Category Archives: Off Broadway

Cynthia von Buhler and Speakeasy Dollhouse Productions: Interview Wrap Up

Cynthia von Buhler, Speakeasy Dollhouse, The Bloody Beginning, Wyelin, Brooklyn

The lovely Cynthia von Buhler. Photo courtesy of Speakeasy Dollhouse productions and Cynthia von Buhler.

I had the opportunity to briefly chat with Cynthia von Buhler in between her busy schedule producing her widely popular show in a new venue in Brooklyn. Amidst my attending indie movie screenings, Off Broadway and Broadway shows, wine tastings and doing interviews and write-ups, we finally agreed to an online interview.

Here’s a bit of information about the prodigiously talented Ms. von Buhler. Cynthia is the producer, director, playwright of Speakeasy Dollhouse Productions: The Bloody Beginning, The Brothers Booth, The Midnight Frolic and The Illuminati Ball. Each of these productions is a wild, immersive phantasmagoria where the audience not only gets to watch and enjoy but also becomes part of the action. The action is replete with the macabre, the beautiful, the damned in an intense, showy spectacular that turns traditional theater on its head and sparks your craving to see the productions again and again. Each night is different and spins out of control into an extraordinary evening of entertainment including drinks and food, if you so dare to purchase.

Extraordinary is the only way to describe the one-of-a-kind, multiple sense titillation you partake of going to a Cynthia von Buhler presentation. She is a great gal, adorable, ebullient, innovative. I have seen and reviewed two of her shows for Blogcritics. The reviews are at these links. Midnight Frolic Review.  The Brothers Booth. Here is my email wrap-up with Cynthia.

The Bloogy Beginning, Cynthia von Buhler, Speakeasy Dollhouse Productions,

‘The Bloody Beginning,’ a Speakeasy Dollhouse presentation conceived, directed, produced by Cynthia von Buhler. Photo courtesy of Cynthia von Buhler.

How did you evolve Speakeasy Dollhouse?

In 2011 I decided to do a Kickstarter to research the mysterious murder of my grandfather in 1935. The Kickstarter was for a book and a one night immersive play. The play was such a hit that it never stopped after all these years and it spawned three other plays.

Link to Cynthia’s KICKSTARTER CAMPAIGN

Link to a Teaser Trailer VIMEO of Cynthia’s production, Speakeasy Dollhouse, THE BLOODY BEGINNING

Getting Acquainted Link to Cynthia von Buhler’s The Speakeasy Dollhouse

Speakeasy Dollhouse, 'The Bloody Beginning,' Cynthia von Buhler, Wyelin, Brooklyn

From ‘The Bloody Beginning’ The Speakeasy Dollhouse. Photo courtesy of Cynthia von Buhler who conceived, directed and produced the show.

How does your style of theater differ from the mainstream. Why should people flock to your show in Brooklyn?

Immersive theater is interactive and exploratory. It engages the audience and transports them to another time and place. Rather than watch a play, the audience is in the play.
Ed. Note: (I would venture to say that the audience becomes the play. It’s a surreal Rene Magritte experience.)

Explain what your current show is about and how you have updated/perfected/workshopped it to precision.

Cynthia von Buhler, The Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Bloody Beginning

Photo from ‘The Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Bloody Beginning,’ conceived, directed, produced by Cynthia von Buhler.

This show is a return to my first immersive play, Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Bloody Beginning. It’s about the murder of my grandfather. The challenge this time was moving it to a new location. Weylin (the former Williamsberg Savings Bank), is absolutely gorgeous and sprawling, so the experience might even be better than when we did it at The Back Room.

How many years have you been producing the show?

Each show is a workshop of sorts, so it has been workshopped for five years.

Ed. Note: (She has produced it for 5 years since her Kickstarter campaign and that is how long she has been producing her shows.)

The Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Bloody Beginning, Cynthia von Buhler

Photo courtesy of Cynthia von Buhler from ”The Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Bloody Beginning’ at Weylin in Brooklyn.

In what way does the show turn male chauvinism on its head? Or does it?

That is an interesting question. Italians at that time period were often chauvinists. This is a period piece and the goal of the work isn’t about fighting that. My grandmother was a powerful woman though. She had a shotgun and she used to protect the ice truck filled with bootleg from the mafia when they went up to Canada to buy whiskey.

What is your training and background in the theatre, the arts, acting?

My training is in visual art. I have a Bachelor of Fine Art from The Art Institute of Boston and I studied art At Richmond College in England. I grew up in the Berkshires of Massachusetts surrounded by theater. I have been involved in creating theater since I was a child when I acted in your typical productions of Oklahoma, Peter Pan, West Side Story and the like. I can still do a rousing rendition of Oklahoma.

The Illuminati Ball, Cynthia von Buhler

‘The Illuminati Ball,’ conceived, directed, produced by Cynthia von Buhler. Photo courtesy of the production.

What have been some memorable performances given the wild, interactive style you embrace?

I’m enjoying my new show, The Illuminati Ball. It’s my most surreal and bizarre show yet. It’s an immersive excursion which means we transport our audience by limousine to a location for a transportive experience

Link to visuals of Cynthia’s The Illuminati Ball.

The Bloody Beginning at Weylin may be extended. Performance dates:

When: 7/22, 7/23, 8/12, 8/13

What: Speakeasy Dollhouse

Price: $60 (regular admission); $120 (Ten VIP admission – no waiting in line, table seating, champagne toast); $200. (2 VIM admission {Very Important Murder} – same as VIP with a murder role.

Purchase tickets at: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2554772

Check back to see if the show is extended or the production is being presented at another venue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_2939

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Degas in New Orleans’ the New York Premiere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

'The Little Dancer' by Edgar Degas.

‘The Little Dancer’ by Edgar Degas.

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

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

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

 

 

‘The Brightness of Heaven’ by Acclaimed Author Laura Pedersen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The review first appeared on Blogcritics.

 

 

 

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