Category Archives: Off Broadway
The Gingold Theatrical Group once again reminds us of the greatness of George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession currently at Theatre Row. It is one of his earliest plays that was banned in London, produced in a private club in 1902 and finally received a public airing in 1925. When it was produced in the US in 1905, the entire cast was arrested via the New York version of the Comstock Law. They were released immediately afterward. Naturally, the controversy created the PR to pack the auditorium for the remainder of the run.
What was the fuss and furor? Shaw, an activist-playwright in addition to his many other talents (journalist, poet, politician, critic) wrote conflict plays exposing egregious social ills, hypocrisies and oppressive institutional class structures contrary to what the culture expected at the time. For example, plays could be about conventional prostitutes “with hearts of gold” who sacrificed themselves for the good of others or who died of consumption.
But God help you if you revealed the corrupt, capitalistic institutions that forced women to starve as factory workers and use their bodies to supplement their below living wages to make it to the next day. Shaw portrays the antithesis of the conventional prostitution accepted by church and decent society, by contriving a Madam for the ages, Mrs. Warren (the superb Haren Ziemba). She has bested the patriarchy and exploited it for her own advantage with the help of Sir George Crofts (the always excellent Robert Cuccioli) a clever exploiter who exploits her and his fellow men supplementing his finances and keeping his Baronet station with all propriety (wink, wink).
The problem is that Mrs. Warren has done this in the name of seeking the conventional-respectable for her daughter in order to purify herself. This is a blindness in Shaw’s astute hands. Indeed, Mrs. Warren’s Profession has as its conflict a mother-daughter disagreement over the conventional unconventional. Miss Vivie (the spot-on Nicole King) disagrees with her mother’s insistence that she receive money the rest of her life instead of Vivie making her own way from her own source of income which she has prepared for at Cambridge.
Shaw humorously reveals Vivie’s unconventionality when she rejects her mother’s largesse. Contrary to the usual mother-daughter relationships, she will not take care of her mother in her old age. By degrees we understand the backstory and ironies. Mrs. Kitty Warren also rejected her mother’s influence and domination. She made something of herself, transforming her low social station to one of wealth, culture and status, ably hobnobbing with the best of society.
The two women are admirably similar in getting over the patriarchy’s dominion. However, their professions are different and indeed, Mrs. Warren’s exploitation of lower class women’s horrific situation is a triumph of selfishness if not an expose of the corruption and hypocrisy of the patriarchal, colonial class system that applauds her surreptitiously for doing this. Of course, Shaw’s truthfulness in revealing the appalling conditions women faced at the time was an outrage to Shaw’s critics and commentators (backed by fat capitalists, most probably).
Mrs. Warren has worked her way up to moneyed respectability entrepreneurially by running high class hotels in various parts of Europe with her partner and friend the Baronet Sir George Crofts. Her “rags to riches” story speaks to the ambition and grit of a self-made woman. The most thrilling fact is that she has done this as a Madam which Shaw could only infer in his play in keeping with the hypocritical, judgmental Victorian Age mores which he twits from start to finish in this play. Mrs. Warren has taken life by the top hat and tails and exploited her beauty instead of allowing other men to exploit her and pay her nothing for it. She has worked out a special deal with Crofts taking the lion’s share of the profits. And she loves the work; it has made her self-sufficient and the gowns and lifestyle and being somebody is just grand.
Vivie, supported by her mother’s funds, unlike most woman of the time who could ill afford a college education, has found a useful career in an industry requiring her skills and education. Thus, she has achieved her own autonomy and refuses to be pinned down to the social prison and folkways of “respectability,” marriage, and being the little lady to some great philandering husband.
Like Kitty Warren, Vivie defines herself. This empowerment reveals a strong character undergirded by disallowing the patriarchy to demean and control her. Nor will she allow women entrapped by the patriarchy (her mother) to belittle her own self-achievement.
The initial scenes open on this conflict when Mrs. Warren comes to visit daughter Vivie to pave the way for her to be brought under her wing and into the fold of her grand, elegant lifestyle with Crofts. The women know little of each other and couldn’t be more disparate. When they discover each other with the help of Kitty’s friends and neighbors, Praed (Alvin Keith in a fine performance of the dandy) Frank (David Lee Huynh, Vivie’s energetic suitor) and Reverend Gardner (the fine Raphael Nash Thompson) the chaos mounts until the jig is up.
Shaw’s sardonic humor and irony is in the situation and the conflict between mother and daughter. Modern audiences will find humor that Vivie stands up to her mother who is appalled that her daughter eschews men, luxury, money and the gaudy cultural life. Instead, she prizes work, work, work. Vivie’s austerity and her rejection of everything that smacks of hypocrisy is downright Puritanical and actually uplifting to see on the one hand, but frightful on the other. Shaw’s depiction of her as a “modern,” young woman is ironic.
Shaw twits all his characters and has fun with them. Crofts’ cheap caddishness as one of the landed gentry is humorous as are Praed’s and Frank’s notions of womanhood and “how it should be.” Shaw twits the Reverend who joins the clergy after sewing his wild oats. He is so devoted to his congregation, he pays for his sermons to be written.
The production is well handled and a superb revelation of Shaw’s work because of the direction (David Staller), on point ensemble, and creative teams’ enhancement of the play’s timeless themes. I did enjoy the monochromatic set’s conceptualization. See this wonderful production to appreciate this master playwright whose currency so appeals. For tickets and times go to their website: https://gingoldgroup.org/mrs-warrens-profession/
Once upon a time when Buffalo, Lackawanna, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburg and other cities in the North were humming with industry, jobs, hope and prosperity, blacks migrated northward from the Jim Crow oppressions, danger and poverty of the South. Their industry, hard work and efforts contributed to a thriving black middle class which eventually petitioned and protested against the government for Civil Rights reform. In his one-man musical Lackawanna Blues, currently at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Ruben Santiago-Hudson weaves together a beautiful elegy to the people of Lackawanna, New York, who grew him up and impacted the course of his life.
Santiago-Hudson writes, directs, performs-sings, blows a mean harmonica and dances his joy and revelations about Lackawanna, whose current population statistics indicate is growing out of its period of decline during previous decades. Accompanied by the superb Junior Mack on guitar, Santiago-Hudson transforms himself into more than twenty distinctive and unique characters that peopled his formative years, when his beloved Ms. Rachel Crosby raised him. He, and most of the people who knew her, lovingly called her Nanny.
