Category Archives: NYC Theater Reviews

Broadway,

‘Invincible,’ Theater Review, 59E59 Theaters

Alastair Whatley, Emily Bowker, Invincible, 59E59 Theaters, Brits Off Broadway

Alastair Whatley and Emily Bowker in ‘Invincible’ at 59E59 Theaters, as part of the Brits Off Broadway 2017 season (Manuel Harlan)

Invincible currently at 59E59 Theaters is a tour de force written by Torben Betts, directed by Stephen Darcy with original direction by Christopher Harper. Presented by The Original Theatre Company and Ghost Light Theatre Productions, it is one of 59E59 Theaters Brits Off Broadway offerings this season.

Playwright Betts selects a mundane situation of neighbors being introduced to the neighborhood and spins it gyrating with turns that by the end of Act II career the audience into a ditch of shocking displacement and surprise. However, life cannot be all fun and games and ridicule, especially when there is a severe economic downturn and one is forced to downsize and relocate away from a tony London lifestyle as Emily and Oliver have to do. Indeed, we cannot anticipate what lurks around the corner of ourselves and especially behind the closed doors of our neighbors with whom we may have little in common.

The class divide of education and economics, conservative and liberal/radical Marxist views form the casual backdrop of a disastrous few meetings between two neighboring families in a North England suburb. We are first introduced to the educated Marxist Emily (Emily Bowker is superb as a high-strung feminist who peels away the layers to reveal a seething emotional depth) and liberal-minded, posh, near-pro cricket player Oliver (Alastair Whatley gives an exceptional performance as the initially weak-willed, accommodating partner) as they argue about not getting married.

Emily abhors bourgeois, middle-class mores that stultify relationships. She will not even consider pleasing Oliver’s sickly mother before she dies. Their assumptions that solidify the basis of their rant are largely humorous. However, Betts injects enough clues for us to eventually realize that Emily’s fears are more than Marxist chic and she is attempting to deal with inner guilt and pressure. The seemingly good-natured, innocent-looking Oliver, who has pedaled along beside her for four years keeping his mother in anticipation of their marriage has grown weary of making excuses. We find their exchange ironic in the extreme; usually the woman wants the big marriage and party. This is not who Emily is and once more, though his mother would be happy to see them married before she dies in a few months, she will not get her dying wish because of Emily’s strident inflexibility.

Elizabeth Boag, Alastair Whatley, Invincible, Brits Off Broadway, 59E59 Theaters

Elizabeth Boag, Alastair Whatley in ‘Invincible’ part of the Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters (Manuel Harlan)

On the contrary, their neighborly couple the sexy, uneducated Dawn (Elizabeth Boag in a stunning portrayal of  developing emotional cave-ins) and boorish, football-lover and postman Alan (Graeme Brookes is the believable, noxious lout whose kindness and love sustain and comfort) appear as if they rushed to embrace the cultural folkways of marriage, children, a family lifestyle so they could follow their parents unthinkingly into the grave. The couples could not be more disparate, and as Alan proclaims his love for his favorite football team and beer, we understand that Dawn and Alan are apparently shallow flag waving conservatives who mindlessly uphold blue-collar assumptions and chase them down with “bring their own” beer, when Oliver and Emily tell them they eschew alcohol and have none to offer.

Betts, the director and actors unfold the fireworks gradually. They also drop lightning bolts upon us when we least expect it. The arc of the play develops keeping the tensions fluid and random. We are not privy to the usual rants of liberal vs. conservative. The couples attempt to be neighborly by avoiding dangerous subjects. And the playwright stays away from conservative cant, though in the first part of the play, Emily’s Marxist diatribe to back off Oliver’s marriage plans for his mom’s happiness is funny.

Graeme Brookes, Elizabeth Boag, Invincible, 59E59 Theaters

Graeme Brookes, Elizabeth Boag in ‘Invincible’ at 59E59 Theaters (Manuel Harlan)

When the couples face off against each other with awkward friendliness during a pleasant evening, the divisions between their differences of education and lifestyles creep forward. Underneath are boiling emotions in both families when the characters drive toward each other to reveal their passions. For Alan, it is his cat Vince (Invincible) whom Emily and Dawn dislike, Emily principally because the cat is a killer and no creature is safe in Vince’s dominion which is everywhere. Talkative Alan also discusses his paintings which are hysterically child-like and so amateurish, we wonder why he bothers not to take the painting lessons he sorely needs. However, he believes the paintings of Vince are special.

We know the first dive into the ditch cannot be prevented when Alan persists in his demands that the talented Emily (her paintings have been priced at around one thousand pounds), provide her true opinion of his work which he proudly shows as we cringe, albeit with laughter. After coaxing her, Emily gives her critique which is hysterical. The loutish, jabbering Alan quiets himself into a sulk and his ire reveals an annoyance that runs deeper as he attempts to defend the great sensitivity behind his awful work.

It is a mistake that Oliver attempts to defend Alan. Emily explodes about the importance of truth and their waste of an evening of banal conversation instead of discussing the “Western powers behaving like psychopaths, forever sending misguided, ignorant soldiers to murder innocent civilians in illegal wars!”

Alan and Dawn’s son is doing just that and the remainder of the evening drills out the undercurrents which have divided the couples all along. Alan defends their son’s heroism to protect their freedoms so Emily can “paint her pictures and have all her clever opinions.” In effect he is lambasting her for being chic, unthinking and hypocritical. Dawn tells her she needs to “have a quiet little think about that.” As Dawn and Alan storm out, Emily, Oliver and the audience are left to the silence of their own souls.

Emily Bowker, Graeme Grookes, Elizabeth Boag, Alastair Whatley, Invincible, 59E59 Theaters

(L to R): Emily Bowker, Graeme Brookes, Elizabeth Boag, Alastair Whatley in ‘Invincible’ at 59E59 Theaters (Manuel Harlan)

Betts has initialized the themes by the end of Act I which he completes in Act II. Because of their night with Alan and Dawn and Dawn’s parting remarks, Emily and Oliver confront their griefs. It is then we discover why Emily and Oliver have sworn off liquor, why Emily has immersed herself in radical politics and why Oliver puts up with her mood swings, stresses and odd demands. It is then we understand that Dawn is unhappy with who she is and how she measures up. One night with Emily and Oliver has transformed Alan’s and her awareness of self and goals.

The exchange has been revolutionary; the characters’ personalities change by the play’s conclusion. There has been a convergence. Which couple benefits the most is debatable. Betts reveals that Oliver and Emily have the makings of the wealthy, sleazy and corrupt conservatives they used to decry. Alan and Dawn have been devastated into perhaps turning from the warmongering they once embraced and sent their son off to partake of. And as the latter two confront a devastation, we can identify with the love, forgiveness and care that Alan, whom we once deemed loutish, gives Dawn. Heroism comes in many shapes and forms, sometimes initially unappealing ones.

Betts has manipulated us cleverly to look at our own humanity and the humanity of those with class perspectives and behaviors precisely counter to our own. Themes of flexibility, empathy and tolerance are in the forefront of this production which reveals the fickleness of human nature when circumstances change. Stephen Darcy’s excellent direction and the tremendously effecting performances by the actors in this strong ensemble piece, reveal Invincible to be a complex, thought-provoking production which examines the best and worst of our prejudices and attitudes and the strength of human character required to be truly invincible in the face of loss.

You can see Invincible which has one intermission and is running at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street) until 2 July. You can pick up tickets if you click HERE.

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‘Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie,’ Theater Review

David M. Lutken, Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie, Irish Repertory Theatre, Woody Guthrie

David M. Lutken in ‘Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie,’ at the Irish Repertory Theatre (Carol Rosegg)

Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie, devised by David M. Lutken with Nick Corley, Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein is an entertaining and poignant evening of music and story-telling. The production directed by Nick Corley with music direction by David M. Lutken, orchestrations and vocal arrangements by David M. Lutken, Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein, presents the life and work of the monumental musician and singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, whose work resonates for all Americans especially so when citizens feel they are powerless in the face of injustice.

With his ballads, political, traditional folk and country-blues songs and stories, Woody Guthrie chronicled the lives of Americans in the first half of the 20th century. He traveled across the country living with the little people with whom he identified and became a call sign. He recognized that the “salt of the earth” were the backbone of the nation squeezed by the banking industry and Wall Street. He sang of their economic tribulations and deprivation, their struggles through the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era which led to the California migration and the abuses of migrant farm workers by farm conglomerates such as they were at that juncture in our history.

David M. Lutken, Helen Jean Russell, Megan Loomis, Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie, Irish Repertory Theatre, Woody Guthrie

(L to R): David M. Lutken, Helen Jean Russell, Megan Loomis in ‘Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie,’ Irish Repertory Theatre (Carol Rosegg)

Above all, he uplifted and encouraged that, “This land is your land, this land is my land…” With these words many were able to gather their forces, unionize and create movements to strengthen and consolidate their efforts in the struggle for economic equity.

Guthrie was the “Dust Bowl Troubadour” and advocate, whose songs excoriated the wealthy and their puppet politicians of both parties as the root of the farmers and little peoples’ hardships and evils. Though he flirted with communism and socialism and even wrote the column “Woody Sez” for the Communist paper People’s World (which appropriately is the title of this production) his music was his primary vehicle to uplift and exhort. He never joined any party and preferred to roam freely, always an observer and chronicler more than a participant who supported any one political cause. His cause was that of all of humanity. This production of Woody Sez highlights the finest and most endearing turning points in his life, always revealing the complexity of his nature in its most humorous, glorious and flawed states.

Megan Loomis, Andy Teirstein, Helen Jean Russell, David M. Lutken, Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie, Irish Repertory Theatre

(L to R): Megan Loomis, Andy Teirstein, Helen Jean Russell, David M. Lutken in ‘Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie’ at the Irish Repertory Theatre (Carol Rosegg)

Act I starts with the Company’s singing “This Train is Bound for Glory.” It is an appropriate  memorial of the journey of Guthrie’s glory that the actors/singers/musicians  (stirring performances by Megan Loomis, David M. Lutken, Helen Jean Russell, Andy Teirstein) lead us through to understand the beauty and humanity of Guthrie. In a relaxed, down-to-earth performance style, Lutken assumes the persona of Guthrie first by introducing himself as one who venerates Guthrie. He becomes Woody through episodic narration as he relates the key points of Guthrie’s life and the songs that reveal major themes and issues Guthrie experiences.

The production structure is essentially a flashback of his life. It is framed by Guthrie’s time in New York City in 1940 with Guthrie’s stint on a radio show at Rockefeller Center which a friend helped secure for him. The first scene includes the ensemble. They portray various roles throughout the production: Megan Loomis, Andy Teirstein, Helen Jean Russell. Guthrie (Lutken) sings one of his political songs on the radio which ridicules the wealthy. We are introduced to Guthrie’s freedom-loving personality. He is incapable of compromising his values, his dreams, his autonomy to tow the conservative line and accept censorship of his politics and criticism of Wall Street bankers and old J.D., the scion of Rockefeller Center. When Guthrie is fired, we are transported to the past to envision how Guthrie became that revolutionary individual.

