‘The Piano Lesson’ is a Striking Revival That Delivers Exceptional Acting, Acute Direction and Prodigious Mastery

Danielle Brooks in 'The Piano Lesson' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
Danielle Brooks in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

How do we reconcile a past of misery, torment and devastation? Do we bury it or embrace the goodness our ancestors brought to bear as they raised us? Do we take the next steps to rise up to the inner glory they encouraged, or mourn in resentment never exorcising the anguish that seeped into our psyches? In August Wilson’s richly crafted Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Piano Lesson, currently running at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, the character Berniece (superbly portrayed by Danielle Brooks) must reconcile herself to her past and become the conduit that translates legacy into new beginnings for her family and her daughter.

The Piano Lesson symbolizes how African Americans must approach their painful history of slavery as a planting field which may give birth to strong generations that carry new hope and opportunity for a positive future. Additionally, in this production directed by Latanya Richardson Jackson, Wilson suggests what that future might be with an uplifting conclusion where family understanding and unity are restored after nefarious forces steeped in colonial, paternalistic folkways and institutional racism, sought to keep the family divided and conquered.

John David Washington in 'The Piano Lesson' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
John David Washington in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

August Wilson’s play debuted on Broadway in 1990, not only winning the Pulitzer Prize but also winning the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, as well as the New York Critic’s Circle Award for Best Play. The Piano Lesson which takes place in Pittsburgh, 1936 is one in a collection of 10 plays in Wilson’s American Century Cycle. Each of the plays, set in a different decade, chronicles African American struggles and triumphs as various families move away from the remnants of slavery and its impact from 1900 through the 1990s. The work has enjoyed three revivals, one Off Broadway in 2013 and the two Broadway outings (1990, 2022).

This outstanding revival features seminal performances by a superb ensemble and a clarifying vision about the play by the director. Each actor brings vitality and authentically to manifest the roiling fear and oppression that still hangs over the lives of characters Berniece (Danielle Brooks) Boy Willie (John David Washington) and family uncles Doaker (Samuel L. Jackson) and Wining Boy (Michael Potts) as they attempt to move beyond their traumatic past. It is a slavery past where ancestors saw toil and heartache and a recent past where Berniece and her family saw violence, bloodshed and anything but a peaceful passing to ancestral graves.

(L to R): Michael Potts, Samuel L. Jackson in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Events come to a head when Boy Willie visits the family for the first time in three years since Berniece lost her husband Crawley. Boy Willie comes with a vital personal mission so he braves his sister Berniece’s ire because he is at a turning point in his life. Berniece and Boy Willie have been estranged because she blames him for Crawley’s death. Tired of sharecropping for others, Boy Willie leaps when he is offered an opportunity where he, too, can embrace the “American Dream.” In an ironic twist he would be purchasing land his ancestors worked as slaves made available after the slave master’s descendant, the head of the Sutter family, fell down a well and died. Boy Willie’s purchase would allow him to end being exploited by others so he might work to lift himself to a better life.

However, he needs to raise more cash to complete the land deal, so he intends to sell their family heirloom, a beautifully carved upright piano which is housed in Uncle Doaker’s Pittsburgh home where Berniece and her 11-year-old daughter live. As is often the case with inheritances, there are family squabbles about how to dispose of various items. The piano not only is valuable materially, it symbolizes the family’s history and legacy, which is both beautiful and terrible. An ancestor carved the faces of family members on it to soothe the slave master’s wife who was missing her slaves that were traded for the piano. Over the years, the piano has become the family totem that conveys a spiritual weight and emblematic preciousness. Wilson signifies this when Boy Willie and friend Lymon find it nearly impossible to lift by themselves.

Berniece understands the piano’s significance to the depths of her soul and refuses to allow Boy Willie to remove it. For seven years after their mother died, Berniece stopped playing it to honor her mother’s remembrance. Though only Maretha (played by Jurnee Swan at the performance I saw) and Uncle Wining Boy play it, Berniece justifies keeping it because of Mama Ola Charles. Mama Ola daily polished it “til her hands bled, then rubbed the blood in…mixed it up with the rest of the blood on it” and mourned over the tragic loss of her husband, Boy Charles who was murdered after he stole it and hid it to retain its ownership. He believed if the Sutter family kept the piano, they symbolically “lorded” it over the Charles family, who they would oppress as their ersatz slaves, if not physically, then psychically and emotionally.

Samuel L. Jackson in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
Samuel L. Jackson in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Gradually, Samuel L. Jackson’s Doaker reveals the story of the piano’s history since slavery days. With understated reverence as an explanation why Berniece will never let it go, he discusses how the carvings of each ancestor and their stories reside there as a remembrance of their identity and the sacrificial death of his brother Boy Charles, who first imbued the piano with the symbolic and spiritual significance of their family’s legacy of forward momentum.

Jackson’s Doaker and Danielle Brooks’ Berniece superbly translate the importance of this magical object with nuance and power that gives rise to our understanding why the ancestral spirits are hovering in the piano’s majesty in a battle that becomes otherworldly between the Sutter and the Charles family. It is a battle which has been continuing revealed at the top of the play with Boy Willie’s excited, impassioned entrance and reflected in Beowulf Boritt’s incredible set of Doaker’s simple four room house whose spare roof timbers exposed to the sky appear to be split and separating.

Indeed, the Charles family is a house divided by disagreement, disharmony and mourning tied in and caused by the racial discrimination, and inequitable economic opportunities intended to keep African Americans entrenched in poverty and peonage. To be free of Sutter oppression the Charles family must move away from the Sutters’ (symbolic of white racists) murderous, thieving behaviors, exploitive folkways and lack of empathy for others. They must free themselves from materialism, selfishness and criminality that has destroyed their humanity, as Brook’s Berniece expresses in her indictment of the men in her immediate family, including her dead husband Crawley.

 The cast of The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
The cast of The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Boy Willie’s presence at this point in time after Sutter is found at the bottom of a well is intriguing. Has Sutter’s wicked ghost driven him up to trouble Berniece about the piano despite its legacy? Or does he just want to make a better life for himself as he suggests? Berniece believes he pushed Sutter to his death, knowing the Sutter land would be put up for sale. Though Washington’s Boy Willie makes a convincing argument that he is not a murderer and Pott’s colorful Wining Boy suggests it’s the vengeful “Ghosts of the Yellow Dog” that caused Sutter’s fall to his death, Berniece is not convinced. Boy Willie’s presence has brought confusion and turmoil, exceptionally rendered by Washington’s Boy Willie, who appears so impassioned about selling the piano, he acts like a man possessed.

Additionally, Boy Willie’s obviation of the importance of the piano as their family legacy is answered with his apology to Berniece as if that is enough because he will sell it regardless. That answer isn’t enough for her. However, Boy Willie insists forcefully almost manically that he will use the land and make something with it, even though the deal is by word of mouth and could be another bamboozle by the Sutter family as Uncle Wining Boy suggests.

Danielle Brooks in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
Danielle Brooks in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

That the ghost of Sutter appears to members of the family around the same time that Boy Willie appears is more than a coincidence. That Boy Willie is the only one who doesn’t see the ghost is also more than a coincidence. Berniece, Doaker, Maretha and Wining Boy see the ghost who has been manifesting on the second floor above where Boritt’s roof timbers separate, threatening with well-paced grinding sounds (Scott Lehrer) to split the house up and fragment it completely.

Why doesn’t Boy Willie see Sutter’s ghost? Has Boy Willie become an instrument of the Sutter family, influenced/possessed by Sutter’s ghost to continue the tradition of theft, exploitation and bloodshed (the chains of slavery days) luring Boy Willie with the dream of being “his own boss?” The longer Boy Willie stays to sell a truck load of watermelons, the more the arguing and airing of grievances continues, intermingled with wonderful songs they sing, the first led by Jackson’s Doaker and the last by Potts’ Wining Boy who made a profitable living which he couldn’t sustain playing piano and cutting a few records.

However, nothing will ameliorate Boy Willie’s lust for the money the piano will bring. Finally, when push comes to shove, Berniece and Doaker do take out their guns ready to shoot Boy Willie if he and his friend Lymon (Doron JePaul Mitchell when I saw the show) remove the piano.

Samuel L. Jackson in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Brooks’ Berniece is so fervent that we believe she will shoot her brother to protect her ancestors’ legacy whose symbolism and spiritual strength she has embraced during Boy Willie’s importuning her to give it up. Washington’s Boy Willie is every inch her equal, stoked by the Sutter relative with the lure of land and his own ambition, like the Biblical Esau, willing to sell his birthright without any guarantees. Brooks and Washington are perfect foils and deliver amazing performances. Jackson’s Doaker and Pott’s Uncle Wining Boy present the stabilizing, humorous counterbalance to the frenzied brother and sister. If not for Wining Boy’s playing the piano at that heightened moment when Berniece has the gun, she would shoot Boy Willie, and Sutter’s ghost would have triumphed, completely destroying the family. Jackson’s direction and the timing of Potts and Samuel L. Jackson’s interference and distractions round out the incredible drama that moves toward the last scene of the play.

It is then that all the characters acknowledge the ghost of Sutter’s presence in the grinding sound of the house being pulled asunder by the warring spirits which also represent the values which the families prize. These are the values which Boy Willie must decide on. Should he be like the Sutters or raise up his own family’s legacy as Doaker has learned to do as a trainman and as Berniece has done steadfastly living one day at a time? Does Boy Willie have the resolve to shake off destructive forces and slowly carve out a life for himself with a lasting peace? At the top of the play Washington’s Boy Willie is so possessed by the Sutter’s offer and righting the past exploitation of his family, he can’t wait to follow them down the same pathways. However, Washington’s Boy Willie does change and is redirected.

(Forefront): Samuel L. Jackson, (Background) John David Washington in 'The Piano Lesson' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
(Forefront): Samuel L. Jackson, (Background) John David Washington in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Encouraged by everyone who feels the presence of Sutter’s ghost, preacher Avery (Trai Byers-another superb performance) who Berniece has been seeing, attempts to cast out the pernicious Sutter. He fails. Only Berniece calling on the help of her ancestors’ spirits who assist in the spiritual battle overcomes the ghost of Sutter’s presence and hold over their family. As she sings and plays the piano, on the second floor we watch the impact of her prayers and the Charles family’s spirits on Boy Willie as Washington manifests the struggle with Sutter’s ghost. As his body arches over then releases, we note that Sutter’s ghost, its tormenting lures that possessed Boy Willie leave. The two siblings are finally in agreement with Doaker and Wining Boy that what Sutter represents has no place in their family. As it leaves Boy Willie, miraculously, the house is made whole. With a grinding sound and the final sighting and restitution of the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog (you have to see the play to understand what happens) the separated timbers rejoin. It’s an incredible effect and magnificent, symbolic realization of Wilson’s immutable themes, about family unity in reconciliation with the past to move forward, thanks to the creative team, wonderful actors and Jackson’s direction.

Jackson’s staging and use of special effects (Jeff’s Sugg’s projection design, Lehrer’s sound design, Japhy Weideman’s lighting design, Boritt’s fabulous set) convey Boy Willie’s struggle, exorcism and redemption from the tradition of oppression, bloodshed and materialistic selfishness that have corrupted the Sutters and work to corrupt him and completely divide his family. He is only able to gain strength to be released when Brooks’ Berniece accepts how the legacy of past can be turned into a positive future by becoming the conduit of the ancestral spirits. It is their beauty, sanctity and strength that rise up to lead her, Maretha and the others forward, if they allow themselves to be led.

Boy Willie and Berniece join hands in unity. His demeanor transforms into calmness. He no longer wants to sell the piano, understanding that his family history and his identity are in unity. With the house returned to wholeness, the wicked impulses will no more occlude the lives of Berniece, Boy Willie and the others. Now they can move forward and carve their own history in the reality of their lives.

Throughout Wilson raises questions whether Boy Willie got revenge on Sutter for having his father burned alive and the question of whether he killed him to get the land in an ironic triumph. Another question is whether the Sutters are serious about selling the land to Boy Willie given the history between the two families. In the production these questions are emphasized by director Jackson’s vision of the themes and characterizations of this complicated work brought to a phenomenal apotheosis at the conclusion. However, as in life, ambuity is the spice that keeps us enthralled along with the chilling presence of the supernatural hovering.

This is a one of a kind production that exceptionally realizes August Wilson’s intent with every fiber of the artists’ prodigious efforts. I have nothing but praise for what they have done and will do for the run of the play.

For tickets and times to see this living masterpiece go to their website: https://pianolessonplay.com/

‘Becky Nurse of Salem’ a Dark, Comedic Must-See at Lincoln Center

Deirdre O'Connell in Becky Nurse of Salem (courtesy of Kyle Froman)
Deirdre O’Connell in Becky Nurse of Salem (courtesy of Kyle Froman)

In Becky Nurse of Salem, Deirdre O’Connell (Tony, Obie, Outer Critics Circle award-winner for Dana H) is luminous. O’Connell portrays Becky Nurse, descendant of Rebecca Nurse who was convicted and hanged as a witch during the Salem witch trials. The actor, incisively shepherded by director Rebecca Taichman (Indecent) does a yeowoman’s job in a role that flies high in humor and crashes into tragedy and remorse at the two-act play’s heart-felt and satisfying conclusion.

