Category Archives: Theater News, NYC
I had the opportunity to see Th McGowan Trilogy and review it on Blogcritics as an offering of The Origin Company’s 1st Irish Theater Festival 2014. Since then I have been in touch with Seamus Scanlon on social media and have kept up with his activities from time to time during posts. Finally, I caught up with him during the COVID-19 pandemic when we both had the time for me to interview him online via email.
Seamus, give the readers a bit of backstory about yourself.
My background is in science so I am a late convert to the arts. I am a first generation college goer in my family so gainful employment was the priority not frivolity (i.e. the creative arts). Science did appeal to me because it was definitive; equations and formulae were a great attraction for me. Also, my hand writing is appalling. I can’t even read it myself. I knew I would never be able to write papers or complete an analysis in college that a teacher could decipher.
Despite this, I recall playing a recording of Dylan Thomas reading Do Not Go Gentle Into That Night and I was immediately affected by it although I did not let on because our school was an artistic black hole. (In 2018, the Japanese production of The McGowan Trilogy played this recording during the performance which was an amazing surprise for me. I felt I had come full circle!) In English class we also read the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh – a self taught genius raised in poverty in rural County Monaghan. This poetry stirred me and remained with me despite my selection of science to pursue for a career
My hometown of Galway is an artistic epicenter with the Tony Award winning Druid Theater Company; the Galway International Arts Festival and The Cúirt International Festival of Literature. Nora Barnacle (James Joyce’s wife) was born there and Lady Gregory (Yeats’ mentor and co-founder of the Abbey Theater in Dublin) lived about 15 miles from Galway, Ireland. Galway county was the backdrop for Synge and Martin McDonagh. So there was no excuse for me not to be enamored of literature, but I just ignored it all. I was too timid to explore it.
How long did you work on the McGowan Trilogy?
Not very long. It was kick started by Nancy Manocherian’s Cell Theater Company Ltd (artistic director Kira Simring) who read a short play of mine Dancing at Lunacy and then staged it as part of the The Irish Cell event in March 2012. They then asked for a full play so I developed two other inter related one acts – The Long Wet Grass and Boys Swam Before Me. They were great to work with – two Jewish women interested in all things Irish. This was staged in Oct 2014 as part of the 1st Irish Theater Festival and was well received. The play was also published by Arlen House. Get a free digital copy here.
What experiences helped you frame the story?
I lived in Belfast for five years so I was exposed to the daily life of Army patrols, constantly hovering Army helicopters, riots, shootings, July 12th marches where the deep seated tribal differences are in full flow. Before living in Belfast I had been affected greatly by the Hunger Strike in Belfast where 7 IRA and 3 INLA political prisoners died. Hunger strikes in Ireland have a long tradition. They are doubly significant and symbolic in Ireland because of the Great Famine (1847) which killed 1.5 million and caused forced emigration of 1.5 million to the US. A therapist in Belfast treating ex gunmen (late teens and early twenties) who had killed for the ‘cause’ and were suffering major trauma after killing someone.
Where has it been produced since it premiered in the US?
After The Cell production in 2014, they brought it to Hastings (UK) to the Kino-Teatr owned by a devoted Russian Hibernophile, Olga Manonova. The same Summer it was staged in two venues in Galway, and in Westport’s Townhall.
The major surprise for me came in 2018. The McGowan Trilogy (in Japanese) play was staged in Japan (in Japanese) to full houses (the lead was a rising movie star so that helped!). I traveled to Tokyo to see it and it was an amazing experience. They were selling merchandise in the foyer so I felt like a rock star! Japan has an amazing richness of theater and other art forms.
In Ireland three amateur drama groups have staged parts of the Trilogy and the feed back is usually positive. Amateur drama in Ireland is a long standing cultural phenomenon.
In April 2020 a theater student, Molly Flanagan at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) was to direct The Long Wet Grass. I was very excited to see this but it had to be cancelled because of the COVID-19 situation. Our mixed genre presentation Galway: The Good, the Bad, The Ugly at the New York Irish Center for April 23 had to be cancelled as well as an April performance at Lehman College.
In addition to The McGowan Trilogy, what are some of your successes over the years of which you are most proud?
Since 2016 I have self produced The Long Wet Grass at a number of locations such as Lehman College, City College Downtown, Art House, An Beal Bocht, Hudson Valley Writers’ Center and The New York Irish Center.
In February 2020 I collaborated on the immersive theater event Echoes of Calling with the Japanese dancer and choreographer Akiko Kitamura. If the COVID-19 restrictions lift in time this may be staged again in the Fall.
I worked on two film projects The Long Wet Grass (Ireland/USA, 2017) and The Butterfly Love Song (Ireland/USA, 2019) which was a new medium for me and challenging. I learned a lot – mainly that I should stick to play writing!
My first art form was fiction so I managed to have seven pieces published in Akashic Books’ Mondays Are Murder slot.
What projects do you have in the works?
My next full length play The Blood Flow Game is a sequel to The McGowan Trilogy and is due for publication shortly. The end game for all plays is to have them produced so that is my goal. I have had four table readings of it as part of that process. I thought after The McGowan Trilogy success in Japan I would be a hot prospect but that is not the case!!
The radio play script of The Butterfly Love Song was short listed in Ireland in 2020 and that was a great thrill for me. It was the first radio play I had written. The Cell Theater, where I started off with Dancing at Lunacy, is going to develop it in Fall 2020 as a radio play/podcast.
I have few short films in the works including Three-Nil, Move Baby, Recycle This and The Resurrection Love Song.
Have you been able to get around Covid 19 virtually as other playwrights and artists have done?
The Butterfly Love Song which premiered in NYC in October 2019 and was screened in Dublin in early March 2020 is now being screened offline by various film festivals so that is encouraging. Film lends itself to this more than any other artistic format. Watch the trailer and the full film free at Irish Film London.
What is the first thing you will do, once the medical profession and the government has a handle on Covid 19 and has decided that businesses can reopen along with bars and restaurants?
I am looking forward to getting back to job as a librarian at City College Downtown. It was set up by the Labor Unions in 1981. Many students are first time college goers (like myself), many are from blue collar backgrounds (like myself) so I have a natural affinity with these students. We offer BA, BS and MA programs. Classes run weekday evenings and Saturdays. We specialize in one-on-one advising from day one. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
I am pretty deaf so I can’t really hear anyone in a noisy café or bar. I write in cafés. My office in Galway – when I am home – is The Secret Garden where I accomplish a lot. I hope it is open by July or I will be in trouble.
I have no writing schedule or format or craft advice or a writing desk or writing techniques. I am probably the worst person to look at for guidance since I do not really know how I write etc. I did an MFA in City College in New York and that was very useful because I had writing deadlines so I had to produce.
You can update Seamus’ activities on his website at www.seamusscanlon.com
Each day the COVID 19 pandemic takes another swipe at the New York theater community as notifications of deaths (playwright Terrance McNally, actor Mark Blum, former Drama Desk President William Wolf) darkly bloom. Theaters will remain closed for the end of the month and most probably into the summer, if state and federal projections are to be believed. Thus, we wait and create and pray supporting each other with phone calls, emails, social media posts virtual presentations, meetings and parties on Zoom.
Show business folks have always helped one another. Currently, Brad Paisley, John Bon Jovi, Dolly Parton and other celebrities have stepped up donations. And beautiful financial flowers are burgeoning from GoFundMe campaigns springing up to support artists. Along with smaller operations, tried and true foundations like the Actor’s Fund and Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS, Dramatists Guild, League of Professional Theatre Women and New York Women in Film and Television to name a few are available with support for their members and freelance artists.
Freelancers are especially hard hit. They do not number amongst the 6.5 million who have filed for unemployment insurance (the number was posted on the news this morning). Not having a regular paycheck but living gig to gig, they are the invisible casualties of this war against a deadly molecule that strikes through those who are asymptomatic and “healthy,” but who are carriers of the spread. Clearly, more needs to be done by those of means who love theater and are devastated that COVID 19 has slammed into New York.
On that note The Bret Adams and Paul Reisch Foundation has decided to create an uplifting way to distribute the funds for their 2020 Idea Award for Theatre. This spring, the foundation will offer up to 40 emergency grants of $2,500 each to playwrights, composers, lyricists and librettists who have had a full professional production cancelled, closed, or indefinitely postponed due to the COVID-19 closures. A total of $100,000 will be distributed to theater writers.