Nanny is at the center of his remembrance, the star of the production, the good and faithful servant on earth, who, laid to rest, brings on God’s greatest praise, “Well done.” Santiago-Hudson’s reflections on Nanny, through her interactions with others, indicate why God praises her so. The acute characterizations melded together and heightened by Mack’s guitar riffs and Santiago-Hudson’s jazz/blues harmonica and songs, reveal a woman we’d all love to be protected by. The picture is glorious. It is of individuals in need, beaten down by human cruelty being helped back up by a compassionate, loving, generous woman, more dignified than the government. Santiago-Hudson brings us into the cloud of witnesses to behold Nanny’s Christianity
Not to be understated is the underlying theme. We discover through humor and pathos, a migrating black culture settling in the middle of a white culture which wasn’t loving. As a result, Nanny “stood in the gap” with grace and a pure heart. Through the men and women that the prodigious Santiago-Hudson effects with his amazing performance skills, we come to know Ol’ Po’ Carl, Lottie, Ricky, Mr. Lemuel Taylor, Numb Finger Pete, Norma, Norma’s Mother, Bill, Dick Johnson, Sweet Tooth Sam and others who Nanny feeds, clothes, boards, chides, scolds and threatens in her way like a rod of Godly justice. Heck! You know they had it coming and invariably, they listen to her like chastened children in a kindergarten class.
What makes Lackawanna Blues so remarkable, apart from the music, is how Santiago-Hudson inhabits the characters with incredible details of speech, phrasing, word choice, stance, voice, behavior and walk, and in the twinkling of an eye switches from individual to individual without taking a noticeable breath. This is his understanding of these individuals’ souls and spirits, fictionalized with the sheen of memory. Interestingly, the result is in the revelation of this humanity, we become humanized with new knowledge of the time, place and culture. The effect is that we empathize and are fascinated to learn of each individual, to learn how Nanny attempts to bring them to wholeness. Though we may never have had a wonderful Nanny in our lives who demonstrated forgiveness and kindness, nor may we never have experienced some of the rough types that she took into her boarding houses and provided a meal, a bed and comforting words of hope to, we understand and experience her through Santiago-Hudson’s gifts of transference.
Each of Santiago-Hudson’s portraits of humanity are heart-felt. In some instances, they are so authentic you believe Pauline is standing before you, though Santiago-Hudson is wearing his shirt and pants throughout. Thematically, male or female, whether whole or in pieces as some of the characters are who have lost a limb or fingers, all have dignity and are respected regardless of their foolishness and hijinks. Through Nanny’s love, they are worthy of that respect and dignity. She elevates them from their low-down and fearful view of themselves.
,The writing and acting is breathtaking. Elegiac is the nearest word that comes to mind. However, that, too, is limited because there is great breadth of cultural humor and irony that allows the audience to laugh at themselves as much as they laugh at the situations the characters get into helped by Nanny’s wise responses which give them a way of escape.
The suggestive blues club lighting (Jen Schriever) and minimalistic stage design (Michael Carnahan) convey the blues/sadness of each story. Karen Perry’s costume design reminds us that Santiago-Hudson doesn’t need costume tricks to become characters. He can effuse them with a smile, tilt of the head, protruding tongue or swagger. I loved the brick wall backdrop, majestic door, lighted window suggesting one of Nanny’s boarding houses, like whisps lifted from memory, that in turn lift us into timeless space and the ethers of imagination. The minimalism encourages a unified realm of audience consciousness thrilled to see and feel and experience live performance. Additional kudos for Darron L West’s sound design.
Santiago-Hudson states in the program that the musical is dedicated to the memory of Bill Sims Jr. who wrote the original music for Lackawanna Blues. In spirit Bill Sims Jr. and Nanny are the force that assists Santiago-Hudson in his dynamite portrayals, in his expressive joy and poignancy, and in his paean to a past that brought him to where he is today, on a Broadway stage.
This is one that you don’t want to miss for the humor, writing, Junior Mack’s guitar and the easy way Bill Sims Jr.’s music tonally breezes the themes of goodness overpowering cruelty and hatred, love answering wrath and anger. Lackawanna Blues is uplifting and unifying in this time of division. It reminds us that we all crave love, forgiveness and care, all of us. That goodness lasts a lifetime and beyond. It stops the trajectory of destruction and converts sorrow and hurt to wholeness. And it brings spiritual life and love. Nanny is one for the ages. Hudson-Santiago’s portrayal is beyond triumphant. For tickets and times go to the website https://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/shows/2021-22-season/lackawanna-blues/
Kevin Barry’s dark comedy Autumn Royal currently at the Irish Repertory Theatre’s Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage is a blend of dark and light humor centered around a poignant family dynamic: what do we do with cantankerous, ailing Pa when Ma left the family? Directed by Ciarǻn O’Reilly, the production builds with gradual LOL riot to an ironic conclusion that is also a tragic reflection of human nature now and for all time.
Barry, an award-winning novelist (most recently Night Boat to Tangier) and short story writer (most recent, That Old Country Music) launched out to write his first play, Autumn Royal. When they heard the news, artistic director Charlotte Moore and director Ciarǻn O’Reilly snapped it up for the live 2021 season after triumphantly producing superb digital productions seen globally during the pandemic.
Starring the comic actor and writer Maeve Higgins as May and company member of the Irish Rep John Keating as her sibling Timothy, the actors show their talents as they take the audience on a romp which is both surreal and symbolic. The characters’ journey takes them into past events whose revelations inform their present predicament. As the arc of their situation intensifies because of their emotional angst, we are engaged with the surprising and humorous dialogue and flashbacks as family mysteries that haunt the siblings become exposed. The revelations impact how they determine their way forward as they live with and take care of their father 24/7 while he languishes in his sick bed.
We discover by degrees the conflicts amongst family members, May and Timothy and their parents. Through their commentary and banter with each other, they reveal the puzzle pieces of their history which we cobble together to divine how and why they continue to live in Cork, Ireland with their father in his house, caring for his most intimate personal needs. Their father and mother we understand by inference, description and reaction via amazingly suggestive flashbacks, theatrically presented with the sounds of machinery and projections on the dreary walls of a downstairs room, courtesy of Charlie Corcoran’s set design, Michael Gottlieb’s lighting design, Ryan Rumery’s original music and sound design, Dan Scully’s projection design and Hidenori Nakajo’s sound design.
All elements of spectacle are expertly woven by the creative team to maximum an almost frightening effect. The theme of parental impact on their children’s emotions and psyche is driven home, but in a unique and stark way as May and Timothy struggle with themselves to expurgate or to suppress the parental damage that changed the course of their lives.
The images and sounds combine to represent the siblings’ imaginations and personal memories. The revelations are of their unique character; other individuals would flashback to events in a different way. This is Barry’s superior characterization. May’s and Timothy’s stories connect past and present. Their humor, a way to deal with the terrors of parental verbal abuse, arises from misery and torment.
From the dramatically imagistic connections we understand clearly how and why they approach their lives, each other, their parents, their dreams and the possibilities of their future portentous decisions. Interestingly, Barry never presents the mother and father onstage. They are like living ghosts, shadows of their former selves, once a lighthearted family of four before the darkness came.
As the ghostly unseen, the father rains dust down on May and Timothy in the room on the first floor as he bangs out tempestuous ructions in his upstairs bed. The mother, a dark figure wandering up the hill above their house never visits, though she lives somewhere in Cork and remains incommunicado by her own design. However, she once visits her husband in his sickbed and compliments Timothy when she comes downstairs again. Timothy reports this to May after she confronts him about their parents. Indeed, afterward we learn how May despises their mother as they note their father’s religious fanaticism.
