‘Peter Pan Goes Wrong’ With Neil Patrick Harris is LMAO Genius

(L-R): Henry Shields, Ellie Morris, Henry Lewis, Charlie Russell, Jonathan Sayer, Neil Patrick Harris, Matthew Cavendish in 'Peter Pan Goes Wrong' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
(L-R): Henry Shields, Ellie Morris, Henry Lewis, Charlie Russell, Jonathan Sayer, Neil Patrick Harris, Matthew Cavendish in Peter Pan Goes Wrong (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

The Mischief production of Peter Pan Goes Wrong, directed by Adam Meggido, is a a whopper of a farce with some of the finest schtick that can be conceived of in the minds of men and beasts. Threading non-stop chortles and belly laughs, the production runs at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre through the 9th of July. This is one to see if you enjoy slapstick, farce, irony, Monty Pythonesque humor which is sardonic, and dead-pan, and simply gorgeous in the hands of the British. Also, the farce is an absolute send up of Murphy’s Law, “If anything can go wrong it will.” The Mischief productions have made “a thing” of this law in theater, assuring us how amazing and wonderful it is, when professional casts and creative teams collaborate to present a show without a glitch, hitch or switch. In Peter Pan Goes Wrong, nothing goes right, and for that we are utterly grateful for such an evening of joy.

 Neil Patrick Harris in 'Peter Pan Goes Wrong' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
Neil Patrick Harris in Peter Pan Goes Wrong (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

Delighting a world-wide audience (forty countries) the hilarious Mischief Peter Pan uses as its source material, the iconic play Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie. This clever farce of foolishness and mayhem is written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields. The writers also take on key roles of the members of the Cornley Youth Theatre, the amateur theatrical company whose faux pas production has made it to the Ethel Barrymore. In effect, the Mischief production is a play within a play and the cast portrays two roles, the Cornley members and the Peter Pan characters they portray.

Nancy Zamit in 'Peter Pan Goes Wrong' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
Nancy Zamit in Peter Pan Goes Wrong (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

Thus, we experience the amateurs’ attempt to elevate their status to professional theater-makers with their Peter Pan which becomes Peter Pan Gone Wrong. This ingenious conceit keeps the jokes and pratfalls coming. Indeed, for future versions and tours of Peter Pan Goes Wrong, one can see how such a premise promises an ever evolving fountain of hilarity.

    Nancy Zamit, Greg Tannahill in 'Peter Pan Goes Wrong' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
Nancy Zamit, Greg Tannahill in Peter Pan Goes Wrong (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

As Cornley members, Lewis’ Robert, Sayer’s Dennis and Shields’ Chris take on the roles of Nana the Dog, John Darling and George Darling. They are counted among the pirates (Starkey, Captain Hook, Mr. Smee), and Cornley Youth Theatre’s competing creatives. These actors are the backbone of the production and are simply superb as they interact with each other and the audience. Shield’s Captain Hook, who the Cornely cast members encourage the audience to “boo,” goes “whole hog.” He attempts to shut up the booing and commands the audience loudly and humorously to, “Shut up.” For a moment, I worried that the audience would be too “over-the-top” and get out of hand. However, Shields was incredible, conducting the audience like a maestro, evoking their boos, then ending them. His technique, practiced comfort and obvious enjoyment at playing interactively with the audience in great good fun was tremendous.

Henry Lewis, Neil Patrick Harris, Henry Shields in 'Peter Pan Goes Wrong' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
Henry Lewis, Neil Patrick Harris, Henry Shields in Peter Pan Goes Wrong (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

The same may be said of he entire cast’s versatility and expertise in slipping between the roles of the Cornley Theatre members and Barrie’s Peter Pan characters with energetic zaniness. The ensemble works in concert seamlessly to make each moment a wondrous laugh riot. These include Matthew Cavendish who portrays Cornely’s Max, the show’s money man, child Michael Darling, and the athletic crocodile. Nancy Zamit, Cornely’s Annie plays Mrs. Darling, Lisa the maid, Curly and Tinkerbell. The fairy outfit is perfection thanks to Robert Surace’s costume design. Zamit switches roles and costumes from Mrs. Darling to Lisa the maid with deadpan insouciance, as she cues the audience in to the ironic jokes with a glance.

Nancy Zamit, Matthew Cavendish, Jonathan Sayer, Charlie Russell, Bianca Horn, Ellie Morris in 'Peter Pan Goes Wrong' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
Nancy Zamit, Matthew Cavendish, Jonathan Sayer, Charlie Russell, Bianca Horn, Ellie Morris in Peter Pan Goes Wrong (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

Rounding out the fine ensemble are Charlie Russell who plays Cornely’s Sandra, who is Wendy Darling. In the Cornely Theatre world backstory she is having an affair with Greg Tannahill’s Jonathan. As the “high flyer” Peter Pan, he has grown “close” to Wendy and in front of the audience, they shamelessly steal kisses and hugs. Ellie Morris’ ungainly Lucy Grove is Robert’s daughter, who portrays Tootles in the Neverland segment. At the beginning, she runs around with father Robert and Cornely’s Assistant Stage Manager, Gill (Bianca Horn), as they try to correct the lighting issue.

enry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer in 'Peter Pan Goes Wrong' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer in Peter Pan Goes Wrong (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

However, most notable for his hysterical performance is Neil Patrick Harris, who portrays Cornely’s Francis, the Narrator of the amateur production, and Cecco, an older pirate who has been with Captain Hook (Shields) on his many adventures. Harris astounds with his presence, making each moment of stage time real with organic humor. He’s athletic, authentic and hysterical, presenting impeccable timing. His amateurishness is believable given the professionalism and talent it takes to pull it off. He’s just smashing and throughout conveys he enjoys the sheer fun of this farce.

Given the production’s foibles and blunders, we note that it would have been easier to put on an unadorned, straight Peter Pan. Indeed it is ferociously hard to make precision technical errors that could harm if their “going wrong goes wrong.” One can’t help but appreciate the ensemble and technical crews’ incredible pacing and dead-on timing of the fiascos that populate the comedy and keep audience rolling in the aisles. For example, early on when Mrs. Darling opens a door, after that exact moment a light falls from the electrics. A few seconds off dead reckoning, Mrs. Darling alias Annie (Nancy Zamit) would be flattened. Part of the enjoyment of the production is the surprise that none of the endangered actors injure themselves. However, there is no bloodshed in the service of the incredible displays of scenic design “gone wrong.”

(L to R): Matthew Cavendish (front), Harry Kershaw, Charlie Russell, Greg Tannahill, Henry Shields, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Lewis in Peter Pan Goes Wrong (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

The fun begins when audience members are handed the Playbill. Smack in the center of the glossy program, where one would expect to see theater advertisements, one finds Cornley Youth Theatre’s black and white program of their Peter Pan. Written by Robert Graves (Henry Lewis) the four-page program is filled with tidbits and stories of the Youth Theatre’s events and various and sundry. The program’s ironic, humorous tone massages the audience to expect what the Cornley Youth Theatre isn’t capable of. For example the “flying operator” responsible for Peter Pan’s “flying” is “not known.” In other words, Peter Pan will “fly” on a wing and a prayer, with no tech crew to guide him gracefully across the stage and to Neverland. Greg Tannahill, who plays Cornley member Jonathan, who portrays Peter Pan, is the most ungraceful, wonky, upside-down Peter Pan ever to hit Broadway and/or Off Broadway. Tannahill is brilliant and frightening in his flight plans.

Additionally, the program notes that directors Chris Bean (Henry Shields) and Robert Grove (Henry Lewis) are fighting for preeminence. Their competitiveness spills over into the Cornley production of Peter Pan, where they take jabs at one another as they portray Barrie’s characters. Robert Grove (Lewis) who pegs himself as the “Head” of Cornley Youth Theatre, has written most of the program which includes an “In Memoriam” to Nadia, their ten-foot Nile crocodile that passed away. How she passed is LOL ironic. The Cornley program lists upcoming production descriptions and events which include Wind in the Willows, Wind in the Widows, Wind in the Pillows, and a “Peter Pan Backstage Tour,” which has been given a safety assessment rating, “Hazardous to All,” and which strongly advises tourists not to participate.

(L to R): Ellie Morris, Jonathan Sayer, Charlie Russell, Henry Shields, Henry Lewis, Matthew Cavendish in 'Peter Pan Goes Wrong' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
(L to R): Ellie Morris, Jonathan Sayer, Charlie Russell, Henry Shields, Henry Lewis, Matthew Cavendish in Peter Pan Goes Wrong (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

From start to finish, Cornely Youth Theatre’s amateurs, not only don’t get it right, they do so in the most galacticaly nutty and unexpectedly surprising ways as they give Barrie’s script a try. Lewis’ Robert Grove appears onstage as the audience is being seated. There is a problem with the electrical current and outlets. So Grove and Horn’s Gill arrange for a long, orange extension chord to be floated over the heads of audience members to plug it into an outlet at the back of the Barrymore. These hi jinks occur and the play hasn’t even begun yet? Correct. And when the Cornely players finally manage to get the lighting situation straightened out and the set revolves to its proper Darling household (the revolving platform with three sets is exceptional in a later stunt) Peter Pan Goes Wrong takes off, and bumpily flies down and up and around, and lands with unforgettably riotous brilliance.

The creative team were called out for their bows and rightly so, for without their expertise, there is no Peter Pan Goes Wrong hysteria. Kudos goes to Simon Scullion (scenic design), Roberto Surace (costume design), Matthew Haskins (lighting design), Ella Wahlstrom (sound design) Richard Baker & Rob Falconer (original music), Tommy Kurzman (wig & make up design), Hudson Theatrical Associates (technical supervision.