Helen Jean Russell, David M. Lutken, Woody Sez, Irish Repertory Theatre, Woody Guthrie

Helen Jean Russell, David M. Lutken in ‘Woody Sez,’ Irish Repertory Theatre (Carol Rosegg)

Guthrie/Lutken discusses that he was born in Okemah, Oklahoma. We are introduced to his mother and siblings in song, the ensemble filling in the roles. We learn of the family’s troubles and the tragedies they faced with his mother’s evolving illness. The narration is simple yet heart-breaking and is also chilling. The ensemble and Lutken backdrop the prose with the dynamic of themed songs that are powerful and touching.

Guthrie’s journey continues through their impoverishment and his resilience attempting to “sing for money” during the boom town years when oil was discovered in Okemah. But their family situation worsens with death and more tragedy and eventually Guthrie strikes out on his own as a teenager discovering who he is and what he is made of. He travels to Texas to see his relatives and Dad. He sings in a makeshift band with his uncle and makes some money and even gets married.

Megan Loomis, Helen Jean Russell, Andy Teirstein, Woody Sez, Irish Repertory Theatre, Woody Guthrie

(L to R): Megan Loomis, Helen Jean Russell, Andy Teirstein in ‘Woody Sez’ at the Irish Repertory Theatre (Carol Rosegg)

But the April Dust Storm of 1935 overwhelms, and all is lost in a country that has been consumed by dust and sand. Everyone’s bank accounts are fallow as the bankers come for the land to pay off the farmers’ debts. Once again Guthrie travels, hopping a freight to California where he sees thousands of Americans traveling across the country. Their hopes and dreams of survival must be found at the precipice of the country’s Pacific Ocean border  in California, the new Eden. After that, there is nowhere else to go.

By the end of Act I, Guthrie’s young eyes have been opened, and his political discernment solidified. Life and success are about money which the working man can never obtain without credit and which gamblers seem to be luxuriating in despite their craven, wanton existence of selfishness. It is an ever-recurring theme throughout the production, threaded through various songs.

Helen Jean Russell, Woody Sez, Irish Repertory Theatre, Woody Guthrie

Helen Jean Russell in ‘Woody Sez,’ Irish Repertory Theatre (Carol Rosegg)

In Act II Guthrie has gained notoriety as a voice of the people. By this point he has accepted his identity that this is where he belongs as their advocate and more importantly, a mirror to validate their experiences as human beings who must never lose their power in hope. This time of American farmer migrants is represented in such songs as “I Ain’t Got No Home”  “The Ballad of Tom Joad” (sung throughout the production), “Vigilante Man,” and “Union Maid” the last two based on true stories which reveal the oppression of the working class against the businessmen owners and the violent abuse they sustain when they attempt to assert their rights as human beings to obtain a living wage through organizing unions.

It is in this act that Guthrie’s legacy takes flight. He sings with Pete Seeger’s group The Almanacs and uses his voice and guitar to fight Hitler during WWII with a sign on his guitar, “This machine fights fascists.” The emphasis is on fighting fascism at home and abroad to support peace with songs which ring loudly and clearly against American and foreign war lords who would sacrifice their countrymen to make money. He records various songs and though he copywrites his music, he encourages others to sing his songs, even without paying him. This has led to controversial copywrite wars up to the last decade and represents a rapacity that Guthrie would abhor. As the production winds down to the conclusion, we discover how Guthrie’s music and recordings triumph despite his being rendered silent by the same illness that engulfed his mother. The production reminds us of this iconic man and helps us appreciate the wealth of historic moments captured for all time by his songs.

Irish Repertory Theatre, Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie, Megan Loomis, David M. Lutken, Woody Guthrie

David M. Lutken, Megan Loomis in ‘Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie,’ Irish Repertory Theatre (Carol Rosegg)

With a minimalistic set and adaptive, flexible staging, the ensemble brings together their sterling musical skills on every string instrument that rings out Guthrie’s country, folk, blues from violin to banjo, from guitar to harmonica and more. The performers’ voices soar with the haunting melodies and joyful rhythms of 20th century Americana that have been taken up by everyone from Bob Dylan to Billy Bragg.

The production reveals why tributes are continually held to honor Woody Guthrie’s music and life. His work is imminently universal and timeless. He is a beacon for future generations as long as economic injustice blankets any area of the planet. Indeed, as this production of Woody Sez thematically indicates, “the chickens have surely come home to roost.”  A researcher in 2016 discovered in the archives of the Woody Guthrie Center in Oklahoma that Guthrie criticized Fred Trump, father of President Donald Trump, revealing his disgust with the father as a landlord. In song lyrics, Guthrie accuses Fred Trump of stirring up racial hate “in the bloodpot of human hearts.”

Guthrie’s words will continue to reverberate in our hearts and minds. The injunctions in his songs are a welcome anodyne to get us through the next day or over a rough patch to eventually take the stand necessary in our own lives and for our culture and nation.

This fine production of Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie (one intermission) runs at the Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd) until 23 July.  You may purchase tickets HERE.

‘The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein’ Written/Directed by Edward Einhorn

Alyssa Simon, Jan Leslie Harding, Mia Katigbak, Grant Neale, Untitled Theater Company No. 61, The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein, Edward Einhorn

(L to R): Alyssa Simon, Jan Leslie Harding, Mia Katigbak, Grant Neale in Untitled Theater Company No. 61’s presentation of ‘The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein,’ written/directed by Edward Einhorn at HERE until 28 May (photo Richard Termine)

Ingenious, maverick writer Gertrude Stein, and Alice B. Toklas, her lifelong partner, lover, muse, editor, general manager, cook, confidante and keeper of the Stein legacy, were a magical, ex-patriot couple who lived together mostly in Paris before, during and after the two World Wars. Their amazing relationship is the scintillating focus of Edward Einhorn’s The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein presented by Untitled Theater Company No. 61 at HERE in New York City. 

This production is Einhorn at his best; he directs with stylized precision leaving a flexible openness for the various portrayals of Gertrude Stein (Mia Katigbak in a forceful, pointed reckoning), Alice B.Toklas (Alyssa Simon’s sweet vulnerability and innocence is heart-breakingly beautiful), Pablo Picasso (Jan Leslie Harding is ironically magnificent as she imbues the self-important Picasso, his wife and mistress and others with edgy humor), and Ernest Hemingway (Grant Neale’s portrayals are a laugh riot; his Hemingway is hysterical, a veritable bull in a china shop). As each of the characters announce who they are pretending to be (Stein pretends to be Toklas, and Toklas Stein, etc.), we understand the confluence of identity, persona, public and private image which must be doubly so for those who become famous.

But where does the pretending lead and can it ever end? For Stein and Toklas their public lives were partial pretense governed by the culture. Their private lives still involved pretending, but it was fun and farcical; it is what brought them together as they exchanged their beings and, like water, flowed in and out of each other’s souls.

In The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein, four actors play over thirty characters of artistic renown who flit in and out of Stein’s and Toklas’ salons: Ernst Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Thorton Wilder, T.S. Eliot, artists Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, George Braque, mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead and composer Virgil Thompson to name a few. Each of the actors hits their mark with marvelous, in-the-moment-truth, as they shepherd these renowned personalities (demur Toklas stayed in Stein’s public shadow), into the light of consciousness. We enjoy how the actors have materialized these artistic anointed in living color before us. It is clear that each actor has invested their full personal stake in their portrayals, making for a masterwork through Einhorn’s clever direction, that will not easily be forgotten.

Alyssa Simon, Mia Katigbak, Untitled Theater Company No. 61, Edward Einhorn, HERE

(L to R): Alyssa Simon, Mia Katigbak in Untitled Theater Company No. 61’s presentation of ‘The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein’ written/directed by Edward Einhorn at HERE until 28 May (photo Richard Termine)

Einhorn has cobbled together these portrayals from the writings of Stein and Toklas (The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Stein, Everybody’s Autobiography by Stein, Wars I Have Seen by Stein and What is Remembered by Toklas). He presents a light-hearted, whimsical, funny and yet incredibly profound examination of love, being, identity, identity cloaked in the fabric of love and marriage, and interconnected consciousness.

Einhorn’s work also encompasses the philosophical and psychological conundrums of these two women who were decades ahead of the social culture which probably helped them achieve a timelessness in their writings that resonates today. As Einhorn reveals in the first act, they are suited for one another in the hyper comings and goings of their friends whose company all enjoy together. Why wouldn’t they be married? Why not, indeed? Where one leaves off, the other begins. Love fuses their identities into one, a Biblical conceptualization despite the grossly limited, hypocritical judgment of clerics who only frame marriage via male and female gender (then, now?).

Throughout the play, despite the joyful tone and exuberance of the first act in light of the coming realities of the second, underlying cultural biases are intimated. Confined by history, Stein and Toklas can only move so far in their cultural sphere and consciousness to meld with others. Thus, even for liberal Paris, theirs is an intimate private wedding; they are joined in matrimony under the chuppah. Outside of this comforting love relationship, Catholic dogma and bias prevail. So they invite artistic friends who are loving and accepting of a consciousness-expanding event. So what if Stein’s brother Leo is appalled; (how this is framed is humorous). He is invited anyway and Stein ironically clarifies just what it is that he dislikes.

With characteristic chauvinism, Hemingway’s reaction to their lesbianism is typically macho; it is what we imagine Hemingway did say. And it is incredibly funny. Likewise, are the events of their meeting and companionship and salons, as we journey with Stein and Toklas through wedding preparations and the revolutionary  event itself. Their marriage is an ebullient occasion with a hysterical love scene afterward which crowns their love on their wedding night.

Mia Katigbak, Grant Neale, Alyssa Simon, Untitled Theater Company No. 61, The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein, Edward Einhorn, HERE

(L to R): Mia Katigbak, Grant Neale, Alyssa Simon in Untitled Theater Company No. 61’s presentation of ‘The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein,’ written/directed by Edward Einhorn at HERE until 28 May (photo Richard Termine)

But the worm does indeed turn in Act II. There is money and success and fame and more pretending, which is very real. The couple negotiate the intensity of these events with Stein in the forefront as the genius and Toklas as the handmaiden of her lover’s greatness. However, as Toklas ironically refers to the geniuses who interact with Stein, we realize it is the greatness of Toklas to be Stein’s “second.” And considering what type of ethos it takes to be “the second,” the playwright implies perhaps she is not “the second,” after all, though in public life she remains an afterthought. What is paramount are the bonds of love that tie.

The second half is also playful and farcical, however, Einhorn has the undertones converge and break the surface. In the finality of the play’s last segment, Toklas shares her heavenly dreams and the reality that followed her life after Stein dies in 1946. The play is indeed about public and private image, secret lifestyles, fear of “the other,” narrow-mindedness, paternalism, gender exclusion and so much more, that to attempt to nail down additional themes would do their infinite variety an injustice.