Written by Sarah Ruhl (The Clean House, How to Transcend a Happy Marriage) the play artfully rides on a meme printed on protest signs during the global Women’s March of 2017, a march which took place the day after former President Donald Trump’s sparsely attended Inaugural celebration. Some of the signs read: “We are the Great, Great, Great Granddaughters of the Witches You Were Not Able to Burn.” Selecting the concept that women have transported themselves from that time to this and achieved prodigious exploits, then have been regressed by the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision and the Republican penchant for misogyny and repression of women’s rights, Ruhl’s play speaks to many issues with currency, vitality and humor.

Running at Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, the sardonic comedy investigates how the descendant of Rebecca Nurse has dealt with her haphazard life in Salem, Massachusetts, where she gives tours in the the Museum of Witchcraft, riding the coattails of her famous ancestor’s “cursed” reputation. On another level, Ruhl reveals that women still abandon each other and are abandoned by a culture surreptitiously steeped in patriarchal folkways, that suppress and stifle their growth professionally and individually. That rejection and judgment sets them up to pursue other ways to achieve what they want, some of them illegal and many of them ineffectual, causing them to plunge into a downward spiral, wasting their talents and intelligence.

(L to R): Julian Sanchez, Candy Buckley, Deirdre O'Connell in Becky Nurse of Salem (courtesy of Kyle Froman)
(L to R): Julian Sanchez, Candy Buckley, Deirdre O’Connell in Becky Nurse of Salem (courtesy of Kyle Froman)

Ruhl’s humor, under the clever direction of Taichman, develops into full blown belly laughs as Becky attempts to negotiate the ruins of her angst-ridden life, after telling off her new museum boss Shelby (Tina Benko). Her boss censures her for saying inappropriate epithets and getting carried away with what Shelby believes to be misinformation about “Gallow’s Hill.” Becky swears that the real place where Rebecca Nurse and the other women were hanged is on the spot of the second Dunkin’ Doughnuts farther away from the center of Salem. Shelby calls her down for spreading falsehoods, though clearly, as a non resident, she doesn’t have Becky’s information on the background of Salem.

Becky is the type of individual to be spunky, individualistic, strongly autonomous and not easily given to “obeying” someone she determines to be an inferior, despite her credentials. Though Becky apologizes, this isn’t enough for the arrogant Shelby who summarily fires her without hearing her pleas. It fits in with the plans for having the museum turn a profit without the overhead of salaries. Over ego and presumption, the competitive Shelby upends Becky’s financial security. The job has allowed Becky to support herself, pay her granddaughter Gail’s medical bills and generally get to the next day caring for herself and Gail. Shelby’s cruel firing leaves her with no recourse except to find another job in an area that has seen record unemployment. When Becky is cut out of the only job in town she is qualified for, Stan, who got the job, gives her the card of someone who can help her. She is a a witch.

Becky seeks the only safe place left open to her away from her own backward movement and regression. She goes to Stan’s recommended witch (the hysterical Candy Buckley whose twanging Boston accent is milked for well-placed laughs). Additionally, she also throws herself on the mercy of Bob (Bernard White), a high school sweetheart, now married, who owns a bar. She asks Bob for cash to pay the high-priced witch to end the Rebecca Nurse curse, and other expenses as the play unfolds with conflict upon conflict. Becky must reconcile her worsening problems or end up totally succumbing to the curse of her ancestor which appears to be directing her life toward complete failure and destitution.

(L to R): Deirdre O'Connell, Alicia Crowder in Becky Nurse of Salem (courtesy of Kyle Froman)
(L to R): Deirdre O’Connell, Alicia Crowder in Becky Nurse of Salem (courtesy of Kyle Froman)

Buckley’s Witch and O’Connell’s Becky make nefariously funny bosom buddies in changing the trajectory of Becky’s life since she can’t count on the culture to help her. Ruhl’s themes about women having to come up with ingenious ways to support themselves is clear in Becky’s reliance on witchcraft. The clever, randy spells that the Witch concocts for Becky prove to be effective on Bob who is entranced with his old sweetheart. Bob may be an answer to her financial problems, as men usually are for women who cannot sustain themselves due to a myriad of reasons, including unequal pay and unequal opportunities. The scene where Bob emerges in his underwear dancing to Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” as Becky joins him and they have a mild sexual romp is priceless. The scene, the choice of music is superbly directed by Taichman for maximum humorous effect. Both actors carry if off with authenticity and hysterical playfulness.

Unfortunately, when things appear to be going swimmingly for Becky with her new love and revenge on her former boss succeeding when she falls and breaks a limb, the worm turns. The universe which has been bent to the arc of the two women’s magical contrivances upends. During Bob’s love fest with Becky, he collapses and has a heart attack which places him in the hospital. There, Bob has a vision of the Virgin Mary who reminds him of his vows and his marriage and gives him an ultimatum if he wants to live. Thus, he must give up his adulterous relationship with Becky and sell his bar.

Bernard White, Deirdre O'Connell in Becky Nurse of Salem (courtesy of Kyle Froman)
Bernard White, Deirdre O’Connell in Becky Nurse of Salem (courtesy of Kyle Froman)

Meanwhile, Becky, convinced she can use the waxwork of Rebecca Nurse to conduct her own tours on the background of the real Salem witch trials freely goes off the museum’s canned script. She informs an interested group that The Crucible, Miller’s play is filled with inaccuracies. For example Abigail’s age in reality was 11 years old, but Miller, who fantasized about sleeping with Marilyn Monroe, made her older and lusting after John Proctor to satisfy his own fantasies about the celebrity. Becky insists that rather than it be a play about John Proctor’s “virtue” what really happened was 14 women were hanged, something that Miller didn’t portray accurately, nor did he care about. In one of the funniest lines in the play Becky says, “…our country’s whole understanding of the Salem witch trials is based on the feeling–of I want to fuck Marilyn Monroe, but I can’t fuck her.”

At that juncture, an officer interrupts her tour and arrests her because she has been charged with theft. She was caught on tape stealing the lifelike wax figure from the Museum of Witchcraft in order to fulfill the last part of her spell to achieve wholeness and to earn some money in her newly self-created job. But at the point of the arrest, there is a pivot in time magically. The setting regresses to 1692. A crowd (all who judge her in the present-Bob, Witch, Shelby, Gail, Stan) dressed in pilgrim outfits scream, “Lock her up!” Because she dares to question why she is being arrested, she transgresses the laws, an insult to the officer. Act I ends in the throes of her panic and fear as the crowd in pilgrim garb demands, “Lock her up. Kill the witch. Lock her up.”

As the complications arise and boil over by the end of Act I, we have watched the character of Becky become unraveled as she takes more pain pills and makes untenable decisions. Though she is obsessed with wanting to change her life, she has neither the means, the nature, nor the sobriety to find a path which will lead her to success. Everyone except the Witch has turned against her. They can offer no route out of the morass she’s built for herself in her Salem life. And to make matters worse, while she is in jail, Shelby ends up taking care of Gail and applying for custody of her granddaughter. It is both an emotional and psychic blow as Shelby now has the upper hand over every aspect of her life.

 (L to R): Deirdre O'Connell, Candy Buckley in Becky Nurse of Salem (courtesy of Kyle Froman)
(L to R): Deirdre O’Connell, Candy Buckley in Becky Nurse of Salem (courtesy of Kyle Froman)

How Taichman and Ruhl bring Becky to her knees leading to the court trial where she raises herself up to admit responsibility and become accountable for her own actions is the crux of Act II. Vitally, Ruhl brings together thematic elements from 1692 with the present to magnify the issues Ruhl introduced in the beginning. Ruhl intimates that the threads of Becky’s self-destruction are rooted in paternalistic folkways which encourage women to accept victimization and passivity rather than to struggle and fight to empower themselves. Indeed, as Ruhl points out the through line from the 1700s puritanism to the present, such behaviors are culturally learned, generational patterns that are difficult to extricate oneself from. Even Shelby spouts the rhetoric that is most current as a “liberal” but is a hypocrite, incapable of employing the substance of what progressiveness is, women helping women. Instead, Shelby competes and follows what is most damaging to the town, its legacy and future. Her taking in Gail on the surface appears kind but is questionable.

Taichman’s and Ruhl’s vision combines the best of humor, drama and profoundly current concepts. To do this she relies on a superb ensemble with O’Connell, White and Buckley as standouts.

Kudos to the creative team who conveys the settings and provides the chills that leak from the past to the present and back again. Particularly effective are the projections of the black birds symbolizing the occult and perhaps evil spirits at salient points in the play. These are effective thanks to Barbara Samuels lighting and Tal Yarden’s projections. The sets are effectively fluid and mimalistic thanks to Riccardo Hernandez. The costumes designed by Emily Rebholz are eerie enough to remind us of the fearful pilgrims.The waxwork of Rebecca Nurse is sufficiently life-like to imagine her presence being enlivened for a twinkling moment, then vanishing as all things magical are wont to do.

Because of Taichman’s direction, the production translates into masterful performances with high energy, LOL humor and current themes without relying on rhetoric or cant. This is not easy. Taichman, Ruhl, the actors and creative team make this comedic play a must-see. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.lct.org/shows/becky-nurse-salem/

‘Ohio State Murders,’ Audra McDonald’s Performance is Stunning in This Exceptional Production

Audra McDonald, Bryce Pinkham in Ohio State Murders by Adrienne Kennedy, directed by Kenny Leon. © 2022 Richard Termine, photo credit.

For her first Broadway outing Adrienne Kennedy’s Ohio State Murders has been launched by six-time Tony award winner Audra McDonald into the heavens, and into history with a magnificent, complexly wrought and richly emotional performance. The taut, concise drama about racism, sexism, emotional devastation and the ability to triumph with quiet resolution is directed by Kenny Leon and currently runs at the James Earl Jones Theatre until 12 February. It is a must-see for McDonald’s measured, brilliantly nuanced portrayal of Suzanne Alexander, who tells the story of budding writer Suzanne, in a surreally configured narrative that blends time frames and requires astute listening and thinking, as it enthralls and surprises.

This type of work is typical of Kennedy whose 1964 Funnyhouse of a Negro won an Obie Award. That was the first of many accolades for a woman who writes in multiple genres and whose dramas evoke avant garde presentations and lyrically poetic narratives that are haunting and stylistically striking. As one who explores race in America and has contributed to literature, poetry and drama expressing the Black woman’s experience without rhetoric, but with illuminating, symbolic, word crafting power, Kennedy has been included in the Theater Hall of Fame. In 2022 she received the Gold Medal for Drama from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The Gold Medal for Drama is awarded every six years and is not bestowed lightly; only 16 individuals including Eugene O’Neill have been so honored.

Audra McDonald in Ohio State Murders by Adrienne Kennedy, directed by Kenny Leon. © 2022 Richard Termine, photo credit.

This production of Ohio State Murders remains true to Kennedy’s wistful, understated approach to the dramatic, moving along an arc of alternating emotional revelation and suppression in the expose of her characters and their traumatic experiences. Leon and McDonald have teased out a 75 minute production with no intermission, intricate and profound, as Kennedy references and parallels other works of literature to carry glimpses of her characters’ complexity without clearly delineating the specifics of their behaviors. In the play much is suggested, little is clarified. Toward the unwired conclusion we find out a brief description of how the murders occurred and by whom. The details and the motivations are distilled in a few sentences with a crashing blow.

Much is opaque, laden with sub rosa emotion, depression, heartbreak and quiet reflection couched in remembrances. The most crucial matters are obviated. The intimacy between the two principals which may or may not be glorious or tragic is invisible. That is Kennedy’s astounding feat. Much is left to our imaginations. We can only surmise how, when and where Suzanne and Robert Hampshire (Bryce Pinkham in a rich, understated and austere portrayal) who becomes “Bobby” got together and coupled when Suzanne supposedly visited his house. Their relationship mirrors that of the characters in Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. It is this novel which first brings the professor and student together in mutual admiration over a brilliant paper Suzanne writes and he praises.

Audra McDonald in Ohio State Murders by Adrienne Kennedy, directed by Kenny Leon. © 2022 Richard Termine, photo credit.

What is mesmerizing and phenomenal about Kennedy’s work is how and why McDonald’s Suzanne follows a process of revelation not with a linear, chronological storytelling structure, but with an uncertain, in the moment remembering. McDonald moves “through a glass darkly,” unraveling recollections, as her character carefully unspools what happened, sees it anew as it unfolds in her memory, then responds to the old and new emotions the recalled memories create.

Audra McDonald is extraordinary as Suzanne Alexander, who has returned to her alma mater to discuss her own writing which has been published and about which there are questions concerning the choice of her violent images. The frame of Suzanne’s lecture is in the present and begins and ends the play. By the conclusion Suzanne has answered the questions. Kennedy’s circuitous narrative winds through flashback as Suzanne relates her experiences at Ohio State when she was a freshman and her movements were dictated by the bigotry that impacted her life there.

In the flashback McDonald’s Suzanne leaps into the difficult task of familiarizing us with the campus and environs, the discrimination, her dorm, roommate Iris Ann (Abigail Stephenson) and others (portrayed by Lizan Mitchell and Mister Fitzgerald), all vital to understanding Suzanne’s story about the violence in her writing. Importantly, McDonald’s Suzanne begins with what is most personal to her, the new world she discovers in her English classes. These are taught by Robert Hampshire, (the astonishing Bryce Pinkham) a professor new to the college. Reading in wonder and listening to his lectures, Suzanne’s fascination with literature, writing and criticism blossoms under his tutelage.