Eligible playwrights, composers, lyricists, or librettists should apply at this link. Writers who have had a professional production canceled may submit their name and proof of a professional show’s closure. (“Professional,” in this case, is defined as LORT, Off Broadway, or Broadway). Each artist can submit only once. If there are more than 40 applicants, the Foundation will award grants by lottery, allowing them to give out the greatest amount of money directly into the pockets of the artists who have been most affected.
The submission deadline is April 14. The Foundation hopes to make funds available to artists as quickly as possible to forge a path to provide a bit of hope and relief and especially to guide others to do the same for artists in this unprecedented time.
The Bret Adams & Paul Reisch Foundation is a charitable foundation. Its mission is to give money to writers to write plays with ‘big ideas.’ This year, their ‘big idea’ is to help those “who have had productions cancelled,” said Bruce Ostler, V.P. and Board Member of The Bret Adams and Paul Reisch Foundation.
Ostler’s point is well taken and unfortunately, true when he affirms, “The economic model of theatre in the 21st century works much like it did in the 16th century, in that a playwright receives a percentage of the box office sales; without an audience, the box office receipts and royalty to playwrights dry up. In no uncertain terms, the business of theatre today has ground to a shocking halt due to the pandemic. Playwrights are not salaried workers and therefore are NOT eligible for unemployment for a cancelled production. That is the harsh reality of theatre today.”
Theatrical Agent Bret Adams and his partner Dr. Paul Reisch loved the theatre with great passion. As an agent, Bret shepherded the careers of many actors, writers and directors and designers, including Phylicia Rashad, Judy Kaye, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Sherman Helmsley, Anna Maria Alberghetti, Eve Arden, Christine Ebersole, Kathleen Marshall, Jayne Wyman, Andre DeShields, Kathy Bates, and more.
After Bret and Paul’s passing, in 2006 and 2015, their foundation was created at their bequest. The Bret Adams and Paul Reisch Foundation champions visionary playwrights and embraces diversity in all its forms. It especially encourages fresh perspectives – particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds – to create idea-driven new plays and musicals. These may include a variety of themes, i.e. science, history, politics and sexual orientation. For more information, visit www.BretnPaulFoundation.org.
‘Grand Horizons,’ a Ferociously Funny Vision of Senior Redefinition, Starring Jane Alexander and James Cromwell
At last! There’s a new and improved perspective of “seniorhood” that doesn’t include steps up the ladder of infirmity and dementia: from independent living to the “Rose Court,” from memory care to the palliative slip-away into Hospice. Indeed, as we appreciate and glory over the vibrant humor and comedic power of situation and characters in Bess Wohl’s Grand Horizons, we learn a thing or two about “old folks” and “the younger generation” in this rollicking yet profound play.
First, age is attitude. Second, the older one becomes, the more one must think outside of the box, especially out of the type found in replicated, independent living housing. Third, the closer one gets to the “end,” the more one should “rage against the dying of the light.” Fourth, one can experience in one’s later years a vision of life that is freeing, one that destroys the cages we created our entire lives: for they are a mere facsimile of living. Indeed, contrary to seniors who settle for the cardboard, cookie-cutter artificiality of existence in vegetative, pre-fabricated places like Grand Horizons, Wohl reveals that it is possible to make life-affirming changes even at the age of 80 years-old as does her protagonist, Nancy, the amazing Jane Alexander.
The playwright’s brilliant script is cleverly paced by Leigh Silverman’s precise direction of the superb ensemble. Masters of the comedy of real, of humor springing from grounded, soulful authenticity, the actors led by Jane Alexander and James Crowmwell pop the quips, jokes, one-liners, twists and turns of phrase and mood to keep the audience laughter rolling in waves of joy. Wohl’s well-crafted writing absolutely sings with comedic grace and profound themes, sharply channeled by Silverman. These include the importance of breaking through the stereotypical concepts of aging, family, parenting, marriage, love, intimacy, individuality and autonomy.
The play’s situation is common enough. Nancy and Bill, a “typical,” retired, fifty-year married couple have taken the next steps toward their journey’s end by moving into an independent senior living community. Is it the replication of row after row of modestly, flimsily built homes in a vast similitude (Bryce Cutler’s projection design) that sets off Nancy? Or perhaps what triggers her is the whitewashed, pleasant kitchen/dining nook/living room interior of “peaceful” uniformity (Clint Ramos’ set design) though it is festooned by artificial greenery.
We learn later in a profound and symbolic irony, that the lovely plants don’t even have the opportunity to die bio-dynamically as a result of Nancy’s over or under watering. They just go on and on and on in lifeless “eternity.” Nancy’s eyes open to their fake permanence later in the play, after she has confronted herself, her children and Bill with the truth. Her ironic comment about their artificiality has to do with the realizations of her own growth.
The vast sterility of this community is only heightened by the play’s opening of Nancy’s and Bill’s dinner that is choreographed to reveal a mutually synchronized preparation that they execute silently with near robotic precision. Well, enough is enough in this perfect haven of deadness. I could hear Nancy’s thoughts as she looked at Bill as they, with synced movements in unison, took out their napkins, then began to drink and eat. What more could anyone their age wish want? They appear to have it all. But is this the exuberance of life we wish for?
At this point Alexander’s Nancy lets the desires of her heart explode from her lips and the train moves onto the express track and doesn’t stop until she achieves what she wants, sort of, by the play’s end. Jane Alexander’s delivery of the opening lines of conflict are spot-on humorous and ominous: “I think I want a divorce.”
The excitement of what Nancy envisions to be on her grand horizon for the future is in imagining its open-ended possibilities, even if it is merely sitting in a restaurant and enjoying a meal by herself. Clearly, she wants no more imprisonment by the chains of coupling. She wants to know her own power, strength and autonomy apart from defining herself as Bill’s wife. As the play progresses, we discover she has already established her autonomy away from her family, though she has kept it secret. Interestingly, perhaps as a long awaited response, Bill is striking out on his own in this senior community by taking stand up comedy classes and enjoying a relationship with Carla (Priscilla Lopez). We learn later that this may be his response to what he has known all along of Nancy’s secrets.
As these details are gradually revealed we enjoy watching the incredulous sons, Brian (the wonderfully funny Michael Urie) and Ben (Ben McKenzie is the harried lawyer control freak who can’t relax). Both are shattered by the announcement of the divorce. Ironically, they don’t want their parents to leave their comfortable “mom” and “dad” roles to be individuals, redefining who they want to be. They want stasis, not for their parents’ happiness but for their own comfort and assurance. Brian’s and Ben’s perceptions of their parents living apart from each other are at odds with their parents’ expectations. For Nancy and Bill divorce will be a positive experience. The sons cannot wrap their heads around this, especially that Nancy is planning to live in an Air Bnb. Their mom in an Air BnB: a horror!
Wohl takes advantage of this set-up in a refreshing way. In an ironic reversal, with the help of Jess (Ashley Park) Ben’s wife, Brian and Ben don the parental roles. They attempt to gauge what has recently happened, as they try to square away what mom and dad must do to resurrect the bloom on their long-dead marriage. Their failed attempts are humorous. Adroitly, the actors bounce off each of their characters’ stress-filled emotions with peppery dynamism and wit.
Brian’s neediness is easily identifiable throughout and is integral to his character as a theater teacher who creates 200 characters in The Crucible so “no kid will be left behind to feel left out.” It is Brian who is so dislocated by his parents’ future divorce, he worries about where he will spend Thanksgiving which is six months away. His sensitivity exceeds his parents’ emotionalism. The dichotomy is hysterical, yet heartfelt.
Ben’s eczema flares as he attempts to take control of where each of his parents will live. And then there is Jess providing the counseling so Nancy and Bill can return to their once affectionate times with each other. With Ben and Brian looking on with hope at Jess’ powers, the results that follow are riotous. As their visit with Bill and Nancy to persuade them not to divorce lengthens, Jess begins to look at her relationship with Ben differently as he reverts to Bill and Nancy’s son. Where has her husband gone or is this just hormones because she is pregnant?
The resistance of the younger generation to the divorce is a powerful obstacle which the parents find impossible to answer to their children’s’ satisfaction. It provides conflicts among the characters from which Wohl tweaks and teases thematic tropes. What are the phases and stages of our lives? How do we define them apart from cultural stereotypes and familiar roles that appear to offer comfort, but are actually binding and nullifying? What price do we pay to create our families and sacrifice for children with expectations that are unreasonable, or worse, false? From parenting to aging, no one can provide a guideline for what to do that will resonate completely with our individual lives. Every family, every person in that family is different. We fail, but perhaps it is worth it because we learn and if we are open to it, we heal.
