil they have struggled over that has rejected them is forced to accept their corpses.
The one group that is missing from this production which I never realized before is missing for a great reason: the dominant social class of conservative “haves.” It is this notably absent elitist tribe that has made the country a pressure cooker of rejection, a blight and a hard climb to the top of the lower middle class for both wandering tribes. It is this group that indirectly encourages tribalism as an answer for those who have little hope for the future and are made to feel as outcasts and criminals who belong in jail (“Gee, Officer Krupke”-the projections during this number are just spot-on).
The song sung terrifically by Action (Elijah A. Carter) and the Jets reveal they cannot escape from the dominant white culture’s prophecy about them as criminals. As they internalize the perspective of the dominant culture and law enforcement, their self-annihilation is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Though Action and the Jets tell the Officer to “Krup” himself, it isn’t enough. Their trajectory is fated and doomed, especially without mentors to guide them away from their self-loathing. That Tony and Maria become swept up in their misery unable to break completely free from their own posse and families is the tragedy we have come to hope against.
The director’s use of “larger-than-life” video shakes, stimulates, references and enhances the symbolism and profound human depth of the star-crossed lovers and their “posses.” The projections against the entire back wall of the stage sometimes in split screens of twenty portraits of gang members, sometimes in engaging medium shots of Doc’s drugstore (“Something’s Coming”) and the sweatshop (renamed from the bridal shop) where Maria and her friends work reveal the homely mores which Tony and Maria accept apart from the gang members’ identity and lifestyle.
I particularly enjoyed how the close-ups of Maria and Tony in the intimacy of their alone time after he discovers her name worked. First, both Shereen Pimentel and Isaac Powell are vibrant, passionate and in-the-moment, practically every moment. Van Hove’s staging and Powell’s rendition of “Something’s Coming,” and “Maria” particularly shine. Powell’s voice, interpretation and movement are uplifting. In “Tonight” he appears as light as a feather; it is, a full expression of the exhilaration of his love for Maria. I have not seen anything like his performance; he is mesmerizing reaching the highs, lows and devastation of believing that Maria has been killed. He is so there, he brings us there with him. Superlative! Magnificent!
Maria is bubbling over warmth, passionate in her love scene with Powell which was a videoed close-up which made total sense and was an expression of their intimacy as they become “one” and exclude the world they were born into and have decided to leave. Pimentel’s fury after Tony is killed is so convincing, she makes you believe she will shoot all of the guilty, conferring upon herself the roles of judge, jury and executioner, thereby convicting them of his death.
The projections carry the metaphoric journey of the outsider, the trash, the unwanted in a through-line of our time, of all time in the import of tribalism’s necessity in a culture that kicks these kids to the bottom and stands in the way of allowing others to find peace, love and happiness. This isn’t just about warring tribes; it’s about seeking power and domination, the easier, faster way out cultural hell than using intellect, logic and wisdom, the qualities amassed through experience, overcoming obstacles and time-worn trial and error.
The Sharks and the Jets, indistinguishable ethnically, are yet distinguishable through costume designer An D’Huys fine designs and color coordination. However, notable is that the Sharks and Jets are brothers of the same ethos who should be helping each other climb upward, instead of fulfilling the white culture’s perceptions of them as violent criminals. By the time we meet them in the video close-ups of the Prologue, we know it is too late. As young men and women, they have few tools at their disposal (wisdom-gained through experience) to thrive as they seek to establish who they are. After all, it is an alien society of adults who eschew them or culturally disavow what they are as tattooed, pierced, hoodlum criminals.
Sadly, their choices to achieve are few. They can either “die young in a blaze of self-annihilating triumph and leave a good-looking corpse” or live the defeatist life of a self-quarantined, cowardly wussy to avoid the gangs. In Ivo Van Hove’s production, sociocultural economic inequality encourages these tribes toward the genocidal thing to do. That Tony and Maria find each other and love is miraculous. The scene where Van Hove and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker stage the couples moving off together revealing love as an answer to the culturally encouraged nihilism and self-destruction is particularly touching and hopeful.
This version of West Side Story is a shining example of how structure, form, substance and profound understanding merges to make elevated art. Van Hove cleverly uses the projections and the live staging of the actors/characters in tandem; one informs the other, whether it is to enhance the symbols and themes, to emphasize the characterizations or to detail intimacy. What is communicated is remarkable and unforgettable. Coupled with the acting, singing, movement and the dance numbers by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker are filled with athleticism that is so appropriate to the characters. All of this contributes to making the production indescribable- breathtaking, stunning, gobsmacking are an understatement. And the music is luscious, gorgeous, fabulous, thanks to Jonathan Tunick (orchestrations) and Alexander Gemignani (music supervisor & director).
There is so much more. I’ll just finish with… I also loved the staging/choreography where Maria and Tony are striving to move toward each other pulling against the need of their tribes. The piled-on movement is gripping, sinewy, a tug of war that they will defy for they love each other. Wonderful. And at the end they are pulled apart heaven and earth dividing them until…
The creative team are exceptional artists: Luke Halls (video design) Tom Gibbons (sound design) An D’Huys (costume design). Also superlative are Quinn Matthews as video director, Eric K. Yue as director of photography, Taylor Shung as video producer, Jan Versweyveld for his scenic design and lighting design.
There is nothing else to state except you must see this production. It is an event that does more than entertain. It grabs your heart and makes you understand your humanity and compassion. West Side Story is at the Broadway Theatre (1681 Broadway) running with no intermission until 6th September. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Incantata by Paul Muldoon is an encomium, a memorial to American artist Mary Farl Powers, Muldoon’s one-time partner and forever friend who resides somewhere in the memories of his imagination. Written in verse that is rhythmic, reminiscent of the stanzaic form popularized by W.B. Yeats, Incantata, currently at the Irish Repertory Theatre until 15 March, has been fashioned by director Sam Yates and actor Stanley Townsend into a staged production that dramatizes the speaker’s lament, remembrance and praise of his former lover.