Within the main flashback Kennedy moves forward and backward, not allowing time to delineate what happened, but rather allowing Suzanne’s emotional memories to lead her storytelling. After authorities expel her from Ohio State, she lives with her Aunt and then returns with her babies to work and live with a family friend in the hope of finishing her education. During this recollection she refers to the time when she lived in the dorm and was disdained by the other girls.

Mister Fitzgerald, Audra McDonald, in Ohio State Murders by Adrienne Kennedy, directed by Kenny Leon. © 2022 Richard Termine, photo credit.

Kennedy anchors the sequence of events in time by using the names of individuals Suzanne meets. For example when she returns after she has been expelled, she meets David (Mister Fitzgerald) who she dates and eventually marries after the Ohio State murders. What keeps us engrossed is how Suzanne fluidly merges time fragments within the years she was at the college. She digresses and jumps in memory as she retells the story, as if escaping from emotion in a repressive flash forward, until she can resume her composure. At the conclusion, Suzanne references the murders of her babies.

Thus, with acute, truncated description that is both poetic and imagistic, McDonald’s Suzanne slowly breaks our hearts. McDonald elucidates every word, every phrase, imbuing it with Suzanne’s particular, rich meaning. Though the character is psychologically blinded and perhaps refuses to initially accept who the killer of her babies might be, there is the uncertainty that she may know all along, but is loathe to admit it to her self, because it is incredibly painful. At the conclusion when she reveals the murderer’s identity and events surrounding both murders, she is remote and cold, as is the snow falling behind outside the crevasse. At that segment McDonald’s unemotional rendering triggers our imaginations. In a flash we understand the what and why. We receive the knowledge as a gut-wrenching blow. Fear has encouraged the murderer in a culture whose violence and racism bathes its citizens in hatred.

When McDonald’s Suzanne Alexander brings us back to the present as she pulls us up with her from the recesses of her memory, we are shocked again. We have been gripped and enthralled, swept up in the events of tragedy and sorrow, senseless violence and loss. The question of why bloody imagery is in Suzanne’s writing has been answered. But many more questions have been raised. For example, in an environment of learning and erudition, how is the murder of innocents possible? Isn’t education supposed to help individuals transcend impulses that are hateful and violent? Kennedy’s themes are horrifically current, underscored by mass shootings in Ulvade, Texas and other schools and colleges across the nation since this play was written (1992). At the heart of such murdering is racism, white domestic terrorism, bigotry, hatred, inhumanity.

The other players appear briefly to enhance Suzanne’s remembrances. Pinkham’s precisely carved professor Hampshire reveals all the clues to his nature and future actions in the passages he reads to his classes from the Hardy novel, then Beowuf and in references to King Arthur and the symbol of the “abyss” he discusses in two lectures Suzanne attends. All, he delivers tellingly with increasing foreboding. Indeed, the passages are revelatory of what he is experiencing symbolically in his soul and psyche. When Suzanne describes his physical presence during the last lecture, when she states he is looking weaker than he did when he taught his English classes, it is a clue. Pinkham’s Hampshire is superbly portrayed with intimations of the quiet, profound and troubled depths of the character’s inner state of mind.

(L to R): Audra McDonald, Lizan Mitchell, Mister Fitzgerald in Ohio State Murders, by Adrienne Kennedy, directed by Kenny Leon. © 2022 Richard Termine, photo credit.

Importantly, Kennedy, through Suzanne’s revelations about the university when she was a freshman, indicates the racism of the student body as well as the bigotry of the officials and faculty, which Black students like Suzanne and Iris must overcome. There is nothing overt. There are no insults and epithets. All is equivocal, but Suzanne feels the hatred and the injustice regarding unequal opportunities.

For example it is assumed that she cannot “handle” the literature classes and must go through trial classes to judge whether she is capable of advanced work as an English major. When she tells professor Hampshire, he insists that this shouldn’t be happening. Nevertheless, he has no power to change her circumstances, though he has supported and encouraged her writing. The college’s bigotry is entrenched, as she and other Black women are discouraged in their studies and forced out surreptitiously so that they cannot complain or protest.

Kenny Leon’s vision complements Kennedy’s play. It is imagistic, minimalistic and surreal, thanks to Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design, Jeff Sugg’s projection design, Allen Lee Hughes lighting design and Justin Ellington’s sound design. At the top of the play there are two worlds. We see black and white projections of of WWII and the aftermath through a v-shaped crevasse that divides the outside culture and the interior of the college in the library symbolized by faux book cases. These are suspended in the air and move around symbolically following what Suzanne discusses and describes.

(L to R): Audra McDonald, Abigail Stephenson in Ohio State Murders by Adrienne Kennedy, directed by Kenny Leon. © 2022 Richard Termine, photo credit.

The books are a persistent irony and heavy with meaning. They sometimes serve as a backdrop for projections, for example to label areas of the campus. On the one hand they represent a lure to Suzanne who venerates literature. They suggest the amalgam of learning that is supposed to educate and improve the culture and society. However, the bigoted keepers of knowledge in their “ivory” towers use them as weapons of exclusion and inhumanity, psychologically and emotionally, harming Blacks and others who are not white or who are considered inferior. Leon’s vision and the artistic team’s infusion of this symbolism throughout the play are superb.

In the instance of the one individual who appreciates Suzanne’s writing, the situation becomes twisted and that too, becomes weaponized against her. However, that she has been invited back to her alma mater all those years later to discuss her writing indicates the strength of her character to overcome the incredible suffering she endured. At the conclusion of her talk in the present she reveals her inner power to leap over the obstacles the bigoted college officials put before her. Her return so many years later is indeed a triumph.

Leon and the creative team take the symbolism of rejection, isolation, emotional coldness and inhumanity and bring it from the outdoors to the indoors. Beyond the crevasse in the wintertime environment, the snow falls during Suzanne’s description of events. Eventually, by the end of the play, the exterior and interior merge. The violence we saw at the top of the play in pictures of the War and its aftermath has spread to Ohio State. The snow falls indoors. Finally, Suzanne Alexander is able to publicly speak of it openly and honestly after discovering there was a cover-up of the truth that even her father agreed to out of shame and humiliation.

Ohio State Murders is a historic event that should not be missed. When you see it, listen for the interview of Adrienne Kennedy before the play begins as the audience is seated. She discusses her education at Ohio State and the attitudes of the faculty and college staff. Life informs art as is the case with Adrienne Kennedy’s wonderful avant garde play and this magnificent production.

For tickets and times to to their website: https://ohiostatemurdersbroadway.com/

‘Downstate’ a Powerhouse of a Play, With Sterling Performances

(L to R): Francis Guinan, Sally Murphy, Tim Hopper in Downstate at Playwrights Horizons (Joan Marcus)

Do we ever receive justice for wrongs done to us if the wrongdoer goes to jail and apologizes? Or are we so damaged no justice or forgiveness is possible? In Downstate, Bruce Norris raises such questions and many more in his compelling play superbly directed by Pam MacKinnon currently at Playwrights Horizons.

At the top of the play the reserved Andy (Tim Hopper) and his concerned wife Em (Sally Murphy) sit opposite Fred (Francis Guinan) who is a senior gentleman, disabled in a motorized wheelchair. As they attempt to discuss why Andy has come to visit, Dee (K. Todd Freeman) comes in with a shopping cart with groceries and Gio (Matthew J. Harris) quibbles with him about the money he owes Dee for bananas. Surveying the house and the roommates, only Fred is white, we surmise this living arrangement has been forced. As it turns out, all four roommates including Felix (Eddie Torres) who eventually comes out of his bedroom to make himself breakfast are convicted sex offenders, who wear leg braces so their activities may be monitored.

(L to R): Francis Guinan, Glenn Davis, Susanna Guzman, Eddie Torres, K. Todd Freeman in Downstate at Playwrights Horizons (Joan Marcus)

Andy visits Fred with Em to discuss Fred’s predation which happened over thirty years ago, when Andy was twelve and Fred was his piano teacher. Andy tells Fred he ruined his life and he can’t function the way he felt he could have if Fred had left him alone. Norris intimates subterranean clues why Andy has taken the liberty to visit Fred. Though Fred didn’t have to, he agrees to see Andy. In his 40s Andy is not supposed to be anywhere near Fred because Fred has served time and has been convicted and is currently transitioning and living in the half-way house. That Andy seeks Fred out and travels from Chicago to Downstate with his wife to deal with Fred is problematic and portentous.

After Andy and Em finish reading letters of judgment and recrimination they’ve written to Fred which Fred listens to calmly, they both reiterate that Fred is evil. When Em senses Andy is hesitating, she tells him to stop backpedaling and continue with why he’s come to see Fred. It is to get a full admission of what Fred has done to Andy. Fred insists he admitted to all of his actions in court, apologized and was sentenced. As they attempt to continue this discussion, the roommates are attempting to live their lives, get ready for work, make breakfast and use the bathroom. Clearly, the couple are a disruption to Dee, Gio and Felix. Yet, Em and Andy take umbrage at the activities around them interfering with the seriousness of their meeting. It is apparent that the mission they are on obviates the humanity of the other men whom they look down on. In their self-righteous ferocity there is an underlying remoteness and cruelty that Norris reveals in superb dialogue acted exceptionally.

(L to R): K. Todd Freeman, Francis Guinan, Glenn Davis, Susanna Guzman, Eddie Torres Downstate at Playwrights Horizons (Joan Marcus)

Indeed, Andy and Em are so absorbed in Andy’s victimization and his wish to fully confront Fred with it, they become annoyed by the interruptions in an environment which Andy admits does not fit his expectations. It is as if in Andy’s imagination, he expects Fred to be a silent robot upon which he can unleash vilification without Fred responding as he sits in an isolated room just to listen to Andy’s rant about him. And ironically, part of that logical diatribe includes Andy telling Fred he has fantasized killing him. Interestingly, Fred responds with humanity and humility. He is apologetic and kindly to Andy which Andy ignores and dismisses. Andy reiterates that he has a right and is not supposed to feel empathy for and forgive Fred. Fred can extend him grace, but he doesn’t have to or want to receive it nor will he bestow it.

Norris does an impeccable job of revealing the humanity of both sides of the equation, especially in indicating that Andy, who is in therapy, has no idea how Fred’s life has been altered by what Fred refers to as his own sickness and deserved punishment. He believes Fred to be a fake. Tim Hopper’s Andy, Francis Guinan’s Fred and Sally Murphy’s Em are sensational in their performances listening acutely to each other and reacting with spot-on authenticity. Indeed, though we feel for Hopper’s Andy, Guinan’s Fred who is unassuming, childlike and kindly pulls us in and encourages our sympathy. When he reveals in a later discussion with Andy in Act II that an outraged fellow prisoner slyly brought in steel toed boots and kicked Fred so that his back was broken and he has to have a colostomy bag and can’t walk, we consider Andy’s “breast-beating” and Fred’s indulging him to be beyond ironic.

Susanna Guzman, Eddie Torres in Downstate at Playwrights Horizons (Joan Marcus)

The relationship between Em and Andy as Norris infers, and the actors ingeniously perform with nuance, reveals there are intimacy issues and problems. Thus, Andy’s psychology seeking out Fred is much more complicated than having him sign a reconciliation paper. In Act II the complication is further exposed and we note Andy’s emotional issues which he can’t confront in himself. These allow him to cling to victimization perhaps for another reason. Clearly, Andy and Em are not satisfied with the “justice” Fred has received and by the end of the play we understand that there is more to predation that happens between victims and their predators, than what there is assumed to be. Perhaps, it is not all on the evil and perverted side of the predator. This is tricky ground and Norris navigates it with understanding, forthrightness and intelligence.

After Andy and Em leave in annoyance, PO Ivy (Susanna Guzman in a fine performance) visits. It is here where we begin to understand how the individuals are monitored and hated by the outside community. Also, the problems that they face living in the house are not being addressed by the state, another example that they are a bottom priority. For example, the house needs a broken window and a leaky septic tank repaired. Ivy tells them that they should pay for the repairs themselves. She is too overworked to deal with it. There are more important reasons for her visit. Ivy brings information which indicates the culture’s judgment of sex offenders has mandated increased restrictions on their transportation and mobility. When Dee asks for the particulars, they discover that the routes they must now take are illogical. The point is that the neighborhood opposes their being in the area and petitions constantly for them to leave; the mandate is a sop thrown to the neighborhood.

(L to R): Tim Hopper, Francis Guinan in Downstate at Playwrights Horizons (Joan Marcus)

Norris also outlines the interactions between the four men. Gio and Felix, who are religious, act superior and reject Dee’s lifestyle as a homosexual. Gio accuses Dee of taking advantage of Fred, who needs help bathing and toileting and pays Dee. Meanwhile, Ivy confronts Gio about his behaviors and he is defensive, insulting and bullying. She has to warn him that she can send him back to prison if he doesn’t shape up. In Ivy’s interactions with Eddie Torres’ Felix, we note her attempt to be even-handed. However, in Guzman’s questioning of Torres’ Felix, again, we feel for both characters. She must do her job and Felix is trying to live his life and at least reach out to his daughter on her birthday. Torres is spot-on in his emotionalism and his broken-hardheartedness. His portrayal is beautifully human and tugs at our hearts.

