Category Archives: Off Broadway

‘A Wall Apart,’ A New York Musical Festival Theater Review

A Wall Apart, nYMF, Lord Graham Russell, Sam Goldstein, Craig Clyde, Keith Andrews

‘A Wall Apart’ at the NYMF, Music & Lyrics by Lord Graham Russell, Book by Sam Goldstein & Craig Clyde, directed/choreographed by Keith Andrews (Michael Schoenfeld)

It was a frightening time, the height of the Cold War! It was the division of Berlin into two sectors divided by a mammoth wall of concrete and barbed wire. West Berlin embraced everything economically viable through a market economy representative of Western culture.  East Berlin was controlled by the East German police (the hated Stasi) who were the engines of the government of the German Democratic Republic, a repressive communist country beholden to U.S.S.R. ideologies. How does one resist oppression and the repression of personal freedoms? How does one deny adherence t and subservience to the state? A Wall Apart reveals that the resistance was established prominently in two ways: rock music and love.

In A Wall Apart, a thrilling production which premiered at the New York Musical Festival (Music and Lyrics by Lord Graham Russell of Air Supply; Book by Sam Goldstein and Craig Clyde), we recognize that in the twenty-eight years which spanned the time of the Berlin Wall and the oppression it represented, that  rock music promoted the resistance against Communist tyranny. It did this subtly through its brash sounds and clashing, free-wheeling lyrics. Rock music expressed the yearned for liberty already inherent in the minds and souls of the younger generation. Its expression was life itself and in its clanging, smashing vibrations there could be heard the clarion call to revolt.

Maddie Shea Baldwin, A Wall Apart, NYMF

Maddie Shea Baldwin and the company of ‘A Wall Apart,’ NYMF (Michael Schoenfeld)

Perhaps more importantly, this production also reveals the power in resisting with love. In A Wall Apart we see that love and family unity ultimately triumph over allegiance to an oppressive government and the acceptance of its lies that subvert one’s humanity. From the opening song “Our City” we are reminded of the dreams of liberty that are inherent in every soul and which are the driving force that cannot be overthrown ,despite the attempt of governments to control that force through external structures and the threat of destruction.

Emily Behny, Josh Telle, Jordan Bondurant, Maddie Shea Baldwin, A Wall Apart, NYMF

(L to R): Emily Behny, Josh Tolle, Jordan Bondurant, Maddie Shea Baldwin in ‘A Wall Apart,’ NYMF (Michael Schoenfeld)

This force is manifested in each of the characters, perhaps most symbolically through Mickey (Josh Tolle gives a powerful sustained performance throughout) whose rock band plays at The Bunker in West Berlin. The Bunker is the place of symbolic birth, life and hope in the liberty of the rock music of the West. Mickey’s band, The Angels, represents all the goodness of Mickey’s own character. It has led him to a loving relationship with Suzanne (Emily Behny’s portrayal is soulfully rendered) and collaboration with his brother Kurt (the excellent Jordan Bondurant). It is at The Bunker where the bond between Kurt and Esther (the superb Maddie Shea Baldwin) is initiated, and all seems to be going swimmingly except for the rumors that Berlin is being divided, revealed to Kurt by their brother Hans (Darren Ritchie gives a bravura performance as the Stasi who must negotiate the conflict between love and obligation to the state in his own heart).

Jordan Bondurant, A Wall Apart, NYMF

Jordan Bondurant and company in ‘A Wall Apart,’ NYMF (Michael Schoenfeld)

The most stalwart and loving of the characters is Tante (Leslie Backer is nothing short of astonishing). She is the glue that holds the family together; she mediates the troubles among the brothers and provides wisdom when Kurt and Mickey are caught in the East after the Berlin Wall is built and there is no getting out. Kurt and Mickey cannot abandon Tante who raised them when their parents were killed. Kurt especially is pressured by circumstances for he has left Esther in the West and will not join her but instead, joins the Stasi with Hans so that together they can put food on the table and obtain greater stockpiles of coal for heating. It is a devil’s bargain.

Jordan Bondurant, Darren Ritchie, A Wall Apart, NYMF

(L to R): Jordan Bondurant, Darren Ritchie in ‘A Wall Apart,’ NYMF (Michael Schoenfeld)

Material safety and support are not enough for Mickey who has to be free to express his being though his artistry and music. With Kurt’s information about which routes to take to get over the Wall, Mickey and a pregnant Suzanne make an escape attempt. What happens is irrevocable. And once again, we are reminded that individuals are willing to take grave risks when freedoms and personal identity are at stake. Ultimately, the risk is worth it for a difference is made in the lives touched by sacrifice.

Josh Tolle Jordan Bondurant, A Wall Apart, NYMF

(L to R) Josh Tolle, Jordan Bondurant in ‘A Wall Apart,’ NYMF (Michael Schoenfeld)

A Wall Apart follows the resistance of the family and Hans’ conflict at having to perform the obligations of being a Stasi when his heart is elsewhere. It journeys with Kurt’s resignation from the Stasi and his affirmation to join the revolt from within East Germany to bring down the totalitarian structures external and internal which would oppress individuals’ rights to follow their own path. And somehow, the love between Kurt and Esther finds a way to grow though the wall divides them physically. It is intriguing how this occurs and as there is no spoiler alert here, you will just have to see the production when it moves to another venue (which it should) at some point in the future.

Maddie Shea Baldwin, Leslie Becker, A Wall Apart, NYMF

(L to R) Maddie Shea Baldwin, Leslie Becker in ‘A Wall Apart,’ NYMF (Michael Schoenfeld)

This is a finely wrought production whose music (Lord Graham Russell of Air Supply created the music and lyrics) is gobsmackingly good in its variety, its power and its touching poignancy.  The book by Sam Goldstein and Craig Clyde highlights the period. It is aptly enhanced through the staging, sets, props and visual projections of archived black and white photographs, and video newsreel clips of the time. The fictionalized chronicle of one family’s struggles through tremendous economic and social upheaval is not only a vital remembrance of the past, it is a reminder of the tyranny of walls and what might happen in the future if fascism (in the guise of communism or any ism) is allowed to rear its ugly head.

A Wall Apart, NYMF

The company of ‘A Wall Apart,’ NYMF (Michael Schoenfeld)

The production is incredibly current. As we understand the uselessness of the Berlin Wall to serve its mission, we acknowledge that the inhuman, fascist separation of humanity is fear for fear’s sake. Fear is counterproductive, restriction retards innovation and stops the move toward progress. Regardless, freedom will triumph, love will triumph whether the resistance be through music or any means possible. Walls are symbolic of powerlessness in the face of humankind’s indelible desire for freedom and betterment. Barricades don’t work. Indeed, they inspire others to seek freedom despite the risk to themselves.

Jordan Bondurant, Maddie Shea Baldwin, A Wall Apart, NYMF

Jordan Bondurant, Maddie Shea Baldwin in ‘A Wall Apart,’ NYMF (Michael Schoenfeld)

I would hope that this production sees a continuation elsewhere. It is that good especially in that its themes presented through the music and book are profoundly transcendent. Kudos to the skillful, adroit and versatile musicians (Jonathan Ivie, Matt Brown, Lavondo Thomas, Daniel Ryan, T-Bone Motta), exceptional ensemble and the uber talented Keith Andrews, whose direction and choreography was insightful and spot-on great. I loved this production, for what it says and how the design team, ensemble, musicians all shepherded by the director collaborated to say it! A resounding yes, you get my vote!  A must-see which I am counting on seeing again.

 

‘Temple of The Souls’ a New York Musical Festival Review

Temple of The Souls, NYMF, Multistages, Dr. Judy Kuriansky, Lorca Peress

‘Temple of the Souls’ at NYMF a Multistages and Dr. Judy Kuriansky production (John Quilty)

The New York Musical Festival is one of the most anticipated theater festivals in the city for good reason. The musical productions are top drawer, professional from start to finish. People enjoy seeing which shows are shepherded along to eventually make it to Off Broadway, Los Angeles, and Regional Theater. And sometimes Broadway producers are interested, though considering what it takes to mount a Broadway production these days, it would seem to be an incredible dream. But dreams do come true.

One offering that I do hope will be shepherded in this fashion is the profoundly moving musical Temple of The Souls which ran from July 17-  23rd at the Acorn Theater, one of the venues where the New York Musical Festival is taking place until 6 August. The multiple award winning Temple of The Souls is absolutely smashing. I don’t want to even consider that this production may not not continue to garner a wide audience.  It is superb.

