Category Archives: Off Broadway
The play After by Michael McKeever superbly, incisively directed by Joe Brancato at 59E59 Theaters chronicles what happens between two families whose teenage sons, once friends, are involved in a bullying incident. In examining the events before, during and after the incident, the playwright dissects the anatomy of denial, psychological debility and delusion in the lives of each of the parents and their sons. Whether the occurrence may have been avoided is uncertain. However, the play argues that openness and communication should be the linchpins of a family unit. When they are not, the possibilities for self-destruction are endless.
The Campbells and the Beckmans, once friends, meet to discuss a bullying text that Kyle Campbell sent to Matthew Beckman. Julia Campbell’s sister Val (Jolie Curtsinger) is present during the discussion to help strengthen Julia and serve as a mediator, though both Connie and Alan Beckman question the soundness of this.
Julia Campbell (Mia Matthews) is a beautiful woman and everything about her speaks of her desire for perfection, peace and happiness. And if there is a wrinkle in her fine world, she will either straighten it out or justify with logic why the wrinkle doesn’t exist.
On the other hand Connie Beckman (Denise Cormier) appears to have donned the role of motherhood with a vengeance. Front and center she is a mama bear defending her baby cub and will do whatever she deems necessary to make sure he is safe, regardless of her cub’s wishes. In the opening dialogue between the Beckmans, the playwright establishes that Connie is assertive and confrontational with everyone. Her husband Alan (Bill Phillips) suggests that she must tone down her combativeness if they are to make inroads toward the resolution they desire during this meet up with the Campbells about Kyle’s text to Matthew.
The text “You’re next faggot,” is opaque. Apparently, neither teenager is discussing with their parents what “next” means, who provoked whom, why Matthew is a “faggot,” in Kyle’s eyes, even what Kyle means by “faggot.” Somehow, the vital import of the text is lost in all of the wrangling about Kyle’s punishment and whether this is just a matter of “boys will be boys” shenanigans.
Connie Beckman has not informed Matthew of the visit, not wanting to antagonize her son whom she infers would be furious if he knew. Overshadowing the discussion is the Beckman’s intention to convince the Campbells that the two sons should not be allowed to confront each other again, because the text, from their perspective, is a dangerous threat.
To deflect what happened, Kyle has offered to apologize, though we learn later this does not “come from the heart.” Additionally, Kyle has received a suspension from the principal and it is hoped that the parties involved have made up and all is well. On his part Matthew apparently feels to deal with the event on his own. Like Kyle, Matthew is deflecting and hiding what occurred from his parents, keeping it as a secret between himself and Kyle.
The Campbells and Beckmans do not have open communication with their sons so that the teenagers feel they can discuss ANYTHING with them or even ask for the help that they need. In fact the only reason why the parents became involved is because Connie broke the privacy rules with her son and checked his phone text messages, then went to the principal. Her actions from a teenagers’ perspective identify her as an over-protective mother who is exacerbating the problem when it should be left between Kyle and Matthew to resolve. Certainly, the Campbells both feel that if Connie had not forced the issue, nothing further would have happened and their sons would be “OK.”
We learn later, the situation is more complicated than both families imagine. The teenagers are duping the parents and principal. Lip service has been given, but the truth has been obfuscated and no one wants to look for it, not even the teenage boys who are unable to deal with their own personal feelings on a rational level to make themselves understood to themselves, let alone others.
Initially, McKeever doesn’t focus on the lack of communication between parents and sons. It only manifests as a reveal by the conclusion of the play. The irony is that the parents don’t see this elephant in the room either. Both couples are on the defensive and willing to blame “the other side,” as opposed to coming to terms with the fact that they do not communicate with their children on the deepest level possible to understand what the text means. Allowed to continue, both sons’ isolation and reluctance to speak to their parents may result in an escalation of events between Kyle and Matthew.
That their blindness about their children belies a flaw within the parents’ psyches gradually becomes apparent. Indeed, the incident between Kyle and Matthew explodes the arrogance each mother has about her ability to parent her child. It also explodes the stereotypic masculine tropes the fathers may embrace since their sons did not feel comfortable enough to discuss the underlying situation with them either. The walls that divide the sons from their parents, and the spouses from each other only expand as the couples attempt to come to a satisfying conclusion, an impossibility as long as the blindness and alienation remains.
The Beckmans argue that the text is a threat, that it is serious and should be dealt with not only by a suspension but by Kyle’s expulsion from the private school which abstains from taking such extreme action for monetary reasons. To illustrate the point that the texting threat is severe and perception means everything, Alan frightens all in the room with a rifle he takes from the living room wall mounting. Though he proves his point about the nature of a perceived threats’ power, it falls on the Campbell’s deaf ears. Tate Campbell believes that the text is just BS. He minimizes his son’s behavior as does Julia Campbell and both agree if Connie had not taken the text to the principal, Kyle and Matthew would have forgotten about the situation.
As the arc of the play’s development expands and intensifies, revelations about the couples become manifest. In the “During” segment of the play, the circumstances between Julia and Connie appear to improve after Julia shares her difficulties becoming pregnant with Kyle. Both women apologize to each other. Nevertheless, Kyle’s resentment at being suspended and Matthew’s fear about facing Kyle in school have not been dealt with adequately. Neither son expresses his emotions to his parents. The situation explodes with disastrous consequences and at the end of the segment of “During,” a catastrophe occurs which is elucidated in the last segment of the play with irony.
This is a riveting, powerful and timely production. The greatness of the play in its themes, conflicts and revelation of the importance of communication among family members is evident from the outset. The adroit actors carry the tension throughout. Indeed, each actor hits the ball out of the park so that no one character “dominates” the other which would ruin the dynamic and theme that all have a responsibility in the events. This is ensemble work at its best, its most alive.
Brancato’s direction paces the suspense toward the tragic and uplifting conclusion. And the production values sustain this presentation making for vibrant, “in-the- moment” theater that resonates for us, as thrilling theater should.
With McKeever’s examination of such a situation, we hope to learn from the mistakes of these two families. As the playwright implies, channels of communication must be open. Judgmental, value-laden condemnation should not be the focal point of a parent-child relationship. Ironically, over-protection can damage as can permissiveness and laissez faire parenting styles. However, with teenagers, it is impossible to second guess them. They may damn well do as they please. What then? The parents must deal with what comes “after.”
Kudos to the artistic creatives for their efforts which enhance the production’s themes and provide a supportive milieu for the actors to exercise their craft to perfection. These include Gregory Gale (Costume Designer), William Neal (Original Music/Sound Designer), Brian Prather (Scenic Designer), Martin E. Vreeland (Lighting Designer), Buffy Cardoza (Properties Designer), Max Silverman (Associate Sound Designer).
After is being presented by Penguin Rep Theatre and Inproximity Theatre Company in their New York City Premiere. The production runs 90 minutes with no intermission at 59E59 Theaters (59E59th Street between Madison and Lexington Ave.) until 14 April. To purchase tickets you may go to the website by CLICKING HERE.
If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a Muhfuka is a genre hybrid (comedy, musical, fantasy) that boasts sterling music, fine choreography and movement, and elements of the fantastic and supernatural all in the service of monolithic themes and blockbuster issues that woman have been grappling with for centuries, regardless of race or culture. In this world premiere written by Tori Sampson and directed by Leah C. Gardiner, the playwright focuses on cultural folkways of beauty as a blessing and a curse for the one who is beautiful and also for those who are the “un-beautiful” or average looking. Caveat, there are no “ugly” women or men in the play. However, when one is “the most beautiful of all,” everyone else is ugly.
Every culture has it beauty standards. However, ideals promoted in advertising, the diet industry, the fashion industry, etc., create the values of appearance fascism that render mirrors and scales the vehicles of anathema and self-excoriation for young and old women of every culture. The beauty myth is not a myth but a very real stigma that women must conquer during their lives. Unless the strength of a woman’s soul is built up, self recriminations about appearance fostered by the cultural beauty police (in fashion, advertising, etc.) greatly influence all aspects of womanhood, education, career, and can impact the friends a woman has, who she marries, the society she is accepted in and her ability to float on the currents of lifestyle both virtual and live.
The playwright makes the subject of beauty and the issues it raises front and center the first five minutes of this fanciful/magical-realism styled production with her protagonist Akim (Nike Uche Kadri) who is beautiful and thin and who the girls in her social strata resent because they do not look “as good as she.” The casting for the production is genius because all of the girls are adorable and in fact, the rival of the protagonist could be said to be more attractive, depending upon one’s subjective opinion.
The arc of the plot development revolves around the interactions of Akim with her ultra protective father (Jason Bowen), her beauty encouraging mother (Maechi Aharanwa) and her school mates who front off on being her friends to entrap and destroy her. These include Massassi (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), Adama (Mirirai Sithole) and Kaya (Phumzile Sitole). Thrown in to escalate the conflict is the romantic interest Kasim (Leland Fowler) who Massassi and Akim fight over. Rotimi Agbabiaka portrays the Chorus as he narrates and guides the action.