As a secondary character of great importance, Gio’s co-worker, Effie, has a friend who is a sex offender, so she should know the balancing act that must be taken with offenders. She doesn’t care. Norris uses her character as a catalyst. She has become close to Gio and plays fast and loose with his status as a first time offender found guilty of statutory rape with a minor. Gabi Samels’ Effie is provocative, high wired, a “wise-ass” and loud-mouth, knowledgeable enough about the law to use it with Guzman’s Ivy. Through Ivy and Dee’s response to her, we note her ADHD carelessness and irresponsibility is a train wreck waiting to happen.

(L to R): Eddie Torres (background) K. Todd Freeman (foreground) Downstate at Playwrights Horizons (Joan Marcus)

K. Todd Freeman’s Dee serves as the house master, who on the one hand is aware of everyone’s business, but also watches out for each of the roommates, regarding their rights and responsibilities not to screw it up for each other. Sometimes it is efficacious and other times it backfires. Norris has given Dee the most humorous, witty, intelligent and lovable lines as a former show business person and lover of the arts. Freeman is incredible as the black, senior homosexual, who makes the perfect ironic retort when coming up against bigotry, hypocrisy and cruelty, displayed especially by Gio and Andy. Freeman and Guinan show their prodigious acting talents in establishing the caring, kind relationship between Dee and Fred. In their interactions with Gio and Felix, their performance is nuanced, and Freeman’s ironic delivery as Dee, who uses his humor to lay bare Gio’s arrogance and Andy’s internal psychological fears, is breathtaking.

Norris’s characterizations are beautifully drawn. The playwright enables us to better understand the impact of the hatred and fear leveled by a culture that has little mercy for individuals such as the offenders in Downstate. The humanity that the actors portray in Gio, Fred, Dee and Felix is heartfelt, poignant and tragic. As those on the outside, Andy, Em, Guzman and Gabi Samels are edgy and powerful. All of the characters’ interactions are organic, complex and nuanced. Not enough praise can be given to Pam MacKinnon for shepherding the fine performances of this stark, amazing, forceful ensemble piece.

(L to R): Francis Guinan, K. Todd Freeman in Downstate at Playwrights Horizons (Joan Marcus)

Norris has set up the action threads in Act I, that he unravels to explode sensationally in Act II. There is no spoiler alert in this review. You will just have to see Downstate to find out the conflict developments between Andy and Fred, Ivy and Felix, and Gio and the catalysts Dee and Effie. The result is cataclysmic and heartbreaking

Kudos to Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design, Clint Ramos’ costume design, Adam Silverman’s lighting design, Carolyn Downing’s sound design, which are perfect for the reality and drama that MacKinnon’s vision requires. This gobsmacking production is one to see for its themes of love, humanity and grace, its wonderful performances and ensemble acting, and its overall production design. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.playwrightshorizons.org/shows/plays/downstate2223/

‘Ain’t No Mo,’ the Uproarious Satire Explodes With Brilliance on Broadway

Jordan E. Cooper in Ain’t No Mo (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Ain’t No Mo which premiered at The Public Theater in 2019 brings its scathing, sardonic wit and wisdom to Broadway in a broader, handsomer, electrically paced production with incredible performances and extraordinary, complex dynamism. Presented by a host of producing partners with Lee Daniels topping the list and The Public Theater end-stopping it, Jordan E. Cooper’s brilliance now can be appreciated by a wider audience. Directed by Stevie Walker-Webb, the production shines brightly with the creative team of Scott Pask (scenic design) Emilio Sosa (costume design) Adam Honore, who also was responsible for lighting design in the Public Theater production, Jonathan Deans and Taylor Williams (sound design) and Mia M. Neal (hair & wig design).

The tenor, structure and characterizations which send up Black cultural attitudes and systemic white institutional racism and fascism in Cooper’s excoriating farce and brash, in-your face cataclysm of vignettes, remain essentially the same as the Public’s production which I adored and thought incredibly trenchant (https://wordpress.com/posts/caroleditosti.com?s=ain%27t+no+mo). Based on the premise of the political collapse of the country with Putin installing Donald Trump as president (my opinion as per the Mueller Report) as the main conceit of the play, the government offers a one-way flight back to Africa for all Blacks.

This was a perfect trope in 2019 and still is. Though we have a different administration in the presidency, the same pernicious elements that uplift oppression and inequity refuse to submit to the constitution which safeguards Black citizens and all citizens’ rights. Indeed, since 2019 the villians are hell bent to vitiate as many of our rights as they can. So Cooper’s play is tremendously vital as a clarion call against white supremacist tyranny and despotism at the heart of Trumpism and Republicans’ silent agreement with it.

Cooper attempts a few updates in this production since 2019. He references Black Lives Matter and Vice President Kamala Harris. However, he omits references to the horrific changes in the political climate which has worsened. Nor does he reference the Biden presidency which has sought to reverse every perverse corruption the Trump presidency and Republican party in silent complicity wrought on the country. Trump’s blasphemy of democracy, the January 6th insurrection and COVID botch job (read Bob Woodward’s book Rage) where Trump wittingly exacerbated the proliferation of the virus, killing the most vulnerable communities (persons of color, the elderly) are not mentioned in this production. The updates are unnecessary because Cooper’s themes are more current than ever. In fact they are prescient and hilariously frightening.

The Trump Republicans have continued their fascism and racism with a new vengeance against the Democratic Party which appears to stand for democracy and accountability. At this writing the entire Republican Party has not raised the hue and cry necessary to condemn Trump’s association with two individuals who support white supremacy, Nazis and in particular one individual’s praise of Hitler as a Holocaust denier.

Such white supremacist oppression and outright tyranny are the key points of Ain’t No Mo which suggests truth in ridicule and doesn’t posit simplistic solutions. Cooper’s genius with Stevie Walker-Webb’s superb director’s illumination REPRESENT metaphorically. Within the high-anxiety, farcical elements of the play are the roiling currents of fear and anxiety that reveal what it is to be black in the United States today, regardless of whichever black socioeconomic class one fits into.

Marchant Davis and the cast of Ain’t No Mo (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

This is especially so after the January 6th insurrection, 1,100,000 pandemic deaths and the screaming lies of white supremacist terrorist QAnon politicos like Louis Gomer, Marjorie Taylor Green and fist pumping Josh Hawley. It is especially so as Trump acolytes whitewash violent behaviors as patriotic expressions of freedom, in a cover-up of what they actually are, crimes against humanity and an attempt to destroy the constitution and the rule of law which holds white supremacist terrorist criminals like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys and their encouragers (Trump’s allies) accountable.

Thus, Cooper’s prologue set in a local black church in 2008 at a metaphoric funeral service of Brother Righttocomplain is beyond perfect. Pastor Freeman, the wonderful Marchant Davis, proclaims that the election of black president Barack Obama will save the black community and remove their need to protest injustice, inequity, police brutality and lynchings, and racial hatreds. Parishioners (Fedna Jacquet, Shannon Matesky, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Crystal Lucas-Perry) dressed in tight white dresses, thanks to Emilio Sosa’s outrageously funny costume design, scream and shout the glory. These congregants affirm with Pastor Freeman that the “light-skinned” (an irony) Black president will solve all their problems as their very own messiah whose freeing power they “own.”

Cooper’s memes and jokes are acutely ironic and a veritable laugh riot. For example he affirms that Obama is their “ni&&er” and as such there “ain’t no mo discrimination, ain’t no mo holleration, ain’t gone be NO more haterration…” The good reverend lists an end to every conceivable example of racist terror visited upon Blacks since the Civil War because with a Black president, abuse of the Black race by an unjust government will now stop. Of course, this is an irony because learned behavior and systemic institutional racism is so complex and entrenched, everyone in the nation must work very hard to overcome it. Given the pockets of prejudice and discrimination even in blue states, this is easier said than done. Cooper illustrates this beautifully by the conclusion of the opening scene.

(L to R): Shannon Matesky, Crystal Lucas-Perry in Ain’t No Mo (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

With the burial of Brother Righttocomplain, “Freeman” preaches “ain’t no mo strife, no more marches to be led, no more tears to be shed…” in celebration of a real “going home party.” Of course, when Pastor Freeman hears gunfire as the parishioners praise, sing and dance, reality makes its ugly appearance. With sirens, cop cars’ flashing lights and gun shots, the future descends during the Obama presidency and afterward to the annihilating Trump presidency.

Above the shouts of praise Marchand’s Freeman hears the overwhelming news reports of the Flint water crisis, deaths of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Aiyana Jones, Rekia Boyd, Jordan Davis, Alton Sterling, The Charleston Nine and countless others. The reports reveal Freeman’s overestimation of Obama’s power as a Black president to mitigate racial hatreds and alleviate the social oppression Blacks experience every day. The same discrimination and violence raises its ugly head, despite President Obama’s best efforts to stop it. So the foreboding harbinger of the Trump presidency’s return to Jim Crow 2.0 terrors hover, unless blacks hop on those flights to Africa on African American Airlines. If they evacuate, they will save their lives. If they stay, they lose everything including their black identity and will end up dead or in prison.

Of course Cooper’s Africa evacuation is what President Abraham Lincoln suggested as a way to solve the “negro question” after the Civil War was over. However, Frederick Douglass stood up to Lincoln and vociferously opposed leaving because the United States was their country since 1619, and their association would never be African because their tribal history had been taken from them.

(L to R): Crystal Lucas-Perry, Ebony Marshall-Oliver in Ain’t No Mo (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

As a solution to the hell of Black America’s unequal treatment under the law, evacuation to Africa is Cooper’s over-the-top response. It is a double irony considering that once again, Blacks are introduced to a new form of dispossession, alienation, abandonment and diaspora, while the oppressive white culture “owns” all of the historical contributions Blacks have made in the arts, sciences, government, technology, industry and every field imaginable. In the play African Americans’ contributions reside metaphorically in a lovely bag which flight attendant Peaches (the inimitable Jordan E. Cooper) tries to take with her as she attempts to board the flight. But symbolically, the bag cannot be removed to Africa. And trying to leave with it, Peaches misses the flight and loses her identity and everything she’s fought for as an American. She is reduced to the state of those who survived the Middle Passage and were set up to be auctioned off as slaves. But she is “keeper” of the bag and recognizes that she is left to represent Black culture and identity.

Another key point Cooper makes with the symbolism of the “bag” is that the greatest Black contributions have been forged in the crucible of slavery and subsequent decades of oppression as Blacks and the culture have changed laws to be more equitable. Black contributions are as indelible to who Americans are as a culture and society as the Native Indian lands are the foundation upon which this nation has been built and has prospered. Though white oppression and white supremacist tyranny vaults its own greatness in lies, ignoring such contributions, it is a dangerous oversight and underestimation of Black energy, vitality and creativity. American greatness is in its diversity, and the culture and society will thrive if no one is left behind or evacuated. We must work together and seek equity for all to be great (an underlying theme of Cooper’s play).

After the opening prologue the play’s structure alternates between vignettes of various Black Americans’ response to escape to Africa and Peaches’ growing frustration boarding passengers under a deadline as an exit strategy from the hell of the coming white oppression. Cooper’s Peaches is wonderful as the wired, loud, candid, funny flight attendant who prods her passengers with the consequences of staying: prison and confiscation of everything they own or death (transmogrification). With each vignette we are apprised of the oppression Blacks have been conditioned to which is the foremost reason why Blacks should leave.

Crystal Lucas-Perry in Ain’t No mo (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

In the “Circle of Life” sequence which takes place at a clinic (since Roe vs. Wade was overturned with Dobbs, this is a particularly poignant scene) we watch the digital counter enumerate that are millions in line to terminate their pregnancies rather than give birth to a child whose days are numbered. Surely odds are they will end up as a statistic of police brutality, gang violence or other casualty of an oppressive culture which has come to kill those who drive or walk “while black.” Damien (Marchant Davis) tries to convince the pregnant Trisha (Fedna Jacquet) to keep his child rather than abort it. However, he is a spirit, shot to death, so Trisha who waits with another woman for almost two months finally goes into the room for the procedure as the plane arrives to begin boarding passengers in a humorous end of the scene as one pregnant woman thinks the plane is filled with the “9/11 bit*&es,” coming for their heads.

In a revelation of how Black identity is twisted and nullified by the culture, “The Real Baby Momas of the Southside” is a hysterical parody of any of the puerile reality series which reduce women to silly, gossipy, back-biting, angry, fools, whether black or white, as “benign” entertainment value. God forbid if this were a political show which demonstrated their intelligence and erudition. Instead, memes of what Black identity means come to the fore in this humorous and drop-dead serious send-up of shows which exploit the idea of “being Black.” Some of the funniest lines come when the women are off camera (the cameramen are white) and we discover that they don’t have children and speak without accents and epithets. We see the show is a blind to please and brainwash the audience, who enjoys seeing how “low-class” Black women are. Meanwhile, there are other ways of being, but this isn’t a show about how strong, forthright, powerful and intelligent Black women are.

