Category Archives: NYC Theater Reviews

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‘Ain’t No Mo,’ A Searing, Edgy, Sardonic, Magnificent Production at The Public

Fedna Jacquet, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Marchant Davis, Simone Reasner, Crystal Lucas-Perry, Ain't No Mo, Jordan E. Cooper, Stevie Walker-Webb

(L to R)” Fedna Jacquet, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Marchant Davis, Simone Reccasner, Crystal Lucas-Perry in ‘Ain’t No Mo,’ written by Jordan E. Cooper, directed by Stevie Walker-Webb (Joan Marcus)

Aint’ No Mo by Jordan E. Cooper directed by Stevie Walker-Webb is the most cutting edge, maverick and sterling production I’ve seen this year at The Public Theater. It is a must-see for its hysterical humor, black satire, superb “over-the-top” performances and jaw-dropping, brilliant writing by the playwright whom I cannot praise enough for his startling wake-up call to citizens in this nation that faces, a constitutional crisis.

Cooper with the assistance of the sharp direction and lightening, comedic pacing of Stevie Walker-Webb who shepherds the electric, moment-to moment actors, lays bare themes about black Americans attempting to survive in the medium of white oppression, a condition which began when the first slave ship in 1619 offloaded its precious cargo to the lands we now refer to as the United States. Through vignettes exemplifying black characters who REPRESENT a variety of socio-economic and cultural identities that make up black American society today, Cooper, Walker-Webb and the versatile actors portray the alienation, dislocation and terrorization black individuals confront daily based on the color of their skin because of institutionalized racism, whether they acknowledge it or not.

Though the playwright satirizes black culture and the sardonic humor is exceptional, underlying all of the vignettes is the ubiquity of a fascist system that destroys or chips away through incipient attenuation black citizens’ rights, freedoms, talents, hopes, legacies and praise for black contributions to the goodness of our society. The cultural blessings of black identity reside in every area one can think of; they are an indelible part of our society and culture’s music, scientific research, dance, inventive creations and much more. But why are blacks still facing record incarceration, economic injustice, legal injustice, housing discrimination, job discrimination, educational discrimination, killings by racist law enforcement who are not held accountable and more?

Jordan E. Cooper, Ain't No Mo, Stevie Walker-Webb, Jordan Cooper, Public Theater

Jordan E. Cooper in ‘Ain’t No Mo,’ directed by Stevie Walker-Webb, written by Jordan E. Cooper, Public Theater (Joan Marcus)

These inequalities born of white, male, privilege fascism, citizens must take to heart and understand regardless of skin color, especially if one is not black. Indeed, black American treatment in the culture serves to note the health of the society. It is like the canary in the coal mine. For a time around the decades up to the turn of the 20th century, it looked like maybe the canary was breathing. When Obama became president, the canary seemed stronger. But things didn’t turn out as expected. And now, the canary is croaking out its death song.

Cooper’s play exemplifies this with incredible power. It is a warning for all in the culture that we are very sick and it is especially egregious for black Americans. Those ethnicities who have their eyes open (not the KKK, the white supremacists, racist law enforcement, neo Nazis, the Trumpist administration and supporters, the Federalist Society and ultra-right wing think tanks who use race to divide and scoop up political power) are subject in a different way to the fascism that rides roughshod over black Americans.

Where fascist controllers are concerned, they will divide and conquer through racial hatreds so that ultimately all suffer under a horrible cultural-economic ethos where suffering becomes a matter of degree. And blacks are sacrificed in a blood letting that makes all guilty, unless they work fervently to stop it.

Fedna Jacquet, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Ain't No Mo, Stevie Walker-Webb, Jordan E. Cooper, Public Theater

(L to R): Fedna Jacquet, Ebony Marshall-Oliver in ‘Ain’t No Mo,’ directed by Stevie Walker-Webb, written by Jordan E. Cooper (Joan Marcus)

The greatness of this production which has not one “white” (an irony in itself since many “whites” don’t know their own racial history which includes African-American blood) person in it, concerns black perspectives about having to “get along” and survive in a “white privilege” culture. In effect, black Americans don’t “get along” very well (an understatement). And after the Obama administration ended in a hellishness for black Americans, the Trump election and current white supremacist administration has given rise to another holocaust.

With the empowerment of the KKK and white supremacy under Trump, where do blacks stand? Should they leave a country which has in some states reverted to voting violations reminiscent of the Jim Crow South? The question pervades this amazing and thought-provoking production from its powerful beginning to its riveting ending.

The production begins in a black church on the eve of the election of President Obama in 2008 during the funeral for Brother Righttocomplain. The Pastor leads the hopeful to believe that under Obama, a black president, finally things will begin to improve, and there will be “No Mo” of the oppression, killing and racial-based institutional abuse blacks have experienced.

However, at the end of the church service, we hear gunshots and see flashing red lights symbolizing more cops stopping blacks and killing them unjustly. And we hear in a voice over some of the black abuses that happened during Obama’s presidency, i.e. the Flint Water Crisis, the deaths of Travon Martin, Sandra Bland and scores of others. The unjust murders of many blacks at the hands of law enforcement continue. Obama did what he could but the death and destruction of black people and black identity in various forms is “alive and well.”

Simone Recasner, Crystal Lucas-Perry, 'Ain't No Mo,' Stevie Walker-Webb, Jordan E. Cooper, Public Theater

(L to R): Simone Recasner, Crystal Lucas-Perry, ‘Ain’t No Mo,’ directed by Stevie Walker-Webb, written by Jordan E. Cooper (Joan Marcus)

Cooper then steps into the future. The horror of Trump’s election has resulted in an evacuation of all blacks in the US. Peaches (a wonderful job by Cooper) is a flight attendant on African American airlines and she is responsible for checking in passengers on the flights to African countries for free; it is a form of reparations. Blacks must leave and give up all they have known here, or they will be transmogriphied into whites. All traces of their blackness, culture, identity will be obliterated and they will have to start anew in Africa. Cooper establishes the play’s development with three Peaches’ segments during which thousands of blacks are checked onto their flights so that there will be no blacks left in America.

In between the flights taking off, Cooper relays vignettes of various black individuals being confronted with the decision of staying and losing their black ethos or leaving. In the “Circle of Life” vignette, hundreds of black women line up for abortions; they would rather kill their children then see them in prison or “die while black” at the hands of law enforcement in the US. How Cooper dramatizes this (NO SPOILER ALERT HERE) is superb. However, the news of the eviction letter is just being received for these women They will have to make their decision quickly because the planes are leaving.

In the next vignette, a reality show entitled “Real Baby Mamas of the South-Side,” Cooper confronts the memes of what black identity means. It is a humorous and drop-dead serious send-up of black reality shows which exploit the idea of “being black” from a profit-motive angle.

Marchant Davis, Fedna Jacquet, Ain't No Mo, Stevie Walker-Webb, Jordan E. Cooper, Public Theater

Marchant Davis, Fedna Jacquet in ‘Ain’t No Mo,’ directed by Stevie Walker-Webb, written by Jordan E. Cooper, Public Theater (Joan Marcus)

During this segment as he does with others, the playwright touches upon many examples of oppressive destruction of black identity and the internalization of the destruction as blacks attack themselves and each other’s confidence in their “blackness.”

For example nullification of black identity exists through excoriation of the darkness of one’s skin color and the naturalness of one’s hair. “The lighter the skin, the better” is a reality blacks have had to deal with because of white fascist physical mores. The trend has morphed over the decades into a perverse reverse. Other ethnic groups including whites have embraced the “black ethos” in a perverse acceptance of only the superficiality of “being black” without realizing any of the horrific sacrifices blacks have made over their 400-year history in this nation.

Cooper takes this notion and puts it on steroids during the hysterical, satiric “Real Baby Mamas of the South-Side.” One of the characters (Rachonda-her real name is Rachel) is going through transracial treatments to become black. When she is called out on it by Tracy, Kendra and Karen, she reveals that she has no clue about black American sacrifices and and just wants to ride the current wave of black female “cool” generated by Michelle Obama.

This becomes so obnoxious and Rachonda so overweening in exrpessing the “right” to be who she wants, the hypocrisy for the real black women is overwhelming. All fight, a boon for reality TV’s exploitation. The attack on each other is symbolic. It is a tragic outcome of internalizing the “whiter is better” cultural mores turned on its head. We are ironically reminded how divide and conquer is a tactic of the dominant, white, privilege culture.

Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Crystal Lucas-Perry in 'Ain't No Mo,' Jordan E. Cooper, Stevie Walker-Webb, Public Theater

(L to R): Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Crystal Lucas-Perry in ‘Ain’t No Mo,’ written by Jordan E. Cooper, directed by Stevie Walker-Webb, Public Theater (Joan Marcus)

Interestingly, the real black women leave to join the thousands who are evacuating to Africa. Of course Rachel (who is white) never gets the notification to evacuate. The irony is that in attempting to become transracial she will never be black “cool.”

In the remaining vignettes, Cooper reveals a wealthy bourgeois black family who is covering over their black identity symbolized by the character “Black” (dressed like a slave) who their father kept in the basement out of fear. Because he dared to have his own business, the KKK nearly lynched their father. As a result, he suppressed his “blackness” and assimilated/internalized white cultural mores while suppressing his “blackness” by chaining up Black in the basement (psychological suppression).

It is an incredible vignette, both sardonic and sober in its revelation that to survive, blacks have internalized white cultural values to their own destruction. By adopting the”white” ethos by being the proud bourgeois class (nullifying their real selves/souls) they have trampled all those who have shed blood to advance the hope of achieving civil rights, equal opportunity and justice overcoming institutional racism.

As the family attempts to have an elegant dinner and discuss whether to go to Africa, Black comes up from the basement bursting on the scene. Black, representing everything about the family’s identity that they wish to eradicate (having internalized the white supremacy values) is a horror to them. They end up killing Black themselves for they do not want to be associated with being black. They have wealth and status and live in a white neighborhood; they are deluded they have made it in the oppressive culture that has destroyed their being.

Indeed, the theme is clear. An oppressive fascist culture has as its most horrific tactic: get blacks to destroy the finest traits about them, their blackness. Without that blackness, they embody the worst of the fascist “master race.” They genocide their own and themselves..

Cooper also identifies the black, female prison population in a very powerful scene. When freedom is posited, one of the prisoners, Blue, in great fear and rage from all the abuse of her past nearly creates a situation where she messes up her chances for freedom and is killed (or never makes the plane and is transmogrified). How Cooper ends this vignette and the last one when Peaches also goes to join those evacuating the US, are memorable scenes. They leave the audience in complete shock.

Jordan E. Cooper, 'Ain't No Mo,' Stevie Walker-Webb, Jordan E. Cooper, Public Theater

Jordan E. Cooper, ‘Ain’t No Mo,’ directed by Stevie Walker-Webb, written by Jordan E. Cooper (Joan Marcus)

This superb production is a crucifying indictment of the nullification/annihilation of black Americans through identity confusion and racist oppression via various institutions in the United States. It is even more prevalent today under Trumpism in its blatant constitutional violations, gerrymandering, lies, destroying ballots and Trump’s sanctioning of the Russians helping elect him. (He denies this still, though the Mueller Report evidence proves the Russians meddled and then that Trump covered it up and obstructed justice). All of these segments hit the bulls-eye with mind-blowing truthfulness that makes one laugh and cry at the same time.

The themes are unmistakable. The sub rosa genocide of black Americans will continue unless we work together to stop it. Regardless, black Americans have made magnificent contributions and are the backbone of our progress. No one culture and class should dominate; that is the greatest myth and whether or not whites acknowledge that this is a lie, nevertheless, is a lie. The truth is apparent.

Sadly, if black women question having children because they fear giving them  up to shootings and jail terms, then where is the hope? Are the strides taken up to this point in time hope-filled enough to continue in the face of the new fascism and white supremacy that is just plain in your face and denies that it is in your face? The play raises these questions for us to consider and answer with advocacy and action.

This marvelous production is an experience. Above all it is a reminder that we are together in this culture, striving to prosper. If we don’t work for all of us, then we can’t work for any of us. This is especially so against an administration that only bows to its own agenda and money men.

Praise go to these actors: Fedna Jacquet, Marchant Davis, Simone Recasner, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Crystal Lucas-Perry and Jordan E. Cooper as Peaches. Kudos go to Kimie Nishikawa (Scenic Design), Montana Levi Blanco (Costume Design) Adam Honore (Lighting Design) (Emily Auciello (Sound Design) Cookie Jordan (Hair, Wig, Makeup Design).

Ain’t No Mo runs with no intermission until 5 May. Don’t miss this incredible, “in-your-face” production. You will be glad you saw something as novel and profound and wonderfully performed as you will see. There is NOTHING like it around! For tickets go to the website by CLICKING HERE.

 

 

 

 

‘Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain,’ Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters

Dan Marh, James Millard, Matt Sheahan, John Walton, 59E59 Theaters, Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain

(L to R): James Millard, Dan March (co-writers with Matt Sheahan) in ‘Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain,’ directed by John Walton (Lidia Crisafulli)

In Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, the setting of the play is Britain 1942. Based on a pamphlet of the same time (valuable historical/cultural ephemera) created by the American War Office, the comedic play is a fascinating bit of history. It reveals the cultural divide between America and Britain and pointed  differences in words, coinage, foods, phrases, social graces, sports, class system and much more.

At the time military and civilian officials anticipated that the socio-cultural differences between the U.S. and the U.K. could create havoc in cooperation during the war effort, unless Americans were provided with a guide book to smooth over relations between the two countries. Germany had already initiated a propaganda campaign against Britain and hoped to keep America out of the war. Military officials didn’t want servicemen to so influenced by the propaganda that Americans and British would be attacking each other instead of the Germans. Hence the “Instructions.”