Enough praise for this superior farce that will split your sides with its sensational humor and gags. For tickets to this premiere, go to their box office on 243 West 47th St. or go to their website at https://pangoeswrongbway.com/. You’ll be thrilled that you did.

‘Fat Ham’ is Smokin’ Sumptuous in its Broadway Transfer

(L to R): Marcel Spears, Billy Eugene Jones in 'Fat Ham' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Marcel Spears, Billy Eugene Jones in Fat Ham (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

What I enjoy most about seeing Fat Ham in its transfer from The Public Theatre (my review of the Public Theater production) to Broadway’s American Airlines Theatre, are the sardonic tropes which send up William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a Jacobean revenge tragedy, where privileged white royals end up slaughtering each other for power with a particular lack of grace, wisdom and spirituality. Fat Ham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, James Ijames, writes with a joyous, “diabolical” and a steel-sharpened keyboard, with which he extracts the choicest cuts of the Bard’s meatiest speeches, to reveal the enlightened soul of the would-be avenger of his father’s killer, Juicy (the sublime Marcel Spears). Directed by Saheem Ali Fat Ham’s transfer is a delectable winner.

Juicy is the “fat ham,” shortened for Hamlet. The title references Juicy’s necessary acting “chops” in his pursuit of the truth. The title also refers to the succulent pork roast plumping his middle. Ham is also one of the items being served at the barbecue wedding celebration “honoring” mom Tedra (Nikki Crawford) and Juicy’s Uncle Rev (Billy Eugene Jones). Ironically, the meaty feast is a postmortem contribution by the late, great, pit master, Juicy’s father, who owned and managed the family butcher shop and restaurant, which now is owned by Uncle Rev (Claudius-like), who has “supplanted his brother’s place in Tedra’s bed and affections.

Juicy, like the other characters, elements and themes, represents the antithesis of dramatic particulars in Shakespeare’s complex tragedy. Ijames has a blast flipping Hamlet on its head, layering additional profound complexity to a similar plot, as he highlights Black experience in a racist North Carolina. But the beauty of this production is it riotous humor spread “thicc” everywhere you turn, so one can carefully divine the irony, puns, quips and punchy lines that send up the tragedy it twits.

(L to R): Adrianna Mitchell, Benja Kay Thomas in 'Fat Ham' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Adrianna Mitchell, Benja Kay Thomas in Fat Ham (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

For example white, colonial, Danish heir to a royal dynasty urged to seek revenge by his impeccable, kind and kingly Dad’s ghost? Nope! However, Juicy is a son, disinherited by his murdering uncle and saddled by the wicked, violent ghost of his father to wreck revenge. The method? The ghostly, white-sequined, flashily suited Pap (Billy Eugene Jones plays both brothers), demands that Juicy slaughter Rev, gutting him like they do with the hogs they butcher. After he is slit open, then Pap wants Juicy, who knows butchering, to slice Rev up into roasts, chops, hams and grind his testicles into a powder. Then, Juicy must invite over friends and family to feast on him. Pap’s description is revoltingly humorous, and Juicy questions every word, and rightfully accuses Pap of being unloving, cruel and demeaning to him and his mom.

Antithesis reigns in this brilliant LOL comedy. From Juicy’s race and gender to Pap’s obnoxious, ignoble character, to mom Tedra’s wild, sexy, lap-dancing antics, to porn-loving, hyperbolic cousin Tio, to Larry and Opal’s gay reveal, and relative Rabby’s evangelical praise Jesus, preach-it hypocrisy, Gertrude, Horatio, Laertes, Ophelia and Polonius are partly recognizable. More’s the fun realizing the ironic, deadpan reversals of character to their counterparts.

  (L to R): Adrianna Mitchell, Chris Herbie Holland, Marcel Spears in 'Fat Ham' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Adrianna Mitchell, Chris Herbie Holland, Marcel Spears in Fat Ham (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Tio’s characterization is especially noteworthy. In Hamlet Horatio is the balanced, unemotional, wise, educated courtier, worthy and emblematic of all the traits one would look for in a trusted scholar and friend. Instead, a reserved, watchful Juicy provides the acute, wise commentary to Tio and those his age, while Tio is plainly off the wall and not sure of his identity, as he seek avenues of expression that are unbalanced and addictive. He is seeing a therapist who does give him good advice about how trauma travels through the history of families, as Tio identifies that Juicy’s family has trauma packed into the male genes from slavery onward.

In these roles the actors shine effortlessly. An incredible ensemble, they work seamlessly with not one particulate of comedic pacing or rhythmic, emotional bit out of place. Along with the smooth Marcel Spears, the marvelous players include the crazy wild patriarch and sneaky, underhanded brother Billy Eugene Jones, uber fit, riotous Nikki Crawford as Tedra, the humorously “out-of-hand” Chris Herbie Holland as Tio, the funny, bored, seemingly dim-witted Adrianna Mitchell as Opal, the turn-on-a-dime hysterical Calvin Leon Smith (love his dance) as Larry, and the wonderfully buoyant, hallelujah-loving Benja Kay Thomas as Rabby, Larry’s and Opal’s mom.

 (L to R): Marcel Spears, Nikki Crawford in 'Fat Ham' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Marcel Spears, Nikki Crawford in Fat Ham (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Leading this cast, Spear’s Juicy appears content in himself and settled in his identity as a sensitive gay man, in the face of ridicule about his online college education at Phoenix, and his gay sensibility. He eschews his father and uncle for branding themselves with power exemplified by their criminal behavior. He knows the difference between inner strength, fear and inferiority. With equanimity, he receives the information that Tedra prompted by Rev used up his college money for a refurbished bathroom. His non-violent response when Rev and Larry hit him, deemed “soft” by Pap and Rev, is wisdom. Juicy’s inner spirit and soul are cast in the threads of nobility, historically woven by great Black Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Congressman John Lewis. There is brilliant understatement in the characterizations, if one has the eyes to see Ijames resonant themes.

Clockwise: Calvin Leon Smith, Nikki Crawford, Billy Eugene Jones, Benja Kay Thomas, Adrianna Mitchell, Marcel Spears in 'Fat Ham' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
Clockwise: Calvin Leon Smith, Nikki Crawford, Billy Eugene Jones, Benja Kay Thomas, Adrianna Mitchell, Marcel Spears in Fat Ham (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

The beauty of Fat Ham‘s comedic rendering is its lack of preachiness and political rhetoric. With contemplation, sensibility and humor, Juicy, unlike Hamlet, has found his voice and is comfortable in his skin. Thus, he is able to counsel Opal not to be pushed around to fit other’s labels, so she can be herself. Peaceful, calm, he calculates that the blood-thirsty act of revenge is a reprehensible manifestation of generational exploitation and institutional racism. Murder is a curse begun in slavery and perpetrated in Black impoverishment, whose answer has been drug crimes, thefts, Black on Black killings and profitable incarceration by white racist oppressors. The “buck” stops with Juicy’s delicious ham (actor, truth seeker, truth teller).

Marcel Spears in 'Fat Ham' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
Marcel Spears in Fat Ham (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

He is the only one who understands how his family has been incredibly victimized, while Pap and Rev with a modicum of financial security don’t realize how murdering one another is the internalization of racism and weakness born out of a violent past. Juicy affirms after his wonderful delivery of Hamlet’s speech about “catching the conscience of ‘the king'” and noting Rev’s reaction, that revenge is not the suit he wishes to wear. Why should he carry on the family tradition of blood-letting as a generational birthright so he can live down to Pap and Rev’s image of a macho power player? He will set himself free of such chains, and with inner security and knowledge, reject Pap and Rev’s labels and destructive, racially ensnared behaviors.

Nevertheless, as the hysterical events at the barbecue unfold, Juicy turns the “beat” around. In his multiple asides to the “listeners out there in the dark,” Spears creates great humor by winking, gesturing, flipping his hand in coded messages to the audience. This is questioned by the other characters i.e. Tedra who wants to know what he has said about her to us.

(L to R): Marcel Spears, Calvin Leon Smith in 'Fat Ham' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Marcel Spears, Calvin Leon Smith in Fat Ham (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

The barbecue whose lush set design of a North Carolina one-story middle class home surrounded by trees, sky, a modest deck and backyard, realistically sports set designer Maruti Evans’ astro turf lawn and smoker, where Rev grills the meat. As the large table is laid out and family gathers to eat the biscuits, corn, potato salad and grilled pork, the party takes off into hilarity. Rev delivers a hypocritical prayer with Rabby’s loud, Holy Spirit anointed yells. After they eat, the family and friends tramp around with wild karaoke and charades, during which Juicy catches Rev’s guilty response. However, unlike the tragic end of Hamlet, this is a marvelous comedy and there is no more Black on Black crime. Juicy has ended the family curse of bondage to institution racism’s impact on his family. And Rev does perish. You’ll just have to see Fat Ham to find out how, and to also enjoy the celebratory finish that Calvin Leon Smith’s Larry provides with pizzazz and glam.

(L to R): Nikki Crawford, Billy Eugene Jones, Benja Kay Thomas, Marcel Spears, Adrianna Mitchell, Calvin Leon Smith in 'Fat Ham' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Nikki Crawford, Billy Eugene Jones, Benja Kay Thomas, Marcel Spears, Adrianna Mitchell, Calvin Leon Smith in Fat Ham (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Dominique Fawn Hill’s costume design is funny and ironic. Bradley King’s lighting design during the karaoke sequence is atmospheric and mood-filled. Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound design, and Earon Chew Healey’s hair and wig design reflect Saheem Ali’s vision for this superior Broadway transfer which improves upon itself and deepens the Public’s original presentation.