“The lighter the skin, the better” is a reality Blacks have had to deal with because of white fascist physical mores. The trend has morphed over the decades into a perverse reverse. Other ethnic groups including whites have embraced the “Black ethos” in a perverse acceptance of only the superficiality of “being black” without accepting or recognizing any of the horrific sacrifices Blacks have made over their 400-year history in this nation. Cooper’s beautiful example of this appears on steroids with the character Rachonda, whose real name is Rachel (Shannon Matesky). She is a baby mama the others reject because she is white and is going through transracial treatments to become Black. When she is called out on it in a LOL moment by Tracy (Ebony Marshall-Oliver), Kendra (Fedna Jacquet) and Karen (Crystal Lucas-Perry), she reveals that she has no clue about Black American sacrifices and and just wants to ride the current wave of Black female “cool,” generated by Michelle Obama. She never receives the email inviting her to escape to Africa, caught between her memes and unconverted to her “full Blackness,” an irony.

(L to R): Fedna Jacquet, Shannon Matesky, Marchant Davis, Crystal Lucas-Perry, Ebony Marshall-Oliver in Ain’t No Mo (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

In the last two vignettes before Cooper’s exceptional, heartfelt conclusion, the first reveals a wealthy Black family who embrace white upper class mores, genociding their own identity to convince themselves they belong to the superior, fascist, master race (like a celebrity who recently praised Hitler). By internalizing white supremacist values, they don’t even realize they have destroyed their identity, their souls and their uniqueness. Furthermore, by adopting the”white” ethos as the proud bourgeois class, they have trampled all those who have shed blood to advance the hope of achieving civil rights, equal opportunity and justice by overcoming institutional racism. The bourgeois family don’t believe they are oppressed because they live by the “green.” The supremacists would never come for them because they have money.

We don’t realize how brainwashed they are until Black (the amazing Crystal Lucas-Perry) emerges from her prison underneath the mansion where their wealthy father has chained her for forty years. Finally free, Black confronts them in one of the most wild, convulsively humorous and hyperbolic rants about their blackness and the imperative to leave for Africa. They are so “white-fascist-think,” the truth she speaks is anathema. They kill her (typical Black on Black crime). The neighbors hearing “Black” screaming non bourgeois are infuriated about it. They call the police right at the precise moment Black has been genocided.

The scene is a powder keg of dynamite performances which are memorable and tragic because the family believes that they are a different identity via the “green” (money). It doesn’t matter if they stay or go. They have already lost everything valuable about what their culture means. Staying, they lose their lives. Cooper’s theme is clear. An oppressive fascist culture has as its most horrific tactic, get blacks to destroy the finest traits about them, their Blackness, by rejecting it and internalizing white tropes. Without that Blackness, they embody the worst of the fascist “master race.” They genocide their own and themselves.

Cooper also identifies the Black, female prison population in a very powerful scene. When freedom is posited, one of the prisoners, Blue (Crystal Lucas Perry transitions to a completely different mien and aura) hesitates to leave. In great fear and rage from all the abuse of her past, she creates a situation where she almost destroys her chances for freedom and is killed (or never makes the plane and is transmogrified). How Cooper ends this vignette and the last one when Peaches doesn’t make the flight to join those evacuating the US, are memorable scenes. They leave the audience in awe. The majesty of the actors’ performances and the stark language laden with substance and richness are stunning.

It is a supreme irony that though there is not one Caucasian in his play, Cooper’s themes and messages are particularly for those who have been blinded to believe that their skin color exempts them from white supremacy’s tyranny. It is only a matter of degree. Despotism impacts everyone in the culture as Cooper indicates in the last scene of the play.

In the end scene, the jet pulls away as the Blacks leave for Africa renouncing everything to go to a safe haven, while Peaches is left “holding the bag,” though it cannot be pulled up from the very place on which it rests, having become rooted to America. Cooper’s hyperbole may seem a farcical extreme. However, what they escape in the play we all faced because of the tyranny of the former president, who weaponized of a pandemic which killed a larger proportionate number of blacks and people of color. The blasphemous white supremacist tyranny the Blacks escape via his play’s metaphor, in reality, incited an undeclared war against U.S. democracy in a violent insurrection to thwart the peaceful transfer of power when Trump lost the election. Cooper’s understanding of the murderous intent of white supremacy is divinely inspired. He is a veritable Cassandra in his ability to read the ominous signs and incorporate them in this play. So the point that the only safe haven from such white tyranny is a return to Africa has been made palpable in the Ain’t No Mo, 2022.

The work is breathtaking in its themes, performances, writing and artistry. Don’t miss it. For tickets and times go to their website https://aintnomobway.com/ You will belly laugh and be moved at the same time.

T

‘You Will Get Sick’ Linda Lavin is a Breath of Fresh Air

Daniel K. Isaac in You Will Get Sick (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Sometimes the best way to accept the inevitable is to step into the realm of the fantastic and approach the unapproachable through magical thinking and an encouragement toward vacating reality. In You Will Get Sick by Noah Diaz, directed by Sam Pinkleton presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company, the unnamed characters traverse through unspecified settings and manage their lives of quiet desperation with humor and a sense of camaraderie that comes with a price. The price is avoiding the blinding truth until they are ready to receive it.

Daniel K. Isaac’s character is the emotionally distant, sweet #1, who has a phone conversation with Linda Lavin’s #2 at the top of the play. Initially, I questioned why they speak to each other since money is discussed upfront and it wasn’t clear what the exchange services were. However, when character #2 straightens out how she wants the money delivered, we discover she is an actor, is on a project and above all needs to supplement her finances. Character #1 eventually clarifies the services he pays her for in this absurdist, quirky play whose surreal elements are funny, surprising and metaphoric.

Interestingly, there is an internal war in character #1, which we may identify with at one level or another. He has been in denial about the severity of his illness. The initial service he requires of #2 is to listen to him as he tells her about his condition, so in the telling he can acknowledge what he is going through, confront it and then position himself to tell his sister. At least he knows he is in denial. Blindness related to not admitting the signs of disease when they first appear is a typical reaction, unless one is a hypochondriac, which #1 clearly is not. When we understand what #1 is going through, we consider COVID-19 deniers.The most extreme were on their death beds scorning their nurses and doctors’ COVID diagnosis. These went to their deaths with the peaceful conviction that anything other than COVID was killing them.

(L to R): Linda Lavin, Daniel K. Isaac, Marinda Anderson in You Will Get Sick (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Though #1 isn’t as blind as those individuals, he can’t reconcile his illness. He can’t even admit to himself that his body is falling apart, that his hands are growing numb, that it is becoming harder to walk and impossible not to fall in the shower. His condition is incurable and there has been a diagnosis which we never learn. Yet, as the play progresses, #1 struggles with himself emotionally and must be as detached as possible to begin to comprehend that the plans for his life, his hopes and dreams have been shuttered by the drama that is overtaking his body’s ability to function.

Many youth who are immortal until they aren’t, think that illness is what happens to the old and feeble. However, this doesn’t appear to be Character #1’s thinking…that sickness is for the old. We discover later in the play in a discussion he has with his sister that he is aware that sickness can impact the young and kill them. In fact he took care of his sibling Patrick who was ill, maybe of the same disease, and nursed him until he died. So he is not a callow thirty-something. Clearly, taking care of his brother was a sacrifice of love, but it took its toll on him. In his discussion with his sister, #1 states he doesn’t want her to take care of him, nor does he want aides to help out. Somehow, he will deal with this on his own and allow the illness to take its course. The recognition of the impact of illness on family, since he has had that experience, most probably has overwhelmed him. Denialism and blindness allow one to transition to the truth gradually.

The first step in #1’s plan is to come back from denialism and face reality with someone who is not a relative. To do this and remain less emotionally overwhelmed, he decides to pay someone to listen to him reconcile the fact that he is “sick,” though he never frames it as an illness that is cutting short his life. That is a bridge too far, and one he is not ready to cross. Thus, Lavin’s humorous character #2 becomes the one to take on the impossible burden of listening to him as he describes factually what his body is doing. Character #1’s mind and emotions are so shut down, he can’t discuss this with his co-workers or his sister, just yet. Character #2 will help prepare him for those discussions.

Character #2 is desperate for the money and does odd jobs and takes acting classes so she can become good enough to audition for the role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Character #2 and #1 are idiosyncratic and pursue their own realities and somehow manage to accept one another’s weirdness with generosity so that what they both wish, they help each other achieve. The actors are superb in making the unusual seem regular with their direct, in the moment authenticity. Importantly, though they are not friends, #1 and #2 help each other feel less alone against the personal trials they face.

(L to R): Daniel K. Isaac, Dario Ladani Sanchez in You Will Get Sick (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Character #1’s connection with character #2 strengthens after he sends her a check which he didn’t sign. That forces a face-to-face meeting which leads to other meetings, the next when he hires character #2 to tell his sister (Character #3 is Marinda Anderson) about his condition. When the three of them meet, Diaz constructs a humorous scene in a restaurant with a crying waiter (Nate Miller) that Pinkleton directs with excellent pacing for humor. After this meeting with his sister we understand the limitations of family and why #1 doesn’t want to bother her about what he is going through.

In addition to his illness, #1 faces another problem. He must escape the monstrous birds that sound like crows, who prey upon and kill the sick. Nate Miller’s character #4 plays a number of parts relating to the bird menace. One is a salesman who sells insurance to protect against the humongous birds. Another is a despondent waiter (he appears in #1’s meeting with his sister) whose mother was taken by a monstrous bird. Thus, on top of having to confront the deterioration of his body, #1 has to beware of these other worldly birds. Interestingly, #2’s attitude toward the bird attacks is sanguine, almost uninterested. She will stay well as an older person and help this thirty-something in his illness. Theirs is an ironic reversal of the natural order of things.

Character #2’s response to Miller’s bird insurance salesman sums up her reaction to most things at this point in her life’s experience. She tells him a choice epithet about where to go. Linda Lavin’s #2 uses epithets as seasonings to make her delectable, unstoppable character more immediate and no nonsense. Lavin, with decades of know-how has fine tuned her rhythm and timing for humor, cleverly waiting for the chortling laughter that always follows her character’s well-placed retorts.

Linda Lavin in You Will Get Sick (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Diaz messages a number of themes with these unusual characters who are fanciful but manage to be endearing because they are so vulnerable. Caregiving, Diaz suggests, sometimes requires allurements like money because family can’t always be counted on to help. Sometimes strangers are better attuned because they are not emotional and there are no problematic bonds. Characters #2 and #1 arrive at a congeniality of quid pro quos. #1 even goes to one of #2’s acting classes where they act out “lion” and “tiger” in a humorous segment which actually takes #1’s mind off his condition and physically helps him. Lavin is not only spry at 85-years old, her “lion” and “tiger” steal the show. Her spot-on performance has her addressing the audience and singing an audition song (for the part of Dorothy) in which she ends up in the wrong register. And after trying it a few times, #2 never gets it right.

For his part Isaac’s #1 handles the absurdist elements with authenticity. When he spits up the hay, symbolic of where he originated from, and representative of his illness, the action is weird and frightening, but believable. He negotiates the straw-man, scarecrow imagery in the later scenes with matter-of-fact acceptance. These segments and his apparent suspension (with special effects) suggesting tropes from The Wizard of Oz, an iconic story whose verities relate to the characterizations in You Will Get Sick, are fascinating to ponder. However, the playwright is a master of the opaque and uncertain, never really pinning down any particular truths apart from the fact expressed in the title and our susceptibility to our mortal state. That he delivers these themes gently with fantastic elements is enough.

Isaac’s character #1 echoes Dorothy’s wish to return home as related to The Wizard of Oz. Lavin’s #2 helps him achieve that wish as #1 helps #2 achieve her goal. At the play’s conclusion we note that the money #2 has received from #1 has allowed her to purchase a gingham dress and red shiny slippers so she can properly audition for the part of Dorothy, a dream she’s had her entire life.

#1 makes it home. For him home is in a field of hay (though wheat might be more metaphorical). There he meets up with his brother Patrick, Character #5 (Dario Ladani Sanchez) who joins him holding a microphone. It is Patrick’s voice we have heard (in voice over) expressing #1’s interior thoughts throughout the play.

At the conclusion we understand the importance of #5 in helping give #1 solace and comfort to keep his emotional turmoil at bay so he can function and find his way to “get back to where he once belonged.” At home in the field with Patrick, #1 is able to breathe freely, away from the noise and the hectic gyrations of city life. There, he seems well and is in his right place. The metaphors settle into a finality at the conclusion. Indeed, the human condition vies between sickness and wellness. As Diaz’s title suggests, humans are mere mortals. There is an immutable inevitably of sickness. During it, if we are fortunate, we will “get back to where we once belonged” (our home and what that means to us).

Kudos to dots (set design) Michael Kross and Alicia Austin (costume design) Cha See (lighting design) Lee Kinney (original music and sound design) Daniel Kluger (original music and sound effects) Skylar Fox (magic and illusions) Tommy Kurzman (hair and wig design) who bring Diaz’s play and Pinkleton’s vision of it to fruition.

Diaz’s daring, imagistic play is in its World Premiere at the Laura Pels Theatre, Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre until 11 December. For tickets and times go to their website https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/get-tickets/2022-2023-season/you-will-get-sick/performances

In ‘A Christmas Carol,’ Jefferson Mays is The Masterpiece

Jefferson Mays in A Christmas Carol (courtesy of A Christmas Carol Live)

Someone once said, “It is easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Increased with golden toilets, their own airplanes and wanting for nothing, the rich don’t need to believe in God nor be accountable to anyone. Indeed in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol adapted by Jefferson Mays, Susan Lyons and Michael Arden, currently at the Nederlander Theatre, we recognize what it takes for a stingy, greedy, penurious rich man like Scrooge to transform into a generous, kind soul who demonstrates God’s love. Scrooge must be kidnapped by ghosts and taken on a spiritual journey toward a horrific ending. He must face the black night of the soul as death comes for him. If you’re familiar with Dickens’ story, you know the outcome. “Bah! Humbug!”