The comedy, part of an offering in the Brits Off Broadway season is refreshingly quaint in light of advances after WWII in technology through the digital age, Google, Wikipedia, and social media which have made knowledge and interactions with the UK’s culture and society ubiquitous. However, in those days, paper in the form of pamphlets was the vehicle used to educate servicemen about British lifestyles.

At the top of the play friendly, intelligent, socially attuned Lieutenant Schultz (James Millard) who already lives in Britain and is a stalwart mentor of proper comportment welcomes the servicemen (audience) and informally shakes hands with them to make them feel comfortable in a potentially awkward situation.. As Schultz, James Millard portrays an immediately likable and well meaning American soldier that we can be proud of. Schultz introduces himself to the Eight Air Force squadron (the audience) and gives his resounding interactive opening remarks. He then answers a few logistical questions, i.e. “Private Welch-yes if you can find somewhere to put it.” Millard’s superb interplay essentially sets the tone and exuberance of the production which carries through to the second act.

After this humorous interchange which actually preps the audience for the smartly paced jokes to follow, Schultz attempts to oil the way for the bulk of the program handed off to the imperial, crass and vapidly dense (single digit IQ dense) Colonel Atwood (the excellent Dan March). Atwood unwittingly manages to insult the British in every conceivable way imaginable after Major Randolph Gibbons arrives. Matt Sheahan portrays the endearing senior-ranked British officer who is the perfect foil for Atwood to lay his cultural “Brutish” stupid on.

What follows is Atwood’s disconnect and Randolph’s attempt to correct him with great frustration. Their resistant attempts at establishing a relationship is a bumpy ride throughout the production. Randolph is the standard polite Brit whose social norms and phrases completely confuse the rough and ready American cowboy style of Atwood, who must defer to Schultz to clear up his muddle. (i.e. “It’s very urgent, I’m afraid.” Atwood: “He’s afraid?”)

Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, Dan March James Millard Matt Sheahan, John Walton, 59E59 Theaters

(L to R): Matt Sheahan, Dan March (co-writers with James Millard) in ‘Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain,’ directed by John Walton (Lidia Crisafulli)

Eventually, as Randolph attempts to assume his authorized position to instruct the men, Atwood refuses to give place to “a smart ass in short pants.” Indeed, we think if these instructive sessions are populated by other Atwoods and Randolphs in American bases dotted throughout the English countryside like this one, the Germans don’t need to lift one more finger to sow discord. Americans and British are doing an excellent job of disrespecting one another on their own and dissolving the good will to cooperate and unify against the Germans.

Throughout Act I Colonel Atwood embarrasses himself as a rude, dim-witted ugly American, albeit one in a position of power who thinks he is the “smartest guy on the base.” Considering that we understand the outcome of the war and the importance of the US to winning it, of course the vignettes about learning British coinage, going out in a social setting, having tea, etc. are hysterically funny and we enjoy laughing at Colonel Atwood.

However, the underlying irony is that the British do not know the outcome of the war in 1942 and were very frightened of the Nazi aggressions, i.e. bombing London and threatening invasion. If Atwood illustrates the typical American higher up military man with “know-how and bravery”, the Germans will easily win. This gap in logic should have been strengthened in the play’s writing for even more laughs. But indeed, with aplomb, the writers (also the actors) Dan March, James Millard, Matt Sheahan emphasize the theme that the Peter Principle is alive and well and running the US and British military, in an all too familiar dynamic that the greater the incompetence, the higher the rank.

That the Peter Principle applies to the British military resides in Atwood’s humorous observations that because of mismanagement and incompetence, the British blew it against the Germans, nearly lost it at Dunkirk and had to beg the Americans to come there and “save the day.” This most calumnous  of truth-based insults sets Randoph and Atwood in a competitive war of one-up-manship. Schultz, ever the peacemaker attentive to the servicemen (us) watching this mini-attack of the Americans against the British points out their divisiveness is just what the German’s intend with their propaganda. Schultz (his name is an irony) effects a truce and diverts the men so they proceed calmly.

Some of the high points in this act occur when Randolph takes over the command which he has been authorized to do to educate the servicemen despite Atwood’s bombastic protestations which reveal he has lost the point of the entire military exercise. Randolph’s explanation of British coinage is fascinating (we see how large the 5 pound notes were). Atwood’s  muddle-headed confusion about the specific values and differences between shillings, guineas, tuppence, etc. (which he never learns) is hysterical as is our confusion.

Also in Act I to school the servicemen in the social graces and polite conversation (you always talk about the weather) while going to a pub, Schultz impersonates Randolph’s wife as “she” and Atwood have drinks. The scene is Monty Pythonesque in its absurd ridiculousness. James Millard’s demure, shy wife is thick with hilarity as is Randolph’s outrage at Atwood overstepping his boundaries and going against propriety. If one thing is obvious, Atwood has learned little, and Randolph underscores this by tossing his own weaponry in the form of ironic asides at the dull-witted Colonel Atwood which, like duds, never register or square away on their target.

Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, John Walton, James Millard, Dan March Matt Sheahan, 59E59 Theaters

(L to R): James Millard, Dan March (co-writers with Matt Sheahan) ‘Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain,’ directed by John Walton (Lidia Crisafulli)

Act II continues the humor with an intensive conducted by the enemy at Nazi Spy School. March, Millard and Sheahan use puppets to reveal how the Germans are prepping for the invasion of the British countryside and sowing discord in their propaganda between the Americans and the British. Then in additional vignettes, we meet Lord Tolly, learn the differences between cricket and baseball, discover British puddings and end with learning the steps to Morris Dancing. The vignettes are redirected and the last, depending upon the audience flies or falls. However it is fun and instructive.

The production has many fine points in revealing the history and customs, attitudes and variabilities between the two countries during wartime. And importantly, not only is the writing, especially in Act I crisp and well paced, it illustrates that although both countries evolved, some of the particularly noxious elements of behavior associated with both countries has not. The pompousness and sense of superiority that manifests culturally in Americans and the British needs work certainly.

The enlightened spoof of a typical Nazi spy school which instructs German soldier-spies and officers how to sow division and discord and how to pass for a countryman in England or America is an excellent reminder of how countries attempt to gain superiority in power domination. The carry-over is that this is done even in peacetime.

Matt Sheahan, co-writer with James Millard, Dan March) in 'Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain,' John Walton

Matt Sheahan (co-writer with James Millard, Dan March) in ‘Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain,’ directed by John Walton (Lidia Crisifulli)

I couldn’t help but think of Russian efforts in their cyber-warfare campaigns against the UK with regard to Brexit and the US with regard to the 2016 election. Currently, Americans like Steven Bannon and other conservative groups in Germany and France are pushing forth an ultra right-wing propaganda agenda in concert with Russian efforts to push out liberal, democratic views, policies and perspectives. The spy techniques used in the theater of war in the Pacific and Europe during WWII, evidenced in this play, then and now are now effective psychological weapons to gain advantage. Indeed, many of these techniques and principles are largely used today in social media and alternative news sights to influence unwitting global citizens and strengthen lies, memes, mythologies to promote the policies of political groups, and  also to divide. The divisions continue and of course, the country that remains unified and in a solid state will dominate.

In that I found this to be a vital production, not only in its humorous approach and clever writing and acting but also in the important themes of which we need to be reminded. Knowledge about the underlying customs, mores and graces that have held a culture together for centuries is valuable not only in war but also in peace. Divisions can only be created when religious sects, cultural groups with different values and mores are kept divided in separate communities without speaking to one another or sharing a cup of coffee or cup of sugar. Cultural divisions create discord, the perfect medium for an attacking enemy, especially on the internet.

Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is instructive, funny and prescient. For a delightful and thematically trenchant evening give it a look-see at 59E59 Theaters. It runs with one intermission until 12 May. For tickets, go to their website by CLICKING HERE.

INSTRUCTIONS FOR AMERICAN SERVICEMEN IN BRITAIN

Adapted with kind permission from the Bodleian Library’s publication “Instructions for American Servicemen, 1942” by Dan March, Matt Sheahan, James Millard, and John Walton; directed by John Walton 

Produced by Fol Espoir in association with Jermyn Street Theatre and The Real MacGuffins, for Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters.

 

‘Burn This,’ Sparking Flames Between a Smoldering Adam Driver and Cool Keri Russell

Keri Russell, Adam Driver, Burn This, Lanford Wilson, NYC revival, Michael Mayer

Keri Russell, Adam Driver in ‘Burn This,’ by Lanford Wilson, directed by Michael Mayer (Danielle Levitt)

Part of the fun of watching Lanford Wilson’s characters in Burn This includes noting their particularity, their measured “normalcy,” their zany, hyped-up incredulity. Concisely directed by Michael Mayer for authenticity and humorous grist, Burn This in its New York City revival drifts, flares up, subsides, then rages. The characters circle each other, collide, implode, retreat with tenuous watchfulness, then boil over, coursing the play to an uplifting conclusion.

What makes this an intricate production is the dynamic of the relationships centered around Anna (Keri Russell) the smooth, sylph-like dancer who evidences a shine for artistic endeavor and the artfulness of restrained love. However, Anna is undone by the haphazard. It comes in the prodigious shape of earthy, sensual Pale (Adam Driver) who like a force-of-nature inflames subterranean passions and blasts her out of her staid romance with Burton (David Furr) and easy routine with gay roommate Larry (Brandon Uranowitz).

After Anna’s one-time sizzling encounter with Pale, unbeknownst to Anna, her elaborately constructed inner psychic protections are shaken to their foundation. Her external “cool” and artistic resolve are broken wide open with the affirmation of life’s most chaotic of emotions which irrevocably will spin her into a relationship with the amazing and sensitive Pale.

At the opening of the play, Larry and Burton reveal their need for the friendship and the attention of the grace-filled and gorgeous dancer, whose nurturing kindnesses and moderate emotional tenor roll up and around marketing whiz Larry, and successful, screenwriter Burton. Anna receives comfort from both men in this expositional scene as they console each other about the loss of Larry’s and Anna’s other roommate, Robbie to an unfortunate accident.

David Furr, Keri Russell, Brandon Uranowitz, Burn This, Michael Mayer, Lanford Wilson

(L to R): David Furr, Keri Russell, Brandon Uranowitz in Lanford Wilson’s ‘Burn This,’ directed by Michael Mayer (Matthew Murphy)

As we listen to Anna and Larry, we understand that Robbie, who was gay, meant a great deal to them. Anna’s anger with Robbie’s family, who refuses to acknowledge that he was gay or that he was a superb dancer (they never saw him dance) spills out in her ironic descriptions of the “relatives,” a Lanford Wilson set up for the next scene and a character revelation of Anna. We understand the easy dynamic among the three. We also note that Anna’s wry comments are her way of coping with Robbie’s loss and indemnifying the narrowness of the family who finds Robbie’s homosexuality unacceptable. The themes of familial rejection and estrangement over gender identity, and emotional disconnectedness with one’s inner feelings are themes that Wilson examines with rigor and truthfulness in Burn This, as he does in his other works.

Keri Russell gives a nuanced and calculated performance in Anna’s scenes with Burton and Larry. In this opening scene, Russell’s Anna modulates her emotions of anger and sorrow as she seeks affectionate relief from lover Burton, and an uplift from the humorous Larry, who comforts with irony and wit.

1 0596_Adam Driver and Keri Russell in BURN THIS, Photo by Matthew Murphy, 2019-001

Larry’s lovably in-your-face gay ironist shares a closeness with Anna garnered during the years he and Robbie roomed with her. The quips and jokes adroitly delivered by Brandon Uranowitz’s Larry snap out and hit the bulls-eye. From his portrayal we understand that Larry speaks from deep within an authentic specificity born out of negotiating his gayness. His timing is excellent. Uranowitz provides the thrum of energy in scenes which, without him, might too readily have slipped away.

The hot-looking screenwriter Burton, a familiar presence in Anna’s and Larry’s NYC loft apartment (the back projection of the rooftops is stunning thanks to Derek McLane’s scenic design) rounds out the easy interplay among the three in the first scene. And as a straight man, Burton provides Larry with joke fodder.

David Furr’s portrayal succinctly conveys an upper level reserve and privilege that sits on the edge of narcissism. But he does retain a a bit of self-effacing humility and for this reason, Furr’s Burton manages to elicit our approval. He knows (perhaps Anna nudges him about this) that he must evolve and become a better “listener.” And for Anna’s sake, Burton reminds her that he is trying.

As two who appear to be the halves of one lovely, perfect whole in the best of all possible worlds, Anna and Burton are the beautiful, artistic, classy, cool couple. Boooorrrring! No wonder Anna is entranced by the strikingly opposite, frenetic, dazzlingly, off-beat Pale, even if he is as high as a cloud on cocaine and whatever else the restaurant manager has plied himself with. Though Anna has encountered Pale who “saves her” from pinned butterflies at his relative’s house after the funeral (you’ll have to see the play to understand the symbolism of this) “he” doesn’t register on her psyche. When he shows up to collect his brother Robbie’s “stuff” at the loft, Anna cannot help but “take him all in!”

Adam Driver, Lanford Wilson, Burn This, Michael Mayer

Adam Driver in Lanford Wilson’s ‘Burn This,’ directed by Michael Mayer (Matthew Murphy)

Adam Driver’s Pale explodes onto the stage in the second scene. Russell’s Anna never recovers. Neither do we. And that is one of the major thrusts of Mayer’s Burn This. Anna is so swept off her feet (as are most of the men and women in the audience) into the exuberance and thrall of his electric and fiery presence (he has a toaster oven in his belly), she doesn’t know what’s happening. Russell’s portrayal shifts; the nuance mediates then gyrates in the direction of surprise, disbelief and unrestrained engagement. Her gradual evolution as an individual morphs from this point. Wilson’s first scene with Anna, Larry and Burton provides the markers from which we measure her change from then on.