Muldoon’s forty-five stanza poem is a “quiet” elegy turned on its head; the speaker known as “The Man,” rages and rants, pivots and emotes poignance and sorrow that Powers did nothing to stem her lifeblood draining away, gnawed by breast cancer which caused her untimely death. For indeed, in her perspective it was “pre-determined.” The Man doesn’t detail the specifics of why she thought this, only that she believed that the cancer might be treatable with alternative therapies. For her, these treatments did not work. Indeed, her death was determined by her own hand by not going for mainstream medical treatment which The Man believes could have saved her.
To bring Muldoon’s fervid poetry into a staged monologue, director Sam Yates shepherds Stanley Townsend with actions that appear to be organic and intrinsic to Powers. She was essentially a print artist who also worked in cast paper and paper sculpture. She mentored other artists (non printmakers) to bring their work into the mediums of etching and lithography. She helped to found the Graphic Studio.
Before The Man-Muldoon’s poetic speaker (Stanley Townsend) takes the stage, we note an artist’s studio where his/her works hang, prints cascading down in repeated patters of various colors. Until The Man picks up a potato and carves it out and employs it to create his colorful artistic patterns, we do not realize that the massive pile of red-skinned potatoes on the far corner of the studio opposite the artist’s wall of work has anything to do with creating the prints which hang there.
Through Townsend’s felt authenticity and live, on-stage printmaking, Yates staging, and the use of live camera projections which focus on “The Man,” or becomes a stand-in for an objective Powers who bestows her criticism, always there is a florid pouring out of raw emotion. In his soul grief, love, and too many emotions to categorize because they are not neatly rendered or subdued by logic, we gauge the impact of Powers on The Man’s life. Townsend’s and Yates’ collaboration yields an intriguing, enthralling and ever-present, moment-to-moment happening that is emotional art and equivalent to myth-making.
To symbolize Powers’ artistic endeavors and the nature of art’s power to heal and effect the transference of love, Townsend’s The Man actively creates prints using a potato cut, instead of a woodcut. He produces a multicolored series of duplications of form comprising prints from each show. First, the potato’s use is fascinating. It is also referenced in the poem: a “potato-mouth,” that “mouth as prim and proper as it’s full of self-opprobrium.” This reference moves in a refrain to references of the lazy, indolent character Belacqua in Dante’s Inferno and by extension to Samuel Beckett’s stories employing the character Belacqua. The Man, Muldoon’s speaker “crouches” with Belacqua, and then in an extrapolation to Beckett’s Pozzo and Lucky of Waiting for Godot attempts to discern what is, in fact, unknowable.
Such are the characteristics of Townsend’s “Man” who attempts to reason with himself about Powers’ fateful decision and blames her for it, yet wonders at the courage or fatalism of it. Perhaps it is a miserable turnaround because by rejecting treatment that may have saved her, Powers deprived the world of her additional art and her teaching presence at the Graphic Studio.
With this evocation of Powers (her vitality helped to establish the Graphic Studio Dublin and drive it from its basement inception to a huge warehouse) not even the memories and reminiscences can be pinned down. Much of their time together in Dublin and Belfast remain elusive fragments. Evanescent phrases are the moments in time that Muldoon/The Man had with Powers consigned to memories of “great big dishes of chicken lo mein and beef chow mein” and of “what’s mine is yours and yours is mine.” Of “all that is left” of their life together, he lists in a series of things they did, places they went, and flowers they saw, like oxlips and cowslips that had personal, intimate, visual meaning.
How does one even codify into a magical intoning, the essence of another human being and represent with words the relationship that resulted from the ephemeral bonds of love, remorse, argument, and the creative fountain of artistic impulse that the relationship engendered? One puts it on stage to dramatize it. Incantata has found its home in the drama.
Muldoon’s speaker, The Man, infused with Stanley Townsend’s riveting performance remains an incantation to Power’s art, and to art, and the creative impulse that manifests in the arts. That manifestation is born and borne of suffering and is as simplistic, revelatory and symbolic as a bird picking up a “strand of bloody wool from a strand of barbed wire in the aftermath of Chicamauga or Culloden” most probably to use it to build a nest. By referencing two bloody battles, Chicamauga, the second bloodiest battle of the American Civil War and the battle of Culloden where the British quelled the Jacobite uprising, The Man reveals that in the extremis of pain and death, art can be birthed to bring healing and new life, or as Muldoon/The Man aptly states, “a monument to the human heart that shines like a golden dome among roofs rain-glazed and leaden.”
Townsend’s enlivening performance, succinctly directed by Yates brings Muldoon’s incantation of love, death, remorse, mourning, art and the creative impulse which seeks to heal to a striking dramatic iteration. This is a production which bears seeing a few times because of Townsend and because of the richness of the poem’s language, which I had the good fortune to examine.
Special kudos go to the following creative artists who helped stir the pot into its enchanting evocation: Rosanna Vize (set & costume design) Paul Keogan (lighting design) Sinéad Diskin (sound design) Jack Phelan (video design) Teho Teardo (composer).
Incantata is in its U.S. premiere on the Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage at the Irish Repertory Theatre (22nd St. between 6th and 7th). It runs with no intermission until 15th March. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
What do William Butler Yeats, John Millington Synge, Sean O’Casey, AE, George Bernard Shaw, George Moore and Katharine Tynan have in common? Their initials are carved on a tree growing on the property of Coole Park, Gort, in County Galway, the estate Lady Gregory inherited after the death of her husband Sir William Henry Gregory.