Nancy’s desire for a divorce sets the entire family roiling except for Bill, who appears to remain calm. Of course Wohl is always pushing the envelope to get the maximum surprise and intrigue from her characters, who remain interesting and intensely human.
The audience’s gales of laughter organically spring from Nancy’s revelations that she has pursued her desires and dreams despite the intrusions of raising her two sons and making a home for her husband Bill. Indeed, the mother they believed she was, is not who she presented herself to be. She had another love. And when she expresses the importance of her closeness and intimacy with this lover to Brian (Urie brings down the house with his responses to her sexual descriptions) in the hope of explaining why she is leaving Bill, he cannot cope with understanding that his mother is perhaps a woman first.
This is something many children have difficulty with unless the parents, with good will and flexibility, help them to understand love, sexuality and intimacy. Bill and Nancy never considered going into these discussions with Brian and Ben because they never went there with each other. It is a telling irony that catches up with all of them at this juncture.
Clearly, Nancy runs deep as does Bill, who is a cypher that Wohl reveals by the conclusion, when we learn that both Bill and Nancy have kept intimacies and secrets to themselves. Yet, they do love one another. The humor and pathos come when we note how difficult it is for Ben and Brian to understand their parent’s particularities when they believed the packaged family meme that “togetherness is happiness.” That meme when they admit it, satisfied none of them, least of all their parents.
All of this eventually tumbles out after Brian, Ben and Jess visit, stay and don’t leave until Bill and Nancy politely tell them to go and reassure them that they are going to be all right. By the end of the play, Wohl opens the door to hope. Even if they live apart, maybe Bill and Nancy can begin to see each other outside of the roles that threatened to box them in “til death did them part.”
Grand Horizons is a mixture of uproarious fun and thoughtful poignance. Shepherded by Leigh Silverman’s vision the actors deliver, with sterling performances by Alexander and Cromwell and with high marks for McKenzie, Urie, Park and in secondary roles as Tommy (Maulik Pancholy) and Carla (Priscilla Lopez). Additional kudos to the creative team: Clint Ramos (scenic design) Linda Cho (costume design) Jen Schriever (lighting design) Palmer Hefferan (sound design) Bryce Cutler (production design).
Why would anyone want to reenact the most bloody battles of American History? In the World Premiere of How to Load a Musket, currently at 59E59 Theaters until 26 January (unless it is extended which it should be) playwright Talene Monahon examines the nature and viewpoints of American citizens who devote time, energy, money and passion to acting out various historical wartime confrontations that founded and preserved our United States of America.
The play that Monahon configured relates perspectives based upon her interviews with reenactors in Massachusetts, New York and Virginia. With exceptional actors portraying the individuals she interviewed, director Jaki Bradley brilliantly stages a production that is vibrant, humorous, at times chilling and always memorable.
Monahan interviewed individuals addicted to portraying historic events principally those occurring during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. What she discovered turned out to be fascinating portraits of a unique group of impassioned citizens who “got the bug” to participate in reenactments, some for the past thirty years. In her interviews, she gleaned their demographics, their interest in American history and their views about our country, formed during and after their extensive research and their activities with others to conduct reenactments for an audience of history and battle lovers.
The production entertains us with these quirky, odd individuals, who put on battle dress and show us how to load and shoot a musket. In initial sequences related to the Revolutionary War, individuals familiarize us with this clannish hobby and identify the levels of those who engage in the fun of it. There are those who went out and did extensive research and are incredibly serious about “getting back into the past,” to the point of attempting to relive it with accuracy. These folks eat hardtack, sew their own outfits and starve themselves as happened because Congress didn’t allot enough provisions for our soldiers during the Revolutionary War. And then there are the “Farbies.” These folks are not authentic or historically accurate. So as Larry says, “For some of us, as we get older, we want a little more comforts of home; so when my ten flap is closed at night, it’s not 1776. It’s 2015.”
We learn about the typical positions of reenactors, from those who play fifes, to those who portray George and Martha Washington, British soldiers and even King George. The sheer fun of it is escapism, to remove oneself from the stresses of modernity and imagine a time when the air and water were cleaner. Of course, that is the male perspective. One of the women reenactors, the fifes-woman (Lucy Taylor) reminds us that women died in childbirth, oftentimes, and there were horrific childhood diseases that killed, “back in the day”. The beauty of reenactments is that one can imagine oneself living in a desired time and place as another individual for a few hours, and yet return to the comforts of one’s modern life.
From these interviewed the playwright teases out reactions fomented from the political climate, and the increasing social and cultural divide, after the 2016 election shifted participants’ attitudes and feelings. Their notions reflect the deepening discourse about the nation’s founders as slaveholders, the increasing acts of white supremacy under this presidency, and the confluence of racism and symbols of the confederacy, i.e. the flag, once thought harmless, now viewed by many as egregious remnants of our nation’s inglorious and inhuman past. Naturally, there are those who find these sentiments appalling, as if to nullify a history that is painful but moving in the progressive direction of “freedom for all.” Without the Civil War, no slaves would have been freed until many years later. The price paid, of course, is incalculable.
During the production which spans the years from Fall of 2015 through July 2017, and up to 2019, those interviewed discuss the present divisions in the country that reveal their roots in the Civil War, including the events in Charlottesville and the white supremacist marchers opposed to the “tearing down” of Robert E. Lee’s statue. Interestingly, for the first time ever after another reenactment, there is a bomb incident. This threatened violence for what once was a fun, staged event and hobby, indicates that spirits are darkening in the country. Those who are interviewed, note these changes with alarm.
Cleverly, Monahon uses issues to raise questions and reveal themes. Some of these concern our ideas about the formation of our nation to gain freedom. Others reveal divergent perspectives of citizens from the South and North. Interestingly, the interviewed (who are “characters”) point out, after a Revolutionary War enactment, the idea that America is an experiment which may or may not last. Throughout, issues related to slavery and its attendant racism are brought up stirring questions about what this means for us today. The actors portraying real people are reflected through the prism of changing trends based upon our social climate. Vitally, the playwright reveals the cultural shift in how these individuals view what the reenactments mean to them during the past five years.
Eight actors portray the individual reenactors, switching into various parts. These are a cross-section: old, young, male, female, black, Hispanic, mother-son, father-son, educated, working class. The dialogue is lightly edited from the interviews. Essentially, the playwright quotes individuals verbatim. Thus, the accents, the humor, the chilling commentary ring with authenticity to reveal what folks in our country believe and think. Importantly, without the exceptional and adroit acting by the ensemble (Carolyn Braver, Adam Chanler-Berat, David J. Cork, Ryan Spahn, Andy Taylor, Lucy Taylor, Richard Topol and Nicole Villamil) who bring this production to its sweet spot, none of the import and power of the themes would resound as fully or shine as vitally, especially the theme about the encroaching violence in our culture.
The production from its scenic design (Lawrence E. Moten III) costumes (Olivia Vaughn Hern) lighting (Stacey Derosier) sound design (Jim Petty) original music (Zoe Sarnak) to staging is superior. Artifacts from the various periods of history adorn two walls of the set, including the costumes and hats the actors use throughout. Actors take their entrances and exists from three different sides of the set, two of which the audience surrounds as two sides of a rectangle; This is minimalistic and smart. The intimate setting allows the audience to feel a part of the action as the actors, at times, interact and directly address comments to them.
As a capstone to the ideas that are presented, Monahon introduces TM, the playwright, as a character (portrayed by Carolyn Braver). On a subway, TM and artist Dread Scott (David J. Cork) discuss the idea of genocide. An Armenian, she discusses its meaning to her (the Turks conducted a genocide and expulsion campaign against the Armenians (1914-1923). Indeed, as a black man Dread understands the meaning of genocide related to what happened during the American institution of slavery. As an important part of American History, he invites her to his proposed 1811 Slave Rebellion reenactment in New Orleans which TM attends two months after their subway meeting.
This powerful conclusion is telling. As an Armenian, TM is struck by Jeffrey’s (Richard Topol) use of the word “genocide” to indicate how he feels about his southern ancestry being vitiated with the removal of the confederate flag and statues of confederate soldiers from parks and federal buildings in the south. The application of Jeffrey’s “genocide” in juxtaposition with Dread’s idea to reenact the rebellion which has been removed from US history books and the Armenian genocide which has been largely left out of the History of Western Civilization is ironic. In a weird confluence, all have understood what being “wiped out,” means, and there is a unity. Perhaps, as Dread states at the end, it is a portentous recognition that “heroes in seeking liberation, receive mercy.” This is especially so in reenactments.