As Pale, Driver’s completely unaffected randomness and moment-to-moment outrageousness are jaw-dropping, in a funny, fabulous way. His unpredictability is life itself. Driver’s emotional portrayal lives onstage with sustained exuberance. Indeed, he resonates like a tuning fork. The magnificence of the vibrating sound thrums deep in our souls and hearts. His presence clarifies a message we need to follow. Be real if you find someone who moves you! (even on cocaine)

Is there such a thing as “love at first sight?” With regard to Anna and Pale, “sight” is the wrong word; perhaps “second sight,” is appropriate. Driver’s Pale is awesome; and Driver as Pale is starkly lovable. The irony is that externally, he cannot hold a candle to Burton. And that is the poetic Lanford Wilson’s second thrust which Michael Mayer’s direction relates with profound realism. Love is ineffable, perhaps irrevocable. It is as blind as the faith required to experience it, especially when you stumble in the darkness unprepared, then crash into it head-on!

After their intimacy Anna and Pale hunger for each other though they remain apart. But no matter. Pale is Anna’s spiritual counterpart, and she is his. Such a bond is not only chemical, it is profoundly healing and revolutionary.

How does Wilson engineer the redemption of these characters who remain separated, even estranged?  Larry provides the gateway, manifesting another of Wilson’s themes. Friends (regardless of their gender and sometimes because of it) love and encourage without jealousy or fear of loss. Though this theme seems as obvious as climate change, sadly in the currency of our time, there are the “disbelieving” who find it anathema.

Kerri Russell, Burn This, Lanford Wilson, Michael Mayer, Hudson Theatre

Kerri Russell in ‘Burn This,’ by Lanford Wilson, directed by Michael Mayer (Matthew Murphy)

Pale’s and Anna’s love and passion lift them beyond stasis, represented by Burton and Pale’s wife. Their tie seems other worldly, layered with truth and forgiveness. As a result, Pale acknowledges the lost years of his life as he confesses his frailties to Anna and the regrets he has amassed during his failed marriage and fatherhood.

For Russell’s Anna this love has encouraged her artistry onto a different pathway. She has entered into a new becoming. Unrecognizable to herself, unable to contain her emotional kindling fired up by Pale, she acknowledges the inner conflagration, a condition which she has never experienced with Burton. Pale acknowledges he, too, is completely overwhelmed. We understand this is a hard realization for both of them, a glorious disconnect/connect that will continue its wending way however it will. In the play’s last moments, Anna slips into Pale’s arms and life. He reassures her with love endearments, that only someone like Pale can express, and “cries all over her hair.”

Lanford Wilson’s characterization of New York City roommates’ gender diversity, and his themes about the ineffable qualities of love and generosity of friendship was revelatory in 1987, the setting of the play. Mayer’s production with the illimitable Driver, measured, blossoming Russell, with assists from Uranowitz and Furr is equally revelatory for us today. The themes of love, acceptance, the possibility of redemption and growth in this era of Trumpism are vital. They encourage us to retain the social advancements we’ve achieved and to embrace our humanity and decency through the power of non judgmental love and self-forgiveness.

Mayer and the actors and artistic creatives take this startling, understated, emotionally sonorous and uplifting play and make it a resounding success that you do not want to miss, especially for the laughter, the hope and the performances.

Special Kudos go to Derek McLane for scenic design, Clint Ramos, costumes, Natasha Katz for lighting design and David Van Tieghem’s sound design.

Burn This runs with one intermission at the Hudson Theatre (141 W 44th between 6th and 7th) in a limited engagement until Sunday, 14 July. For tickets go to their website by CLICKING HERE.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Life Sucks’ by Aaron Posner, a Punchy, Waggish ‘Uncle Vanya’ Update That Keeps You Laughing, Starring Austin Pendleton

Kimberly Chatterjee, Michael Schantz, Stacey Linnartz, Austin Pendleton, Nadia Bowers, Barbara Kingsley, Jeff Biehl, 'Life Sucks,' Jeff Wise, The Wild Project

(L to R): Kimberly Chatterjee, Michael Schantz, Stacey Linnartz, Austin Pendleton, Nadia Bowers, Barbara Kingsley, Jeff Biehl in ‘Life Sucks,’ directed by Jeff Wise (Russ Rowland)

Life Sucks by Aaron Posner, presented by Wheelhouse Theater Company in its New York Premiere is a knee-slapping, aisle-rolling riot. The adroitly rendered production directed by Jeff Wise boasts superb ensemble acting, edgy, rapid-fire pacing,  scintillating vibrance and abject fun as the audience is raked over the coals of rejection and dragged through emotional torments, trials and tribulations of love, lust and allurement. And for dessert at the end of every scene and act, you’ll enjoy over-sized irony wrapped in a continual joke fest.

Who are the actors and characters that satisfy the audience’s need for mirth in our hour of great need when the blackened pages of the redacted Mueller Report loom over our plebeian, miserable heads? They may be found as a variation of characters from Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya but with an update for all seasons within the USA or the U.K. in the twenty-first century.

What happens when you set a number of miserable, bored, ungrateful and psychically damaged characters in a room with each other? Anton Chekhov investigated this over 100 years ago and directors and actors have been doing the same ever since. Within a modernized version that simulates the structure and most of the characterizations, Aaron Posner presents his examination of such individuals all the while twitting them with a droll and LOL sardonic perspective.

Life Sucks, Wheelhouse Theater Company, The Wild Project, Jeff Biehl, Jeff Wise, Michael Schantz

(L to R): Michael Schantz, Jeff Biehl in ‘Life Sucks,’ directed by Jeff Wise, The Wild Project, Wheelhouse Theater Company (Russ Rowland)

Uncle Vanya’s humorously morose, whiny, masochistic victim is portrayed by the completely heartfelt (especially at the conclusion) and totally believable Jeff Biehl who steers the production blaring out Uncle Vanya’s shredded inner life so we completely identify that yes, “Life Sucks!” The original quote attributed to Stephen King’s Pet Sematary reads with the horrific refrain, “Life sucks, then you die.” (SPOILER ALERT-do not read the last sentence) However, in the play Posner saves us from the inevitable exclamation point for Uncle Vanya.

The unobtrusive, slighted, self-critical Sonia (Chekhov’s Sonya) is portrayed by the adorable Kimberly Chatterjee who manages to tone down her adorableness just enough for us to not consider why the attractive Dr. Aster (Chekhov’s Astrov-played by Michael Shantz with mirey depressiveness) elects to frantically, humorously lust after Ella who spurns him, rather than to seek the comforting arms of the sweet, cute, funny Sonia.

Ella (in Chekhov, Yelena) portrayed with exceptional wit by Nadia Bowers, during narcissistic moments of externality, considers herself to be the “IT” girl with the overwhelming problem of attracting men and women she doesn’t want. All the males are entranced with her, especially because she is married to the elderly professor, Sonia’s Dad, played by the inimitable Austin Pendleton who is her counterpart in self-loathing, but for different reasons.

Austin Pendleton, Nadia Bowers, Life Sucks, Jeff Wise, Wheelhouse Theater Company, The Wild Project

Austin Pendleton, Nadia Bowers in ‘Life Sucks,’ directed by Jeff Wise, Wheelhouse Theater Company, The Wild Project (Russ Rowland)

Pendleton is expertly hysterical, yet completely believable as he expresses that Ella’s image of her outward appearance and confidence mirrors the professor’s inner intellect and image of himself. Nevertheless, both are devastated; she by her own self-loathing and lack of psychic confidence and emotional wholeness, and he by his irreversible condition of O.L.D. How Posner’s elucidates their relationship is humorous and reminds us how and why opposites attract and then whip each other for it with great similarity.

Interestingly, it is the marriage of “ocelot” Ella with the professor that Uncle Vanya and Dr. Aster find a “come on” because “they” believe themselves to better for her than the professor. This obvious disconnect of the marriage between Ella and the professor frustrates both men. It also sends the crabby, murderous Vanya into rages and mordant behavior which of course is authentically funny. The self-confident but despondent doctor acts out his lust on Ella without asking permission, is rewarded, then verbally rejected. Interestingly, he takes this in stride. Can he do anything else when she refuses to run away with him?

The object of Vanya’s and the doctor’s desires portrayed with affability and outer confidence by Nadia Bowers, too, is filled with annoyance and frenzy that is driven by her compromised psychic state. She has everything any woman could want and can’t get out from under her own misery. Neither love nor lust satisfies and not even Pickles’ (Stacey Linnartz is the perfect foil for Bowers) alluring kiss can offer Ella any hope of lifting her out of herself.

Nadia Bowers, Michael Schantz, Barbara Kingsley, Stacey Linnartz, Austin Pendleton, Life Sucks, Jeff Wise, Wheelhouse Theater Company, The Wild Project

(L to R): Nadia Bowers, Michael Schantz, Barbara Kingsley, Stacey Linnartz, Austin Pendleton in ‘Life Sucks,’ directed by Jeff Wise, The Wild Project (Russ Rowland)

Only Babs-Chekhov’s character Maria (the sane and moderate Barbara Kingsley) seems to be at a steady, “Goldilocks,” emotional state. Within she appears to have achieved self-contentment. She is the Zen Mother and well-meaning philosopher/artist and mother to Vanya. She appears grounded and whole. As foils go, Barbara Kingsley is measured and with near perfection, she rounds out this well shepherded, sterling ensemble as she manages to corral her son (the prickly Biehl) with intelligence.

What I particularly enjoyed was how each character engages the audience in their solo moments with a genuineness so acute that one believes the real actor behind the mask stands emotionally/psychically naked before us. This direct address channeling is difficult to achieve sans actors’ expertise, relaxed confidence, witty, ironic tenor, and, of course, damned superb writing. For example, I saw another production recently with uneven performances especially in the solo sections which didn’t ping with authenticity. The contrast between the two productions was striking with regard to the actors’ solos.

Jeff Biehl, Michael Schantz, Stacey Linnartz, Life Sucks, Jeff Wise, Wheelhouse Theater Company, The Wild Project

(L to R): Jeff Biehl, Michael Schantz, Stacey Linnartz in ‘Life Sucks,’ directed by Jeff Wise (Russ Rowland)

Life Sucks is a treasure which should be extended, if possible. This New York Premiere by Wheelhouse Theater Company just brings down the house! It will engage you like no other production this spring. It achieves a trinity of excellence in the writing, ensemble work and direction. All cohere seamlessly and the high points resonate and recede with the undulations of life’s joys and self-indulgent sorrows. Surely, the themes are clear; there are some things that cannot be changed. And the petulance of not wanting to make the best of our own personal situations is sheer foolishness.

Special recognition to the designer creatives who include Brittany Vasta (Scenic Design) Christopher Metzger (Costume Design) Drew Florida (Lighting Design) Mark Van Hare (Sound Design).

Life Sucks runs with one intermission at The Wild Project (195 E. 3rd St) until 20 April. For tickets go to their website by CLICKING HERE.

‘Oklahoma!’ Cool Convolution, a Review

Oklahoma! Daniel Fish, Circle in the Square, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lynn Riggs, Green Grow the Lilacs

The cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘Oklahoma!’ directed by Daniel Fish, Circle in the Square (Little Fang)

Rodgers and Hammerstein II’s Oklahoma has come to New York City again. This slimmed down (cast) production directed by Daniel Fish initially opened at St Anne’s Warehouse with accompanying servings of chili and cornbread during the intermission. It gained steam to open at Circle in the Square with a multi-talented, vibrant cast, some of whom shine with resplendence. These include the principals: the transcendent, mesmerizing Damon Daunno as Curly, Rebecca Naomi Jones as Laurey, with salient assists by Mary Testa (Aunt Eller) the adorable Ali Stroker (Ado Annie) the sensitive, menacing Patrick Vaill (Jud Fry) the humorously clueless James Davis (Will Parker) and the funny, always on-point Will Brill (Ali Hakim).

Green Grow the Lilacs, (1930) by Lynn Riggs is the play source for the original 1943 version of Rodgers & Hammerstein II’s Oklahoma! Riggs’ (a mixed-race white and Native American-Cherokee) text provides the lyrical, wistful opening that Rogers and Hammerstein II used as inspiration for the lyrics to the iconic song, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” Cowboy Curly McClain opens the “innovative-for-its-time” musical with this serenade which is an advertisement to win over Aunt Eller and Laurey Williams who he wants to ask to the evening box social.

The corn, cattle, sky, “give off a golden emanation that is partly true and partly a trick of the imagination, focusing to keep alive, a loveliness that may pass away,” Rogers and Hammerstein II’s original script states in the stage directions lifted from Riggs. Inherent in Curly’s hopefulness that “everything will go his way,” regarding Laurey Williams, is the possibility that it won’t.

Damon Daunno, Mary Testa in Rodgers & Hammerstein II's 'Oklahoma!' Daniel Fish, Circle in the Square, Lynn Riggs, Green Grow the Lilacs

Damon Daunno, Mary Testa in Rodgers & Hammerstein II’s ‘Oklahoma!’ directed by Daniel Fish at Circle in the Square (Little Fang)

In fact the moment he ends the song, his interchange with Laurey sparks reality. Things are upended where she is concerned and indeed, the loveliness that he enjoyed for a moment has passed. Already, the themes have been presented: uncertainty, impermanence and imperfections caused by tricks of the imagination. Foreshadowed? Continual struggle ahead for Curly’s and Laurey’s relationship and for Oklahoma which is about to become the 46th state.

These themes of impermanence and imperfection coupled with the struggle for survival and the mitigating force of love which may or may not last or help, are important ones. This is especially so for the main characters Curly and Laurey who strive, argue and sacrifice for each other. Though by the play’s conclusion they fulfill their love in marriage which they celebrate with Oklahoma’s statehood, harbingers of change forebode on the horizon. Curly will become a farmer which he knows little about and in twenty-three years his community will be facing drought, deprivation, dust bowl storms and bankruptcy as the “land that is grand” fails them because of their own inability to properly husband it.