Sampson’s protagonist who has been sheltered by her parents and especially her Dad because he fears her beauty will bring trouble upon her, has few social guideposts to help her recognize those who are truly friendly and those who are plotting against her. Thus, as a series of events unfolds, she is blind to the wickedness of Massassi who instigates her friends to drown Akim in the river. Massassi is motivated by jealousy, insecurity and fear that Akim’s beauty will steal Kasim from her. She reasons if Akim is dead, she will free the world and herself of the daily torment and misery she experiences because Akim exists. Like the witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, who attempts to kill Snow White, Massassi must eliminate her competition to end her suffering.
The notion that beauty standards provoke evil and harm when women focus on their outer appearance to the exclusion of everything else is an unshakable cultural phenomenon. Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia exemplify this harm; the obsession with plastic surgery and appearing youthful, undergoing physical mutilation to leave a good looking corpse at the end of life has become a fantastical reality that all women confront and succumb to or rebel against. One of Simpson’s themes in the play suggests that when individuals so concerned with appearance ignore the very reality of the soul and value of human beings, life itself and the appreciation of life’s wonders dissolve. The person becomes a vapid and empty non-person blown about by the next cultural trend or “beauty” style.
Paramount in the production is the theme that life is more than external appearances. The wholeness of life encompasses the soul, spiritual rebirth and regeneration away and apart from cultural mores that command women adhere to rigid appearance fascism. In a symbolic musical dance number, Simpson suggests the importance of spirituality to every individual when Akim undergoes a spiritual resurrection that lifts her soul beyond the attention of the physical, empirical world. The true realm of life is not the empirical, material world which one sees with the eyes but what one apprehends in one’s spirit, the invisible world of the supernatural.
With Akim’s transformation, Simpson clarifies that only spiritual regeneration can fill the emptiness and underlying void that attention to external beauty cannot fulfill. And indeed, by the end of the play, we see that encouragement to develop inner self-love and confidence obviates Massassi’s hellish, obsessive torment for not measuring up to the culture’s appearance fascism. Instead, she defines her own standards of beauty and internalizes them, focusing on her true self.
The production raises intriguing questions about how each of us negotiates cultural folkways that can be destructive if we internalize them and punish ourselves for “falling short.” The themes are powerful and varied. The arc of the play’s development moves from realism to mysticism which may be confusing to some. The conclusion ends with a construct that “all is a dream.” Yes, this is contrived, but Massassi’s dialogue brings the themes and the story together. Indeed, this play is about ideas and human archetypes. I appreciate the playwright’s intent and know the themes to be vital ones.
One caveat about performances. The finest portrayals were by the actors who slowed down, projected and didn’t allow “accents” to get in the way of the playwright’s wonderful meaning. The words are key, the dialogue is king. The audience must understand every word the actors project. This was sadly not the case in this production where the tongues sometimes tripped over the accents garbling the dialogue.
Kudos to the creative artists responsible for scenic design (Louisa Thompson), lighting design (Matt Frey), costume design (Dede Ayite) and original music and sound design (Ian Sot). Without their shining efforts, the production would have been a drab mess. Musicians Rona Siddiqui on percussion and keyboard, and Erikka Walsh on percussion and base were fantastic. Special kudos to choreographer Raja Feather Kelly whose symbolic dance numbers superbly conveyed the playwright’s themes and solidified them. Leah C. Gardiner’s excellent staging brought together the various elements to ingeniously effect this production and make it memorable.
If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a Muhfucka runs with no intermission at Playwrights Horizons (42nd Street between 9th and 10th) in an extension until 5 April. For tickets on their website CLICK HERE.
Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark at the Pershing Square Signature Center is a comical/tragic study in black Hollywood’s greats that few recognize because the racism and oppression in the nation was also reflected in Hollywood institutions. Nottage follows the career of black actress Vera Stark across seven decades and examines how she fared while the roles for black women remained static as maids, servants, slaves and menials. The setting is Hollywood, but the time shifts from 1933 (film studio and apartment) to 1973 on Brad Donovan’s Hollywood TV show and 2003 during a Hollywood film colloquium.
We are first introduced to the incomparable Vera Stark (Jessica Frances Dukes) in the 1930s when she is young, beautiful, vibrant and naive about launching her career in the movies. Working as a maid for “America’s little sweetie pie” Gloria Mitchell (Jenni Barber), Vera creates her own opportunities and lands the prized role as a maid in a picture starring two of her friends and Gloria Mitchell called The Belle of New Orleans.
Nottage’s characterization of Vera Stark reveals the actor’s assiduous work ethic, her dogged ambition and supreme cleverness at jiving the system and environment she is in. She negotiates helping Gloria Mitchell with everything from her image and wearing the right clothes, to reading lines with her for the audition that Gloria needs to get a plum part which will strengthen her career. It is this audition that Vera hopes to also parlay into a role for herself to eventually rise up the ladder of stardom.
Act I is filled with humor that indicates the sub rosa black culture’s fronting and milking the stereotypes whites have of them behind their backs. Joined by her friend Lottie McBride (the fine Heather Alicia Simms) who also has come to Hollywood and has eaten herself out of house and home to play a mammy slave part to no avail, their playfulness and criticism of their circumstances indicates they are survivors and will hang on until they achieve what they want, though the roles available to them are as slaves, maids and servants.
We meet another “high yellow” black actress Anna Mae Simpkins (the funny Carra Patterson) a quasi friend who is looking to advance herself by dating various directors and other filmmakers and passing herself off as a Brazilian. The interactions between the women and a foreign director are beyond hysterical, and Nottage has fun with turning assumptions about blacks on their head. When the director assumes that all blacks come from a slave background, Vera and Lottie act the parts of the oppressed for him with hysterical precision mugging the stereotypes, convincing the director to give them parts in his film.
Act I presents the backstory of these four women before they achieve artistic greatness in the film The Belle of New Orleans which all of them are cast in. The beauty of this production is how Nottage chronicles the development of Vera Stark. So we actually get to see the film in black and white. And all of the actresses are superb, placed into the film’s reality. On stage and in real life, these women, Lottie, Gloria, Anna Mae and Vera are “larger than life.” However, on film the actresses give the roles they play a resonance and authenticity. We understand why and how (based on the last moments of the film), the film is a great and iconic one in the annals of film history and often the subject of film colloquiums.
After the screening of The Belle of New Orleans, Herb Forrester (Warner Miller) steps out from the curtain and we realize that he has just shown the film at a colloquium in Hollywood. As Forrester proceeds, we hear a disposition about Vera Stark’s identity as a black actress and how she was able to make a life and career for herself despite the demeaning roles black men and women played as slaves, helpers, servants, chauffeurs, etc., reflecting the culture at large. Joined by Carmen Levy-Green (Heather Alicia Simms) and Afua Assata Ejobo (Carra Patterson) we are struck by the cultural ironies as these heady intellectuals play the elites while they dissect Vera Stark and cast her “blackness” in philosophical racial identities that Nottage turns into hysterical objectifications.
The humor as the two women argue about Vera Stark’s identity, gender and racial politics with Forrester, who appears to deal with them in all his glorious paternalism, is just great. Act II brings all the tropes together and the liveliness of the conflict between the black male and the two female guests is superbly done.
Even more superb is the flashback to a tape of the afternoon talk show (a la Merv Griffin style) that stars host Brad Donovan with guest, the great black actress Vera Stark. Forrester plays the taped interview with Vera Stark to reveal what happened to her after she had her Hollywood career that never advanced beyond the cultural stereotypes and roles that the white paternalistic studio heads created for her.
In this taped session which we see live, Jessica Frances Dukes appears more like a version of every starlet who faded irretrievably into old age and alcoholism and speaks with a wobbly voice rather like Katherine Hepburn’s. Every moment of the taping, the diva, Vera Stark is “on.” She sings a bit and entertains with humor another guest, Peter Rhys-Davies (Manoel Felciano). All goes swimmingly as Vera gets drunker and drunker until surprise! Donovan trots out Gloria Mitchell so the women have a reunion to discuss The Belle of New Orleans. The difference between how Vera Stark has aged and how Gloria Mitchell has aged is striking and revelatory. Gloria Mitchell who had a career, and the substantial money to take care of her body looks the same. Vera Stark, who has allowed the excesses of alcohol and demeaning parts to overtake her soul, has aged and appears to be a tragic figure.
This is a subtle devastation which the host doesn’t appear to “get,” but which Vera Stark finally does. And in an epiphany she relates that she is still enslaved to a role she played decades ago. Now, once again, she must confront Gloria Mitchell and the role of Tilly, though she has gone on to do other parts during her career she perceived she made for herself. Only with this final confrontation, Vera realizes she has allowed the culture to dupe her. And she vows, it is for the last time. Dukes’ Vera is fabulous in this section and the ensemble fields her beautifully.
How Nottage concludes the third segment with Forrester, Levy Green and Ejobo continuing to disagree with each other’s dialectic about Vera Stark is both humorous and sardonic. For they have completely missed the point which we clearly have seen in the segments. Vera Stark was morphed by the circumstances of Hollywood. The rumors of how she ended her life are even more ironic as we listen to the elites discuss a woman they knew very little about. Then Nottage in the last few minutes configures another fabulous revelation that is poignant and beautiful. You will just have to see this wonderful production to appreciate it for yourself.