The production that rings with great truth provides a jumping off point for us to consider what our country means to each of us and how we can reconcile that meaning. Above all, the playwright, director and actors inspire us to broaden our understanding of aspects of our society beyond the stereotypic “Red States” and “Blue States” that we may not have considered before. As we question attitudes that may not resonate with ours, nevertheless, we must stand in each other’s shoes, especially those that we may have previously disdained.
How to Load a Musket is a must-see for its originality, ingeniousness and wonderful performances shepherded beautifully by Jaki Bradley. It is running with no intermission at 59E59 Theaters until 26 January. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Maz and Bricks by Eva O’Connor takes place on a tram, and on the streets of Dublin over two days in 2017. Its setting is monumental because at this time, the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland was at its height. Because of the popular support, reflected in the protests to repeal the amendment which banned abortion, the amendment was repealed in 2018, and a women’s right to make decisions about her own body was solidified under the law.
During the campaign, Maz, who is on her way to a massive protest in Dublin to repeal the constitutional abortion ban, meets Bricks. Their initial meeting filled with conflict and humorous, verbal smackdowns becomes the linchpin that changes both of their lives.
The production presented by Fishamble, The New Play Company, won an Olivier Award and is in its US premiere at 59E59 Theaters, as part of Origin’s 1st Irish. Experiencing the 80 minute production which has no intermission, a minimal, spare set and fine staging, one can understand why it is an award-winner. First, it is directed with precision and sensitivity by Jim Culleton. Secondly, O’Connor’s titular characterizations lure us with their vitality, and surprise us with their raw likeability. The play is well crafted with continually dynamic interchanges by the characters and an unadorned, satisfying, character-driven plot development, with powerful themes that hold currency for our times.
Thanks to the superb performances by Eva O’Connor (playwright) who also performs Maz, and Ciaran O’Brien as Bricks, we are led on a journey that moves deeper into the minds and hearts of these individuals, as they become acquainted, gain interest in each other, bounce apart, then couple together in mutual respect and caring. By the conclusion of the production we note how “in the twinkling of an eye, at the last sound of the trumpet,” individuals can open up and help each other reach a place of authenticity and healing, that they did not realize they could reach in themselves alone.
Upon first meeting Maz and Bricks, we are struck by Bricks’ over-confidence, braggadocio and utterly loutish behavior during a phone conversation on a tram, which one needs ear plugs to ignore. When Maz calls Bricks out for his “wildly inappropriate behavior,” and reveals that she is finishing a placard about a nineteen-year-old who died because she couldn’t get a legal abortion, Bricks recoups himself, twits her and tries to smooth over Maz’s attitude by sharing details about his life. After this meeting where he discovers her name and tells her his, the characters, in open monologues to the audience, share their perspectives about the meeting and then describe the next steps as they make their way through their day’s events. Maz goes to the protest; Bricks goes to Lara’s (his X partner) to pick up Yas, his daughter, to take her to the zoo.
The monologues are in rhymes which rhythmically play out with vibrance and power, adding interest and keeping the audience focused at their novelty. Bricks describes how Lara prevents him from his seeing their daughter because she heard about his untoward behavior with her cousin. Bricks’ forthright manner, as he eventually tells the truth to Maz, is a turning point. The playwright exacts a shift in Bricks’ characterization from the lout to the individual underneath the mask. We note his vulnerability, insecurity and upset at not being allowed to be with his daughter, whom he loves. We understand that the cousin may have set him up, so that Lara might punish him using Yas, a cruel action. Desolate, Bricks ends up at the protest. He is just in time to stop Maz from getting into trouble throwing stones at the anti-abortion protesters.
As they thrust and parry, with jibes and humor, O’Connor evolves the dialogue between these two flawed individuals. She heightens the monologues in a unique way so that the characters step away from the action, and with thoughtful, sometimes philosophical commentary, bring themselves to the next step in their relationship with each other. This is a clever device the playwright employs. It gives us the benefit of the characters’ inner thoughts to reveal their personalities and how their feelings relate to their resultant outer actions.
Thus, by degrees, we note the mystery of how Maz and Bricks, who appeared so antithetical to each other at the outset, find common ground with which to understand each other. They demonstrate that “opposites attract,” as Bricks indicates in his interest in Maz, who is unlike anyone he has ever known. However, once they find the raw and authentic centers of each other’s emotions, they realize they are not that different in their humanity and impulses toward decency.
The characters evolve in their relationship as they hang out with each other and spend the day. O’Connor uses their first interaction on the tram as a thematic prelude on a number of levels. She suggests that it is possible to compromise with others about political views, if one is open-minded and hopeful. That Bricks has an ulterior motive, turns into something deeper as Bricks tells us when he stops Maz’s stone throwing. He intuits that his interference, may lead to something between them. If not, he will crash and burn in humiliation. It is a risk he is willing to take.
O’Connor’s characters grow more likeable in their interest and acceptance of each other, driven by acute direction and nuanced, spot-on performances by the actors. We believe that Maz and Bricks might care for each other in a world that is chaotic and filled with pain for them, as we later learn. However, in spite of the problems and turmoil that they must confront and do confront with each other’s help, theirs is a relationship worth saving and deepening.
In its conclusion Maz and Bricks is refreshing, satisfying and real. O’Connor presents themes about prejudice, open-mindedness, truthfulness and human dignity in respecting one another’s viewpoint and in “standing in another’s shoes.” It is a behavior that we sorely need to reflect upon and practice in the current, divisive, political climate in the U.S. and elsewhere around the globe.
Kudos to the creative team: Maree Kearns (set and costume design) Sinéad McKenna (lighting designer) Carl Kennedy (sound designer) who, with director Jim Culleton and the actors, have made this a must-see production. Maz and Bricks runs until 23 February at 59E59 Theaters, Theater B. This is one you won’t want to miss. For tickets and times, go to their website by CLICKING HERE.
Angela Lansbury in Conversation With Charlotte Moore, a LPTW Event at Bruno Walter Auditorium Lincoln Center
Angela Lansbury is a phenomenon at 94-years-young. She’s still acting, still beaming, still working on her craft. What a pleasure for the The League of Professional Theatre Women and the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts to host an interview with Angela Lansbury conducted by friend, actress and Artistic Director of Irish Repertory Theatre in New York, Charlotte Moore. Both women have secured their place in the New York Theatre community and are a joy to know and work with.
The interview was held Thursday, 14 November at the Bruno Walter Auditorium, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts as a free event produced by Ludovica Villar-Hauser with LPTW members in attendance along with friends of Ms. Lansbury and Ms. Moore. All present were delighted to discover Ms. Lansbury’s wisdom and hear stories about her career which spans seventy-five years and includes performances on stage, in films and on television.
A Tony Award winner for Mame (1966). Ms. Lansbury made her stage debut with Bert Lahr in Hotel Paradiso (1957) and was in her first musical Anyone Can Whistle in 1964. Since Mame, she has won four more Tonys for Dear World (1968) Gypsy (1974) Sweeney Todd (1979) and Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit for her portrayal of Madam Arcati (2009) which she played five years later at London’s Gielgud Theatre winning an Olivier Award. Other London performances range from the RSC production of Edward Albee’s All Over, to Hamlet co-starring Albert Finney at the National Theatre.
You may have seen Ms. Lansbury in Deuce by Terrence McNally (2007) Madame Armfeldt in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (2010) or Gore Vidal’s The Best Man (2012), all on Broadway. And if you were in Australia in 2013 you might have been able to catch her on tour with James Earl Jones in the acclaimed production of Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy.
Appearing in over 70 films, Ms. Lansbury was a part of the Studio System. She began at age seventeen with Gaslight (1944) working with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer whom she mentioned were kind to her as a youngster starting out. Her performance as Laurence Harvey’s mother in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) starring Frank Sinatra, Janet Leigh and Laurence Harvey for which she is perhaps most noted, won her a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. That she was around the same age as Laurence Harvey and was able to convince theatergoers that she was his steely, cool, politically compromised mother is certainly a testament of her acting skills.