Alyssa Simon, Untitled Theater Company No. 61, The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein, Edward Einhorn, HERE

Alyssa Simon in Untitled Theater Company’s presentation of ‘The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein,’ written/directed by Edward Einhorn at HERE until 28 May (photo Richard Termine)

Nevertheless, as Alyssa Simon’s Toklas holds the stage and expresses the great difficulties she has when her life with Stein is obviated by Stein’s family, we know she will remain stalwart with her love of Stein and their relationship firmly held within her consciousness. As she relates this, Simon is breathtaking. We identify with her matter-of-fact tone but feel an immense pain that their relationship, as fertile and productive as it is, was social anathema.

Einhorn has a ball unspooling Stein’s and Toklas’ intense, intimate love as it impacts the journey of their lives to their marriage ceremony, to Stein and Toklas’ final reconciliation to live without each other when Stein leaves this plane and moves (in Toklas’ mind), to the heavenly ethers. Powerful and entrancing is Einhorn’s poignant characterization of their embracing relationship as they extend great good will toward artists of all stripes and sanctities, and extend that good will toward us with this celebration of their marriage, which finally has achieved an enlightened, whimsical and beautiful acceptance in New York, thanks to the playwright.

Kudos goes to the production team. The setting, Einhorn and his team create with clever, minimalism: one sofa, a few chairs, a white wall with hanging, empty picture frames that have a symbolic presence and impact in the last segment of the play when they are removed. The period costumes finely enhance. They reflect all the personalities and are well thought out. The costumes of the greats who drop by and share heady discourse with Stein and Toklas are humorous; they reflect the signature accessories the luminaries have become associated with. The lighting is irrevocable and finely done as Toklas stands with the shadows of their former life dissolving behind her.

That Stein and Toklas were intriguing and one-of-a-kind lovers, incited energy and thrilled their friends, the masters and geniuses of cultural creation at the time. Einhorn suggests this with nonsensical dialogue in some sections which stirs import about the identities of Toklas and Stein who have found their soul-mates and cannot live adequately without each other. When Stein moves on, Toklas must somehow manage to sparkle furtively still in the shadow of Stein’s blinding legend, unable to be fully appreciated for who and what she achieved together with Stein (until this presentation).

What is particularly engaging in the production is what Einhorn’s dialogue twits about Stein’s and Toklas’ salons, yet signifies their vitality and wild creativity. In a way they fueled a realm of consciousness, depth and artistic enlightenment that few artists can conjure up today, except perhaps in a channeling session.

Einhorn’s sumptuous dishing up of Toklas’ and Stein’s iconic world and their dynamic and inimical relationship leaves one considering. His take on these women and the “larger than life” denizens of historical, cultural fame who magnify their relationship enthralls with uncanny beauty. The artful interactions are seasoned with a dash of whimsy, a pinch of surreality, a soupcon of delight, huge scoops of humor, and handfuls of the fantastic. And for dessert we receive a measure of poignant reality which, in the midst of our enjoyment, startles, mesmerizes and settles truth into our souls. Wow!

The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein is at HERE until 28 May. This is one you won’t want to miss.

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‘Buried Child’ The New Group Production Starring Ed Harris and Amy Madigan

Ed Harris, Paul Sparks, Sam Shepard, “Buried Child,” Scott Elliott, The New Group.

(L to R): Ed Harris and Paul Sparks in Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child,” directed by Scott Elliott, Off-Broadway at The New Group. Photo credit: Monique Carboni.

Secrets are the bricks that layer the foundations of family histories. Such secrets may serve as supportive bonds to keep a family together through trials and catastrophes. They may spur families to create protective walls against a foreboding and nullifying social order. They also may imprison family members in a bottomless well of pain. What is hidden often then develops a dark, spiritual life of its own to create havoc until family members finally confront its reality.

Sam Shepard’s profound, Pultizer Prize-winning tour de force Buried Child is The New Group’s new production directed by Scott Elliott, currently at The Pershing Square Signature Center. It explores the devastation when what lurks underneath becomes an implement family members use to hack at each others’ souls. As they provoke one another and stir up whirlpools of misery, what has been concealed is eventually unearthed and they must confront the fear of its loathsomeness. Only then can they employ their strength to either reconcile with the past and heal, or die.

Paul Sparks, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Sam Shepard, Buried Child, Scott Elliott, The New Group

(L to R): Paul Sparks, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan in Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child,” directed by Scott Elliott, Off-Broadway at The New Group. Photo credit: Monique Carboni

At the outset, we are introduced to the paterfamilias, Dodge (ironic name choice), sitting on the sofa as if he occupied this space without purpose and there is nowhere else for him to go. Dodge (Ed Harris) is nearly invisible.

Certainly he melds into the shabby interior of the house and the worn furniture. Except for the occasional cough and accompanying sip of whiskey from a bottle he hides under his blanket, we wouldn’t notice anything significant about his presence until he converses with his wife Halie (Amy Madigan), who is upstairs getting ready for an outing. Their exchange becomes funny when Dodge mocks her pretensions and her suggestions, i.e. for their son Bradley to cut Dodge’s hair, which Bradley always butchers. Dodge’s wit and clever personality indicate that though he may now appear to be down-and-out, he once may have been a man to be reckoned with. He well plays the role of nagged husband, tolerant of Halie’s persistent, shrill commentary about everything from the weather to son Tilden, who makes his entrance soon after Halie tells Dodge to take his pill.

The brilliance of this play is in its suggestive, interpretative aspects; it is opaque and ambiguous, yet clearly sounds a bell of alarm. Characters present bits and pieces of information like a reversed puzzle. Truths slip in and out like whispers. Unveilings abide in the off-beat comments and actions of Tilden (a terrific Paul Sparks) and Bradley (the fine Rich Sommer), and in the contradictions posed by Dodge about the past and present. Glimmers of light reveal key themes about the flawed nature of human beings and their unsatisfying relationships, of the oppressiveness of fearful secrets that are not allowed to be uttered or expurgated, of the resulting soul sickness that chokes off vitality.

As Shepard brings this family to us through their conversations and clashes, we divine the background story, of a brokenness that overwhelms all of the sons and Dodge, and of a protective, hard lacquer that glistens from Halie’s persona as she steps quickly through time without looking to the right or left and especially not into the past.

Rich Sommer, Taissa Farmiga, Paul Sparks, Buried Child, Sam Shepard, The New Group

(L to R): Rich Sommer, Taissa Farmiga, Paul Sparks in Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child,” directed by Scott Elliott, Off-Broadway at The New Group. Photo credit: Monique Carboni.

Tilden, once an All-American halfback, is child-like, dense, withdrawn: these may be weaknesses caused by that “trouble in Mexico” a while ago. The obstreperous Bradley was careless with a chainsaw and chopped off his leg.

Bradley’s movement “to go far” has ended; he must wear a prosthetic device to go anywhere. The most promising son, Ansel, died in the military, and Halie, who meets with inoffensive, smarmy Father Dewis (Larry Pine) to discuss the placement of his statue in the community, brings the priest in for tea and stirs havoc. Clearly, Halie has sought religion to stave off the darkness.

Shepard’s writing is precisely rendered. He wanders his characters through a filtered catastrophe that they have long suppressed. Their meanderings with each other are filled with humor, thematic layers, poetry, and symbolism. The dramatic action is interior; when Tilden, Bradley, or Halie appear, disappear, and interact, the molecules have been stirred, the atmosphere changes, and tensions strain. There is the sometimes gentle, sometimes antagonistic sparring among the four. And Dodge is central; he grounds all who enter and leave with brusque ease. He is the family linchpin, and only he will be able to exhume what sickens in all of them when the time is ready.

Paul Sparks, Ed Harris, Rich Sommer, Amy Madigan, Larry Pine, Buried Child, Scott Elliott, Sam Shepard, The New Group

(L to R): Taissa Farmiga, Ed Harris, Rich Sommer, Amy Madigan, Larry Pine in Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child,” directed by Scott Elliott, Off-Broadway at The New Group. Photo credit: Monique Carboni.

That Dodge ignores the signs of the times is an irony. When Tilden brings in freshly picked corn cobs (a heady symbol) that he proceeds to shuck, Dodge stubbornly claims that the corn which Tilden says has been growing out back cannot be real, even though Tilden cleans the corn and throws the leavings on him to prove it. When Tilden later brings in carrots, we begin to realize the momentous symbolism. Tilden’s wisdom is bringing a form of truth to bear on the family, a truth long overdue. And eventually, with the prompting of grandson Vince’s girlfriend Shelly, Dodge embraces the signs and reveals why the fields may have produced in abundance.

Shepard’s grand metaphor of the harvest, sown in the past and now ready to be picked and enjoyed, is spiritual, interpretive, and surreal. It is a harvest seen and recognized by some in the family and not others, much as truth and circumstances are perceived and interpreted individualistically. Shepard combines this metaphor with an even greater one, a human embodiment of the harvest in the characterization of Vince (Tilden’s son whom no one initially acknowledges or seems to remember), and his girlfriend Shelly (Taissa Farmiga is appropriately sharp and intrusive), whose curiosity eventually prompts Dodge to reveal that which has been rotting the foundations of their family relationships and particularly Dodge’s soul.

Buried Child, Sam Shepard, Scott Elliott, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Paul Sparks, Rich Sommer, Taissa Farmiga, Larry Pine, The New Group

(L to R): Taissa Farmiga, Nat Wolff, Ed Harris in Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child,” directed by Scott Elliott, Off-Broadway at The New Group. Photo credit: Monique Carboni

That Vince (a portentous and dangerous Nat Wolff) and Shelly appear at precisely the right moment when the crops are ready to be harvested is a singular mystery answered by the play’s conclusion. Dodge finally discloses the secret of the fields and acknowledges that he is no longer afraid; it is then that the reckoning comes. Shepard emphasizes in Buried Child that there indeed is a season for everything. And regardless of whether we want to acknowledge it, the ripeness of fulfilled truth eventually is visited on a family, though it may skip a generation or two.

This is a magnificent production, prodigiously acted by the ensemble cast and brilliantly conceived, staged, and designed by Scott Elliott and his team. The production throbs with tension. The undercurrents vibrate throughout. Above all the character portrayals balance evenly to create a living portrait of the poignancy of human families.

Ed Harris resides in Dodge with sustained concentration and moment-to-moment precision, even as the audience shuffles in and fumbles around for their seats (before the play begins). Harris embodies the character’s rough-edged, blunt and ironic persona and it is difficult to take one’s eyes off of him. His seamless sliding underneath Dodge’s skin is without equal. Amy Madigan as Halie is his perfect counterpart, striking and glorious one moment and in the next shrew-like and high-pitched as if stretched to the point of breaking.

Indeed, Elliott has guided this cast into taut perfection; Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Paul Sparks, Taissa Farmiga, Rich Sommer, Nat Wolff and Larry Pine would not be as alive in their characters as they are if the balance and the pressure were not tuned to a proper pitch by each actor’s work.