Importantly, the daylight ghost sequence and the illusion designs by Skylar Fox indicate that side by side, the supernatural/spiritual reside with the realities that the characters acknowledge. There is no need to deliver spookiness on a dimly lit stage. The characterization that Ijames draws of Pap’s inner anger, fear and outrage which is karmic (he has killed and he is killed) is frightening enough in all of its humanity. Likewise, how Rev is dispatched by karma is not spooky, it is real and horrifying. This is especially so in a time after COVID when there’s enough fear in unexplained, sudden deaths to last another 100 years. Lastly, the institutional generational historical racism which ghosts in the culture and traditions of this family and binds them to uncontrollable actions they’ve been brainwashed to accept holds enough horror for a lifetime. Juicy’s snapping those chains with his love, peace and irony is a welcome experience for our time.

 Marcel Spears, Adrianna Mitchell in 'Fat Ham' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
Marcel Spears, Adrianna Mitchell in Fat Ham (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

The production is not to be missed for its superb ensemble, exceptional technical creatives and design teams, and the masterful direction of Saheem Ali, who create his vision to elucidate Ijames’ vital themes. For tickets at the American Airlines Theatre, go to the box office at 42nd street or online at their website: https://www.fathambroadway.com/book-tickets/ But do so now because the show has a limited run and ends in June.

‘Shucked’! “Shucks Ma’am, It’s a Helluva Show!”

Ashley D. Kelley,  Grey Henson in 'Shucked' (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)
Ashley D. Kelley, Grey Henson in Shucked (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)

If you love corn and even if you hate it, you will laugh at the jokes about or related to the sunny fruit (official classification), in Shucked, the funny, bright, clever, homespun musical fable/farce about love, corn and deeper things. Shucked is a throwback to delightful Broadway productions that are easily relatable and pack a thematic lunch that is palatable and digestible. The cast twits itself throughout and clues the audience in to the one-liners, puns and spicy double entendres, as they judiciously pause for the raucous audience laughter to subside, then deliver the next quip with a twinkle and no wrinkle.

Shucked has something for everyone with innuendos aplenty. Directed by the seasoned Jack O’Brien (Tony Award® winner for Hairspray), who shepherds his cast toward drop-dead pacing and finely honed delivery to produce maximum laughs, the production currently runs at the Nederlander Theatre around two hours and fifteen minutes, including intermission.

(L to R): Alex Newell, Caroline Innerbichler, Kevin Cahoon, and Andrew Durand in 'Shucked' (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)
(L to R): Alex Newell, Caroline Innerbichler, Kevin Cahoon, and Andrew Durand in Shucked (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)

With the book by Tony Award® winner Robert Horn (also Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, NY Drama Critics’ Circle awards for Tootsie), and music and lyrics by the Grammy® Award-winning songwriting team of Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, the show is finding its way to hit status, having received its jet-pack from these talented creatives. Featuring an exceptional cast, whose vocals hit the mark every time, Shucked is a musical that leaves one with a smile on one’s face, and songs thrumming through one’s mind. It’s a delectable corn dog that takes you from “farm to fable.”

Introduced by bubbly, enthusiastic Storytellers # 1 and # 2 (Ashley D. Kelley, Grey Henson), who note many funny, lovely facts about and uses of corn (“Corn”), we learn about Cobb County, the place that time forgot because folks had all they needed and walled themselves off from the outside world, using the “high as an elephant’s eye” corn plants. There, Maizy (Caroline Innerbichler) and Beau (Andrew Durand) are standing at the altar ready to receive their wedding vows when the cataclysm happens. Patches of corn plants decorating various sections of the stage begin to die. How Scott Pask (scenic design) manages this and the corn’s restoration is neatly effective.

Believing that Cobb County’s xenophobia is destructive and their worst enemy in face of this corn dying disaster that threatens their way of life, heroine Maizy identifies the county’s chief problem (“Walls”). It has a fixed and irrational paranoia about strangers, and thus, they avoid the outside world. Maizy decides that she must leave the isolation of their existence and find answers to the corn die off. Not only does this upset her cousin Lulu (Alex Newell), and the riotous Peanut (Kevin Cahoon’s deadpan delivery and twanging accent are sincerely hysterical), her fiance Beau (Durand’s macho know-it-all is humorously harmless), puts his annoyed foot down. He tries to exert his will over her when she expresses her desire to leave. However, she has a point when she tells him Cobb County is too limited to provide any answers. Despite Beau’s directives, Maizy leaves, affirming they will be married after she finds the solution to their corn apocalypse.

Alex Newell in 'Shucked' (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)
Alex Newell in Shucked (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)

On her journey from Cobb County, Maizy ends up in Tampa, which the Storytellers conclude is a “humid wonderland of welcoming Tamponians and one douchebag” (“Travelin’ Song”). The number is a clever, humorous build up to the large, bright, neon letters that spell out the city’s name. It is only topped by the city slicker, scam artist Gordy (John Behlmann), a scheming, horse gambling, poseur podiatrist who “removes corns.” Naive Maizy seeks out this scientist and professed expert on corns, not realizing where his “expertise” lies. To make matters worse for Maizy, Gordy is a failed gambler and con (“Bad”). Nevertheless,, the sweet, simple Maizy shows him the rot-ridden ear of corn from home and he promises he might be able to do something.

Sensing an easy way to get out of his $200,000 gambling debt from leg-breaking gangsters, Gordy shows interest in Maizy, after he takes her broken bracelet to jewelers to have it fixed. In a brief, stylized, mini-aside by the all-purpose storytellers, who double this time as disreputable jewelers showing their “range,” (Kelly’s Storyteller #1 quips this), they move the story ahead. They assure Gordy they will buy the unique, valuable stones which can easily be found, “it gathers in clusters like single women in their thirties.” After a seductive dinner and drinks, Gordy produces a perfect ear of corn for Maizy that he tells her he has “fixed.” Of course, she invites him back to Cobb County “to fix” all the corn. Behlmann’s Gordy persists in his romantic seduction to get into Maizy’s rocks underneath the house where she lives.

Thrilled at her own bravery and ability to rectify Cobb County’s corn apocalypse, Innerbichler’s Maizy effectively shows her vocal chops in “Woman of the World.” After the proud, self-satisfied Maizy toots her own horn for bringing back stranger Gordy to meet and save the town, at Beau’s farm Peanut voices his opinion about Beau and Maizy’s love. He quips, “Ever since Maizy came back with this Corn Doctor, you’ve been pissier than a public pool.” In her meet up with Beau to share her “new-found wisdom,” Maizy affirms her sophisticated personality change. In her “pissing-contest” competitiveness with Beau, she lets information slip that devastates Durand’s Beau. He kicks her off his land, then belts out “Somebody Will,” a number that guys can identify with, if they have ever broken up with a long-term partner.

In another women centered number, Lulu (the superb Alex Newell),, belts out a syncopated country tune, “Independently Owned” promoting her whiskey business. As she advertises her autonomy from a man, she warns Gordy to “watch out,” despite her business spiraling downward on an absence of corn supply. Regardless of what happens, Lulu knows who butters her corn. The exchanges among Maizy, Gordy and Lulu, like most of the dialogue in Shucked, are crafted for Henny Youngman/Mae West styled one-liners, with ironic punchlines shot out like rhythmically paced cannon fire. How the actors convey their characters without “pushing it” is authentic and a testament to their comedic brilliance, O’Brien’s direction and Horn’s fine book.

In a winding up toward the end of Act I, Gordy’s situation has a monkey wrench thrown into it. Due to poor cellular connections on two phones, he gets the wrong information which spurs him on in desperation. Over-hearing Gordy’s phone conversations (misinformation), Peanut, Beau and Lulu assess that Gordy is up to no good (“Holy Shit”). How they settle at that conclusion speaks more to their upset that Maizy bravely left and came back with a solution, than hearing the truth. Maizy is forced to defend Gordy’s presence in Cobb County and affirms her faith in him. Alone, she admits she is torn between her feelings for Beau and the possibility of love with Gordy (“Maybe Love”).

The cast of 'Shucked' (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)
The cast of Shucked (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)

Shocked into accepting her belief in him, Gordy persuades the townspeople of his ideas about “fixing” the corn (“Corn”). As the song concludes Act I, Maizy accepts Gordy’s proposal of marriage, and we are left for one intermission to guess whether Gordy’s plan to resurrect the corn has efficacy or his inner shyster is getting over to hightail it outta Cobb with some valuable gem stones.

Horn’s book is tightly spun with the songs which slip in messages of love, acceptance, risk taking, hospitality and compromise, with large portions of savory humor in the lyrics. Jason Howland, who is responsible for music supervision, music direction, orchestrations and arrangements, keeps the score country vibrant, so it sounds like a mix of other music genres in its country beats and rhythms. Japhy Weideman lights the barn for appropriate atmosphere, and John Shivers’ sound design is on target. This is tricky in a show like Shucked, which is dependent on a balance of sound throughout the theater for maximum contagious laughter at the quips, puns and double entendres. Mia Neal’s wig design has a modern flavor with a “Hee-Haw” touch to meld with Tilly Grimes patchwork, homespun costume design of plaids, paisleys and “patches,” that appear to be cut out of various “past-their-prime” clothing items.