There is no spoiler alert. The events progress as the siblings try to make cogent decisions about their father’s condition and theirs with humorous effect. To what extent do they determine to fail? To what extent do they interact with each other in combined stasis and nihilism to deliver a result they don’t want? Or do they want it? You will just have to see this superb production to discover the humor, the poignancy and the uncertainty inherent in Barry’s work, beautifully rendered by O’Reilly’s direction and Higgins’ and Keating’s performances.
Barry’s work intrigues with its complexities. The actors make the characters authentic in their hellish prison which they impose on themselves and each other as they back themselves in a convenient corner. Their past, ironically suggested with symbolic flashbacks indicating a machinery which catches them up and spins them in circles of torment they cannot break, speaks to all of us. How caught up are we in past hurts delivered by individuals who have long since died? How much do we allow past events to determine how we relate to individuals in the present, who have vastly changed when the circumstances are also different? Or have the relationships we’ve developed over time worsened in revenge, self-punishment and unforgiveness? To what extent do we keep the machinery spinning because we don’t know how to stop it or won’t stop it?
The creative team, the director and the actors have brought to life the tragicomedy of a family in Barry’s powerful play. The production values enhance the themes and bring them home. As we laugh, the impact of May’s and Timothy’s reality drives into our hearts. This is a wonderful production to begin Irish Repertory’s return to live theater. Kudos to all involved. For tickets and times visit their website https://irishrep.org/
I had seen Romy Nordlinger in her solo show PLACES! at 59E59th’s East of Edinburgh Festival and thought she was marvelous. Evolving her presentation before and after the pandemic, once again she is stepping out to bring to life the amazing Nazimova who lived and made her mark during the early twentieth century. With additional performances under the direction of Lorca Peress, Romy’s achieved new heights exploring the maverick woman who was a force in her time. Ahead of her 7:30 pm show on Thursday, October 21st at The Cutting Room on 44 E 32nd St. (arrive at 6:00 pm for the live jazz cocktail hour) I had the opportunity to interview Romy about this production which she has also written.
Who is Alla Nazimova, the person you are bringing to life in your show?
Perhaps the greatest star you’ve never heard of, one of the brightest lights on America’s stage and cinema screen was actor, director, writer and producer Alla Nazimova. Few women, or men, rose to such great heights – but now she languishes largely forgotten. A student of Stanislavski, she fled from Tsarist Russia and an abusive father, to the Lower East Side, where she founded a Yiddish theatre – her play The Chosen People put her on the map.
From humble beginnings to a meteoric rise to stardom, she became Broadway’s biggest star, and in 1910-1911 made the Shuberts $4 million dollars in sold out runs (that’s 400 million dollars today). Described by Dorothy Parker as “the greatest Hedda Gabler” she helped to bring acclaim to playwrights such as Eugene O’ Neill, Chekhov, Ibsen, and Strindberg. She even inspired Tennessee Williams to become a playwright. The Shuberts then named the Broadway theatre after her, The Nazimova Theatre on 119 W. 39th St. Growing weary of the increasing pressure to perform in second rate commercial plays, she left the Shuberts and The Nazimova Theatre was renamed the 39th Street Theatre. It was finally torn down in 1926.
Nazimova went on to become the highest paid silent movie star in Tinseltown commanding a five year $13,000 a week salary in 1916. The first female director and producer in Hollywood and pioneer of the first art film, her stunningly avant-garde Salome was too “Wilde” for 1926. Unapologetic about her bisexual decadence, she defied the moral and artistic codes of her time that eventually forced her into obscurity.
Her legendary Garden of Allah mansion in Hollywood was a haven of intellectual and sexual freedom with regulars such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, Garbo, Dietrich, Valentino, Chaplin, Rachmaninov – basically anybody who was anybody. There, she declared her all women’s “sewing circle” in open defiance, proclaiming her strength when women were relegated to silence. In financial and critical ruin after Salome, the press and the studios destroyed her. Finally, she rented a small bungalow in the grounds of the mansion she had built on Sunset Boulevard.
Her bold, trailblazing artistic legacy is unprecedented, unrepeated and under the radar. Her iconoclastic story of freedom and nonconformity was silenced under the smoldering rubble of forgotten history.
How did you “hear” about Nazimova?
The brilliant theatre historian, author and founder of The Society for The Preservation of Theatrical History, Mari Lyn Henry was putting on a production of ‘Stage Struck’ about famous actresses from history. She asked me to pick an actress to research and write about and she suggested some wonderful actresses, but none really struck my fancy. They all were very blonde and talented, but I felt no relation to them – and then Mari Lyn said, “I’ve got it! Alla Nazimova!” I thought, “Who in the heck is that?”
I started reading about Nazimova. She is also Jewish and Belarusian as I am, and I felt an immediate kinship. I read her biography by Gavin Lambert which quotes from writings from her own journals. I was mesmerized by her humor, her story, and most of all, her zest for life! She was a survivor. This was a woman who lost everything, overcame the most horrible circumstances, became a star more meteoric than even Madonna and ended up a guest inside the mansion she used to own. She was a maverick ahead of her time, investing her money for the love of art/film and experimenting with new forms. Despite her losses, she kept her joie de vivre, having no regrets or bitterness. She remained full of wonder with the beauty of life.
THIS, I thought, THIS is a person who inspires me to risk, to dare to dream out loud and bring to life my dream. Most importantly, she inspired me to be myself in a material culture that is constantly trying to commoditize and sell, a society that values only your worth in money. This was a woman who valued herself and loved life to the fullest.
Tell us about previous performances of the show.
I have performed the show in another incarnation under the title PLACES! at Edinburgh Fringe, HERE Theater, Dixon Place, The Players Club and the studio center at The Kennedy Center. This is the production where, although we’ve always been received very well, we really tell her story to the best of all we have. It’s a multimedia show that is like a live silent movie with absolutely beautiful and evocative video design by Adam Burns, a brilliant musical score by Nick T. Moore and directed by the very talented Lorca Peress.
How has your performance and understanding of Nazimova evolved?
As life is wont to do, the more you experience the joys, the sorrows, all life’s disparities, the more you “understand” the heights and depths of the characters you play. After undergoing many upheavals in my own life, ups and downs in careers, triumphs and flops, deaths and loss, and then of course the pandemic, I feel an even stronger kinship to Nazimova’s survival instinct. I understand and am inspired by her amazing capacity for feeling – pain, joy, love, anything and everything but boredom. I channel her and she makes me feel able to cope. She helps make me a better person. This production is a great labor of love and a lot of work. It takes everything I have to get up on stage and perform a solo show – and to “bring” Nazimova there. It’s all worth it, every moment, for both the audience, and myself. It is a cathartic experience, and now more than ever, it’s a valentine to theatre.
What would you like the audience to understand about Nazimova that your performance enhances?
