Category Archives: Off Broadway
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”)
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.
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.
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.
‘Life Sucks’ by Aaron Posner, a Punchy, Waggish ‘Uncle Vanya’ Update That Keeps You Laughing, Starring Austin Pendleton
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
The Cake written by Bekah Brunstetter is a deliciously humorous look at love and prejudice with twists that harken back to the Supreme Court ruling which sided in favor of Masterpiece Cakeshop which refused to to bake a cake for a gay couple. The setting is not Colorado, however, it is North Carolina, and there is a similar response about baking for a gay couple.
Indeed, one of the themes of The Cake touches upon the current backlash by religious groups against the LGBTQ community and gay marriage. However, by the conclusion the playwright reinforces that love and decency can drive out divisiveness and bigotry, leading to mutual respect among groups with divergent orientations and beliefs.
Della (Debra Jo Rupp) owns her own bakeshop and is a fabulous baker of confections, specialty cakes, cupcakes, cookies and other desserts, all of which she bakes from scratch in her shop in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. As she introduces herself with her sunny, sociable and sweet personality, we recognize why she selected this particular business to showcase herself.
Dessert baking is fun. Cakes and confections are feel good, comfort foods in a state that is less concerned about waist-lines and more concerned about family gatherings and get togethers. A cake will satisfy as the crowning glory of any party and Della’s recipes are unique and fabulous.
Furthermore, Della is not timorous about sharing her recipes because most people who ask for them don’t follow them to the exact drop of liquid or sift of dry ingredients. Della affirms that’s why her cakes are so delectable. When she bakes the cakes that she has crafted for greatness, she follows the recipe directions and comes out with beauty every time. She further endears us in this opening sequence when she tells a customer that she is going to be a contestant and compete with others on The Great American Baking Show, the most watched baking show on CBS.
Debra Jo Rupp is a joy to watch, as she takes every line in this opening sequence and makes it her own with spontaneity, authenticity and sincerity, so that we long to taste a piece of her wonderful cake and feel the love vibrating from her. If mom baked and cooked with love, surely Della does the same. She is so affable and winning, we are completely taken in by her hospitality. We forget that she lives in the south, has lived there her whole life and most probably and at the least harbors residual racism and bigotry or at best is in a state of confusion like a good part of the southern United States regarding the LGBTQ community which cannot be reconciled with their religious beliefs.
However, the worm turns soon enough when Northerner Macy, a lovely black journalist enters the shop. During the course of the conversation, Macy turns down a taste of Della’s cake and goes into a rant about the food industry putting sugar in everything to addict consumers who are getting so fat that childhood obesity and diabetes are at the highest rates ever in the history of the nation. Immediately, we understand that beneath the lovely bakery confections there is an underlying toxicity and harm to one’s health. Macy has shaken us awake and alerted us that perhaps Della is a bit too sugary for our Northern sensibilities.
When the conversation continues and Della claims she is not concerned about politics but just concerned with her cakes, Macy comments: “Isn’t ambivalence as evil as violence?” Bam! We get the alarming picture. As a typical Southern woman who votes as her husband tells her and doesn’t think about the hypocritical values of Christianity rejecting a woman’s right to choose while obviating all responsibility toward children beyond the fetus stage, Della’s love charms appear to ring hollow. We wonder, where does she stand with her love if not in support of children and her baking?
Macy’s loaded, thematic-laden remark ratchets their communication into an embarrassing stalemate: Della leaves to check on her pineapple upside down cake and Macy oogles the piece of cake Della cut for her to try, but doesn’t touch it. Clearly, Della and Macy are at opposite ends of the political and religious spectrum and never the twain shall meet. Then Jen enters with a wedding binder to visit her mother’s old friend Della and the play launches off into a number of fascinating, complicated directions that stretch Della’s patience and religion, and hurt Jen’s feelings almost to a breaking point.
However, clarity, understanding and growth come when Jen discusses why she is who she is and how she has come to make the decision to marry Macy and live with her, despite Macy’s father’s censure and opprobrium. When Jen and Macy ask Della to bake their wedding cake for them and attend their party, Della’s husband, in typical “good ole boy” fashion, puts his foot down as the man of the house.
Though Della attempts to get around him, he remains steadfast. Taking her cues from her deep conversation with Jen about being a woman, Della attempts to ignite the fires that once burned in Tim’s heart. Indeed, it is obvious that Jen’s and Macy’s conversations with Della have touched a growth nerve and this in uncovers the flaws in her marriage with Tim.
Della is forced to sift herself and reconfigure a new recipe of care and concern with her husband and her daughter’s friend Jen. It is in her desire to be a good, decent person that we discover where Della’s love and heart is as she works things out with her husband and reconsiders her religious beliefs. Her love which is rooted deep grows toward becoming more open-minded.