The Temple of The Souls, Multistages, Dr. Judy Kuriansky, NYMF, Lorca Peress, Anita Velez-Mitchell, Anika Paris, Dean Landon

‘The Temple of The Souls’ presented by Multistages and Dr. Judy Kuriansky at the NYMF, directed by Lorca Peress (John Quilty)

The stirring, enlightened book by Anita Velez-Mitchell, Lorca Peress and Anika Paris and entrancing, vibrant and hypnotic score (music by Dean Landon & Anika Paris, lyrics by Anita Velez-Mitchell & Anika Paris) warrants support beyond its New York City run at the NYMF. The time for such a production to gain a larger audience is fast upon us because of  interest in the historical record of North America’s beginnings and the influences that have helped to shape our nation’s  and its territories’  greatness.

Temple of The Souls is not only grounded in historical fact, the iconic, forbidden love story between a man and a woman of two disparate cultures, is reminiscent of love stories through the ages. Indeed from Scotland to Rome, the people of various tribes and societies have been joined together with offspring from forbidden love arrangements. Such stories resonate for us today because of their inherent truths. Love does not see with the materialistic eye, it sees with the heart. Unbounded, love seeks an exalted level away from embedded social folkways that encourage hatred and violence. The triumph of love to unify nations and dispel racism, discrimination and hatred is the key theme of this incredible musical. How worthy, how wise, how current for our times.

Danny Bolero, Lorraine Velez, Jacob Gutierrez, Temple of The Souls, NYMF, Lorca Peress

‘The Temple of The Souls’ company with Danny Bolero, Lorraine Velez, Jacob Gutierrez at NYMF, directed by Lorca Peress (John Quilty)

Temple of The Souls begins in the present on a tour of the mysterious El Yunque, the magical and gorgeous rain forest in Puerto Rico at whose top on an outcropping of rock and a high cliff, there exists a cave and area known as the Temple of The Souls. The tour guide (Lorraine Velez), explains the significance of the area. Lorraine Velez also portrays Nana and as the symbolic earth mother encapsulates beautifully the movement of this production in her presence from its beginning to its conclusion. She is breathtaking, exquisite, poignant, brilliant.

As the guide, Velez tells of the legend of love between Guario, a Taino (an indigenous native of the island) and Amada, a nubile sixteen-year-old, whose Spanish father represents all the abuses of Colonial Spain and its goodness as well. When Guario and Amada fall in love, taboos are broken, folkways are destroyed, and the spirits of the island who oversee the history of Spain’s horrific murders, rapes and enslavements, encourage the melding between old and new: the culture of violent bondage and the culture of pacific freedom, the paternalistic society and the gender friendly Taino society of men and women as partners.

Lorraine Velez, Temple of The Souls, NYMF, Lorca Peress

Lorraine Velez and the company of ‘Temple of The Souls,’ NYMF, directed by Lorca Peress (John Quilty)

The guide shares the history which underscores that many Tainos refused to bow to the oppression of the Spanish and instead committed suicide by jumping from the cliffs to their deaths in the sea. Suddenly, the scene is transformed. We no longer hear the echoes of the Tainos’ music and drums or see the spirits of the Tainos watching the guide and tourists. We are flashed back to the historic time of  the 15th century in a Spanish colonial settlement on the verge of El Yunque.

It is a colorful, joyful day, the first day of celebration of La Fiesta de San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist announced and Baptized Christ as the embodiment of love). The celebration is ironic for the oppressive culture and religion do not represent the alleged Christian values in their discrimination, abuse and violence toward the Tainos. However, the production reveals the turning point when things begin to change and hope arrives in the union of love between Guario (Andres Quintero’s singing and acting talent establish him as a rising star; he’s just great)  and Amada (Noellia Hernandez’s superb performance, sustained with power and lyricism throughout, is his equal).

Andres Quintero, Temple of The Souls, NYMF, Lorca Peress

Andres Quintero in ‘Temple of The Souls,’ at NYMF, directed by Lorca Peress (John Quilty)

Quintero’s Guario is part of the oppressed class who rejects his servitude and goes to El Yunque and the Temple of the Souls to discover who he is. During his travels through the town to eventually get to his destination, he runs into Nemesio (the excellent Jacob Gutierrez), and his cabal of repressive, abusive and discriminatory Spanish overlords. They threaten Guario and warn him not to return, a command reaffirmed by Amada’s father, Don Severo (the amazing Danny Bolero), the conquistador who governs the town. However, as Guario leaves, he and Amada see one another; it is “love at first sight,” or at the least curiosity at first sight. Nevertheless, the spark is ignited and the burning passion which grows between them creates a cataclysm that engulfs Guario’s, Nemesio’s, Amada’s, Don Severo’s and Nana’s lives and brings about the recompense of innocent bloodshed, the blood which cries out for a cessation which can only be delivered by love.

Noellia Hernandez, Temple of The Souls, NYMF, Lorca Peress

Noellia Hernandez in ‘Temple of The Souls,’ at NYMF, directed by Lorca Peress (John Quilty)

The next hour and one-half flies as we watch the characters struggle with themselves and against each other in conflicts still being experienced today between indigenous populations and “the colonials”-us! From moment to moment we are enthralled with the acting and voices of the fine ensemble, the gorgeous music, the theatrical spectacle and the intensity of the story’s dynamic between love and hate, lies and truth, oppression and freedom, lasciviousness and genuine, sincere love.

Temple of The Souls, NYMF, Lorca Peress

The company of ‘Temple of The Souls,’ at the NYMF, directed by Lorca Peress (John Quilty)

The director and artistic team have filled our senses and one cannot help but be moved to empathy, even to feel for Don Severo (Danny Bolero is commanding, vibrant, appropriately wicked, yet loving in his redemption) and Nemesio (Jacob Guitierrez’s “Nobody Makes a Fool of Me” is superb) who are the chief architects of evil, yet who reveal that they too, have compassion and are human.

Andres Quintero, Noellia Hernandez, Temple of The Souls, Lorca Peress, NYMF

Andres Quintero and Noellia Hernandez and the company of ‘Temple of The Souls,’ directed by Lorca Peress at the NYMF (John Quilty)

The sterling balance of humanity which the writers crafted for these characters so that the actors might more easily breathe life into them captures us. We readily identify with them as people we know and take to heart.  Each character is rich, each manifests complex shadows of multifaceted good and evil.

A fallout of this great writing of the book and lyrics and attendant music scoring is that the multiple themes are clearly, simply revealed. One theme is that oppressors ultimately destroy themselves with their own oppression. An additional theme is that there is no lie that should be allowed to separate familial relationships, because of the sickness and wickedness of the external culture. A third is that there should be no room for divisiveness which embitters and destroys everyone it touches.

These are indelible themes the audience recognizes. Thus, they are able to walk away inspired but chastened, moved but counseled to reaffirm the love within their own lives.  The production above all reminds us of our ancestry and whether it is colonial or indigenous native, all of us are related if not by blood, by empathy as human beings.

I can only capstone this review by suggesting that the production is in hiatus until the next time. Look for it and if it is produced in another venue which is anywhere near you, see it. You will be uplifted and enlightened and reminded of all that is a blessing in your own life. The Temple of The Souls is wonderful entertainment with a vital message that all of us need to hear and see again and again.

 

 

‘The Government Inspector,’ starring Michael Urie at New World Stages

Michael McGrath, Luis Moreno, Mary Lou Rosato, The Government Inspector

Michael McGrath (forefront) Luis Moreno (L) Mary Lou Rosato (R) in ‘The Government Inspector (Carol Rosegg)

Corruption, bribery, pay offs siphoning off citizens’ taxes and lifeblood in a small town? What could be more symbolically representative of politics, whether such machinations take place in Russia or the United States today?  In good times, officials steal roundly and with less accountability because citizens are economically well placed to go about their lives.  In harsh economic times the sub rosa avarice of bureaucrats who serve themselves first and serve the public never, always raises a hue and cry.  When the little people are squeezed, they pressure their overlords to uphold the “sanctity of their positions.” Usually, the miscreants don’t and must be brought to heel. And sometimes there is even justice.

For playwright Nikolai Gogol, such a scenario, laden with hypocrisy and condemnation was a golden treasure trove of comedy. He has proven this with Revizor adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher into The Government Inspector, currently enjoying an extended run at New World Stages.