With Jefferson Mays in the driver’s seat of this truly heavenly Christmas Carol, directed by Michael Arden, running until 1st of January, we glory over Mays’ Scroogey ending. Employing magnificent performance skills honed to perfection, Mays brings to life Dickens’ popular story in a viscerally charged solo performance for the ages. The man of many faces, voices, gestures and personalities, Mays (Tony Award for I am my Own Wife) inhabits 50 or more characters to proclaim the message of goodness, love, joy and redemption in the true spirit of Christmas for audience members fortunate to catch him live this holiday season. He even portrays a cooking potato and enlivens the mist and fog that enters Scrooge’s chambers. Shriek!

Jefferson Mays in A Christmas Carol (courtesy of A Christmas Carol Live)

Conceived by Michael Arden and Dane Laffrey, the production is an acutely tailored phantasmagoria of delight, fear, fun, strangeness and the macabre on steroids. It flies on ghostly wings at the speed of light and sound without an intermission, then it ends in Mays’ virtuoso curtain call to a standing ovation. Though you swear there are heavenly hosts that accompany him during his bows, look again. Yes, during the production there were many individuals onstage taking part in this amazing interactive storytelling. But no. Only he stands grinning in the spotlight pleased that the audience was hushed and enthralled, and suspended in time, caught up with him in the ethereal web of make believe, that is too real to accept for all of its mortality in immortality.

With the streamlined Mays, Lyons, Arden adaptation, Dickens’ prose is steadfast, ironic, cryptic, paired down to an acute sensibility so that Mays vibrates his instrument to produce Scrooge, Marley, all the Cratchits, his nephew Fred, Scrooge’s sister, Fezziwig, the Christmas spirits, Londoners and other souls and beings with pointed, sonorous, gravelly, delicate, squeaky, smooth, guttural vocal modulations. In other instances with a mere look, smile, shake of the head, shrug of the shoulders or flip of the hand, we see each member of the Cratchit family sitting around the dinner table. The scene is the centerpiece of Mays’ wit and whimsy assisted by no special effects because he IS the master of the “stuff” of kinetic presentation.

Jefferson Mays in A Christmas Carol (courtesy of A Christmas Carol Live)

All these lovely and frightening individuals are authentically realized, as Mays fuses various genders, ages, mortals and immortals seamlessly with heartfelt, poignant and unmistakable generosity, a veritable melting pot of democracy. To say that Mays pours out every cell of his being to clarify Dickens’ message to update it for our time, is an understatement. With humanity he filters through his own soul the two most mortal of sins (a denial of God’s commands to love Him and love thy neighbors). Effecting this, Mays materializes and elucidates the stark, craven distinctions between the haves and have nots. Even Dickens, who railed at the predation of the owner class upon the worker class, shoved into debtors prisons and workhouses, would be proud to see what his words have wrought in Mays’ prophetic and brilliant enactments.

Clearly, this Carol slams the shameful indecency flying about the heads of grasping, rich owners like Scrooge and Marley whose greedy, hardened hearts perpetuate the impoverishment of workers in order to squeeze obscene profits for themselves because “they can,” for no one in the complicit government stops them.

But I have gotten ahead of myself. This production is without sentimentality, chiefly because with bounteous affection, Mays adheres to Dickens’ renderings. He allows the richness of Dickens’ words to organically inspire his every emotion, bringing a new understanding to what Dickens has achieved and revealing why this work is timeless.

The script is similar to the one that Dickens toured and enlivened himself with presentation foremost in his mind. The plot points are essentially the same, however, the creative team transfigures Dickens’ work, heightening it to a dimensional reality that is beyond our tangible realm. Dane Laffrey (scenic and costume design) Ben Stanton (lighting design) Joshua D. Reid (sound design) Lucy MacKinnon (production design) Cookie Jordan (hair, wig & makeup design), attend to details, carving them from Dickens’ language, lifting our felt experience to a transcendence that is breathtaking. Mays and the creative team’s efforts perfectly complement each other to reveal the characters like never before.

Jefferson Mays in A Christmas Carol (courtesy of A Christmas Carol Live)

First, this version of A Christmas Carol is about darkness. Ebenezer Scrooge and his kindred partner in spiritual crime Marley, are souls without light. The moment the audience members enter, the show has begun. It is a viewing of a casket on a bier, surrounded by total stygian darkness, if not for the inky-greenish, backlit glow, eerily portending the supernatural after the irrevocable end to Marley’s mortal flesh. Then with a shock and thunderous clap, darkness and fear descend, snuffing out the light everywhere.

The evening I was present in the audience, there were nervous titters of laughing fear and what seemed an interminable wait which increased our tension. Then one, lone candle flickered in the palpable darkness, lit by “The Mourner” draped in black Victorian dress with top hat. Jefferson Mays, the narrator! Loudly, Mays proclaims the immutable fact that “Jacob Marley was dead,” to a community of mortals who, like Scrooge, don’t believe death will come for them. But then neither did Marley. The joke is a blasphemy to those who believe in money and no God.

Jefferson Mays in A Christmas Carol (courtesy of A Christmas Carol Live)

Well, mystery solved. We know that it is Marley who is in the coffin. But what was that horrifying loud clap like a door closing on light forever? As Mays makes his way across the stage to light another candle which sends a weak glow through the caliginous room, we are rapt, mesmerized by the creative team’s ingenuity to fill us with an anticipated dread. It comes as Mays’ narrator begins the tale of the man in the coffin and the frightening events that happen to his partner Scrooge on this night, Christmas eve, a night signifying that grace is available even to a man of wicked greed like Scrooge, who believes Christmas (God’s love and gift of redemption) is a “Bah! Humbug!” fiction.

There is no end to the shocks erupting throughout this spectral and darkly fabulous presentation. The frightening effects and accompanying sounds startle and thrill. I was amazed by the amorphous, yet defined steam engine pealing out whistles and chugging puffs of smoke; in the twinkling of an eye present, then vanished as Dane Laffrey’s scenic design, Ben Stanton’s lighting design, Joshua D. Reid’s sound design and Lucy Mackinnon’s production design evoked the setting of a Victorian London. In the drapes and accoutrements of Scrooge’s bedroom to the “horn of plenty” abundance of the the groaning table of Christmas Present, everywhere on stage and with that locomotive, the audience is there “back in the day,” 150 years before. Calling me to attention, the immediacy alerted my expectations. I barely had time to wonder what other ghostly remnants of the past like that steam engine would present the shifting atmospheres of time and place in present, past and future Christmases, when Mays was in his states of becoming. From crotchety Scrooge to cheery nephew Fred to beloved, Bob Cratchit, all three sprung into spontaneous interaction.

Throughout, I heard, maybe for the first time, Dickens’ precise word craftsmanship. For example in this script Dickens strings together acute descriptors of Scrooge’s covetousness-squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, etc., and ends with an incalculably gobsmacking simile that identifies the man’s state of being as a result of covetousness: “Scrooge was as solitary as an oyster.” I’ve always appreciated Dickens’ genius. This production vaulted him to higher heights in my writerly estimation.

Jefferson Mays in A Christmas Carol (courtesy of A Christmas Carol Live)

The thing is Mays is hyper aware of every word and he evokes its meaning with an appreciation of Dickens’ style, humor and ironies. And he wants us to catch these gems and have fun with them as he does. His performance is so immediate and embracing it is impossible to “intellectualize.” You just have to watch and react to whatever laugh comes up or be afraid of whatever fearful demon or entity comes next. I thought that the projected, darkness-filled children, one of which was pronounced to be “doom,” were particularly galling. With the darkness as it moves into the light-filled joy, Mays in collaboration with Arden and the production designers, creates a beloved tribute to Dickens’ greatness.

The emotions and reactions conveyed by various scenes are too many to enumerate. A few include Mays’ terrible infusion of Marley’s spirit, more chilling than Hamlet’s father for there is no surcease in his torment in a purgatory. Marley’s mortal sins have brought him to his irrevocable destination and he cries to be heard and listened to. That he visits Scrooge to reveal there are consequences in an afterlife where there is a God and where damnation is of one’s own making is grace enough bestowed on his partner in crime. Thus, Scrooge is taken up short at this visitation of one as godless and unbelieving as he. Mays’ seamless segues between Scrooge and Marley are incredible.

Likewise, as mentioned, the Cratchit scene is just superbly riotous. I found the wondrous Christmas Present segment one of joy, happiness, abundance and light. It is sandwiched between the previous Christmas Past scene of lugubriousness, and the coming gloom of Christmas Future’s portentous finality.

Of course for all of us, whether young or old, it’s memento mori another theme of this spectacular production. The incarnation of Death (Danny Gardner) when the creative team pulls out all stops is terrifying. It is enough to appall the most avuncular, sweet, scientific atheist who swears god is a fiction for frightened children. No wonder the irascible incorrigible goes down on his knees against such a being.

No more need be said except this production is a shining light, at a time when all around are dark hearts waiting to devour goodness and mercy because they can’t distinguish it from the light of joy the opposite to be “Bah Humbug!” fictions. Once live captured streaming two years ago, this live performance will most probably not be seen again, unless there is a return of grace in years to come. That’s why you should see it now. Mays is amaysing! For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.achristmascarollive.com/tickets/

‘A Man of No Importance’ at CSC, a Superb Revival

Jim Parsons (center) and the Company of A Man of No Importance (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

In its second Off Broadway go-round (Lincoln Center in 2002) Terrence McNally’s book and Stephen Flaherty’s music with Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics of A Man of No Importance directed and designed by John Doyle, is currently at CSC until 18 of December. The production is Doyle’s unaffecting and warm goodbye as Artistic Director of CSC. The uplifting, poignant musical appropriately reminds us of the vitality of theater, whether it be in an office space or a majestic 1500 seat house on 42nd street. Unlike the titular film A Man of No Importance is based on (1994, starring Albert Finney, written by Barry Devlin, produced by Little Bird) live theater is interactive. The audience spurs on the actors in a kinetic, telepathic bond that is incredibly enjoyable once opening night jitters are put to rest.

The Company of A Man of No Importance (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

This most probably is what keeps protagonist Alfie, a DIY theater director of Dublin’s St. Imelda’s Church players inspired and engaged, though their performances are reportedly terrible. And it is why he is wickedly devastated when Father Kenny (Nathaniel Stampley) closes down their production of Salome, because it is inappropriate and untoward for a community church theater show, though the story is right out of scripture. Actually, by the end of the production we learn that the butcher, Mr. Carney (Thom Sesma), who is one of their amateur troupe, complained to Father Kenny that Salome was tantamount to pornography because he had a small role and that pissed him off.

Jim Parsons, Mare Winningham in A Man of No Importance (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Alfie (portrayed by the likable and heartfelt Jim Parsons) apart from his love and spirit guidance by Oscar Wilde, who encourages him to read poems while at his job as a conductor on a Dublin bus, is a closeted, sensitive gay man. He lives with his domineering sister Lily (the always superb Mare Winningham) in their small apartment, where he keeps a raft of books and tests out his gourmet international recipes on her unadorned, “Irish stew palette.”

The year is 1964 before the cultural revolution, “free love,” mini skirts, The Beatles phenomenon and a relaxation of Catholicism’s strictures that didn’t really happen until decades later. Then, the Republic of Ireland was repressed and oppressed by doctrine that made it look more like the radical, right-wing conservative anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion, red state swamp areas of the American South in 2022. Because of such cultural dispossession, Alfie lives in a fantasy world of art, theater and poetry. He remains inspired by his spiritual advisor, fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde, as he tries to improve the lives of those around him, whether at his job as a conductor, at home with his sister, or at the church, directing his St. Imelda Players.

A.J. Shively, Jim Parsons (back to camera) in A Man of No Importance (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

When Father Kenny closes down their amateur troupe, Alfie is quite bereft, until the St. Imelda Players decide to perform a play of the events that have brought them to where they are at the finish line in the present (1964) with no winning trophy. But instead of directing them, Alfie will be the star of their play.

Mary Beth Peil and the Company of A Man of No Importance (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Cleverly, McNally, Flaherty and Ahrens adjusted and adapted the film as a flashback sandwiched by the present. The church players become the Greek chorus who engineer the events of the play, streamlining them into the action that happened at St. Imelda’s before Father Kenny shuttered their company. They sing songs that embody the emotional feeling and turning points of those events. These songs include the conflict between and among the characters, personal confessions and revelations, and the positive message that they gain from what they’ve learned together. They introduce Alfie as their star, then perform the tuneful, ironic opening number, “A Man of No Importance,” in celebration of their beloved friend and director who is their hero, integral to all of their lives. We learn by the conclusion of their musical, that to them, he is a man of great significance.

