Category Archives: Off Broadway
From Emilio Sosa’s vibrant costumes to Beowulf Boritt’s impeccable set design (a landscape of roses, luscious, ripe-for-the-plucking peaches on the Georgia peach tree, the luxuriant front lawn, the Georgian-styled, two-story mansion-representative of an orderly, harmonious, idyllic world) this update of Much Ado About Nothing resonates as an abiding Shakespearean classic. Director Kenny Leon’s vision for the comedy with threads of tragedy evokes a one-of-a-kind production with currency and moment. This is especially so as we challenge the noxious onslaught of Trumpism’s war on democratic principles, our constitution and the rule of law.
Directed with a studied reverence for eternal verities, Leon, with the help of his talented ensemble, carve out valuable takeaways. They focus on key elements that gem-like, reflect beauty and truth in Shakespeare’s characterizations, conflicts and themes. By the conclusion of the profound, spectacular evening of delight, of sorrow, and of laughter, we are uplifted. As we walk out into a shadowy Central Park, our minds and hearts have been inspired to shutter fear and cloak our souls against siren calls that would lure us from reason into irrational insentience and hatred.
Kenny Leon has chosen for his setting a wealthy black neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia, whose Lord of the realm, Leonato (Chuck Cooper’s prodigious, comedic and stentorian acting talents are on full display) shows his political persuasion with prominent signs on the front and side of his house that read, “Stacey Abrams 2020.” The impressive “Georgian-style” mansion which could be out of East Egg, the upper class setting of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is ironic with the addition of its advocating support for Abrams.
With this particular set piece, we note Leon’s comment on black progress toward a sustained economic prosperity amidst a backdrop of oppression, if one considers the chicanery that happened during Abrams’ run for the 2018 gubernatorial election. It also is reminiscent of the house of the racist, misogynistic villain of Gatsby, the arrogant, presumptuous Tom Buchannan and other such elites (i.e. wealthy conservatives) who give no thought to destroying “people and things” of the underclasses with their policies. Yet Lord Leonato and his friends and relatives are not turned away from justice and empathy for others. This the director highlights through this Shakespearean update whose characters seek justice and truth and encourage each other to abide in kindness, love and forgiveness.
Leon approaches his vision of justice through love by weaving in songs and music. At the outset Leon incorporates such music with a refrain sung by Beatrice (the inimitable Danielle Brooks):
“Mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying, brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying. You know we’ve got to find a way to bring some lovin’ here today.”
As Beatrice finishes the refrain by asking “What’s happening?” her ensemble of friends which include Hero (Margaret Odette), Margaret (Olivia Washington) and Ursula (Tiffany Denise Hobbs) sing the patriotic ballad “America the Beautiful” as a prayer and inspiration for the country to follow its ideals of “brotherhood from sea to shining sea.” This is not a war-like unction, it a solicitation for peace and goodness. Clearly, the women importune God to “shed His grace” on America. One infers their feeling as an imperative for political and social change hoped for, in a true democracy which can guarantee economic equality and justice.
The arrangement of “America the Beautiful” is lyrical and soulfully harmonious. As the women sing this anointed version they transform the text from hackneyed cliche, long abandoned by politicos and wealthy Federalist Society adherents, and uplift it with profound meaning. They encourage us toward authentically pursuing justice, brotherhood and unity in love and grace, elements which are sorely tried during the central focus of Much Ado About Nothing during Hero’s unjust slander and infamy until she receives vindication.
After the women finish singing, the men march in from the wars. Instead of arms, they carry protest signs decrying hate, uplifting love, proclaiming the right of democracy. Instead of a warlike manner they are calm. The theme of justice and the imperative for political and social brotherhood prayed for in the previous song is reaffirmed as we understand what the “soldiers” are fighting for. In Leon’s genius it is a spiritual warfare, a battle for the soul of American democracy. Leonato appreciates their endeavors and invites them to stay with him for one month to be refreshed and gain strength before they go back out for another skirmish against the forces of darkness.
The music and songs composed by Jason Michael Webb strategically unfold throughout the development of the primary love story between Leonato’s daughter, Hero (the superb Margaret Odette) and family friend Claudio (the excellent Jeremie Harris). And they follow to the conclusion with the funeral and redemption of Hero and her final marriage and dual wedding celebrations with the parallel love story between Beatrice and Benedick. The songs not only illustrate and solidify the themes of love, forgiveness, and the seasons of life, “a time for joy, a time for sorrow,” they unify the friends and family with hope and happiness through dancing and merriment. The melding of the music organically in the various scenes throughout the production is evocative, seamless and just grand.
After the men arrive from their protest, the director cleverly switches gears and the tone moves to one of playful humor and exuberance. With expert comic timing, Brooks’ Beatrice wags about Benedick in a war of sage wits and words. Coleman’s Benedick quips back to her with equal ferocity that belies both potentially have romantic feelings but must circle each other like well-matched competitors enjoying their “war” games as sport. They offer up the perfect foils to a plot their friends later devise using rumor to get Beatrice and Benedick to fall in love with each other in a twisted mix up that is hysterical in its revelations of human pride and ego.
The relationship between Beatrice (the marvelous Danielle Brooks) and Benedick (Grantham Coleman is her equally marvelous suitor and sparring partner) is portrayed with brilliance. The couple serves their delicious comedic fare with great good will and extraordinary fun. Their portrayals provide ballast and drive much of the forward action in the delightful plot events. Danielle Brooks gives a wondrously funny, soulfully witty portrayal. As Benedick, Grantham Coleman is Brooks’ partner in spontaneity, LOL humor, inventiveness and shimmering acuity.
Various interludes in Act I are also a time for male banter about the ladies Hero and Beatrice and the love match with Hero that friend of the family Don Pedro (Billy Eugene Jones) effects for his friend Claudio (Jeremie Harris). The scene between Benedick, Claudio and Don Pedro is superbly wrought with Benedick’s insistence he will remain a bachelor. The audience knows he “doth protest too much” for himself and for Claudio. The pacing of their taunts and jests is expertly rendered. The three actors draw out every bit of humor in Shakespeare’s characterizations.
Into this beauteous garden of delight, exuberance and order creeps the snake Don John (Hubert Point-Du Jour), brother of Don Pedro, and his confidante and friend Conrade (Khiry Walker). Though they support the fight for democracy, Don John is engaged in sub rosa familial warfare. We move from the macrocosm to the microcosm of the human heart which can be a place of extreme wickedness as it is with Don John who quarreled with his brother Don Pedro, his elder and does not forgive him. Don Pedro extended forgiveness and grace to Don John, which Don John feels forced to accept though he is not happy about it. Indeed, he is filled with rancor and seeks revenge, to abuse his brother and anyone near him, if the opportunity presents itself which it does.
The conversation between Conrade and Don John is intriguing for what Shakespeare’s characterizations reveal about the human condition, forgiveness and remorse. Indeed, Don John is reprobate. Whether out of jealousy or the thought that he has done no wrong, he feels bullied to accept his brother’s public forgiveness. The theme “grace bestowed is not grace received unless there is true remorse,” is an important message highlighted by this production through the character of evil Don John who eschews grace. Indeed, extending grace and forgiveness to such individuals is a waste of time. No wonder Don John would rather “be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace.”
Trusting Conrade, Don John admits he is a plain-dealing villain. When he learns of Claudio’s marriage, he plots revenge on Don Pedro by attacking his best friend and smearing Hero’s integrity and fidelity to Claudio. The jealous Claudio is skeptical, but later “proof” during a duplicitous arrangement with an unwitting Margaret, Claudio becomes convinced that Hero is an unfaithful, unchaste philistine.
Claudio’s jealous behavior and immaturity believing Don John turns goodness into another wickedness as evil begets evil. As they stand at the alter Claudio excoriates Hero as an unfit whore to the entire wedding party. Hero, injured unjustly by Don John’s wicked lie and Claudio’s extreme cruelty, collapses. In a classic historical repetition, once again misogyny raises its ugly head and condemns the innocent Hero destroying her once good name. Benedick, the uncanny Friar and Leonato stand with Hero. This key turning point in the production is wrought with great clarity by the actors so that the injustice is believable and it is shocking as injustice always is.
Thankfully, The Friar’s (a fine Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) suggestion to return Hero to grace and redemption in Claudio’s eyes by proclaiming her death to bring her again to a new life is effected with power. Finally, we appreciate a cleric who bestows love not condemnation or a rush to judgment! The emotional tenor of the scene is in perfect balance. Odette and Harris are heartfelt as is Cooper’s Leonato. The scene works in shifting the comedy to tragedy and of uplifting lies believed in as facts with wickedness overcoming love and light. Once again we are reminded that Shakespeare’s greatness is in his timelessness; that if allowed the opportunity for vengeance and evil, humanity will corruptly, wickedly use lies cast as facts to dupe and deceive the gullible, in this case Claudio.
I absolutely adore how the truth comes to light, through the lower classes represented by Dogberry (a hysterical Lateefah Holder) and her assistants who are witnesses to Don John’s accomplices to nefariousness. I also appreciate that all the villains in the work admit their wrongdoing; it is a marvel which doesn’t always occur the higher the ladder of power and ambition one ascends. But this is a comedy with tragic elements, thus, evil is turned to the light and Beatrice and Benedick the principle conveyors of humor are lightening strokes of genius which soothe us to patience until justice arrives right on time.
I also was thrilled to see that the remorseful, apologetic Claudio willingly accepts Hero’s recompense (Leon has Hero dog him in the face) as she unleashes her rage at his unjust treatment. These scenes of redemption and reconciliation ring with authenticity: Cooper, Odette and Harris shine.
The celebrations, masked dance, marriage between Hero and Claudio, Hero’s funeral and the final marriages are staged with exceptional interest and flow; they reveal that each in the ensemble is a key player in the action. The choreography by Camille A. Brown and the fight direction by Thomas Schall are standouts. Kudos also goes to those in the creative team not previously mentioned. Peter Kaczorowski’s gorgeous lighting design conveys romance and subtly of focus during the side scenes; Jessica Paz’s sound design is right on (I heard every word) and Mia Neal for the beautiful wigs, hair and makeup design receives my praise.