The cast of 'Shucked' (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)
The cast of Shucked (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)

Scott Pask’s barn staging has every item and tool one would imagine on a working farm. The intricate, wooden barn structure remains stationary while Lulu’s whiskey still and paraphernalia are brought out when appropriate for some songs in Act II (the hysterical, ironic “We Love Jesus”). And the playing area is large enough to roll out whiskey barrels for the fantastic “Best Man Wins,” as Beau, Peanut, Storyteller #2 and the ensemble jump on the barrels and stand Beau on a long board and move him around. This is an ingenious and visually exciting dance number configured by choreographer Sarah O’Gleby.

There is no spoiler alert. You’ll just have to see Shucked to laugh until your sides ache and pay attention to what happens to bring the corn back from the edge of doom to bless Cobb County with joy, love and a bit of growth toward letting down their walls to accept strangers (“Maybe Love” reprise). Gee! The corn may be a metaphor for something.

This is one you will enjoy in the moment. And afterward, you may try to remember the songs and the wonderful quips, puns and one-liners that had you chortling in the corn row aisles of the audience. For the deeper meanings and references to our time, perhaps you should see it twice. They are cleverly woven into the themes amd strike fire for their currency.

Shucked runs with an end date in September at the Nederlander Theatre (208 West 41st St.). For tickets go to their website: https://shuckedmusical.com/

‘Sweeney Todd,’ His Vengeful Spirit Ranges in Thomas Kail and Alex Lacamoire’s Magnificent Revival

Josh Grogan, Annaleigh Ashford and the ensemble in 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street' (Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)
Josh Grogan, Annaleigh Ashford and the ensemble in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

With a nod to the original 1979 Hal Prince directed Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Broadway (1989, 2005), and off Broadway revivals (2017), Thomas Kail (director) and Alex Lacamoire (music supervision) achieve breathtaking majesty in this 2023 revival. Emphasizing immutable themes and character archetypes inhabited by the brilliant, sonorous Josh Groban and comically conniving, mischievous Annaleigh Ashford, Sweeney Todd’s thrilling, operatic music spins out a Jacobean revenge tragedy for our time. With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, from an adaptation by Christopher Bond, audiences at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre are having a rollicking time, gauging from their cheers and whoops, as the cast takes their bows.

The artistic team’s well-thought out choices restore the musical (more like an opera), to its epic, grand stature. The suspenseful Sweeney story is arrayed through ingeniously integrated spectacle, delivered by Nevin Steinberg’s sound design, Mimi Lien’s scenic design, Emilio Sosa’s costume design, Natasha Katz’s lighting design and Steven Hoggett’s choreography. All cohere, enhancing Kail’s acute vision of Sweeney’s obsessive need to pursue vengeance, with an assist by an avid, affectionate partner, Mrs. Lovett, who manipulates him into her embrace, using keen practicality and amoral, surreptitious duplicity.

Annaleigh Ashford in 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street' (Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)
Annaleigh Ashford in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

Stephen Sondheim’s exceptional music, delivered by the twenty-six piece orchestra’s soaring sounds, is superlatively arranged by Jonathan Tunick. And under the musical supervision of Alex Lacamoire, the immensely variable score evokes the piercing macabre, the lyrical romance and the chaos of despair. Indeed, every phrase, every note resonates tonal moods of light and dark, that swirl like fateful winds directing the emotions of the lead characters. All of this creative gorgeousness unfolds in the service of displaying humanity in its full-bodied fallibility, as it plunges from grace, victimized by circumstance and the Satanic designs of others. And, as the culprits free-fall, wallowing in a surfeit of pride and sardonic delight by killing the wicked with impunity, we are drawn into lurid expectation, aroused to anticipate which corrupt victims will be sliced by Sweeney’s razor, next.

Originally taken from popular Victorian fiction known as penny dreadfuls, the name Sweeney Todd was first noted in ‘The String of Pearls.” The plot elements evolved to other genres, but the horror tale of the murderous barber slitting his victim’s throats, while Mrs. Lovett’s pies hid the ground-up fleshly bodies, was enhanced by Christopher Bond’s addition of obsessional revenge. These elements inspired Sondheim and Wheeler because of their mythic and dramatic possibilities.

Josh Groban, Annaleigh Ashford in 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street' (Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)
Josh Groban, Annaleigh Ashford in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

The musical begins, as the ensemble of 19th century Londoners sets the scene (“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”). They are the Greek chorus, who sing the ballad at key moments throughout the musical, making judgments about Sweeney Todd and his relationship to the world he lives in. As they sing, Sweeney emerges from the grave looking gruff and moody to animate the Sweeney legend and receive grand applause, as the audience acknowledges Groban’s exceptional vocal gifts and acting skills. Indeed, his well conceived, profound portrayal of the demon barber is worthy of every second of applause he receives.

Thus, unfolds the story of injustice, corruption, oppression, obsession, vengeance, mayhem and murder. The latter, Sweeney justifies in the Act I song “Epiphany,” with his “novel” definition of two kinds of “men,” who comprise the entire human race which deserves to die. These are the upper class wicked, who oppress the poor, and the miserable lower class, for whom death is a relief. When he sings this, Sweeney has gone over to “the dark side,” choosing to expiate his rage and hatred on his fellow human beings, including himself, a key theme of the tragedy. However, at least Sweeney recognizes what he is, where the hypocrites he murders (especially Judge Turpin and the Beadle), pretend perfection.

Jordan Fisher, Maria Bilbao in 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street' (Matthew Murphy, Even Zimmermann)
Jordan Fisher, Maria Bilbao in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Matthew Murphy, Even Zimmermann)

After the epilogue, the scene moves to flashback and shifts to the past, enacted by the spirits of those brought to life to evoke the tragic tale of the barber, his wife, the duplicitous paramour, a corrupt judge, his assistant and the barber’s grown-up daughter and her lover. With the exception of Johanna (Maria Bilbao) and Anthony (Jordan Fisher), all are victims of their own weakness as they succumb to a fateful destiny. Their macabre acts and the ensemble’s ballad refrain, which threads throughout, compel us to listen and learn.

Ruthie Ann Miles in 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street' (Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmermann)
Ruthie Ann Miles in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmermann)

Convicted of a trumped up crime by the sinister, lascivious, Judge Turpin (the fearful and excellent Jamie Jackson), the barber is shipped off in chains to Botany Bay, Australia, to intentionally separate him from his beautiful wife Lucy, and young child, Johanna. Over a decade later we meet Sweeney, who disembarks from a ship in London with Anthony (the golden voiced Jordan Fisher), a sailor who rescued him, and to whom he sings of Turpin’s injustice (“The Barber and His Wife”). Returning to his old apartment, which is owned by the impoverished Mrs. Lovett (Annaleigh Ashford), who has a pie shop no one frequents because her pies are just crust (“The Worst Pies in London”), Sweeney learns from her that Lucy was raped by Turpin and Beadle Bamford (the fine John Rapson).

Josh Groban in 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street' (Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmermann)
Josh Groban in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmermann)

As Lovett sings (“Poor Thing”), we discover that Lucy became so demoralized and degraded, she swallowed poison. Taking pity on Johanna, Turpin adopts her as his ward and raises her under his possessive, watchful eye. Under his oppression she is like a sightless bird in a cage, who is blinded so it sings beautifully. In the following scenes we understand the bird metaphor, as it relates to Johanna imprisoned in a lovely mansion, unknowing of her past and the wicked Judge’s corrupt actions and scurrilous intentions.

Grogan’s Sweeney becomes manic with rage learning of Lucy’s plight. Consumed with painful thoughts of her sexual abuse at the hands of the powerful, “moral” judge, who cravenly destroyed their family, and who now has his Johanna, he vows revenge with the help of his razors (“My Friends”), which Mrs. Lovett kept for him. Mrs. Lovett, who always fancied Sweeney, seizes the opportunity to encourage him in his revenge, suggesting he open a barber shop above her pie-making establishment. As he works, he can wait for the opportunity to kill Turpin (“Wait”). It is there that the formerly innocent Sweeney enacts his first homicide of blackmailer Pirelli (the comical and insidious Nicholas Christopher), who threatens to expose Sweeney’s true identity and turn him over to Beadle Bamford, a death sentence.

(L to R): Jamie Jackson, John Rapson in 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street' (Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmermann)
(L to R): Jamie Jackson, John Rapson in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmermann)

This is the first blood-letting, the ensemble assures us in “His Hands Were Quick,” a reprise of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” But it’s not the last. The fates are spinning. Mrs. Lovett distracts Pirelli’s assistant Tobias (the wonderful Gaten Matarazzo), who eventually grows close to her and believes her lies that his boss “went away.” Ironically, he becomes the instrument of karmic discovery, which brings down the killing machinery of the Todd/Lovett enterprise.

Ashford’s seduction and insinuation into Sweeney’s life, and Groban’s Sweeney, at first reluctant, then gradually swayed by her cajoling advances, are a couple made in hell, as they align in comedic malevolence. Their performances are humorously symbiotic and perfectly realized with such spontaneity and verve, we are subtly sucked into their foul deeds and initially cheer them on. Jamie Jackson’s Turpin is so goose-bump abhorrent, arrogant and hypocritical, when Sweeney finally kills him, the audience cheers.