(L to R): A.J. Shively, Jim Parsons in A Man of No Importance (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Doyle has staged the musical with an approach to DIY theater, reflective of what the St. Imelda Players might effect. The props are cleverly selected, i.e. a drum is used as the bus steering wheel. The actors use minimal furniture to create the environs where the events occur. Chairs suggest the bus that conductor Alfie is on with the driver, the affable and lively Robbie Fay (A.J. Shively, whose “The Streets of Dublin” rocks it). The players become the bus passengers with a new passenger Adele, the lovely voiced Shereen Ahmed catching the attention of Alfie as he quotes from a poem by his spirit mentor Oscar Wilde. By the end of their ride, The St. Imelda Players complete singing the titular “A Man of No Importance.”

As the players give us a tour of Alfie’s life in Dublin, we drop in on him with sister Lily, who is happy to discover that Alfie has found interest in a woman. She sings”Burden of Life” as an answer to her prayers so that perhaps now Alfie can settle down, and she can be free of taking care of him. Mare Winningham is humorous and vibrant as she takes on the role of Lily. A Catholic woman, she and the others in the troupe miss all the cues that her brother just might not be into women. When this finally comes out later, she reassures him in the song “Tell Me Why” that even though he is gay, she loves him anyway and he should have told her.

Jim Parsons, Shereen Ahmed in A Man of No Importance (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Alfie’s interest in Adele is not because her beauty entices him romantically. He thinks she is perfect for the role of Salome. Though she avers and refuses the part initially, Alfie is persuasive and she finally relents. It is his hope to have the handsome Robbie play the part of John the Baptist, perfectly cast to act with Adele. Robbie puts him off and instead invites him to come to the pub (the wonderful “The Streets of Dublin”). Alfie accompanies Robbie and makes a fool of himself singing “Love’s Never Lost” in front of Robbie’s friends. Embarrassed, Alfie leaves, further disturbed at Breton Beret’s (Da’Von T. Moody) interest in him. Additionally, he’s confounded by the “love that dare not speak its name,” a love that he feels for his “Bosie,” as he imagines Robbie to be. (Bosie refers to Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s lover.)

Alfie can only admit this inner conflict as he looks at himself in a mirror encouraged by Oscar Wilde (Thom Sesma). He sings the lyrical “Man in the Mirror” as a way to work through his emotions to achieve self-acceptance. Parsons approaches Alfie’s inner conflict with yearning and honesty, confessing in a dream-state to the persecuted and vilified Oscar Wilde, a man who understands the torment he goes through.

Mare Winningham and Thom Sesma in A Man of No Importance (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Spurred by her discussion with Mr. Carney about Alfie’s weirdness (“Books”), Carney’s insistence that Salome is pornography, and his pressure to marry, which Lily puts off using Alfie as an excuse, Lily makes an attempt as a matchmaker. She invites Adele home for a meal that Alfie has cooked. Afterward, Alfie walks Adele home and as a friend, he gets her to admit she has “someone.” Her tears suggest that there is a reason her boyfriend is not with her. To reassure her Alfie calms her with another beautiful ballad, “Love Who You Love.” As she leaves, Alfie bumps into Breton Beret who propositions him. Alfie wisely restrains himself. His intuition is correct but his unresolved conflict between his shame at being gay and his longing to find someone to be with is a devastation in a Catholic country where being a homosexual is a mortal sin requiring repentance and conversion. Interestingly, he imagines Oscar Wilde encourages him by suggesting that the only way to remove temptation is by giving in to it.

In Doyle’s production the musical is streamlined to eliminate an intermission and keep it as one continuous series of events that move with swiftness, as players would effect their version of what happened, without including every detail. There are fewer players and most of them are incredible musicians that round out the small band tucked away in a second floor balcony against the back wall of the CSC playing area, where the audience abuts on three sides. Thanks to Bruce Coughlin (orchestrations), Caleb Hoyer (music director) Strange Cranium (electronic music design) the music arrangements, Doyle’s staging and the players’ vocal work is gorgeous, and seamlessly, perfectly wrought in configuring the St. Imelda’s Players’ production. Indeed, they are much better than they’ve jokingly been described.

Sheeren Ahmed and the Company of A Man of No Importance (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

After the turning point (“Love Who You Love” carries the theme) the players reveal that Adele can’t continue with her lines as Salome because the words convict her soul. She can’t act a role where she’s supposed to be innocent and virginal, because in real life, she’s a fallen woman, who had intercourse out of wedlock and now is pregnant. Full of guilt and remorse her punishment is self-torment and humiliation. She must emotionally suffer the rest of her life because abortion is out of the question and the father won’t marry her to make the baby legitimate. The church and the oppressive paternalistic folkways of the culture vilify her with unworthiness and condemnation.

Catholicism hangs over the heads of the characters like a dirge of annihilation and judgment. Adele will have to go home to receive help from her parents to raise the child. Meanwhile, Mr. Carney also uses religious folkways to shut down the play. To add insult to injury, Robbie feels condemned by Alfie when Alfie unwittingly interrupts Robbie and Mrs. Patrick (Jessica Tyler Wright) making love in the bus garage. Feeling the weight of the sin of adultery, Robbie insults Alfie and judges Alfie’s life is without love, an accusation that torments Alfie because he loves Robbie.

Alfie can never reveal this love to him because it would drive Robbie away. Though Alfie has attempted to confess to Father Kenny (“Confession”) he can’t bring himself to reveal his great sin and thus is damned with guilt. As a result of the conflict of loving someone who would never love him, and being accused by that same person as being unloving, Alfie throws caution to the winds. He engages with Breton Beret who has been waiting for the opportunity to make himself look like a real man by beating up a “poof.”

Mare Winningham in A Man of No Importance (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Clearly, the film (1994) was made at a time when the Catholic church was dealing with its own sexual sins which finally came to the fore in the world wide expose of pederasty in the church around 2002. However, the film/musical sets the events back in the 1960s before any of the cultural revolutions took place. Nevertheless, to understand the full force of Catholicism condemnation of homosexuality, check the numbers of gay men who were abused as Alfie is abused by the likes of Breton Beret, or look at the numbers of Catholic gay men committing suicide because they couldn’t reconcile their feelings with their religion. Also, read up on the Republic of Ireland’s approach toward girls who got pregnant out of wedlock in the book Philomena (also a fabulous film with Judi Dench). Or read the stories of the Magdalene Laundries, captured in the film The Magdalene Sisters. The brutality of the paternalistic Catholic folkways winked at male adultery like Robbie’s and swept it under the rug as “boys will be boys.” As for gays or women with babies born out of wedlock, the humiliation, shame and condemnation was a cruelty that destroyed lives.

Jim Parsons in A Man of No Importance (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

In the book of the musical McNally is not heavy handed with Catholicism in its iteration at St. Imelda’s community church. The musical has a light touch and religion appears to take a back seat, if we are not aware of the entrenched history of the church and its devastation on its believers. Rather, it is understated with Robbie’s anger at being discovered by Alfie, and Adele’s tears when the father of her child abandons her after he takes what he wants. Alfie gets the worst of it because he is discovered as a homosexual by the police who come to save him from being beaten to death by Beret. But the rub is he can’t press charges for assault because public opinion against “poofs” is more reprehensible than a physical assault. In fact it is intimated that Beret gets backroom laughs and cheers for beating up a homosexual who fell for his enticement.

McNally, Flaherty and Ahren configure the church’s worst folkways to be the sub rosa driving force for all of the humiliation, self-condemnation and torment that makes the conclusion so incredibly vital to A Man of No Importance. Thanks to Doyle, the performers and the creative team’s talents, the conclusion is uplifting and poignant for us today with a message of love and acceptance that is never old. It is the true spirit of Christmas in this “Happy Holidays” season, and in the United States needs to be proclaimed from the rooftops. In its quiet and unassuming way, A Man of No Importance is a trophy winner.

Kudos to Ann Hould-Ward (costume design), Adam Honore (lighting design) and Sun Hee Kil (sound design) and the entire cast and creative team who bring Doyle’s vision to life. The excellent must-see A Man of No Importance is at CSC until 18 December. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.classicstage.org/current-season/a-man-of-no-importance




‘Triangle of Sadness,’ NYFF60, Östlund’s Brilliant Satire

The outrageous, mind-bending Ruben Östlund (Force Majeure and The Square) presents an informal treatise on power constructs in his immensely sardonic, over-the-top Triangle of Sadness. Deftly, Östlund presents an interesting sequence, holds our attention, then gyrates away on another tangent. Tension, shock and awkwardness, that comes from uncertainty and being whipped off-balance, characterizes this filmmakers’ modus operandi. Profoundly, our state of unease, uncertainty and laughter keeps us entertained on his playground of Triangle of Sadness.

The film provides an extraordinary and macabre fun house where no rules apply. Indeed, reversals turn on a dime. Also, mythic themes pop up and unravel our complacency. Östlund enjoys having his audience on. Invariably, his situations and characters, profoundly stained, cause us to feast on our own hypocrisy while projecting our foibles onto his characters. As a result we laugh heartily at the wild ride he makes us take. With mischievousness Östlund proves that all human nature has at its core the same rotted substance. Regardless of how elite the class, how gorgeous the outer shell, how “in control” and staid people appear to be, they, and humanity are one crooked mess that drown in their own s**t. (This is a marvelous metaphor that Ostlund slams us with in the middle of the film.)

The title references a physical imperfection-the cosmetic industry term “triangle of sadness.” Alluding to the wrinkles between the eyebrows, these imperfections eventually need Botox for a smoother appearance. Humorously, Östlund strikes us with the phrase during the opening sequence of the film. Relating it to the important theme of physical perfection and the sanctity of beauty, that triangle metaphorically haunts the characters throughout the film. In every sequence wrinkles eventually appear on the surface of the once perfect situation. Afterward, problems, storms, trauma and insidiously terrible events rain down.

As usual Östlund begins his film with energy. Backstage at a casting call, we note a documentary crew. Barking orders and questions, assistants interview gorgeous, camera-beautiful men about their career choices in a profession that pays women models much more. Put through their paces the hunky models alternate their facial expressions. First, assistants tell them to think H & M Ad: boyish grin, fun-loving, happy. Then assistants tell them to change their expression for the upscale brand image like Dolce & Gabbana. The hotties change their facial expressions to a remote and solemn stare. At some point during the models rapidly alternating expressions, the assistant mentions their “triangle of sadness.”

Thus, in this hysterical sequence the filmmaker exposes the elitism built into the culture through subliminal images that promote brands. Rich equals remote and unflappable. And middle class equals accessible, friendly, economical. When we wear the upscale brands, and manifest the serious look, we don wealth. The filmmaker ridicules this canard, the foundation of corporations’ overpricing and profiteering.

Immediately, the filmmaker preps us for a subtle expose of the themes of wealth, privilege, beauty, as he pits them against the middle class struggle to gain the enviable elites’ “heavenly” status and position by any means necessary. Meanwhile, the concepts of worth and value of life, decency, generosity, wholeness, kindness fly out the window. The “Eternal Verities” of ancient times, in other words, the moral and human values brought by insight, meditation and reflection don’t show their expressions when money, power, privilege hold sway. The various players in the cruise portion of the film are pawns of corporate commercialism and conspiring victims of their own demise.

After the humiliating casting call the writer/director highlights his protagonist Carl (Harris Dickinson) who we just watched embarrass himself. Sitting in a luxury restaurant, he looks upscale with his female physical equal, the lovely Yaya (Charlbi Dean). The opening shot of this perfect couple shines with the superiority of great genes and the discipline to maintain and enhance them.

Ironically, Östlund presents that beauty equals wealth and status. And gorgeousness opens the doors to privilege. However, once Carl and Yaya open their mouths, another hysterical truth emerges. If pretty is surface, ungraciousness goes clear to the bone, hinting at soul ugliness.

As the couple nit picks about who should pay the check employing gender stereotypes and power constructs, the clever dialogue hits the mark. Though Yaya earns more than Carl, an ironic reversal, their bickering shows their physical perfection only delivers money to Yaya. As such the filmmaker uses the occasion of Yaya making more than Carl as a gender power dig. Though she offered to pay the day before, she changed her mind because the alpha male should pay.

Thus, the wrinkle appears. Destroying the image of their picture perfect looks and happiness we saw at the top of the scene, they quarrel. With incredibly clever and funny dialogue, Östlund introduces the themes that will abide throughout. Additionally, in the scene and throughout the film, he strips bare cultural male insecurities, fake etiquette, the destructiveness of ancient folkways and much more.

With a striking jump cut, we arrive with the stunning Carl and Yaya on a luxury cruise. Perhaps their looks have served a monetary reward after all. Interestingly, they’ve been invited to enhance the landscape of the cruise to go along with the other elite classy appointments. Also, Yaya an influencer got the cruise as a free perk, a lucky benefit. How this turns out defies one’s imagination beyond definitions of wild and crazy.

As they converse with a senior set of passenger couples, they hang with a Russian fertilizer oligarch, an arms manufacturer an oil baron, etc. Dimitry (Zlatko Burić gives a LOL performance) introduces himself with the phrase, “I sell s$it. After a huge pause, he clarifies, “fertilizer.” Occasionally, we note shots of the crew who makes the ship sparkle and satisfies the passengers every whim. Even Carl’s insecurity takes precedence when he complains a crew member leers at Yaya. Summarily, the captain’s first mate fires him. Indeed, a speedy launch comes a few hours later to remove him. Yes, these rich and beautiful rule the little people, the microcosm of the larger macrocosm of global reality, Östlund, suggests. But remember, the wrinkles.