As a side note, both Gaslight and The Manchurian Candidate are so striking as cult classics, they have produced memes that have been used with references to their dramatic plots. The memes are currently on Social media.”Gaslighting” has come to mean tricking or conniving to brainwash then victimize. (It references the husband’s nefarious plot to dupe his wife into thinking she is insane.) “Manchurian Candidate” has come to mean an unwitting puppet groomed and compromised by an adversarial government. (It references a useless idiot brainwashed to believe an alternate reality for an adversarial government’s nefarious purposes to further their own agenda and destroy a nation from within.)
In films Ms. Lansbury acted with Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet and became friends with her and Richard Burton and many other Hollywood greats, for example Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey. Recently, Ms. Lansbury has been in Nanny MPhee, Mary Poppins Returns and the animated The Grinch That Stole Christmas.
When she took the starring role as mystery writer and amateur detective Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote, it was a boon. She was so beloved, that the network kept the show running for 12 seasons, 264 performances from 1984-1996. It was the longest-running detective drama series in TV history. As a result she was either nominated or won the Golden Globe as Best Performance by an Actress in a TV series 10 out of the 12 years the series ran (5 Golden Globes). And she was nominated for a Prime Time Emmy 18 times.
The rest of her award list belies that Angela Lansbury is very charming and humble in person. She is a recipient of the National Medal of the Arts and the Kennedy Center Honors. She won 3 Oscars, a Silver Mask for Lifetime Achievement from the British Academy, and an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in Motion Pictures. In 2014 she was named a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. But perhaps her greatest honor was her marriage to motion picture executive Peter Shaw for 53 years. In her discussion she noted the pleasure of raising her three children and looking forward to watching her three grandchildren grow up.
Charlotte Moore co-founded the award-winning Irish Repertory Theatre with Ciarán O’Reilly in 1988 after acting together and discussing Irish theater. It was an event of synchronicity for as they bonded, they decided to work together to form the successful Irish Repertory Theatre.
Before her fated discussions with Ciarán O’Reilly, Charlotte Moore appeared in A Perfect Ganesh, The Perfect Party and Private Lives on Broadway (with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton who became dear friends) to name a few productions. She also appeared in many performances with the New York Shakespeare Festival. During the thirty-one years at the Irish Repertory Theatre she has directed almost eighty productions, the most recent being The Plough and the Stars, part of the Sean O’Casey Season and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Ms. Moore has received two Tony Award nominations, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Drama Desk Award, the Drama League Award, the Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award and the 2008 Irish Women of the Year Award. In 2011 she was named “Director of the Year” by The Wall Street Journal. This year Charlotte Moore and Ciarán O’Reilly will receive Ireland’s Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad.
Charlotte Moore asked Ms. Lansbury about her friendships with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, mutual friends. Ms. Lansbury mentioned that they came to see her perform and visited her backstage. And when they came, she made sure to have alcohol at the ready for the Burtons. This received much laughter. She noted the beauty of Elizabeth Taylor’s violet eyes. They were striking. One couldn’t help when one was in Ms. Taylor’s presence to not only listen to what she was saying but to note the stunning color of her eyes.
Charlotte Moore asked Ms. Lansbury about her relationship with Katherine Hepburn who many knew that in her later years became rather prickly; she didn’t suffer fools gladly. After rolling her eyes at the implication that Katherine Hepburn was a definitive personality, which got a laugh, Ms. Lansbury said that they were good friends and Katherine Hepburn was an interesting and lovely individual. Ms. Lansbury would visit at Katherine Hepburn’s home on Long Island. (Ms. Lansbury pronounced it as the natives unwittingly do running the guttural “g” into the “Island” to much laughter.) She referenced that Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey were partners who would never be able to marry or go public with their relationship. However, she knew Tracey as well and she thought he was a superlative actor and lovely individual.
When Charlotte Moore asked what it was like to work with Frank Sinatra, Ms. Lansbury was specific. He was a gentleman and they became good friends. It was not a romantic relationship. However, he took her under his wing and told her a lot about the Studios and Hollywood and a lot about the industry for which she was grateful and very appreciative. When asked about the nature of The Manchurian Candidate and the character she played. Ms. Lansbury was profound. Without being definitive and ruining it with one theory or another, she implied that The Manchurian Candidate was a complex film. There are no easy answers, especially with regard to the ending which cannot be framed as a thesis/antithesis, either “this” or “that.”
One of the interesting tips that Angela Lansbury suggested for budding actors is to leave their personality and their identity at home. She always tries to do that, to put aside her thoughts and concerns about her own life and immerse herself in the character she is playing. And she quipped that the characters were always more interesting anyway and that reality and being oneself is rather boring. Again, the audience laughed.
The overarching impression one received from the interview was that Angela Lansbury enjoyed working. Familiar to acting, like second nature, she started acting when she was a child, coming from an acting family (her mother was an actress). When Ms. Lansbury commented that she is British-Irish (her father British and her mother Irish) Charlotte Moore indicated her great pleasure about the “Irish part,” and the two shared the joke, considering that Charlotte Moore has devoted a good part of her life to uplifting Irish culture.
Angela Lansbury actually is British-Irish-American. In fact her family came over during WW II (1939-1940) to escape The Blitz. With her mother and two brothers, she moved permanently to the United States. She studied acting in New York City and then proceeded to Hollywood, Los Angeles in 1942 and signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. There she obtained her first film roles, Gaslight (1944) and The Portrait of Dorian Grey (1945). She struck gold right then and there with two Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe.
When Ms. Moore asked what it was like working with George Cukor, Ms. Lansbury said he was a very fine director and no nonsense. She learned a lot from him, other directors and her co-actors with whom she always got along. Her pleasant attitude seems to always have been about being professional and following the suggestions of the director to enhance her character portrayals.
The easy conversation between Ms. Lansbury and Ms. Moore flew by. The audience was sorry that it had to end. Members of LPTW, friends and patrons of Lincoln Center and the Irish Repertory Theatre gave Ms. Lansbury a standing ovation in celebration of her life and career spreading joy to millions.
‘for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf,’ by Ntozake Shange in revival at the Public Theater
You cannot watch for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf without your muscles vibrating in joy to the rhythms of the music of Ntozake Shange’s poetry. And when it is set to the dance with musicians pealing out the songs of multicultural generations with her choreopoem delivered enthusiastically in the personal languages of black women from various backgrounds using their unique words, gestures and dance movements, it is simply grand.
for colored girls... directed by Leah C. Gardner with choreography by Camille A. Brown is now in revival at the Public Theater. Originally, the work premiered on Broadway in 1976 and received a Tony nomination. Notably, it is the second play by a black woman to reach Broadway, preceded by Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun in 1959. Shange updated the original choreopoem in 2010. She included additional material, the poem “positive,” and added references to The Iraq War and PTSD.
This iteration in its maverick coolness is a celebration not only of black women. It is for women everywhere. The work recalls us to a time when women reveled in the identity and unity of being female. It was a time in the feminist wave when they rejoiced being in a community of sisters from around the nation and the world. It was a time to become visible, be heard, speak truth to power, overcome, conquer. Considering the crisis and chaos the current WH administration attempts to breed in our culture in concert with a senate majority leader supportive of the white patriarchy who revel in misogyny, embrace white nationalism and leverage religion as a political tool, it is time to revisit the themes and messages of for colored girls… and view them through the lens of womenhood, including those who are most in bondage, white women.
Shange’s choreopoem as in other productions includes music and dance with some poems sung. It is performed by seven women each sporting a dress of a different color which combine to make up colors of the rainbow. As an ironic note, remember that all colors combine to create the color white representing what is sanctified and holy, if you will. Indeed, this “is enuf.”
The woman/actors depicted in Shange’s majestic choreopoem are as follows: brown (Celia Chevalier), yellow Adrienne C. Moore) blue (Sasha Allen) red Jayme Lawson) purple (Alexandria Wailes) orange (Danaya Esperanza) and green (Okwui Okpok Wasili). Together and individually, they dance to express their identities throughout the work and also listen and partake in the community by sharing their wisdom and experience. At the outset of the production, each moves to center stage where via monologue, they contribute their personal message of womanhood.
As the various women play “tag, you’re it,” the first to begin, the woman in brown, steps into herself and with her own dialect, rhythms, gestures and carriage tells a story from her youth about her love fantasy Touissant. She first read about Touissant in the “forbidden” adult section of the library. Touissant was the black general who fought for France and ended up starting his own revolution reinforcing the Haitian slaves who ignited an insurrection against their bondage. Touissant continued their work and inspired a revolution against oppression which ended in a free Haiti.