By the way, Meet Vera Stark runs with one intermission until 10th of March at the Pershing Square Signature Center. You can pick up tickets by CLICKING HERE.
Artistic Creatives: Clint Ramos (Scenic Design) Dede M. Ayite (Costume Design) Matt Frey (Lighting Design) Mikaal Sulaiman (Sound Design) KAtherine Freer (Projetion Design) Daniel Kluger (Composer) Mia Neal (Hair and Wig Design)
Dramaturgs are most probably familiar with the tribulations of the 1981 version of Merrily We Roll Along, book by George Furth, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, produced by Harold Prince. The musical, based on the titular play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart essentially extols youthful ambitions and artistic dreams which may become subverted by practical considerations once success and financial security are achieved. The original Furth/Sondheim musical lacked measured focus but was noted by some for its wonderful score. Though the show closed after more previews than performances, it was nominated for awards and won two.
The concepts highlighted by Sondheim’s music and lyrics are timeless and made especially so in their reworked version of Merrily We Roll Along (1994) which grounds the adapted iteration presented by Roundabout and engendered by the sterling efforts of Fiasco Theater. From the superlative, exciting performances by a “gang of six” headed up by the three principals, Jessie Austrian, Manu Narayan and Ben Steinfeld and directed with precision and adroit sensitivity by Noah Brody, this thematically poignant production resoundingly works (rare praise coming from a lukewarm Sondheim fan). I found the energetic pace, incredible plot structure and imaginative set design that paid tribute to theaters of the past (and Sondheim’s work) delightful and funny. Altogether, the artistic design, staging, costumes, sound design, and the ensemble’s superlative acting and singing unfold seamlessly in the service of uniquely structured storytelling that many should appreciate.
Certainly, the sheer number of theatrical props on library bookself-style floor to ceiling walls covering three sides of the stage intrigue. The props, haphazardly arranged appear akin to a “behind-the-scenes” look into symbolic take-aways of the characters’ lives. The theatrical design and tropes provide a fascinating backdrop to the action, the arc of which spins linchpin events in a reverse chronology from 1980 to 1957. It is a period of time which encompasses seven transitions to the precipitating incident when the three protagonists (Mary-Jessie Austrian, Charley-Manu Narayan, Frank-Ben Steinfeld) first meet on a rooftop that turns out to hold a lasting symbolism for them. The flashbacks to crucial years, highlight the melds and fractures of these immensely talented individuals whose dreams, personalities and synergies help to solidify an artistic fount of creativity. It is from this fountain of creativity and their interlocking aspirations that their successes spring forth.
However, without their symbiotic energies weaving and flowing together, the fountain dries up. As we follow the events backward in time, we note the progression and conclude that the waters that once revived them dissipated as did the joy, hope and vibrance of creative, encouraging friendship. It is this that Frank remembers at the outset of the play and which is the initiating incident of all the scenes that flow back into the past. We shadow Frank as he relives and remembers key times and places that led to his separation from his friends. The three when we meet them in 1980 are successful and rest on their laurels. However, their greatness which is embedded in their friendship with each other is behind them. It is this tri-parte greatness that Frank (the excellent Ben Steinfeld) seeks in the beginning of Merrily We Roll Along.
And it is this greatness that Frank understands he has lost in an epiphany at the conclusion of the extended flashback which switches back into the present. He knows when his friendship ended with Mary (Austrian is absolutely wonderful) and Charley (Narayan brings down the house with “Franklin Shepard, Inc.”), that he lost the best part of himself. Whether he makes a determined effort to rekindle his relationship with Mary and Charley to recapture what they had is uncertain and sadly, not even alluded to as the lights dim.
The play’s structure as we chronicle the journey back to their first sparks of friendship is revelatory. When we witness the older individuals and their various partners at the outset of the play, these successful people are “played out,” grossly unspectacular and unoriginal. We do not relate to them, and feel disengaged from Frank’s “matter-of-fact” attitude as he sings “Rich and Happy.” But the song belies the truth and he and others question how they arrived at their aggressive and truly unhappy, unfulfilled state. There is a “movie-like” rewind (a transition which segues into the past), and the characters get to experience what most of us don’t get to see: the pivotal events that cause them to be where they are, when they don’t wish to be there at all.
In the brilliance of the play’s structure we chronicle Frank’s and the other’s flashback to the greatness they lost with various songs (“Like It Was,” “Franklin Shephard, Inc.”, “Old Friends,” “Growing Up,” through to “Our Time”). With the songs and transitional refrain (“Merrily We Roll Along”) taking us to their former times, the characters fill out and become personable individuals with whom we readily identify. Because of the ensemble’s acting skills and the director’s attention to detail, we joy to their humanity and feel ebullient with them, witnessing how they “made it.” However, we realize there is a caveat: success is another type of failure if one allows it to overthrow priorities and values that are based in goodness.
When we finally witness Mary’s, Frank’s and Charley’s serendipitous meet up on the rooftop when they solidify an uncanny unity, we make the connection to their twenty years later selves. Yes, years later they have “grown up.” But they have sacrificed, not their youthfulness, but their hope. They’ve lost the eternal innocence that initially ignited their artistic ambitions and happiness when they “found” each other.
It was this eternal innocence that synergistically drove them, encouraged them, sustained them through the “hard” years before they achieved success. However, after each becomes successful in their own right, they allowed their friendship to be sacrificed on the altar of celebrity. Their triumph is hollow, their latter-day efforts are uninspired. It is an incredible irony that in “the seeking” is the fun and adventure. With success comes another myriad of torments. And without your friends to hear you out and go through the miseries with you, it is especially painful. So it is for Mary, Charley and Frank.
To round out the acting “gang of six” are Brittany Bradford who portrays Beth, Meg and K.T. Her “Not a Day Goes By,” is just great in its emotional power and resonance. Paul L. Coffey and Emily Young are excellent as foils to each other portraying the producer, husband, actress, divorced and devolved. Carefully they authenticate the specifics of these individuals that confound Mary’s, Charley’s and Frank’s friendships with each other.
Coffey’s upward development of Joe from failed producer to top of the world success is great (rewinding from the present to the past). Young’s upward development of neophyte actress and wife, who throws over Joe for Frank is excellent. The ebb and flow of success and failure in the marriages and relationships between Frank, Beth, Gussie, Joe characterizes the show business life. Meanwhile, Charley and Mary manage to hang on to their steady state (though Mary never marries). The contrast between the two groups is fascinating. It is clear how the demands of the producing/acting/songwriting lifestyles overthrow stability as these characters swim and tread water in an ever-changing sea of transitions.
Fiasco Theater’s re-imagining of Merrily We Roll Along is sharp, engaging, humorous, heartbreaking. The themes of friendship, regret and loss examined using flashbacks are clearly drawn through the music which is dynamic and exceptional. Sondheim touched upon the ineffability of friendship’s innocence and beauty and used that to drive the show forward into the remembrances of the past. The transitions beginning with the “Big Rewind” are excellent as the “gang of six” “rolls merrily along further into the convoluted turning points that got them to where they are decades later.
Some numbers are riotous, for example Austrian’s transformation into her thinner, unalcoholic self. Her vomiting up the booze “in the rewind” is super smart and hilarious. “Bobby and Jackie and Jack,” a song Charley, Beth, Frank and Mary perform at the Downtown Club is fun, and nostalgic for those who remember the Kennedys. The excitement of “It’s a Hit!” sung by Joe, Charley, Frank, Mary and Beth when their show is a success is exuberant and effervescent. And “Old Friends” is just spectacular. emotional and stirring. It is the kindling of the show’s fiery brightness.
Most importantly, the cast authentically, magnetically fulfills in their various portrayals what Sondheim and Furth wanted to express: themes about friendship gained and lost, the synergies of creativity, the wonder of manifesting the creative process, and the corruptions that undermine the best of one’s self, for example prizing financial gain above all else.
The production is complex and rich. It should be seen, especially if you saw another version of Merrily We Roll Along. Fiasco Theater’s smashing adaptation is not to be missed. And if you didn’t see an earlier version, be happily enthralled while enjoying the depth of this production which is a clever, profoundly poignant “every-person” memoir of gaining and losing oneself. Finally, the work is a paean to friendship which in this show starts in the forever and ends up with protagonist Frank and the others staring into the abyss of regret. Is there a warning here in the “Age of Trumpism?”
Special Kudos to all creatives and The Band: Conductor/Piano-Emily Whitaker and these musicians: Giuseppe Fusco, Ansy Francois, Jeremy Miloszewicz, Jami Dauber, Hidayat Honari, Matt Aronoff, Janna Graham. Music Coordinator: Meg Zervoulis; Music Preparation: Conor Keelan.
Merrily We Roll Along runs without an intermission at the Laura Pels Theatre, Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre (111 West 46th Street) until 7 April. You can purchase tickets at (212) 392-6308 or at their website by clicking HERE.