That is just one of the tidbits told by the spirit of Lady Gregory (1852-1932) who inhabits the production Lady G: Plays and Whisperings of Lady Gregory currently at the Irish Repertory Theatre until the 22nd of March. Written by Lady Augusta Gregory with additional material by Ciarán O’Reilly and directed by Ciarán O’Reilly, the delightful production reveals the life and times of one of the venerable, wry-humored progenitors of the Irish Literary Revival and co- founder of The Irish Literary Theatre and the Abbey Theatre with William Butler Yeats and Edward Martyn.
The production stars Úna Clancy as the lively and candid Lady Gregory who fills out another role in Lady Gregory’s play “McDonough’s Wife at the end of Act II. James Russell portrays a variety of roles and is the humorous Mike McInerney in Lady Gregory’s, “Workhouse Ward” and the Sheep shearer in “McDonough’s Wife.” Russell is erudite and reserved in his portrayal of the philosophical literary genius, poet, playwright William Butler Yeats. And he is the kindly, avuncular Sir William Gregory who was Lady Gregory’s senior by thirty-five years.
We learn they had a son Robert, the pride of their lives whose death Robert mystically foreshadowed in a dream which his cousin also mysteriously had. He died during WWI in a play crash in a death which his mother like any devoted mother never could reconcile easily. Sir William Gregory attempted to practice noblesse oblige for the suffering Irish people under his care at a time when it was least appreciated. And his actions Lady Gregory implies were mischaracterized and reshaped to satisfy another agenda.
Terry Donnelly of the lyrical voice, spot-on authenticity and versatility portrays Anne Horniman friend of the literary lights who helped fund the Irish National Theatre Society. Terry Donnelly also portrays Mary Sheridan, Lady Gregory’s influential, native-speaking Irish nanny who teaches her about the history and folklore of the area. Donnelly constantly surprises with her characterizations as Honor Donohoe in Gregory’s “Workhouse Ward,” and portrayals of Widow Quin, the Narrator, Marian and the character of the Hag 1 in “McDonough’s Wife.”
John Keating rounds out this exceptional ensemble with versatility and humor portraying notaries Wilfred Blunt, Edward Martyn, John Quinn, George Bernard Shaw and Sean O’Casey. He is hysterical and nuanced as Michael Miskell the down-and-out companion of Mike McInerney who wheedles McInerney to remain in impoverishment when he might have stayed with his well-off sister Honor Donohoe (Terry Donnelly). And he is the poignant and raging McDonough who returns from his journeys to discover that the townspeople have eschewed his wife as an “outsider.” Their rejection is particularly loathsome because she dies in childbirth and no one in the xenophobic community wishes to join together to memorialize her passing or help bury her. Dark are Lady G’s themes of bigotry, alienation, shame and guilt in the revelatory “McDonough’s Wife.”
The personification of the Irish literary greats and the effect of their productions (the story of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World is particularly acute and ironic) is fascinating. Their discussions reveal the history of the period memorably with gusto. Gregory’s emblematic presence delivered with good will by Clancy makes the narrative of Lady Gregory’s life ring with truth.
This production is many things: a historical encomium, a mini-revival of Irish playwrights, an affirmation and revisiting of that vital Irish literary renaissance in the early twentieth century and beyond. Importantly, it is a celebration of a woman who accomplished much for Irish theater and cemented the connections between Ireland and the United States, something which Americans need to be reminded of.
The added material by O’Reilly with Lady Gregory’s own words from her autobiography and published journals and from insightful articles by professors and researchers into the amazing time, O’Reilly cobbles together thoughtfully and humorously. The actors enliven the true to life artists, but O’Reilly’s narrative spoken by Gregory with various quotes from real personages coheres dramatically so that the audience remains engaged.
Critically, O’Reilly adds the two productions written by Lady Gregory which reveal her breadth and scope from humorous dialogue and conflict in “The Workhouse,” (finely engendered by director and actors) to the reality of the isolation and xenophobia of the the community where “MDonough’s Wife” takes place. The drama of the latter reflective of the bigotry of isolated communities regarding anyone from another social spectrum i.e. their inability to embrace with Christian grace “the other” has currency for us today. Gregory hit upon a strain of the human condition that is pernicious and seems everpresent despite the hope of religion to expurgate it.
I thought the set was functional and symbolic; the dark green walls with nooks and crannies was where actors sat in character waiting to add their portrayals to the grand stew that was being created. Seamlessly, the set afforded them the opportunity to don costumes secreted there so that they could quickly step into the 22 roles the four actors portrayed with authenticity. The inclusion of the tree with the famous initials of Yeats, et. al and the music, lighting and sound effects added to the production’s appeal.
Clancy’s natural rapport with the audience is expertly directed and developed. The idea to incorporate Lady Gregory’s ritual practice of distributing a Barm Brack to her cast and the audience was fun. The cast distributed the Barm Brack (the delicious fruitcake was moister and less adamantine than the one my Irish-American aunt made) to us. It was a perfect treat after the humorous, ironic conclusion of “Workshouse Ward,” at the end of Act I.
This production is a gem and I do think that educationally it needs to find an audience because of its revelations and historical grist regarding Irish literary history. Above all it is a memorialization and celebration of Lady Gregory, her works, her amazing friends. And, if you like, you may consider taking a trip to the West Country of Ireland to visit Coole Park. There, you will still see the walled garden and “The Autograph Tree” with the initials of Sean O’Casey, William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, John Millington Synge, AE and others, and be able to imagine a time when these writers enjoyed a unique camaraderie and received sustenance for their souls in a little piece of heaven on earth.