Michael Urie Arnie Burton, The Government Inspector, Nikolai Gogol, Revizor, Jeffrey Hatcher, Jesse Berger, Red Bull Theater

(L to R): Michael Urie, Arnie Burton in ‘The Government Inspector’ (Carol Rosegg)

What a marvelous production this is. It is relevant to our political times which encapsulate the play’s themes. This satire of small town government officials and their general incompetence and corrupt misapplication of their mission and public service is a relief and respite from disheartening nightly news. For that alone, it is a must-see. Apart from that, this production is a must-see because it is just terrific.

For Jeffrey Hatcher who was commissioned to adapt Gogol’s Revizor into a version which would be performed for the 2008 Guthrie season, it was a “kick.” He clarifies that it was an election year. The barnyard of democrats and republicans was in full cacophonic frenzy. Hatcher’s enjoyment is evident in this adroit adaptation. Indeed, he steps up Gogol’s humorous scenario of malevolent politicians who have the tables turned on them, as they conspire to cover-up their cronyism, graft and malfeasance.

Hatcher delivers the best of Gogol and allows the Russian playwright’s genius to shine. With finely tuned direction (Jesse Berger) and exceptional ensemble work, The Government Inspector is madcap, zany and high comedic exhilaration.. Hatcher nimbly tweaks the playwright’s work just enough to enhance the hysteria in the comedy, acute jokes and incredible witticisms. His writing makes this production so completely sumptuous, you will want to feed on it again and catch a second time the artful ironies and slick phrases that ring with truth and reality at every laugh riot of a turn.

Revizor, The Government Inspector, Jeffrey Hatcher, Arnie Burton, Mary Lou Rosato, Mary Testa, The Government Inspector, New World Stages

(L to R) Arnie Burton, Mary Lou Rosato, Mary Testa in ‘The Government Inspector’ (Carole Rosegg)

How satisfying it is to see the petty, self-dealing bureaucrats hoisted on their own greedy petard when they are duped by one of their own, who is even more mercenary than they. This is a normally improbable justice that we are privy to see, as it is unwittingly launched by error.  When the government officials receive their own comeuppance, we are assured that the lofty are most greatly impugned and punished by their own shame, humiliation and self-deception.  At this time in our social and political history, we are thrilled to laugh riotously at the characters’ machinations and their unhappy conclusions which remind us that “what goes around comes around.” What a pleasure!

The performances are the jewels that provide the glitter and the piquant vibrancy of the production. Without this ensemble, the jokes would scintillate but not with the power to strike as hard and send us as furiously as they do into the comic heavenlies.

The Government Inspector, New World Stages, Talene Monahon, Mary Testa, Michael McGrath

(L to R) Michael McGrath, Mary Testa, Talene Monahon in ‘The Government Inspector’ at New World Stages (Carol Rosegg)

In the first scene, we are introduced to the conflict and meet the dastardly mayor (Michael McGrath is wonderfully on point with every hysterical line, every turn of phrase) and his legion of nefarious officials, the illuminating and funny Tom Alan Robbins, William Youmans, Stephen Derosa, James Rana, Luis Moreno. Hatcher/Gogol pull back the veil as the politicians chatter and conspire and we are allowed to see where they have buried all the financial duplicities and discover who is taking what and how the mandate and mission of the judge, the principal, the hospital and law enforcement have been mismanaged to a preposterous degree. (It’s kind of like appointing an EPA director who will dismantle all of the environmental regulations to fund anti-green corporations.)

As for privacy concerns? All the town gossip, all of the secrecies and personal intimacies and weaknesses are explored and savored for broadcast by The Postmaster (the unforgettable Arnie Burton) who enthusiastically reads every line in each letter, sharing the juiciest and most damning information with his cronies for entertainment.  Burton’s portrayal of the Postmaster is moment to moment LMAO; the comedy comes out of the personality of the character which makes his performance absolutely sublime. In this town there is no detail which is not known or kept quiet that Arnie’s Postmaster doesn’t blabber with gusto. He certainly is a tool of the corrupt political machine; he helps it keep abreast of its enemies to forestall any dangers to its power structure.

Mary Testa, Michael Urie, The Government Inspector, New World Stages

Mary Testa, Michael Urie in ‘The Government Inspector’ at New World Stages (Carol Rosegg)

At the meeting of these wicked corrupt, they discuss their grave problem which is a threat to their livelihood and career positions. An investigator has come to the town in disguise to explore the level of malfeasance. They fear that he will hold them to account. All the officials and even two local landowners (the funny Ben Mehl and Ryan Garbayo) must work together, discover the hidden identity of this “spy” and turn him over to their side with bribes and payoffs. It is an intrigue that holds danger for the officials and promise for the little people who we don’t really see as we are in thick with the conspirators, a completely enjoyable and refreshing sardonic view.

What has been a boisterous and satiric introduction is jettisoned into a hyperbole of hilarity in the next scene where we meet a lowly civil servant, the ineffectual would-be suicide Hlestakov (the unforgettable and prodigiously talented Michael Urie)  and his clever servant Osip (the versatile Arnie Burton). Hlestakov can’t quite “do the job” with a pistol to free himself of this unrequitable earthly plane, his gambling debts and the ignominy of a meager, zero-of-a-life, which he has badly used.

Ryan Garbayo, Michael Urie, Ben Mehl, The Government Inspector, New World Stages

(L to R) Ryan Garbayo, Michael Urie, Ben Mehl in ‘The Government Inspector’ at New World Stages (Carol Rosegg)

Because Hlestakov is incompetent at suicide, we have an hour and one-half of side-splitting laughter. Urie fashions comical uproariousness by using all the acting tools of his instrument.  He flawlessly surfs the cresting waves of  farcical action which he has helped to inflate. He is rather like a fine composer assisted by the incredible accompaniment of the ensemble, who spin their superbly tuned acting instruments into a wild symphony of raucous delight.

In this production Urie has stretched his talents to new heights. He is reminiscent of some of the comic greats; select any one of them in film, television or theater. He distills the substance of his lines then infuses them with the character of Hlestakov filtered through and around himself so that the civil servant who dupes the corrupted officials, and he, Michael Urie, are indivisible. Not only does Urie have seamless timing, he anticipates the power of  pauses which he capitalizes on with grace, fluidity and an uncanny communication with the watchful, listening audience. Very simply, he captures Hlestakov’s being and rounds it out with Chaplinesque force and will.

Talene Monahon, Michael Urie, The Government Inspector, New World Stages

Talene Monahon, Michael Urie in ‘The Government Inspector’ at New World Stages (Carol Rosegg)

As grand accompaniments, Mary Lou Rosato (various roles), Kelly Hutchinson (various roles), Mary Testa (the mayor’s wife) and Talene Monahon (the mayor’s daughter) are divine comedians. Without them the production would fly at a lower pitch. They are integral to the revelation of pretense behind the mayor, who is a wanna-be aspiring to nobility but must wallow in the mud of his position as a small-town functionary. And they (Testa, Monahon) provide the grist upon which Urie’s Hlestakov bakes the fabulous bread we devour to nurture our souls with exuberance and glee.

Michael McGrath, Mary Testa, Michael Urie, Talene Monahon, New World Stages, The Government Inspector

(L to R): Michael McGrath, Mary Testa, Michael Urie, Talene Monahon in ‘The Government Inspector’ at New World Stages (Carol Rosegg)

Indeed, all of the servant portrayals, each one more clever and shrewd than their masters/mistresses, are exceptionally delineated as characters and specifically portrayed by the actors. If  one considers that in less than one hundred years what they are to “inherit” after the Revolution, there are no insignificant characters here, but they are the most prescient in biding their time waiting, in due season to dispatch here and there the fools they serve.

The dynamic arc of the play’s development is expertly unfolded so that by the conclusion, we have feasted and are sated. We recognize how thrilling it is to take our part in this rollicking spectacle which is perfectly congenial in its staging,  set design,  lighting, costuming and the thematic symbolism of its physical, emotional and intellectual levels. This seemingly effortless and easy production took loving care, sagacity and genius to effect the terror of its satire, the bounty of its humor, the innovation of its celebrated cast. Kudos to Jesse Berger who magnificently brought this together and who had the quick-witted spirit and grace to understand how to let it “all hang out,” using the structure of these artists’ inner freedom to live within the boundaries of Gogol’s classic.