The woman in brown’s love is metaphoric and symbolic. Touissant represents freedom from enforced bondage. In seeking him as her fantasy lover, the woman embraces the freedom to be herself in a culture that attempts to nullify her voice and identity. When she shares that she meets up with a boy named Touissant Jones, she realizes that one is similar to the other in not “taking any guff” from white people. She decides in her quest for escape from white supremacy’s mores (she had planned to to go Haiti) she will continue with the real Touissant Jones and become the freedom that Touissant metaphorically represents. She will make her own place regardless of whether “they” recognize her or not, for she has empowered herself to know who she is.
Each of the women relate their personal stories in choreopoems. Some are humorous. For example, the woman in yellow shares giving up her virginity in a buick on the night of her graduation. When queried about it by the woman in blue, she tells her, “It was wonderful!” Each of the women chime in about where they “lost it.” The effect is funny and the sharing brings the group together in community. Moving in a different direction, the woman in blue riffs on her experiences running off at sixteen to dance with Willie Colon in the Bronx where she feels sublime dancing the mambo, bomba and merengue all night. But when Colon doesn’t show, she goes to a bar where she learns the beauty and subtly of musicians playing the blues. Her time center stage ends with a song/poem to the power of music and life. Sasha Allen’s voice is incredible.
The woman in red gives a lament about throwing herself into the pursuit of a lover then ending the affair, a place all the women have been as they “dance to keep from” cryin’ and dyin.'” Then there is a transition; the light signals the emotional shift which deepens into the harder subjects beginning with rape. But is it rape when you know your rapist who is a friend or close family member? Each of the women relate their wisdom and finish each other’s thoughts for all have experienced the “latent rapist’s bravado.” These are “men who know us…that we will submit and relinquish all rights in the presence of a man…especially if he has been considered a friend…”
This section is particularly powerful in light of the #metoo movement. The women in the beauty of Shange’s verse and the rhythms of their movements share how the “nature of rape has changed.” You “meet your rapist in coffeehouses sitting with friends.” We can “even have them over for dinner and get raped in our own houses by invitation, a friend.”
Sadly, these lines are even more salient today as we hear the statistics: one in three women are raped in their lifetimes and more than a few are raped more times by different men. One thinks of the power dynamic of the Harvey Weinsteins, the Matt Lauers, the Bill O’Reillys, the Roger Aileses, and all those invisible bosses or friends who laud their “latent rapist bravado” towering over subservient females while boasting about their conquests in gyms and lockers rooms, while showering together. Women reduced, vilified, hated, objectified, say little for fear of more abuse or loss of a job and career. Or they are PTSD frozen by the audacity that someone took what wasn’t theirs to take. The #metoo movement is a first step. When the “latent rapists” are in jail and the men and women they would trample over with their violence are in positions of power, this justice will indicate the culture is climbing to the mountaintop.
Whether latent or verbally harass raped or physically abused, rape is violence. There is nothing sexual about it. In the infantile man’s mind, his penis is a weapon to slay and conquer women. Nothing adult or masculine! A man’s sexuality and masculinity are expressed in tenderness, truth and soul giving as the various women point out in their comments about men and relationships. But who is mentoring these traits of grace? Certainly not the president, or Jeffrey Epstein or Bret Kavanaugh or the Republicans and others in positions of power in business, politics and elsewhere who have sexual abuse on their resumes, hidden by AMI’s “Catch and Kill” program. (Read Ronan Farrow’s titular book on this subject.)
From rape, the rainbow of women present choreopoems about abortion, domestic violence, abandonment, devastating relationships and seeking identity through sex and love. And in the sharing of their trials, hurts and losses, especially the loss of self-hood, there is a benefit. Healing comes with love and empowerment to resurrect a new self inspired by the community of women who understand and uplift.
One of the more powerful, humorous and profound presentations references how women give their self-hood and identity to men and or the culture/patriarchy. The audience responded with laughter at what the woman in green meant metaphorically and symbolically with the refrain, “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff…now why dont you put me back & let me hang out in my own self?” Okwui Okpokwasili as the woman in green is riotous in her portrayal and stance as a woman who has realized that she has been giving all of herself away to one or many who don’t really understand or want her being.
“i want my own things/ how i lived them/ & give me my memories/how I waz when I waz there/ you can’t have ’em or do nothin’ wit em/stealin’ my shit from me/dont make it yrs/makes it stolen”
Okpokwasili’s presentation resonated deeply not only with women but with men. Stealing is an analogy with the robbery of self and what one deems most valuable. In this instance, it also includes physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being that has been robbed by the culture and those brainwashed into theft. Just Wow!
The most poignant choreopoem concerns soul sickness and fear in men that converts to abuse and torment. The woman in red shares the dramatic events that encompass her children’s deaths at the hands of a former partner. The pain and torment from these experiences are related to the community of women who give a laying on of hands to bring on healing. And by the end of this section and the conclusion of the production, each of the women separately then in unity chant as a chorus whose vibrations go out into the audience, “I found god in myself & I loved her/ I loved her fiercely.” At this point the women though they may have considered suicide because of what they have experienced, in the companionship of sistahs have brought themselves and each other to the end of their own rainbows, “fiercely.”
This production is momentous. Shange’s poetry shimmers on the page. The creative team makes the director’s vision equally shine with brilliance. Kudos to Myung Hee Cho (scenic design) Toni-Leslie James (costume design) Jiiyoun Chang (lighting design) Megumi Katayama (sound design) Martha Redbone (original music) Deah Love Harriott (music director) Kristy Norter (music coordinator) Onudeah Nicolarakis (director of American Sign Language).
A caveat, however, is that some of the lyricism and the poetic language is lost in the exuberance of the performers’ actions, some more so than others. Specifically, the words, the expressions in all their glory are not always clear. Sometimes, these were garbled or faded as if on the wind. That is a fabulous conception, however, it doesn’t serve the themes that can resonate and should resonate with the audience, especially the men as they learn about women, a subject they often profess to know little about. Men above all need to know the “what” of women’s experiences.
Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda’s work is rapped quickly, exuberantly. However, each word is treated with “kid gloves,” to add a simile, like a diamond, or precious ruby. Each word is articulated, pronounced clearly, enunciated. Why aren’t Shange’s words treated like such jewels? Every word is vital to our understanding.
I wasn’t the only one frustrated by the performers rushing over the poetry to make the production come in at a certain time. In my section of the audience, humorous segments were missed. Sitting in the round the audience opposite us laughed. The same occurred when we laughed, the audience on the opposite side were silent. Great, if that is a symbolic/thematic notion. I understand, but don’t agree if that is the intentional direction.
Shange’s poetic phrases and word choices are heady. The performers are there to tell a story, to act and be heard and understood. What Shange is saying we must understand. All of it! Okwui Okpokwasili’s “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff…” was hysterical and deep, and the audience around me laughed and enjoyed that choreopoem because she slowed down, enunciated, paused, articulated; the same occurred with Adrienne C. Moore. And Alexandria Wailes’ signing was excellent and powerful. But some of the other women at times didn’t completely come through to us. That disappointed me because I loved the production’s energy and profound themes. Despite that caveat, it is smashing!
for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf runs with no intermission at the Public Theater until 8th December. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Games the multi-award winning play by Henry Naylor directed by Darren Lee Cole codifies a time in history that resonates with us today. The play exposes the noxious practices of discrimination, racism, injustice and inequity during the backdrop of the 1936 Berlin Olympics held in Germany.
At that time Hitler was in power and was establishing his Aryan race laws against Jews who were being discriminated against in every aspect of society and government, from civil service positions to university jobs and private businesses. Hitler’s destructive social policies led to untold misery and horrific genocide. The ultimate tragedy was in the loss of human talent, brilliance and genius that most probably would have added to music, culture, the arts, sports and scientific advancements for the betterment of the world.
To explore how the initial race laws could impact a particular arena, Naylor highlights the world of sports and the Third Reich in the early stages of Hitler’s rise before the conceptualization of the Final Solution (the organized conspiracy to exterminate “undesirables,” specifically Jews, Gypsies, communists, etc.). Naylor indicates how the race laws destroyed the careers of two Jewish women who were incredible athletes and deserved the glory they should have gotten if not for Hitler’s wickedness.