Leon’s Much Ado About Nothing is one for the ages. It leaves us with the men doing warfare for the soul of democracy leaving Leonato’s ordered world of right vs. wrong where the right prevails. Once again soldiers fight the good fight and go out to resist and stand against the world of “alternate facts” where chaos, anarchy, and the overthrown rule of law abide (at this point) with impunity. Leon counsels hope and humor; progress does happen, if slowly.
This production’s greatness is in how the director and cast extract immutable themes. These serve as a beacon to guide us through times that “try our souls,” and they encourage us to persist despite the dark impulses of money-driven power dynamics and fascist hegemony that would keep us enthralled.
I saw Much Ado About Nothing in a near downpour then fitful stop and start to continual light rain during which no one in the audience left. Despite this the actors were anointed, phenomenal! I would love to see this work again. I do hope it is recorded somewhere. It’s just wow. The show runs until June 23rd. You may luck out with tickets at their lottery. Go to their website by CLICKING HERE.
If you adore Dame Julie Andrews, you must see the Brits Off Broadway offering in its US Premiere fresh from its sold out runs in the West End and Toronto. Julie Madly Deeply celebrates the iconic performer who is still going strong at 83-years-old. Julie Clare Productions and New Diorama Theatre present this delightful musical cabaret in honor of the Dame. Written and performed by Sarah-Louise Young, directed by and with contributions from Russell Lucas and musical direction by Michael Roulston, who also appears and sings in the production, Julie Madly Deeply reminds us why Julie Andrews is not only a fabulous performer. It also reveals Julie Andrews as a survivor who is the last person to take her life and her career for granted.
Sarah-Louise Young has been a loving fan of Julie Andrews for most of her life. She humorously exposes this with a letter to Andrews she wrote as a child, asking her to be her mum and marry her Dad. After reading the letter, Young affirms that she never lost faith in Andrews emphasizing that this was more than the press could muster.
Young chronicles Andrews’ life in a vibrant, picaresque fashion, emphasizing the salient events in her career. To do this she begins with Andrews’ 2010 London return after her failed throat surgeries, billed as “The Gift of Music-An Evening With Julie Andrews.” The press dunned Andrews, but Young’s encomium to Andrews in this production indicates they were harsh and should have been forgiving considering what Andrews continues to accomplish. (Indeed she has a FB page and posts anecdotes from various Broadway productions, i.e. check out the one about Robert Goulet, Lancelot in Camelot.)
For Andrews, the evening was a tenuous comeback which required great bravery because it was believed that her singing career was finished. Indeed, husband Blake Edwards stated that she would never sing again after the botched throat surgeries. However, Andrews marshaled on and worked on therapies for her throat.
Would Andrews sing as she had before with her four octave range serenading a huge orchestra? No. However, she “talked sang” and Young who had kept the faith was thrilled to have seen her “live.” From this experience Young seques to interactive by asking audience members if they had seen Andrews live. Hands raised and responses were shared; this is an intriguing segment because it is extemporaneous and requires Young to be lightening quick and she shines with witty repartee. After this segment Young with a combination of brief narration and songs from the decade in Andrew’s career she is highlighting, accompanied by Michael Roulston, sings Andrews with a lovely, lyrical style.
Throughout, Young keeps the events and Andrews’ stories moving with comedy bits and snippet impersonations of celebrities, i.e. Liza Minnelli who took over for Julie Andrews in Victor Victoria when she was on vacation, and Audrey Hepburn who comments about being chosen as Eliza Doolittle in the film version of My Fair Lady.
Young’s talents with comedy, singing and movement, keep the production engaging and lively as she lovingly riffs on her favorite icon. She introduces each career milestone in Andrews’ life circling through The Boyfriend, My Fair Lady, Cinderella (television) and Camelot. Interestingly, when Walt Disney offered Andrews the part of Mary Poppins, a film which would take her away from live stage performance, she took it and won an Academy Award.
As Young pinpoints the various films and roles, singing some of the songs completely and others with a few bars, she finalizes Act I with a mention of Andrews’ divorce with Tony Walton. He worked on Mary Poppins with her doing costumes and set design. Then Young closes with a song from Mary Poppins and an interactive with the audience breaking for intermission with a send-off that after the “interval” she will be in the alps.
Act II is vintage Julie Andrews in the film The Sound of Music (1965). Again, Young sings snippets of favored songs and at one point, cleverly invites a sing-along. The audience was eager to oblige! Young’s patter includes quips about Andrews’ co-star Christopher Plummer. The film remains one of the highest grossing films of all times. And Young mentions that there are Julie Andrews sing-a-longs, some with the showing of the film. Indeed, the film is mythic and ironically, it resonates more and more as the uber right wing white supremacists don Nazi outfits and uplift fascism.
Memorable is Young’s segment about Andrews’ love of her second husband Blake Edwards and their work together after their marriage. Young highlights Andrews’ grappling with the limitations of her sunny, sweet image that her fans adored. When she attempted to do serious films i.e. Torn Curtain, The Americanization of Emily and others, her box office smash records evaporated. Her fans couldn’t accept her cross-over to other work and she went through a bumpy period, settling for work in Blake Edwards 10 and as Young humorously points out in S.O.B. a satire in which Andrews twits the idea she is more than a sugary, sweet flower by showing her breasts (tits).
Young sings partials from Victor Victoria (1982) and discusses its adaptation as a successful Broadway production which Julie Andrews performed in 1995 until she had to quit the show in 1997 after vocal problems and a botched surgery.
Throughout, Julie Madly Deeply remains ebullient and informative thanks to Young’s clever working of the material and interspersing the humorous bits with songs and anecdotes which Andrews’ fans will enjoy.
Julie Madly Deeply has one intermission and runs at 59e59 Theaters as a part of their Brits Off Broadway series until 30 June. For tickets and times go to the website by CLICKING HERE.
Round House Theatre production’s Handbagged is an extraordinary evening of history, humor, philosophy, politics, economics, parody and satire. Offering a view of the Thatcher years in the U.K. (1979-1990) until Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stepped down from the leadership of her party, playwright Moira Buffini encapsulates the past. With acute themes, Buffini parallels two disparate views which still hold sway today in the U.K. and in the U.S. These are posited and embodied by Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher. The production is a comedy as the two women go head to head. And it is a poignant reminder of where the world has “progressed” since then.
The evening is rollicking fun. In almost every scene Queen Elizabeth II bests (handbags) Margaret Thatcher with her wit, her grace, her level headedness, her humanity and her decency. And Margaret Thatcher can only be her dour, unsympathetic, unyielding, cruel self, whose watchword “No,” seems to permeate even the rigidness of her tailored suits.
Directed by Indhu Rubasingham, Handbagged is based upon the original production with the same director at the Kiln Theater. As part of the Brits Off Broadway season at 59e59 Theaters, from start to finish, the production engages and delights with its humor and with the fine performances delivered by the ensemble and especially by the “older” versions of the Queen (Anita Carey) and Thatcher (Kate Fahy) whose similitude with their true counterparts appears to be “right-on.”
To chronicle the Thatcher years and Queen Elizabeth’s sub rosa influence during that time, the playwright’s characterizations move in tandem with two actors each, playing the Queen and Margaret Thatcher (young and old). Beth Hylton portrays the young Queen, “Liz,” with posh accent and sweet demeanor. Anita Carey is the older Queen, “Q,” whose quiet stature, edgy wit and motherly probity of today’s Queen Elizabeth reveals an astute wisdom and gently forceful authority.
Both “Queens” deliver quips, undercurrents and subtle chastening to the inflexible, conservative, hard-right, iron lady with smashing, crashing wit and sometimes LOL humor. They do it with such aplomb and timing we appreciate the through-line that Queen Elizabeth II understood who Margaret Thatcher was and held her own with her throughout. In a changing of the Empire to a Commonwealth of Nations, she proved a beacon, though she had no official power or authority. In her shadow, Thatcher held her head high but had to admit defeat when she stepped down in a painful process of changing leadership.
Susan Lynskey delineates the younger Thatcher, “Mags” with smiling, chilling certitude, hot and solid in her determination to change the U.K. for “the better,” according to her perspective and that of her conservative “neoliberal” party that eschewed “socialism” like the plague. Working in tandem with her is the old Thatcher “T” portrayed by Kate Fahy who in a forceful, deliberate, sternly exacting manner reveals why the handle “the iron lady” was used as a noxious epithet and descriptor of praise by detractors and supporters of the ferrous Margaret Thatcher.
Filling in the characterizations of Thatcher’s husband Denis, Prince Philip, President Ronald Regan, Nancy Regan, the Queen’s Footman, and political leaders (Enoch Powell, Michael Heseltine, Arthur Scargill, etc.) are the versatile and very humorous Cody Leroy Wilson and John Lescault. The playwright’s device to break the fourth wall by having Actor 1 and Actor 2 argue about the roles they are playing is humorous. At one juncture “T” demands that Actor 2 not abandon his role of her husband Denis and he argues, “I’m playing several roles…some are thin caricatures but times are hard and it’s a job.”
This “breaking the fourth wall” device elevates the play into the realm of Theatre of the Absurd where the actors comment on the play and their roles. As they break from their roles and portray themselves as actors, we understand that this is still a part of the play; they are portraying the characters as the actors in the play. At one point or another, all of the characters step out of their roles and comment that this play is of their own making or that they don’t want to play the roles they do or are “switching” roles. This break in the play’s chronology of the Thatcher years melds the action, is enlivening and provides the twists that maintain energy throughout.
With regard to The Queen and Thatcher, this “breaking the wall” convention reminds us that the characters, though representative of real individuals, are fictionalized with some basis in truth. Buffini also uses this device to insert humor and to present information of the time period and of individuals that the audience may not know or remember. Actor 1 for example takes the liberties with the script to describe that in the “midst of all that Diana wedding stuff, the whole country was boiling with rage.” Thus, we understand the historical period seamlessly and find the information fascinating.
Overall, Buffini’s infusion of what the dialogue was between the two women constantly intrigues. Importantly, we understand their different roles. Thatcher, propagating her polices under the guise of freedom and democracy (she proclaims this as the elderly “T”) sustains an iron-fisted “control” of the U.K. The difficult times for the country are chronicled: the 1981 IRA bombings and killings, the miner’s strikes, the War in the Falkland Islands, the closing down of the Empire gradually into a Commonwealth of Nations (which the Queen comments on happily), Princess Diana’s wedding to Prince Charles, Reganism, the rise of Rupert Murdock and his amoral, untoward scandal sheets and more.