Some of this nightmare future in a place that will not fulfill its beautiful mornings is incipient in the plot development of Green Grow the Lilacs and Rodgers and Hammerstein II’s musical. The dark days ahead are certainly revealed by the end of Fish’s Oklahoma! which is thought-provoking, intriguing but also convoluted.

Fish does not change the script, except for the physical fight scene between Jud and Curly. Curly doesn’t fall on his knife; there is a pistol. But the use of design elements lighting/darkness (Scott Zielinski) staging (Fish) scenic design (Laura Jellinek) costume design (Terese Wadden) special effects (Jeremy Chernick) projection design (Joshua Thorson) and sound design (Drew Levy) morph the basic immutable tenets of Oklahoma! to reflect Fish’s circulatory vision. I found this at times confusing and at cross-purposes with characterizations and themes.

Damon Daunno, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Rodgers & Hammerstein II's Oklahoma!, Daniel Fish, Circle in the Square

Damon Daunno, Rebecca Naomi Jones in Rodgers & Hammerstein II’s ‘Oklahoma!’ directed by Daniel Fish (Little Fang)

In this re-imagined Oklahoma! these are largely re-directed, sifted and filtered revealing the underpinnings of a tenuous social culture which we are encouraged to become a part of. Indeed, the lights are on with the exception of a lovely, sensual and intimate scene between Laurey and Curly and a few other scenes where the design hues change or there is total darkness.

However, despite the lighting touch of inclusiveness, Fish’s social dynamic isn’t completely realized. For example there is no clear referent to Native Americans (30 tribes inhabited the territories by the time of the play) in the community that the designers create of family-style tables sporting chili-filled crock pots that surround the playing area. There is not one eagle feather, moccasin or soft, beaded belt, headband or any obvious identifying cultural accoutrements. In this alternating stylized/realistic version of Oklahoma! this appears to be an oversight along with the reality that also appears to be diminished: laws did not protect women who were men’s chattel once married. (And the EPA amendment has still not been passed!)

In his emphasis of the conflict that grows to a great malevolence between Curly (Damon Daunno) and Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill) Fish uses design elements (darkness, sound effects, projections) and particular staging. The result impacts and twists the characterizations in the service of presenting a culture and community rather than individuals. This diminishes the inner conflicts of the characters and hinders the elucidation of themes that could lift the audience’s understanding of immutable principles of good and evil. In this version goodness is sometimes hard to come by.

Specifically, in the smokehouse scene, Fish douses the lights and then uses close up projections of the faces of Duanno and Vaill to create tension and menace. Damon Daunno as Curly and Patrick Vaill’s Jud speak in miked whispers; the effect reveals surreptitious treachery on the part of both characters. The song “Poor Jud is Dead” has a completely different tenor. It appears that Curly is as wicked intentioned, as Jud, perhaps even more so as he encourages Jud to think suicide might yield the love and companionship he seeks, an abject lie for an outsider and miscreant like Jud. Any potential humor in this scene is removed. Curly who should be the bigger person becomes the weaker in his jealousy of a man he criticizes after Jud threatens him.

Ali Stroker, Will Brill in Rodgers & Hammerstein II's 'Oklahoma!' Daniel Fish, Circle in the Square

Ali Stroker, Will Brill in Rodgers & Hammerstein II’s ‘Oklahoma!’ directed by Daniel Fish, Circle in the Square (Little Fang)

In this version the scene is a disconnect. It throws down the brokenness of Jud and Curly which ends in their ominous shooting in the dark which Aunt Eller investigates and breaks up as the lights come on. The way Fish renders it, the scene makes us reflect that perhaps Curly is just better at hiding his rapaciousness toward Laurie with more enhanced social graces. His jealously unsettles him that Laurie selects Jud to be with; rather than to confront this, his childish pride takes over.

Because of the overall tone of the scene, the congenial, affable musician and expert singer and guitar player Curly who formerly delighted us, seems an incongruity in his behavior toward Jud. Granted, the scene is a difficult one for tone and tenor to strike a balance with humor. However, when the scene reveals characterizations tweaked without humor, the effect is disturbing. Curly is made unlikable and Jud becomes pitiful and wormy, in addition to being unlikable. All these machinations are over a woman? Do they even see Laurie’s identity? Or is Laurie an objectified symbol of conquest their male egos compete over? Considering Jud’s position in the community (which he himself has effected) there is no competition; why is Curly so upended?

Laurie’s characterization in this version is made shallow. Eliminated is the dream dance sequence where Laurie chooses to sacrifice herself to be with Jud in order to save Curly’s life. The love element is missing and is replaced with an incongruous solo dance (albeit Gabrielle Hamilton is an incredible, lovely talent). The thrust of why Laurie should “lay low” in her feelings for Curly are suggested in “People Will Say We’re in Love.” She must be careful around Jud; she must prevent gossip that would get back to Jud, yet suggest her true feelings for Curly to him. We find this out as she confesses how Jud is stalking her and she hears sounds of him under her window. It is not only because she is undecided about Curly, but it is also because she fears Jud and senses he will not tolerate a relationship between her and Curly. This is muddled in Fish’s version of Oklahoma!

Without the dream dance sequence with Curly, Jud, Laurie and their dream counterparts to illuminate Laurie’s inner struggle and sacrifice, all of the subsequent plot development, foreshadowing of danger and tensions between Laurie, Jud and Curly fall short of the bulls-eye. The coherence and through line become disjointed. I found the solo dance confusing and unrelated to Laurie’s conflict with Jud who haunts her dreams.

Rodgers & Hammerstein II's Oklahoma, Circle in the Square, Daniel Fish

Cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein II’s ‘Oklahoma!’ directed by Daniel Fish (Little Fant)

The tensions in the character of Laurie, the strain and indecision about Curly made little sense to me without the interpretation of her dream to clarify. It seemed she was being a petulant tease to frustrate and torment Curly who is adorable and cares for her. Why shouldn’t she go with him? That she is sacrificing herself to protect him from Jud is a powerful justification why she doesn’t. It should not be undercut. Meanwhile, the laws don’t protect Laurie as a woman or discourage Jud’s potential stalking behavior. She thinks she can negotiate the situation and keep Jud “at bay” by going with him. She must be her own strong woman and handle things her way, keep Jud around as useful to Aunt Eller, and somehow discourage Jud. Her tenuous position and personal strength are de-emphasized in this version.

When her decision to manipulate Jud and save Curly backfires, Jud seeks her out though she attempts to avoid him. Being near her encourages Jud to enact what he has most probably imagined all along, sexual intimacy. However, Fish’s version complicates. To add to the incongruity, the director chooses to place Laurie and Jud in darkness. Jud’s attempts at intimacy are not visible. We hear sounds between Jud and Laurie but they do not sound like a struggle and Laurie never screams “No,” or “Stop.” Is she returning his kisses out of her own “hot” desires for intimacy? We can’t tell.

Meanwhile, the maladjustment and menace in Jud is apparent from the outset and underscored throughout. The pictures of nude women he has up in the smokehouse reveal a warped sensibility toward women and unfilled expectations. That he doesn’t know the difference between love or sex is manifest in his obsession for Laurie. That he might force himself on her is clearly foreshadowed in her fear and his threats against Curly being with Laurie. Why it is called into question with a “lights-out” scene between Laurie and Jud? This is not conducive to clarifying their characterizations.

James Davis, Ali Stroker, Patrick Vaill, Rodgers & Hammerstein II's Oklahoma! Circle in the Square, Daniel Fish

James Davis, Ali Stroker Patrick Vaill (far right looking on) in Rodgers & Hammerstein II’s ‘Oklahoma!’ Daniel Fish, Circle in the Square (Little Fang)

Not being able to “see” what happens raises questions. Is Laurie enticed by Jud or is he misreading her? Is this a #metoo moment (an anachronism) in a time when men did what they pleased with women and rarely answered for it unless they were a different race? In the original script and other versions, it is a definite #metoo moment, that perhaps even Justice Brett Kavanaugh might acknowledge. (Well, maybe not.) The power and profound meaning of this is lost in this version. The justification for Laurie having the courage to throw Jud off the property is obviated as is her evolution as a character who has seen the light. Sadly, her insults of Jud seem harsh, if he has not grossly pushed himself on her.

Overall, the scene between them should be to the purpose that “he has gone too far,” and has misinterpreted her kindnesses to him as interest. Other Oklahoma! versions portray Laure’s characterization with coherence and logic. The attempted molestation empowers Laurie to kick him off the property. She draws the line; she will sacrifice herself no longer to protect Curly from Jud’s wickedness. She is no longer afraid which is a big step for her. In 1907 the law will not protect her, she will ask Curly to. It is a risk she takes. Does she have another choice?

It is an important moment and it has been re-characterized, supplanting it with the concept that Jud can’t catch a break and everyone in the community isolates and rejects him unfairly. That Jud creates the situation for himself is buried in this version. That he is the cause of his own problems, a truth he refuses to acknowledge or attempt to correct, is obscured. Jud is his own victim, the point of the humor in the song Curly initiates about him. His whines and resentments are weaknesses as is his impulse for revenge. (Unfortunately, upon closer inspection in modern day parlance he might be a Trump supporting sexual pervert, Incel or a Uni-bomber type in the making. UH OH. Have I gone too far?)

Damon Daunno, Rodgers & Hammerstein II's Oklahoma!

Damon Daunno in Rodgers & Hammerstein II’s ‘Oklahoma!’ (Little Fang)

Jud cannot get up and over his jealousy of Curly and obsession with Laurie. Curly doesn’t let his jealousy overtake him nor is he obsessed with Laurie; he loves her. There is a difference. Fish’s version muddies the contrasts between the two men. Curly understands himself and Jud. Jud lacks the will to understand that he is on the road to suicide or murder and doesn’t appear to want to select another path.

But rather than to reach out for help and crawl out of his hole to stop festering (Curly’s description of his behavior) he feeds his resentments and his victimization and remains apart, except when he can purchase “The Little Wonder” to harm Curly and when he goes to the social event to be with Laurie. He ignores his own faults and blames an unloving, heartless community which apparently has been a routine of his in his past. The fact that Fish’s casting of Jud does not reflect a member of another ethnic or racial group apart from this generally friendly community makes this all the more puzzling. We can only conclude he brings about his own demise, a tragedy of the human condition.

Fish slices away at the substance of the two protagonist’s inner conflicts that make them endearing and readily identifiable to us. He modifies Jud’s characterization which confuses, and de limits his character, draining him from being the self-harming tragic figure he is. Thankfully, the humor and relationships between Ado Annie (Ali Stroker) and her lovers Ali (Will Brill) and Will Parker (James Davis) brighten and thrill, all because of the excellent actors’ exuberance. They provide the fun, frolic and wise counterparts to Laurie’s and Curly’s sturm und drang.  Directors impose their visions on productions and that is fine. But it should be effected with coherence, logic, clarity and balance. To my feeble mind, this version didn’t satisfactorily land.

This is especially so at the conclusion of Fish’s Oklahoma!. SPOILER ALERT! (Do not read this section; go to the last paragraph) The climax occurs not in Jud falling on his knife, but in Curly shooting him with a gun Jud gives him. (I couldn’t see this with Jud’s back to me…problematic staging.) Jud’s blood splatters Curly’s and Laurie’s white wedding outfits. This is the gruesome wedding present Jud bestows on them effected by Curly. The audience shock is palpable. That is the point, albeit gratuitous since Curly has Laurie and he should not be jealous or feel malevolently toward Jud. Thus, this intentional shooting of Jud appears strange; but because of the staging, I couldn’t see the death scene action, just the blood splattering.

Rebecca Naomi Jones, Damon Daunno in 'Oklahoma!' Daniel Fish, Circle in the Square

Rebecca Naomi Jones, Damon Daunno in ‘Oklahoma!’ directed by Daniel Fish, Circle in the Square (Little Fang)

The trial afterward becomes unjust justice of folks not wanting federal law (though they are now a state). Indeed, the entire community of cowpokes, farmers and their gals that many of the audience have broken cornbread with are complicit in vindicating Curly of Jud’s questionable death. Of course Jud is free of Curly and Laurie, but for the rest of their lives, remembrances of their wedding day are tainted by his blood.

The point is well taken. Regardless, the vital fact is that now Curly and especially Laurie are free of Jud who threatened their lives and personal sanctity. That the town forgives him and gives Curly a second chance is their justice. Indeed, only the audience was around to “see” the dark clouds in the scene between Curly and Jud. However, at the conclusion when Curly sings “everything’s going my way,” for Oklahomans, and audience members who know the state’s history in the 20th century, this is a supreme irony.

Fish, the cast and the creatives are to be lauded for taking the risks they did to reformulate Oklahoma! Kudos especially goes to the Orchestra: Nathan Koci, Joe Brent, Brett Parnell, Hilary Hawke, Sarah Goldfeather, Leah Coloff, Eleonore Oppenheim, John Miller.

All involved did a superb job in effecting Fish’s vision. That the incongruities and convolutions in this version were startling to me is of little consequence.

The original version and subsequent versions retain the depth and continuity of characterization, though the musical may be flawed if the directors do not accommodate for how the roles of Native Americans were seminal in the evolution of Oklahoma to statehood. But people will continue to see Oklahoma! because of its place in the historical musical canon. This version should be seen because of Fish’s conceptualizations and the creative designers’ and ensemble’s live performance spectacle which audience members will, at the last, appreciate.