The play, currently running at the Soho Playhouse, explores the true story about world class athletes, one in fencing, Helene Mayer, and the other in the high jump, Gretel Bergmann. The fascinating production, through interchanging direct address narratives, familiarizes the audience with another example of how Nazism not only harmed others but nearly annihilated the once venerable German culture and society.
The minimalistic production briefly chronicles the exceptionalism of Mayer and Bergmann and reveals how they worked with assiduous effort to achieve a greatness in their chosen sports. Mayer portrayed by Lindsay Ryan and Bergmann depicted by Renita Lewis take turns sharing their stories engaging the audience as their confidantes. Each woman discusses how she endeavored to become the best. Both share salient details about their struggles to excel at a level not achieved before by women in their respective fields.
Helene Mayer, a German Jew was a phenomenon at 10-years-old. She sparred with male fencing partners after she sneaked into an all-male fencing class and convinced the teacher that she could best whomever she went up against. Encouraged by her father who was a doctor, Mayer achieved such a mastery in her skills that she won awards in competitions across Germany. Eventually, she won an Olympic gold medal at 17 at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, representing Germany. She won 18 bouts and lost only 2, bringing glory to Germany and receiving accolades from President Hindenburg.
Mayer’s story dovetails with Bergmann’s who was younger and who looked up to Mayer as her hero and inspiration. Indeed, she had a Mayer doll and was overwhelmed when she had the opportunity to meet with Mayer at her school where Mayer encouraged her to continue to excel as a track and field athlete.
During her segments of the play, Mayer discusses how she is ready to secure the Olympic gold medal a second time. However, when she receives disturbing news, her dedication and focus blows up and she doesn’t fulfill get the Gold. Sadly, by the time she worked to compete in the 1936 Olympics, she was banned from being on the German team because she was Jewish. The only team the Third Reich allowed her to be on was the equivalent Jewish team. She could not mingle with the “Christian” team, though she was well liked and spoke to everyone.
During the Bergmann exchange in the production, we discover that the same happened with Bergmann. Encouraged by her parents, as Bergmann, Lewis declaims enthusiastically that she eventually went to London and studied at London Polytechnic, where she became the British high jump champion. She also discusses how she was brought back to Germany to compete in the Olympics and save face with the Western World who received condemnation for discriminating against Jews. It is when she was preparing for the 1936 Olympics that the climax of the production occurs, Bergmann meets Ryan once more. They hadn’t seen each other since Bergmann’s high school years and Mayer’s visit.
At the last minute, in fact two weeks before the Olympics, Bergmann was prevented from competing because of her religion, though it was given out that she had physical ailments that prevented her from competing. The irony is that the Third Reich was so rabid in its annihilating policies, the Nazi party gave up the advantage of a good chance to win a medal only in order not to have to accept a Jew onto their team. For the Third Reich, it would have been more of a disgrace to have a “Jew” be recognized as a great star athlete, a fact that would have disproved the Nazi FALSE FACT that Jews were an “inferior race.”
Things fared differently for Mayer. As a token gesture to mollify the United States, German authorities allowed the half-Jewish fencer to represent Germany in Berlin primarily because she was on record as having won an Olympic medal in 1928 and was venerated nationally. She had been studying at Mills College in California and returned for the games. No other athletes of Jewish ancestry competed for Germany, except Mayer who was forced to compromise and give the Nazi salute as did the other athletes. Interestingly, in the play, Naylor has Mayer affirm that she is apolitical and cannot be branded. Above all she swears that she is a fencer not supporting or working against Hitler. However, fact checking reveals that she was used by Hitler and that is why she saluted, a compromise for her to compete in her love of fencing.
Games is largely expositional with character actions of fencing moves and graceful running moves threaded in by the very fit actors. It may also be viewed as two largely solo performances for there is little interaction between Mayer and Bergmann which is why their meet up in Bergmann’s high school and at the Olympics preparation was dynamic. Ryan and Lewis do a fine job in relaying the angst that Mayer and Bergmann went through in their emotional trials to shore up their determination against the Third Reich and in their struggle to compete and be the best.
The themes are exceptional. And Naylor rings out a siren call for us today in regard to holding on to the following tenets so as not to fall into the abyss that Germany fell into under Hitler’s Third Reich. We must strongly affirm our democratic values by upholding a free press, and upholding what makes our government strong- checks and balances. This is especially so against a current failing White House executive that smells of fascist-type dictatorship and one-man rule of the nightmare that led to Germany’s downfall, and can lead to the dissolution of our nation if allowed to go unchecked. Finally, Naylor decries that ultimately the discrimination meant to hurt the group discriminated against, ultimately destroys the discriminators.
Kudos goes to the actors, director and writer for capturing history for us and translating it into a vital remembrance that resonates for us today. Kudos also goes to the creative team of Jared Kirby (fight choreographer) Carter Ford (lighting design) Hayley Procacci (sound design) that helped bring Mayer’s and Bergmann’s stories into the present.
Games is a must-see if you enjoy learning about incredible world class athletes largely unknown today, but who should be recognized for their pluck, drive and accomplishments. Games runs at the Soho Playhouse (15 Van Dam Street) with no intermission. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Each year, actors, directors, musicians, composers, producers, parishioners, singers, clergy and others gather for an evening in September in one accord. Their purpose is to bless, to anoint the entire theater community from producers and actors to critics and technicians to transmit the energy of joy and peace that will be felt by patrons from around the world who walk into a New York City theater looking to be stirred, engaged and enthralled with the wisdom and verve of live performance. Theater has its origins in religion. Social mavens in ancient Greece conceived that theatergoers/religious adherents, as receptors of the energy that flowed back and forth from live actors to audience members would walk away revitalized from playwrights’ tragedies and comedies.
According to Kathryn Fisher, co-producer of Broadway Blessing 2019, “Broadway Blessing started in 1997 as an evening of song, dance and story to celebrate and ask for blessings on the new Broadway season. For many years it rotated among churches – St. Malachy’s, St. Clements, St. Luke’s, St. John the Divine, and the Little Church Around the Corner – finally returning to St. Malachy’s in 2017, where it has been since.”
The celebration has burgeoned. New York City’s theater community has at its heart this finer impulse and in addition to seeking to make a profit, it follows the same high calling to enrich and redeem theatergoers from themselves, their work lives and the drudgery of daily routines. Indeed, theater’s mission seems more vital than ever in our divisive and stressful political climate. Broadway Blessing 2019, now in its 22nd year, is a reckoning to be thankful for the riches of the upcoming year of theater in renewal and refreshment.
Broadway Blessing 2019 on Monday 16 September was produced by Kathryn Fisher and Co-Produced by Pat Addiss, with musical direction by Stephen Fraser and stage management by Mary Fran Loftus. Special thanks go to Retta Blaney, Founder, Fr. John Fraser, St. Malachy’s Church-The Actors’ Chapel, Fr. George Drance, SJ, Rabbi Jill Hausman, Congregation Ezrath Israel-Actors’ Temple with clergy from the theater district. The evening included Broadway and Off-Broadway performers, the Broadway Blessing Choir and Instrumentalists. Emceed by Fr. George Drance, SJ, who introduced the musical performers and guest presenters, Fr. George Drance, SJ’s pointed, informational commentary helped to make the evening flow seamlessly.
Musical numbers included songs from award-winning shows Oklahoma! Gypsy, West Side Story, Desperate Measures, The Music Man, Hair, The Lion King, Fiddler on the Roof, and La Cage aux Folles. Soloists included Mae Roney, Paul T. Ryan, Nancy Simpson, Katharine Heaton, Conor Ryan, Alex Fraser, Jill O’Hara, Liseli Lugo, Stephen Carlile, Sidney Meyer and Adam Shapiro.
Chita Rivera presented a lovely encomium about Hal Price who died on July 31, 2019. Chita Rivera is an incredible performer (actress, singer, dancer). It is fitting that Ms. Rivera, a two-time Tony Award winner with five Tony Award nominations and a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in Theater should recall to our remembrance Hal Prince’s indelible contributions to theater in the twentieth and twenty-first century. She worked with him in award winning shows he either produced or directed. The most recent collaboration was Kiss of The Spider Women (music by John Kander and Fred Ebb with book by Terrence McNally) in which she starred and he directed, shepherding her toward TONY, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle wins for her performance. Ms. Rivera emphasized Prince’s exceptionalism which will probably never be equaled. She highlighted with a significant pause so we could “get it” (I still can’t) that he won 21 Tony Awards which she saw with lined up on his desk.