Buried Child is beyond memorable. It is is one for the ages. The New Group production runs until April 3 at Pershing Square Signature Center.

 

Commedia dell ‘Artichoke: A Pizza/Theater Combo You’ll Love

Carter Gill, Pulcinella, Commedia dell 'Artichoke, Gene Frankel Theatre,

Carter Gill  in Commedia dell ‘Artichoke at the Gene Frankel Theatre. Photo courtesy Jacob J. Goldberg.

One of the best kept secrets in Manhattan for enjoying a night of rollicking, hysterical fun, lip-smacking sumptuous pizza and a bit of wine to restore one’s nerves during a hectic work week is Commedia dell’Artichoke at the Gene Frankel Theatre. Presented by Frances Black Projects in association with CAP21, the production is a hyper blast party of stupendous fun which runs until February 6.

Commedia dell’Artichoke is a ripping comedy like no other you will see in the city for its inventiveness, extemporaneous joyride, audience participation and prescient, trending humor.  It’s conceived by the ingenious team of Frances Black, Carter Gill and Tommy Russell, who have honed their artistic statement into a whimsical whirlwind, a compendium of ancient and modern social satire about how the wealthy stick it to the classes beneath them and how the working classes push back with resilience, humor and verve. The show boasts Devin Brain at the director’s helm who skillfully guides the unique performance art of Carter Gill, Alexandra Henrikson, Tommy Russell and Shannon Marie Sullivan. All of these actors are scintillating.

Over the course of the evening, Gill, Henrikson, Russell and Sullivan broadly portray 10 characters in the Commedia dell’arte style, with grotesque masks, antic characterizations and hyper-mannered behaviors. Not only are the actors superb comedians with expert timing, they sing and dance with sheer abandon. The show has an extemporaneous feel, added to by the audience participation: anything can happen. Surprising moments are completely appropriate to the winding, picaresque storyline.

Shannon Marie Sullivan, Commedia dell 'Artichoke, Gene Frankel Theatre

Shannon Marie Sullivan in Commedia dell ‘Artichoke. Photo by Jacob J. Goldberg.

The beauty of the production is that the silly absurdity of some scenes allows the actors’ musical breakouts, which prompt our unexpected laughter. And that ebbs into somber thoughtfulness about the wisdom of what we have experienced; this is expert, clever, comic pacing. We appreciate the pithy jokes about “The American Dream-nightmare,” trending political slogans, social media topics, gender loops and much more. The humor is sardonic, darkly funny, socially meaningful. All makes complete sense, and you have the time of your life romping in the intellectual brilliance and ridiculousness of these characters who “know the score.”

The original musical numbers are beautifully integrated, with appropriate accompaniment by band leader and multi-instrumentalist Robert Cowie. The music helps shape the plot dynamics and organically evokes the scenes. The actors/characters bring Cowie into their ensemble as their dutiful “conductor” of fun. He good-naturedly accompanies/instigates the songs, fanciful tunes and dances.

This “gypsy” music echoes the ideas of love and empathy. In a deus ex machina rescue, the villain, Adam Smith’s “Vile Maxim” incarnate, La Capitana (portrayed with audacious, Trump-like ferocity by the operatic Alexandra Henrikson), is deflected from enacting dire financial doom upon our hero, Carter Gill’s brash, endearing everyman and pizza “entrepreneur” Pulcinella. As the production concludes, hope and a stay of financial execution are achieved for another day. All ends well in the perfect unity of comedy.

If I had to explain to you specifically how we arrived at this superb finale, I couldn’t. The journey is labyrinthine, fraught with diversions and robust antic scenes from Pulcinella’s conflicted life, leading back to the beginnings when Pulcinella, whose pizza we have enjoyed, explains his New York City dreams to become a “self-made man.” With gyrating plot arcs which double back on themselves, vignettes which make sense in their nonsense, and brilliant jokes that kill as they are tossed off like salad leaves for you to either graze on or disallow, this is as close to Commedia dell’arte style as you will see in our savvy, super-cool city.

IMG_2939

Carter Gill, Alexandra Henrikson, Tommy Russell and Shannon Marie Sullivan in Commedia dell ‘Artichoke at the Gene Frankel Theatre. Photo by Jacob J. Goldberg.

Scenes spiral out from protagonist Pulcinella and his retinue. The conflict pounces on our poor hero in the form of villain Capitana and her sycophant lackey Tartaglia. Capitana, a crazy caricature of the stereotypical mannish woman boss, signifies the American nightmare of the business class that will stop at nothing to make American business “great,” “big” and “hard” again in order to blow away China (the sexual allusions are funny).

In keeping with these undemocratic notions, Capitana must wipe out Pulcinella and develop the area (her projected store possibilities are riotous) into “greatness.” It is a displacing event all too familiar to real-estate-pressured New Yorkers. Along the way, we meet other Commedia-style “stock” characters in Pulcinella’s life, modernized but with their Commedia flavor (thanks to Commedia consultant Christopher Bayes) present. The comic scenario has been ramped up to satirize urban life, mega-developers vs. the little guy, crazy cultural tropes, corporate business models, etc.

The hijinks are nonstop. And as you enjoy the entertainment, you also swallow the characters’ irony about our city’s social infirmities: its hyper-development, its classism, its intransigence against democratic wellbeing for all. We laugh as Pulcinella comments about having to work and work and work some more and work your butt off and do more work, ostensibly to make it to the first rung up the ladder of success.

And as for climbing up into the clouds where the Bloombergs and Trumps abide, there’s always a Capitana to toll the financial death knell or pour acid into one’s bleeding bank wounds. These types manifest the cryptic financial screed of being “bigger and better” (as Capitana does to Pulcinella) by raising the rent to “one dollar more than you can afford.” Though it isn’t stated, the message is clear and we have come to know it as brutal irony: “It’s nothing personal, just business.”

The actors’ high energy spins out other rapid-fire scenes about the ridiculousness of who we choose to love, the zany relationships we become involved in, and a guy’s proper etiquette toward a gal. Such pointed jokes ground us in ourselves. The sharp humor brings us to the remembrance that in the theater as in life, we are in this together. As we laugh, we encourage each other to enjoy the journey. We can control some things, but other events just unfold. We dare not stand in the shadows nor miss the passing parade or the fun will dissolve. Just dive in and don’t consider how it will turn out because what you prepare for won’t necessarily happen in the ways you expect.

Pulcinella’s artichoke pizza is one of the better pizzas in the city. You certainly do not want to miss his hard work and the effort it took to concoct his super recipe of deliciousness and fun. The production is comic genius. The show should be extended or brought back again in another venue. See it while you still can.  Commedia dell’Artichoke will be at the Gene Frankel Theatre until February 6.

‘The Belle of Belfast’ at The DR2 Theatre in NYC

'The Belle of Belfast,' Belfast, Ireland, The Irish Repertory Theatre, DR2 Theatre.

‘The Belle of Belfast,’ at the DR2 Theatre, a production of The Irish Repertory Theatre. Exterior, Belfast, Ireland in 1985. Photo take from the Irish Rep Facebook page.

A few years ago, my friend Bob who was wearing an orange shirt and was going through passport control in Dublin, Ireland, was startled when a staffer stopped him and said, “I wouldn’t wear that shirt outside of Dublin though you’re a Yank. People will take offense.” Bob heeded his advice and after doing a bit of online research at his Dublin hotel, understood what the official meant. Even though the Good Friday peace agreement ended The Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1998, the wounds were still raw. At the time Bob visited, there was an unrest that bubbled just under the surface. If the protestant pro-British Orange Order held a parade, the Irish Catholics often were unduly provoked and took umbrage. Surely, peace had come. But the conflicts were all encompassing, then and now, and it may be a few more decades before the waters have completely smoothed over and horrible incidents that occurred during The Troubles remain buried forever in lost memories.

The Belle of Belfast presented by The Irish Repertory Theatre which is currently playing at the DR2 Theater, has as its setting Belfast, Ireland. The time is 1985 the year of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and 13 years before the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement. In Belfast 1985 The Troubles between Irish Catholic paramilitary groups who intend to break away and join the Republic of Ireland to the south and the protestant paramilitary groups who are determined to keep British rule of Northern Ireland are steadfast, and there doesn’t appear to be an adequate resolution in sight.

The intense and harrowing conflict of the 40 years war is not the subject of The Belle of Belfast. Nevertheless, it contributes an elusive and ever-present darkness that overshadows the events and individuals’ inner conflicts. The darkness continually rises from the depths of the abyss of hatred and despair that impacts the main characters who try to make their lives in Belfast but who are often jolted by the sporadic violence which they have come to internalize. The characters live with the tiresome, oppressive atmosphere of guerilla warfare which can strike anyone at any time. And they must become inured to it and find their way through the morass of bloodshed as individuals are “disappeared,” become martyrs, or are hapless victims of the collateral damage sprayed by bombs meant for “the enemy.” We come to understand the depths of the dark shadow of war as the play evolves and the characters react to each other and seek unsuccessful personal solutions most probably influenced by the undercurrents of danger they must live with and force themselves to reconcile as a fact of life in Belfast during The Troubles.

Patricia Conolly, Hamish Allan-Headley, 'The Belle of Belfast,' Irish Rep Theatre, DR2 Theatre, The Troubles

Patricia Conolly and Hamish Allan-Headley in ‘The Belle of Belfast,’ directed by Claudia Weill at the DR2 Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Director Claudia Weill has expertly fashioned Nate Rufus Edelman’s The Belle of Belfast. With the help of set designer John Mcdermott, the director has made sure the production employs a clever and symbolic economy of design. The three sections of the stage suggest different areas: outside in the city of Belfast and inside in the private interior of the Catholic church confessional and the rectory. For the outside, the bleak walls of division and sterility of a  life lived amidst randomized terror is evoked with graffitied brick walls and barbed wire, stage left. The exterior is contrasted with an interior, the ironic security offered by a church confessional in the stage middle. To stage right is positioned the personal inner sanctity of the priests’ rectory where truthful actions and comments are laid bare by three of the main characters. Lest audience members are unfamiliar with the history of the setting, at the play’s outset a black and white film clip of a variety of shots of beleaguered Belfast unspools to project the tattered lives of the residents (children and adults), and the sorrow and violence that is their portion during The Troubles.

As these projections fade, the light focuses on the confessional interior. At confession is a typical, elderly, staunch Irish Catholic woman, Emma Malloy (Patricia Conolly does a beautiful job as the humorous, slightly ridiculous and eccentric aunt of feisty Anne Malloy). Emma Malloy is sharing her darkest secrets with the handsome, youthful priest, the father confessor in a parish that offers help in this trying time of soul need to offset the chaos and confusion everyone is experiencing. Of course the help is for Catholics and though the tenets of Christianity encompass both protestants and Catholics, the irony is not lost on us that Catholicism is a tremendous thorn in the flesh of the Protestants on the other side of the high walls which divide Irish from Irish.