During various events, ingeniously with subtle conflict between the characters and little exposition, we are reminded of the backstory with just enough information to be able to understand how the two women’s viewpoints and actions diverged. Thatcher obviates the cruelty of her own behavior; Queen Elizabeth II attempts to modify Thatcher’s understanding of her policies and practices, applying a humanity not readily found in Thatcher’s comportment.
Thus, we are appalled when Thatcher destroys the trade unions and boastfully touts her win of the miner’s strike which lasts a year and causes tremendous hardship. With quiet reserve, Queen Elizabeth II asks both “T” and “Mags” if she has ever been down in a coal mine which Queen Elizabeth II has. We walk away from that encounter with the stark view of both women. With eyes open, we note Thatcher’s recalcitrance and blindness to the populace’s suffering, a condition which she blames on them.
In each of her actions, closing coal mines, privatizing public companies, de-regulating financial institutions, refusing sanctions on South African apartheid, Thatcher effects misery and the citizens’ anger and protests. Though “T” and “Liz” do not counsel, they level broadsides at these actions. Indeed, in the Queen’s Christmas message of hope, Thatcher is publicly humiliated as the Queen’s message of Christian love is broadcast.
One of the most humorous segments in the revisiting of the Queen’s and Thatcher’s “relationship” during these years, the playwright examines their bonding with U.S. President Ronald Regan (an effusive, enthusiastic John Lescault) with Cody Leroy Wilson as Nancy Regan. The Regan scenes are hysterical and the relationships of the Regans’ visits with Queen Elizabeth at Windsor and as Thatcher and Regan meet and visit is excellent. That Thatcher and Regan agree in policies and practices (“trickle down economics”) is a pointed reminder of how many of the same policies embraced then took hold in the U.S. and U.K. and should “die a death.” They have not because the wealthy benefit from the destruction of the middle class and policies that feather their own nest (i.e. the destruction of the trade unions, tax breaks, de-regulation).
One of the greatest strengths of Handbagged, in addition to its providing a wonderful evening of entertainment in imagining the relationship between Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher, is in its themes which both women embody. Much of that time period has currency for us today in laying bare the noxiousness and inhumanity of policies of conservatism represented by Thatcherism. These parallel with Trumpism in the U.S. today and faux, fascist populism of the uber right groups which are attempting to take over in the European Union. As the Thatcher government had its rallying cry of “no socialism,” there is the same rallying cry today by Trumpists.
Then and now, these are twisted remnants of the politics of fear to bring about an advancement of corporate greed and hegemony. The elite powerful are those who seek to control, one of the mantras of Thatcher’s commentary that the playwright reinforces. The irony is that the Queen, the richest woman in the U.K., stands against these policies and pushes for equity, remembering the horrors of WW II when the country fought a common enemy. The economic policies that were catastrophic and led to the fall of Thatcherism are present in the Trump administration today. They foment economic inequality, and the economic divide between the haves and have nots. Indeed, when Thatcher left the government, there was jubilation and crowds in the streets celebrated the hope that things would get better. An irony, indeed and one wonders if the same will occur with Trump.
Handbagged is a must-see for its performances, its clever send up of two iconic individuals, its ironies and the historical infusions of vital information with dollops of humor slipped in-between. It is vital in how it reflects and reminds us of the economic and political dynamic that exists today globally. Kudos to the team of creatives and the production team that made this excellent production soar.
Handbagged runs with one 15-minute intermission until 30th of June at 59e59 Theaters on 59th Street between Madison and Park Avenues. For tickets go to their website by CLICKING HERE.
Are we our brother’s/sister’s keepers? There is a scripture that says a person who doesn’t take care of family is worse than an infidel. But do these tenets always apply? And how do we take care of family? Just supply their external needs? Or should we also connect with them on a truthful, soulful level which will nourish and heal frailties?
Pultizer-Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies in his new play Long Lost examines filial relationships, family dynamics and the assumptions and values that despoil love and forgiveness within families. Directed by Daniel Sullivan in a tight framework of fine performances by the actors, the twists in the arc of development reveal the inner trauma and turmoil in some families that often are never resolved. The only hope might be in the next generation where there is the possibility of redemption and love.
David (the ambivalent, deceptive, hypocritical and coolly raging Kelly AuCoin) lives a life of success as a Wall Street consultant who royally supports his socially conscious wife Molly (Annie Parisee gives a mesmerizing performance) who is a philanthropist. Their son Jeremy (Alex Wolff gives a thoughtful, sensitive portrayal) who is going to Brown, enjoys his promising life and is close to his parents whom he is visiting for Christmas recess.
Into this idyllic family situation intrudes the estranged, ne’er-do-well, older brother Billy (the wonderful Lee Tergesen). At the play’s opening, he sits symbolically in the dark waiting for his brother David in his Wall Street office. He is waiting to “say hello,” to reconnect, to redeem himself and more. When David turns on the lights, the last person he expects to see is Billy. AuCoin’s David reacts with shock, annoyance, suspicion, aloofness. These layers of darkness pull back as we note the conversation between the two brothers. There are recriminations; David wants Billy gone; there is no love lost between them, and if there is any empathy it is non-existent.
David unloads on Billy. Apparently, from his self-righteous, exalted position of having helped Billy attempt to overcome and get through his addictions and the destruction they’ve wrought, he has lost patience, and intends to stop any further enabling of his brother. Indeed, at this point, we respect David’s probity, his former magnanimity with Billy and his measured and enviable success.
Not that any time would be a good time for Billy to land on David’s doorstep to be invited into a warm family situation, this is the most inopportune of times, David suggests. It is the night of Molly’s fundraiser, which Billy cannot be invited to as it’s a black tie affair. And Billy eschews the proffered money that Billy usually gets, for example, the last time David heard from him two years ago when he “hit him up” and wired funds. But nothing works to put Billy off and then Billy unloads on David. He is dying and is coming to David and the family for help and support. David has the money, most probably, to rent a studio for Billy, but he will not. Instead, he invites him home.
From the outset we note the differences between the two brothers and wonder if one is a changeling because he is the antithesis of success, happiness and inner tranquility, so unlike David. Apparently, Billy’s addictions unraveled his soul and made him dependent upon David for money, who at one point banished him. Billy’s behaviors landed him in jail; the reason is tragic, but most probably caused because of his addiction which made him irresponsibly negligent and insensate. Indeed, despite his personable, charming open nature, it is obvious that he is a “bad seed.” And if he is allowed to stay with David and the family, what upheavals will he create? David is clearly wary of Billy for good cause. However he takes him in because of guilt. Billy has nowhere to go and he has cancer. What would David want someone to do for him if he were in Billy’s shoes?
In the subsequent scenes, Billy meets his nephew Jeremy and the scene between them is beautifully rendered. Indeed, all the scenes between uncle and nephew are heartfelt, and the pathos and sensitivity of the actors bring out the humanity and soulfulness in the character portraits. Through Jeremy’s eyes we understand another side of Billy; the fun loving, humorous, affable individual who is attractive, adorable and not “a bum.” Through Jeremy’s perspective, his parents should not be hard on his uncle, and certainly should let him stay to celebrate Christmas. The last time he remembers being with his uncle, he was nine. Jeremy doesn’t judge Billy as his parents do; he does not have the information or the experience with him that they have.
However, Billy being Billy provokes both Molly and David who chafe at his presence. When Billy lands a zinger truth on David that cuts his soul (this actually is hypocritical as we later find out and ego on David’s part) David kicks out Billy before Jeremy can say “goodbye.” Jeremy, the moral/familial conscience of the family, counters, “What kind of people are you?”
The irony is that Molly’s charity “Safe Harbor” to help women trapped in violent relationships, appears to indicate she has a soft heart with regard to supporting people. However, this softness stops where Billy is concerned. Easy to help strangers, but family? Hit the road Jack! Billy has apparently affronted Molly in the past and she will not forgive him. She refuses to have him stay with them for the holidays and looks up places to help him find the support he needs with his condition. Of course, Billy doesn’t help by consuming all the beer in their fridge and smoking weed and giving some to Jeremy who warns him Molly doesn’t want any smoke in the house. Humorously, it is the first thing she notices when she walks in with David after the fundraiser.
Margulies unwraps the comedy and the drama gradually with key details that allude to the swirling undercurrents in these individuals that move beyond sibling rivalry to deep wounds. Molly, David and Jeremy as a family are a brick structure, solid and sturdy to withstand hurricanes. But we discover, the bricks are painted cardboard; the house is built for show and is rotting within. Neither Molly nor David are honest or forthright about their own personal issues; they withhold their true nature from Jeremy and each other. They are living a sham existence gilded over by superficial, meretricious accoutrements and values that do not feed their souls nor sustain their relationships with each other. Jeremy ends up being the casualty of this existence that never really was. The only individual who is real to him, his Uncle Billy, remains the most down-to-earth individual who has confronted his own demons and is in effect coming to grips with his self-destructive past in full view of Jeremy. This is real and and heartfelt, especially when Billy nurtures Jeremy and encourages him to remember that he is “a good kid.”
Billy’s presence serves as a catalyst; he is a provocateur who blows up the family pretense with a few, choice, truthful revelations. These revelations force the issue and expose the core of David’s and Molly’s lies and their living a life of quiet desperation with each other, a fact which Molly refuses to see. Billy’s authenticity and his acknowledgment that he is impaired, flawed, a “mess” is disarming and we find him to be likable. However, this is a two-edged sword because being charming also makes him cunning and manipulative as an operator without filters. When David initially tells him that he can’t stay because he and Molly are going through a “rough patch,” Billy relates this to Molly and Molly confronts David who assures her they are “fine.” But Billy’s keen observation of his brother at the outset of the play gleans the truth and his authenticity draws out the truth from others.
Threading undercurrents weave throughout, expertly wrought by Margulies so that by the end the raw nature of the characters crystallizes before us. Indeed, the title we assumed defined Billy. But it relates to Molly and David, who also have been “long lost.” The only authentic individual who has found the core of his own frail and weak being is Billy. And he is not ashamed to admit it. Ironically, Molly and David are just beginning their journeys of dealing with who and what they are and what they have pretended to be in a marriage that has been lifeless for a “long” time.