I’d like the audience to realize that we are standing on the shoulders of giants. That the LGBTQ movement started long ago with brave people like Nazimova who stood up and demanded she be herself, but alone and without a Twitter account, and that we can all dare to dream – and fail – and rise again – and fail again. It’s all the same. It’s the journey that’s important. To anyone whose felt like the underdog, I want them to feel less alone, and to feel that they, too, can use their voice (whether out loud or in writing or however they express themselves) to be an instrument, an extension of themselves. Their life matters. Their differences are beautiful.
Romy Nordlinger will be channeling Alla Nazimova in her exceptional show at The Cutting Room 7:30 pm, Thursday, Oct 21. Arrive at 6:00 pm for the live jazz cocktail hour. The Cutting Room address is 44 E 32nd St., NY, NY.
The interview has been gently edited.
One of the most fascinating elements of the superb Martyna Majok’s Sanctuary City, directed by Rebecca Frecknall is the stylization conveyed by the script that is rhythmic, poetic and a rap of eternal, brief moments of brilliance in time. Whether Majok is elucidating how relationships begin, not with long conversational pieces, but with connecting, truncated slips of thought, or that relationships evolve through the power of memory and imagination, the interactions between “B” (the adorable and heartfelt Jasal Chase-Owens) and the emotionally wired “G” (the wonderful Sharlene Cruz) prove fatal, fairy wisps in the first part of the production.
Frecknall’s staging on a bare, raised platform, sans props and any theatrical spectacle, requires that the audience focus on Majok’s words which, abstracted, are short, repetitive bursts. For emphasis and effect, Frecknall follows the brief, seven word or less sentences with brilliant strobe light flashes, denoting flashbacks and change of scene, situation and time. The intriguing lighting and set design are by Tom Scutt and Isabella Byrd with Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound design.
The effect, revealing the stress and anxiety of the characters, recalls the dislocation and alienation that characters experience in plays like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Such stylized dialogue brings to mind the mission of Theatre of the Absurdists, who highlighted the incapacity of language to convey emotion and heart when human beings experience trauma, internal isolation and nihilism to such an extent that verbalization seems impossible.
Thus, as teenagers “B” and “G” move and rearrange themselves and offer fragments recalling the past, we follow intently, discovering that they are illegal aliens. “B’s” mom is fed up and intends to return to a country that her son was too young to know. “G’s” mom is oppressed and abused by the partner she lives with who also wallops “G” for good measure when she gets in the way. “G” and “B” who are archetypes of dreamers everywhere have parents who are single women. Hampered by fear of reprisal and intimidation of deportation, the mothers are unable to make comfortable lives for the children they brought into a cold, indecent, alien world of devastation without citizenship.
We watch in the dim light and lightning-like flashes how “G” often climbs up the fire escape seeking “sanctuary” and help from “B.” The abuse, arguments and chaos at her apartment create phenomenal stress; she must leave. “B” welcomes her and eventually she sleeps in his bed and they have sex to make a connection so they feel less alone. Both confide in each other, encourage each other at school and “dream” of better times which eventually do happen for “G.”
The setting is New Jersey in 2006, in a country which ill uses its immigrants because political parties have exploited the issue of citizenship as a way to consolidate power. For “B” who fears getting caught and being deported, the emotional terrors are like a war of attrition that force him and his mother to live an impoverished pressure-cooker existence. They wait daily for the explosion to occur, of their being caught and deported.
We discover through the light flashes and their circular movements on the platform, that “B” and “G” trace the chronology of their relationship in staccato bursts of memory which leads to the apotheosis of the play’s conclusion. We empathize with “B’s” concern for his mother who suffers abuse and bullying from her employer. She obeys his every word, and overlooks his skimping her pay. His disrespect is better than returning to the homeland, until she reaches a point of no return and decides it is enough.
Thus, Majok reminds us continually by examining the plight of “G’s” and “B’s” situation, that immigrant women are often sexually abused and beaten because they have no leverage. As in the case of “G’s” mother, orders of protection are useless because the partner can call INS (currently ICE) and have them deported if they don’t comply sexually. Indeed, once the partner exhausts the mother, the implication is that he will come for “G.” At times “G” shows up at “B’s” bleeding and bruised by his wanton brutality.
However, hope does come. And in the same stylized format of language, “G” tells “B” that her mother got her papers and miraculously, “G” is a citizen. That moment of G’s” joy causes “B’s” searing pain. While “G” no longer fears discovery and looks forward to their moving away from her mom’s monstrous partner, we note “B’s” sadness and envy. He is stuck. His mother is going back to the “homeland” and his confidante and ersatz lover has “made it” to a more superior position in the immigrant pecking order, while he must wallow in her wake facing the shadows of fear and oppression alone.
It is at this juncture that a turning point occurs. The guilt “G” feels about her position in comparison to “B’s” situation wears on her and she forms the idea that as he has given her sanctuary, perhaps she can do the same for him. Her method is to select the way to citizenship immigrants have employed for decades. After all, she has feelings for him and is willing to risk her life offering to marry him, though, if discovered, she possibly would lose her own citizenship, be fined and jailed after he is deported.
Majok’s script sags when the plans evolve for “G” to help “B.” Perhaps due to the continued flashes of light and whirl-y-gig staging, the sameness becomes tedious. However, there is the wonderful and welcome respite of their dancing and going to the prom with additional colorful lighting. The diversion from the stasis of the repetitive stagnant (the symbolism is apparent…no need to bludgeon the audience) might have come sooner.
And then comes the transformation of a three-year hiatus which Frecknall announces with sound effects and darkness both of which are symbolically ominous. Subsequently, Henry (the excellent Austin Smith) comes onto the threshold of “B’s” life to provide safety and emotional sustenance as “G” once had, until she returns and the three clash. In this second sequence of events, all is light and clarity. “B” and “G” no longer maneuver around each other. All is straightforward. And now, it is “G” who must sink or swim in her emotional guilt while “B” makes a decision about citizenship and sacrificing love.
What happened to “G” and “B’s” compact, their relationship, their closeness? Majok presents the stark themes. Immigrants and illegal aliens are compelled by political forces to behave in ways counter to their nature, altruistic good will and sense of decency. Of course, this doesn’t just pertain to those trying for citizenship. It doubly applies to citizens who have become mentally and emotionally inert to the sensitivities of others because they are weighted down by materialism and consumerism, having forgotten “where they came from.” Ironically, the country then, no longer becomes a sanctuary, but a prison that has sucked their life force dry.
These themes are only a few of those that Majok covers in this play of antitheses: of connection and isolation, of compromise and extremism, of fear and hope, of dislocation and community, of alienation and unity.