Without bringing it square and center in his latest work The Neurology of the Soul, a must-see currently at A.R.T., playwright Edward Einhorn thematically relays what Tom Stoppard focused on in his work about neuroscience’s inability to deal with consciousness in The Hard Problem. Indeed, in The Neurology of the Soul Einhorn’s presents a neuroscientist’s search to empirically measure consciousness (love) with brain scans. Einhorn also directs this exceptional play which delivers humor, boundless verve and exciting ideas that on closer inspection are concerning.
Why are neuroscientists, marketers and art gallery owners (representatives of whom Einhorn acquaints us with in the play) assiduously and feverishly working to find the next great “discovery?” The profit motive in all of its sinister, opaque, nullifying effects which bind us to cultural norms that are often destructive to our souls. With an intriguing backdrop linking neuroscience, art, marketing/branding and human relationships, Einhorn raises questions about ethics and justice in his beautifully constructed, dynamic and mind-blowing work.
This is Einhorn’s newest play and it is as trenchant as much of his earlier work, perhaps even more so. For by identifying a loving couple’s relationship in the petri dish of our time, then agitating it with other individuals and circumstances, he explores the hideaway crevasses of the human spirit and soul. And he reveals how ultimately, consciousness and feelings of love are beyond the kin of empiricism (quantifiable, material data production) which science clings to with ferocity and an almost paranoid, discriminatory blindness. His exploration is at once humorous and frightening, if one considers the implications of what the art world, marketing and neuroscientists may intend. Each have their own siren songs which Einhorn gently presents to allow us to form our own conclusions. And even if the results are unsettling and uncertain, indeed the considerations are limitless and fascinating. Above all, his play alerts us to be on guard.
Stephen (a superbly developed performance by Matthew Trumbull) a cognitive neuroscientist, works for a university as a researcher. He is obsessed with attempting to chart consciousness, specifically the emotions of love. He is using brain scans (fMRI) to do so. That he employs his wife Amy (Ashley Griffin is equally brilliant in the give and take with Trumbull) as his research subject to gauge her reactions and brain responses to his expressions of love, appears sweet. On deeper inspection, Matthew’s Stephen remains removed and aloof as a researcher in the lab. And hearing his “matter-of-fact” atonal love expressions is humorous. It is antithetical to any expression of emotional love and desire which might arise during the normal course of two people interacting in a more intimate setting. (How Einhorn evolves this character and shepherds Trumbull’s adroit, incisive acting skills to bring him to surprising emotionalism is fabulous! Bravo to both!)
Amy, a “failed” artist who signs on for the experiment, for she, too, wants to see how “love” lights up her brain, at the outset appears to be the more sensitive of the two. As Stephen gauges her responses, Amy speaks her feelings and thoughts to the audience and engages us as her confidante. She remains the impassive subject on a research table. We and Stephen can view her on a television screen and Stephen charts her brain responses. Nevertheless, she is two people: the interior and the exterior. For during the scene, when Stephen speaks love phrases to her, Amy’s interior feelings (which she relates to us) and thoughts are very active. Indeed, they are not about him or her love for him, but about the process of being “a subject.”
Einhorn’s having Amy speak to the audience is intriguing. Is this foreshadowing how from the outset, the scientific mapping is not only primitive, but is most probably heading in the direction of a complete disconnect? Einhorn surreptitiously sneaks in through Amy’s address/aside to the the audience (a dramatic technique with more than a typically Shakespearean purpose) that the human being is not a machine easily measurable. Nor is a human being easily controllable, manipulated, or understood. Her thoughts are unseen to Stephen, but revealed to us as she flashes back to a time when she modeled nude for art classes. This “disconnect,” is at the crux of the play and provides the action that propels it to the climax (when Amy and Stephen “scream” in recognition of their hurt and what they fear they have lost).
Increasingly, during Stephen’s experimentation of charting love, his love relationship with Amy is impacted. The observation of their love strangely changes it, recalling to mind the “observer effect” in Physics; the observation of a situation or phenomenon impacts and changes it.
Immediately, in the next segment Einhorn introduces Mark, the head of a neuromarketing firm who speaks before a “Digital Leadership Convention.” As Mark, Mick O’Brien is frighteningly believable as the narcissist with an overweening ego convinced of his own perfection and the justice of brainwashing people whom he uses for his own agenda. With clips of older TV advertisements, Mark convinces us how facile it is to manipulate consumers to buy product. Mark brilliantly persuades his audience (us) in the direction of using the expertise of his neuromarketing firm for whatever purpose, for example, selling product or something else. As Mark’s selling segments alternate with the research sessions between Amy and Stephen, the inevitable happens. Mark eventually hires Stephen for a lot of money to conduct research for his firm with the quid pro quo that Stephen can continue his research with Amy.
The delicious irony that Einhorn reveals with Mark’s characterization is that Mark “believes” that by employing visual and aural propaganda and brainwashing techniques, consumers are completely pliable and suggestive. That this is a “belief” or “theory” and not a 100% proven fact is lost on him. There is no uncertainty with him. He is convinced of the reality he creates to lure his listeners (Amy, Stephen, us) and himself.
Though Amy does not trust him initially, Stephen and she relocate to an apartment in New York City. Mark persuades Amy to use her brain scans to create art which will be shown in a gallery he co-owns with his former wife Claire (a fine performance by Yvonne Roen as the congenial art dealer who ameliorates Amy’s misgivings and suspicions about Mark). Altruism doesn’t play into Mark’s “concern” for Amy’s talent or artistry. He convinces her she is lucky meeting him and that his is an opportunity she shouldn’t refuse. When she doesn’t, of course, he profits from the exhibition of her work and insinuates himself into her relationship with Stephen. Additionally, her art and herself become a commodity to be branded and marketed. Amy and her art are objectified, but the price for this process of bringing her brain scans (soul?) into art is worth it she believes. The irony is duly noted and we are reminded that promoters and marketers control how art and people rise and fall as trending commodities.
The inevitable affair does not occur between Mark and Amy; though how this doesn’t occur is as complicated and uncertain as the wind. Stephen in the process of measuring Amy’s scans convinces himself that he sees in her scans a diminishing love response. And this he interprets to mean that she is falling out of love with him. Ultimately, there is a separation of living arrangements. With all this scientific measuring, belief, assumption, and second guesses encroach. It is a great irony of this play that the characters reveal how unobjective and unscientific they are in typical human fashion.
Despite the persuasive talents of Mark who is convinced of his own invincibility, Amy’s love is for one man only. Once more our faith is restored in what is unknowable, unscientific and spiritual (love). Amy’s art does receive an uplift; about that, as Claire suggested, Mark’s invincibility appears to be correct.
The Neurology of the Soul startles, thrills and absolutely shimmers with light. The themes Einhorn suggests are heady and profound. To what extent must we question the ethics about neuroscientific information in the employ of unscrupulous “neuromarketers” like representative Mark? If science captivates human beings’ unconscious proclivities with the intention of handing over the data to corporate entities who will then use it to brainwash social groups to consume their products, shouldn’t this be regulated? What if such data is turned over to digital companies to manipulate individuals to vote a certain way or support a certain political group over others? Isn’t this injudicious? Undemocratic? Should scientific ethics be left to scientists to self-regulate or independent panels of retired scientists? How do scientists regulate themselves to prevent abuses?
Science removed from philosophy and ethics and morality because those are quaint historic notions is a dangerous “science”. Such science is akin to its own philosophy and belief system which then could be used to justify anything. Without moral and ethical considerations, primitive neuroscience is still in its infancy. But what happens if certain emotions and consciousnesses can be mapped? As for now, the mind is unknown. Consciousness is a “hard problem.” And emotions like love, as Einhorn shows by the conclusion of his play, are beyond measure.
Einhorn’s The Neurology of the Soul is incredibly prescient and current. Think of social media’s use of memes, tropes, visuals and hot button rhetoric pegged to unconscious impulses to manipulate with disastrous results, especially when social groups are being targeted. Regulation is an imperative. But what happens when corporates and other leading social actors resist regulation for their own ends?
All of these themes and many more Einhorn sweepingly covers in this incredible and memorable work, made more exceptional with the production team’s artistry. All these listed are well shepherded by Einhorn’s direction. Kudos to Jim Boutin (Set Designer); Magnus Pind Bjerre (Video Designer); Ramona Ponce (Costume Designer); Jeff Nash (Lighting Designer); Sadah Espii Proctor (Sound Designer); Tiffany Lee (Asst. Video); Eric Mueller (Neurosales Logo) and all who contributed their efforts.
The Neurology of the Soul runs with no intermission until 2nd of March at A.R.T. (53rd between 10th and 11th). For tickets to this amazing production go to the website: Click Here.
The Price of Thomas Scott, currently at Theatre Row is an interesting period piece which has at its core central issues about conscience, upholding the values one professes to believe in and sacrificing material well being for spiritual health and soul wholeness. Written by Elizabeth Baker (1876-1962) the playwright who hailed from a religious family wrote in the early last century about London’s working classes, shop girls, clerks and the ambitiously upwardly mobile.