During the ironic and funny exchange between the priest and Emma Malloy, the playwright has unfolded the character of Father Ben Reilly (an excellent Hamish Allan-Headley), as a sympathetic and well meaning Irish Catholic cleric who attempts to remain above the fray following the tenets of Christianity as best he can. Nate Rufus Edelman has expertly established the gnawing rodents of duplicity within the Father that will continue to eat at him until they devour his potential for goodness. With Emma Malloy, we understand that the Father is playing the part of the good priest as he perceives his role to be. However, we also understand that the depth of goodness is not yet present in him to actually be that good priest, for we also see the extent to which Emma Malloy tries his patience and the extent to which he allows her to frustrate him. Instead of “stopping her in her tracks” for her silly ideas of what constitutes sinning (one thing Catholicism teaches well is sinning and condemnation), he allows her to continue in folly, “showing” how kind he can be until she makes untoward remarks that are sinful. Here is a flawed priest, who in his attempts to be empathetic and gracious goes overboard toward permissiveness because of his notions about how a priest should be kind and understanding. In attempting both, he ends up doing neither, though he is charming, self-deceitful and apparently “harmless.”

'The Belle of Belfast,' Kate Lydic, Hamish Allan-Headley, Irish Repertory Theatre, Belfast, Ireland

Kate Lydic and Hamish Allan-Headley in ‘The Belle of Belfast,’ at the DR2 Theatre. Photo from this site.

Of course, the irony is that with the true tenets of Christianity, it is not about image, it is about substance, about what happens behind closed doors, about what happens in the rectory when the public isn’t watching. That is what counts and the playwright never reveals the characters’ relationships with God and that absence is crucial to the understanding of the play and the understanding of the characters who are in desperate need of help and who are incapable of receiving it through the source they have supposedly chosen to pray to. Clearly, this priest and his colleague Father Behan (Billy Meleady), are having their own “troubles” with the substance of love and truth. Edelman brilliantly reveals how they are having issues with self-deceit as they attempt to “appear good” but find it much harder to “be” good. Their trials are revealed during their personal moments away from their roles as priests and after they return to the rectory, relax and take off their collars. This is one of the main conflicts of the play, the image of goodness versus the reality of goodness and gives rise to the theme: if one does not live in truth, one is miserable living in hypocrisy. The theme has broader implications for indeed, the whole of Northern Ireland is reeling from this problem, especially in their disparate warring religious factions which lack “the substance” to be Christians in word, deed and love: they cannot forgive each other; they cannot ultimately forgive themselves.

The playwright has cleverly characterized Father Reilly revealing the seeds of his potential downfall which like weeds in a garden plague him. These weeds grow quickly and are the cause of his weaknesses which allow him to succumb to the manipulative wiles of the fiery teenager Anne Malloy (the angst-filled “belle”). As a result of their flawed actions both Anne and the Father are forced to view the truth of themselves and the pictures are ugly. The characterizations are aptly drawn; we note Father Reilly’s rationalizations to Father Behan when he protests that he is trying to help Anne. But when he ends up seducing her, he is easily able to convince himself that it is the other way around, that he has allowed her to seduce him. Regardless, both Anne and he are culpable; both make each other miserable with the truth of their self-deceit and lies, though his is the greater blame because he violates his position as a “pure man of God,” and she is a minor, not really responsible for her own decision making, though of course, she believes she is.

Hamish Allan-Headley, Billy Meleady, 'The Belle of Belfast,' Belfast, Ireland, Irish Repertory Theatre, DR2 Theatre

Hamish Allan-Headley and Billy Meleady in ‘The Belle of Belfast,’ Photo by Carol Rosegg

Likewise, the playwright’s characterization of Father Ben Reilly’s fellow colleague in the parish, Father Behan (a fine, nuanced and edgy performance by Billy Meleady), shows another cleric in the throes of a personal crisis. Behan despises the protestants and supports the Irish Republicans, though he knows he should remain objective. He is an alcoholic with the excuse that it is a way to get over and through the miseries of the times. Yet, rather than to rely on his faith to help him end the addiction, we see that his faith fails him and even inspires him to drink more. He has chosen a profession about which he is largely indifferent and is now stuck in. It is a cryptic irony that he hopes he doesn’t have to continue to be a priest when he is dead and in heaven, for that would be hellish. As a priest there are no choices left for him and he wishes he were anywhere but Belfast, the worst place to get murdered for being a priest. As we see for Father Reilly and Father Behan, both succumb to the dark time of chaos. Both cannot see their way clear to confront their character imperfections. Both lack the faith to work through and achieve peace.

Edelman has presented the underlying issues of the characters from which the incipient themes evolve, hammering these through to the conclusion. We recognize that all of the characters have opaque vision; they are limited from seeing the hypocrisy of their own actions as they walk in a bizarre, dual state of determination and haphazardness. They mistake their false assumptions about themselves as truthful and accurate, only to find out later they are playing at being what they are not. Of course, they are miserable and their actions lead to devastation. However, because of the backdrop of war which rears its ugly head from time to time in a bomb blast that kills or in the terrible beating and victimization of someone, we know that the characters are reeling from the confusion which foments the mist through which the ever-present threat of violence erupts. We forgive them for they are easy to recognize in ourselves; such is the state of affairs in the human soul: until unity and peace come, it’s division and war.

Hamish Allan-Headley, Kate Lydic, 'The Belle of Belfast,' Irish Repertory Theatre

Hamish Allan-Headley and Kate Lydic in ‘The Belle of Belfast,’ at the DR2 Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Thus, when wise-cracking, foul-mouthed and brash Anne Malloy (played with abrasive and wild-hearted abandon by Kate Lydic), tells conflicted and insecure friend Ciara Murphy (the vulnerable and resigned Arielle Hoffman), that she is in love with Father Reilly and she will be with him, we are not surprised. We have anticipated this, as we anticipate the tragedy of their coupling and the impossibility of their being together because they have no solid relationship borne of love. We know his permissiveness and his playing at being the good priest has been the snare that renders him a hypocrite to the faith and a predator. With kind duplicity he does harm to her and himself. Father Reilly is incapable of seeing clearly that Anne Malloy is playing at being in love with him in a desperate quest for happiness. He cannot discern the truth to know that she is searching for a love of self that will fill her soul more than what she could ever have with him. Blindly, Father Reilly takes advantage of her inner emptiness. Deceitfully, he becomes a predator exploiting her sorrow. He adds to her soul damage; orphaned by her parent’s death in a bomb blast as a child, she is forced to live with her difficult aunt from whom she feels little love.

The importance of The Troubles as a backdrop to what happens in the inner sanctum of the rectory is a clever touch brought to the fore by the canny director. Father Reilly’s abuse of Anne’s fragile emotions and the abuse of his position is performed behind closed doors away from the prying eyes of the parish. In the rectory he turns this emotional violence against himself as he upends his own integrity. In hypocrisy he trashes everything good that he may have attempted in the past. In an invisible line from the external brick wall and barbed wire right through to the rectory, the director and playwright show that the war’s shocks have led him to become an emotional casualty of the war’s harm. The tragic irony is that as a casualty, he cannot rightly understand how to best help Anne. Thus, he contributes to making her into a twice-fold victim of The Troubles. His failures as a priest thwart her from achieving soul health: the “love” she sought to replace that was lost at her parent’s death can never come from Father Reilly; she is twice traumatized. The emotional violence Father Reilly and Anne enact upon themselves and each other mirrors the violence of Belfast. Though they are alive and breathing, emotionally they shatter one another. They can only inure themselves to the pain and move on. If they make themselves numb, there may be a kind of deliverance after all. However, there is no grace that they can give each other; they lack that power. It will have to come from another source, if it comes at all.

Through the fine, on point acting, the director’s steadfast vision and the help of the artistic team, Edelman’s work shines with humor, cleverness and grace, revealing how in a time of chaos, individuals attempt to make the best of the hand they are dealt but often make a shambles of it, instead. This would appear to be doubly true when those appointed to help “make the peace” are often the ones doing the harm. To what extent does the war impact individuals’ choices? On a continuum from 1-100, it cannot be discounted and like an earthquakes’ aftershocks, the calm may settle but things have been irrevocably changed. So Edelman points out. After a few years have passed, Anne Malloy, achieves a term of happiness which she discusses with Father Reilly when she finds him after he moves from Belfast. Meeting with him, she explains what happened in her life after she left the war zone. It is obvious that she has made a tentative peace. For Father Reilly the playwright is silent about the divisions in the cleric’s soul. Nevertheless, for these two characters, it is a fitting conclusion reflective of the citizens in Belfast whose high walls still divide and whose wounds have yet to heal completely.

You can see the terrific The Belle of Belfast at the DR2 Theatre until June 14th.

This review first appeared on Blogcritics: CLICK HERE WHERE IT WAS AN “EDITOR’S PICK.”

‘Degas in New Orleans’ the New York Premiere

 'Degas in New Orleans,' by Rosary O'Neill, directed by Deborah Temple, music by David Temple at the Arthur Seelen Theatre Drama Bookstore. (L to R) Lucy Makebish, Patrick O'Shea, Trevor Kowalsky,

‘Degas in New Orleans,’ by Rosary O’Neill, directed by Deborah Temple, music by David Temple at the Arthur Seelen Theatre Drama Bookstore. (L to R) Lucy Makebish, Patrick O’Shea, Trevor Kowalsky, Natalie LaBossier, Sarah Newcomb and Elizabeth Lococo. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

Edward Degas, one of the most renowned and beloved of the French impressionist painters and sculptors is most often associated with paintings and drawings of the dance. His pale ballerinas in pink, blue, green and white tulle evoke an ethereal world of striking still points of movement. Their delicate loveliness is a gossamer of bodies  twirling, bending, stretching,  leaping, pirouetting, balancing, posing and dressing. His dancers spark fantasy and mythic beauty. There is not a pose, position or action of the mystic ballerinas that Degas has not rendered in painting or drawing, so avidly possessed was he with ballerinas.

Why did ballerinas stir him? The haunting melodies and beautiful rendering of Degas in New Orleans by Rosary O’Neill, with music and arrangements by David Temple, incisively directed by Deborah Temple suggest a reason. When Degas visited his brother and beloved sister-in-law Estelle, her daughter Jo danced ballet and wished to be a ballerina in Paris. This and other symbols whisper through the characterization, song, direction and staging in what can only be described as a consummate production which which premiered at the Arthur Seelen Theatre Drama Bookstore in New York City in a one-night showcase. The musical connects the tragic time Degas spent with family in New Orleans before he was famous to the evolution of his greatness as the founder of Impressionism.

'Degas in New Orleans,' (L to R) Lucy Makebish and Sarah Newcomb. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

‘Degas in New Orleans,’ (L to R) Lucy Makebish and Sarah Newcomb. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

It opens with the spotlight on the painter Degas reminiscing about his visit to America. He begins with a song of remembrance about the time he lived in New Orleans where his mother was from. He sings of the key family members with whom he lived, family whose unreconciled relationships with him would impact his life and art after he returned to France. Degas (Trevor Kowalsky in a sterling and evocative portrayal of the painter), sings Temple’s wistful melody of nostalgic longing, “I have a picture in my mind,” as the play flashes back to the roiling events in the Degas family household.