Through various administrations, we’ve closed our borders following the need of politicians to use immigration and immigrants as playthings to boogeymen citizens and grow their political power base. Sanctuary City shines a unique light on the PTSD that arises for those who want a better life and are willing to risk their substance to dream big and/or help others who are lost in limbo between citizenship and deportation, those who wait for the light of deliverance. Majok’s writing is poetic and austere with the rhythms of immigrants and aliens voices and silences. If you can get down to Lucille Lortel to see Sanctuary City before it closes this weekend, you will be happy you did. For tickets and times go to their website. https://www.nytw.org/show/sanctuary-city/
Theatermania has referred to the Irish Repertory Theatre as the “Leader of Streaming Theater,” during the pandemic. Its shows have been top notch during the unprecedented New York City theater shutdown. Ghosting written by Jamie Beamsh and Anne O’Riordan, performed by Anne O’Riordan is an intriguing and thoughtful provoking offering. Recorded live at Theatre Royal Waterford in Ireland, that theater, Thrown Shapes and the Irish Repertory Theatre collaborated to stream the presentation which concludes in a few days. (4th July)
Anne O’Riordan’s performance is nuanced, personal and superb. She personifies the voice and demeanor of various characters with the exception of one, for a symbolic reason. Sheila, nicknamed “She” for short, left Waterford for London and has been there for six years. We gradually discover the reason why, though she initially misleads us and we think it is because her former boyfriend who took her virginity then “ghosted” her. In the vernacular, ghosting means an individual cuts off all communication and ends a relationship without explaining why, without going through miserable late night begging sessions to “stay together.” In other words, he cut her off and never spoke to her again.
From her position at work, we note she is irascible and unapproachable. She doesn’t have any friends, nor does she have any hobbies or interests that she discusses. She essentially complains about her co-worker who clearly cares about her and with whom she might establish a relationship. She is uninterested and aloof. We consider is it him or her. As Sheila confides in us she slips information discussing that she can’t sleep at night. Perhaps, her irate attitude is because she hasn’t been home to Ireland in six years. Perhaps it is because she has not kept up with family after her mother died. Thus, we determine she grieves. Some people never end their grieving for a parent. No communication is easier than tears and longing for who will never retrun.
The turning point comes when she can’t sleep one night and someone shows up at the foot of her bed. Is this a dream? Is this reality? Is she hallucinating because she has gone insane? We follow along for the ride not wanting to believe that Sheila is psycho, though in some circles, she immediately would be given medication and confront her obviously deep-seated issues with group or individual psychotherapy. But this is different. Sheila is rational; her story, thus far, is logical and we accept that her former boyfriend at the foot of her bed is a ghost or has emerged out of her dream to stop ghosting her by ghosting her. The irony is humorous.
From there the twists and turns gyrate and we whirl along in Sheila’s adventure as she maneuvers a journey back to Ireland. What happens there becomes an examination of her admission that she has been the one ghosting. She’s ghosted her father, her family and friends there. Most importantly, she’s ghosted herself. She realizes she’s been living a non-living reality, not existing so that she deferred grappling with herself, her destiny and future. Does she make plans and enjoy the moments and breaths of her life? No. She has been a shadow person, beyond a state of hibernation. And the only way that she comes out of it is through someone else’s sacrifice and a supernatural visitation, an earthquake that shakes her unto herself to show her what she’s been doing.
When Sheila returns to Waterford, her hometown, she’s drawn home for an urgent reason (to her) via a text her sister sends her. She meets her sister in a bar but she vows not to see her father. Startling and embarrassing, emotional events occur. The miraculous visitations continue until she is brought to a reconciliation with herself and her family after she returns to her home in London.
Beamish and O’Riordan’s writing has elements of the philosophical poetical. The direction of the visitation scenes is spot on. The scenes are powerful and remain atmospheric and suspenseful as we wonder, like the character of Sheila, where we are being taken. Importantly, the issues of why Sheila left Waterford, why Mark, her boyfriend ghosted her are eventually answered, though other mysteries are opquae.
The beauty of this work is the meld of the supernatural with reality; the sacred and the profane delivered through the lighting effects, projections and sound design (Beamish effected most of it with Dermot Quinn taking care of the lighting design). Vitally, it is O’Riordan’s authentic and finely hued performance which makes us believe and go along with her on this wild, exceptional journey. We remain curious and engaged with her as she touches the shadows of another consciousness which is hers, her boyfriend’s her father’s. Importantly, we are astounded at the human capacity for love despite misery and unredeemed emotional pain, and the ability to want to heal, even if it means stirring spirits from the other side to help us.,
Ghosting reminds us with paramount intention that our actions have dualistic purposes that we may not understand, initially. But if we hang on long enough, the answers come and we can confront ourselves, evaluate and be gentle to our sensitive inner being which needs care. Sheila, by the conclusion of Ghosting resolves the emotional pain, though it will always be with her. However, the miraculous helps her look at it and stop ghosting herself, by making herself more present to accept actions which she once loathed about herself.
This is one you shouldn’t miss for O’Riordan’s performance which is memorable, for the production values and for the direction. Jamie Beamish directed the livestream. Aidan Kelly directed the original stage production. Ghosting streams until Sunday, 4 July unless they extend it. In order to make reservations go to Irish Repertory Theatre.
Check out the production and the 2021 seasonal offerings coming up. Theater in NYC is going live full blast in September. The Irish Repertory will be a part of that celebration. However, it’s appeal has now become global and most probably they will continue to stream performances during their season so if you are in Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Ireland, you won’t miss out. Donations are always welcome . CLICK HERE for details in the pull down menu.
In the award winning solo production Mustard performed by Eva O’Conner and directed by Hildegard Ryan, the condiment of various shades of yellow and heat gains a new symbolism and significance. The award-winning comedy/drama, an offering of the 2021 Origin 1st Irish Theatre Festival online, is from Fishamble: The New Play Company based in Dublin. Mustard has been screening online in January because of the pandemic.
The Origin 1st Irish Theatre Festival is presented yearly. Because of the pandemic, this is the first year it has been streaming productions online, including a total of 20 events, with panels on various topics. One, for example, concerns producing during the pandemic.
Mustard originally premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2019, where it won the 2019 Lustrum Award, Edinburgh, and the 2019 Scotsman Fringe First Award. It was also nominated for the Scottish Mental Health Awards 2019. Eva O’Conner was last seen in the 2020 Origin 1st Irish Theatre Festival in Maz & Bricks. She is a superb performer whether in a two-hander or solo as in Mustard which she also wrote.
How O’Connor inhabits the the retelling of the story of the love possessed, lovelorn, hollowed-out character E is absolutely authentic and moment to moment mesmerizing. Her dynamic enactment of E’s relationship with a stunning, professional cyclist from London is both humorous and striking in its approach, as she develops the shades of difference between passion and obsession, between sexual addiction and love. All of this is accomplished in the name of the character’s yearning for a lasting relationship and a dollop of madness on the side.
What E discovers about herself is her ability to maximize self-loathing. As she reflects back on the relationship, she encounters her stifling obsession for the cyclist who demeans her with a series of annihilating events. The humiliation and embarrassment of her dead-on emotional suffocation and idolatry of him as her “love” object consumes her. And, it renders her immobile in an acute depression which she endures by returning home to mom. Vying between want and repulsion because she allowed the cyclist (a Brit) to redefine her being, she realizes she crafted this eternal fire of “love” for him into a weapon of emotional self-destruction.