In focusing a spotlight on their dreams, foibles and mores, Baker entertains with an eye to unraveling key theses about the human condition. Despite fashion and social folkways, if you transplant her characters in a modern prototypical setting, the results would initially appear vastly different, but the similarities in the characters’ issues would be stark and familiar. The reason why is because the moral, ethical and personal questions her characters confront, are issues we also confront at one time or another, if we have a conscience. There’s the rub!
The setting is the back parlor of Thomas Scott’s Draper’s shop (cloth wholesaler, haberdasher) where daughter Annie Scott (the delightful and winning Emma Geer) and son Leonard (the vibrant Nick LaMedica) discuss their ambitions and dreams, all of which require a large amount of money that their father does not have. The Scotts are part of the declining middle class and the children are strivers. However, Thomas Scott’s business is not doing well because his competitors drive down the prices, and the costs, as always, seem to eat into any profits. In short, Scott wishes to sell his business, retire and go to a beautiful place in Wales, something his wife has been longing for as she is tired of city living.
One factor that we note immediately is that this is a religious family and Mr. Scott (Donald Corren’s portrayal is modulated and has none of the self-righteous tone of the “religious”) upholds his beliefs and encourages his family to attend church and eschew all the latest fads and fashions, even attending theater performances. Though he doesn’t view theater as sinful, actually, he characterizes it as immoral (this gets a laugh from the audience). He suggests he can read the about it and that time and money could be spent better with other pursuits.
After a scene where lodger Johnny Tite (Andrew Fallaize) and his friend Hartley Peters (Josh Goulding) waltz with Annie and her friend May (Ayana Workman), as brother Leonard plays for them, we understand that the young people wish to break away from the repressed culture in which they live. A waltz seems harmless enough. But we realize from the paranoid and hurried way that they rearrange the furniture which they moved to dance, that Mr. Scott would not be pleased to see them carrying on. Apparently, he doesn’t approve of dancing either. The focal point of his life seems to be church, praying, Bible study and singing religious hymns and he encourages his family to follow his upright example which they do to his face with a few lapses behind his back.
The conflict slowly develops. Mr. Scott fears running down his business to bankruptcy. And the only way out for his and his children’s dreams to come true would be to sell. However, no one is interested. And because of the other sales of neighbors’ business it appears he will not get a particularly good price for his shop. The quandray stresses him and his family who understand the stakes and the potential doom if there is no buyer.
When a buyer appears as a recommendation from elsewhere, Mr. Scott is thrilled as is the family. Following the adjurations of his friend to ask for an excellent price, he holds out for a price which would answer all of the desires of the family. Indeed, money answers all things, a Biblical scripture the play does not allude to. The 500 pound settlement would allow him to retire to Wales with his wife, set his son on a fine career path and pay for his daughter’s dream to go to Paris to learn the latest styles and return to London to employ her craft.
However, there is a fly in the ointment which may prevent their dreams from ever being realized. And the huge fly is Mr. Scott’s values and conscience. He is not enamored of the buyer or his trade.
His wife Ellen (the fine Tracy Sallows) respects him as do his children. However, if he allows his conscience to rule over their happiness, then their dreams and his own will turn to ashes. Unless a buyer shows up that he approves of, he may go bankrupt and have to close the shop without any money to forestall their downward economic decline. He is a religious man. He will have to turn to His God and his conscience for his final decision and after that the outcome which will be “good” or “ill.” When in trouble, rely on miracles!
Mr. Scott’s choices and decisions mirror those conundrums faced by every world leader, every businessman, every head of the household who has control of others’ economic well being. If one is ethical and moral, the choices are actually harder. If one is amoral and believes that it is all right to wipe all competitors and settle for an “I win you lose” result, then there is no problem making the decision, but a huge problem with the result especially if the rule of law is in force. On the other hand morality, ethics and conscience create immense problems and crises. Living by one’s own standards stolidly without hypocrisy is the problem especially if there are temptations. And it is especially the problem if one expects others to live by one’s own standards though theirs may be different. Of course if the standards are high moral ones then it should be clear and the individual should be respected for living up to them. But relativity creeps in depending upon the situation and definition of “high moral standards.”
For example racists believe their discrimination is for the common good and a “high moral standard.” Conservative religious individuals believe the LBGTQ crowd are twisted and sick and should be rejected until they are turned to normal heterosexuality. A head of the household believes he must live by his values though it will impoverish his family and take food out of their mouths. These individuals, if they stick to their beliefs unequivocally, are not hypocrites selling their souls to be accepted by others. They have defined their actions as belief and conviction, though their actions would be described in the culture at large as discriminatory and loathsome. In the case of the head of the household, money and family are less important than his/her conscience. Some might argue that this man should not even have a family if he does not properly take care of them. Questions of ethics, morality and following one’s conscience are invariably complex, as playwright Baker intriguingly points out.
Above all the play is fascinating in the questions it asks. The Mr. Scotts of the world who follow conscience to the exclusion of other reasonable considerations are as extreme as the amoralists whose greed and self-dealing may cause death, misery and devastation. Applying Baker’s questions to a current problem today, might be as follows. To fight against corporate hegemony and abuse of other cultures must one eschew all technology because of its inherent slave footprint to not be a hypocrite or amoralist as well? Can one completely eliminate one’s slave footprint and abide in First World country status knowing that other cultures do without allowing us to “do with?” Thus, living in social modernity carried to this absurd conclusion means living as a hypocrite unlike Mr. Thomas or living as a self-dealing amoralist who ignores the ramifications of his behavior.
The Price of Thomas Scott brings to life the ethics and morality of “modern” living in exposing the human condition which is as ancient as “Adam and Eve in the “Garden.” And though the play concludes on an upward note with the next generation “resolving” the issues in a lighthearted way, what they do is “in your face” ironic and rebellious by the standards of Mr. Scott. In that rebellion lays the foundation of a greater crisis of the culture which in a decade or so moves into the excesses of “The Roaring Twenties,” eventual crash and great Depression which was effected as a partial response to the reactionary time of prohibition, religious revivalism and strict morality that Mr. Scott embraces. For every action there is a reaction, especially when ethics, morality, hypocrisy and soul selling are at issue.
The production by The Mint Theater Company gives precise attention to the spectacle of theatrical performance and time period which is as always a pleasure to see from the props to the staging. Kudos to Vicki R. Davis (Sets) Hunter Kaczorowski (Costumes) Christian Deangelis (Lights) Jane Shaw Sound & Musical Arrangements) and others which helped to make this a beautifully rendered production. The hats are magnificent and made me wish for a time beyond weddings and funerals when such hats were in vogue. (not really…just the hats)
Special kudos to the director Jonathan Banks and the cast who deliver a measured and authentic view into the past of how individuals like Mr. Scott and his family made hard decisions and stuck by them without taint of hypocrisy or corruption of their own consciences. Would that current day politicos were more like Mr. Scott who quails at selling his soul for Mammon. (The question in the play is, is that what he really is doing or that he believes he is doing?) In light of our president and the actors who surround him in the administration and influencers in foreign lands, Mr. Scott’s problem with (X) appears quaint. So much more the irony of this play being produced now when the problems of selling one’s soul for betraying a nation and its democratic processes are paramount. Bravo, Mint Theater Company!
Renowned award winning novelist, essayist and short story writer, Patricia Highsmith isolates herself in Switzerland with views of the gorgeous snow-capped Alps glinting beams of light cheerily toward her house. As her desk and old-fashioned typewriter face opposite the window, we understand the writer is not in Switzerland for a pleasant reprieve from the United States which she often excoriated in newspaper articles and editorials.
No! She is there for another purpose. As we hop on the erratic train ride of her mind over the peaks and valleys of Highsmith’s jagged mental state fueled by alcohol, we discover what that purpose is in the Hudson Stage Company production of Switzerland. Highsmith’s goal emerges from the thrust and parry of her cruel, epithetical witticisms directed at guest Edward Ridgeway’s ineffective, mewling arguments.
From the opening of Switzerland (written by Joanna Murray-Smith) as Highsmith fronts off against Edward Ridgeway and continues until the conclusion, their menacing pas de deux fascinates and thrills. Theirs is a standoff that requires no compromise, just “a winner take all” attitude to finish off the opponent. In her inimical and irrevocable way, Highsmith finally triumphs.
Ridgeway (Daniel Petzold’s performance surprises and titillates) has been sent by her publisher who intends for Highsmith (the irascible and cantankerous Peggy J. Scott) to write one more crime novel in the globally successful series about mesmerizing murderer Tom Ripley. Ridgeway employs the typical mundanely unsophisticated patter of an underling sent on an impossible mission to get Highsmith to sign a last contract. Highsmith flays his emotional skin and carves up his pride like a parboiled turkey and dumps the carcass in the toilet as dung. The process is humorous to watch as he sinks further into himself and she blossoms with the sardonic verve of a yellow-jacket wasp tearing at a stink weed flower.
Nevertheless, Ridgeway sustains her sneering barbs about his age, US society and more. He persists and gradually threads together the spot-on phrases and allurements to seduce Highsmith. What initially intrigues Highsmith is that Ridgeway may be psychologically traumatized by the loss of his parents in a car accident. She points out that he must be an orphan for he plays the part of an orphan willing to please. Intrigued and puffed up at her accurate assumptions about him, Highsmith cruelly revels with glee as she penetrates his emotions forcing him to rehash the accident’s how, when and where like a criminal investigator. Her enthusiastic reactions to his morbid retelling are humorous and we become as interested as she about this first appearances milk-toast who seemed to fit in with the furniture until she drew him out.