(L to R): Gaten Matarazzo, Annaleigh Ashford, Alicia Kaori, Kristie Dale Sanders, Delaney Westfall in 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street' (Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmermann)
(L to R): Gaten Matarazzo, Annaleigh Ashford, Alicia Kaori, Kristie Dale Sanders, Delaney Westfall in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmermann)

However, it takes the appropriate time for Sweeney to avenge Turpin’s horrors. These “drive him up the wall” and push him to accept the god of vengeance and unforgiveness as his master. After Sweeney is interrupted from killing Turpin and despairs that he’s lost his chance, he appoints himself an executioner of “mankind” (two types of men), in “Epiphany.” It’s a show-stopping number and Groban is in his full, lush glory. In a profoundly clever Sondheim transition, ever the opportunist, Ashford’s Lovett soothes Sweeney’s explosive mania. She conceives of an ingenious way to dispatch the bodies of those “who deserve to die,” by baking their flesh into savory meat pies (“A Little Priest”). Forever, she elicits his gratitude and affection, which she gladly receives because she is so smitten with him and wants to supplant memories of Lucy with her love and murderous complicity. She becomes his invaluable asset for vengeance with impunity.

Sweeney’s transformation from doom and gloom to joy and laughter occurs when he “gets” how Mrs. Lovett will help rid him of the evidence of his murders. Groban’s Sweeney is absolutely mesmerizing in this scene. As the realization of her lovely idea takes over his whole being, his interior darkness shifts to light, as if a burden has been lifted. Happily, he binds himself to her in a euphoric irony of evil. Ashford’s mastery of his soul lures him and couples him to her, as they fly toward doom, too taken with their genius to be bothered by the possible consequences of their wicked amorality. Thus, together they answer the world’s corruption, emphasizing the theme of how human beings eat one another, taking the devouring from metaphor to realty.

The portrayals and performance of this clever song marries these actors in their brilliant talents and shared generosity. It is one of the most memorable moments in a production that is filled with many memorable moments. Importantly, as we are relieved to see them laugh, and laugh with them as they delightfully plot against those high born and low, who deserve to die, fate spins the tragedy of consequences and accountability in Act II.

Annaleigh Ashford, Josh Groban in 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street' (Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmermann)
Annaleigh Ashford, Josh Groban in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmermann)

Meanwhile, in a second feeder plot, whose action develops in conjunction with the scenes between Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, Fisher’s Anthony comes upon the grown-up Johanna (Maria Bilbao). Bilbao aptly sings about birds that are caged (“Green Finch and Linnet Bird”). Listening to her (Bilbao’s flighty performance and lyrical singing are stunning), Fisher’s Anthony inquires her identity from a Beggar Woman (the incredible Ruthie Ann Miles), who is always near Mrs. Lovett’s or the Judge’s mansion. Anthony falls in love at first sight (“Ah, Miss,” “Johanna”). Emboldened by the Beggar Woman’s admonition that he should stay away, he pursues Johanna who is receptive to running away with him to escape marriage with Judge Turpin, her future intended. When Turpin discovers her plot with Anthony, he locks her in an asylum, waiting for her to relent.

How these characters reach the end of themselves in freedom or bondage unravels in a darkening Act II. Only then, do we realize, like Sweeney, how “kindness” and “friendship” can be exploited to deceive those weakened with unstable and desperate passions. As the emotionally seductive Mrs. Lovett, whom we and Sweeney come to delight in, then are horrified by, Annaleigh Ashford’s portrayal is sumptuous and grand. Her antithetical character is Ruthie Ann Miles’ Beggar Women, with whom Mrs. Lovett secretly is in competition. Throughout, the Beggar Woman is the key upon which events turn. Also, she is the wise Cassandra that no one listens to because they look at her outer appearance (“City on Fire”), and think her mad. This important theme is one more irony the fates spin out in this fabulous revival.

With spot-on performances by the entire cast of those who “eat” and are “eaten,” of the righteous innocent who escape, and of the hapless, beautiful, trafficked Lucy-types, who are in the “wrong place at the wrong time,” and are abused by men and women alike, all the characters “get what they deserve.” The warning is that memento mori. The same will happen to us, though it may not be at the hands of the Sweeney Todd’s of the world. If vengeance is sought, let karma deliver it. Pursuing it is its own destruction.

This Sweeney Todd affirms stylized truths that remind us of the precarious balance between justice and vengeance, love and obsession, helpfulness and selfishness. In its monumental arc where duplicity, self-deceit, betrayal and cruelty play out in the characters’ lives, the messages are profound. The characters in their impulses and desires are terrifying, not in the horror genre sense, but in their reflections of human emotions, revealing what people are capable of. Kail and the actors have teased out incomparable, believable portrayals. We have only to read the news to see their conjunction with our time, indeed, all time.

This devastatingly human Sweeney Todd, whose only hope is an escape through love, is a classic. It is a fitting revival of a masterwork that must be experienced live to feel its grandeur. For tickets go to their website or visit the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre at 205 West 46th St. https://sweeneytoddbroadway.com/

‘How to Defend Yourself’ at New York Theatre Workshop

(L to R): Ariana Mahallati, Sarah Marie Rodriguez, Talia Ryder, Gabriela Ortega, Amaya Braganza in 'How to Defend Yourself' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Ariana Mahallati, Sarah Marie Rodriguez, Talia Ryder, Gabriela Ortega, Amaya Braganza in How to Defend Yourself (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

In this decade of sexual extremes on a continuum from paranoia, political correctness, libertine licentiousness, the billion dollar pornography industry and casual permissiveness, one in four women is violated, sexually assaulted or physically/emotionally abused. As a strategic defense #metoo has been appropriately employed culturally, but it also has been wrongfully magnified as a double-edged sword of vengeance. In Liliana Padilla’s play How to Defend Yourself, currently at New York Theatre Workshop, following a successful 2020 run at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theatre, Padilla confronts important issues about personal safety both emotional and physical. Incisively co-directed by the exceptional Rachel Chavkin, Liliana Padilla and Steph Paul, the hybrid comedy drama explores consent and the litigated definitions of rape and harassment, which shift based upon geographical location, accuser and victim.

With the setting as a torpid and tumultuous college campus, when individuals are beginning to define their goals, dreams and intentions, sexuality and choices remain fluid. A decision to be with someone can lead to devastation, especially around stimulants, alcohol and drugs at a testosterone-fueled frat party, where young women are pressured to compromise themselves. At the top of the play we are introduced to women in a self-defense class started by college junior Brandi (Talia Ryder). The confident, black belt, with social media videos of herself disarming a bully with a gun, is a self-appointed, self-defense instructor. Brandi decides to teach students the ways to protect themselves, after sorority sister Susannah is raped and hospitalized. The assault happened at a frat party.

(L to R): Sarah Marie Rodriguez, Jayson Lee, Amaya Braganza, Sebastian Delascasas, Gabriela Ortega in 'How to Defend Yourself' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Sarah Marie Rodriguez, Jayson Lee, Amaya Braganza, Sebastian Delascasas, Gabriela Ortega in How to Defend Yourself (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Much of the enjoyment of Padilla’s play is becoming acquainted with the buoyant women and two young men in the class. They reveal their humorous attitudes as they attempt to navigate a culture whose roiling currents are being defined from moment to moment, often dislocating both men and women. All genders of that age group may be easily overcome by intimate circumstances, which they assume they have control over but don’t.

Brandi, whose self-assurance, determination to do good and organized, talented, physical skills, not only looks dancer-fit, but is also lovely. Admired and accepted by her peers, she is a member of a hot sorority and has the cache to hold self-defense sessions. These attract a few neophytes who are there to learn self-defense. Some are there for other reasons.

Brandi runs her sessions circumspectly with precision. She expects her peers to evolve toward her confidence level, so they understand that “anything can be used as a weapon,” and primarily, “their own bodies are weapons.” Kara (Sarah Marie Rodriguez), joins her BFF for moral support and fun, but she lacks Brandi’s skill set. Kara assists Brandi with chatter and chalkboard drawings in the college gym space (finely designed by You-Shin Chen), where Brandi holds classes.

 (L to R): Gabriela Ortega, Ariana Mahallati in 'How to Defend Yourself' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Gabriela Ortega, Ariana Mahallati in How to Defend Yourself (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Two students, who drift in anxious to get started, arrive before Brandi. We learn that freshman Diana is obsessed about defending herself against guns. Her BFF Mojdeh follows fast in her orbit. Humorous and sociable Diana ((Gabriela Ortega at the top of her game), and Mojdeh (Ariana Mahallati), are primarily there to get closer to Brandi, who is a Zeta Chi, the sorority they would like to rush. It escapes them that the group think atmosphere of sororities and fraternities are precisely the communities that can be toxic and abusive. However, Mojdeh craves being identified as “cool.” She seeks the hot, popular individuals to ride their coattails and achieve acceptance. For her, this is the fastest way to self-love. On the other hand, Diana appears to be self-content, and is humorous in how she fetishizes guns to the point where by the the end of the play, she indulges her passion.

The last young woman to join Brandi’s sessions is Nikki (Amaya Braganza). Her entrance provokes laughter because she appears super shy, hesitant and awkward. Throughout, she is mysterious and reticent, until the conversation opens up, and she admits she gave a “blow job” to a guy in a gasoline station. When Brandi and Kara attempt to kindly excuse her humiliating, crass behavior as a mistake, she states that she was fine with it, and it was her idea. Whether she is lying or fronting is difficult to surmise. Hiding behind “it’s OK,” is oftentimes the default response because it is too messy to get into, who is responsible, who is to blame and what forced sex means.