Margulies brings the characters into a few revelatory highpoints. The most significant one occurs between Billy and David. We learn of the sibling rivalry, the abuse, the parental neglect and the recriminations each brother feels. The scene is a powerful one and AuCoin and Tergesen bring to bear their extensive talents to draw us into a dynamic that many will empathize with. The tragedy is that as in many families, forgiveness is not an option. There is too much anger, fear, ego, and extreme hurt. There are not enough centuries to work through all of it, not that David would want to.
That Billy is dying is an answer for Billy, a strange redemption in which all of his life comes back on itself. By the conclusion he is fatalistic and grateful, even able to joke a bit about who he is and what he has done. However, David doesn’t have the same good fortune. He will have to deal with himself and his own inner resentments, pride, frailties and sadnesses especially after Billy is gone. Whether he has the strength or courage to do so, as Billy seems to have been able to do, remains to be seen. Perhaps it is easier after all to be a mess and to rather make a mess of one’s life and recognize it. That is a life lived with few expectations. On the other hand, David and Molly have so many ambitions and expectations, to not measure up to any of them is an agonizing and soul hardening devastation.
Margulies ends on an uncertain note, but brings a partial resolution during Jeremy’s visit with his uncle before he goes away to school. During their conversation, we see the impact of Billy’s visit on the family which externally appears to be disastrous, but in terms of clearing the air of lies and duplicity, in effect, was a blessing. However, Margulies expert characterization reveals that most probably David or Molly would not attest that Billy’s visit yielded a positive outcome. As often happens, he will be blamed for causing difficulty when, in effect, they should look to themselves to rectify their own inner mess.
Long Lost works on many levels. The actors’ spot-on portrayals reveal these poignant, flawed individuals whose lives are scattershot regardless of how “perfect” they may appear socially and economically. Parisse and AuCoin adroitly strip the gradual layers revealing that false perfection cannot sustain or nurture their characters’ relationship with each other. Tergesen uses the truthful comments to deliver Billy’s honesty bullet-like; his is the most empathetic character and the most chilling. The underpinnings are thrillingly made manifest through the excellently paced, shepherded production with Sullivan’s thoughtful, specific direction.
Kudos to John Lee Beatty for his gorgeous and appropriate revolving set design. Toni-Leslie James’ costumes are equal to the social/economic classes they embody. Kenneth Posner’s lighting design and Daniel Kluger’s original music and sound design round out the production with equal fervor.
Long Lost presented by Manhattan Theatre Club New York City Center Stage I runs with no intermission at New York City Center (131 W 55th St. between 6th and 7th) until 30th June. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Addicted to your phone, via Instagram? Text? Candy Crush? Reddit? 4Chan? World of Warcraft? In Octet by Dave Malloy directed by Annie Tippe, eight individuals who drop in to no-show Saul’s rehab in a homely church basement, find another hosting the weekly session. Thankfully, group leader Paula (the singer, songwriter Starr Busby) is nurturing and responsive to their cavernous disabling confessions. There, in a harmonious, ever fluid, richly sonorous song circle, they discuss their digital urges and expurgate them via the occult, each governed by a Tarot card designed for them and them alone. And sometimes the chorus joins in inspired by a soul hymn, encouraging the beauty of sharing in a non-judgmental like-mindedness.
What are they sharing? That which is maligned, misunderstood and apotheoiszed, the intimate, digital, hand-held which opens up their personal world like a hallucinogen and entraps them with their own emotional frailties. By the end of their epiphany-yielding, tonal and atonal harmonies (sung a capella and sometimes performed with pitch pipes, batons and other make-shift percussion items) they are lifted spiritually out of this world and “out of themselves.” They’ve achieved a healing peace in the community of others and the audience responds with a standing ovation for they, too, have been enlivened and awakened, having stayed off their phones for almost two hours.
Dave Malloy, the progenitor of this innovative, exceptional and robust musical has created a masterwork with little theatrical spectacle, certainly nowhere near the breadth of Natasha Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, his signature work. In Octet for which Malloy has deftly created the music, lyrics, book and vocal arrangements, he takes a complex and intricate subject of great currency and couches it within a simplistic, minimalistic structure so that the powerful message of community and our need for live interaction resonates. With the seating in the “round,” and featuring a one-walled back set which reveals community bulletins, community ads, a coffee pot, announcements, etc., we get the sense we are in a basement which by the end infuses the sanctity of each of us which must not be underestimated. Above all Octet is like a soul injection to promote our awareness of each other’s value and worth more than an $1000 phone.
Into the choir circle of healing comes various debilitated, physically whole, but spiritually wounded internet adherents. When all are gathered, they begin the refreshment and comfort of unity so that they eventually will be released to express their hearts in solo song. The “Hymn: The Forest” reflects The Moon Tarot card which represents “Intuition.” Indeed, each of the individuals are misaligned spiritually and need to be “made upright” especially with firing up and being guided by their own wisdom and not the addictive distractions of the world.
In the first solo, we learn that Jessica in “Refresh” has put herself out there on “YouTube” and has gotten a huge response for it by those who comment. Though controversy gets clicks and likes and dislikes, it is also obsessive and must be followed by more “rants,” which Margo Seibert’s Jessica is addicted to creating for the comments. Henry (Alex Gibson) sings about his addiction to video games, and Paula (Starr Busby) sings about her distraction from her marriage and her losing her interest or attentiveness to making it work.
Distraction, dislocation from the most important relationships in one’s life is one theme of this production. Of course, viewing a screen is easy. Relationships take time, effort, pain and suffering along with the joy and good times. To stay dynamically involved with friends and spouses, one often must work through the underlying reasons and foundations for why one chooses the particular individuals one does to populate one’s life. It’s much easier to click on one’s phone and be taken away from problems by video games and escape introspection with “rants” which Jessica, Henry and Paula seek to do.
In the representative songs of what being “plugged in” digitally means to these individuals, we understand that in the “Hymn: Monster” which everyone sings, they project their inner “devil” outward and ascribe that the internet is their addiction. “Being connected online” has become the monster that has destroyed and eaten up their lives. Of course the irony is that the monster was always there within, waiting to manifest. But the way to get rid of it which will have to be a continual process, first is the realization that they have a “devil” within, and second that it is a devourer.
Karly (Kim Blanck) and Ed (the deep-voiced Adam Bashian) sing “Solo” about love and hunger for love. Ed is an Incel, a nonconformist. He riffs about Stacys and Chads (which is funny/drop dead serious Incelspeak) and they both sing about internet porn and online sexual addiction and the narcissism of having a ton of males (Karly) on her apps. In “Actually,” sung by Toby (Justin Gregory Lopez) whose Tarot card is The Magician, we note how far one must go to achieve one’s destiny, arriving at their potential. Toby has been waylaid in any pursuit of fulfillment.
In Marvin’s “Little God,” there is an intersection of spirituality and science which I found engaging in the tensions posited. J.D. Mollison is humorous in his visualizing that God is an 11-year-old dressed or looking like a Mermaid. In this song Malloy throws in ideas from Alan Watts’ The Book, and moves with gyrations into Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and concepts from wherever. This he does throughout this intriguing, rich musical referencing games, podcasts, film, theater and books which he lists in the show’s Playbill insert.
However, as a cleanse from the confusion of the myriad voices that try to persuade, convince and entrap us online, Paula conducts a wonderful ceremonial tea (“Tower Tea Ceremony”). It is then all sit, savor, become present, become located within themselves and prosper in their souls with the help of a drug that takes them deep within, but only for a few minutes. The ceremony yields humorous and beautiful moments. As a justification that there is something good about the online delusion that has swept their souls from beyond their easy grasp of themselves, it takes a song circle and tea ceremony to bring them back to a healing.
It is after the tea ceremony that Velma (Kucho Verma) courageously sings of her angst. It is she who brings an interesting justification of the global reach of the internet. In all the world, online,she has found someone to love who loves her back and makes her feel accepted and not such an ugly freak. The song “Beautiful,” governed by the Tarot card of The Fool, magnetizes all the concepts that have gone before and represents “new beginnings” and faith. This, Velma encourages and with moderation, as with everything, we understand that the “monster” can be conquered.
The evening comes to a close with “Hymn: The Field,” which the ensemble sings. Aligned through restoration and staying off their phones for almost two hours, the “chamber choir” has melded into an illustrious community. They have displayed their sterling singing gifts with measured ease, enthusiasm and a lovely grace which the audience finds absolutely delicious.
Octet’s superb director is Annie Tippe. Or Matias brings the majesty of Dave Malloy’s music to life through his adroit music supervision and music direction. Octet has been extended a number of times and is scheduled to close on 30 June. However, it may extend again. It runs 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission at The Pershing Square Signature Center (42nd St. between 9th and 10th). For tickets and times go to their website by CLICKING HERE.
In Happy Talk by Jesse Eisenberg, adroitly directed by Scott Elliott, stealthy desperation that unravels into a high stakes gambit between employer Lorraine (Susan Sarandon) a Jewish community theater actress/housewife, and home health caretaker, Ljuba (Marin Ireland) climaxes by the end of the play. From the outset Eisenberg infers frenetic undercurrents in the dynamic between the two women. Lubja is the “happy,” compliant, illegal Serbian help and Lorraine negotiates the care of two individuals while she attempts a fantastic pretense that all is “well,” for the sake of the household. Both are fronting.
From their interactions at the top of the play, we divine a synergistic relationship between Ljuba and Lorraine. Ljuba is meticulous with Lorraine’s mom in her caretaking duties. Not in the country legally, Ljuba confides that she hopes to become a citizen via a green card marriage so that she might bring her daughter to the United States for a better life. Lorraine, whom we realize later in the play, is one step away from a nervous breakdown, has an upbeat attitude with Ljuba whom she treats as a friend. Importantly, she attempts to cheer up dour husband Bill, whose agonizing, degenerative MS is a depressive death sentence. Lorraine’s bedridden, incontinent mother is slowly dragging herself into the afterlife with Ljuba’s attentive care, feeding, changing and monitoring her. But in Lorraine’s daily existence, her mother is an afterthought, amidst her preparations for her role as “Bloody Mary” in the Jewish Community Center’s South Pacific.