Her only release is “mustard.” How she employs the condiment to salve her soul, psyche and physical yearning becomes an active segment of E’s account. We watch fascinated as she sets the stage for the moment of maximum catharsis and pain, curious about how all of the various props she has brought with her, a bucket, a clothesline, etc. figure into the context of her explaining the “love” affair with this “guy” whom she’s lived with for almost a year.
O’Connor performs the characters of E, her evangelical mother and her English sometime lover with personality and spot-on revelation. Her relationship with her mother is humorously delivered with Irish accent and gesturing. Her adoration of the cyclist and her final answer to his effrontery, slaughtering her soul, is disclosed in heady wonder. Over all, O’Connor’s dialogue, descriptions, infusions of rhythmic language and unique interplay of the characters is beautiful, lush, unique and thrilling. For anyone who has experienced a similar stripping down to raw nerve by a “love interest,” this is a must see. O’Connor and her character’s emotionally mad ride are unforgettable.
After twenty minutes of viewing, it is obvious why O’Connor won awards for her play, incisively and excellently directed by Hildegard Ryan. Once again Fishamble: The New Play Company proves itself to be on the cutting edge of drama and comedy that is significant, as it expresses the depths of human emotion and feeling with dramatic ardor and vitality.
You can still see the last week of the 2021 Origin 1st Irish Theatre Festival by going to their website to view the calendar of events; these end on January 31st. For tickets to plays and the calendar of events CLICK HERE. For tickets to Mustard whose last performances are on Wednesday, 27th January at 8 pm and Sunday, 31st of January at 2 pm, click on this link. CLICK HERE for MUSTARD. You’ll be glad you did.
Irish Repertory Theatre continually proves that it can do the extraordinary with skill, talent and enthusiasm, as it mesmerizes and endears its members, donors and global audience with exceptional productions. This is particularly amazing during a time when New York City theater is staying safe and waiting until the blessings of the COVID-19 vaccines mitigate the dangers of the pandemic which to date has killed 330,000 Americans.
Thus, we welcome being cheered up for the holiday season. And what better way than to peer into past reflections of hope when The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, unofficially the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, commemorated the 100th year of the Louisiana Purchase. The Fair, the last great international exposition before World War I, was an extravaganza that included hundreds of thousands of people, animals, unique items and displays. It magnified the bright future of industry and innovation from 63 exhibiting countries and 43 of the 45 United States.
Excitement about the St. Louis Fair, which is the central image highlighted in the titular song of the musical Meet Me in St. Louis, drives the beginning and finale of the Irish Rep production. The book by Hugh Wheeler and songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane are based on the Kensington Stories by Sally Benson and the 1944 MGM Motion Picture Meet Me in St Louis. Adapted and directed by Charlotte Moore with musical direction by John Bell, orchestrations by Josh Clayton and produced by Ciarán Reilly, this Holiday Special in Song and Screen can be appreciated again and again, whether with family or individually. You will never tire of the show because it is that wonderful.
The production values are sophisticated and spot-on. The orchestra’s superb technique performed seamlessly on zoom (thanks to the wizardry of musicians, Bell, M. Florian Staab and others) perfectly blends with the gorgeous voices of the cast, a tricky technical feat, especially with the ensemble numbers. The tuneful and lighthearted, upbeat songs (Trolley Song,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “Drunk Song,” “Touch of the Irish”) and in other instances poignant, familiar numbers (“The Boy Next Door”) are a pleasant remembrance, if you have seen the MGM film and the 1989 Broadway version which starred Charlotte Moore as Anne Smith.
Some of the songs in the Broadway version have been cut, a wise choice for a streaming production you watch via your tablet, phone or computer. But one song that had been cut from the 1989 Broadway show was added in the Irish Rep version (“You’ll Hear a Bell”). This song, reprised in the second act, is beautifully rendered by the golden-throated, imminently watchable Melissa Errico the mother. Anne Smith encourages her daughter Esther (Shereen Ahmed) about understanding and recognizing love based on her own experience with her husband, Alonzo Smith, Esther’s father.
Charlotte Moore shepherds the cast with precision. She astutely teases out winning performances and humor from Kylie Kuioka (Tootie) who is a fireball of joy and mischievousness, the perfect foil for the sedate, companionable, near-in-age, wry, older sister Agnes (Austyn Johnson). The marriageable sisters, Rose (the vibrant Ali Ewoldt) and linchpin of the production, Esther (the soulful, exciting Shereen Ahmed) propel the plot development. Theirs is newfound love with their prospective partners the reserved Warren Sheffield (Ian Holcomb in a fine portrayal) and the “boy next door” John Truitt (the affable, illimitable Max Von Essen).
As Esther expresses good will toward the family which is sorrowful about moving, she poignantly sings the profound (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) which is nostaligic under any circumstances and particularly heartbreaking under present circumstances of the pandemic. Shereen Ahmed’s Esther is particularly well wrought with her lyrical vocal instrument and authenticity of portrayal in the lead that Judy Garland played on film.
With the couples’ togetherness thrown down by Alonzo Smith’s moving the family to New York to make more money and raise their standard of living, we note this makes sense if seen through modern values that lift wealth and money above well being and happiness. However, Father Smith (Rufus Collins does a fine job in the concluding scene) in a throwback to old-fashioned values and economies of the past (only Dads worked) chooses to please his family by remaining in St. Louis. It is a gift that all adore beyond treasure and we yearn for in a culture that over the last two decades has been on the brink of losing its fundamental values of the preciousness of life, love and family.
William Bellamy, Kerry Conte, Kathy Fitzgerald, Jay Aubrey Jones and Ashley Robinson round out the cast of this marvelous production which was produced remotely with the dexterous application of green screens and lovely backdrops. In its technique, applied imagination and sheer audacity, the production, not streamed live from a stage, is a book musical with actors separate, home alone. filming, which has never having been done before. This was a realization which John Bell musical director affirmed to Melissa Errico who quipped in her New York Times article that Meet Me in St. Louis was a show where no one actually would meet in St. Louis or anywhere else. Read Melissa Errico’s account here.
Great praise goes to the cast, the creative team and director Charlotte Moore for this Christmas treasure. The Irish Repertory Theatre has exercised their vitality and prodigious cleverness to provide this most American of celebratory entertainments at a time when we crave affirmations of friendship, love, family, togetherness and joy present in the show’s themes. This is one you must not miss.
Irish Repertory Theatre’s Meet Me in St. Louis runs until Saturday, 2nd January. For tickets and times go to the Irish Repertory Theatre’s website. Click Here.
‘A Touch of the Poet’ The Irish Repertory Theatre’s Superb Revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Revelation of Class in America
The Irish Repertory Theatre’s activity during the COVID-19 pandemic is nothing short of award-winning. They have remained stalwart in presenting streaming live productions, filmed productions and filmed productions online by actors who have done their work solo from their own homes, which afterward are seamlessly brought together by technicians.