If you don’t see this production you will have missed something truly wonderful and riotous. If you do see it, expect the audience to break into laughter and applause frequently because the infection of joy is abundant and bounces liberally between audience and cast. The two hours with one intermission race by.

The Government Inspector is in its extended run at New World Stages until 20 August. You may purchase tickets on their website (CLICK HERE). Or you may phone 212-239-6200.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Julius Caesar’ Shakespeare in the Park’s Brilliant Controversy

The Daily News, Shakespeare in the Park, Julius Caesar

Cover of ‘The Daily News’ article discussing the controversy of The Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park, production of ‘Julius Caesar’ (photo of the cover)

When Donald Trump won the 2016 election, Oskar Eustis decided that he would present the opening of the summer season of The Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park with the timeless production where Shakespeare asks through conspirators who just assassinated Julius Caesar, “How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown!” If Shakespeare could have conceived of his work being done to reflect the current social and political times of one of the foremost nation’s on the planet, a state not born in Shakespeare’s time, he would have appreciated how the director and cast presented his immutable themes about power, violence, greed, political dynamics with a current spin to make the audience think. To an admirable extent, Eustis’ direction “got it right!”

The assassination of a political figure, especially one as accomplished, militarily gifted and innately brilliant as the real Julius Caesar contains lessons for every era and generation of humanity.  Considering Shakespeare’s concentration on the very human issues of envy, injustice, pride and ease with which the witless masses are manipulated by politicians, all of which his work emphasizes, the US version of Julius Caesar presented by the Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park in its modern day interpretation sits as a clarion call. It is a harbinger not of things to come, but is an echo of what has been and what will always be.

Shakespeare in the Park, Oscar Eustis, Julius Caesar, Greg Henry, Elisabeth Marvel

Shakespeare in the Park, ‘Julius Caesar with Gregg Henry as Caesar and Elizabeth Marvel as Marc Antony (photo courtesy of Greg Richter and the website)

For as long as there are governments, political factions, power players and the will to  murder and commit genocide to secure riches and power, Julius Caesar will be an iconic play. If  human nature could only embrace the man who came after Julius Caesar born in Judea in the time of  Augustus. Would that humanity could embody His spirit and virtues to change the very core of its flawed essence. Then Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar would be a quaint history play, an almost irrelevance. But such as humanity is, the play will always resound in studied human hearts and Caesar will bleed in sport on global stages for centuries to come..

Whether you dress Caesar up in a suit and long, red tie to mimicry and satirize the current fake and pompous American “man who would be king” or you costume Caesar in a toga replicating the times of Rome, there is much to understand about human beings and politics in this play, if one has the eyes to see, the ears to hear. If you  managed to  score a ticket to watch this very fine production which amassed responses of praise, excoriation and lukewarm dismissal during its controversial run, you would have been treated to a rousing occasion and would have judged for yourself whether it was offensive, too over the top or innovatively enlightened.

Shakespeare in the Park, The Public Theate, Julius Caesar, Oskar Eustis,

Shakespeare in the Park’s ‘Julius Caesar’ directed by Oskar Eustis (photo courtesy of the production)

Indeed, the furor of misinterpretation by those who never saw it and complained in error about what they thought the production advocated prompted a few sponsors to pull their support from a play which normally draws yawns and zzzzs after the climax in Act III. That Eustis could raise controversy because of his directorial choices is to his credit and speaks to his courage, ingeniousness and focus on the purpose of great drama: to raise awareness, to show us ourselves and to encourage us toward amendment.

The  outcry by those who most likely would not have appreciated the production’s cleverness, are probably not at the head of the class in understanding Shakespeare, his language, the subject, the poetic cadences, the metaphors, symbolism, themes, ironies and more. That is the real tragedy. For the commoners in Shakespeare’s time did recognize the poetic language, rhythms, the themes and even the psychological guilt in Brutus’ soul when Caesar’s ghost shows up to predict his death. Shakespeare’s work, unlike our atomized entertainment, was aimed at the working class and royalty alike; he wrote for everyone and his audience of Queen Elizabeth I and the groundlings appreciated and understood his plays.

Corey Stoll, John Douglas Thompson, Shakespeare in the Park, Julius Caesar, Oskar Eustis, The Public Theater

(L to R) Corey Stoll, John Douglas Thompson in Shakespeare in the Park’s ‘Julius Caesar’ (Joan Marcus)

Today, the intellect of commoners in the US who can or cannot appreciate Shakespeare knows no economic latitude and longitude. One may be a wealthy or poor Philistine: the  vilifiers of Eustis’ production did not suppress their ire. They misunderstood his work with abandon, thinking it rightly due that they could uplift uninformed opinions though they didn’t see the performances. Right behind them the Russian trolls and bots stirred up cauldrons of boiling virtual mud online via fake social media accounts.  So be it. They too, like Marc Antony will stumble over their own carcasses en route to an unhappy grave (the bots and trolls). Despite the hoopla, this presentation was a roaring fire and our nation and culture are better for it.

Eustis chose to accoutre his production with elements from our culture. He included these to poke fun at the chaos and clownish behaviors emanating from the United States’ once venerable seat of power, the White House, whose nobility has been sucked dry by the head canker worm with the red tie, and the other parasites that occupy the halls of power. Thus, from cell phones and twitter feeds to graffiti walls on subway stations where dissidents (ordinary citizens, protestors, Occupy Wall Street et. al.) wrote encouraging messages to counteract the disgust they felt after the 2016 election, the play manifests the struggle of American citizens on both the left and the right to solidify their agendas and make their voices known. The production emphasizes the horrific violence on both sides of the Roman coin which leads to the demise of the Roman republic and the rise of autocratic rule. That is the key warning for our age.

Some parallels between Julius Caesar’s Rome and U.S. politics are fascinating, but by no means does Eustis suggest the undercurrents of the tide and times are the same. Though he does make  foreboding suggestions for our democracy, the US does not hang in the balance, certainly, not like Rome did. However, if there is a foreign power influencing our elections (this is not in Julius Caesar) to promote the demise of our  two party system and push it against the principles of the constitution, then this must be looked into as a new type of warfare. We need to follow the example of our European allies who are currently working against Russia on many fronts including teaching children how to recognize fake sources of online news and the hallmark signs of propaganda. Ukraine and all of the EU nations are farther ahead of us who have not even recognized there is a devil in our virtual house, let alone protected against it.

Though there are hints at a comparison between Rome and the current US political situation, they are more for sardonic, dramatic and tonal purposes. Sadly, there is little to compare if one seriously considers the political players.  Would that our current president and the politicians in our Senate and House be worthy of the exceptionalism, military soldiering, courage, erudition and genius of Julius Caesar and the senators of that day. Indeed, over the past devolution of decades, the current lot of politicians are more akin to the rabble of citizens (illiterate lower classes) who are easily swayed by the last speaker and motivated by gifts (Antony offers the citizens gold from Caesar’s treasuries to sway them to violence, and later reneges on his promise). Our current political “heroes” lack the honor, the soul power, the majesty, the courage, the talents, the skills and solidity of character that their equivalents in the play demonstrate.

Nikki M. James, Corey Stoll, Shakespeare in the Park, Julius Caesar, Oskar Eustis, The Public Theater

Nikki M. James, Corey Stoll in Shakespeare in the Park’s ‘Julius Caesar’ (Joan Marcus)

By no means is the greatness of Caesar who led his legions, fought in battles next to his men and distinguished himself as an extraordinary individual who enriched the Roman empire to be lessened by a suggested reflection in the current president. If critics who so excoriated this production knew a bit about ancient history, Julius Caesar, the Roman senators, etc., they would have understood that the contrast between Donald Trump and Julius Caesar is indeed laughable to the extreme of hyperbole.

To think that Eustis is fomenting violence against the current president is even more laughable. And that is the point. This is one at whom one laughs, ridicules and mocks, for his actions are worthy of little more. Cutouts do not stand. They fall brought down by themselves. Julius Caesar the real man was very, very different. He was someone worthy, someone dangerous. His track record verifying this was miles long. The only wit who laughs about Caesar is Casca, no one else does in the play. The president’s behavior is imminently laughable and even more so that he does it to gain publicity which has been based on infamous shameless and untoward behavior unfit for the venerable office he holds and continually demeans.