Eisenberg’s arc of development between and among the characters is pegged to the gradual revelation of the deeper “ethos” of these two women and how they balance the precariousness of their daily emotional struggles to manage their inner tension and stress. They do this with “happy talk.” Though other songs from South Pacific are played with ironic intent during the dramatic interludes (“Bali H’ai,” “Twin Soliloquies,” Some Enchanted Evening,” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”) Eisenberg references the titular song sung by Bloody Mary. Initially, the analogy that Lorraine should be cast as Bloody Mary seems weird. But as the play unfolds, we understand the parallels of characterization flavored with trenchant sardonic humor. Both characters manifest underlying themes of manipulation, exploitation and desperation.
As the events unfold we realize that both Lorraine and Ljuba act to encourage themselves away from reality. One is easily recognizable because she wears “drama” on her sleeve and rambles on about the intentions and nuances of her role as Bloody Mary with her “co-star” Ronny (the fine Nico Santos). Ljuba is a joyful cipher who is unmasked by Jenny (Tedra Millan) Lorraine’s wrath-filled daughter whose condemnation of Lorraine is delivered in a rapid-fire series of punches. Jenny encourages Ljuba to be her real self, a painful prospect considering her circumstances.
The intrigue in this production is in its authenticity of Sarandon’s and Ireland’s, staged “happiness.” They mask their interactions with each other while they choke down their true feelings. Ljuba fears deportation. Lorraine fears losing everything to her husband’s sickness and death.
But as Eisenberg displays the characters in the first half, with the exception of taciturn Bill (the excellent Daniel Oreskes) there is no hint of debacle, desolation or tension. Lorraine and Ljuba are cheerful, “open,” convivial and warm and seem to genuinely care for each other. Lorraine’s “over-the-top” narcissism about her acting chops and Ljuba’s sweet generosity and friendliness incite humor. In their interplay Lorraine’s self-aggrandizement about acting appears shallow and we laugh at her presumptive “greatness.” Of course the irony that Susan Sarandon, who has a mile-long list of credits, praises her talent is rich. And Ireland playing hand maiden as an actress of lesser years and experience is equally ironic.
The plot thickens when Lorraine matches up Ljuba to Ronny as her green card husband and they create a backstory together complete with photographs, dates and events. There are twists and turns; the tension increases. We witness the severity of Bill’s illness and pain. Also, we note that Lorraine refuses to confront her mother’s illness and impending mortality. She avoids even looking in on her and only does so after daughter Jenny berates her about it.
Jenny’s sneaky arrival through the back garden sliding doors gyrates the play in another direction and twerks the cheerful atmosphere and humor. Tedra Millan drips bile as she notes the pretense between her mother and Ljuba. Her appalling relationship with Lorraine whom she hasn’t seen in six months becomes apparent, and we are swept into her authenticity, amazed at her reaction to Lorraine.
As Millan’s Jenny unloads a condemnatory rant in a fusillade of excoriations, with a self-justified tone of recrimination, she announces her permanent move to Costa Rica. Her brief visit to her grandmother and expression of love to Bill are almost ancillary. Her shooting target is Lorraine.
As divaish as Lorraine has been, Jenny assumes center stage; she a drama queen like her mother but with the intention to destroy. She shreds her mother until Lorraine has had enough and kicks her out, but not before Ljuba upbraids her. Nevertheless, Jenny has poisoned the well, and we look at the principals with a different perspective. Perhaps Jenny has clear-eyed vision in her suggestion that Ljuba is too compliant, too congenial in putting up with her mother. Perhaps Lorraine has another agenda in assisting Ljuba to obtain a green card marriage with Ronny.
In this highpoint of the play, the actors’ transformations are nuanced and real. Sarandon’s inner torment and guilt resonate with us and we shift toward her with empathy when she breaks down then recoups to carry on suppressing her pain so she will be able to go on. It’s an important moment during which Sarandon’s Lorraine becomes humanized.
Our estimation of Ljuba steps up when she defends Lorraine against what can only be a described as tragic hatred revealing traumatic hurt that Jenny has experienced growing up with Lorraine as her mother. Since we only hear Jenny’s side and see a humbled, guilty Lorraine who acts like a wounded animal, we cannot divine the truth. But we are on notice and watchful for additional signs of clarification.
Ireland and Sarandon play off each other like a chef and a sous chef that reverse the power dynamic now and again. The irony and sardonic humor laden with various tropes of middle class lifestyles gilding the darker aspects a “comfortable” life are jerked back at the end of the play. It is then we see the desperation and understand how economic hardship is the perennial wolf at the door. No amount of well meaning goodness can be sustained when the situation becomes a matter of life and death. Fear, panic and selfishness take over. And to survive, one must go along with what fate has dished up however terrible. When the masks are dropped, all becomes rotten and real and the “happy talk,” ends.
Happy Talk is a must see for the performances and the clever writing which changes on a dime to the unexpected and concludes with searing force into tragic collapse. The characterizations are grounded in the currency of the times and remind us that manipulations and secret agendas seek their own level of opportunity. The victims often have little recourse in the hands of unlikely predators whom one never sees coming.
Kudos to Derek McLane (Scenic Design) Clint Ramos (Costume Design) Jeff Croiter (Lighting Design, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen (Sound Design) Leah J. Loukas (Hair, Wig, Makeup Design).
Happy Talk presented by The New Group is at the Pershing Square Signature Center (42nd Street between 9th and 10th) until 16 June. For tickets and times at their website CLICK HERE.
Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class which appeared at the Public Theatre and won an Obie for Best New American Play during the 1976-1977 season, has been revived a number of times and is currently part of the Signature Theatre’s legacy program. Shepard often chronicled his family history weaving themes in and out of his “Family Tragedies.” These include dramas that are dynamic, intimate, intense dark plays: the titular play reviewed here, Buried Child (1979) True West (1980) Fool for Love (1983) and A Lie of the Mind (1985).
These dramas with often searing poetic elements and unusual twists, feature violent, dysfunctional familial relationships which are borderline insane but human. The emphasis on the destructive nerve endings of the human condition makes them sardonic and devastatingly humorous. The characters are representative of us, every-women, every-man despite their demographics. In the inner soul of the individuals, there is the same fear, want, loneliness and partition from their families that make them real, heartfelt and tragic. Their human “ilk,” is horrific yet understandable. Shepard’s characterization logic and Director Terry Kinney’s guidance of the actors to achieve these manifestation in this production are just superb.
In this first of the family series, Curse of the Starving Class, we note how a family rooted in farming and the land in rural California attempts to wrangle with their own emotional and psychological demons that have provided a wayward leading inheritance that they must either overcome or succumb to. Though each has the ambition to improve themselves, like Chekhovian characters who are out of place and time, they harbor their dreams while creating elaborate networks of self-destruction that divert their will and thwart their ability to manifest their goals into realities.
By the time Shepard’s characters amass the will and strength to better themselves, they select the wrong path. All ends in failure. Indeed, their own blood family members sabotage any possibility of their improvement. Worsening the situation the saboteurs explode with resentment-filled, passive aggressive rages that harm and incite the downward-spiraling over and over again.
The drama opens with a catastrophic explosion. The outer structure of the house splits apart. It is a symbolic rendering of an ancient and ancestral lesion that is ever-present in the bloodline of the family and can never be healed because there is no attempt to seek an intervention. This explosion reflects the curse of the family that they choose not to expurgate or exorcise because they don’t know how, nor do they have the tools to stop its cyclical repetition. The breaking apart of the house portends the threatening doom for each of the family members.
The lesion/curse is within each of them and spreads the horrific, hurtful, damage outward and among them. This trip wire provokes the other family members’ sadism and from day to night, torment and abuse infects like a poison (Weston, the father discusses this in a central aria) and destroys everything in its path.
In the family. which has managed to share the same space because they are not there together for one whole hour, there are a mother and father and two teenage children. The younger one is the intelligent Emma. The electric Lizzy Declement gives a performance that develops Emma from hope and contentment to resentment, rage, rebellion and spiritual devolvement. The older sibling is the dutiful Wesley who intends to maintain the farm and keep it a going concern despite the worsening conditions Weston’s addictions create. Wesley and Emma have hopes and dreams, though they do not necessarily include the family.
Emma’s efforts creating a school project indicate that she has ambition and the determination to “be somebody” in her life, if she can ever get away from the nullifying family and farm. After her mother and brother destroy her school project, she runs away on a horse that her mom says is crazy. She returns covered in mud and humiliated desperation. The horse (as emblematic crazy as her family) threw her off and dragged her “through the mud.”
This symbolic action forebodes how the family will treat her for attempting to rise above. After this, she makes negative, impulsive choices which will only exacerbate further damage. She and the other family members are practiced at this circularity, directing their decisions and actions from rage, depression and panic, rather than hope and peace.
Wesley (the dynamic and authentic Gilles Geary) who at the outset of the play and through the second act is trying to repair the door his father bashed in during a drunken, “out-of-control” binging rage-on, cares about the farm, the animals and the security of the family. His assiduous attempt to rebuild the door represents his desire to keep out animal or human interlopers and marauders who would steal from them or usurp the inheritance of the land which father Weston’s alcoholism threatens to encourage.
Weston (the superb David Warshofsky) an alcoholic, cannot lift the farm into thriving, organized prosperity. His relationship with his wife is abusive. Weston emphasizes he is a killer in his descriptions to his son about his role as a bombing pilot during the war. Most probably he is suffering from PTSD, though at the time Shepard wrote the play, this condition of returning combat VETS was never acknowledged. However, his entire destructive, hell-raising, yelling fits indicate he is most likely suffering from it. The culture didn’t help him after the war, and it, along with his negative learned behaviors contribute to the root of his self-hatred, despair and inability to get out from under his depressive, alcoholic malaise and lethargy.
Like the other members of her family the mother Ella (Maggie Siff portrays the mother with nuanced reality) negotiates the tense, hyper-aggressive atmosphere that each of them creates. She augments it by living in the fantasy of selling the property and running away. As her business person who would handle her affairs, she chooses a shyster who intends to defraud her.
The key factors that would make her motherly, accountability, a tidy home with food in the refrigerator, nurturing concern about each of the family members are absent. The refrigerator is empty and as she and the others discuss whether they are a part of the “starving class,” we understand that the empty refrigerator is symbolic. The culture at large deprives them of honor and respect and is the antithesis of soul nurturing. Thus, with their own inner weaknesses, it is nearly impossible for them to care for and nurture each other. Like her daughter who intends to escape, Ella plans to sell the house and take the kids to Europe, as fantastical as this dream is.