The latter phenomenon is perhaps the finest example of the tremendous effort the Irish Rep is ready to perform keeping in mind their unction to do no harm to actors, technicians and audience members during this incredibly dangerous time, where if you peruse statistics on Worldometer, the death toll in the U.S. marches toward the numbers of dead during four years of our involvement in WWII. Considering that the COVID atrocities have occurred over a 9 month period under the abdicated watch and depraved indifference of Donald J. Trump and the sleepwalking GOP, the death toll is staggering and egregious.
Thus, global watchers of Irish Repertory Theatre which hail from Australia to Ireland and all parts of the United States, are so grateful for the opportunities that engaged and talented actors and the Irish Rep’s creative team provide. As they unleash their talent and passion to create wonderful artistic performances, the productions help sustain us through this unprecedented crisis in our lives.
In their latest offering Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet, the Irish Rep used the magnificent set they had created that was ready for production when the pandemic hit and New York was put on pause. With painstaking coordination, director Ciarán O’Reilly, the actors, technicians and artistic team configured a maverick presentation that launches the Irish Rep into new territory and reveals to other theater companies a way to deal with the vicissitudes of social distancing in performance. Each of the actors filmed their portrayals solo with attention to the staging of their actor/character counterparts.
The result is gobsmacking and actors’ performances are treasures. How they accomplished this feat of interaction keeping it dynamic and vital is beyond entertainment. The production of A Touch of the Poet is a profound recognition that with genius and collaboration, the breathtaking can result. And their collaboration elevates what many consider to be one of O’Neill’s more mediocre plays to one of illustrious depth.
This revival elucidates that in O’Neill’s work there is much that is parallel to our time as we follow the misfortunes and revelations of the humanity of the Melody family. In themes and characterizations we identify with the expose of Con Melody’s self-betrayal. Striking is his wanton self-abuse and the abuse of his wife and daughter as he pursues fantasies that no longer support the vitality of their lives and, in fact, hinder their appreciation of who they are and what they might be.
O’Neill sets his drama in Boston around 1828. The Melody family headed up by the alcoholic, self-destructive fantasist “Con” Melody (exquisitely portrayed by Robert Cuccioli) runs a ramshackle Inn with attached bar. Along with “Con,” are Sara (Belle Aykroyd) the stunning, truth-telling, rebellious foil to her father and Nora ( Kate Forbes) his pliant, subservient, fawning wife. The four live hand to mouth because Con abides in his glory days when he was a fiery and intrepid Major in the Dragoons, serving under the eventually exalted Duke of Wellington.
At the outset of the play, Jamie Cregan (Andy Murray gives a fine performance of Melody’s soldier underling and partner in brawling) provides the backstory of Con’s inner and outer conflict that Con has been unable to confront his entire life. Jamie explains how Con is an erstwhile gentleman with roots from the Irish peasant class that his father struggled to escape from. The father eventually advances himself and carves out an inheritance for Melody who is lifted into the airs of landed gentry and rises to a position of power in the British military.
When Con’s philandering, drinking ways cause him to be sanctioned and ejected from his position as Major, Melody flees to the United States with Nora where they purchase the Inn and raise Sara. Swindled by a Yankee, who lies about the value and prosperity of the Inn, they barely scrape out an existence which is further impoverished by Con’s alcoholism and his inability to make his way in the United States.
Con’s relationship to Nora and Sara varies from drunken rages when he belittles and demeans both to guilty apologies and attempts to make amends with blandishments. Cuccioli balances the drunken bouts and insults with hasty apology that is both humorous and heartfelt. Through his spot-on portrayal we understand the impossibility of Con’s self-hatred and his attempt to escape both his alcoholism and his menial position in the new world as classism and discrimination drive him deeper into self-loathing. Cuccioli is particularly illuminating when he entertains the magical persona of “The Major.” As he affirms his exalted personage in a conveniently placed mirror, quoting Lord Byron, he imagines his long-lost greatness and gentility are still within.
Indeed, Cuccioli’s stance, mien, presence convince us that he was once an individual of great deeds and valor and has fallen on hard times but will remain unbroken and unbowed. Nora adores him for she has “won” this dignitary’s love and that raises her own identity and self-esteem. Kate Forbes is just incredible as she mediates Nora’s self-recriminations, with her subservience to Con as she waits on his every whim. She never reproaches him for his abusiveness, indeed, she accepts his cruelties and disdain as worthy of her low station.
Cuccioli and Forbes relay powerful portrayals of these two individuals as they complete the dance of superior to menial externally which becomes the reverse when we see that Con needs to believe he is genteel and honorable, the stiff-upper-lipped gentleman of quality. However, ultimately, Nora dominates; Nora obliges and encourages him to fulfill her own assumptions about his love, as he lowers himself to rages and miscreant behavior.
Belle Aykroyd’s Sara who challenges Con’s treatment of Nora adds spark and fire to the dynamic of the family. She is the flint that ignites Con and inflames his drunken rages. She fills out the charged, family interplay with an amazing performance of irony and savagery. An instance of this occurs when Sara mocks Con’s puffery and “superiority” by putting on an Irish brogue and acting the menial. Apparently, Con has attempted to teach both Nora and Sara the finer ways, but Nora is unwittingly inflexible and Sara, who “knows better” enjoys defying her father at every turn.
Sara stirs the cauldron of infamy when she entices the guest of a wealthy land-owner to fall in love while she nurses him to health. Through her pursuit of him we learn of Nora’s own desires of greatness realized through her love of Con which becomes the similar road that Sara travels down. To raise her self-esteem in her own eyes and self-love, she becomes sexually involved with Simon Hartford (a blasphemy at the time) despite the threat of his mother Deborah Hartford’s (Mary McCann) disapproval. Deborah Hartford will make sure their relationship is doomed because of their class and economic differences.
In the climax of the play which skirts the edges of physical confrontation, the actors seamlessly convey the action, considering each filmed his/her performance in their own homes. Thanks to the precise staging, it works when Con slaps Sara, when he caresses his wife at the conclusion with a new-found reverence of her patience and concern for him, and when he is physically bold in his attempts to kiss Deborah Hartford. Mary McCann’s staid and well-born Deborah Hartford is the perfect inducement for Con to entrap himself in one more perfidious and humiliating debasement.
From this juncture onward, we anticipate Con’s complete obliteration and the hope of a renewal. O’Neill satisfies; his ironic twists and Con’s ultimate affirmation of the foundations of his soul is as uplifting as it is cathartic. Now, his wife and daughter will have to adjust to this new day and redefine their expectations of their lives. Sara has already begun but the road she has chosen, like her mother’s is hard and treacherous with only her estimation of love to propel her onward.
Kudos to all the actors who negotiated the new medium of filmed staging on film and made it real. Likewise, kudos to the director who shepherded them through with extraordinary results. Last but not least are Alejo Vietti (costume design) Michael Gottlieb (lighting design) M. Florian Staab (sound design and mix) Ryan Rumery (original music) Sarah Nichols (video editor) April Anne Kline production coordinator.
This sensational collaboration magnifies the themes so you can greater appreciate O’Neill’s play of revelation and redemption through confronting one’s own shibboleths and destroying them. The revival shines a refreshing light on A Touch of the Poet and burnishes it with a new glory.