There is no comparison between the two men. The fact that Eustis costumes the Caesar character  in  the tell-tale suit and red tie drives at the very cardboard cutout the president is proud to be:  all show, all outer appearance, all image, no inner substance, no character, no strength, no courage, no bravery, not one wit of who Julius Caesar was, except perhaps in Shakespeare’s delineating his pride in not wanting to appear weak which is the fatal flaw that leads to Caesar’s death.

Tina Benko, Gregg Henry, Eisa James, Shakespeare in the Park, Julius Caesar, Oskar Eustis, The Public Theater

(L to R) Tina Benko, Gregg Henry, Eisa James in Shakespeare in the Park’s ‘Julius Caesar’ (Joan Marcus)

But even then Caesar had to be cleverly manipulated by a “close confidante” to turn against his own better judgment and go to the senate where death awaited him. Indeed, he goes because he is fatalistic. He has braved death many times in battle. He does not fear death, as he says, “The valiant fears death only once,” so let it be with Caesar. This man Julius tailors himself to fit the fullness of the role of Caesar which he respects and attempts to live up to, but cannot because he is mortal. The current president cannot fit the role of president, is unfit for that role and would shape it to fit the role of the leadership of another country whose oligarchy, fascism and tyranny is well documented.

Unlike the White House knave, Caesar was deserving of his honors. He earned them and was indeed a self-made man, a courageous leader, exceptional diplomat and lover of the reputed to be most beautiful woman in the world, Cleopatra. How he rose to power was daunting. And even if you consider that the Roman legions didn’t take BS from anyone, if he had proven himself less worthy, they would have just as soon slit his throat than suffer any clownish foolishness he might lay on them which in his nobility and stature he would never entertain. Again the contrast with the current president is wider than the ocean and Eustas’ production proves their difference in character and spirit to be galactic. And that key theme is screamed out with irony and sardonic humor.

By the time Shakespeare introduces Caesar in the production, the very Roman republic is thought by some to be at stake (an argument Cassius uses to convince Brutus to join the conspirators, which is hypothetical) because a majority of the Roman senators intend to proclaim Caesar emperor. Caesar, wisely, will not wear his crown in Rome, maintaining an apparent  equality with the other rulers of Rome which he astutely understands want to keep Rome a republic. Nevertheless, it is because some senators supported Pompeii, the previous Roman ruler who Caesar fought during a civil war and killed in Gaul, that he has enemies. Rather than to kill many of Pompeii’s supporters (Cassius and the other conspirators) he pardons them. It is a fatal mistake because it is his enemies led by the noble, idealistic, impractical Brutus who kill him; only Brutus does so to preserve the republic. Brutus’ fatal error in fact destroys the Roman Republic forever.

Elizabeth Marvel, Shakespeare in the Park, Julius Caesar, The Public Theater, Oskar Eustis

Elizabeth Marvel as Marc Antony in Shakespeare in the Park’s ‘Julius Caesar’ (Joan Marcus)

 

As a result of the assassination, massive rioting takes over Rome, stirred up by Marc Antony who with Octavian and Lepidus foment another civil war  between the old Pompeii supporters led by Brutus’ and Cassius’ legions versus Marc Antony’s, Lepidus’ and Octavian’s armies which eventually win against the conspirators. However, the cost in bloodshed is incalculable and Octavian/Augustus proves to be the very thing that Brutus and Cassius intended to prevent with Caesar’s assassination. In fact Octavian as a tyrannical autocrat is worse than Caesar would have been. Caesar’s grandnephew, Octavian, later Augustus, learned from his granduncle’s mistake of granting pardons. When he attains the leadership of Rome, after getting Antony to commit suicide and wiping out his “enemies” in battle, at home he rounds up anyone who would even whisper against him, not even allowing them a trial. The genocidal purge wipes out the best of Rome and leads to his Pax Romana (an irony as peace was purchased by bloodshed and kept by fear) and autocratic rule.

The  Roman republic is destroyed. The catalyst is the assassination. If the conspiratorial senators had not taken matters into their own hands through violence, but trusted the very powerful democratic tools they had to strengthen their republic, thousands of lives would have been saved, and the intelligentsia would not have been wiped out as a potential threat to Augustus Caesar’s power base. Shakespeare’s principle theme that violence begets violence and a republic cannot be safeguarded by civil war is a powerful lesson he puts forth for future global generations.

Eustis’  production is assisted by fine performances by the ensemble and especially the standouts: the insidious, hypocritical Elizabeth Marvel as Marc Antony (with a southern voice, kind of like Jeff Sessions/Mitch McConnell and Strom Thurmond) Corey Stoll as Brutus, and John Douglas Thompson as Cassius. The latter two both portray a humanity and intelligence in their characters that is moving and real. In its entirety, Eustis’ Julius Caesar gives us a powerful reminder of the beauty of our democracy and constitution and the great tragedy if we lose it through violent means. ( or the new violence, cyber warfare).

Also, throughout this seminal, witty and sardonic presentation, there is an underlying, subtle exhortation to those who would govern us today, here and now: adhere to the constitution, respect the voices of the people, promote equity and justice through a free and accurate press, and insure solid educational opportunity which promotes a greater drive toward economic equity for all. To not do so encourages the hopelessness that begets violence and conspiracy such as made evident in Julius Caesar.  Indeed, as this production and Shakespeare so tellingly relate, a country’s leadership is directly responsible for the evolution or devolution of its nation, because the leaders manipulate the people who are invariably less educated and have less power than they.

Elizabeth Marvel, Shakespeare in the Park, Julius Caesar, The Public Theater, Oskar Eustis

Elizabeth Marvel and company in Shakespeare in the Park’s ‘Julius Caesar’ (Joan Marcus)

Shakespeare/Eustis also reinforces that those in power who would manipulate and use the commons to kill for them in the hope of securing power through violent civil strife and assassination, only sow their own demise and the demise of the republic.. With each act of bloodshed, with each body slain, with each bellicose threat of citizen against citizen, a republic and/or a democracy is weakened, as this production reveals. To interpret this work as anything but belies a senselessness and negligent/willful misinterpretation of Shakespeare’s great play and Eustis’ production which interprets Shakespeare’s immutable themes with a currency that encourages us to think, to meditate and delve beyond brainwashing pap uplifted in some media outlets.

The Public Theater is to be credited for its steadfastness to withstand the intense pressure to remove funding because of a production predominately miscued by those who didn’t see it. The controversy, used to generate publicity about an individual whose shamelessness and lack of respect for himself and the office he holds actually validated Eustis’ sardonic interpretation, is a further irony. I, for one, appreciate The Public’s undaunted courage to persist with their vision and mission to  stand up for freedom of the press and the sanctity of artistic endeavor to bring a unique, fresh and ironic spin to a play that is often cast as a droll, frozen, rendering of antiquity, easily dismissed because it happened over 2000 years ago.

Eustis encouraged a new veneration for Shakespeare’s timeless work. And he unlike the head corporate philistine of Broadway who holds The Great White Way for ransom, follows in the venerated footsteps of its founder Joseph Papp. They offer sterling artistic works at a lower price and Shakespeare for FREE each year, if you cue up for it democratically. Bravo!

 

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Soulpepper Theatre Company’s ‘Spoon River’ by Edgar Lee Masters

Spoon River Ensemble, Spoon River, Soulpepper Theatre Company, Albert Schwartz, Pershing Square Signature Center, Edgar Lee Masters

‘Spoon River,’ Spoon River Ensemble, Soulpepper Theatre Company, Albert Schultz (Artistic Director, Director) Cylla Von Tiedemann

Whatever Soulpepper Theatre Company seems to adapt by way of masterpieces, their productions are like spun gold. They lift the soul with transcendent performances and remind us of what is beyond the material world, sounding the clarion call that there is “more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of” in any philosophy. Such is true of their shimmering production Of Human Bondage (see my review on this site and on Blogcritics) as it is true of Artistic Director Albert Schultz’s adaptation of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, with Mike Ross as adaptor, composer, arranger and music director. Soulpepper’s award-winning Spoon River is currently running at Pershing Square Signature Center until 29 of July.