As Ella attempts to make arrangements behind Weston’s back, Weston, too, in a drunken fit thinks he makes a deal to sell the property and get a lot of money for it, but he is being defrauded. Wesley understands that the predators that want to buy their property will wreck the land, develop it and ruin its beauty while giving them a pittance, if that. The developers represent the meretricious empty mores influenced by the take over of corporate consumerism. And this consumeristic “curse” has displaced the country’s citizens from searching for the more profound values of life and has alienated them from their purpose and place in the universe, replacing it with being the slaves/pawns of wanton corporate America.
Thus, the land that once might have nurtured Weston and the family for a few generations, has been subject to Weston’s inner plague from the war which he attempts to ameliorate with alcohol, but can’t. And he receives no help from the greedy economic predators who see a mark and intend to take advantage of him.
The culture has failed him on many counts that he hasn’t the “where-with-all” to protect himself from the buzzards-the lawyers and real estate developers and thugs (Andrew Rothenberg, Esau Pritchett) who have entangled Weston with loans that they will extort and bully back from him. Any money that Weston gets from the sale of the property once his debts are paid off and the developers or other predators are done with him, will result in a negative balance.
Thematically, this production soars for its reality, authenticity and raw power. The Scenic Design by Julian Crouch is truly amazing in its functional and thematic purpose. The refrigerator is filthy; one wonders that the food kept in it is sanitary when it is eventually stocked. This adds to our horrified amazement when the starving Wesley ravages all the food in it after he kills the lamb with the intention of eating it. Indeed, his starvation as a member of the “starving class” represents the emotional hunger all of the family experience that manifests as ravenous physical hunger.
Though he and the others complain about not having food in the refrigerator, this “starvation” is not literal, it is soul starvation, spiritual starvation, cultural starvation. The society at large is responsible for this as Weston states and as Ella infers in her desire to go to Europe to escape; indeed, Europe is a place that is culturally rich and can provide unique stimulation.
Sadly, their daily lives have little spiritual or psychic sustenance and when Wesley and Emma attempt to satisfy their inner longings with hope, the other family members come around and either take it away (as Weston/Ella do in attempting to sell the farm) or piss on it (literally, in the case of Emma’s project which Wesley ruins with his urine).
Shephard shows that his characters are so deprived and so used to being deprived and “starving” they starve themselves and each other of love, familial companionship, warmth, compliments, joy, humor, the list is long and comprehensive. As a representative family in this country after WWII, they manifest the status quo. And this is so regardless of economic class, though Shepard uses them, a lower middle class family, to illustrate his themes which actually transcend class when they are viewed from a more profound level.
The acting of the principals is spot-on, moment-to-moment. All of them hit the bulls-eye as they evoke our empathy, pathos, fear, disapproval, shock and horror. The climax is particularly upsetting, but it is also understandable. All are responsible and have contributed to each other’s demise. As they pursue their own desperate goals and desires to escape from their inner masochistic, nihilistic impulses, they collapse in on themselves. Because they are not nurtured to do so, they never reach out to help or to receive help from those who might take them out of their misery.
Terry Kinney guides this production meticulously and has found the right artistic designers to collaborate with to portray Shepard’s tragic almost nihilistic vision from which there is no escape. The costume design by Sarah J. Holden, the lighting design by Natasha Katz, the sound design and original music by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeed (just wow) and William Berloni’s lamb round out this production and do justice to Shepard’s legacy as a playwright uncovering the underbelly of this nation’s ills in this family microcosm.
Curse of the Starving Class runs with one intermission at the Pershing Square Signature Center on 42nd Street between 9th and 10th. It has been extended until 2nd June. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Tortoise in a Nutshell, an Edinburgh-based visual theater company has finally been able to coordinate with 59E59 Theaters for its 2019 Brits Off Broadway season. The company, which first premiered Feral at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is a multi-award-winning group which combines film, and digital theatricals. These include watching the technicians as performers create a show with pre-set miniature pieces which they then animate to tell a story.
The company which travels far and wide and has presented its works not only in the UK, but also in Denmark, Austria and Mexico enjoys creating productions that are unique, innovative and impossible to categorize. Feral in its U.S. Premiere is one such production that combines a use of miniature puppetry, small digital video cameras, live camera action projected on a screen. The productions include background lighting of the set pieces and sound effects as well as a mixed musical score that enhances the story-telling.
Feral, which Tortoise in a Nutshell is presenting in an original co-production with Cumbernauld Theatre, focuses on a family. Sister Dawn, brother Joe and their mum live in a town by the sea. They are symbolic and representative as is their town whose “town fathers” decide to allow developers to come in and open a “Supercade.”
What happens as a result of this development becomes disastrous. The picturesque landscape eventually is marred by the types of people who come to the “Supercade.” The quaint shops and daily life of the town’s citizens are wrecked and increasingly law enforcement must be called in to stop muggings, thefts, violent crimes, sexual assaults and general vandalism that occurs. Additionally, it is suggested that the developers used chicanery to bribe the officials or worm their way into the area. This corruption has been overlooked and the Supercade occludes everything. Though we don’t know whom, someone has probably become very rich at the expense of the citizens undermining the tenor and gracefulness of a once peaceful place.
The townspeople attempt to protest what is going on to little effect. And the once lovely beginnings have tragic endings as the wildness in human nature takes over spurred on by the Supercade. However, the production doesn’t end on a completely nihilistic note. There is always hope.
The ingenuity of Feral is not in the “what” but in the “how.” Process is everything with this theater company. The miniatures used are tiny by comparison to average sized puppets. This enhances our interest in them. The model town is all of a piece, the same type of delicate architecture and color and made from the same materials. The beauty of this work is in how the collaborators put the setting together and effect the characters operation in it.
It takes a while for the town and its individuals to be introduced by the cast (Alex Bird, Jim Harbourne, Aaran Howie, Matthew Leonard and Ross Mackay) who build the setting with the houses and shops and then place the inhabitants in their appropriate settings or work the music and background sound effects. This set-up is an important part of the presentation because we see the Hair Shop, the Bakery, the Lighting Shop, the Church, etc., the typical patrons and even some of the animals as familiar, homely residents. We readily identify.
As the cast completes the initial set it up, we do appreciate how adorable the miniatures appear and the camera work that focuses on them in close-up so that we are present on the same level with the characters. Thus, we become a part of what can only be described as a sweet, functioning, bucolic, little piece of heaven where the inhabitants are contented and enjoy their placement there in the universe.
However, we only see the externals. The presentation never proceeds into anything deeper within the individuals. It is a parable with a larger symbolic focus, that of the microcosm reflecting the macrocosm. In miniature, the cast, creative team and production team have engendered what happens when a town’s equilibrium is upset by development that has, at its basis, corruption and malfeasance. And when the goals do not align with human beings’ needs, desires and well being, catastrophe occurs.
In Feral the wild impulse is diverted in the goal to make money without consideration for how the “development” whether it be digital-technological (the iPhone, Facebook, Amazon) or a material “play-land,” “Gentleman’s Club” or casino will impact the community at large. Thus, we understand that the inhabitants are acted upon by unforeseen forces that in the guise of “developmental prosperity” actually foment destruction as a by-product. The wild impulses the entertainment is designed to exploit for money overwhelm. Once the Supercade opens, entropy lopes in and takes over.
Feral is obviously a labor of love by the creative team: Amelia Bird (Scenic Design) Simon Wilkinson (Lighting Design) and Jim Harbourne (Original Music and Sound Design) and theri director Ross Mackay. Their innovative, human-friendly designs immediately convey the audience into the creators’ world of imagination. To its credit, the designers work to make the audience an integral part of the ongoing events as the camera angles move our vision from a distant perspective closer and closer into Dawn’s and Joe’s house to see their kitty cat and close to see the interiors of the various shops. The camera moves our vision into the beauty parlor, around the park and pier and into an adorableness that includes our watching a cute squirrel fed daily by the pastor of the town church.
Thus, as we identify with this mini corner of the universe, we are engaged and become concerned when the “Supercade” is built despite protest. Most probably money changes hands surreptitiously for the entertainment palace to be built. It is then the themes shift to the macrocosm as we consider what has transpired in the last 10 years almost exponentially along waterfronts and elsewhere.
Such displacing, nefarious development is happening in too many cities and towns across the globe. Those who have the most to lose are overcome by those who have the money and power to do what they want and not be held accountable for the damages. Indeed, though it is not clear in this production, most developers live in their own bucolic paradise surrounded by three-acres, with security teams, gates and high walls to keep out the “riff-raff” whom they prey upon to fund their selfishness, the “riff-raff” being these townspeople who just want to live life with some modicum of happiness..
Feral is imaginative, particular and profound if not disconcerting. The creators’ process is complicated but it delivers a simple metaphor of our times in identifiable human terms. Bravo to both the creative team listed above and the production team Andrew Gannon (Technical Diretor) and AEA Stage Manager (Alyssa K. Howard).
Tortoise in a Nutshell’s Feral runs for 50 minutes with no intermission at 59E59 Theaters until 9 June. For tickets and times go to their website by CLICKING HERE.
When Fiddler on the Roof premiered on Broadway in 1964 (winning 9 Tony awards) it took the theater world by storm and the larger world with gradual stealth augumenting to an avalanche of global premieres and subsequent revivals. With the original cast starring the wildly zany Zero Mostel as Tevye the milkman, the wryly funny Bea Arthur (the future Golden Girl) as Yente, and Austin Pendleton as Motl Kamzoyl, the Tailor, the production was set in humorous stone and held a warm place in countless hearts. It ran with various casts for nearly eight years, went on tour and was made into an Oscar winning film.
Since then Fiddler (Book by Joseph Stein, Music by Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick) has been in revival mostly every year either in the U.S. or somewhere in the world in high schools, colleges or regional theater. The most recent revival landed on Broadway (2016) in a stellar production starring Danny Burstein with an emphasis on the poignant issues enveloping growing populations of displaced refugees and immigrants.
Accordingly, the revivals reflect the times and the current social attitudes. Into this day that echoes anti-semitic chants, “Jews will not replace us” by white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia and recent attacks against US synagogues, comes a revival of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish that is monolithic. The Yiddish National Theatre Folksbein’s production in Yiddish has supertitles in English and Russian. In its authenticity of language and grounding in the ethnicity inherent in Sholem Aleihem’s source material on which it’s based, the production which effuses the choreography of Jerome Robbins with Staś Kmieć’s additions, is one for the ages in its transcendent humanity and spiritual resonance.