Noted are the creative team: Charlie Corcoran (set design) David Toser (costume Design) Michael O’Connor (lighting design) M. Florian Staab (sound design).
Lady G: Plays and Whisperings of Lady Gregory runs with 1 intermission at the Irish Repertory Theatre’s W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre (22nd St. between 6th and 7th) until 22nd March. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
In Anatomy of a Suicide written by Alice Birch directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, the playwright examines suicide’s ancestral relativities between and among mothers and daughters. Underlying the developmental arc and structure of her complex play, Birch examines many questions. Two which appear to pertain the most directly are the following. What is the likelihood that a mother’s depressive, suicidal personality may be inherited as part of the familial DNA passed down through generations? If a mother commits suicide, what is the likelihood that her daughter will be unable to overcome the death impulse to follow her mother’s example, unconsciously nurtured by her mother to that end?
Currently running at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater, Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2018. Indeed, her approach to the topic is structurally unique and worthy of the tremendous efforts of the cast and director to reveal the mysterious bond between mothers and daughters that moves them in the direction of soul immolation.
Birch displays three generations of mothers and daughters: Carol (Carla Gugino) her daughter Anna (Celeste Arias) and Anna’s daughter Bonnie (Gabby Beans) on stage concurrently in real time. She unwinds their characters until they reach their apotheosis. They exist in different decades in the 20th and 21st century but appear before us in the present. Each mother anticipates the depressive ethos of her daughter in some of her interactions with others: spouse, friend, family.
Birch sets these three components of the depressive state in each character on stage simultaneously with their ancestral counterparts by defying the space/time continuum. As each character depicts her own manifestations of her condition, sometimes the dialogue overlaps repetitively as if a time warp occurs and you are allowed to see how the mother has impacted the daughter in the future (i.e. how Carol impacted Anna). Usually, Birch features a key vignette with one character while the other two draw inward. For example while Anna has a scene with a doctor, Carol is occupied in an action, i.e. cutting apples, smoking, etc. and Bonnie is involved in her own action. When their dialogue overlaps and there is a synchronicity of time and space, a still point of connection occurs.
Birch uses this structure of simultaneity, rhythmic dialogue, repetition and overlap to stimulate the audience’s dissection and analysis of the characters. Perhaps it is to understand how suicidal depression in the case of this family leaps genetically (?) telepathically (?) from mother to daughter without knowing the etiology of each woman and specifically how or if such a transmission occurs. Birch depicts Carol’s, Anna’s and Bonnie’s depressive, addictive and emotional isolation in events unique to each and not in chronological order, but always simultaneously. However, though we see the symptoms and reactions which are the tip of the iceberg, we never know the rationale why these women are suicidal because it is unknowable. It is unconscious. Thantos, the death impulse exists in each of us, as does eros, the life impulse. Why does one overcome the other in these women is not what concerns Birch. That it is there in this family group is enough to investigate and atomize.
For Carol and Anna the suicidal impulse is acute at the outset of the play. Carol’s husband John (Richard Topol) confronts her about her bandaged/sliced wrists and her thoughtful accommodation for him to have enough dinners for a week or so, which she has cooked and frozen for him to thaw out after her death. Such premeditation is crystal clear; she has thought about what she will do and planned for it, yet she tells John everything is “fine.” Later in her segments the evidence mounts and we understand why “it is fine.”
For his part, John confronts her with great passivity, an element of her depressive state she perhaps wishes to conclude with finality. Divorce would not be final enough, we learn in a subsequent later vignette that is companionable to a simultaneous event with Anna and Bonnie. Nevertheless, John is frightened, yet incompetent to handle her. Through various scenes he cannot read her or cogently, effectively deal with her flattened affect that hides the dark abyss within. Carol’s various scenes unfold tied not to a time order but to a thematic familial order with her daughter Anna and Granddaughter Bonnie who demonstrate their own angst: Anna in her relationship with her spouse Jamie (Julian Elijah Martinez) and Bonnie in her interest and relationship with Jo (Jo Mei ).
A telling event occurs during Carol’s pregnancy and after baby Anna is born. We and John understand that she will never have another child; sex is not pleasurable and she is only staying in the marriage to raise their daughter. Each vignette reinforces Carol’s intense emotional interior trauma that Carla Gugino’s brilliantly flickers to the surface through the character’s strained, straight-lipped smile, wooden responses and modulated, refined voice.
What happened to her, to Anna, to Bonnie? Why are they depressed? Does the historical cause matter if it is genetic, a brain disorder or some other causation that is beyond the kin of the medical profession? Interventions are tried to no avail: shock therapy, perhaps rehab for Anna for her drug addiction. Nothing works. No human interaction satisfies to stem the death impulse.
We realize Carol is fine when she succeeds in achieving her goal in life. By the end of her scenes (she is staged on the far left as the progenitor mother of depression in the 20th century) we come to understand why Carol responds as she does to John that she is “fine.” Her mind is made up. She has planned and most probably will continue to plan and justify her suicide to herself because her pain is relentless, without limit, infinite as long as she is in her body. Thus, when we finally learn that she has killed herself, it is anti-climactic. The same is not true for Anna who, in her vignettes, gyrates between anxiety and calm, hyperactivity and peace with husband Jamie.
Regardless, Birch blindsides us and Carol’s and Anna’s spouses with their suicides to end the roiling hell within. For Carol we know it is coming, yet when we hear of it surprisingly tucked into a conversation, we remember her memorial to herself, “I’m fine.” Anna’s suicide is as Anna is, dramatic.