The in-laws/cousins, the Mussons, live on Esplanade Avenue in a New Orleans of 1872 that is raging against the carpetbaggers in the last days of Reconstruction. It is the beginning of the racial terrorism that blossomed like deadly nightshade and continued into the twilight of the 20th century. During Degas’ introductory song which sets the events and succinctly reveals the back-story of his visit to the most French city in America, the director has skillfully created the interior rooms of the Degas House. It is here the painter stayed with his brother René and tried to help out the family financially. He was also in New Orleans to escape the tumultuous events occurring in Paris during the days of the commune. 

For this memorable opening scene (which also serves as the closing scene of Degas’ flashback), director Deborah Temple cleverly stages a tableau of the characters who are instrumental in spurring on the transformation of Degas’ personality and art: his brother René Degas (Tom Bloxham is wonderful as the arrogant, cruel and duplicitous brother), René‘s Father-in-law, Michel Musson (Patrick O’Shea rings out this sexist, racist, humorous curmudgeon), Mathilde Musson Bell (Elizabeth Lococo in a superb and well grounded performance), Didi Musson (the excellent and heartfelt Natalie LaBossier), René‘s wife Estelle Musson Degas (the exquisitely acted, operatically talented Lucy Makebish), and most poignantly the budding ballerina Josephine (Jo) Balfour, who is Estelle’s daughter from her first marriage (in a wonderful portrayal by Sarah Newcomb).

'Degas in New Orleans,' Trevor Kowalsky and Sarah Newcomb. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

‘Degas in New Orleans,’ Trevor Kowalsky and Sarah Newcomb. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

Together, the sisters (Didi, Mathilde and Estelle), and René subtly effect the influences that sideswipe Degas’ well being to devastate his emotions. O’Neill and the Temples have deftly drawn Degas’ family trials. One cannot help but intuit that this period in his life greatly influenced his career and was a turning point. The superb production and eclectic music (in an amazing rendering of different styles) David Temple ingeniously uses to infer the past and in some numbers suggests hints of blues and jazz that we associate with New Orleans in the present. The cogent directorial elements and memorable songs emphasize the import of Degas’ stay in New Orleans as  a time of sorrow, loss and pain, and suggest that these obstacles ultimately served to strengthen him; no doubt they contributed in helping pave the way for his entrance onto the art scene.

Happier days in 'Degas in New Orleans,' (L t-R) Lucy Makebish, Sarah Newcomb, Patrick O'Shea, Natalie LaBossier, Elizabeth Lococo. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

Happier days in ‘Degas in New Orleans,’ (L to R) Trevor Kowalsky, Lucy Makebish, Sarah Newcomb, Patrick O’Shea, Natalie LaBossier, Elizabeth Lococo. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

Of the three Musson sisters, Estelle, who remains loyal to his adulterous brother René, is the one who breaks Degas’ heart. Degas is unable to shake his lifelong love for her which he nobly expresses and which he more nobly understands will never be consummated because of Estelle’s integrity and sanctity.  O’Neill with the help of Deborah Temple’s direction and the adroit actors (the uber talented Makebish is stunning in the part of Estelle and Kowalsky is powerful as her soulful, haunted Edgar) brilliantly weave Degas’ love into a force which compels him toward a spiritual attachment with Estelle and her daughter ballerina Jo. The director wisely stages Jo as a central figure; throughout we see her practicing her positions as she dreams of flying away, perhaps to Paris to one day join the ballet. Jo also hopes with a great and tender love that her mother Estelle who has become blind and attempts to hide this fact from Edgar will one day see again. Encapsulated in Temple’s wistful song, “I dreamed that I could fly,” Estelle and Jo sing to each other echoing these and other yearnings which we later discover never come to pass.

The play develops smoothly following the arc of human foibles and is faithful in following the history of Degas’ life when he stayed in New Orleans. In the flashback Degas arrives at the house and there is great joy and a sense of wonder and appreciation for the painterly cousin, brother-in-law and brother. As the action progresses, we learn why. The family perceives Degas to be the savior who will make everything right for them since they are in a state of physical, mental and emotional devolution. Initially unaware of this situation, Degas is happy to see the one he has always loved, Estelle, whom he knew when she and her sisters visited him Paris. This is his first time in the new world and he has a positive and outlook about America and New Orleans which family letters have kept alive for him.

'Degas in New Orleans,' Lucy Makebish and Trevor Kowalsky, one night showcase at the Arthur Seelen Theatre Drama Bookstore. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

‘Degas in New Orleans,’ Lucy Makebish and Trevor Kowalsky, one night showcase at the Arthur Seelen Theatre Drama Bookstore. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

But family was not forthcoming about their condition or the cultural circumstances of New Orleans after the Civil War. The longer he stays, the more his awareness grows; he begins to understand the darker elements consuming the city and his family. O’Neill’s play and the production masterfully reveal the series of devastating pictures the situations paint for Degas. As a result of these dramatic scenes and the misery he sees and experiences, on his return to Paris he will be forced to emotionally vitiate his suffering through his art. The economic portrait of his family who live in cramped quarters is borderline squalid. We see this especially in the second act when New Orleans  floods: rats drop from trees around the house, the family takes in as many homeless as they can to help their neighbors at their own expense. The city is reduced to a fetid swamp whose filth can never been expunged or wiped away. The song “Rats” sung by America (a terrific job by Mickey Lynch and the company) is humorous, dark and revelatory of the city’s torpor, want, financial devastation and foreboding.

'Degas in New Orleans,' Tom Bloxham and Mickey Lynch. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

‘Degas in New Orleans,’ Tom Bloxham and Mickey Lynch. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

By degrees reality stencils terrifying images on Degas’ soul. He discovers Estelle is blind and pregnant though they can’t afford another baby. René has not paid off the debts which are increasing exponentially and threaten to bankrupt the family in New Orleans and France. René and Michel seek the oblivion of alcohol and drink throughout the day, becoming willful, argumentative and confrontational. Mixed race cousin Norbert Rillieux, who was a wealthy free man of color before the Civil War, is being threatened daily by the White League, a white supremacist group growing in political power.

What horrifies Degas most is that René has “turned his back” on beloved, beautiful Estelle and is having an affair with America, a married woman who tutors the children. America (Mickey Lynch is superb), has gradually insinuated herself into the family and by the play’s conclusion is ruthlessly running the household, the sisters and René as she arrogantly steps around Estelle who “sees nothing.” Didi, who loves Degas and wants to be with him in Paris, tells Estelle that René is cheating on her. She does this in a jealous fit of rage after Didi discovers Degas loved Estelle. Estelle tries to be stoic but she eventually confronts René who lies to her. Estelle is a tragic figure caught in circumstances from which, as a woman, she will never escape or rectify. She must just try to survive and prevent her newborn from dying. Degas is appalled at the family’s deterioration and Estelle’s lifestyle. All has turned from the joy of his first weeks with them, symbolized by the song they sang to unmarried Didi for her birthday celebration (“The Sunny Side of Thirty”). Now there is only chaos, argument, racial tensions and impoverishment.

Trevor Kowalsky and Liz Louie in 'Degas in New Orleans,' by Rosary O'Neill, music by David Temple, directed by Deborah Temple. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

Trevor Kowalsky and Liz Louie in ‘Degas in New Orleans,’ by Rosary O’Neill, music by David Temple, directed by Deborah Temple. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

O’Neill has created interesting parallels between the family’s deterioration and the decline of New Orleans which has not recovered economically and whose white citizens angrily blame on Reconstruction politics. Degas learns that many of the white males have joined the White League and the Knights of the White Camellia to take the city and the South back from the Northern marauders. Mathilde’s husband Will and Father/Uncle Michel are important leaders and they have shunned Norbert from their family and most probably would not stop his being lynched. Even René has been persuaded to their side.

As Norbert’s wife Emily (Liz Louie is terrific as a free woman of color who is angry, fearful and sorrowful as she recognizes a new, terrifying city), sings of the augmenting racial hatreds in Act I (“Don’t Matter If You’re Free”), and in Act II when she tells Degas that she and Norbert are leaving for Paris fearing for their lives (“Time to Say Goodbye”). Degas acknowledges New Orleans is a dangerous, racist and demoralized city. In comparison to France and Paris which are havens of justice, New Orleans is reprehensible. Degas is further unsettled when a letter arrives to announce that his father has gone bankrupt and has been thrown into prison. René’s mismanagement of finances and importunity with money have economically destroyed the family in Paris and in New Orleans. When Edgar confronts his younger brother, they argue and he almost pummels him but restrains himself. He is not a brutal man; he will use his hands for painting. René kneels to him for forgiveness, but Degas is powerless to change his brother or the circumstances. He must leave for Paris to help whom he can help, his father. Somehow, he must restore the Senior Degas to wholeness and pay off the creditors. Painting is his only way out.

'Degas in New Orleans,' (L - R) Trevor Kowalsky and Tom Bloxham. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

‘Degas in New Orleans,’ (L – R) Trevor Kowalsky and Tom Bloxham. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

At the end of the play in a song reprise when Jo leaves for the convent, Jo and her mother again sing “I Dream.” It is a magnificent moment, for we understand the tragedy of hopes never realized: Jo dies of malaria at 18; Estelle, having never regained her sight, is abandoned by René who marries America and goes to Paris.  Only Degas’ dream is realized, the dream which establishes him as a world-class Impressionist painter. O’Neill implies and the production so beautifully reveals that the fires of his greatness have been stoked in New Orleans. The regrets  of an unfilled love with Estelle and the sorrow of his failure to to stop his family’s and especially Estelle’s decline become the emotional sources of his art.

 

This intriguing and memorable musical, Degas in New Orleans, creates a new vista for understanding Edgar Degas’s life and work. In appreciating the impact and importance of the painter’s time in the crescent city, the production reveals the extent to which influences born of tragedy can be translated into great good. And it shows how spiritual love and remembrance can be translated into artistic genius. Whether or not the symbolism of Jo’s wish to go to Paris to be a dancer is rooted in fact, O’Neill’s characterization of Jo coupled with Temple’s melodic compositions and Debrah Temple’s high concept production values anchor Degas’ love for Estelle and her daughter which is historically accurate. The work illuminates the idea that Degas’ ballet dancers are a tribute to Estelle’s daughter who “flies” in the still point of his artistry. In his work during the time he was in New Orleans and his work afterwards, Degas remained inspired and he dreamed. Through these dreams he was able to direct his career onto a completely new path, helping to establish an artistic trend which is globally loved today.

'The Little Dancer' by Edgar Degas.

‘The Little Dancer’ by Edgar Degas.