What is it about this Fiddler that is unlike all others? Directed by the superb, insightful Tony/Oscar award winner Joel Grey, the production is a moral imperative! It is for our time and all time in its simplicity, grace and spare, unadorned beauty and emotionally taut, intimate, soul crushing power.
Grey’s vision personalizes and authenticates the complexity of faith as it moves Tevye (an unparalleled Steven Skybell) through the challenges of negotiating the daily uncertainties of life in a rapidly changing world, while retaining the core values of his religious beliefs that have been codified for thousands of years (exemplified in the gorgeous number “Shabes Brokhe” (Sabbath Prayer).
Tevye’s, is the iconic hero’s journey of life’s rhythms, of the wheel and woe and back again. By distilling the musical to its most searingly gut-wrenching, basic elements, Grey has elevated Tevye and his family to a timeless universality. With levity and poignancy Grey stirs us to empathize with the characters’ plight, as we experience the “happiness and tears” reflected throughout and especially in the song “Tog-any, Tog-oys” (“Sunrise/Sunset”). The number, rendered with sonorous beauty by Tevye, Golde (the golden, lyrical soprano Jennifer Babiak) and the company just before the Russian officials effect a mini-pogrom is a harbinger of things to come.
Tevye and his family and village speak in Yiddish though at the time in a place like “Anatevke” (Anatevka) they also most probably spoke German and Russian as well. An interesting derivation turns up in the song Tevye sings to his God, “Ven ikh bin a Rotshild”) the translation of which is “If I Were a Rothchild.” The irony of Tevye’s dreaming to be like the uber wealthy Rothchild banking family who were also Jewish is hysterical. Would he sacrifice his faith for money? Would he have to? Indeed! Skybell’s rendition of this funny, poor man’s lament to God is priceless.
The question becomes: is the Yiddish a distraction making it more difficult to engage with the characters? The irony is we pay attention because the language is unfamiliar and we must not take anything for granted. As we begin to pick up words read from the supertitles on panels to the right/left of the stage, we connect with another time and place, which materially is unlike our own, while discovering that the characters symbolically represented are like ourselves.
The supertitles in English and Russian from the Yiddish Translation by Shraga Friedman (first performed in Israel in the 1960s) reinforce our understanding along with the actors’ gestures (Skybell is particularly superb) expressions and crystal clear intentions. The ensemble is letter perfect in its portrayals. Additionally, Yiddish is one of the most onomatopoetic of languages; its very sounds convey the meanings which we counterintuitively glean. During the song and dance numbers, the plosive consonants and guttural, rolled rrrrrs express a vibrancy and excitement which adds to their energy and joy.
Of course, it helps that the actors are wholly present and “in-the-moment.” The audience can’t help but be engaged and enthralled as we employ more of our senses, so as not to miss a word or thought for fear of losing out.
Importantly, Joel Grey has brilliantly shepherded this production and has acutely grounded it in the power of fundamental principles of equanimity. We are precisely aware that the production’s underscored intrinsic values encourage all people to overcome and move through the dark times. These are the basic truths which we cling to as we live our lives in Anatevke, Russia 1905 or NYC 2019. In this essentially clear-eyed, genuine, heartfelt production, faith and love emerge like pillars of fire; they guide Tevye and his daughters, and drive the arc of the play’s development.
During the course of the play Tevye learns ancient faith and modern love are not mutually exclusive; they are one. Steven Skybell’s Tevye (Skybell’s is an inspired, precise, brilliant portrayal of the witty journeyman) exercises faith daily in his discussions and personal relationship with God. Love, Tevye discovers by witnessing how it blossoms in his daughters’ lives and marriages. In a touching moment that lingers with sweetness Skybell’s Tevye and wife Golde (Jennifer Babiak) sing about what love is in their personal relationship. “Libst Mikh, Sertse?” (Do You Love Me). They discover that they have been bonded in love which has provided the security and contentment which helps them weather a hardscrabble existence, partners to the last.
Both faith and love embody the instrumental forces which drive the uneducated milkman and his family toward hope despite uncertainty. By the conclusion of the production, we understand that only with faith and love can they confront the anti-semitism of the Russian Orthodox community which fearfully has expelled them. Only with faith and love can they move on stoically without bitterness, believing that it will be better in their new home in America because they have each other. And Tevye, by keeping his fervent relationship with God, will continue to keep his balance as “a fiddler on the roof” despite the precarious times they will face in the new world with possibly more persecution and discrimination.
Wisely, Grey strips all unnecessary elements that Fiddler on the Roof might represent as a “Broadway show,” and solidifies the themes and alternating tenor and moods of laughter and sadness with a minimalist set, whose backdrop of parchment and cloth panels retains the most important word in the play and the only word which is not in Yiddish.
It is in Hebrew, painted in black Hebrew letters across the central banner. And it symbolizes what in effect Tevye looks for when he talks to an invisible God whom he must believe hears him and through received wisdom, answers Tevye. It is the Hebrew word signifying The Torah, God’s truth, God’s guidance to navigate a world which is in constant upheaval and is often hostile. It is particularly during intimate and animated discussions with God that Skybell’s Tevye depends upon his faith to provide the enlightenment he needs to make the right decisions for himself and his family. Every one of these discussions Tevye has, we believe that he believes God listens. These conversations imply the depth and irrevocability of Tevye’s faith and are a crucial part of the profoundness of this production.
But faith is a private matter between a man and/or woman and his/her God. So Tevye to explain himself in communal terms that relate to the society in which he lives, employs the simile to explain how he withstands his hard scrabble life. He does it precariously like “a fiddler on the roof” while conveying a bit of his own musical identity. And he’s able to stand living on the edge because of “one Torah, one God, one word…tradition.” As the ensemble joins in the song”Traditsye” we are introduced to Tevye’s ethnic cultural folkways that have existed in Anatevka for generations. We presume these “traditions” are reflected in The Torah.
Interestingly, during the course of the play, we, Tevye and the community learn that the folkways of Anatevka are not necessarily God’s ways of the Torah. In fact, they can be abused and lead to misery, as even Yente implies with her unhappy marriage and as we discover with the other unhappy marriages in the village, i.e. Leyzer-Volf’s marriage to Frume Sore who was a bitter woman. In fact, we and Tevye learn there can be happiness in marriage if there is love. And that is what God is all about.
As Motl (the fine Ben Liebert) suggests with wisdom given to him by Tsaytl (Rachel Zatcoff), “even a tailor deserves a little happiness.” Tevye after an enlightened discussion with God, and his daughter and Motl, throws off a stubborn adherence to Anatevka’s folkways, and follows a greater wisdom and acceptance because he loves his daughter and wants her to be happy in her marriage to a man she loves.
Reinforcing that love is God’s way, Motl’s faith is strengthened. Having the courage to stand up to Tevye and step out in faith for Tsaytl’s hand is miraculous, like the Biblical miracles (manna in the wilderness, etc.). He sings the vibrant “Nisimlekh-Veniflo’ oys” (Miracle of Miracles), the greatest miracle being that God has made the way for him to marry Tsaytl, serving as a beacon of light for the rest of the town.
To assuage and convince Golde of the rightness of this decision, Tevye has “Der Kholem” (The Dream). With the skills of this adroit company, in one of the marvelous highpoints of the production. Frume Sore is a larger than life spirit, a fiend (on stilts) with oversized body looming in a shrouded, wild costume, witchy hands, wild hair and exaggerated, ghostly make-up. She is wonderful and the company echoes her screams and questions with humorous frightfulness. As Tevye recounts the dream and the ensemble enacts it, Frume Sore portends a curse on Tsaytl if she marries Leyzer-Volf. It is so horrifying, Golde wants her daughter to avoid any curse; and receive the blessing her sweet spirit ancestor bestowed on the marriage. In this incredible scene, the traditional folkway of the matchmaker making a match is vitiated and love becomes the preeminent value.
This production clearly makes a distinction between faith of the Torah and folkways of Anatevka. Grey beautifully effects this through lighting, Skybell’s forceful discussions with his God, the sets (the backdrop panels) and the staging. Tevye’s faith and relationship with the God of The Torah who gives enlightened wisdom is not the same as the ancestral cultural folkways of Anatevka which have sprung up and been integrated from the surrounding society for economic purposes.
The learned Pertshik (the wonderful Drew Seigla) infers that love supersedes the matchmaker Yente (the wry, saleswoman of unappealing spouses-Jackie Hoffman). The Rabbi indirectly affirms this at the wedding at Tevye’s insistence by wisely not ruling on it. Nevertheless, the underlying message is that matchmakers are not in the Torah; God puts love in the hearts of people for each other. Tevye later confirms for Pertshik’s future marriage with Hodl, the old ways don’t apply as he evokes the metaphor of Adam and Even whose matchmaker was God. Another tradition that has little to do with the Torah is mixed dancing. Petshik dances with his beloved Hodl declaring it is not a “sin” which the Rabbi confirms. It is not in the Torah (the guide). And the men and women dance inspired by Tevye and Golde to initiate the dance which begins and incredible dance celebration at Tsaytl’s and Motl’s wedding.
Grey’s genius in selecting the painted Hebrew word “The Torah” as the focal point of the setting is so logical it’s breathtaking. The symbolism is magnificent. Not only is Tevye guided by his faith in God during trying times when the traditions they have followed for centuries are being overthrown by modernism. We, likewise, are being instructed in Tevye’s trials of faith. We, too, receive the wisdom he gains after he wrangles with God over vital decisions concerning his daughters’ marriages.
Indeed, this overarching theme of The Torah, God’s guidance, is present throughout as the panel never moves, never is taken down. That is why when the Russian constable comes in and his officers wreck the celebration and one of them tears the panel with the word Torah, it is horrifically chilling. To not be able to actively practice their faith threatens their ethos; they will be evicted. But why stay in a place tears out the very fabric of who they are? Though in the next act the panel has been sewed where it has been ripped, “the handwriting is on the panel.” The warning the constable has been giving to Tevye is coming to pass. And not even Khavele’s (Rosie Jo Neddy) relationship with Russian Orthodox Fyedke (Cameron Johnson’s dancing is spectacular) can save Tevye and the community from eviction.