 (L to R): Gabriela Ortega, Sarah Marie Rodriguez in 'How to Defend Yourself' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Gabriela Ortega, Sarah Marie Rodriguez in How to Defend Yourself (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Kara indirectly insults Nikki by stating that she also has made such “mistakes.” Nikki is nonplussed, revealing the differences in attitudes between the two young women. Clearly, the circumstances around sexual behavior are extremely complex and not easily understood. Subsequently, Padilla’s characters veer off topic into personal discussions about what forms of touching make them uncomfortable, and what physical boundaries work.

The play reveals that the idea of self-defense encompasses more than just a physical way of being. Young men and women are at sea with regard to “growing up” with a sexual identity that is forced upon them by the culture and their friends. Oftentimes, as Jayson Lee’s Eggo suggests, they are clueless about what is the right or wrong way to conduct themselves, have relationships and fall in love. Sexuality isn’t necessarily the main ingredient that holds people together.

To add substance to the mix, Padilla includes the male perspective, having Brandi invite two fraternity brothers, Andy (Sebastian Delascasas) and Eggo (Jayson Lee). They are “down” with #metoo and are supportive of Susannah during her recuperation and rehabilitation from the stress of her assault. To add to the complexity, their fraternity brother has been criminally charged which has put the entire fraternity on “high alert.” To distinguish themselves from the “sexual abuser types” roaming their campus, Andy and Eggo hysterically ply their sanctimonious “we support women” front, the moment they enter the room and introduce themselves. Years in prison hovers over the head of their fraternity brother, and they are “running scared” that any of their behaviors might be interpreted as predatory. Their loud, moralistic approach toward women is “over-the-top,” and we expect they will marching in the next women’s protest to encourage female empowerment.

(L to R): Sebastian Delascasas, Ariana Mahallati, Jayson Lee, Sarah Marie Rodriguez, Amaya Braganza, Gabriela Ortega Talia Ryder in 'How to Defend Yourself' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Sebastian Delascasas, Ariana Mahallati, Jayson Lee, Sarah Marie Rodriguez, Amaya Braganza, Gabriela Ortega, Talia Ryder in How to Defend Yourself (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Padilla’s themes are not lost on us. Sexualized images and behaviors, part of the landscape of American culture in the entertainment industry and fashion industry, were shattered by #metoo. The nascent revolution that sprang up after the Harvey Weinstein debacle shuttered a billion dollar company and gave pseudo power to women for a time, only in the parts of the country which are not Republican and are “woke.” In other areas, the men act as they please, and the women go along with it, especially if they are proving they are not “socialist lefties.”

In the play, the characters are diverse: three persons of color, a Mexican-American, an Iranian-American and two whites. They are stuck with having to deal with “woke” culture, especially after the campus assault. Importantly, there is a discussion in the middle of the play about what consent means. Additionally, the question about having to always check with a partner about boundaries is raised. Kara blows up the discussion with her suggestion that there is nothing wrong with wanting S and M sex. To avoid the confusing topic, which adds another complex component about individual sexual behavior, Brandi calls her out for being inappropriate.

Clearly, Kara has issues with alcohol and wanting to be hurt. This hints at her subterranean troubles that are never revealed. We note such problems, when she doesn’t join in the physical sessions because she got “wasted” the previous evening. On the other hand, she isn’t embarrassed about sharing her enjoyment of rough sex. Apparently, she also enjoys the shock value of telling others about herself, though it is counterproductive to her BFF’s purpose in holding the class. From this turning point onward, the situations in the self-defense class run off the rails.

(L to R): Sebastian Delascasas, Talia Ryder, Ariana Mahallati in 'How to Defend Yourself' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Sebastian Delascasas, Talia Ryder, Ariana Mahallati in How to Defend Yourself (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

The most interesting segments of the production are the self-defense moves that Brandi teaches (well choreographed by Steph Paul, movement director), and the physical fight routines they accomplish together (at the guidance of Rocio Mendez). Late in the play there is a fight that breaks out between Diana and Kara that is well staged. The fight exemplifies that ego, charm and pride are competitive forces that stir up internal problems within the young women. These spill out in violence. Between Diana and Kara, there exists an intuitive impulse to dislike each other. That disgust eventually dissipates after Diana smashes the provocative Kara in the face, ironically proving that Kara does seek physical abuse.

The staging for the defense practice scenes works seamlessly and is powerful and exciting to watch. The movements are pitched to music, which pumps up the characters and reveals they are gaining confidence about themselves. Additionally, when Brandi suggests they pair off to practice techniques, for example, how to break an attacker’s wrist grip, the results are simultaneously wrought and the overlapping dialogue and action make for fascinating comparisons.

There are surprising turns throughout. Diana and Mojdeh discover things about each other that set their relationship on a different path so that they can’t be close anymore. Kara and Brandi have a disagreement about Susannah, and Andy reveals a secret to Eggo that he has been harboring since the attack on Susannah. This upsets them and dislocates their sense of well being even more. When Andy asks what he should do, Eggo is at a loss. We understand there are no easy answers with regard to human sexuality and situations worsen as a result of “not knowing what to do.” Finally, after a number of sessions where Brandi’s “students” have progressed, and she feels she has made inroads into helping them feel safer, Nikki upends her assumptions and disturbs everyone with an event that she describes.

Jayson Lee, Amaya Braganza in 'How to Defend Yourself' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
Jayson Lee, Amaya Braganza in How to Defend Yourself (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

The thematic conclusion moves through flashbacks in the characters’ stages of adolescence. The directors show the individuals at three parties during their teen years, which move backward in time to a birthday party when they were in elementary school. The parties reveal the wildness from the drinking and sexual exploration when they were in high school. In the last party they end up in the sweet innocence of their elementary school days. The contrast of how they seek sexual experience that emerged from a time of innocence is stark and mind blowing.

For the rapid set changes You-Shin Chen, Stacey Derosier lighting designer, Izumi Inaba costume design and Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design create a frenetic party atmosphere. And the lovely tableau at the end reveals that the progression of their identities has sprung from love, security, family and well being. One might think that these create an assured line of defense to thwart any attack that might ever happen.

However, Padillia posits that security is never guaranteed. Though we may use our bodies as weapons, or learn self-defense, random and not so random acts of violence happen in a culture that uplifts violence. Diana feels forced to arm herself with a licensed gun as an answer to that violence. Tragically, the subtext of her statement about guns plays out daily in our society, revealing the play’s devastating currency. Its themes about our physical and psychic vulnerability in an arbitrary and violent world resonate with power.

Co-directors Rachel Chavkin, Liliana Padilla & Steph Paul are responsible for the strengths of the production, especially its staging and thematic depth. Their vision about the questions the play raises leaves us with even more questions and no clear answers. The actors are uniformly excellent and the physicality and staging of the various defense sessions make one want to get up and join the cast to try out all the moves.

How to Defend Yourself is a humorous, weighty production, whose trenchant themes give us pause, thanks to the vision and talent of its creatives. For tickets and times go to their website https://www.nytw.org/show/how-to-defend-yourself/tickets/

‘A Doll’s House,’ Jessica Chastain’s Nora is Brilliantly Unbound

 Arian Moayed, Jessica Chastain in 'A Doll's House' (courtesy of A Doll's Hou
Arian Moayed, Jessica Chastain in A Doll’s House (courtesy of A Doll’s House)

As a masterpiece of modern theater Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House presciently foreshadowed the diminution of a women’s role as homemaker. Ibsen shattered the notion of a woman being a husband’s pet, an obedient robot/doll with no autonomy or identity of her own, who cheerfully accepts the delimitation of traditional folkways. A maverick play at the time, A Doll’s House was considered controversial. Ibsen was forced to rewrite the ending for German audiences so it was acceptable.

What would those audiences have said about Amy Herzog and Jamie Lloyd’s stark, minimalist, conceptually powerful, metaphoric version currently at the Hudson Theatre? It is a version which relies on no distracting accoutrements of theatrical spectacle, i.e. period costumes and plush drapery. Nothing physically tangible assists with the unlacing of “the bodice” of Nora’s interior. With “little more” than cerebral irony, and emotional grist, Nora displays her soul in a genius enactment by the inimitable Jessica Chastain, in the production of A Doll’s House, which runs a spare one hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission.

The plot development, characters and themes are Ibsen’s. Nora, a pampered, babied housewife, to save her husband’s life, unwittingly commits fraud by borrowing money from loan shark Krogstad (Okieriete Onaodowan who in the first scene needed to project his voice so as not to appear a weak character which Krogstad is not). Complications arise when Torvald (an exceptional Arian Moayed), receives a bank promotion. With the additional money, Nora plans to quickly pay back Krogstad. But the loan shark threatens to expose Nora’s secret, unless she can save his job at the bank, where her husband has just become his boss.

Tensions increase when Torvald fires Krogstad and hires Nora’s friend Kristine (Jesmille Darbouze). Nora must confront the situation with Torvald before Krogstad exposes her and destroys Torvald’s reputation and their marriage.

Jessica Chastain in 'A Doll's House' before the performance begins (courtesy of Carole Di Tosti)
Jessica Chastain in A Doll’s House before the performance begins (courtesy of Carole Di Tosti)

Lloyd and Herzog are a fine meld. Herzog strips extraneous words and phrases, though not the substance of the pared-down dialogue. Her version is striking with a natural, informal, un-stilted speech for concentrated listening. There’s even a “fuck you” which Nora proclaims cheerfully to be bold, though not in Torvald’s hearing. The meat is Ibsen; the forks and knives to devour it are sleek and without ornamentation to distract. The themes and characterizations are bone chillingly articulate, which Herzog and Lloyd excavate with every word and phrase in this acute, breathtaking, ethereal, new version of A Doll’s House.