Spoon River begins with the remembrance of Bertie Hume who has recently died. Before the audience is seated, they are taken on a journey back in historic time to the town of Spoon River. The audience moves, from the light of the hallway of the Signature Center into a growing darkness where they are invited into the place where Bertie lies waked. Unbeknownst to the audience they are beginning their symbolic transformation from mere audience members to mourners. In a corner of the parlor where Bertie is laid out in an open casket with flowers, a shadowy family member welcomes them and thanks them for attending. This is immersive theater and we are in a state of wonder and anticipation knowing that what comes next will be surreal and illuminating.

Proceeding down the hallway filled with sepia-toned pictures of members of the Spoon River community who have passed and whom we will meet later in the production, the audience gradually takes on the role of “living” passersby who come to pay their respects to the dead and learn a lesson or two about life in death and death in life. They are led through the graveyard on the hill where Bertie Hume is to be laid to rest joining those from Spoon River who have gone before her. The tombstones’ lettering, brightly luminescent from the full moon, is carved with the names of those who will later “have their say” about their narrow identities in the material plane, from the perspective of  their expansive existence beyond the grave.

This is a momentous night; the harvest moon shines brightly; something unique will happen that audience members will partake of. The veil (represented by a thin grey-black scrim behind which the Soulpepper cast stands until their cue to step out) that separates the quick from the dead, the realms of spirit from the material world,  rises. The spirits materialize. Those who have gone on (the Soulpepper cast portraying the Spoon River deceased) watch with interest the audience, the pall bearers who bring out Bertie’s casket and place it on the ground, and Mr. Pollard who briefly speaks his piece about sweet Bertie being taken by death in the bloom of her life. Bertie,  like his Edmund, also deceased, “fed on life.”

Soulpepper Theatre Company, Spoon River, Edgar Lee Masters, Albert Schwartz, Alana Bridgewater, Brendan Wall, Richard Lam, Mike Ross

(L to R) Brendan Wall, Alana Bridgewater, Richard Lam, Mike Ross in Soulpepper Theatre Company’s Spoon River, Edgar Lee Masters, adapted by Albert Schultz, Mike Ross (music, arrangements, compositions) (Cylla von Tiedemann)

Mr. Pollard is unaware of the spiritual plane filled with once living Spoon River citizens who, behind him, stare out at us in silent wakefulness.  As we gaze in wonder, we realize that we are privileged to see into the things beyond the apprehension of our five senses on this special night. As happens to most individuals who live as material beings, we receive momentary glimpses into transcendent realms  (a theme of this production) in the hope of learning and evolving.  The audience and Mr. Pollard are given a glimpse. For the audience/passersby, this fabulous revelation lasts for 90 minutes with no intermission.

Mr. Pollard mentions that, if it is true and sometimes one can hear beyond the veil a choir singing and carrying on, Bertie will be joining them, for her voice was so lovely, the “angels were jealous.” For now she is on the hill “sleepin.”  From beyond the veil the Spoon River spiritual choir  loudly whisper “sleepin” which stops Pollard “dead” in his tracks at the vibration from the other world. What was that he heard? Was that a momentary aural flicker from the other side, an utterance from those in another plane of consciousness that he cannot see? It is then we begin to consider the theme of sleeping and wakefulness and their interchangeability as metaphors of life and death, and as it turns out much more as the play progresses.

Jackie Richardson, Spoon River, Soulpepper Theatre Company, Spoon River, Edgar Lee Masters Spoon River Ensemble

Jackie Richardson and Soulpepper Theatre Company’s ‘Spoon River,’ Spoon River Ensemble (Cylla von Tiedemann)

Like Pollard, the audience (after the ninety minutes that we are transported by the Soulpepper company spirits), must contend with the material plane which distracts us by its toil, strife, physical pain and emotional heartache, all of which bring us “down to earth,” (another vital theme). Such earthiness is revealed by the Spoon River deceased as they refer to their secret lives and passions they experienced in Spoon River, and they tell us their personal stories that are heart-breaking, abrupt, shocking, funny, thrilling and mesmerizing. They relate their stories and lives as a clarion call and encouragement for us to feed on life while we can.

It is in that extraordinary moment when the Soulpepper cast whispers “sleepin” that the themes of awareness/unawareness, life in death in life processes, sleep referring to soul oblivion, wakefulness referring to soul awareness/life soar.  It is then our eyes are opened to what this play will be about. To the cast, “sleepin” is a description of the consciousness of those who are “living” on the material plane because they are blind to the furor of life’s beauty and opportunities. It is also an unction for us to question our own sleeping consciousness. Edgar Lee Masters and this adaptation by director Albert Schultz enlighten us to the concept that we must awaken our soul/consciousness to a greater appreciation of who we are and who others are in this “thing” we call life but only see “through a glass darkly.”

Kudos to Albert Schultz the director and adaptor, Mike Ross and the phenomenal cast, all of whom make this beginning of Spoon River one of the most memorable and transformative theatrical moments I have experienced in live theater.  Indeed, from start to glorious finish, this production is truly what the best of live theater is about.

Albert Schwartz, Mike Ross, Soulpepper Theatre Company, Miranda Mulholland, Spoon River, Pershing Square Signature Center, Edgar Lee Masters

Miranda Mulholland in Soulpepper Theatre Company’s ‘Spoon River’ by Edgar Lee Masters, adapted by Albert Schultz, music composed, arranged, adapted by Mike Ross (Cylla von Tiedemann)

As we settle in with the spirit-community of Spoon River’s deceased citizens, we recognize that they are mentoring us through important themes of life, death, human existence and other worldliness by relating their personal stories which are Edgar Lee Masters’ poems about the people who lived in the small Illinois community.  What were these individuals really like? Does anyone know anyone else on the material plane of existence which sometimes can blind us into a sham of duplicity and false fronting? Does anyone know others’ true happinesses,  torments, secrets, regrets, lies, crimes? Do people know themselves? The lawyer, the mayor, the housewives, the farmers, the rich, the destitute, the teenagers, the lovers, the lost, each of Master’s townspeople tell us and in each tale there is a lesson for us to learn.

Indeed, to be self-blind is perhaps the worst form of blindness and we are made to understand that even in death when various folks in the Spoon River community step forward and share who they were, they are not necessarily forthcoming and it must be their deceased friends and neighbors and spouses who let us in on their multiple realities. We are privy to the fulcrum of secrets that composed the core of many of these individuals’ lives; many of the silent mysteries they kept in life are filled with irony, pathos and humor.

The Spoon River souls (each Soulpepper cast member is prodigiously, musically multi-talented) relate stories in a celebration of music (gospel, blues, country, pop and more) songs  and accompaniment (banjos, ukeleles, piano, mandolin, cello, violins, guitars, brass, casket drumming, harmonica, and more). The songs are in various measures soulful, vibrant, achingly beautiful, frightening, uplifting and stirring; the dances are variously joyful, foot stomping and rousing. The lighting, staging, costuming and props which backdrop each of the songs/stories are economic, beautiful, appropriate, innovative and inspirational; they enhance the overall atmospheric effect to create riveting and dramatic storytelling.

Spoon River, Edgar Lee Masters, Soulpepper Theatre Company, Spoon River Ensemble, Albert Schwartz, Mike Ross

Spoon River Ensemble, Soulpepper Theatre Company, “Spoon River’ by Edgar Lee Masters, (Cylla von Tiedemann)

We watch and participate in the soul enlivening commemoration as the departed tell us about themselves in all their glorious, glowing and dastardly humanity. By the end of the production we understand why they are partying in the other realm. They have been whiling away the time, as they wait for the new member of their otherworldly community to awaken from her sleep of life’s oblivion to a new consciousness in “death.” When Bertie Hume finally arises from her “sleep state” and is renewed, the song she sings is a breathtaking and heart-rending appreciation of the beauty of her life that is now gone. She, too, didn’t love her life to the fullest. She too, was “sleepin” when she should have been soul-awake and “livin.”

If Bertie Hume realizes she didn’t love life as she could have, and she was one to feed on life, then what chance have we to live life to the fullest? What chance may we have to overturn the corporeal for incorporeal values, to fill our lives and awaken our souls with joy, peace and the fruitfulness of having a life well lived with no regrets?

This question is answered by Edgar Lee Masters’ injunction “It takes life to love life,” spoken by the exuberant Fiddler Jones who has joined his fellow spirits with little in the way of material objects, but is happy with 1000 memories and no regrets. And it is answered by the audience members at the joyous, life-affirming conclusion of Spoon River as the Soulpepper company with vibrant song, dance and accompaniment sing out “Is your soul alive? Then let it feed.”