At the outset of the play when Carol and John have their discussion about Carol’s suicide attempt and she affirms she’s “fine,” Celeste discusses with a doctor friend (Vince Nappo) the necessity for an injection in a frenetic insistence to charm him. The doctor knows what she wants and ignores her despite her lightening responses and “hail good fellow well met” justification for it. Her heightened state, during which she discounts how she broke her arm, is like an episode of rapid recycling in a bi-polar disorder patient. In their synchronized scenes, obviously, both women display warning signs that they are ripe for suicide, but in their own personalities and iterations which are antithetical.
Perhaps, Birch posits one clue for Carol’s and Anna’s dark intentions and eliminates it for Bonnie. Carol’s and Anna’s intolerable misery is exacerbated when they become pregnant and have their daughters. Does this symbolize the end of their lives? Indeed, Celeste’s nihilism appears even greater than Carol’s and her commitment to killing herself happens in hyperbole part of the up/down of her life that Birch reveals is her nature. On the other hand Bonnie solves the problem of mother/ daughter suicidal ideation carried to her through an inherited gene pool. A doctor, Bonnie makes a canny choice about relationships and doesn’t put herself in the position of her grandmother and mother. But perhaps she is her father’s daughter, not her mother’s. Again the etiology is never clarified, not that it should be.
The play intrigues with the everpresent present of three women in the same family reflecting how they respond to the unchanging underlying death impulse as it manifests with synchronicity in Carol, Anna and Bonnie over time, yet also with different and particular iterations based upon each individual woman. Staged simultaneously across three time periods, we think we can understand the suicidal threads in these characters and especially that Bonnie doesn’t physically move a hand against herself.
At times refocusing which vignette to watch to break through the overlapping dialogue was challenging. However, the uniform superb acting drew out the sequences appropriately and the pacing of the dialogue was letter perfect so that the key lines to be repeated resonated with rhythmic precision.
The set whose three walls are painted a green-blue color and beset with complementary plants appears vibrant on first inspection. However, the wash basin in Carol’s space which looks like those in a doctor’s office with the high curving faucet, and a bathtub with similar faucet in Anna’s space convert the set toward the clinical and sterile. This is so despite the ensemble bringing in tables to suggest dinners with friends and other activities.
The set puts one on notice that this will not be a typical play about suicide with its recumbent, empathetic emotionalism. This will be as unique as the title implies and a detached, observational approach will be employed. Indeed, as we follow Birch’s presentation and the director’s shepherding of a truly superb cast, we become like scientists viewing, as if under glass familial fault-lines that break the family. It is an empty exercise and we are no closer to understanding another element of a mysterious anti-life position of human beings: the urge, necessity, the repeated will in some families, in this play mothers and daughters, to end their lives.
By the end of the play, we remain detached. Such detachment about the most violent act one can take against oneself is frightening. But the play encourages objectification for a reason. Objectification in our culture contributes to feelings of isolation. Being or feeling “the other,” not belonging, not communicating in a felt empathetic way to bridge one’s “aloneness” in pain are states of misery. Yet, for these mothers to put their daughters in that state indicates they were hopeless. It is the height of objectification, not having empathy for oneself to live to the next day. Birch’s work enlightens and devastates.
Noted are Mariana Sanchez (sets) Kaye Voyce (costumes) Jiyoun Chang (lights) Rucyl Frison (sound) Hannah Wasileski (projetions) Tommy Kurzman (wig, hair & makeup).
Anatomy of a Suicide runs at the Atlantic Theater Company (336 West 20th) with no intermission until 15th March. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
‘Chekhov/Tolstoy Love Stories’ at The Mint Theatre, Two Masters’ Perspectives of Love, Adapted by Miles Malleson
“One of the most diversified talents in the British theatre,” Miles Malleson (1888-1969) was enamored of Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov, who had formed a bond in the latter years of their lives; Chekhov, the younger pre-deceased Tolstoy, the elder by six years–Tolstoy died in 1910. Admiration of these two great Russian writers inspired Malleson to create theatrical adaptations of short stories by Tolstoy and Chekhov. From Tolstoy’s parable “What Men Live By” Malleson adapted Michael. From Chekhov’s “An Artist’s Story,” Malleson configured The Artist.
The Mint Theatre Company has featured Malleson’s plays before (i.e. Unfaithfully Yours) considering Malleson to be a playwright worthy of recalling to our social theatrical remembrance. In the first offering of the season, The Mint has coupled the British playwright’s dramatic adaptations of Chekhov’s and Tolstoy’s one acts because their themes relate to love. In The Artist, directed by Jonathan Banks, Chekhov via Malleson ironically presents romantic love that never has the opportunity to blossom and rejuvenate, but is cut off before its time. In Michael directed by Jane Shaw, Tolstoy via Malleson uncovers truths related to the nature and power of agape love. The Mint Theatre Company’s production of Chekhov/Tolstoy Love Stories is currently at Theatre Row.
Presenting The Artist and Michael back-to-back offers the audience the opportunity to examine how each of the plays evokes themes about love, spirituality, redemption and revelation. Additionally, one identifies the contrasting social classes represented by the setting and characters of each one act. Each play identifies the perspective of the writers who were interested about what was accessible to the Russian social classes. Tolstoy, a nobleman often wrote about the worthiness of the lower classes who are represented by the characters in Michael. On the other hand Chekhov, whose grandfather was a serf, centered his greatest works on Russian gentry on the brink of an era of change (The Russian Revolution).