Lloyd eliminates the comforting, elaborate staging where actors might have moved to and fro amongst luxurious furniture and eye-catching, gloriously-hued dramatic sets that show Torvald’s preferred, lifestyle, which Nora scrimps from her own “allowance” to maintain. Instead, the ensemble’s movements are restrained. They step quietly around Soutra Gilmour’s set. Gilmour has distilled Lloyd’s vision to the back stage wall, top-half painted black, with attendant muted white painted on the bottom half of the wall. The flooring is grey. Predominant are the revolving platform and institutional-looking bland chairs which actors bring in and place on the sometime circling platform, or on its outer edges which don’t revolve.

Chastain appears twenty minutes before the production begins, seated in a chair revolving on the platform (I should have counted the repetitions, but I didn’t.). Sitting, she fascinates. Initially, to me, she was invisible; I was distracted, while she quietly walked on bringing her chair. She was a part of the onstage background, muted, unremarkable. That is perhaps one of the many concepts Lloyd and Herzog suggest with this enlightened version that is memorable because it is metaphysical and conceptual, giving rise to themes about soul interiors and women’s invisibility in the patriarchal culture.

One theme this set design suggests is that we travel in our own orbits, going in circles in our own perspectives, unseen and never truly known as psychically present, spiritual beings. And as Ibsen suggests, it takes an inner cataclysm such as Nora experiences to break from traditional mores and behavioral repetitions into a different consciousness and new way of being. This breakthrough, Nora attempts at the conclusion.

 Jessica Chastain in 'A Doll's House' (courtesy of A Doll's House)
Jessica Chastain in A Doll’s House (courtesy of A Doll’s House)

Amy Herzog’s modernized language version of A Doll’s House is one for the ages in focusing Ibsen’s power of developing characterizations. It presents an opportunity for Lloyd’s preferred, stylized, avant-garde staging, similar to what he used in Betrayal (2019) and Cyrano (2022). It requires the audience to listen acutely to every word of the dialogue and scrutinize the actors splendid, nuanced emotions which flicker across their faces. This is especially so of Chastain’s Nora, who is chained and bound symbolically throughout, minimally using gestures or any physicality, as she sits in a chair facing the audience. Predominately. she employs her voice and face to convey the interior-organ manifestation of Nora’s tortured, miserable psyche. For example when the wedding ring is returned, Nora and Torvald do not move; there is no ring. They look at one another, however, the unspoken meaning resonates loudly.

Even the tarantella Nora dances at the costume party, Chastain wrenches from herself sitting in the chair in a frantic nearly psychotic frenzy of shaking and kicking. The earthquake physicality that splits Chastain’s Nora apart is the only broad, physical movement, other than walking out of her stifling, meaningless existence, that Chastain and Lloyd effect with novel irony at the conclusion. The chair-dance is an explosive, rage-filled fit of exasperation, principally done for the purpose of distracting Torvald. Desperate to prevent his discovery of corrupt loan shark Krogstad’s blackmail plot, Nora’s diversion succeeds for a time. However, her fear and inner bleeding wounds only augment, until her behavior is exposed and Torvald unleashes his fury, vowing she must not infect the children with her poisonous corruption. Interestingly, the children ethereally “appear” as voices in voice- over recordings. Nora speaks to them, looking out in the direction of the audience. Hypocritically, Torvald demands she stay away from the children, though she must remain with the family to keep up appearances as his jeweled asset and prize doll.

With Lloyd’s symbolic staging, Chastain’s Nora proves that body, soul and mind are inseparably engulfed in the trauma of a paternalistic culture, represented by males who “love her the most” (her father and husband), and psychically straight-jacket and gaslight her to adopt their thoughts, behaviors and attitudes as right and true. To do this she nullifies her existence as a “human being.” In this production, Herzog, Lloyd, Chastain and the ensemble display this truth. It is undeniably representative of women in 1879, the projected number on the back wall of the stage that appears in the beginning of the production.

Okieriete Onaodowan and Jessica Chastain in 'A Doll's House' (courtesy of A Doll's House)
Okieriete Onaodowan and Jessica Chastain in A Doll’s House (courtesy of A Doll’s House)

And when the number disappears, we understand that Soutra Gilmour’s black, white, grey set design, and Gilmour and Enver Chakartash’s costume design (modern dress black), function to speed us through 140 + representative years to display the dominant patriarchal attitudes today. These folkways still straight-jacket, demean and traumatize. If one thinks this is fatuous “woke” hyperbole that is finished, one has only to read the one in four statistics of women who are bound in violent relationships with male partners who beat or abuse them, yet cannot leave for fear of being alone or without the means to support themselves or their children. The LGBTQ community is not excepted from this. Humanity has a penchant for violence. If it is not externalized, the violence is psychic and emotional, where not a hand is raised toward a partner, yet the words and silences traumatize. It is the latter psychic trauma that Ibsen/Lloyd explore.

Whether in Ibsen’s historically, visually laden production of A Doll’s House, or in Lloyd’s naked, bleak and blasted version, it is a despotic spirit that demands obeisance, excluding other ways of being to exalt itself by oppressing and choking the life force from “the other,” whether gender-conforming or LGBTQ. That Chastain has the chops to convince us that we are witnessing every stressed fiber of her nerve endings annihilated, as she inhabits one of the most well-crafted characters in drama, is astounding and not to be underestimated, as some have done, implying her Nora “cries too much.”

Suffice to say, those are not female critics, of which there are far too few. However, her performance is emotionally handicapped accessible for those without a hearing ear, who may need to see Jamie Lloyd’s phenomenally sensitive direction a few times to “get it.” And happily many men do get it. They stood, cheered and whooped during the curtain calls when I looked around to see who was standing at Wednesday’s March 14th matinee. More importantly, women also cheered and whooped.

Clearly, husbands/partners, who might be like Torvald, need to see this production, if they suspect they are like him. Chastain’s Nora is an educational experience in how a particular woman suffers to the breaking point in order to be the prototype ideal wife and mother for a man’s “love” and acceptance. When Nora finally realizes she has the tools to free herself from the false and illusory prison of her own making, she throws off a life and role she believed made her happy to search for definitions of her own happiness.

Moayed’s Torvald, who portrays the solipsistic, presumptuous, self-aggrandizing, martinet with likable charm (how he does this is incredible), exposes her to herself. He smashes her fantasies that he is a white knight, who will do the “beautiful thing,” by sacrificing himself for her, as she has done for him.

(L to R): Arian Moayed, Jesmille Darbouze, Okieriete Onaodowan (back to the audience) Tasha Lawrence, Jessica Chastain, Michael Patrick Thornton in 'A Doll's House' (courtesy of 'A Doll's House')
(L to R): Arian Moayed, Jesmille Darbouze, Okieriete Onaodowan (back to the audience) Tasha Lawrence, Jessica Chastain, Michael Patrick Thornton in A Doll’s House (courtesy of A Doll’s House)

Unfortunately, the only one who would sacrifice himself for her is on his way out of life. Chastain’s scenes with Michael Patrick Thornton’s Dr. Rank, who is the couple’s terminally ill close friend, are touching, warm and human, unlike her scenes with Torvald. They should be together, but she won’t push their light flirtations beyond, loyal to her fantasy of Torvald, until she isn’t.

Interactions between Nora and Torvald are increasingly transparent as they devolve into Torvald’s eventual explosion and hatred directed at Nora after discovering the truth. The scenes between Krogstad and Kristine pointedly contrast and move in the opposite direction. Kristine’s persuasive love of Onaodowan’s Krogstad makes him swallow his “pride” and give up his extortion plan. Truth is at the core of their love. Onaodowan and Darbouze are particularly strong and authentic in their scene together which reveals Kristine and Krogstad’s love has remained over the years. On the other hand Torvald and Nora’s toxic relationship functions in falsehoods. Lies are at its core, and what is presumed to be love is convenience and objectification. Torvald demands Nora be his dream doll and she obeys, though it demoralizes her soul.

Okieriete Onaodowan, Jessica Chastain in A Doll's House (courtesy of Emilio Madrid)
Okieriete Onaodowan, Jessica Chastain in A Doll’s House (courtesy of Emilio Madrid)

Kristine’s troubled life has brought her to an understanding of herself in an honesty which Krogstad appreciates, for he wants to give up his corrupt way of life. That Lloyd has selected two Black actors to portray these characters reveals an underlying authenticity and exaltation for their love. Krogstad, who is in the shadows when we first meet him, as he sits behind Nora and blackmails her (unfortunately I had to read the script to understand these lines), appears the villain. He is made more villainous by the society’s ill treatment of him, but his love for Kristine redeems him. Torvald’s inability to love Nora damns them both.

Ironically, when her friend’s love is rekindled, Nora’s love ends, as she realizes Torvald’s true nature and relationship to her. Though he apologizes for “going off” in a diatribe superbly delivered by Moayed, Torvald’s narcissism which can’t abide anything hurting the Torvald “brand,” is egregious. His presumption is a delusion, for she saved his life; he wouldn’t exist but for her.

Herzog’s spare dialogue reveals how loathsome Torvald is in the last scene, when Nora tells him she believed him to be her white knight who would take the blame for her mistake. She insists she would have killed herself to stop his sacrifice for her. It is laughable when he says he would do anything for her, but he “won’t do that.” With conviction speaking for the entire tribe, Moayed states, “No man sacrifices his dignity for the person he loves.” Nora counters, “Hundreds of thousands of women have done that.” When Torvald begs her to stay for the children, he is the weak, despicable coward. His concern is pretentious show to make her feel guilty for leaving. Nora can’t be pressured. She knows Torvald will dump the inconsequential children’s care on their Nanny Anne-Marie (Tasha Lawrence).