In another segment of the program two-time Emmy Award winner and popular theater critic Roma Torre briefly interviewed Stephanie J. Block who won a TONY, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award for her performance in The Cher Show. Stephanie Block shared a humorous story of how she finally realized the speaking voice of Cher on vacation whitening her teeth with Oral B and Crest Whitening Strips. While she was using the strips she happened to speak to her husband who noted the transformation into Cher’s speaking voice. Stephanie J. Block’s teeth are stunning and the story of how she found Cher and received a TONY for it is priceless.
As a coda, Roma Torre is still with NY1, and the lawsuit continues encouraged by her fans and supporters, both men and women. They enjoy her experienced commentary and cogent reviews. Hopefully, her on air time will increase. It is completely understandable why Ms. Torre and five other female anchors are litigating against channel operator Charter Communications in an age- and gender-discrimination lawsuit. You may read the article about Roma Torre’s intrepid fight with her colleagues to stand up to gender/age discrimination by CLICKING HERE.
David Friedman is an award-winning composer of Desperate Measures (music David Friedman, book and lyrics Peter Kellogg). Through the years Friedman composed, conducted and arranged numerous songs, movies and Broadways shows. For Broadway Blessing 2019 he contributed his talent accompanying Sidney Myer in a special song Friedman composed via a request by Pat Addiss (co-producer of Desperate Measures with Mary Cossett).
However, before Sidney Myer sang, David Friedman discussed the song’s backstory. Pat Addiss had asked him to write a song about abuse of the type that one may have experienced as a child. The nature of the abuse she referenced was so egregious that the individual blocked it from memory. However, suppressed events from childhood impact the evolution of an individual into adulthood. Sometimes, upon hearing of another’s similar abuse, individuals have reactions and have even fainted because, as can happen with physical pain, their psyche shuts down because the trigger is too intense. Pat Addiss encouraged David Friedman to create a song about such abuse and he did entitling it, “Something Happened.” The profound song which Sidney Meyer performed with great feeling is about one’s inner cry to confront suppressed truths and bring them to the light to heal. It’s an incredible work and in keeping with an evening of blessings.
Broadway Blessing 2019 culminated with “The Broadway Blessing” by Rabbi Jill Hausman and The Actors’ Temple of the Clergy of the Theater District. During the “Candle Lighting Ceremony,” Adam Shapiro (who portrays the Rabbi from the current production of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish) sang “The Sabbath Prayer” in Yiddish and the Broadway Blessing Choir sang it in English. After the candles were lit, the Broadway Blessing Choir sang “Sisi Ni Moja-We Are One” (music & lyrics by Jacob Naverud). As the evening closed those in attendance joined the choir to sing the rousing “The Best of Times” from La Cage aux Folles (music & lyrics by Jerry Herman).
The Broadway/Off Broadway/Off Off Broadway year has begun in earnest. There is much to look forward to. Be blessed when you come to New York City to enjoy the fruitfulness of what the theater community offers in their amazing musicals, dramas, hybrid shows, festivals and innovative theater offerings.
Jim Steinman’s Bat out of Hell the Musical is first and foremost a clangorous, booming Hard Rock/Pop Concert on a small stage with operatic, bespectacled overtones. In other words, the production is an amazing hybrid not easily categorized. Replete with strobes, underground caves and fiery doomsday projections, intimate video hand-held captures which codify emotional moments and the blaring fantasmagoria of myriad-colored flashing lights with haze and fog, the musical numbers are loud and shattering and the unusual choreography evokes the strangeness of the futuristic setting. These are characters not of our time, but with emotional resonances we can feel and glory with.
Based on bestselling Meat Loaf albums, Steinman wrote the book, music and lyrics. He has been working on this magnum opus for years and has managed to garner awards during his production tours which began in 2017 up to and after the London West End Tour which beamed its startrails to Off Broadway at the New York City Center where it ends on 8 September. Five days ago, Meatloaf showed up on stage to celebrate this vibrant, blasting out of the park musical production directed by Jay Scheib. With the cast he celebrated songs he made famous from the 1970s through his Grammy Award win in 1994 and beyond.
Bat out of Hell’s sketchy story coheres to its slim plot points. These gyrate the action into a “world’s end” scenario that casts as enemies the haves like the Falcos, well placed elites with a pedigree living high above in the neo-gothish “Falco Towers” (slamming Trump Towers) and the have nots (The Lost Boys/Girls). The latter clan are Oliver Twist urchin-orphans, who live a hard scrabble existence in abandoned subway tunnels underground, making wild music, partying and ferreting out their existence with above ground raids. Their keyword is freedom and the innocence and wildness of reveling in being what the mainstream culture refers them to as “lost.” Indeed, it is the other way around. With their power and money, Sloane and Falco have become lost to what they once were and what they once enjoyed. The theme, sometimes you need to launch off and take a break from your own imprisoning fears and corrupted values (which Falco and Sloane eventually do) you can restore the passion and vitality of youth which is spiritual and never “lost.”
As perpetual teens (it’s a Peter Panish spin as their metabolic physical processes never age past 18-years-old), Strat and his band also attempt to stay one step ahead of cudgelings by autocratic Falco’s security forces who intend to eradicate them like the “vermin” they are. However, this street gang is poetic; their “vermin-state” is romantic as Strat proves to Raven (the sylph-like, melodically voiced Christina Bennington). Ignoring her parents’ dictum to stay away from the miscreants, she is lured by the sonorous, powerful Strat (Andrew Polec is mesmerizingly fabulous; you cannot take your eyes off him), attracted to his energy, resourcefulness and ever abundant enthusiasm. Like a super-hyped engine, he charges Raven’s curiosity, daring and love. Eventually, her boredom with privilege and oppression by her father lead her Juliet-like (there is even a balcony scene) to Strat’s emotional, heart-throbbing Romeo.
The character developments are primarily revealed through the dynamism of Steinman’s songs and the superb acting, dance-movements and singing talents of Andrew Polec (Strat) Bradley Dean (Falco) and Lena Hall (Sloane). Interestingly, unlike the others whose movements and actions remain purposeful, especially when delivering an intense, revved up song, Raven’s movements during the time she is influenced by her parents are like those of a jelly-fish with no backbone. Only after she leaves home for one night with Strat, does she gain strength and resolve and her movements become more directed.
During the course of the two act musical, we witness how wife Sloane (Lena Hall’s voice is unparalleled) resists Falco’s love and motivates him to change with her anger and remembrances of their love from the past (the fabulous “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”). Bradley Dean, like Andrew Polec, delivers his songs with incredible verve and realism (“What Part of My Body Hurts the Most,” “Who Needs the Young,” etc.) He is mesmerizing. The Dean and Hall duets are highpoints; balance, strength, power encapsulate their emotional potency in a unified whole. Wow!
Thankfully, all turns on love restored between Falco and Sloane. However, the poignance that Strat will never move past 18-years-old while Raven reaches her late forties is a reality not easily traversed. The ideal that love is the answer, if not the reality is one of the finest moments for the entire ensemble with solos by the protagonists in “I’d Do anything for Love (But I won’t Do That).” And somehow we let pass the hard distinctions of youthfulness and old age that Raven hits Strat with; this trope is easily forgotten and passed over by the rousing, gobsmacking finale.
Outstanding cast members who belt out their souls are the couple Jagwire (Tyrick Wiltez Jones) and Zahara (Danielle Steers). Like Sloane and Falco, this would-be couple remains apart until the end. And their performance together is nothing short of stunning as it melds with the other couples’ renditions into the iconic “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I won’t Do That).” Additionally, Avionce Hoyles’ (Tink, a Tinkerbell allusion to Peter Pan) and Andrew Polec’s number which both sing while Tink is dying is heartfelt and gut-wrenching. Polec and Hoyles are one’s to watch for their inherent star power.
Kudos go to the following creatives: Ryan Cantwell (musical director) Howard Joines (music coordinator) Edward Pierce Studio (design supervision) Steve Sidwell (orchestrator) Jon Bausor (set and costume designer) Meentje Nielsen (original costume designer) Finn Ross (video designer) Patrick Woodroffe (lighting designer) Gareth Owen (sound designer) Xena Gusthart (choreography adaptor) Michael Reed (musial supervisor and additional arrangements).
Presented at New York City Center, Bat out of Hell the Musical is at the end of its run, closing on 8 September unless it is extended which it should be. It is that phenomenal. It runs in two acts. You can purchase tickets online if you CLICK HERE.