Passenger requests land from extreme to extreme. In fact Dimitry’s partner suggests the crew take a break in a mawkish attempt at being egalitarian. Of course, they do, for a bit, leaving no one at the helm of the ocean-going yacht. When the Captain (a winningly negligent and drunk Woody Harrelson) refuses to join them for the break, we note another wrinkle. The smooth surface of the ocean can turn on his orders which suffer delays as he puts off his assistants. Finally, one nails him down with a momentous decision. When will they have the meet-up with the passengers at the Captain’s Dinner?

By the time viewers reach the final act of the immersive, volatile and innately entertaining Triangle Of Sadness, which lands them on a desert island with a small group of shipwreck survivors, they will have sworn that its beginning, set in beauty-obsessed corners of the fashion world, happened a few movies ago. This is the heartiest possible compliment I can give Swedish auteur Ruben Östlund’s latest brainy satire, a continually self-renewing yet uncompromisingly coherent opus. It’s reminiscent of a rich and compact trip you might find yourself on in a country you haven’t visited before, with every new experience feeling just as welcome, rewarding and surprising as the last.

To tell more would ruin the Buñuelian twists of this poison-dipped farce on class and economic disparity, which doesn’t skewer contemporary culture so much as dunk it in raw sewage. A NEON release opening in theaters November 29th.

‘Camp Siegfried,’ a Review of the Second Stage Production

Johnny Berchtold, Lily McInerny in Camp Siegfried (courtesy of Emilio Madrid)

Did you know that in the 1930s the Nazis ran propaganda summer camps for youngsters, like the one in Yaphank, on Long Island New York and elsewhere across the United States? Camp Siegfried was created by the German-American Bund, led by Fritz Kuhn to sway various Americans to support Germany in its bid to overthrow Communism, Judism and “corrupt” liberalism in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Considering that there was a large German immigrant population in the United States, the Nazi Party’s idea of propagandizing United States German citizens toward the benefits of Nazism in support of Hitler’s Germany was a sound one.

Bess Wohl’s titular play about Camp Siegfried falls short of powerfully dramatizing the true nature and danger of such Nazi camps that were pro-Hitler retreats sponsored by German loyalists. Wohl’s Camp Siegfried, a two hander “romance among the Nazis” directed by David Cromer is currently running at 2ndStage with no intermission. Unfortunately, the production lacks dynamism, terror and moment in its attempt to reveal the gradual inculcation of Nazi doctrine in the minds of the protagonists.

Johnny Berchtold, Lily McInerny in Camp Siegfried (courtesy of Emilio Madrid)

Wohl’s attempt not to give too much away proves damaging to the overall impact of the play. What should be directly energized and dramatized in the Nazi Party’s will to dominate, never really comes across. The only time it does is when a speech is proclaimed by She (Lily McInerny’s graduated intensity works well) and only because of the added response to the speech. It becomes the high point because of canned cheering which increases as the venom and hatred increases in She’s speech, spoken in German. (There are no super-titles, so German is an imperative if you want to understand it.) But by the time that speech arrives, so much more could have been done to incisively reveal the sub rosa impact of the brainwashing on the teens that should be terrifying but isn’t. The play’s overall effect lands with a thud as do its themes which are muddled.

This camp and others in New York stoked the fervency for the 1939 Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden which was protested by those against Hitler’s fascism. The camps were considered egregious and they were shut down. Camp Siegfried’s propagandizing was greater than what Wohl’s play suggests in her attempt to portray the interactions between the teens. This is a missed opportunity especially for us during this time of growing white nationalism in our culture which needs to be called out for its violent hatefulness. Those who proudly display swastikas should not be greeted with smiles and pats on the back. Such acceptance is consent and grows toward hate crimes. And if the symbols of Nazism are understated, or treated as non existent as in Wohl’s play, that is an inconvenient misdirection. Not revealing the typical abundance of signage used by the Nazi Party loyalists in the US camps is questionable and removes the play’s chilling effect.

Johnny Berchtold, Lily McInerny in Camp Siegfried (courtesy of Emilio Madrid)

Hitler and Goebbel’s propaganda was steeped in occult symbolism. The Nazis believed in the power of the Swastika in their flags, insignias, their specially designed uniforms which conveyed “majesty” and fear in their intent to show dominance and preeminence. To suggest subtly how one might be seduced into wickedness without showing the associated “signs” of how that wickedness is conveyed is problematic. This is especially so when Camp Siegfried’s name is used, but the power of Nazi will and their purpose for the camp in this play, appears expositionally without menace until the very end, and as a result, seems random and confused.

The camp is seen through the perspectives of these teens as an OK place where they can have sexual fun, abuse each other verbally and physically and learn “stuff.” That they they are propagandized into one of the greatest, evil political belief systems of 1938 on the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Poland after annexing Austria is momentous. That sense of moment is intentionally mitigated because only part of the story at the camp is conveyed by the teens. For me, that is a weakness in the play’s structure in addition to its dependence, not on dramatic dialogue, but on exposition. Dynamic drama is missing. For example She’s visit to the doctor, if activated with an actual visit instead of as exposition, the weight of the camp’s abuse would be made more powerful by the doctor’s direct comments. Additionally, drama might have been conveyed via a different, more visceral examination of the camp reflected in scenic design and lighting design. Costume design and sound design succeed best at conveying the sinister symbols of Nazism at the camp but only during She’s speech and in He’s costume after he joins her when she is finished.

Johnny Berchtold in Camp Siegfried (courtesy of Emilio Madrid)

Depending upon the resources one looks up, in 1938 in this camp and others, those at the camp dressed in Nazi uniforms and drilled military-style with marching, inspections, and flag-raising ceremonies. Swastika flags were situated next to the American flag. However, since Wohl’s play involves a two character limitation of the nameless He (Johnny Berchtold) and She (Lily McInerny), there are no other “campers” to show this “glory” of Hitler that the camp Nazis uplift. There are no portraits of Hitler, though there supposedly were at the real camp.

We only see the camp exterior. Brett J. Banakis’ scenic design creates the naturalistic set of a hillside and wooden fence-like wall abutting the camp. When He and She put together a platform that is later used for She’s speech, there are no swastikas, pictures or flags draping it, though there is canned cheering. The effects of what the climax of that speech might have been thematically and viscerally are diminished because the key symbolism of Hitler’s Nazi propaganda is absent. A sinister aspect is only suggested in the canned cheering in what sounds like a Nazi rally in 1930s Germany.

In Wohl’s Camp Siegfried, much is expositional; much is ancillary. We hear Hitler and Goebbel’s names mentioned as streets in the camp. We hear that the teens must do the work and if they are injured, they must suffer through it and be strong. She discusses the symbolism of the name Siegfried which she has learned and she tries to learn German. He chops wood for the all night bonfires; no workers from labor unions are allowed as unions were thought to have Jews (a reference He makes). The discriminatory aspects of this are downplayed. As he chops wood they get to know one another and more things are revealed about the camp. For example She reports various girls brag about having sex with specific boys.

Lily McInerny in Camp Siegfried (courtesy of Emilio Madrid)

That the young men and women are being encouraged to “breed” and create Aryan replicas is unconnected to Nazism and the import of the activity is skewed. In one segment while He masterbates masochistically, She sadistically belittles and demeans him to be worthless. Their activity is disjointed and we are led to believe that their behavior isn’t connected with what the intentioned propaganda of the camp toward young men and women is. In some scenes after they couple, She demonstrates pride in telling He about her pregnancy. Her pregnancy is a lie, learned propaganda and manipulation. Wohl’s He and She fall in line with the learned camp behaviors out of gross inferiority and shyness. However, the characters are shallowly drawn and lack emotional grist. They are not easy to empathize with and thus, their indoctrination has less of an impact on the overall themes and conclusion which ends hollowly.

In the source material Camp Siegfried’s grounds had Nazi and Hitler Youth flags and pictures of Adolf Hitler. Men were photographed in uniforms (Italian Fascist-style blackshirts, SA-style brownshirts and Nazi military uniforms. It is arguable whether it is more frightening to see a sexual relationship between two teenagers budding against a background of Nazi flags whipping in the wind next to American flags, or an absence of them as if they don’t exist. However, in their absence, the danger and horror of what Camp Siegfried symbolized for that time and what its exploration through the teens’ eyes intimates for our time is lessened to the point that one wonders why the titular camp was selected and its purpose downplayed as an artifice. There is no visceral imagery or camp life that is believable and too much exposition gets in the way of the dynamic dramatic.

Johnny Berchtold, Lily McInerny in Camp Siegfried (courtesy of Emilio Madrid)

When He and She first meet on a back wall of the camp hillside, He tells She about the camp activities which include marching. If the “power” and “glory” of Hitler’s propaganda spectacle was manifest each day with the signage and Swastika flags, without learned revulsion, then Nazification would have drawn He and She in large part through the spectacle of such symbols that the adults at the camp salute to and venerate. But that which was a huge part of the symbolism used to bring unity, awe and fear by the Nazi Party and German loyalists, who use the camp to train future Nazi leaders, is absent. The audience is never allowed in to the camp and what they hear isn’t enough to make a difference because it is never activated or visualized.

The only events actualized concern their sexual relationship, the wood chopping, the platform building and the speech. All should have more than a slim thread of the Nazi connections but they don’t until the last two minutes of the play and only through exposition. Otherwise this would be a typical summer camp (it isn’t). We follow two teens (the actors in their Broadway debut make the best of their roles) and their relationship. She gives a speech with a Nazi salute that reveals her indoctrination. And the purpose of the camp is revealed with her description of what she’s been through to the doctor. We only find that out because she tells He.

Johnny Berchtold, Lily McInerny Camp Siegfried (courtesy of Emilio Madrid)

Wohl conveys the focus of the camp in a gradual sub rosa way via exposition and He’s behaviors. Unconnected to the other camp members or activities, the action is unclear as to the extent it is unfair and cruel (until at the conclusion She reports how the doctor defined what happened at the camp as a delusion). Likewise, another activity He engages in is archery. But its importance as potential discipline and military training is muted as are all the actions we see the teens undertake. However, in reality camp activities are organized to make future Nazi leaders in the US to run for political office, to unify German Americans, and place them in leadership roles to dominate in coherence with Hitler’s Third Reich.

This is hinted at via exposition and reportage at the end of the play when She reports to He that she went to a doctor outside the camp after He has beaten her badly. When she tells the doctor why she’s so cut up, revealing the camp’s abusive treatment in addition to He’s beating, the doctor (an outsider) tells her, “Anyone can be seduced.” And he follows this with, “Never underestimate your infinite capacity for delusion.” As she reports this to He, the spell is broken. She tells He they were both caught up in the delusion. He doesn’t accept what she says and tells her that Herr Kuhn has invited him to Germany and he will meet the higher ups and join the “worldwide fight.” This important scene with the doctor is reduced to exposition, yet it is what changes her mind about the camp.

Anything that might strike horror for us today is not shown. This seems misguided and changes the thrust of the play, whitewashing it. There is nothing benign about a Nazi Swastika flag next to the American flag which was pictured at the real Camp Siegfried. The play’s camp carries the title, but the substance and meaning are squeezed out of it. Thus, the lure of the propaganda which should be terrifying to us because we know what is behind it, never finds emotional power or effect. The forward movement becomes some teens playing at sex and being adults and searching out each other with a backdrop at a camp that we hear appreciates the Nazi Party, Hitler, teaches German, has all-night rallies and marches. The culmination occurs when She delivers a speech and lifts her hand in the Sieg Heil salute and feels pleased with herself but reverses after her discussion with the doctor.

Lily McInerny Camp Siegfried (courtesy of Emilio Madrid)

It may be horrific to have a Nazi Swastika onstage with other Nazi paraphernalia, but that horror is real and signifies something beyond just the freedom to express it. More might have been done to reveal the iconography of the Nazi party that was propagandizing the teens at the camp since it was such iconography that swelled German pride during that period of time in Germany and during the 1939 Nazi Party rally at Madison Square Garden.

Thus, the play never rises to the dramatic moments of danger and fear that Wohl might have brought to bear during our time that again sees the rise of white nationalism in our country, and on Long Island. There, on Long Island, the KKK, confederate flags and white nationalistic Holocaust Denier T-Shirts have been seen in allegedly patriotic parades and boat regattas supporting Donald Trump, a proponent of White Nationalism (think Nazis) and anti-democratic insurrections. Not to include the symbols or uniforms as they were used at the real Camp Siegfried, when white nationalism threatens our very democratic institutions is problematic.

At the Capitol on January 6th, there are pictures of Holocaust deniers proudly wearing T-shirts proclaiming that 6 million more should have been killed. This occurred during an insurrection that intended to nullify our constitution and install a despotic, white nationalist, who decries not indecency, bigotry, anti-semisitism, racism and hatred, but anyone who criticizes him. This is a time when a known Holocaust denier went to Mar-a-Lago, a few days ago, the place once referred to as the Southern White House. Actions and words carry great meaning.

The Nazis gently referred to and mildly presented in this play via exposition were essentially absent. Especially absent are key symbols of Nazi propaganda that the Nazi Party used for their potent and clever manipulation to sway the minds of Germans. Their non-appearance in the play is definitely a teachable moment. Likewise, the decision to omit these dramatic elements carefully constructed by the Nazi Party to excite and unify, in a play about Nazi allurements, also is a teachable moment. Their absence is silence.

Camp Siegfried runs with no intermission at https://cart.2st.com/events

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