This incredible production holds many beautiful truths. They begin and end in artistic  genius; with the unified elements of brilliant music composition and arrangements by Ross, the sterling voices of the talented, superb Soulpepper actors, the musicianship of cast members, the enlightened adaptation by Schultz of Edgar Lee Masters’ concepts and work. The genius flows over, in, around and through Ken MacKenzie (Set & Lighting Designer), Erika Connor (Costume Designer), Andrea Castillo-Smith (Sound Coordinator), and all who worked on Spoon River. In this illuminating and uplifting production that all of us can relate to, Schultz, Ross and the Soulpepper company present a banquet. We feed heartily  on their enthusiasm and loving generosity. We may even enjoy in our memories and consciousness, a raft of leftovers for future banquets upon which our alive souls may feed.

If your soul is alive and especially if you need renewal and want to feed off the sheer joy of Spoon River, run to see this production before it closes on 29 July. You will be glad you did. Tickets may be purchased at the Box Office at the Pershing Square Signature Center (42nd Street). To purchase from their website, CLICK HERE.

 

 

 

 

‘The Aran Islands’ by J.M. Synge at The Irish Repertory Theatre

Brendan Conroy, J.M. Synge, The Aran Islands, Joe O'Byrne, Irish Repertory Theatre

Brendan Conroy in J.M. Synge’s ‘The Aran Islands’ adapted by Joe O’Byrne at Irish Repertory Theatre (Carol Rosegg)

The Aran Islands J.M. Synge’s work adapted and directed by Joe O’Byrne in an extended run at the Irish Repertory Theatre through 6 August, first and foremost is a tome to the three, stark, wind-swept, rocky islands that are the sentinels of Galway Bay on the picturesque and green-lovely West Coast of Ireland. For millennia the Aran Islands have had as their mission to mitigate the ferocious and fickle storms, oppressive fogs and shattering clashes between air, land and sea. They provide a powerful breakfront for Galway City, so that it might prosper unhinged by the natural elements. Without the stolid, natural wall of Inishmaan, Inishmore and Inisheer, all the harshness of the weather and roaring sea would continually have battered Galway and perhaps lessened Irish interest to build an incredible, romantic, tourist friendly city that is currently flourishing and is a favored recommended spot of Irish citizens who suggest to visitors, “You must visit the west country.”

W.B. Yeats said the same to J. M. Synge when they met at the Sorbonne, Paris in 1896. Only with Yeats being Yeats and Synge being Synge, Yeats encouraged the younger writer to visit and spend time on the Aran Islands to get to know the people and their primitive culture and rural, seaward  lifestyle. Yeats’ hope was that Synge’s visit would be the catalyst to spur the young man’s imagination and experience the profound themes of birth, life and death. How these central dynamisms of life teased and blasted the inhabitants directly, the fascinated Synge captured in his work. The islanders, who lived without the distractions and stimulations of city life, like the Aran Islands themselves, had to confront and withstand, as it were, the batterings of the elements with only the bulwark of their isolated community network and companionship of their fellow resisters.

Brendan Conroy, J.M. Synge, The Aran Islands, Joe O'Byrne, Irish Repertory Theatre

Brendan Conroy in J.M. Synge’s ‘The Aran Islands,’ adapted by Joe O’Byrne, Irish Repertory Theatre (Carol Rosegg)

Yeats most probably wanted Synge to also experience the symbolism of raging nature  in confrontation with the stalwart, intrepid character of the lonely inhabitants who managed a meager daily subsistence in an unwelcoming land. There, they had to front the torments of sickness, ill health and old age at the edge of the world, which appeared to be going backward in man’s history when cities were beginning to experience electricity and modernism.

The fact that they were able to carve out a hard scrabble life was a luxury. Indeed, everywhere they went life and death were married in tortuous embrace and the residents, like a tribal people, used their myths and storytelling to fill the dreary nights and chronicle their relationships to each other and the land as life’s and death’s immutability clamped down upon all that they endeavored.

Brendan Conroy, The Aran Islands, J.M. Synge, Joe O'Byrne, Irish Repertory Theatre

Brendan Conroy in J.M. Synge’s ‘The Aran Islands,’ adapted by Joe’OByrne, Irish Repertory Theatre (Carol Rosegg)

A visceral and memorable portrait of the natural elements, the people’ struggle and the barren, bleak, rock-hard lifestyle and landscape are indelibly portrayed in the cadences and rhythms of Synge’s description of the Aran Islands in O’Byrne’s incisive adaptation of Synge’s work, The Aran Islands, formerly a book length journal.  The sheer poetic call of the undulations of the sea in its ferocity and tameness, the delicious descriptions and sound effects of language which are indelibly linked to Synge’s later work, have found a marvelous home in this travelog/adaptation. O’Byrne has reshaped it into a solo performance of an individual, the reaffirmation of Synge himself, who is a neophyte of all things “Aran.” As the production develops, this comes to mean all realms that flow easily among the levels of consciousness in stories told about the past in historical time and place, and which do represent the present, and are harbingers of the future.

I can imagine no one but Brendan Conroy to be the sojourner to the Aran Islands, an older Synge, whose face brightens as we might imagine Synge’s did when he saw the lands in the distance and eventually stepped off on to the pier and then on hardened, rocky ground. Conroy’s mastery of Synge’s poetic cadences and luscious images and his manipulation of pauses, digressions and silences transform him into the islands’ storytellers and ancient, wizened,  rural magi (wise ones), who stories convey  ever-present themes. Conroy beautifully renders the particularity of each with effortless realism.

Brendan Conroy, The Aran Islands, Joe O'Byrne, J.M. Synge, Irish Repertory Theatre

Brendan Conroy in ‘The Aran Islands’ at Irish Repertory Theatre (Carol Rosegg)

I could understand and visualize every beat, every declension, every word spoken and inferred in the descriptions and characterizations of the islanders who shared eerie  stories around the central core of every family, the hearth. Conroy’s insight and understanding of how aural power may transform the listener into his or her own visualist  and imagist is greatly appreciated in a time when we may too often rely on visual effects selected by others to relate stories which we then can easily dismiss because we have not used our own imagination to power up the visuals.

On another level this is a production about visualizing with the eye of consciousness, of employing one’s imagination to be transported through the rich medium of Synge’s figurative, elegant, word crafting. If one listens, then one cannot help but focus on Conroy’s dark, full-bodied,  resonant, somber and sometimes higher pitched musical instrument of a voice which he modulates with just enough breath and lung power to reverberate and touch the hearts of the audience.

Brendan Conroy, J.M. Synge, The Aran Islands, Joe O'Byrne, Irish Repertory Theatre

Brendan Conroy in J.M. Synge’s ‘The Aran Islands,’ adapted by Joe O’Byrne, Irish Repertory Theatre (Carol Rosegg)

Conroy entices all to see encapsulated in the words, the airy visions which are transformed through the medium of sound. With focused attention and appreciation, Conroy provides us with a heightened awareness of Synge’s rich language, the sound effects (i.e. alliteration, onomotopoeia), and imagery. Conroy’s gestures and changes in posture convey the various island characters; he effects these characterizations with a minimalism that does not detract from the beauty of Synge’s words. We are rapt and caught up in the consciousness of Synge’s personal observations made real to us. It is of a time and place which is now gone but will be ever-present in the writer’s journal and O’Byrne’s adaptation.

If you enjoy Synge and love traveling to Ireland, even if, at this point, you have no intention of going, allow the Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of the Aran Islands to take you there. This adaption ably directed by O’Byrne, with the assistance of artistic team Margaret Nolan (set designer) Marie Tierney (costume design) Joe O’Byrne (lighting design) Kieran Duddy (original music) is incisively brought to life. Special kudos goes to Conroy’s performance effected by his prodigious talent and artistry. This presentation will bring the sentinels of Galway Bay to your imagination and deliver you to a time and place more viscerally felt than looking at historic sepia photographs.