Oklahoma! runs for two hours and forty-five minutes with one intermission at Circle in the Square (1633 Broadway…50th Street). For tickets go to the website by CLICKING HERE.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Oklahoma!’ Cool Convolution, a Review

Oklahoma! Daniel Fish, Circle in the Square, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lynn Riggs, Green Grow the Lilacs

The cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘Oklahoma!’ directed by Daniel Fish, Circle in the Square (Little Fang)

Oklahoma! (Rodgers & Hammerstein II) has come to New York City, again! This slimmed down (cast) production directed by Daniel Fish initially opened at St Anne’s Warehouse with accompanying servings of chili and cornbread during the intermission. It gained steam to open at Circle in the Square with a multi-talented, vibrant cast, some of whom shine with resplendence. These include the principals: the transcendent, mesmerizing Damon Daunno as Curly, Rebecca Naomi Jones as Laurey, with salient assists by Mary Testa (Aunt Eller) the adorable Ali Stroker (Ado Annie) the sensitive, menacing Patrick Vaill (Jud Fry) the humorously clueless James Davis (Will Parker) and the funny, always on-point Will Brill (Ali Hakim).
Green Grow the Lilacs, (1930) by Lynn Riggs is the play source for the original 1943 version of Rodgers & Hammerstein II’s Oklahoma! Riggs’ (a mixed-race white and Native American-Cherokee) text provides the lyrical, wistful opening that Rogers and Hammerstein II used as inspiration for the lyrics to the iconic song, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” Cowboy Curly McClain opens the “innovative-for-its-time” musical with this serenade which is an advertisement to win over Aunt Eller and Laurey Williams who he wants to ask to the evening box social.
The corn, cattle, sky, “give off a golden emanation that is partly true and partly a trick of the imagination, focusing to keep alive, a loveliness that may pass away,” Rogers and Hammerstein II’s original script states in the stage directions lifted from Riggs. Inherent in Curly’s hopefulness that “everything will go his way,” regarding Laurey Williams, is the possibility that it won’t.
In fact the moment he ends the song, his interchange with Laurey sparks reality. Things are upended where she is concerned and indeed, the loveliness that he enjoyed for a moment has passed. Already, the themes have been presented: uncertainty, impermanence and imperfections caused by tricks of the imagination. Foreshadowed? Continual struggle ahead for Curly’s and Laurey’s relationship and for Oklahoma which is about to become the 46th state.
Damon Daunno, Mary Testa in Rodgers & Hammerstein II's 'Oklahoma!' Daniel Fish, Circle in the Square, Lynn Riggs, Green Grow the Lilacs

Damon Daunno, Mary Testa in Rodgers & Hammerstein II’s ‘Oklahoma!’ directed by Daniel Fish at Circle in the Square (Little Fang)

These themes of impermanence and imperfection coupled with the struggle for survival and the mitigating force of love which may or may not last or help, are important ones. This is especially so for the main characters Curly and Laurey who strive, argue and sacrifice for each other. Though by the play’s conclusion they fulfill their love in marriage which they celebrate with Oklahoma’s statehood, harbingers of change forebode on the horizon. Curly will become a farmer which he knows little about and in twenty-three years his community will be facing drought, deprivation, dust bowl storms and bankruptcy as the “land that is grand” fails them because of their own inability to properly husband it.
Some of this nightmare future in a place that will not fulfill its beautiful mornings is incipient in the plot development of Green Grow the Lilacs and Rodgers and Hammerstein II’s musical. The dark days ahead are certainly revealed by the end of Fish’s Oklahoma! which is thought-provoking, intriguing but also convoluted.
Damon Daunno, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Rodgers & Hammerstein II's Oklahoma!, Daniel Fish, Circle in the Square

Damon Daunno, Rebecca Naomi Jones in Rodgers & Hammerstein II’s ‘Oklahoma!’ directed by Daniel Fish (Little Fang)

Fish does not change the script, except for the physical fight scene between Jud and Curly. Curly doesn’t fall on his knife; there is a pistol. But the use of design elements lighting/darkness (Scott Zielinski) staging (Fish) scenic design (Laura Jellinek) costume design (Terese Wadden) special effects (Jeremy Chernick) projection design (Joshua Thorson) and sound design (Drew Levy) morph the basic immutable tenets of Oklahoma! to reflect Fish’s circulatory vision. I found this at times confusing and at cross-purposes with characterizations and themes.
In this re-imagined Oklahoma! these are largely re-directed, sifted and filtered revealing the underpinnings of a tenuous social culture which we are encouraged to become a part of. Indeed, the lights are on with the exception of a lovely, sensual and intimate scene between Laurey and Curly and a few other scenes where the design hues change or there is total darkness.
However, despite the lighting touch of inclusiveness, Fish’s social dynamic isn’t completely realized. For example there is no clear referent to Native Americans (30 tribes inhabited the territories by the time of the play) in the community that the designers create of family-style tables sporting chili-filled crock pots that surround the playing area. There is not one eagle feather, moccasin or soft, beaded belt, headband or any obvious identifying cultural accoutrements. In this alternating stylized/realistic version of Oklahoma! this appears to be an oversight along with the reality that also appears to be diminished: laws did not protect women who were men’s chattel once married. And the EPA amendment has still not been passed!
In his emphasis of the conflict that grows to a great malevolence between Curly (Damon Daunno) and Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill) Fish uses design elements (darkness, sound effects, projetions) and particular staging. The result impacts and twists the characterizations in the service of presenting a culture and community rather than individuals. This diminishes the inner conflicts of the characters and hinders the elucidation of themes that could lift the audience’s understanding of immutable principles of good and evil. In this version goodness is sometimes hard to come by.
Ali Stroker, Will Brill in Rodgers & Hammerstein II's 'Oklahoma!' Daniel Fish, Circle in the Square

Ali Stroker, Will Brill in Rodgers & Hammerstein II’s ‘Oklahoma!’ directed by Daniel Fish, Circle in the Square (Little Fang)

Specifically, in the smokehouse scene, Fish douses the lights and then uses close up projections of the faces of Duannao and Vaill to create tension and menace. Damon Daunnao as Curly and Patrick Vaill’s Jud speak in miked whispers; the effect reveals surreptitious treachery on the part of both characters. The song “Poor Jud is Dead” has a completely different tenor. It appears that Curly is as wicked intentioned, as Jud, perhaps even more so as he encourages Jud to think suicide might yield the love and companionship he seeks, an abject lie for an outsider and miscreant like Jud. Any potential humor in this scene is removed. Curly who should be the bigger person becomes the weaker in his jealousy of a man he criticizes after Jud threatens him.
In this version the scene is a disconnect. It throws down the brokenness of Jud and Curly which ends in their ominous shooting in the dark which Aunt Eller investigates and breaks up as the lights come on. The way Fish renders it, the scene makes us reflect that perhaps Curly is just better at hiding his rapaciousness toward Laurie with more enhanced social graces. His jealously unsettles him that Laurie selects Jud to be with; rather than to confront this, his childish pride takes over.
Because of the overall tone of the scene, the congenial, affable musician and expert singer and guitar player Curly who formerly delighted us, seems an incongruity in his behavior toward Jud. Granted, the scene is a difficult one for tone and tenor to strike a balance with humor. However, when the scene reveals characterizations tweaked without humor, the effect is disturbing. Curly is made unlikable and Jud becomes pitiful and wormy, in addition to being unlikable. All these machinations are over a woman? Do they even see Laurie’s identity? Or is Laurie an objectified symbol of conquest their male egos compete over? Considering Jud’s position in the community (which he himself has effected) there is no competition; why is Curly so upended?
Rodgers & Hammerstein II's Oklahoma, Circle in the Square, Daniel Fish

Cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein II’s ‘Oklahoma!’ directed by Daniel Fish (Little Fant)

Laurie’s characterization in this version is made shallow. Eliminated is the dream dance sequence where Laurie chooses to sacrifice herself to be with Jud in order to save Curly’s life. The love element is missing and is replaced with an incongruous solo dance (albeit Gabrielle Hamilton is an incredible, lovely talent). The thrust of why Laurie should “lay low” in her feelings for Curly are suggested in “People Will Say We’re in Love.” She must be careful around Jud; she must prevent gossip that would get back to Jud, yet suggest her true feelings for Curly to him. We find this out as she confesses how Jud is stalking her and she hears sounds of him under her window. It is not only because she is undecided about Curly, but it is also because she fears Jud and senses he will not tolerate a relationship between her and Curly. This is muddled in Fish’s version of Oklahoma!
Without the dream dance sequence with Curly, Jud, Laurie and their dream counterparts to illuminate Laurie’s inner struggle and sacrifice, all of the subsequent plot development, foreshadowing of danger and tensions between Laurie, Jud and Curly fall short of the bulls-eye. The coherence and through line become disjointed. I found the solo dance confusing and unrelated to Laurie’s conflict with Jud who haunts her dreams.
The tensions in the character of Laurie, the strain and indecision about Curly made little sense to me without the interpretation of her dream to clarify. It seemed she was being a petulant tease to frustrate and torment Curly who is adorable and cares for her. Why shouldn’t she go with him? That she is sacrificing herself to protect him from Jud is a powerful justification why she doesn’t. It should not be undercut. Meanwhile, the laws don’t protect Laurie as a woman or discourage Jud’s potential stalking behavior. She thinks she can negotiate the situation and keep Jud “at bay” by going with him. She must be her own strong woman and handle things her way, keep Jud around as useful to Aunt Eller, and somehow discourage Jud. Her tenuous position and personal strength are de emphasized in this version.
When her decision to manipulate Jud and save Curly backfires, Jud seeks her out though she attempts to avoid him. Being near her encourages Jud to enact what he has most probably imagined all along, sexual intimacy. However, Fish’s version complicates. To add to the incongruity, the director chooses to place Laurie and Jud in darkness. Jud’s attempts at intimacy are not visible. We hear sounds between Jud and Laurie but they do not sound like a struggle and Laurie never screams “No,” or “Stop.” Is she returning his kisses out of her own “hot” desires for intimacy? We can’t tell.
Rebecca Naomi Jones, Damon Daunno in 'Oklahoma!' Daniel Fish, Circle in the Square

Rebecca Naomi Jones, Damon Daunno in Rodgers & Hammerstein II’s ‘Oklahoma!’ directed by Daniel Fish, Circle in the Square (Little Fang)

Meanwhile, the maladjustment and menace in Jud is apparent from the outset and underscored throughout. The pictures of nude women he has up in the smokehouse reveal a warped sensibility toward women and unfilled expectations. That he doesn’t know the difference between love or sex is manifest in his obsession for Laurie. That he might force himself on her is clearly foreshadowed in her fear and his threats against Curly being with Laurie. Why it is called into question with a “lights-out” scene between Laurie and Jud? This is not conducive to clarifying their characterizations.
Not being able to “see” what happens raises questions. Is Laurie enticed by Jud or is he misreading her? Is this a #metoo moment (an anachronism) in a time when men did what they pleased with women and rarely answered for it unless they were a different race? In the original script and other versions, it is a definite #metoo moment, that perhaps even Judge Brett Kavanaugh might acknowledge. (Well, maybe not.) The power and profound meaning of this is lost in this version. The justification for Laurie having the courage to throw Jud off the property is obviated as is her evolution as a character who has seen the light. Sadly, her insults of Jud seem harsh, if he has not grossly pushed himself on her.
Overall, the scene between them should be to the purpose that “he has gone too far,” and has misinterpreted her kindnesses to him as interest. Other Oklahoma! versions portray Laure’s characterization with coherence and logic. The attempted molestation empowers Laurie to kick him off the property. She draws the line; she will sacrifice herself no longer to protect Curly from Jud’s wickedness. She is no longer afraid which is a big step for her. In 1907 the law will not protect her, she will ask Curly to. It is a risk she takes. Does she have another choice?
It is an important moment and it has been re-characterized supplanting it with the concept that Jud can’t catch a break and everyone in the community isolates and rejects him unfairly. That Jud creates the situation for himself is buried in this version. That he is the cause of his own problems, a truth he refuses to acknowledge or attempt to correct, is obscured. Jud is his own victim, the point of the humor in the song Curly initiates about him. His whines and resentments are weaknesses as is his impulse for revenge. (Unfortunately, upon closer inspection in modern day parlance he might be a Trump supporting sexual pervert, Incel or a Uni bomber type. UH OH. Have I gone too far?)
 Jud cannot get up and over his jealousy of Curly and obsession with Laurie. Curly doesn’t let his jealousy overtake him nor is he obsessed with Laurie; he loves her. There is a difference. Fish’s version muddies the contrasts between the two men. Curly understands himself and Jud. Jud lacks the will to understand that he is on the road to suicide or murder and doesn’t appear to want to select another path.
James Davis, Ali Stroker, Patrick Vaill, Rodgers & Hammerstein II's Oklahoma! Circle in the Square, Daniel Fish

James Davis, Ali Stroker Patrick Vaill (far right looking on) in Rodgers & Hammerstein II’s ‘Oklahoma!’ Daniel Fish, Circle in the Square (Little Fang)

But rather than to reach out for help and crawl out of his hole to stop festering (Curly’s description of his behavior) he feeds his resentments and his victimization and remains apart, except when he can purchase “The Little Wonder” to harm Curly and when he goes to the social event to be with Laurie. He ignores his own faults and blames an unloving, heartless community which apparently has been a routine of his in his past. The fact that Fish’s casting of Jud does not reflect a member of another ethnic or racial group apart from this generally friendly community makes this all the more puzzling. We can only conclude he brings about his own demise, a tragedy of the human condition.
Fish slices away at the substance of the two protagonist’s inner conflicts that make them endearing and readily identifiable to us. He modifies Jud’s characterization which confuses, and de limits his character, draining him from being the self-harming tragic figure he is. Thankfully, the humor and relationships between Ado Annie (Ali Stroker) and her lovers Ali (Will Brill) and Will Parker (James Davis) brighten and thrill, all because of the excellent actors’ exuberance. They provide the fun, frolic and wise counterparts to Laurie’s and Curly’s sturm und drang.  Directors impose their visions on productions and that is fine. But it should be effected with coherence, logic, clarity and balance. To my feeble mind, this version didn’t satisfactorily land.
This is especially so at the conclusion of Fish’s Oklahoma!. SPOILER ALERT! (Do not read this section; go to the last paragraph) The climax occurs not in Jud falling on his knife, but in Curly shooting him with a gun Jud gives him. (I couldn’t see this with Jud’s back to me…problematic staging.) Jud’s blood splatters Curly’s and Laurie’s white wedding outfits. This is the gruesome wedding present Jud bestows on them effected by Curly. The audience shock is palpable. That is the point, albeit gratuitous since Curly has Laurie and he should not be jealous or feel malevolently toward Jud. Thus, this intentional shooting of Jud appears strange; but because of the staging, I couldn’t see the death scene action, just the blood splattering.
Damon Daunno, Rodgers & Hammerstein II's Oklahoma!