This blow to his relationship with God, Tevye cannot brook. That his daughter would be with one of that faith is a death. This is not a custom, this goes much deeper and is a great trial. However, Goldie and his daughters will work on him, as is obvious when they say goodbye. Meanwhile, the dance sequence as Tevye mourns the loss of Khavele in the song “Khavele” (Khavele) is beyond poignant.
Every decision Grey has made informs the profound themes in this work and emphasizes what is vital for life to thrive despite loss. This is exemplified in the simple, uniform, dark tables and chairs which structure the scenes in Tevye’s home, the wedding hall, Motl Kamzoyl’s shop, the Russian/Jewish mixed cafe where Tevye meets Leyzer-Volf and they sing the marvelous “Lekhayim” (To Life, Lekhayim) and the Russians join in with vigorous, athletic dancing that is so joyful and celebratory, that for a tiny moment we actually think that the Russians and the Jews can have peace. Also the accoutrements-props, like candles, a washbasin, drinking glasses, the milk pales and cart-without a horse, etc., are used to round out the action when needed.
The message is clear. The material objects of life are movable and transient. The Torah, God’s guidance is forever for those who seek it and believe they receive His answers, as the vibrantly alive, humorous, enthusiastic “man for all seasons,” Steven Skybell’s Tevye believes he does.
Another superb element of this production is the use of the lovely fiddler portrayed by Lauren Jeanne Thomas whose portrayal is not to be underestimated, but is beautifully soulful and evocative. When Tevye is having a crisis and must go to his God for a talk, the nimble, sylph-like graceful Der Fidler (Lauren Jeanne Thomas as the fiddler) leans in slyly, sweetly and dances around Tevye as her playing soars with the poignance of the melody of “Traditsye,” as the music swells with the custom which is falling away. These moments are absolutely heartbreaking for Tevye must call upon his faith to guide him through the uncertainty, confusion and darkness. And of course as they leave Anatevke singing their song about a place they’ve identified with and can do no longer, Tevye motions for the Der Fidler to go with them. The customs of the Russian village they leave behind. But The Torah, God’s guidance is with them forever.
The production is a spiritual revelation that is extraordinary and miraculous. Special kudos to the orchestra, conducted by Zalmen Mlotek and Associate Conductor Andrew Wheeler. Just wow.
When it premiered at The Abbey Theatre in 1926, The Plough and the Stars initially opened to acclaim. However, word got out that O’Casey had written a play critical of Irish nationalism and religion, and the acclaim turned to disapprobation. O’Casey elected to focus on the hapless Dubliners, many women and children, who had been swept up in the bloodshed of the Easter Rising of 1916. During the five days of fierce fighting between the British and the Irish Citizen Army and Irish Republican Brotherhood, the British who had brought in heavy artillery, machine guns and bombshells with over nine times the troop strength of the Irish converted central Dublin and the tenements where citizens lived into a war zone. Because of the hundreds of citizen fatalities and thousands injured, the Irish rebels surrendered to save the city. The British took revenge with arrests and summary executions of the organizers, sealing the ill-will of Ireland and guaranteeing the irrevocability of Irish Independence.
In this last production of the Dublin Trilogy, the Irish Repertory Theatre, which has presented an amazing season of Sean O’Casey’s works, ends with its most masterful and emotional production to date. Directed by Charlotte Moore, O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars remains a sterling and representative human drama that soars into the heavens with the timeless message that there are no victors when members of the human family take up arms and kill each other. Assuredly, it is the innocent trying to make it to the next day, who become the casualties of violent conflicts. Those who die achieve a final peace; the living have to deal with the horrible memories and consequences of the aftermath of war.
The actors expertly shepherded by Moore effect O’Casey’s themes with emotional grist and power. As an ensemble their work together is exquisite, paced, focused, present. Because of their attention to moment-to-moment living onstage, the impact that rises from scene to scene and especially in the last scenes when the conflict and suspense are greatest are breathtakingly real and tragic.
The play follows the homely interactions of tenement dwellers in the latter part of 1915 and during the Easter Rebellion of 1916. These scenes of the every day lives of the tenement dwellers draw our empathy. In their discussions we become apprised that there are marches and meetings of various Irish groups who are gathering to amass political sentiment in support of the hoped for Irish rebellion and move toward independence. The meetings which have gained fervent advocates eventually come to a head and the play’s action shifts to events in Dublin during Easter Week 1916. It is then that O’Casey most acutely and poignantly reveals how these horrific events impact the lives of the Dubliners who live and hide in the tenements as they are shelled, shot at and warred against by the British Tommies who attempt to quash the rebellion.
In the first part of the production we note how O’Casey illustrates the divisions among the Irish citizens living in one lower middle class Dublin tenement. These characterizations develop and remain the focal point of the play. Some of the Dubliners have antithetical political affiliations like protestant, pro-British Bessie Burgess (the wonderful Maryann Plunkett who gives a heartfelt, frenzied, emotional portrayal throughout). Bessie’s son fought and died with the British as a Dublin Fusilier during early battles of The Great War. Her expressed rage and fury at the supporters of Irish Independence is understandable, though the other tenants think she is loathsome. Indeed, by the play’s end O’Casey’s twist of characterization proves her a formidable human being; and Maryann Plunkett brings this out in spades.
Others, like fiesty Peter Flynn (the humorous Robert Langdon Lloyd), the life-worn Mrs. Gogan (the fine Una Clancy) and Fluther Good (Michael Mellamphy is spot-on in his rousing portrayal of the carpenter who represents the typical working man) empathize with the Irish cause of independence as Catholics. Meanwhile, The Young Covey (the excellent James Russell) is the critical, anti-religious, acerbic intellectual who strafes the cause of independence with his caustic remarks. He is frustrated that the socialist cause he advocates has been redirected from the Worker’s of the World uniting to overthrow the capitalistic system.
Much of the humor in the first part of the play centers around O’Casey’s identification of the cross section of individuals who are disparate from one another in beliefs, religion and intellectual ethos. Yet they live in Dublin tenements and make up the culture and society of the city as they remain economically oppressed and without a voice in the government. We laugh as they carp and criticize each other to the extent that one wonders how the country will unite against the British at any level. Into this convulsed and funny hodgepodge of characters come the newly weds, the sweet, romantic Nora (Clare O’Malley gives a fervent, emotional and powerful performance throughout) and husband Jack (the sensitive and forceful Adam Petherbridge) who eventually, despite Nora’s surreptitious attempts to prevent this, is proudly made Commandant in the Irish Citizen Army.
Jack, infuriated that Nora withheld information of his promotion out of fear for his death, argues with her vehemently. Indeed, her self-interest and duplicity push him right into the arms of his mates. The scene where she admits she lied is dynamic and powerful. O’Casey’s characterizations are authentic and the actors (O’Malley and Petherbridge) are so letter perfect that we imagine such scenes playing out in households throughout Dublin and in a universal sense that this occurs in every war fought regardless of politics or nation. The timeless quality of war as a sacrifice of innocents is everpresent and beautifully rendered thematically in this scene.
As Young Covey, Fluther and Flynn meet and have drinks in a Public House after listening to speakers and continuing to listen to them from inside the pub, we meet additional Dublin denizens who will be impacted by the coming rebellion. These are the “lady of the night” Rosie Redmond (Sarah Street) and the Bartender who also plays Sargent Tinley (Harry Smith). In this interlude at the pub, the tension outside is rising and we note the success of the march and the rousing political speeches meant to mobilize the crowds.
When Jack and his mates come into the pub and conclude the scene with their nationalistic cries, they wave the flag (The Plough and the Stars, and the Tricolor Flag of Irish Independence). As these volunteers uphold their allegiance to a free Ireland, they put their family, wives and homes second. Nora is abandoned and forgotten as Ireland becomes Jack’s family.
In the next scenes that take place during the Easter week, April 1916, the irony of Jack’s heady, ebullient nationalistic sentiment is pitted against the frightful horrors that these volunteers and tenement dwellers face in the violence during the five days they confront heavy artillery and machine guns. The booming sounds are heard in the distance. Nora who looks for Jack to bring him home (an ignominious, selfish and cowardly action from Jack’s perspective) proclaims that she sees the fear in the Irish soldiers’ eyes while the soldiers she meets tell her she is shaming Jack.
In this fabulously directed scene that is tense, frightful, poignant and rage-filled, Nora struggles physically with Jack to keep him with her. And Bessie screams epithets and insults at Jack, Captain Brennan (John Keating) and the wounded dying Lieutenant Langon (Ed Malone). At the height of the drama, Jack berates Nora for attempting to keep him from fighting the cause, then he and the others leave to look for a doctor. Bessie who has a turn of empathy for Nora brings her safely inside, then runs for a doctor to help Mrs. Gogan’s dying daughter Mollser (Meg Hennessy). Kudos to the superb ensemble and the principals whose urgency and focus create the incredible tension in the scene. The audience is enthralled throughout.
As marvelous as Act III is, O’Casey’s climax in Act IV is without parallel and Moore and the actors are beyond exceptional in bringing the conclusion to its final glowing draw-down. O’Casey hammers his themes. These, he has seeded earlier in the play. In the final act they foment with the growing chaos which sweeps up various individuals unwittingly caught in the rebellion, i.e. The Woman from Rathmines (Terry Donnelly). Everyone who can be represented is. O’Casey reveals the tragedy and futility of innocents dying as they are mistaken for “the enemy.” In this last act of this most incredibly paced and dramatically written of his plays, we understand the genius of his message to humanity, which has been ignored and will continue to be ignored long into the next century.
There is no spoiler alert. You will just have to see how the conclusion unfolds ironically in this must-see production which is truly magnificent and fiercely trenchant and timely. I cannot praise this production with high enough encomiums for the director and cast except to say it will be a damn shame if you miss it.
Charlie Cororan (Scenic Design) Linda Fisher and David Toser (Costume Design) Michael Gottlieb (Lighting Design) Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab (Sound Design) and Ryan Rumery (Original Music) and others on the artistic team do a superb job in bringing about the authenticity of this production.
The Plough and the Stars (with one intermission) and the entire Dublin Trilogy can be seen until 22nd June at the Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd). For tickets and times go to the website by CLICKING HERE.