The Aran Islands is currently at the Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd Street) until 6 August. It is around 100 minutes with one intermission. For tickets visit the Box Office in person or go to their website: CLICK HERE.   You can order by phone at 212-727-2737

‘The Traveling Lady’ by Horton Foote, directed by Austin Pendleton

Larry Bull, Lynn Cohen, Geroge Morfogen, Traveling Lady, Austin Pendleton, Cherry Lane Theatre, Horton Foote

(L to R): Larry Bull, Lynn Cohen, George Morfogen in ‘Traveling Lady’ directed by Austin Pendleton at the Cherry Lane Theatre (Carole Rosegg)

The Traveling Lady by American treasure Horton Foote (Pultizer Prize and two-time Academy Award winner), is about the foibles of human nature, relationships, loss and the hope of love and new beginnings as a natural order of living. The production directed by Austin Pendleton with his usual insight, attentiveness to acting specificity and feel for “when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em,” is currently being presented by La Femme Theatre Productions at The Cherry Lane Theatre. It boasts a very fine cast.

The Traveling Lady is an ensemble piece that requires on-point performances for the portrayals to cohere and present logically. Foote accomplishes his work steadfastly, brilliantly: every line builds on the other in his characterizations. And though his work appears simplistic, it is layered and profound with minimal belaboring. If one carefully attends to the themes and character notes, one understands that the outcome for his small-town personalities is inevitable. The beauty of Foote’s work and this production is that it is far from predictable. This is why much of Foote’s work, if executed with precision, as Pendleton does with the assistance of the fine ensemble and artistic creative team, is greatly satisfying in its representation of homely Americana.

Lynn Cohen, Karen Ziemba, Angelina Fiordellisi, Traveling Lady, Austin Pendleton, Cherry Lane Theatre

(L to R): Lynn Cohen, Karen Ziemba, Angelina Fiordellisi in ‘Traveling Lady,’ directed by Austin Pendleton, Cherry Lane Theatre (Carol Rosegg)

Foote’s plot arc for The Traveling Lady is developed with enough inherent tension so that one actually breathes a sigh of relief at the conclusion, as the characters move naturally toward their resolutions. As with many of his plays (i.e. Orphan’s Home Cycle), Foote lays out the rural dynamic of his setting as 1950, the small Texas town of Harrison.

In Harrison as in any rural town, daily life is routine and slow. The action moves with major town events: births, weddings, funerals. And Foote uses an earth shattering event, the death of Miss Kate, Henry Thomas’ mother, to be the catalyst for the movement of life, death and renewal for Foote’s protagonists.

It is Miss Kate’s funeral which brings Henry Thomas back to Harrison. It is Henry’s return to his hometown which brings his wife Georgette Thomas (Jean Lichty) and their daughter Margaret Rose (Korinne Tetlow) to Harrison to be with him. Henry and Georgette are thrust into the matrix of characters who make neighborly visits to share the gossip at Clara Breedlove’s home. It is in revealing Henry’s and Georgette’s impulses and humanity that Foote’s themes of sorrow, regret, hope and forgiveness are relayed.

Karen Ziemba, Lynn Cohen, PJ Sosko, Angelina Fiordellisi, Jill Tanner, Traveling Lady, Cherry Lane Theatre, Horton Foote, Austin Pendleton

(L to R): Karen Ziemba, Lynn Cohen, PJ Sosko, Angelina Fiordellisi, Jill Tanner in ‘The Traveling Lady’ at The Cherry Lane Theatre (Carol Rosegg)

The neighborly matrix of townsfolk born and bred in Harrison include the elderly, “mentally slipping” Mrs. Mavis (a fabulous Lynn Cohen), Sitter Mavis (Karem Ziemba is her patient, loving daughter), Judge Robedaux (George Morfogen in too brief an appearance), Mrs. Tillman (the humorous Jill Tanner as the stalwart, religious, do-gooder), Henry Thomas (PJ Sosko is perfect as the heart-rending, regretful and angry Henry) and Clara Breedlove (Angelina Fiordellisi is excellent as the kind, wise, earth-mother) whose home {ironically not far from the cemetery} and heart provide a respite and place of sustenance.

Two protagonists, one who was not raised in Harrison, and the other who was and plans to leave it are Georgette Thomas and Slim Murray. Harrison is a way station for Georgette Thomas who comes seeking husband Henry after he is released from the penitentiary for stabbing and nearly killing a man.

Larry Bull finely shapes his Slim with subdued inner beauty and humility. He breathes charisma, attractiveness and light in Slim’s soul as a quiet hero whose values and principles are decent and kind. I could feel every woman in the audience including myself ache for more such individuals like Slim (who is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s Slim in Of Mice and Men). Slim, who has been a deputy, prefers working in the cotton industry and plans to head South to pursue what he knows best.

Jean Lichty, Korinne Tetlow, Angelina Fiordellisi, The Traveling Lady, The Cherry Lane Theatre, Horton Foote, Austin Pendleton

(L to R): Jean Lichty, Korinne Tetlow, Angelina Fiordellisi in ‘The Traveling Lady,’ at The Cherry Lane Theatre (Carol Rosegg)

As Henry’s loving, long-suffering, sweet, loyal wife Georgette, Jean Lighty is well cast, as is Korinne Tetlow who is exceptionally poised and captivating as her little daughter, Margaret Rose. Georgette and Margaret Rose are wanderers looking for rest and succor. Georgette hopes that her reunion with husband Henry will be successful and they will finally be able to live as a family. From the other characters, we discover that she has been loyal to Henry and would be most probably until “death do them part.” However, his actions are not worthy of her love and his inner weaknesses create the guilt that keeps him racing down the path of self-destruction. Despite this, Georgette may be willing to forgive him and continue if not for the welfare of Margaret Rose. These attributes of patience and loyalty form the core of who Georgette is. She reflects the time she lives in; she echoes the folkways of the Texas communities whose women “stand by their men.”

Foote has laid his groundwork for us to immediately empathize with mother and daughter. We learn they are not accepted because people where they attempt to live discover Henry’s background. Georgette’s father represents such attitudes. After Henry goes to the penitentiary, her father throws her out of the house. He refuses to accept his daughter’s marriage to Henry and ignores her when she sends him a picture of Margaret Rose.

Georgette has hidden Henry’s situation from Margaret Rose. For her daughter’s sake, instead of confronting realities about Henry, in her mind she has built up tremendous hope for a family reunion. She believes that Henry can only improve. Though both are ready for a renewal, it is not to come in the shape and form Georgette imagines.

Lynn Cohen, Jean Lichty, Larry Bull Karen Ziemba, The Traveling Lady, The Cherry Lane Theatre, Horton Foote

(L to R): Lynn Cohen, Jean Lichty, Larry Bull, Karen Ziemba in ‘The Traveling Lady’ at The Cherry Lane Theatre (Carol Rosegg)

When mother and daughter arrive at Clara Breedlove’s home, eventually Henry, as all the townsfolk most likely do, finds his way there. Clara Breedlove’s home is a fitting symbol; it is not only a hub for the townsfolk and in this case the travelers, it is also a place for the truth to be revealed and accepted without judgment or recrimination. The “Breedlove” last name is appropriately clever.

In her loyalty and principled soul, Georgette is the counterpart of Slim who lost his wife and was/still is devastated by the circumstances surrounding their relationship which he finally reveals to his sister Clara in a poignant scene. Foote has created sterling human beings in Slim and Georgette and indeed they are archetypes for what may be the best potential for contentment in relationships.

We are gratified that somehow throughout all the pain and suffering Georgette and Slim have endured. They are stolid individuals, unbowed by life’s hardships. Perhaps they will end up together to find some measure of happiness in the next chapter of their lives. With Foote, it is always a hopeful “perhaps.” Certainly, if Georgette remains with Henry, who is an alcoholic, disaster will follow for her and Margaret Rose.

The resolution of conflicts in Slim’s, Georgette’s and Henry’s lives occurs at Clara Breedlove’s.  Foote has staged the beginning of life transformation there in Clara’s homely place, perhaps the most appropriate of places for there to be the possibility of life affirmations.

This production is a gem. You will appreciate the strong performances by the ensemble and incisive direction by Austin Pendleton. The cast, the director and the creative team Harry Feiner (Scenic & Lighting Design), Theresa Squire (Costume Design), Ryan Rumery (Sound Design & Original Music) whose striking production values enhance throughout, effect a very fine presentation of Horton Foote’s The Traveling Lady.

For performances and ticket information, go to  www.cherrylanetheatre.org; or call OvationTix at 866-811-4111; or stop by the box office at The Cherry Lane Theatre on 38 Commerce Street. The production has no intermission and runs until 16 July.

‘Invincible,’ Theater Review, 59E59 Theaters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graeme Brookes, Elizabeth Boag, Invincible, 59E59 Theaters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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