Damon Daunno in Rodgers & Hammerstein II’s ‘Oklahoma!’ (Little Fang)

The trial afterward becomes unjust justice of folks not wanting federal law (though they are now a state). Indeed, the entire community of cowpokes, farmers and their gals that many of the audience have broken cornbread with are complicit in vindicating Curly of Jud’s questionable death. Of course Jud is free of Curly and Laurie, but for the rest of their lives, remembrances of their wedding day are tainted by his blood.
The point is well taken. Regardless, the vital fact is that now Curly and especially Laurie are free of Jud who threatened their lives and personal sanctity. That the town forgives him and gives Curly a second chance is their justice. Indeed, only the audience was around to “see” the dark clouds in the scene between Curly and Jud. However, at the conclusion when Curly sings “everything’s going my way,” for Oklahomans, and audience members who know the state’s history in the 20th century, this is a supreme irony.
Fish, the cast and the creatives are to be lauded for taking the risks they did to reformulate Oklahoma! Kudos especially goes to the Orchestra: Nathan Koci, Joe Brent, Brett Parnell, Hilary Hawke, Sarah Goldfeather, Leah Coloff, Eleonore Oppenheim, John Miller.
All involved did a superb job in effecting Fish’s vision. That the incongruities and convolutions in this version were startling to me is of little consequence.
The original version and subsequent versions retain the depth and continuity of characterization, though the musical may be flawed if the directors do not accommodate for how the roles of Native Americans were seminal in the evolution of Oklahoma to statehood. But people will continue to see Oklahoma! because of its place in the historical musical canon. This version should be seen because of Fish’s conceptualizations and the creative designers’ and ensemble’s live performance spectacle which audience members will, at the last, appreciate.
Oklahoma! runs for two hours and forty-five minutes with one intermission at Circle in the Square (1633 Broadway…50th Street). For tickets go to the website by CLICKING HERE.

‘Nantuket Sleigh Ride’ by John Guare, Starring John Larroquette, Directed by Jerry Zaks

Adam Chanler-Berat, John Larroquette, Grace Rex, German Jaramillo, Clea Alsip, Douglas Sills, Will Swenson, Jordan Gilber, Tina Benko, Nantucket Sleigh Ride, John Guare, Jerry Zaks, Mitzi E. Newhouse,

(L to R Downstage): Adam Chanler-Berat, John Larroquette, Grace Rex (upper level L to R): German Jaramillo, Clea Alsip, Douglas Sills, Will Swenson, Jordan Gilber, Tina Benko in ‘Nantucket Sleigh Ride,’ by John Guare, directed by Jerry Zaks, Mitzi E. Newhouse (T. Charles Erickson)

Sage, pithy, philosophical quotes taken from the stories in Jorges Luis Borges’ Labyrinths serve as the humorous grist that flavors and drives the witty and complex Nantuket Sleigh Ride by John Guare, currently at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse. The delightful hybrid play (mystery, comedy, fantastical dream-like elements and wonderful “come to life” Rene Magritte painting ‘La Durée Poignardée’ [‘Time Transfixed’]) has an adroitly crafted, labyrinthine structure beautifully clarified with sets and projections by David Gallo and costumes by Emily Rebholtz

Jerry Zaks shepherds the ensemble with an impeccable sense of comedic pacing and precise staging to elucidate the characters and maintain a humorous, coherence throughout, while unraveling the mysteries. The artistic designers with Guare’s and Zaks’ prodigious collaboration help to make Sleigh Ride a whopping, helluva journey through the mind and life of the one-hit playwright Edmund Gowery, during the summer of 1975, a monumental time which changed the course of his life, seemingly forever. From then until the present, Gowery suppressed his artistic sensibilities, left playwriting and sought the empirical, material world of making lots and lots of money.

John Larroquette portrays Gowery with relaxed authenticity and a droll, witty moment-to-moment presence. As Gowery Larroquette navigates remembrances of the summer of 1975, with aplomb. And noting that memory is a filter of age, wisdom and a myriad of emotions, Larroquette deftly filters these-the surprise, upset, fear and concern as he steps from narrator back to the past as actor in his memory. Guare’s vehicle of conveyance using present, filtered memory and past is striking, and Laroquette manages to bridge the changing time referents believably.  His older narrative persona channels his youthful self with wry, pointed irony.

Stacey Sargeant, John Larroquette, Nantucket Sleigh Ride, Jerry Zaks, John Guare, Mitzi E. Newhouse, Lincoln Center Theater

Stacey Sargeant, John Larroquette in ‘Nantucket Sleigh Ride,’ directed by Jerry Zaks, written by John Guare (T. Charles Erickson)

We easily accept these filters and joyfully follow Edmund (Mundie) on his madcap, convoluted adventures into the past as he introduces us to a “wicked” cast of characters. These include his mistresses, one of whom cheats on him with her husband (Tina Benko), insidious husbands (Douglas Sills, Jordan Gelber) an earnest, heartbroken lover (Will Swenson), a betraying and betrayed actress wife/lover (Clea Alsip) two kids Poe and Lilac (Adam Chanler-Berat, Grace Rex) the spirit of Jorge Luis Borges who wafts in and out of Mundie’s dreams with salient quotes (German Jaramillo), a cryonically challenged Walt Disney (Doublas Sills),  who braves the summer heat of Gowery’s dreams to discuss a venture with him…and a few celebrities.

During the process of remembrance (the events enacted), Larroquette’s Gowery processes the mysterious circumstances of 1975 and grasps the opportunity to blossom into a caring individual who is sensitive to all forms of the truth, especially if it brings peace to others. By the play’s conclusion, through Gowery’s evolution, we understand that some nightmares (reference Borges) can work to one’s advantage, if we are flexible enough to learn from them. With enthusiasm Gowery experiences a resurrection of the artistic and imaginative part of himself. The younger persona which demonstrated a selfishness and self-dealing nature has been drowned reliving the “Nantucket Sleigh Ride.”  (No spoiler alert here about what this means. See the play; it’s super.)

Clea Alsip, Will Swenson, German Jaramillo, John Larroquette, Tina Benko, 'Nantucket Sleigh Ride,' Jerry Zaks, John Guare, Mitzi E. Newhouse, Lincoln Center Theater

(L to R): Clea Alsip, Will Swenson, German Jaramillo, John Larroquette, Tina Benko in ‘Nantucket Sleigh Ride’ directed by Jerry Zaks, written by John Guare (T. Charles Erickson)

How Guare effects this plot structure of present, to flashback past, to dream sequence, to flashback past, to present tweaked with Borges’ tropes and quotes, contributes to the humor and entertaining zaniness of this play with a purpose. The dynamic begins at the top of the play and segues with a usual  device which Guare makes more intriguing. Edmund Gowery finishes a congratulatory phone call about his reference as a playwright in the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle. The symbolism is smart. He’s a clue in a crossword. But who indeed is Edmund Gowery who left off the stresses of success after his first and last Broadway hit Internal Structure of Stars, a “luminous memory play” influenced by Borges?

When his secretary (Stacey Sargeant) brings in his own lost copy of Borges’ Labyrinths (one of the most influential books of Gowery’s life) two frantic adults come into his office: Poe (Adam Chanler-Berat) and Lilac (Grace Rex). Both are pale-faced, limp and emotionally squeezed, but they demand that Gowery tell them about the summer of 1975, which was a time in their lives that was fraught with trauma so severe that they cannot remember what happened to them. For Poe and Lilac it is a “time transfixed.” Their lives cannot resume unless the darkness of the past is lightened with the truth from Gowery’s lips.

The irony is that the summer of 1975 for Gowery also is a “time transfixed,” a disaster which he never worked through, but just circumvented by emotional suppression. If he helps the desperate Poe and Lilac, he must dredge up the nightmares which contributed to the death of his playwriting career and forced him on the unenlightened, yet lucrative path of “convincing people to sell things they love to buy things they don’t want.”

John Larroquette, Will Swenson, 'Nantucket Sleigh Ride,' Jerry Zaks, John Guare, Lincoln Center Theater

(L to R): John Larroquette, Will Swenson in ‘Nantucket Sleigh Ride,’ directed by Jerry Zaks, written by John Guare (T Charles Erickson)

Running from himself and Poe and Lilac by escaping into the bathroom, Gowery considers. Out of his memory comes Guare’s inimitable, wacky flashback of Gowery’s summer with Poe, Lilac and the others. By the time he decides to give Poe and Lilac what they want, he emerges from the bathroom a more contented man. He has reconciled himself and brought us along as his understanding and empathetic companions. Now, he is able to initiate Poe’s and Lilac’s understanding of their past and move them off the immobilizing still point of trauma.

I enjoyed Guare’s writerly memes and ironic quips, and his use of Borges’ quotes for humor, plot development and revelation of themes. The production is a farcical, mystery romp, but it is also a profound look at reconciliation, second chances, working through trauma and evolving beyond pain if one has the determination to do so.

The two tiered staging as a focal point of elucidation is excellent and the Magritte room, clever. I loved how German Jaramillo’s blind Borges (a truthful metaphor of his inner sight) escorts the chugging locomotive (an element reflective of Borges’ magical realism) off stage as Mundie’s journey moves toward closure of one labyrinth and heads off to lead Gowery into another. The final labyrinth which restores us to the present and Gowery’s lovely reconciliation with Poe and Lilac.

From acting to direction to artistic design (see above and Howell Binkley-Lighting) (Mark Bennett-Original Music and Sound) Nantucket Sleigh Ride delivers. Thanks to the balanced and vibrant work of the ensemble, Larroquette’s wry likeableness, Adam Chanler-Berat and Grace Rex’s humorous transformation from kids to thirty-somethings and the wonderful, stylized German Jaramillo as Borges, this is a must-see for its grace, humor, depth and ironies all of which should not be underestimated.

Nantucket Sleigh Ride runs with one intermission at the Mitzi E. Newhouse at Lincoln Center Theater. For tickets and times go to their website by CLICKING HERE.

 

‘What the Constitution Means to Me,’ Heidi Schreck, in a Vibrant and Revelatory Evening on Broadway

Heidi Schreck, What the Constitution Means to Me, Oliver Butler, Helen Hayes Theater

Heidi Schreck (writer, performer) ‘What the Constitution Means to Me,’ directed by Oliver Butler (Joan Marcus)

Heidi Schreck workshopped What the Constitution Means to Me over a number of years. Her efforts and overwhelming audience responses have taken the production from  Off Broadway to Broadway’s The Helen Hayes Theater. Presented by The Clubbed Thumb, True Love Productions and New York Theatre Workshop, What the Constitution Means to Me, written/performed by Schreck, directed by Oliver Butler, offers a striking look at a document we should be familiar with since it governs and compels our every waking moment.

What audience members will discover during the presentation is that the devil is in the details, the interpretation of laws in the amendments and laws decided by the Supreme Court: the crucial ones related to Schreck’s personal life, she reviews.

As Schreck affirms, Supreme Court interpretations shift despite public opinion, depending upon the power brokers who control the narrative…a trend in the decades since Regan. We have seen the court move the values of this country from the decency and humanity of the 1960s liberalism to restrictive Federalist society conservatism led by Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, and to what today may only be described as retrograde rightist extremism. Just a few days ago, the court made a decision in Bucklew v. Precythe that a torturous death was OK during capital punishment, setting a horrific precedent.

Mike Iverson, Heidi Schreck, What the Constitution Means to Me, Oliver Butler, Helen Hayes Theater

Mike Iveson, Heidi Schreck in ‘What the Constitution Means to Me,’ directed by Oliver Butler (Joan Marcus)

Schreck offers a riveting opportunity to revisit vital segments of the document which has established our rights as citizens at a time when these very rights are under threat by an administration which demonstrates little respect for it or the rule of law. Nor does the current administration or president  abide by the oath of office which is to uphold the constitution whose amendments he has no qualms about challenging in the courts or in the press.

Clearly, because of the chaos and divisiveness in our culture (which Schreck references a number of times with great humor) seeing this production is a civic and moral imperative which  should be made mandatory for high school students. Not only are Schreck and the other cast members Rosdely Ciprian (a 15-year-old) and Mike Iveson humorous and exuberant, the material is highly entertaining and extremely informative. It is a fabulous and exciting way to learn about our constitution. Indeed, the president, vice-president and cabinet should see the production.

Schreck introduces us to many facets of our diamond document by organizing the development of the production in an intriguing way. She refers to the time when her mother, a debate coach, encouraged her to compete in speech contests at American Legion Halls across the nation on the topic of “how the constitution related to her personal life.” Reconstructing her speeches which she gave as a teenager to collect money for college, Schreck turns back time to her fifteen-year-old self. She converts the audience to white, older, male legionnaires and fires away with the help of legionnaire Mike Iveson who times segments of her speech and times her discussions of a selected amendment.

All of these she relates to her own life and thus the lives of women impacted by the constitution for over two centuries. Indeed, women, Native Americans, free blacks, slaves weren’t even recognized as citizens from its creation by white property owners. Schreck follows the arc of development in the progress of women as non citizens under the constitution to the non-passage of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) today.