Edgar Degas most probably carried his love for Estelle and Jo to the grave, a spiritual attachment which Degas in New Orleans conveys. After seeing this incredibly realized production, we know that if not for that fateful visit, we would not be able to appreciate the 24 works he painted in the Big Easy such as “A Cotton Office in New Orleans,” or his three paintings of Estelle completed at the Degas House. As for Estelle’s daughter from her first marriage, Jo, whose wish to go to Paris and be in the ballet was cut short?

Perhaps she got their after all. Degas’ loving remembrance of her, manifested in his numerous paintings of the ballet, is the triumphant iconography of his work. These paintings, sketches and sculptures of ballerinas when not loaned out to museums around the world, have remained in Paris and in France through wars, protests, floods and plagues. It is vital that the meaningful connections between Paris and New Orleans in Degas’ life and work be acknowledged. The wonderful Degas in New Orleans is a step in the right direction to uplift the life and work of this incredible artist for the upcoming 100th year anniversary of his death in 2017.

The production was awarded a generous grant from Red Hook School District in New York and was produced by Deborah Temple with the Red Hook Performing Arts Company.

 

 

‘The Brightness of Heaven’ by Acclaimed Author Laura Pedersen

Paula Ewin, Kendall Rileigh and James Michael Lambert in 'The Brightness of Heaven,' by Laura Pedersen. Photo by John Quilty.

(L to R) Paula Ewin, Kendall Rileigh and James Michael Lambert in ‘The Brightness of Heaven,’ by Laura Pedersen. Photo by John Quilty.

The brighter heaven shines, the greater the darkness created. If shadows metaphorically apply to guilt, depression and constriction, then surely the Kilgannon and Jablonski families who have experienced the brilliance of  heavenly scriptures and folkways via the culture of the Catholic Church and St. Aloysius school have also been shadowed in darkness. This thematic point-counterpoint prevails throughout character interactions and behaviors in Laura Pedersen’s intriguing and incisive comedic-dramatic play The Brightness of Heaven, exceptionally directed by the always on-point Ludovica Villar-Hauser. The production is currently at The Cherry Lane Theatre.

What can mitigate the glare of burning church doctrine and the traditional cliches that bring little personal happiness yet bond the Kilgannons and Jablonskis in strangleholds of deceit? There is the soft light of love and forgiveness created by the family’s individual colors. However ironic, however subtly truthful, all blend. The rainbow created strikes at the heart of how the Jablonskis and the Kilgannons are able to find their way along life-paths, sometimes bending to compromise, other times forging out alone and in silence. Nevertheless, they do come back to stand with each other, whether in shade or in a pale reflection of the heavenly light that continues to bathe them, in the hope of creating a new understanding about each other and themselves.

Kate Kearney-Patch, Paula Ewin and Mark Banik in 'The Brightness of Heaven,' directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser. Photo by John Quilty.

(L to R) Kate Kearney-Patch, Paula Ewin and Mark Banik in ‘The Brightness of Heaven,’ directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser. Photo by John Quilty.

The play begins as Ed Kilgannon’s sister Mary Jablonski’s, and Ed’s wife Joyce Kilgannon prepare for the evening’s special occasion bringing all the Jablonskis and Kilgannons together for their “family act.” This will be performed at St. Aloysius school. Pedersen has set the action in Buffalo, NY, 1974. With humor she anchors the backdrop of this family’s strict religious culture, the narrow attitudes, the adherence to the social life of the church and St. Aloysius through the discourse of these velvet matriarchs. There are religious statues in the kitchen, and Pedersen and Villar-Hauser have clarified the importance of Catholicism to these women who have been raised in a Catholic community and who have rigidly brought up their children in the tenets of the Church.

The beauty of Pedersen’s writing and Villar-Hauser’s direction is that Mary (Paula Ewin), and Joyce (Kate Kearney-Patch), are thoroughly delightful, folksy and funny seen through the lens of our trending 21st century viewpoints. They are not scary “religious” right, hard-nosed fanatics, though on another level they could be. But this is a subtlety that we are lured away from considering outright. One reason is that Pedersen guides us through the exposition cleverly. The characterizations appear to be human and well rounded. The setting and staging are comfortable, homey and warm. Another reason is that Villar-Hauser’s fine direction and the talented actors Ewin and Kearney-Patch remain amazingly empathetic and likable. We understand that their beliefs are borne out of love and faith, not political didacticism. We are with them back in 1974 as we listen to them gossip with each other and take care of homely chores.

(L to R) Mark Banik and Bill Coyne in 'The Brightness of Heaven,' by Laura Pedersen. Photo by John Quilty.

(L to R) Mark Banik and Bill Coyne in ‘The Brightness of Heaven,’ by Laura Pedersen. Photo by John Quilty.

The worm turns, however, when the adult children show up for dinner and prepare for the family event. As the children and parents interact, we begin to see the effects of the stultifying, religious upbringing. We hear the dark undercurrents and the verbal swipes of irony and sarcasm in their conversation. We also note other behavioral clues the playwright, actors and director have developed for us. For example Grace (wonderfully played by Emily Batsford), whips her caustic humor like a rapier. She ironically quips about losing friends during softball because her mom shouted at her on the baseline, “Thou shall not steal.” Grace stands with a crooked, caved in posture. It is a clever detail signifying how rigidity not only can have a negative mental influence, but a physical one as well. The scripture which is supposed to “make the crooked straight” has failed; Grace’s self-perceived “weirdness” manifests in her body. Pedersen’s characterization reveals that her conflict of attempting to “live in grace” has ironically had a warping effect on the character. Grace has not yet “found her way of salvation” in life, as she struggles with the religious notion that the afterlife, not the present life, is where one wants to be as a Catholic.

Emily Batsford in 'The Brightness of Heaven,' directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser. Photo by John Quilty.

(L to R) Kendall Rileigh, Emily Batsford in ‘The Brightness of Heaven,’ directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser. Photo by John Quilty.

For each of the adult children, religion has made an impact bringing light and dark. The conflict between these forces has caused them to live a life of duality. They put on “righteousness” masks with their mothers and with the community so they will not be a “disappointment.” But they flout religious traditions behind their backs. However, living a life of deception in conflict with the truth is hell. The Kilgannon and Jablonski children are suffering. They have learned to lie to Joyce and Mary at a great cost to their own personal happiness and dignity. Whether they are honest or deceptive, someone will get hurt. There is no easy or smooth road ahead.

Peter Cormican and Kate Kearney-Patch in 'Brightness of Heaven,' by Laura Pedersen , directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser, at The Cherry Lane Theatre. Photo form the website.

Peter Cormican and Kate Kearney-Patch in ‘The Brightness of Heaven,’ by Laura Pedersen,  directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser, at The Cherry Lane Theatre. Photo from the website.

Pedersen draws the characterizations profoundly. We see that each of the children yearn for acceptance and understanding. They don’t realize that they may have it, for the “religion” they fight against has at its foundation love and forgiveness. The question is, do Mary and Joyce follow the religion after the spirit (grace, love)? Or do they follow it after the law (looking righteous to please the church community)? During the first part of the evening, the children don’t challenge their parents. It takes strength to confront Mary and Joyce. Since they do not muster the courage to reveal their own hypocrisy of living in the shadows, the secrets remain hidden. Pedersen hints at their dualities and the aspects of light and dark in the characters’ interactions.

(L to R) Peter Cormican, James Michael Lambert, Kate Kearney-Patch in 'The Brightness of Heaven,' by Laura Pederson, directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser. Photo by John Quilty.

(L to R) Peter Cormican, James Michael Lambert, Kate Kearney-Patch, Paula Ewin in ‘The Brightness of Heaven,’ by Laura Pedersen, directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser. Photo by John Quilty.

Some of the light comes in the form of song interludes where various family members sing out of a love of the family’s togetherness. The cast are magical as they integrate the music seamlessly and skillfully with the play’s dialogue. The light also comes in the form of humorous comments to the matriarchs; even Dad Ed (the talented Peter Cormican), chimes in with jokes to shift focus away from uncomfortable topics. The levity (a specialty of Pedersen), is organic, arising from each character’s individual struggles. It indicates the extent they are trying to resolve hypocrisy or self-deception. The jokes also help them defuse the tenets of Mary’s and Joyce’s interpretations of sin and right behavior. Mary and Joyce are good-natured and well meaning, though religiously inflexible and indirectly condemning. So the benign ridicule is an effective counterpoint to the characters’ underlying guilt, the “gift that keeps on giving.” notes Grace.

The light also manifests when the adult children are out of earshot of their mothers; it is then that they can be honest with one another. For example before Brendan (a fine Bill Coyne), enters the house, he speaks with his brother Dennis (Mark Banik portrays him with rectitude). They argue about how religion impacts them. Dennis (who appears righteous to his mom but is deceiving her), criticizes Brendan for drinking and not living a “proper” life. Brendan tells Dennis, pointing to his head, that “one can make heaven out of hell and hell out of heaven,” a comment Brendan wouldn’t feel comfortable saying to his mom or aunt. Like Grace’s caved in posture and “weirdness,” Brendan’s drinking reflects his inner conflicts, disappointments, deceit and perhaps his inability to completely reconcile his religious beliefs. In each instance, Pedersen reveals that all of the children are learning how to be themselves within a narrow framework as they try to establish a life away from their parent’s traditions. All are struggling to break free so that eventually, they can reveal themselves to those they most desire acceptance from, despite the risk censure that may follow.

(L to R) Mark Banik, Kendall Rileigh and James Michael Lambert in 'The Brightness of Heaven.' Photo by John Quilty.

(L to R) Mark Banik, Kendall Rileigh and James Michael Lambert in ‘The Brightness of Heaven.’ Photo by John Quilty.

It is not a coincidence that Pedersen has the youngest daughter risk speaking the truth about her life, and has Mary’s son do the same. Both have committed mortal sins in the “eyes” of the church. Kathleen Kilgannon (an excellent performance by Kendall Rileigh), and Jimmy Jablonski (James Michael Lambert in an equally fine portrayal), can no longer pretend to be holy while living in self-deception and misery. The confrontation scene takes place at the dinner table; Pedersen deftly escalates the strains of dark and light, anger and humor until they erupt and boil over from undercurrents that had remained below the surface.

The pleasant dinner turns into an unruly communion. Some of the family get up from the table in avoidance, but there is no turning back and the truth explodes brilliantly as the Kilgannons and the Jablonskis stare heavily at its brightness. Now there is the freedom to speak. The children dredge up their secret sins and throw them on the table for everyone to see. With this roll of the dice, they have taken a chance on being real, hoping to satisfy their own personal integrity and gain peace, though it may mean turning their back on the church. For Mary and Joyce who have made safe wagers all their lives, the dice rolls snake eyes. Now it is their turn to reveal what they are made of and who they are. Should they follow the spirit of grace in love and forgiveness? Or should they strictly follow the church and condemn what their children have done?