The Cake is a compact, well-written, beautifully acted, sensitive play that resonates with vitality for our time. Marinda Anderson as Macy portrays the lucid, flexible and mature womanly partner of the equally sensitive and hopeful, upbeat Jen. As Jen Genevieve Angelson, measures beat for beat Anderson’s well-thought-out depiction.
Dan Daily as Tim, Della’s husband, is both jarring in his domineering attitude, then later loving and humorous in his sensitivity toward his wife. The section where he reveals the issue that has been undermining his confidence in their relationship is excellent. Debra Jo Rupp’s Della is particularly poignant when she tries to engage with Tim and he is incapable of responding and tells her so. This is a wonderful lay up to the surprisingly humorous event which occurs between them later in the play.
Lynne Meadow’s sterling direction keeps the pacing and the humor alternating in time with the quiet, thoughtful powerful moments. These moments underscore the themes about how to bridge the gaps in our viewpoints when friendships are at stake. The artistic elements and revolving set design serve the importantly intimate scenes between Tim and Della and Jen and Macy. Allowing us to view their relationships, we note there isn’t much difference regarding the couples as they attempt to further their understanding and love of each other. I was particularly heartened by the portrayal of Tim and his love for Della. Whether in straight or gay hearts, love abides with need. And this results in the uplifting and satisfying conclusion of The Cake.
Special kudos to John Lee Beatty for his superb scenic design (too bad there were no real cakes there, but at the bar the night I saw the production, there was a vanilla cake). And kudos to Tom Broecker for Costume Design (the wedding outfits are perfect), Philip S. Rosenberg for Lighting Design, John Gromada for Original Music and Sound Design and Tommy Kurzman for Hair, Wig & Makeup Design.
This is a winning production that you will enjoy. It runs with no intermission for 90 minutes at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s New York City Center Stage 1 (131 West 55th Street between 6th and 7th). For tickets CLICK HERE.
Juno and the Paycock, directed by Neil Pepe. is a powerful and trenchant look at the lives and lifestyles of tenement dwellers in Dublin, impacted by the Irish Civil War (June 28, 1922-May 24, 1923). The production is part of The Dublin Trilogy by Sean O’Casey currently featured by the Irish Repertory Theater. O’Casey’s work is populated by singular characters whose flawed humanity rings with truth and tragedy during the birth pangs of a nascent Irish Republic.
Juno Boyle (in a fine, measured performance by Maryann Plunkett) is the long suffering wife of ‘Captain’ Jack Boyle. Ciaran O’Reilly’s spot-on, brilliant “paycock” is humorous, puffed-up and delightfully roguish as well as “haplessly” self-destructive. Both Juno and Captain Jack have managed to carve out an existence for themselves with the help of their daughter Mary (Sarah Street) and their son Johnny (Ed Malone). However, as the play opens we find that they cannot get out from under the dire circumstances fomented by the various stakeholders who fight for and against the evolving movement for independent Irish statehood.
Johnny (Ed Malone does an excellent job as the peevish, complaining, guilt-ridden son) has been badly injured during the Easter Rebellion. He attempts to disengage himself from his former comrades with the Old IRA which has been reconstituted and has become more purposefully violent in its thrust to move toward an Ireland completely free from the British. Mary (Street is excellent as the demure, naive, gentle daughter) is out on strike with the trade unionists who protest pay cuts and the general approach of the “Free State government” which is aligned with Britain.
From this motley group of family, the only one who works and keeps the household “running” is the assertive Juno. She waits on the “paycock,” Captain Jack, and puts up with his squandering money on drink. But she warns Captain Jack about his friendship with tenement drinking buddy the ne-er-do-well Joxer (John Keating’s reprobate, hypocrite is absolutely dastardly and the perfect foil for Captain Jack). Joxer’s exploitative and free-loading ways Juno dislikes and runs down to Captain Jack because of his evil influence.
Helping her family and short-changing herself, the saintly Juno soothes Johnny by answering to his every need. For example she gets Johnny a glass of water when he asks for it, though he is capable of doing it himself.
O’Casey’s characterizations reveal a group of impoverished individuals (mentally and materially). Their hand-to-mouth existence is continually impacted by the turmoil and chaos of a society fractured by civil war and upheaval. When news of the death of one of his former friends reaches the family, Johnny is on edge and “sensitive” rushing into his room, refusing to hear about the details which his sister reads from the paper. We think that he is going through “PTSD,” however, O’Casey develops the seeds of this unrest during the play. Eventually, they blossom into a dark revelation. By the conclusion O’Casey enlightens us so we understand why Johnny carps and whines about Tancred’s death and the chaos of the Civil War happening around them.