In keeping with Chekhov’s proclivities, The Artist takes place on a Russian estate run by a fine, elevated family of women who are intellectual and well regarded. These include the Mother (Katie Firth) and her two daughters. The elder daughter is the teacher Lidia (Brittany Anikka Liu) who is heavily involved with helping improve the status of the peasants. The youngest is the teenage dreamer Genya (Anna Lentz). An artist Nicov (portrayed by Alexander Sokovikov) visits often and the play opens as he paints his landscape while he interacts with Genya who listens to his philosophical justification of the importance of art over social reformation of the peasant class. Nicov and Lidia who represent antithetical views, argue continually. Thus, Nicov finds Genya’s unformed, youthful attentiveness an entrancement over Lidia’s disparagement of the useless function of Nicov’s art.
The characterizations of Nicov and Genya are reminiscent of Chekhov’s characters from his full-length plays, absent the conflict and tensions inherent in Chekhov’s full formed works. Malleson’s characterizations in The Artist are lukewarm and superficial. There is little heat and light as their should be when Nicov argues with Lidia to set up the drama and tension when he expresses his justifications to a sympathetic Genya with whom he falls in love and who returns his love.
The low-key tension and conflict of Malleson’s characterization is not helped by the lackluster performances. The spark of fire between Genya and Nicov that prompts the sardonic ending and Nicov’s felt and empathetic loss is missing. Nicov’s rant as delivered by Sokovikov is telling; Sokovikov does much of the heavy lifting with authentic responses from Katie Firth. Brittany Anikka Liu as the caring and forceful teacher/reformer in conflict with Nicov should be brighter, more ironic. Their interplay could even be darkly humorous. However, the love between Genya and Nicov is not believable. Thus, the impact of the Chekhovian sardonic ending is rendered impotent.
Michael directed by Sound Designer Jane Shaw, making her directorial debut, employs more fluid light and music as the setting reverts to a peasant’s hut and the characters sing. The backdrop shifts. In The Artist, it is a painted tree filled with autumn leaves, signifying the season and symbolism of Nicov’s waning years. In Michael the design becomes the long, intricate white roots (interestingly lighting by Matthew Richards) of the tree. The symbolism of the lower classes is perhaps being suggested. It is the underclass (the tree’s roots) that supports and is the lifeblood of the middle and upper classes (the trunk, branches, leaves). Without the roots of the peasant class from which all humanity has derived, the upper classes can’t be sustained.
In Michael, the conflict arises when a homeless beggar (Malik Reed) is brought in by Simon (J. Paul Nicholas) and the wife (Katie Firth) must decide whether he should stay or be thrown out because they have barely enough for themselves and Aniuska (Vinie Burrows). The decision is made to let him stay. The scene shifts to a year later. We see the family is being sustained by Michael, the beggar who does not speak because he works as a cobbler for the peasant family. When a Russian Nobleman (Alexander Sokovikov) arrives and requires boots, the circumstances change. Michael makes a mistake with the boots, but it turns out to be a prescient action. That evening his learning is complete and finally Michael reveals who he is, why he is there and what he has learned about pity and empathy which is agape love. It is what we should live by.
The performances in Michael adhered more completely. Reed’s performance was soundly delivered undergirded by the ensemble. Malleson’s adaptation of the Tolstoy short story provided more dramatic tension and mystery. The staging and props added interest to engage the audience more completely, along with Oana Botez’s variable costuming, i.e. the nobleman’s coat and hat contrasted with the peasants’ outfits.
The pairing of the two one acts by the Russian writers who were contemporaries via Malleson is an enlightened decision if imperfectly rendered. It is the landed gentry in The Artist who remain unfulfilled by love, in effect harming the artist. They deprive him of rejuvenating love, and negatively impact his purpose to bring uplifting pleasure with his art. In Michael, the affirmation of the goodness of the peasant class (a Christian precept in the Beatitudes) is brought to them by Michael. He shares with them the wisdom that they have received through empathy/pity. It is the vitality of agape love that will sustain them.
In contrasting the two classes, the landed gentry is much worse off than the peasant class, a notion that Nicov suggests to Lidia to no avail. Lidia is convinced that (as in later years during the didactic polemic of the revolution) reform is imperative, art is useless. Meanwhile, the reforms and revolutions as they came did great harm which persists (one might argue) to this day. On the other hand making art is a necessity for the middle and upper classes to help them understand empathy and love, something the blessed poor, according to Tolstoy, are ready to receive and do take in as,the very potency which sustains them.
Chekhov/Tolstoy Love Stories runs until 14th March at Theatre Row (42nd Street). For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Listed are the creative team: Roger Hanna (sets) Oana Botez (costumes) Matthew Richards (lights) Jane Shaw (original music and sound) Natalie carney (props).
What happens when Jewish orthodoxy and strict mores find intermarriage with someone of another faith verboten? Depending upon the orthodoxy of the Jewish community, this may be a serious issue. Cleverly, Cary Gitter, under the superb direction of Joe Brancato, keeps the difficult elements of love between a single Catholic woman and divorced, Orthodox Jewish man at bay in the lively, well-paced, delightful The Sabbath Girl currently at 59E59 Theaters. The production presented in its New York City premiere by Penguin Rep Theatre runs a slim 85 minutes with no intermission.
The romantic comedy’s tone and tenor skirts the dramatic in the opening scene when Nonna (portrayed exquisitely by Angelina Fiordellisi) visits with her beloved granddaughter Angie (the adorable Lauren Annunziata). Nonna checks on Angie to see how she is adjusting to her new apartment. In the process as is her custom, she chides Angie about not being in a love relationship. Angie assures Nonna she is a “modern woman,” perhaps a bit of a feminist. And she insists she doesn’t need a man to make her happy. She has her budding career, which encompasses her waking moments and keeps her busy. We note that Angie is ambitious, industrious and smart, especially since she intends to translate her success into even greater achievements.