Pedersen’s powerful resolution crafted by the actors and the director’s fine tuning is symbolic, believable and real. The actors’ ensemble work and the life they and the director effect moment to moment are always refreshing and organic. This  thought provoking production is too good to miss.

The Brightness of Heaven will be at The Cherry Lane Theatre until December 14th.

The review first appeared on Blogcritics.

 

 

 

Sholem Aleichem and Saul Reichlin, It’s a Perfect Match in ‘Roots…Shmoots!’

Saul in a dramatization of Sholem Aleichem.

A character from Sholem Aleichem’s stories adapted by Saul Reichlin. Photo taken from Saul Reichlin’s website.

Ever since Saul Reichlin who currently makes his home in England began touring his one man shows based on his adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s stories, Saul recognized he had found a global niche. Audiences love to laugh at human foibles. They appreciate peasant ironies. Both are abundantly represented in Sholem Aleichem’s works. Saul realized that the simple and rich story telling by characters universally identifiable resonated with audiences whether they were Jewish or not, whether his shows were in the UK, Spain, South Africa or in the US.

Saul Reichlin has enjoyed bringing Sholem Aleichem’s characters to life in 35 cities and in 8 countries, initially with Sholem Aleichem…Now You’re Talking. In the last few years he has energized the Jewish storyteller’s works into a new adaptation, Roots…Shmoots! It would appear that Sholem Aleichem and Saul Reichlin go together like bagels, cream cheese and lox.  It is just like the matchmaker (a beloved character in Sholem Aleichems’s stories), Yenta  (Fiddler On the Roof), says, referring to a couple she wants to bring together, “It’s a perfect match!”

I was fortunate to see Saul Reichlin’s facility with portraying a myriad of Aleichem’s characters in his funny and poignant one man show Roots… Shmoots! which played at the Corneilia Street Cafe in September of 2014. The downstairs theater was packed and the audience received Reichlin’s portrayals with guffaws of laughter and hearty applause. Reichlin’s one man show most probably would have continued past its slated run if Saul didn’t have an engagement in Chicago. As it was, the Cornelia Street Cafe squeezed in a date for an additional performance since the demand warranted it; Roots… Shmoots! which was supposed to run only one night ran a second night to an enthusiastic crowd.

British actor Saul Reichlin. Photo from his website.

Saul Reichlin as himself. Photo from his website.

The testament of why Reichlin’s productions which have won awards are popular is clear. Audiences need to laugh at a time when entertainment has become ridiculously pricey. Oftentimes, funny, heartfelt shows are hard to recognize amongst a smattering of trending questionable productions whose humor lacks originality and duplicates sitcoms and situational comedy “funniness”which is tiresome and predictable. Sholem Aleichem’s humor is refreshing with subterranean twists erupting with wisdom, irony and wit. It is stimulating and its vibrance engages the audience. Saul’s adaptation as the narrator who spins off the representative characters to tell their stories and interact with the narrator/observer, never fails to amuse. This is largely due to Saul’s relaxed and comfortable manner fluidly switching from one character to the next playing all the roles.

One person shows are tricky. Nevertheless, Saul has mastered the form because of his extensive acting experience. There is one more element that makes for his rousing success. He has perhaps channeled and bonded with the author known as the Jewish Mark Twain. He presents the very real characters authentically so that we are able to visualize them and recognize elements the characters demonstrate as ones inherent in ourselves. The setting may be tiny rural towns in the Ukraine, but the situations and the human factor are parallel to our time. That Reichlin recognized the beauty and coherence of the past as current in Aleichem’s characters and work so that he is able to make them be felt and touched in our hearts is a gift of love from Reichlin translated from Aleichem to us.

You can keep up with Saul Reichlin’s work at his link: Saul Reichlin.

If you’d like to read more about this man who has fostered the knack of connecting us with the depth of human wisdom and folly manifested through Sholem Aleichem’s characters, see this link on Blogcritics. Saul is currently working on setting a performance schedule for The Good and The True, a production about the uplifting true life story of Milos Dobry and Hana Pravda, two Holocaust survivors. Saul performed the role of Milos Dobry this summer at the DR2 Theatre.

Saul Reichlin as Milos Dobry in 'The Good and the True. Photo taken from the program.

From the production ‘The Good and The True’ at the DR2 Theatre this summer. Saul Reichlin as Milos Dobry. Photo taken from the production program.

For my review of The Good and The True, click this link.

 

 

‘This Will All Be Yours’ Book by Laura Pedersen, Music and Lyrics by Charles Bloom

In 1970  factory farms, big pharma, corporate land devastation and the deleterious effects of pesticides, herbicides and chemicals in our food and water supply were subterranean issues not publicized in the mainstream media.  Small family  farms dotted the landscape and the obsession with making profits in the face of human harm was only whispered about behind closed doors. By the 1980s-1990s there had been a paradigm shift. A bucolic, stress-free way of life , nutritious and delicious produce, nightly home cooked meals, mom and dad closely supervising their children, and a pastoral landscape had transmuted into a pressure cooker existence of traffic jams, subdivisions, less vacation time, processed convenience foods, parents working two jobs, and suburban over development in the wake of urban blight.

L to R: Josh Powell as Adam Price, Trevor St. John-Glibert as Jackson Webb in This Will All Be Yours by Laura Pedersen, Music and Lyrics by Charles Bloom at TBG Theatre. Photo by John Quilty.

L to R: Josh Powell as Adam Price, Trevor St. John-Glibert as Jackson Webb in ;This Will All Be Yours’ by Laura Pedersen, Music and Lyrics by Charles Bloom at TBG Theatre. Photo by John Quilty.

This Will All Be Yours is a vibrant musical production directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser that highlights the beginning of this transitional time. It turns a brilliant, focused spotlight on the Price family farm in 1979 western New York, representative of many such family farms during a time of upheaval which is still happening today in different parts of the country.  Through an excellent musical score by Charles Bloom and pithy, rich book by Laura Pedersen,  we share the family’s personal triumphs and let-downs, as the two sons and the daughter are caught up in the swirling currents of social change which force the entire family to make hard choices. Should they transition into progress or risk falling into the doldrums of debt and a destruction of all that they and three generations of ancestors have worked hard to build up? Should they keep the farm?

L to R: Daniel Rowan, Trevor St. John Gilbert, Josh Powell, Amy Griffin, Jenny Rose Baker, Matt Farcher in This Will All Be Yours, directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser. Photo by John Quilty.

L to R: Daniel Rowan, Trevor St. John-Gilbert, Josh Powell, Amy Griffin, Jenny Rose Baker, Matt Farcher in ‘This Will All Be Yours,’ directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser. Photo by John Quilty.

Much of the story exemplifies themes that have become mainstay issues in our current society and indicate deeper problems with our cultural folkways. By implication these problems run deep even to encompassing the way we have accepted a lifestyle manipulated by corporations, industrial farming practices and the fast food and processed food industries.

Never brow beating us, Pedersen touches upon these ideas cleverly in whispers of truth that float like gossamer in the conversations of the family as they complete their various chores. For example, mom, Paula Price (a wonderful Amy Griffin), enjoys bragging about her recipe using the orchard’s delectable, fresh peaches, and subsequently there are follow up comments about the bland, no taste peaches in grocery stores that have been picked green to ripen in a truck. Of course, this lust for fruit and vegetables out of season, over the years has escalated to a negative chain of events from increasing our carbon footprint in food production, transportation costs and pollution, to all the woes concentrated around agri-business and its lobbyists fighting against GMO labeling, use of pesticides and herbicides, etc.  In the consumer desire for variety has come a lack of quality, nutrition and taste with the attendant environmental impact. Though all of this is unspoken by the characters because they cannot know the future, we do; we are living it and we understand how that folkway has perpetuated a negative result. Pedersen is subtle, but if one has eyes to see, the message is clear in what we are “planting” for our children.

The cast, composer, director and playwright of "The Will All Be Yours,' with the stage crew and orchestra. Photo by John Quigley.

The cast, composer, director and playwright of “The Will All Be Yours,’ with the stage crew and orchestra. Photo by John Quilty.

Another example  of threading themes occurs when father Adam (a dynamic Josh Powell) discusses how watermelons and peaches have to be made to please consumers. Watermelons must have few or no seeds-no one likes the seeds, and peaches must have “no fuzz.”  With these concepts Pedersen gently infers that in food production, the natural world has been modified to our liking. Ultimately, agri-business and industrial food production have accommodated suburbanites and mallsters, but at what expense to our own health, and to the health of the environment?

Though farmers dealt with these questions decades ago, recently we have begun to see the error of our ways. In a line that runs deep, Adam Price asks, “What comes of a nation that doesn’t want peach fuzz?”  Pedersen has beautifully revealed that all elements of a society are networked together starting with the land and how food is produced. Inherent is a love of the land and its spiritual value which those who have worked on it for generations truly comprehend and venerate. When the land, its creatures and natural crops are mowed down, tweaked, disdained and not properly respected, then what indeed are we creating for ourselves and our posterity?

Amy Griffin  with (back ground right), Josh Powell, Jenny Rose Baker, Matt Farcher. Background left: Trevor St. John-Gilbert. Photo by John Quilty.

Amy Griffin with (back ground right), Josh Powell, Jenny Rose Baker, Matt Farcher. Background left: Trevor St. John-Gilbert. Photo by John Quilty.

The production design, staging and the acting reflect a craft and ingenuity that is enhanced by the music and dialogue with energetic vitality. Through the director’s clever use of an economy of space, the actors brilliantly create the lives of their characters with fitting props that are incorporated into the musical numbers. The talented actors (Jenny Rose Baker, Matt Farcher, Daniel Rowan, Trevor St. John-Gilbert, Josh Powell and Amy Griffin), and their singing are spot on, exceptional. Theirs is a liveliness and enthusiasm not often found in musical productions where sometimes the direction pales, the actors tend to “park and bark,” and where there doesn’t appear to be much inner life or conflict. It is thanks to Ludovica Villar-Hauser’s thoughtful and attentive direction, the actors’ portrayals, and Pedersen’s succinct book that the storyline never becomes bogged down in the maudlin.

This is a production which should find additional venues because of its salient themes and overriding message about our accountability to ourselves and others in our culture, in what we allow, often mindlessly and with a lack of vision. The beauty of this production is that Pedersen’s message always remains hopeful and does not hit the audience over the head with cant and/or the rhetoric that we should “eat organic” and “buy local.” She achieves this with simplicity by telling the story of the Price family and how they are forced into an untenable position with their beloved farm because of a combination of factors, some ill some good. We are left with questions: Should this be? Doesn’t this impact all of us in the long term?

The title says it all: “This Will All be Yours.” The message gives us pause for indeed, what are we leaving for our grandchildren if we continue our current actions and policies? Hopefully, we are creating innovative ways to keep the best of what our forebears gave us, jettisoning all that is unfruitful; most importantly, recognizing the difference.

This Will All be Yours runs until August 7th.

This review first appeared on Blogcritics at this link.

The Writers Desk

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