Rosdely Ciprian, What the Constitution Means to Me, Oliver Butler

Rosdely Ciprian in ‘What the Constitution Means to Me,’ directed by Oliver Butler (Joan Marcus)

She touches upon the injustices toward all except the white, male, property owners, and the later revisions in the amendments, particularly the 14th amendment. She revisits the Dred Scott Decision and its reversal in the Emancipation Proclamation and the reasons why Lincoln had writers solidify the 13th amendment with the 14th amendment. She references the Chinese Exclusion Act and how it related to the 14th amendment’s clauses on immigration (shades of our present). And all of this she accomplishes with humor and good will.

During Schreck’s discussions she emphasizes seminal information related to women’s rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, what amendments engendered Roe v. Wade, the ironic and humorous stories related to the legalization of birth control and staggering statistics which reveal that men’s violence against women is alive and brutalizing the “fairer sex.” For example three women are murdered each day by a male partner in this country. One in three women are sexually assaulted during their lifetimes and one in four are raped during their lifetimes.

It doesn’t mentor sterling male behavior that the president has been accused of raping minors (see Jeffrey Epstein). One whistlebloewer who was going to go public about her experiences with Epstein and Trump withdrew because she was threatened with death. Nor does it help that Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh faced tremendous controversy at his nomination hearing from women who accused him of sexual abuse and even rape. Oh well, “Boys will be boys.” (sardonic irony) He was given a pass.

Schreck also discusses the details of Castle Rock v. Gonzales…again in the service of paralleling what happened in her family, to her mother and grandmother. In Castle Rock v. Gonzales, the Supreme Court ruled that the 14th amendment no longer protects women against a violent male partner if the police feel they don’t want to intervene between a wife and husband who has sworn he will kill her and her children.

Heidi Schreck, What the Constitution Means to Me, Oliver Butler

Heidi Schreck, ‘What the Constitution Means to Me,’ directed by Oliver Butler (Joan Marcus)

Later in the production Schreck discusses how her grandmother who survived an abusive, pederastic second husband via “Covert Resistance,” finally had the courage to run after him when he kidnapped Schreck’s mom and her other siblings to kill them. But it was Schreck’s mom who called the police on him. This was before Castle Rock v. Gonzales. Today, would the police respond as they did then?

One number Schreck states I had not heard before. More American women have been killed by a violent partner in the last century than men who have died in wars including 9/11. She makes it a point to affirm “killed by a male partner,” not just “killed.” That today, the law/government does not protect women against a partner’s violence, staggers.

Rosdely Ciprian, Mike Iveson, Heidi Schreck, 'What the Constitution Means to Me'

(L to R): Rosdely Ciprian, Mike Iveson, Heidi Schreck, ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’ (Joan Marcus)

All of this information is presented in the service of personalizing the importance of the constitution to Schreck’s life and thus, to our lives. It is mind-blowing! Always fascinating she discusses how her maternal ancestors bowed down under the oppressions of the rule of law which didn’t cotton to women’s rights and as a result, women at the time sustained violence and abuse.  For example her great great grandmother who was a bride purchased from “Matrimonial Times,” for $75.00, at 37-years-old died in a mental institution. On the death certificate, the cause was “melancholia.” Schreck infers she most probably ended up shattered by a relationship with her abusive logger husband.

In the last segment of the show Schreck and Rosdely Ciprian go head-to-head in a debate about whether we should abolish our “negative rights constitution” (it prevents the government from encroaching on our liberties) and perhaps establish a “positive rights constitution” (one that guarantees human rights to all for healthcare, equal economic opportunity, etc. like the constitutions of Germany and South Africa). How they debate (guided by Mike Iveson who times them) is just plain fun. Iveson encourages loud audience participation and cheering. And Rosdely Ciprian is an absolute spitfire.

What the Constitution Means to Me is a peppery, unique and delightful evening out. It is also slap-in-your-face get “woke” time in what Schreck reveals to us about who we are and where we’ve come from. The dense material is lightly driven by Schreck so that you remember the salient points. And all of this is presented with great good will in the hope that we become civic-minded. We must not allow the current crop of old, white, male, rich prototypes like those who created the document to perpetrate another act of violence against women. Men and women must prevent them from turning us out among the denizens of the deep without protection into a retrograde past. As women go, so go their men and families; men will suffer even more than women.

With the latest turn of the Supreme Court to rightest extremism, this is not just fantasy. But to consolidate power, it is in the best interests of the Federalist Society (that Antonin Scalia championed) and the extremist right to push the Supreme Court to such ultra right positions on cases and denude the majority of citizens of their human rights.

Sadly, to overturn Roe v. Wade and other laws that have empowered women will be active tyranny against lower class women. Schreck points out that wealthy women, (politicians’ mistresses, celebrities, etc.) always got abortions and always will regardless of legality. Money places them above the law. However, to cruelly nullify women’s souls and minds from making decisions about their own bodies is an evangelical act against God. Only He has power over all people’s minds and souls. That white men would usurp that power is tantamount to exercising a power which is the opposite of His love and mercy.

Kudos to all the creatives like Rachel Hauck (Scenic Design), Michael Krass (Costume Design) Jen Schriever (Lighting Design) Sinan Refik Zafar (Sound Design) who helped to make this a wonderful, must-see production that is an imperative for old and young alike. What the Constitution Means to Me runs without an intermission in an extension until 21 July. It is at The Helen Hayes Theater (44th Street, between 7th and 8th). For tickets go to the website by clicking HERE.

 

‘The Cradle Will Rock’ at CSC, Directed by John Doyle

Sally Ann Triplett, Ian Lowe,Lara Pulver,Kara Mikula, 'The Cradle Will Rock, CSC, John Doyle,

(Visible): Sally Ann Triplett, Ian Lowe,Lara Pulver (center) Kara Mikula in ‘The Cradle Will Rock,’ directed by John Doyle, CSC (Joan Marcus)

Once the insidious and malevolent corrupt buy their way into the halls of power, it seems impossible to oust or destroy them. However, The Cradle Will Rock by Marc Blitzstein, directed and designed by John Doyle currently at CSC, reminds us that all is not hopeless. Indeed, corruption and those who revel in the money and preeminence it fosters must irrevocably crash to their doom as their sphere of influence which propagates great harm eventually is overthrown by the just. Indeed, there are always a glorious few who face great risk for the greater public good.

This sleek version of The Cradle Will Rock, Director Doyle fashions using the template of the original production which employed no elaborate spectacle (see this article about the original production). The actors are staged so that they move in toward the piano and outward and in the round (the CSC playing area which is actually a square surrounded by the audience). The pianists (I was impressed by their talent and the number of the cast some who play with exquisite grace.) also do double duty and sing beautifully as members of the ensemble.

Ken Barnett, David Garrison, 'The Cradle Will Rock,' CSC, John Doyle

(L to R): Ken Barnett, David Garrison in ‘The Cradle Will Rock,’ at CSC, directed by John Doyle (Joan Marcus)

The entire play is sung as a quasi opera, in a Bertolt Brecht style with ferocity and near didacticism. The subject matter of how dirty money is used to fuel predation and victimize the culture is worthy for this stylization. Cradle’s themes are mythic; its protagonists and antagonists timeless. The arc of development elevates the plot to the spiritual warfare of good vs. evil. We watch how the uncorrupted-awoke fight to bring truth and majestical courage to the souls of the unenlightened. This is done in the hope of empowering and freeing them of their subservience to power domination and demeaning cult worship of the “leader.”

The Brechtian music effected by the pianists and ensemble pounds out the plot and themes which clearly resonate for us today. In every corner of the world, we note representative Mr. Misters (the warlord of Steeltown) akin to dictators, autocrats, warlords.

Rema Webb, Sally Ann Triplett, Ian Lowe, 'The Cradle Will Rock,' John Doyle, CSC

(L to R): Rema Webb, Sally Ann Triplett, Ian Lowe in ‘The Cradle Will Rock,’ directed by John Doyle, CSC (Joan Marcus)

In the setting of  Steeltown, USA, the 1930s during the height of the depression, Mr. Mister, we learn from those whom he’s battered and destroyed (Harry the druggist-Tony Yazbeck) gained power and control through devious means.  The action takes place over one night in a Steeltown jail during an action to unionize. When Moll (Lara Pulver) is thrown in jail rather than to give her favors to a corrupt cop (Eddie Cooper), she is befriended by Harry the druggist. In flashback scenes the ensemble enacts, we learn how Mr. Mister (David Garrison) surreptitiously grabbed power. Harry explains Mr. Mister’s machinations to the mistakenly jailed Liberty Committee (the ensemble). They are Mr. Mister’s fandom anti-union support group, who wait for Mr. Mister to bail them out; they are not as police thought part of the pro-union protest.

Lara Pulver, The Cradle Will Rock, John Doyle, CSC

Lara Pulver in ‘The Cradle Will Rock,’ directed by John Doyle, CSC (Joan Marcus)

The flashbacks identify how any corrupt power broker operates…surreptitiously, without the light of truth being shined on their oppressive, coercive, fraudulent actions. Thus, the ensemble reveals the events of how Mr. Mister’s wife (Sally Ann Triplett) buys support and influence to solidify his power network corralling important institutions like the press (Editor Daily-Ken Barnett), the church (Reverend Salvation-Benjamin Eakeley) the factory and social organizations.

Harry points up the ruthlessness of Mr. Mister who killed a newly elected union leader and his family in a fire bombing and caused Harry to lose his business and drop into hopelessness and despair. Of course the irony is in not blowing the whistle on Mr. Mister and risking death for his testimony, Harry ends up being destroyed in a living death by Mr. Mister who coerces him into his own mewling self-destruction. Indeed, the revelatory theme is better to die a martyr in the hope of bringing down evil than sustain a living death while the corrupt grow and evolve like monsters engulfing all in their path to get what they want which never includes the public good.

John Garrison, 'The Cradle Will Rock,' directed John Doyle, CSC

David Garrison in ‘The Cradle Will Rock,’ directed by John Doyle, CSC (Joan Marcus)

Eventually, all of the prominent and influential members of Steeltown join Mr. Mister’s fandom Liberty Committee and this entrenched power structure runs roughshod over the “little people.” We learn for example that Mr. Mister bullies and commands others like President Prexey (Ken Barnett) to adhere to and foment his political policies. We also learn of cover-ups of accidents despite witnesses (Rema Webb) because of Mr. Mister’s negligence. His lack of accountability is legend which he keeps in the shadows buying off the press and threatening others with harm if they “spill the beans.”

The heroes of Cradle, Moll who is a conduit and listener of truth, Harry who knows the truth but waits too late to reveal it, Ella Hammer who witnessed a death and cover-up and courageous union leader Larry Foreman (Tony Yazbeck in an ironic choice for he also plays the devastated Harry). The union leader activist is arrested and brought to the jail for distributing leaflets. All of these individuals stand against the Liberty Committee whom they try to persuade against Mr. Mister.

Lara Pulver, Kara Mikula, Benjamin Eakeley, Tony Yazbeck, Ian Lowe, 'The Cradle Will Rock,' John Doyle, CSC

(L to R): Lara Pulver, Kara Mikula, Benjamin Eakeley, Tony Yazbeck (foreground), Ian Lowe in ‘The Cradle Will Rock,’ directed by John Doyle, CSC (Joan Marcus)

However, when Mr. Mister comes to free the committee from jail, we understand that his fan base has neither the intelligence, the spiritual will, the courage, nor the understanding to recognize that a nefarious, demoralizing, psychotic sociopath is a danger to their own well being and freedom. The title of the Liberty Committee is a sardonic Orwellian touch for they are too blind to be free. Blitzstein’s work is one sardonic trope after another. As for the duped committee, they live trapped in their outer material selves, not in their souls or extended consciousness, mind, will.

Meanwhile, Mr. Mister also offers to bail out Larry Foreman. Accepting the bail money has a price: join Mr. Mister’s extended perfidious enterprise and work against the union, a work to enslave the community, not free it. Foreman rejects Mr. Mister’s offer. The Liberty Committee excoriates/ridicules him for his courage which they interpret as stupidity. But Foreman who takes the high road and remains in jail makes a sterling prophecy to himself and to us. With defiance he predicts that Mr. Mister’s oppressive, corrupt power over Steeltown will end.

Eddie Cooper, Kara Mikula in 'The Cradle Will Rock,' John Doyle, CSC

Eddie Cooper, Kara Mikula in ‘The Cradle Will Rock,’ directed by John Doyle, CSC (Joan Marcus)

Indeed, the implication is clear in every century, in every time and place. The warning for such infantile autocrats who must control all at their own whim like a petulant child is “The Cradle Will Rock!” And as surely as the wind blows with increasing strength, that cradle inevitably, will fall bringing down dictator baby.

This production certainly speaks for our time and we may take heart, if we wish, that Larry Foreman’s prophecy is an inevitability. I enjoyed the minimalism of props which the actors use seamlessly. And I enjoyed the use of greenbacks which dominate the scenes to illustrate how Mr. Mister’s wife, et. al  buys his influence from those equally corrupt who take the money and support his rise in exchange for their freedom of choice to stop him.

The greenbacks which eventually end up in a big pile (the symbol of velvet destruction) in the center of the playing space, are left by the head of the Steelworker’s Union, Larry Foreman. He cannot be bought. The money is an appropriate symbol of what can  make human beings like Mr. Mister and his minions in Steeltown pernicious, callous, hardened and wicked.