Thus begins the theme of traditionalism vs. modernism framed by familial relationships. Gitter expands the themes around this conflict during the course of the play. With humor and irony, she drives the arc of the plot neatly and swiftly to a satisfying resolution.
An additional conflict in Angie’s life centers around the men she encounters as potential love interests. Throughout the play, when her Nonna visits to examine how her “love life” is going, Angie sweetly dismisses Nonna’s “traditionalist” suggestions about falling in love with the “right person” and hearing the “music of love” in her soul. Angie’s feminist bent is to negotiate and affirm her own definitions of what affection, love and marriage might be for her life. Gitter’s characterization of Angie also includes that she is rebounding from a failed relationship where her former boyfriend lied and cheated on her. In other words if she will become involved with someone, he will have to convince her he is unlike the cad she was with.
The first man she encounters is Seth (Jeremy Rishe) an Orthodox Jewish gentleman who discovers his former Shabbos goy has moved and Angie is now his neighbor. A Shabbos goy is a Yiddish term for a non Jew who is asked by Jews to perform actions that are forbidden to them on Saturday, the Sabbath, i.e. turning on lights, electrical devices, etc.. Seth explains to Angie that his other neighbor was his regular Shabbos goy. Since Angie is his new neighbor, he asks her to turn on his air conditioning. They share a few insights and he leaves. However, Seth, who, too, is recovering from a bad relationship can’t get Angie out of his mind.
For her part Angie is uninterested in Seth because there is someone else on her horizon with whom she has art in common. This man is the awesome and cool Blake (Ty Molbak) an artist that Angie wishes to exhibit in her gallery, but who is holding out for the best offers from galleries in the city. Blake wears dark glasses to fuel his image. He manipulates Angie and claims that she will have to “woo” him before he exhibits in the gallery.
Nonna, like a fairy godmother who is gentle, funny and sweet, guides Angie and encourages her against Blake and toward Seth. Of course our own weaknesses sometimes lead us to be enamored of individuals who will hurt us, and reject others for whom we are well- suited. Angie is initially attracted to Blake and assesses that Seth is not her type and his religion is a barrier which she is not interested in climbing over.
How the playwright turns these developments on their head becomes the focal point in the action, with complications added by Rachel (Lauren Singerman) Seth’s sister after Angie begins to return Seth’s interest in her. Rachel is another aspect and voice of traditionalism. But unlike Nonna, hers is predicated not on love, but on fear. On the one hand, she wants her brother to move on with life after his divorce and dismiss the recriminations he feels against his parents who forced a marriage on him that he lacked the courage to prevent. Yet, traditionally, she believes Seth should be with a nice, safe, Orthodox Jewish girl, and she has the right woman for him. Furthermore, Rachel’s interference in her brother’s life is rather witchy. She discourages his interest in Angie and encourages him to return to his community in Riverdale that he moved away from prompted by the negativity and depression of his divorce.
Another complication is Blake’s facade of unreality. It masks his troubled nature and his doubts about where he is going with his art. Ultimately, when he is unmasked, his artistic ambivalence and his relationship with another woman deep six his moving forward with Angie as a love interest and as an exhibiting artist. It appears that despite Nonna’s good will, cheerfulness and her advice to Angie about hearing the music of love, her granddaughter is going to be alone. Indeed, both Seth and Blake turn away from her.
This is no spoiler alert. You will just have to see this endearing romantic comedy to discover how Gitter resolves the conflicts and discovers answers for those who are bound by traditions whether self-imposed or externally imposed by cultural mores that perhaps are less stringent than one might imagine. One has only to test the boundaries of love to understand whether such external mores enhance living as they are supposed to, or nullify it which runs counter to love. Also, one must reject the traditionalism of believing if love failed once, it will fail again because one is incapable of finding it. Sometimes, love arrives in the most surprising ways.
The ensemble brings home the laughter seamlessly and the jokes centered about being Jewish and Jewish men are particularly hysterical. For the staging (set design by Christopher and Justin Swader) boxes are employed to suggest Angie’s apartment, Seth and Rachel’s Knish shop, the gallery and more. The presentation is supplemented by apt video projections and music between various scene changes in an interesting, fanciful way. The props that serve to key in changes in the development of Angie’s relationship with Seth and Blake are well appointed and symbolic.
Gitter’s themes about love transcending internal and external traditions are important reminders in this social time of divides: progressive vs. reactionary. By the end of the play, Angie learns that Nonna was more progressive than Angie thought she was because of Angie’s inflexibility about relaxing her perceptions of men. Likewise, Rachel is taught a lesson by her brother and learns to relax her own inflexibility as Seth begins to hope his life will turn away from despair.
Kudos to the creative team who brought Brancato’s vision of Gitter’s humorous play to the stage: Christopher & Justin Swader (scenic designers) Gregory Gale (costume designer) Todd O. Wren (lighting designer) Matt Otto (original music/sound designer) Yana Birÿkova (projection designer) Buffy Cardoza (properties).
The Sabbath Girl is just what is needed to brighten our hearts and spirits during the doldrums of February. You may see The Sabbath Girl at 59E59 Theaters (59E59th St. between Madison and Park) before it closes on 8th March. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice based on the Columbia Pictures film written by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker, with music by Duncan Sheik, book by Jonathan Marc Sherman and lyrics by Duncan Sheik and Amanda Green is a lightly satiric, musical comedy, with mellow, soulful music. The production, like its titular film counterpart, hearkens back to an easier time before AIDS, STDS, the debacle of the Viet Nam War and the cultural stresses afterward, when the country faced chaotic divisiveness that was not easily answered by later political administrations.