During the course of Ridgeway’s sojourn into this indelicate persuasion to seduce Highsmith to do what for a decade she has chosen not to, we learn of her noxious views and stances which are racist, anti-semitic, and somewhat homophobic, though she herself is admittedly gay. Joanna Murray-Smith paints this dark portrait of the beloved writer’s underbelly which reflects the truth if one reads her fans’ and detractors’ commentary about her personal life. As Ridgeway continues his persuasion, Highsmith gradually is pulled in and accedes after he suggests plot points for the new work. She takes the bait and they contrive together. He stays the night and the scene converts and heads in a completely different direction in the morning. It is then we realize that up is down, black is white and appearances like books cannot be judged by their covers.
What emerges Murray-Smith cleverly twists into high intrigue. The logic of this turning point is exacting and perfect. And the shock of it is succinctly and boldly enacted by Petzold’s adroit, flexible and admirable acting chops. Scott deftly works in concert holding her own with commensurate power and delight. Confronting this plot switch on a switch with hints of magical realism, Highsmith enters into her glory. Her enthusiasm is boundless once more, as if she has been given a new lease on a life that she had grown weary of in its sameness, inane vanities and boredoms.
Directed by Dan Foster, the staging, the choices of the actors and director in a pacing of revelations shine especially at the beginning and the conclusion of the production. After the “switch” the scenes evolve rapidly. And we are riveted when the music shifts and Petzold’s Ridgeway and Scott’s Highsmith move in a delicious tango with a hints of love and attraction.
There are no spoiler alerts here. You will have to appreciate for yourself the excellent acting and the superb ensemble work of Scott and Petzold who listen, react, nuance and rightly divide their tone to enjoy the fun and humor of the relationship that they create between these characters.
Kudos to the creative team. I thought the music was a particularly fine choice (Garrett Hood is responsible for the Sound Design and Composing). Kudos go to James J. Fenton for his thoughtful set design, to Charlotte Palmer-Lane who creates the Highsmith “look” and Ridgeway’s clothing finesses; and to Andrew Gmoser for apt, suggestive lighting design.
The production in its New York City premiere is a must-see for Highsmith fans and mystery fans. And for those who may have seen a few of Highsmith’s works made into films like the Ripley series, Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock version, 1951) and wacky comedic take-offs like Throw Momma From the Train (Danny DeVito version, 1987), you will appreciate how Murray-Smith generates this fascinating piece which is well-shepherded by Dan Foster and finely rendered by Peggy J. Scott and Daniel Petzold.
Switzerland runs with no intermission (1 hour 30 minutes) at 59E59 Theaters (Fifty-nine East 59th Street) until 3 March. For tickets you may call 59E59 Theaters at 212-753 5959 or go online by CLICKING HERE
Sean O’Casey’s compelling The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), the first play of his Dublin Trilogy, has been selected by the Irish Repertory Theatre as the “send off” to introduce their Sean O’Casey Season which has been running from January 30 and will continue through May 25,2019. The first play of the O’Casey Cycle is presented in repertory along with O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars on the Irish Rep’s main stage (132 West 22nd Street).
The plays of the trilogy take place during three pivotal and violent confrontations between Ireland and the United Kingdom: The Irish War of Independence (January 21, 1919-July 11, 1921); The Irish Civil War (June 1922-May 1923) and The Easter Rising (April 24-29, 1916). These wars led to the Republic of Ireland achieving independence from the United Kingdom. However the tribal wounds and ferocious heartbreak and resentments incurred centuries ago that exploded into these wars and ended in an uncertain peace, still abide to this day.
The Irish Rep has chosen to celebrate its 30th anniversary by featuring O’Casey’s trilogy which chronicles the impact of dire events on the impoverished tenement dwellers of Dublin who were often the casualties of war. Revisiting the plays remains important for our time because as O’Casey highlights the effects of division and internecine hatreds, he raises questions about the nature of freedom, sacrifice, art, nationalism, Republicanism and more. Always in the background is the price average individuals are “willing” to pay to achieve self-governance and negotiate the political power plays of forces, organizations and governments not readily understandable nor controllable.
The Shadow of a Gunman ably and concisely directed by Ciarán O’Reilly to achieve O’Casey’s maximum intended effect has as its setting Dublin during the Irish War of Independence (see dates above). The largely guerilla warfare campaigns encompassed brutal clashes between the IRA (referred to as the Old IRA today) appointed as the enforcers of Irish Independence, and many former British WWI veterans known as the “Black and Tans.” These British military units were “volunteered” by England to safeguard Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. However, their undisciplined and harsh tactics exacerbated the conflicts so that repeated incidents of bloodshed and devastation were wrecked upon Dublin society by the IRA and the British military.
How the innocent tenement dwellers of Dublin suffer for the price of a freedom and economic independence that largely remains beyond them is brilliantly chronicled by O’Casey. And indeed, through the excellent work of the ensemble and shepherding of the fine performances by Ciarán O’Reilly, we experience the ironic tragicomedy of happenstance and the true terror of being caught between two ranging enemies who do not care who is swept up in the brutality or destroyed.
The comedy resides largely in the human interactions of the residents of a rooming house and how they present themselves as they negotiate their own political positions and participation or lack of interest in effecting a free Ireland. One central irony is that they underestimate the danger of the warfare that surrounds them until it is too late. In their naivete they assume that struggling writer and poet Donal Davoren (James Russell in a sensitive, angst-ridden and nuanced portrayal) is a member of the IRA and the titular “gunman” of the play.
Davoren, who has newly arrived to the boarding house and is the roommate of Seumus Shields (the humorous, hapless and unwitting Michael Mellamphy whose cowardice is recognizable and empathetic) is treated with dignity and great respect by the other residents. Minnie Powell (Meg Hennessy renders a feisty, sweet and charming portrait of innocence and bravery) especially finds Donal irresistible for she is enamored of the romantic notions of heroism and courage that gunman fighting for a free Ireland display. Of course, the irony O’Casey delivers in blow after blow by the end of the play dispels everyone’s romantic notions of freedom fighters. And we are reminded that dying for freedom and liberty are propaganda, especially when there is a shortage of brave and courageous souls who are willing to take risks facing off against a loaded gun.
O’Casey presents the issues and themes immediately. He introduces the Everyman’s perspective which many of the renters embrace, particularly Mellamphy’s Shields. And the playwright fronts that view against the poet/philosopher’s pacifist view of Donal Davoren whom the renters believe to be with the IRA. The irony, if followed to its absurd conclusion in O’Casey’s plot, rings with horrific truth, considering the results and follow-through of their beliefs about him.
Meanwhile, discounting their attitudes about, yet slyly thinking to capture Minnie’s heart by saying little, to Shields Donal beats his breast and cries of the miseries and pains of being a poet. He rails against the commoners for whom he creates his art to little effect. Through him O’Casey reveals an ironic addendum. For all the angst and pain artists go through to create the beauties of art and literature, the works may or may not assert a place of importance in the hearts of citizens in a time of war. (Is O’Casey perhaps being sardonic about the importance of his own work through this character’s mewlings?)
Director O’Reilly gives attention to each of these characters. In his rendition of Casey’s work, we understand that they represent symbolic types in the human panoply of characters that manifest the cowardice and hypocrisy of those who inhabit every society in the throes of violent revolutionary change.
All of them reveal in one way or another the flaws that contribute to the tragedy that occurs by the play’s end. For example the kowtowing, gossiping Tommy Owens (Ed Malone in a humorous turn) exemplifies the toady and hypocrite who brings on the trouble. The alcoholic and abusive husband Mr. Grigson screams out his position as an “Orangeman” sympathetic to the opposite side. John Keating manages to be sincere in his drunkenness and hysterical to boot. However, we note another side of him when Mr. Grigson and Shields swap stories of their bravery in the face of the British, who in actuality frighten them out of their wits. Only Donal remains silent and renders himself invisible in the face of terror. Though the lying bravado is typically understandable, it is also cringe-worthy. For men should be stronger, should they not? O’Casey smashes this notion by the play’s end with a resounding exclamation point which this production succeeds in spearing through our hearts and minds.
Terry Donnelly as the long-suffering Mrs. Grigson delivers a superbly heartfelt, broken and poignant portrayal that takes us into a tragedy that we will remember long after the lights come up. Most importantly, the second act thrums with rapid pacing, suspense and “edge-of-your-seat” fear. We empathize with the Dubliners throughout the experience O’Reilly and the company put us through as they moment-to-moment envelop us with the emotion and horror of unfolding events in real time.