This is a production you must not miss. After this evening’s performance at 8 pm there are three more performances, two Saturday 31 October, and one performance on 1 November at 3 pm. For tickets to the online performances go to the listed site .https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/32325?_ga=2.134261553.1367444511.160409768
Mirrors, the superb play by Azure D. Osborne-Lee, seminally directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser is currently at NEXT DOOR @NYTW. In the production Osborne-Lee examines how painful reflections that mirror hidden events from our past often pour out from our souls to impact our current lives. Though the events may be buried deep in our unconscious, they are ever-present to haunt us. However, if fate and truth have their way and we are open and flexible, these reflections of past events force themselves into a resolution. The truth that we may have feared, when confronted unfolds like a flower to encourage us to redeem our dark guilt and work toward achieving peace and contentment.
Azure D. Osborne-Lee weaves a profound tale of sorrow, memory and haunting in which the protagonist Bird Wilson (Suzanne Darrell in a wonderful performance) confronts what she views as a tragedy of her identity that she never really accepts until she reveals the truth to another. When she does this, ultimately she is able to free herself.
The play moves seamlessly from the present where we discover there has been a death, to the past that unravels the story of Bird’s love relationship with Belle. Throughout the arc of development, the play fuses both the past and the present and moves between the two worlds through flashbacks and flashforwards. And there is also the “other world” where resides the ghost that haunts Bird and eventually influences her to face a truth she has been suppressing. Only when Bird confronts the truth is the ghost allowed to return to a place of peace which Bird, too, achieves.
Because the play takes place in the sleepy town of Etheridge, Mississippi, in the summer of 1960, we note that this is the racist, Jim Crow South, where voting rights had not been established for individuals like the three African-American women. There, they are “separate but equal” in an “equality that is not only discriminatory, but is outright abusive. Despite this, in their strength and wisdom, they end up understanding each other in a fullness never achieved before by the conclusion of the play.
Not only were black women second-class citizens, at that time, they were expected to fit in to the rigid gender roles, and the mores of the African American culture. For the individual who does not fit in, they are discriminated against and treated as an outcast. This is particularly unjust for a woman of color to be rejected not only by the white race, but by African Americans as well.
For Bird Wilson, a gay woman who lives in her own house and works to support herself, to be like other black women is an impossibility. Rather than to attempt to slide into a world which is contrary to her choice of sexuality, she carves out a place for herself and adapts friendships and relationships to cohere to her life’s decisions. For example we discover that she enjoyed a deep, loving relationship with Belle. However, events happened that caused a separation. When Belle dies, Bird must take in Belle’s daughter and give her a home as well as attend to the funeral arrangements and wake which takes place in Bird’s home.
Osborne-Lee delineates Bird as a strong, vital and energetic woman who is willing to take in Alma Jean, Belle’s daughter and give her a home through this difficult period of time that Alma Jean is mourning her mother. Initially, we surmise that though Bird and Belle had been estranged after Alma Jean was born, in the goodness of Bird’s heart, she buries the painful past so that she might give Alma Jean the security and comfort she needs to overcome this chaotic time without her mother. However, theirs is no easy relationship. And Bird is unsettled, uncomfortable and upset with Alma Jean’s presence in the house which also elicits the spirit of Belle, who haunts Bird and watches her daughter’s interactions with her.
Ashley Noel Jones and Suzanne Darrell create an appropriate tension and division between the two women. And gradually we understand that Bird sees Alma Jean as a mirrored reflection of her mother Belle in her wildness, wanting to be available to her boyfriend Ray (Anthony Goss).
The symbolism of the mirror has a number of interpretations. Bird tells Alma Jean that the large mirror in Bird’s living room is one that Belle loved to preen in front of. Bird has covered it up as a part of the folklore of death and burial to allow Belle to pass to the other world. Later, it is this same mirror that Alma Jean breaks which stresses out Bird because she fears that Belle will not be able to achieve peace in the afterlife and thus, neither will Bird. So the mirror represents the soul’s reflections of events on earth which must be covered over so the spirit can understand it must go to the afterlife.
The mirror also represents that which reflects the truth and identity of the characters. Bird appears to believe that Alma Jean is a reflection of Belle with regard to men. Just as Belle solicited the attentions of men which upset Bird, so does Alma solicit the attention of the undeserving Ray. After meeting Ray, Bird is convinced that he is “playing” Alma Jean for a fool and she attempts to chide her into understanding Ray isn’t someone trustworthy to see Alma Jean as valuable. However, by the conclusion of the play, we understand that the reflection Bird sees in Alma Jean is something else entirely.
The mirror is only a reflection. It is not the substance of the truth. Cleverly, the symbol becomes a metaphor for something deeper. And only through Bird’s loving relationship with Louise (the marvelous Joyia D. Bradley) is Bird able to reconcile the substance of her life with Belle and the truth of her relationship with the resistant Alma Jean.
This is a dynamic and powerful production made all the more incredible and poignant by the performances of Suzanne Darrell and Joyia D. Bradley. Both actors wonderfully convey the love in Bird’s and Louise’s relationship. They infuse the caring closeness and unity between these two women who must walk the line of respectability carefully. Their expressions of love at the conclusion of the play are spot-on touching and authentic.
Ashley Noel Jones’ Alma Jean is troubled, annoyed and then accepting at the moment of Bird’s revelation. Her performance, well shepherded by Villar-Hauser is heightened by Osborne-Lee’s precise and detailed dialogue which Ashley Noel Jones infuses with emotional grist that parallels Belle’s. Thus, we see the connections between Belle and Alma Jean and how/why their behavior sets off Bird.
In spanning the worlds of memory, the spirit realm and reality in the flashbacks to Bird’s and Belle’s relationship in the past, Kayland Jordan as Belle manages to be serenely charismatic, lovely and stately. She is believable in her haunting presence, always watching and ” in the moment.” Her performance effects the mood of the play and conveys elements of magical realism with surreality. When Bird and Belle dance together, the moment is loving and we understand their closeness and why Belle responds to Bird in her extreme time of need.
Natalie Jacobs as Constance Jenkins and AnJu Hyppolite as Mabel round out the townsfolk as the town gossips and church busy-bodies. In such a community, they reinforce the strength and power of Bird’s character to live in her own identity in a town that is petty, judgmental and self-righteous.
Villar-Hauser’s vision of the Osborne-Lee’s play is one which is delivered with power and poignancy by her collaboration with the excellent actors and fine creative team. Kudos to Jamie Nicole Larson for her spot-on, specific and functional set design and Sabrina Bianca Guillaume for her wonderful, detailed costume design. Rounding out the team are Miriam Nilofa Crowe for lighting design and Twi McCallum for sound design. The latter designers really worked beautifully with the choral music in setting the somber tone. The selection of music and the singing was atmospheric and exceptional thanks to Ashley Noel Jones as music director.
This is one you should not miss. It runs with one intermission at New Door @NYTW on 83 East 4th Street until 22nd March. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.