Directed by Scott Elliott, the production is a delight with adorable actors portraying the thirty-something married couples Carol (Jennifer Damiano) and Bob (Joél Pérez), Ted (Michael Zegen) and Alice (Ana Nogueira) who try to redefine themselves according to the hot pants, younger generational trends which tout the rejection of binding sexual mores and strictures.
This was the time of open marriages, when free love was being embraced as revelational. Various generations either looked askance in horror or savored the sex with hallucinogens and weed. So instead of rotting in aging and being left behind, Bob and Carol take a break from the kids, go to a New Age type resort, and embrace the “new” concepts of this inner freedom and tranquility.
Bob and Carol begin the arc of the story development and conflicts after they return from their growth experience at the retreat (like Esalen) led by the director (who is also the band leader) portrayed by Suzanne Vega. The experience “opens” them up to a new world of freedom using the techniques we have all come to know today (meditation, primal screams, intense feeling expressions, etc.).
They return home believing that the experience translates into their daily lives by allowing them to understand their values, their “ethos,” and their capacity to break away into new experiences. Of course one of the most important is extending the boundaries of their marriage and expanding themselves to include acceptance of their partner’s actions whatever they may be. Bob initiates this extension by having sex, in an unfaithful act, which surprisingly Carol accepts and answers with one of her own. Both affirm, “It was just sex, not love.”
For Ted and Alice who essentially watch and don’t indulge, their learning is vicarious, but they can’t move beyond the boundaries of their own morals and sensibility of love. They judgmentally remain within the strictures of their marriage vows and monogamy. The contrast between the two couples is telling: here are the liberals and the conservatives. But beneath each conservative heart is the quest to be liberal. And in this production, it is no less so.
As you watch the events unfold and empathize with the characters along their journeys of self-discovery, you can’t help but fall a bit in love with them. They are so cute in their questioning searches as they soldier on to their discoveries with quasi-comical seriousness. Watching liberal couple Bob and Carol explore the outer limits of love and marriage, extramarital affairs, infidelity, sexuality and enlightened contrast between love and sex, we are along for their ride because it is neither shocking nor lustful, nor pornographic. It just is.
Considering what has transpired between then (1969) and now, the perniciousness of sexual plagues and wildness of Studio 54 that gave rise to them, which followed the “free love” generation, by comparison, these couples are sweet neophytes. The production mirrors this laid-back pleasantness in mood and tone delivered by Sheik’s balancing music, sung with fluidity, smoothness and grace by Grammy winner Suzanne Vega, and with melodic lyricism by the ensemble.
The characters’ “new” sexual endeavors infuse the production with the mild raciness of the 1969 film. The original which spawned a later TV show was a comedy satire about the cultural mores transformation. A success at the box office, it did have Oscar-winning nominations for the actors who played Ted (Elliot Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon).
Overall, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is a retrospective and homage to the the culture and class who merely dipped lightly in with their toes as they approached the swirling currents of social change. They accomplished just enough to stimulate themselves, then slid back into their comfort zones measuring their lives with coffee spoons as they dabbled with introspection.
Sheik’s music and the ironic Suzanne Vega as band leader, “mistress of ceremonies” reintroduce for our time a derivation of pop’s easy listening. As the overarching guiding light of threaded musical commentary, Suzanne Vega’s lilting, sensuous voice reveals these four characters as she editorializes their journey beginning with Bob and Carol’s stay at the retreat and their “enlightened” return when they share their enlivening experiences with their conservative friends Ted and Alice.
But as the bonds between the couples loosen, the audience becomes intrigued. Ted and Alice warm up to their friends’ “exploits.” Bob and Carol appear sophisticated, cool and free in their “open” marriage. The men and women separately sing about and discuss their sexuality and their spouses which leads each to consider their lives with their partners. The songs eventually reveal that each couple is inspired to reaffirm their love for each other.
But we know what’s coming: “monkey see, monkey do”! Humorously, the two couples push the envelope by spending a night together in the bedroom with interesting results. Ultimately, they discover the vitality of loving one individual with intimacy and true spiritual bonding which can only happen when each member of the couple reveals that they are vulnerable and need help to receive the intimacy and beauty of love from their spouse.
The production works on many levels and is just what is needed at this time and place in a tumultuous social and political fabric that is too frightening to contemplate and whose nightly news and snarky, edgy, social and cultural reports are the antithesis of entertainment. Thus, the concept of “the open marriage” which Bob and Carol investigate with Ted and Alice with the quips and satiric jokes laced in with clever writing by Jonathan Marc Sherman’s book becomes a relief.
There is no heavy lifting here, nothing more profound and mysterious than how and why we fall in love with each other which is a wonderful “thing” to contemplate. It is this that engages us and immerses us with this throwback to another time. And as we contemplate and review this historical retrospective of the social and cultural mores of that time, we also enjoy the costumes and the California dreaming liquidity of the music so we are able to ride on the waves of the production’s serenity.
The ensemble and director have established the right tenor for the comedic elements. And Sheik’s music is subtly, appropriately emotional as the characters search themselves and each other to understand the mysteries of love.
Special kudos to Kelly Devine’s musical staging and to the following creatives: Derek McLane (scenic design) Jeff Mahshie (costume design) Jeff Croiter (lighting design) Jessica Paz (sound design). Additional kudos to Duncan Sheik for the orchestrations, Jason Hart for music supervision, vocal arrangements and additional orchestrations and Antoine Silverman for music coordination.
The New Group’s presentation of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice runs with no intermission until 22nd March. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.