This immediacy is a vital element of O’Casey’s work and the ensemble and the production team render it superbly. For it is the terrifying experience that delivers our epiphany of what the historic Dubliners went through and what occupying troops in Syria and Yemen put innocents through today. The civilians are gun fodder for wars they have not willingly signed on for. Surely, they do not anticipate their lives threatened and lifestyles destroyed by both sides of the warring factions on streets and in homes where children once played and all was safe and secure. Surely, they do not choose between the Scylla and Charybdis of becoming an escaping refugee or staying to be numbered among the dead or disappeared. It was so in Ireland, then, it is so in wars that dot our planet and fuel defense manufacturers’ profits today.
As O’Casey reveals most acutely in the action conveyed by the actors, designers and director of this production, this is THE TERROR. And as the characters experience the horror, uncertainty and helplessness in the face of the oppression and tyranny from both sides, we experience it as well. The tragedy becomes that all who are present as witnesses become the accountable participants and they must live with the regrets imprinted on their souls until they are washed away, if ever.
Kudos to all in the acting ensemble who contribute to making this a soul-sonorous production. Kudos to the design team: Charlie Corcoran (scenic), Linda Fisher & David Toser (costume) Michael Gottlieb (lighting) Ryan Rumery & M. Florian Staab (sound) Ryan Rumery (original music).
This is a must-see, especially if you are unfamiliar with Shadow of a Gunman which runs with one intermission. The production is a wonderful introduction to Sean O’Casey and if you have been a forever fan, you will be very pleased. Additionally, the Irish Rep in celebration of the playwright is conducting free readings, symposiums, lectures, film screenings and music exhibitions. For more information on the Sean O’Casey Cycle and for tickets to the Dublin Trilogy, check the website.
The Classic Shakespeare Company is presenting two 19th century plays by August Strindberg in Repertory. The Dance of Death (see my review by “clicking here” in a new version by the award winning Conor McPherson) and Mies Julie in an adaptation by the award winning South African director and playwright Yaël Farber.
Farber has given Strindberg’s Miss Julie a renovation in texture, location, structure and dynamic by intensifying the conflict and shortening the arc of the play’s development. Inherent in this production directed by Shariffa Ali is the force and power to further elucidate the themes about classism, chauvinism, oppression, economic injustice, racism, white supremacy and cyclical revenge with the backdrop of a new setting, South Africa, 2012. Additionally. she has changed the characterization of Christine from Jean’s fiancee to John’s mother, and worldly servant Jean to Xhosa farm worker John, intriguingly characterizing him as one who grew up with Mies Julie on the farm that Julie’s father owns.
Christine has raised Mies Julie alongside her own son when Julie’s mother abandoned her daughter suffering from severe depression. The mother, alienated and isolated from the strangeness of the colonial women with whom she never could feel comfortable, the difficulty of the farming life and her own inner regrets caved in her soul. Without any sense of purpose or the obligation of duty to take care of her own child, she shoots herself and little Julie finds the disastrous ruin of the woman. Mies Julie thinks she is responsible for her mother’s death, but is nurtured by Christine’s love to eventually recover.
Nevertheless, Mies Julie bears the scars of the trauma. And during the course of the play we intuit that her rebellious behavior and impulsiveness suppresses an inner pain as she careens through her life. If not for Christiane’s love and an emotional attachment to Christine’s son John, who protects her and secretly, hopelessly loves her, Mies Julie might follow in her mother’s footsteps. The character of Mies Julie is most similar to Strindberg’s Miss Julie in ethos, however, the fascinating twists of transformation of setting reshape all of her actions and give them additional resonance and thematic richness.
Farber’s adaptation opens in a farmhouse kitchen in Eastern Cape, Karoo, South Africa on Freedom Day, 27 of April 2012, almost 20 years after all South Africans were give the right to vote in 1994. The day is a vital symbol integral to the complex themes of this adaptation. For the blacks of South Africa, the price of freedom was purchased by blood and suffering. The black culture’s redemption and return to the land of their ancestors will also be paid for by blood and suffering in a twisted karmic resolution in Farber’s Mies Julie.
Indeed, ancestors in the form of a ghostly grandmother seek revenge as she haunts the house which was built upon ancestral graves. Although this is not effected in the set design, Christine refers to the great tree which was cut down to make way for the house, but whose roots retained life and now break through the tiles of the floor of the kitchen and continue to grow in defiance of the white, man-made structure. The symbolism of the tree as representational of the Xhosa family which belongs on the land and whose culture can never be erased is a focal point. Unfortunately, without evidence of the tree breaking through the floor (due to the repertory’s need for minimalism) an important theme of Farber’s work is diminished, opaquely realized through Christine’s dialogue which becomes too easily lost in the hum of action.
Farber presents the underlying conflict when the workers on the farm and some squatters who have returned to the land that their ancestors lived on before the colonials came, have been celebrating and dancing on Freedom Day. Mies Julie dances with the workers a bold and inappropriate act. Because her father is away, she rebelliously revels in these liberties which lower her stature and respect in the workers’ eyes. When John attempts to admonish her, we see the emotional tensions between them and realize that the relationship they have developed in many ways runs past master/servant and portends elements of love or sado-masochism or both.
During the course of the production we discover that the South African’s hope is to one day take back the land from the colonials like Julie’s father. They consider this an act of restitution for the terrible bloodshed and misery caused in the years of usurpation which brought about cultural devastation. The economic struggles continue in the present day for the workers like John and Christine must still submit to servitude to survive. Decades of economic injustice and inequality have delayed their accumulation of enough capital to purchase the land that their ancestors lived on centuries ago.
Though John has educated himself and wants the freedom to be able to prosper beyond his “class and race,” he is not the urbane, world traveler of the Jean of Strindberg’s work. And though he has had women, he has loved Mies Julie from childhood. It is this night that erupts in a culmination of many subterranean wants and desires for both Mies Julie and for John. And of course it is this night of freedom that lifts up Mies Julie’s “Afrikaaner race” out from under the degradation and debasement of oppressing the Xhosa.
John and Julie are representative of their race and class. On one level Mies Julie becomes the sacrifice to expiate the “sins” of her forefathers when she chooses to become equal and unite in a physical consummation of love with John. Likewise for John, it is a night where he asserts his privilege to repossess the land (symbolized by Mies Julie’s body) and achieve a lifelong dream to be restored to his true sense of self-worth, identity and power.
The beauty and tragedy of portraying their relationship as Farber does in layer upon layer of intricate psychological and social texture is that we understand before the characters do that perhaps decades need to pass before the destructive social MATRIX in which both live and have their being disintegrates. John comes to this realization sooner than Mies Julie, who is impaled on the immediacy and unreality of wanting an idyllic life with John away from the farm. She intends to run away with him and use her father’s money that she’s stolen from the safe. John cannot trust Mies Julie enough to leave his mother and the stultifying but familiar identity that has oppressed him his entire life. The two are trapped and their end appears to be an inevitability. The time is surely “out of joint.” And only a few options remain for them to take before Julie’s father returns the next day and stasis consumes their lives once more.
In this adaption, Farber presents some of Strindberg’s themes front and center and then embellishes and expands them. Farber suggests the following. In order for the injustices between and among economic classes to ever be resolved, the classes themselves must be dissolved. For all human beings, the trials overcoming the miseries of childhood and the nullifying stricture of social mores, are uneasily won. For outsiders who are economically challenged, the trials are even greater. Only gradually through the passing of the generations will there ever be economic and social parity between and among disparate races and ethnic groups.
Christine knows this. She treasures her job and is willing to abide in her faith believing that for her son’s generation it will be better, but for her generation, it is finished. John wants change immediately and by fathering Mies Julie’s child he will overthrow the status quo, though he risks her father’s wrath. They must leave, for if a baby comes, her father will kill them both.
The harder he and Julie attempt to extricate themselves from the binding circumstances, the more they become mired in fear. It is a truism that they must leave or die. They cannot forge new identities in the same place where old hatreds and resentments float like ghosts above the blood-soaked land. Mies Julie wisely commands that they run away from her father and the farm’s oppression and migrate to a new identity and new existence in the city. But John is stuck. Christine adjures that she will never leave the farm. John must choose. Either he abandons his mother and goes with Mies Julie to freedom, or he remains with Christine in servitude. If there is a baby, all three will die.
Farber’s adaptation presented by the CSC and directed by Shariffa Ali enthralls with strong, emotional performances by James Udon as John, Elise Kibler as Mies Julie and Patrice Johnson-Chavannes as Christine. And when the ghost of the grandmother walks the kitchen, Vinnie Burrows is uncanny and foreboding. Because of her presence, we understand that a fearful retribution is coming, but it remains unclear until the play’s conclusion.
The production runs like a bullet train on a collusion course toward destruction especially in the scenes where Kibler and Udon spar, seek to dominate and control, then relent, succumbing to their tenuous love for each other. Kibler is effective in her smoldering, wild longing. Udon is sensitive and caring as the “fool” for love, then angry and rebellious in believing he is Mies Julie’s plaything. These emotions provide a field for incredible contrasts. On the one hand Julie and John collide with their fear of abandonment and betrayal. Then they fly to each other then fly to reinforce a love perches on the edge of desperation. These tensions and the heightened interplay between Kibler’s Mies Julie and Udon’s John is wrought with ferocious zeal.