For their part, Juno and her “paycock” have achieved a steady routine. Juno harangues Captain Jack and tries to prevent the family from going into the abyss as she encourages her husband to show up for a job and chides him to stop his drinking bouts with Joxer. All is stasis until Mary brings home a gentleman, Charles Bentham (James Russell in an appropriately “high-minded” and slippery portrayal), a teacher. He brings the information that Captain Jack has come into an inheritance that will lift them from poverty. This grand news transforms their spirits. The job that Captain Jack was going to take is now unnecessary and he settles into his role as the preening “paycock,” full time with no recriminating Juno to excoriate him.
Even Johnny seems to be more cheerful as he hopes that they can move away from the area once they receive the money. With this redemption, Mary who has thrown over Jerry Devine (Harry Smith in a softly sweet and heartfelt portrayal) as a boyfriend, becomes enamored of Charles. They become a serious couple with marriage plans. All appears to be rosy with this “dream come true” scenario, and we, who empathized with their rough and tumble former condition are happy that they have in effect “won the lottery” and will not suffer the indignity and wretchedness of poverty any more.
O’Casey has lured us into their hope for a better life, a hope that all of us experience. This very identification with this family makes the conclusion of O’Casey’s work all the more tragic and heart-wrenching.
At the discovery of their inheritance, the family conflicts subside and these personalities expand despite the chaos in the culture. Captain Jack borrows money against his inheritance as does Juno. For a time, they are floating on clouds of joy as they dance and the couples are at peace, with all distemper ending between and among family members.
Yet, a suggestion of darkness floats in when Charles Bentham describes his belief in Theosophy. His comments give rise to the world of spirits who remain unsettled and without peace. Indeed, he suggests those who are sensitive enough to see into the supernatural may recognize a spirit’s misery and displacement from a peaceful state.
During the discussion Johnny’s emotions unravel. He leaves their company and goes into the bedroom. There, he has an encounter with the supernatural and rushes out of the bedroom. Whether this is his overactive imagination or a spirit coming to plague his soul, a warning, or something else, Ed Malone’s Johnny makes this a harrowing experience. Indeed, in this segment O’Casey suggests there is something that Johnny is deathly afraid of, something no one in his family suspects or knows about.
But like any uncanny, foreshadowing moment, it is easily forgotten and Johnny’s apprehensions are dispelled when it is proven there is nothing alarming or unusual in the room. All is well. Nevertheless, O’Casey quietly grows the seeds he planted at the outset of the play and the tension increases related to the mystery of Johnny’s past involvement with the “Diehards,” the Old IRA and why he has left them.
This tension is carefully, subtly wrought by Pepe’s staging and his precise shepherding of the actors. Our misgivings are confirmed and the pall of death brought in by Mrs. Tancred’s mourning of her son and his funeral convey the shrouds of darkness and doom that overcome the light-heartedness that the family once felt and manifested in song and dance. Each member of the family is enveloped by disaster and tragedy that was foreshadowed at the beginning of the play when Mary read of the Tancred son’s death. Finally, the abyss which Juno had kept from devouring the family, finally comes to call for each of them.
Juno and the Paycock’s stark and tragic human realities of lost lives are realized in this memorable production. It is no wonder that O’Casey was able to write full time after this play was produced at the Abbey Theatre; it is a marvelous work. Our identification with the characters’ downfall is acute and heartfelt. And every foible that threads its way from the beginning in each of the character portraits augments to the point where the civil war in the streets has been manifested internally as a civil war in the lives of each of the family members. For each struggles against their own addictive impulse to destroy themselves in not facing hard realities that can and should be dealt with until it is too late.
O’Casey’s themes about the struggle for survival, lost innocence, the inability to get free of one’s own addictive nature is relayed against the backdrop of war when countrymen fight against countrymen, and those who cannot fight hide and enter into the oblivion of drink. Sadly, the women are left to bury their dead and to mourn, seeking the surcease of sorrow through religion and prayer, which to the men is an inadequate response.
The production shines in the cast’s rendering of O’Casey’s searing portraits of the Dublin tenement-dwellers and their relationships with each other. Included in these not mentioned before are the fine Terry Donnelly as Maisie Madigan, Robert Langdon Lloyd as Needle Nugent, Una Clancy as Mrs. Tancred and members of the Ensemble (Rory Duffy, Meg Hennessy, Michael Mellamphy).
Special kudos go to the creative artists who effected the themes and intentions of the director through their talents and efforts. These include Charlie Corcoran (Scenic Design), Linda Fisher (Costume Design), David Toser (Costume Design), Michael Gottlieb (Lighting Design), Ryan Rumery (Original Music), M. Florian Staab (Sound Design).
Juno and the Paycock runs with one intermission. You can purchase tickets at the Irish Repertory Theatre website by CLICKING HERE.