Tony Yazbeck, Lara Pulver, Rema Webb in 'The Cradle Will Rock,' John Doyle, CSC

(L to R): Tony Yazbeck, Lara Pulver, Rema Webb in ‘The Cradle Will Rock,’ directed by John Doyle, CSC (Joan Marcus)

“Apparently” fewer in number, there are those like Moll, Harry the druggist, Ella Hammer and Larry Foreman who eschew the “love of money” to kill/defraud/lie/steal for it or be complicit with those who do. How many have the strength of purpose, unction and anointing to do follow their heroic example and create a better world? Many, though it appears to be easier to go the way of Mr. Mister’s Liberty Committee. By the conclusion it is to the unseen “many” of like minded individuals that Larry Foreman makes his prophecies. In them lies the hope of the fierce wind that will rock the cradle.

Blitzstein’s work initiated as a result of the debacle of The Great Depression, then and now highlights how economic inequality was and is a by-product of power elites who purchase  institutions (religious, press, law enforcement, industry, social networks) to hold sway. In a time of economic prosperity it is impossible to corral people to do one’s bidding. Thus, the push for economic equality, the production reveals, encourages a strong and stable social system which discourages autocracy, plutocracy, dictatorship, “one-man rule.” Indeed, who pushes the culture in order to exacerbate economic inequality which is the lifeblood of instability and divisiveness? Who indeed!

This is a fine production thanks to these talented actors: Ken Barnett, Eddie Cooper, Benjamin Eakeley, David Garrison, Ian Lowe, Kara Mikula, Lara Pulver, Sally Ann Triplett, Rema Webb, Tony Yazbec. Doyle’s direction/staging/design is spot-on. And kudos go those creatives responsible for Costume Design (Ann Hould-Ward) Lighting (Jane Cox, Tesse James) Music Supervisor (Gregg Jarrett) Associate Scenic Design (David L. Arsenault) Associate Costume Design (Amy Price).

Here is a caveat for this production. The lyrics to the songs are gems. The voices of the actors, the gemcutters. The more precisely enunciated with authenticity, the more beautiful the overall piece of jewelry (the song). Indeed, we long for exquisite, priceless pieces. At times, the gemcutters in the production, were imprecise; the song lyrics were garbled. When the cutters were precision sharp and clear, the songs soared and thrilled. This is a potentially stunning production which fell a bit short for that reason and that alone.

Nevertheless, it is a must-see as a trenchant allegory for our time. The Cradle Will Rock runs with no intermission about 90 minutes. The show closes on 19 May. You can purchase tickets at their website by CLICKING HERE.

 

‘The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,’ a Thrilling Re-imagining of Shakespeare’s History/Tragedy

The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, Shana Cooper, Theatre for a New Audience

The Company of ‘The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,’ directed by Shana Cooper (Henry Grossman)

A few years ago the Public Theatre did a sardonic version of Julius Caesar using directed ridicule to lay bare some parallels between Caesar’s power grab with that of the new Trump administration. In that iteration blonde, pompous Caesar wore a dark suit and long, red tie and Calpurnia flounced around in designer clothing. The allusions were clear as were the themes. Overweening power unchecked in a representative government leads to civil strife, chaos and future oppression. Though Theatre for a New Audience’s rendition of Julius Caesar offers no such national twists, the production’s finely tuned staging, set design, incisive acting by the principals and superb use of the ensemble ratchet the themes of political intrigue and civil strife to a much more nuanced and foreboding level.

Theatre for a New Audience, Shana Cooper, Tragedy of Julius Caesar

Ensemble of ‘The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,’ directed by Shana Cooper, Theatre for a New Audience (Gerry Goodstein)

This version is novel in costume design, sound design and scenic design with sterling efforts by Raquel Barreto (costumes) Sibyl Wickersheimer (set) Paul James Prendergast (sound). Though the costumes are predominately in modern dress, the impact of the characters’ roles is inherent in their design. The masks and wigs headgear of the ensemble are dramatic and eye-catching in the opening scene with the crowds celebrating the Feast of Lupercal. The same occurs later during Brutus’ and Mark Antony’s funeral orations.

The director Shana Cooper brilliantly employs the ensemble during the mob scenes and crowd scenes in Act I and Act III and then in the battle scenes in the last acts. The staging is riveting and in the first half of the play, the ensemble enacts the lower class plebeians with acute meaning and power. The mob action is a vital aspect not only of the arc of development in the action of Julius Caesar, but also as emblematic of Shakespeare’s themes about governance, leadership and control of the public will.

Brandon J. Dirden, 'The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,' Theatre for a New Audience, Shana Cooper

Brandon J. Dirden as Brutus in ‘The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,’ Theatre for a New Audience, directed by Shana Cooper (Henry Grossman)

For example Caesar (an appropriately arrogant Rocco Sisto) is a master manipulator of the crowd which he plays upon like “the actors in the theater” according to the humorous Caska (the ironic, churlish Stephen Michael Spencer). Of course their will is Caesar’s command and it is how and why he will be “crowned” by the senators who understand the extent to which Caesar has gained the people’s trust and love. Shana Cooper conveys this theme of crowd manipulation trenchantly. For the first time in the numerous productions I have seen of Caesar, she most coherently understands Shakespeare’s portrayal of the crowd as a preeminent character.

How the crowd/rag-tag people are manipulated by Caesar, Brutus and Antony recalls how every charismatic leader gains and maintains power: he/she infuses the will of the people with the direction of his/her own desires, neatly disguised. Though Brutus (Brandon J. Dirden is superb as the high-minded, conflicted betrayer of his friend), launches himself into the pulpit at Caesar’s funeral, his honesty doesn’t allow him to use the clever, ironic rhetorical strategies of Mark Antony (Jordan Barbour is super as the passionate rogue who stirs the emotions of the mob). Antony’s duplicity as he turns the crowd away from praising the “honorable” Brutus to damning him is a masterwork of leadership genius.

Brandon J. Dirden, Rocco Sisto, 'The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,' Theatre for a New Audience

Brandon J. Dirden, Rocco Sisto in ‘The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,’ Theatre for a New Audience (Henry Grossman)

Mark Antony enrages the crowd into seething, blind violence for his self-dealing purposes. The speech is one of Shakespeare’s greats and Barbour does it justice. As counterpoints to each other in this Act III climax of Caesar’s funeral, Dirden’s Brutus and Barbour’s Antony reveal exceptional talents in voice and in their living moment-to-moment in the skins of these admirable and incredible Romans, whom we come to appreciate as leaders of that time, far occluding current politicians of our time.

Jordan Barbour, 'The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,' Theatre for a New Audience, Shana Cooper

Jordan Barbour, ‘The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,’ Theatre for a New Audience, directed by Shana Cooper (Henry Grossman)

The contrasting scenes which feature the wives of the leaders, Calphurnia (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart) and Portia (Merritt Janson) indicate the human side of Caesar and Brutus away from their roles as leaders of the people. In their importuning their husbands, both Stewart and Janson are sensitive and heartfelt.

Merritt Janson, Brandon J. Dirden.'The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,' directed by Shana Cooper, Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center

Merritt Janson, Brandon J. Dirden in ‘The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,’ directed by Shana Cooper, Theatre for a New Audience (Gerry Goodstein)

The power and beauty of Portia’s pleas to get Brutus to tell her his secrets lest she only be his “harlet” and not his “true wife” is a standout. Cooper’s astute direction of Portia who reaches behind Brutus to take his knife and give herself the wound which convinces him to “tell all,” is cogent and precise. Merritt Janson and Brandon J. Dirden rock the house in this poignant, well-wrought scene which reveals their love and concern for each other and which also gives credence to why Portia kills herself violently after Brutus flees Rome.

Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, Rocco Sisto in 'The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,' Shana Cooper, Theatre for a New Audience

Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, Rocco Sisto in ‘The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,’ directed by Shana Cooper (Henry Grossman)

Likewise, the love and concern expressed in the bath scene between Calphurnia and Caesar is well thought out and delivered. We are heartened that Calphurnia has discovered a “face-saving” way to  convince Caesar not to go to the senate. But all ends in the exchange between proud Caesar and Calphurnia after she is foiled by the clever Decius (an exceptional Barret O’Brien who is on point throughout this high energy scene as well as before and after the assassination).  She wilts like a dead flower as Caesar chides her for his caving in to her fears; and at that moment, Caesar is a dead man unless he accepts the truth of warnings of the Soothsayer and Artemidorus.

Calphurnia’s angry cry after Caesar’s death in waving the bloody scarf at her husband’s corpse is the perfect acting choice. Indeed, how many times do wives correctly advise their husbands who ignore them only to be proven right after it is too late? If Caesar had only listened to her, she would not be staring down at his mangled body, mourning him.

Jordan Barbour, Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, Rocco Sisto, 'Tragedy of Julius Caesar,' Shana Cooper, Theatre for a New Audience

Jordan Barbour, Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, Rocco Sisto, ‘Tragedy of Julius Caesar,’ directed by Shana Cooper, Theatre for a New Audience (Gerry Goodstein)

Cooper’s staging of the conspirators around Caesar before and during the assassination is enlightened and sizzles with power. A brilliant touch which may rankle traditionalists is that Antony brings Calphurnia to Caesar’s funeral so she may respond, with anger, remorse and tears. It is the epitome of logic that reveals Antony’s character and foreshadows the future. She is one more prop that Antony uses to manipulate the crowd to such mutiny that in the next scene they beat to death a poor innocent poet (Armando McClain) in an amazingly choreographed scene.

The direction of the ensemble and principals throughout the first part of the play creates tension and engagement with great purpose in elucidating themes. For example as Antony works his mischief to stir the crowd to bloodshed so “mothers will but smile when they see their sons quartered…” Cooper has Caesar rise with the help of Calphurnia and walk off. This is prodigious direction/staging. Symbolically, we understand that Caesar’s spirit has been evoked/resurrected by Antony to roam the land seeking vengeance in the capture or death of the conspirators and all those in concert with them. This ghost of Caesar threads through to the final Acts and foreshadows Caesar’s haunting Brutus at various times and finally when he appears in Brutus’ tent and embraces him before the disastrous battle of Philippi.

Rocco Sisto, Brandon J. Dirden, 'The Tragedy of Julius Caear,' Theatre for a New Audience

Rocco Sisto, Brandon J. Dirden in ‘The Tragedy of Julius Caear,’ Theatre for a New Audience (Henry Grossman)

The last acts of Julius Caesar have been characterized as throw-away. Not so in this production which has streamlined and strengthened them. The argument between Brutus and his once close friend now “enemy” Cassius, Matthew Amendt (Cassius) and Dirden (Brutus) deliver with power. As Cassius, Matthew Amendt’s portrayal is spot-on, though at times I felt he could project more. This is not the conniving Cassius we witnessed in the first act. Amendt’s Cassius is hurting, disturbed, humanized. On the other hand, Brutus has become a bellicose emotional lightening rod. As the two quarrel, we empathize with Cassius and then we discover why brutish Brutus is attacking his former close friend, now fellow soldier.

Matthew Amendt, Brandon J. Dirden, 'The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,' Theatre for a New Audience

(L to R): Matthew Amendt, Brandon J. Dirden, ‘The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,’ Theatre for a New Audience (Henry Grossman)

Cooper avoids the problems with the last acts also by consolidating characters to keep the character list leaner than the original play. She also exemplifies and symbolizes how the spirit of vengeance and war range against each other in stylized battle scenes which are exceptionally choreographed by Erika Chong Shuch with the ensemble in modern army camouflage and make-up.

These scenes especially heighten the excitement, tension and energy. Also, they manifest and represent the sheer adrenaline expended during wartime. The fact that Cooper uses no blood or physical violence is symbolic more of the spirit of war that seems eternally present in every era. In their actions the ensemble steps in unison, in their arm, hand, leg movements and gestures in military fashion without weapons.

Stephen Michael Spencer, Matthew Amendt, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,'

Stephen Michael Spencer, Matthew Amendt (prone) in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,’ (Henry Grossman)

The overall effect is frightening in what it suggests, the fierce will and hot determination to war against one’s countrymen who were once brothers/colleagues. The lighting effects are exceptional thanks to Christopher Akerlind especially in these scenes. The music and sound are portentous.

The bloody assassination scene is contrasted with the stylized battle scenes which have no direct physical contact or blood. The pivotal character is Caesar, a god. Stabbed thirty-three times, he bleeds; no other character does. Symbolic parallels are drawn between animals sacrificed to predict the future, or gain favor with the gods or heal a nation. The contrasts and irony emphasized in this Tragedy of Julius Caesar are dire; the republic is not healed, but destroyed with his bloodletting. And the bloodless fighting of the ensemble indicates that the spirit of power domination, and war as an effective tool of “dominion” is integral to human society and must be checked through wise governance.

Julian Remulla, Brandon J. Dirden in 'The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,' Theatre for a New Audience

Julian Remulla, Brandon J. Dirden in ‘The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,’ Theatre for a New Audience (Henry Grossman)

Caesar is the sacrifice. By the time his spirit of vengeance has consumed all who would stand in the way of peace, 100 senators are dead, even the most rational and erudite Cicero. And his vengeance won’t be finished until Octavius (the martial Benjamin Bonenfant) purges his enemies and becomes Caesar Augustus. (Emperor Augustus decreed August 15 should be celebrated as his festival Ferragosto. From that time to this, all Italy closes down to celebrate.)

The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, Theatre for a New Audience, Shana Cooper

The company of ‘The Tragedy of Julius Caesar’ (Gerry Goodstein)

The production concludes with the stylized choreography and the comments that Brutus killed for the good of Rome. But Cooper’s staging makes clear that the killing will continue. Thematically, we acknowledge that the spirit of war, political intrigue and vengeance will carry through Augustus’ reign and beyond.

Cooper’s production best highlights Shakespeare’s inherent prophecy that war and assassination as political exigencies are perhaps inevitable. The show which runs until April 28th is a must-see for its daring risks that shake tradition, elucidate new concepts and provide exciting, vibrant theater. You can purchase tickets to The Tragedy of Julius Caesar which runs with one intermission at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center (Ashland Place Brooklyn, NY) by CLICKING HERE.

 

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