A note of warning. Some of the dialect and the accents are muffled and strained. I found that swaths of dialogue were garbled because of an overemphasis to “get the accents right.” I am not referring to the words of Afrikaans or Indigenous words in Xhosa, but the heavily accented English. The accents are vital for they introduce the setting. However, the use remained problematic. When the emotion was presented organically, the dialogue followed and the actors were easily understood.
Finally, the set design was spare and adequate as it should be in this repertory Strindberg cycle. However, the incredible symbolism of the tree should be included as an important thematic thread of the play. The music, the effects, make-up and costumes are apt. When the ghostly presence enters and leaves, all these design elements effect the supernatural wonderfully.
Mies Julie and The Dance of Death alternate in repertory at CSC (13th Street between 3rd and 4th) until 10 March. Mies Julie is a spare 75 minutes with no intermission. You can pick up tickets at their website.
A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt currently at The Acorn Theatre until 3 March is an exceptional play about the value of one’s life and the hope of death when that value is removed. In the final decision to live a life of worth or die if one cannot, lies the honor of realizing one’s life has true purpose. The production by the Fellowship for Performing Arts promotes a superb iteration of Bolt’s work which posits interesting themes about self-worth, the rule of law, political cravenness and acts of conscience.
These heady themes are uplifted in this revival of Bolt’s work which examines Sir Thomas More’s conflict with King Henry VIII over the King’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn. More chose to follow his conscience and not the King’s feverish obsession to gain a male heir by putting away the barren Queen Catherine. When he took a stand that King Henry VIII interpreted as being against him, More knew the grave risks. Yet he held firm in his beliefs, maintaining his purpose and meaning for himself, an action which was used against him to advantage his enemies. Rather than to change his stance and support all the other powerful men who sided with the King, More followed his own conscience, martyring himself. He preferred to be in the afterlife with God, than in a physical existence among men abiding in lies and treason to his soul, a death far greater than any delivered by the executioner’s blow to his neck.
Bolt examines the strength required to abide in the grace of righteous beliefs even if it means dying for it, rather than follow the crowd to stay alive. The playwrite’s brilliant work written in the sixties seems especially trenchant in our times when lying to protect one’s physical life is no longer an art, but a gross and craven reality show in politics. This fine production of A Man for All Seasons seems more resonant than ever.
Bolt most probably took title which originated from an Oxford scholar Robert Whittington who in 1520 wrote, “More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.” Perhaps Whittington may have been inspired by the Biblical scripture, 2 Timothy 4:2 (NKJV) “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching.”
Bolt’s characterization of Sir Thomas More (Michael Countryman maintains a sensitive and thoughtful portrayal throughout) reflects the scripture and Whittington’s commentary. In Countryman’s rendering of More’s traits and interactions with his family, the King and Richard Rich, his foil and enemy, we understand the greatness of More’s mind and character.
Countryman also relays a profound appreciation of More’s humor and social affability. As Countryman presents More’s humility with the King (the effervescent and proud Trent Dawson), even though he disagrees with him we understand More’s sorrow at displeasing a man he loves. We also see the King’s sorrow that More is on a collusion course with the King’s soul. One of them will lose, the other will gain, and at that momentous juncture when the King visits More’s household, the actors and able direction reveal that there is no turning back for either man. It is an excellently rendered moment in the production, one of many that Director Christa Scott-Reed interprets and guides the actors to elicit.
Countryman, David McElswee as Richard Rich, Carolyn McCormick as Lady Alice More, Todd Cerveris as Thomas Cromwell Kim Wong as Meg are the principals who help establish the solid foundation upon which Bolt’s More rests. In various crucial scenes, the actors’ interplay heightens the stakes and pronounces the conundrum that More faces if he chooses conscience over king and loses everything he holds dear in the earthly realm to achieve a finer estate in the heavenly one.
In one particular example, the tension the cast creates when Meg, Lady Alice and Roper (Sean Dugan) tell More to have the pernicious Richard Rich arrested for being evil, we watch amazed as Countryman’s More defends McElwee’s Rich and upholds the law as paramount. Because of their acute sensitivity and the apt direction we understand how More is refining his position on the law to protect his own soul and, as Bolt perhaps wishes, we empathize and put ourselves in More’s shoes. Would we have the strength of character to follow the right and true dictates of our souls? Or would we as his family suggests he do use the law against others injudiciously and damn ourselves? Is such an action to uphold what is most precious important to us? Should it be? Bolt asks these intriguing questions and answers them by highlighting More’s difficult choices.
By the end of the play, McElwee’s Rich has become totally corrupted, rewarded for his betrayal of More by selling his soul for Wales. McElwee’s development from young man teetering on the brink of wickedness to world-hardened, wicked maturity having easily sold out a man he once greatly admired is well delivered. Both actors elicit the contrast between More and Rich beautifully. Rich achieves worldly power climbing from a lowly state upward and More moves in the opposite direction. But only More makes it to glory. Though Richard Rich dies peacefully in his bed unperturbed, unmolested by sending More to his beheading, More down through the centuries is venerated for his courage. He was canonized by the Church in 1935 and in 2000 Pope John Paul II named him “heavenly patron of statesmen and politicians.”
Countryman’s steadfast More, assisted by the ensemble’s excellence becomes especially powerful in the trial scene when More confronts his accusers, McElwee’s Rich, Cerveris’ Cromwell, Archbishop Cranmer (Sean Dugan), his former dear friend The Duke of Norfolk (Kevyn Morrow) and the executioner who also plays The Common Man (Harry Bouvy). Presented with the lies that Rich has told about him, More answers vehemently for his innocence and affirms that his silence about the oath taking is acquiescence under the law which they have misinterpreted because they do not know the law. The scene especially enthralls for we know that as More counters Rich’ lies, the blade will fall. He is as he says, “a dead man.”
Countryman’s More is poignant as he maintains his domination and will when someone questions his surety that he will go to heaven. More’s reply is without fear or doubt, “God will not reject one so cheerful to go to Him.” We believe then that what More has suffered has a higher purpose. Indeed, Countryman’s portrayal of More uplifts with hope and inspires as Bolt most probably intended.
Bolt’s play is given a very fine rendering by The Fellowship for Performing Arts. The ensemble, shepherded by director Christa Scott-Reed depict Bolt’s characters with authenticity and engage us throughout. Countryman’s More comes off as a human saint. How Bolt shapes More’s development rising to glory as the king’s Lord High Chancellor and devolving to infamy as a traitor to kingdom and crown is the genius of the drama. The characterizations of More, his long suffering wife Lady Alice (Carolyn McCormick) and daughter Meg (Kim Wong) are superb and perhaps strongest in the prison scene when they see each other for the last time. As contrasts to the enlightened and saintly More, Richard Rich (McElwee) The Duke of Norfolk (Kevyn Morrow) and Thomas Cromwell (Todd Cerveris) reveal an edgy hardness as the play reaches its conclusion and More is condemned for treason. John Ahlin is exceptional as Cardinal Wolsey and Signor Chapuys. The latter attempts to wrangle with More about supporting Catherine of Aragon’s Queenly fate in Henry’s Kindgom.
The character of The Common Man (excellently played by Harry Bouvy) is absent in some productions of A Man for All Seasons. Bouvy’s portrayal of the lowly roles (Matthew-More’s servant, the executioner, etc.) is one we identify with readily. His pronouncement of the earthly ends of More’s enemies Cranmer, Cromwell, The Duke of Norfolk is ironic. His sardonic humor at relating where Richard Rich ends up for sending a good man to his death is the exclamation point of Bolt’s work. But upon further research (More’s standing in the UK and with the Church as a saint), we note that Sir Thomas More comes off as a hero. On the other hand Richard Rich (hyperbolic name, indeed) comes off as the craven, mendacious coward. One of the strengths of the play and of this production is in the comparison between Rich and Moore. Indeed, Bolt uses Rich as a foil to burnish More’s greatness.
In this social climate of up is down black is white, there are many in power who behave as Richard Rich using clever manipulation, lying and amorality to achieve their desires. Bolt, a professed agnostic, leaves the final judgment about such individuals up to God. In the last analysis without a Richard Rich, would More have been so glorified?
Of late Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall downplays Bolt’s perspectives about More. She establishes the more vilifying and intriguing points about his religious beliefs. In uplifting Catholicism against Lutheran Protestantism which was spreading at the time of the play set in England between 1526-1535, Mantel emphasizes that More employed torture. Additionally, to force heretics to recant their beliefs in Protestantism, he believed in burning heretics who refused to recant. Others have been critical of More. For example, James Wood in his book The Broken Estate, refers to him as “cruel in punishment, evasive in argument, lusty for power, and repressive in politics.”
With controversial individuals like More, the jury is still out. However, with this production, the verdict is a resounding bravo. I especially enjoyed the John Gromada’s selection of music as Composer/Sound Design, and the staging and artistic of the production in its integration of the Scenic Design (Steven C. Kemp), Costume Design (Theresa Squire) and Lighting Design (Aaron Porter).
Man for All Seasons runs with one intermission at the Acorn Theatre (42nd Street between 8th and 9th) and is extended until 3 March. You can purchase tickets to see this fine production of Bolt’s great play at their website by CLICKING HERE.