Nora allows Torvald’s toxic masculinity to forge the chains which she uses to bind herself in the confines of a paternalistic culture that promotes attitudes about “the little wife.” Meanwhile, his little “bird” lacks a being and ethos apart from him. The only freedom, identity and empowerment Chastain’s Nora will ever receive is one she fashions for herself. This, she ironically and joyously enforces at the play’s conclusion.

How are such incredible performances by Chastain, Moayed and the others so beautifully shepherded? Lloyd economizes to the essence of thought in the lines reworked by Herzog. The evocative minimalism heightens the play’s timelessness and draws into crystal clarity the subtle, “loving” oppressive fantasies men and women (or whatever gender relationships), rely on to sustain power dynamics in their coupling. Without underlying truth and honesty to bolster the relationship and weather horrific storms, the illusions become insupportable and the personalities and relationships shatter.

Kudos to all in the creative team I may not have noted previously, including Jon Clark (lighting design), Ben & Max Ringham (sound design), the ominous, haunting music by Ryuichi Sakamoto & Alva Noto, and dance choreography by Jennifer Rias. For tickets to this maverick production, go to their website https://adollshousebroadway.com/

‘Crumbs From the Table of Joy’ Keen Company’s Revival of Lynn Nottage is a Must-See

(L to R): Malika Samuel, Shanel Bailey in 'Crumbs From the Table of Joy' (Julieta Certantes)
(L to R): Malika Samuel, Shanel Bailey in Crumbs From the Table of Joy (Julieta Certantes)

From the excellent selection of music that fills the auditorium before Crumbs From the Table of Joy begins, to Ernestine Crump’s (Shanel Bailey) summation of the future after the roiling events with her family subsides, the Keen Company’s fine revival of Nottage’s play endears us. The playwright’s simplicity focuses on the hardships and relationship dynamics of a single father and two teenage daughters, migrating from the Jim Crow South to a Brooklyn recovering from the vagaries of WW II. Directed by Colette Robert, the heartfelt, lyrical production runs with one intermission at Theatre Row until April 1. It is a must-see for its superb performances and incisive, sensitive and coherent direction.

Ernestine is our guide through the year-long experiences negotiating her mom’s death and the family trials without their beloved mother to seamlessly make their lives easier. Their mom is intensely missed by all, especially Godfrey Crump (Jason Bowen) who yearns for companionship and tries to suppress his grief by joining up with Father Divine’s Peace Mission fellowship. Ernestine’s poetic recollections of the grieving time and the year of transformation, reveal a witty, talented raconteur. Wise beyond her years, she makes the audience her confidante to reveal the frightening, unfamiliar city and “romantic Parisian apartment” which sister Ermina (Malika Samuel) calls ugly. Occasionally, she calls up in her imagination scenes as she’d like her life to be, which the actors show with humorous results. Then the unfortunate reality encroaches, and what she wishes dissolves to what is.

 (L to R): Malika Samuel, Shanel Bailey Jason Bowen in 'Crumbs From the Table of Joy' (Julieta Certantes)
(L to R): Malika Samuel, Shanel Bailey Jason Bowen in Crumbs From the Table of Joy (Julieta Certantes)

The family are fishes out of water in an alien environment that never seems welcoming. The Brooklyn schools put Ermina in a lower grade. The students ridicule their country braids and home made dresses sewn with love. Generally they are treated with disdain and indifference. Surrounded by Jewish neighbors who remain aloof in their whiteness, they dp become friendly with upstairs neighbors who ask them to be their Shabbos goys.

They envy the elderly Levys, who seem joyful and full of laughter as they listen to radio and watch their TV programs. On the other hand Godfrey denies Ernestine and Ermina any entertainments on Sundays. Godfrey is an adherent of Father Divine’s principles which require sobriety and living abstemiously with few pleasures except Father Divine’s holy word. Thus, Ernestine’s misery is acute. but she overcomes her upset through humor and irony. Nottage bonds us to her heroine because of her alertly sage descriptions and authenticity, which never devolves into self pity. To support her dad and sister whom she loves, she keeps her own counsel and studies hard to finish high school. A senior she becomes engrossed with making her graduation dress by hand, working her seamstress skills. Hers will be the celebration of the first family member to receive a diploma.

(L to R): Malika Samuel, Jason Bowen, Shanel Bailey in 'Crumbs From the Table of Joy' (Julieta Cervantes)
(L to R): Malika Samuel, Jason Bowen, Shanel Bailey in Crumbs From the Table of Joy (Julieta Cervantes)

While Ernestine applies herself in school, Ermina, who is 15-years old, fights her way into the social set and eventually becomes interested in boys. To establish that she won’t take sass from anyone, Ermina has her first successful fight and brings home the spoils of war in her pockets: a handful of greasy relaxed hair and a piece of grey cashmere sweater.

For his part their dad weeps, works nights at his job at the bakery, and loyally follows Father Divine. He counts on the minister to help him heal from the agonizing loss of his wife. Ernestine tells us that Father Divine has so enamored Godfrey that to be closer to him, he moved them to New York where he mistakenly thinks Father Divine lives because of a return address on the newsletter he receives as a subscriber. Their dad believes Divine’s “wisdom” is from God and he adheres to Divine’s principles to live cleanly, without alcohol or dancing or drugs, and be as devoted as a monk with celibacy as a badge of honor. Ernestine quips that this behavior is embraced by Godfrey, who never went to church or tipped his hat to a lady before they moved to Brooklyn. As for the other behaviors she doesn’t mention, we assume he did them all before their mother died.

(L to R): Shanel Bailey, Malika Samuel, Jason Bowen, Sharina Martin in 'Crumbs From the Table of Joy' (Julieta Cervantes)
(L to R): Shanel Bailey, Malika Samuel, Jason Bowen, Sharina Martin in Crumbs From the Table of Joy (Julieta Cervantes)

Their home life revolves around Father Divine as their father attempts to become more spiritual and understand as much as possible under Divine’s tutelage which he seeks as he writes letters to him asking God’s advice to traverse this rough time in a bigoted environment of white people. That it was worse in the South doesn’t quite register and Nottage doesn’t make it a point. What she does indicate is that Godfrey doesn’t note the differences. For her part Ernestine appreciates that she is able to sit between two white girls touching shoulders in a movie theater, where this is not possible in a Jim Crow South which we infer from her excitement and enthusiasm. Also, she and Ermina like their nice neighbors upstairs who give them quarters for turning on the lights and the TV which they sometimes get to watch. However, to Godfrey, “white people” are a universal stereotype to be avoided and mumbled about.

Ironically, Ernestine points out his hypocrisy about selective criticism. He accepts Father Divine’s choice of a white wife to be another perfection of Godliness. Ernestine, who distrusts Father Divine, points out the difference between the God-like, elite Divine’s privilege to have a white wife, yet criticize white people to his Black followers. Meanwhile, her dad is just a poor Black man who sucks up a few crumbs from under the table of his life, which appears a drudgery especially with no woman at his side.

(L to R): Sharina Martin, Malika Samuel, Shanel Bailey in 'Crumbs From the Table of Joy' (Julieta Cervantes)
(L to R): Sharina Martin, Malika Samuel, Shanel Bailey in Crumbs From the Table of Joy (Julieta Cervantes)

Enter Lily Ann Green (Sharina Martin) their mom’s deceased sister, who blows in unannounced, with values contrary to Father Divine/Godfrey and behaviors which upset Godfrey and put him on edge. Ernestine is thrilled she is there, even though Lily crashes with them, is completely self-absorbed and pushes her communistic beliefs wherever she goes,which is why she can’t hold a job. Interestingly, Nottage floats the two disparate philosophies which were to bring salvation to the Black society in America in the 1950s as sold and marketed by both: religion and the communist party.

Both preachers and communist leaders embraced the African American cause and, at their most egregious, exploited it for their own use. When Ernestine uses communist ideas in an essay that she hears Lily spout (this was during Senator Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare) her teacher is in an uproar. Likewise, Lily Ann ends up compromising Godfrey’s situation at work. Ernestine is forced to apologize as is Godfrey, who argues with Lily about not pushing communism vociferously to his daughters and others. He believes she is only making trouble. Though Lily Ann is interested in Godfrey and makes a play for him, he rejects her because he doesn’t agree with her politics and she dislikes Father Divine.

(L to R): Sharina Martin, Jason Bowen, Shanel Bailey in 'Crumbs From the Table of Joy' (Julieta Cervantes)
(L to R): Sharina Martin, Jason Bowen, Shanel Bailey in Crumbs From the Table of Joy (Julieta Cervantes)

When the circumstances between them explode, Godfrey takes off a few from the family in frustration. During this respite, he meets Gerte Schulte (Natalia Payne) who emigrated from Germany after the war. Like Godfrey she is desperate for companionship and looking for someone to take care of her. Godfrey opens his heart and shares his circumstances. When he discusses Father Divine, she is receptive and together they seem to meld because of Gerte’s flexibility and charm. She is the antithesis of Lily Ann’s loose lifestyle, political determinism and stubbornness in having the upper hand with men.

Where Lily Ann is a catalyst and mentor for Ernestine and Ermina, Gerte becomes the catalyst to change their lives and split them apart. Nottage leaps her play’s action quickly forward when Godfrey brings Gerte home to introduce her to his daughters and Lily Ann. With her seductive, sweet charms, Gerte ingratiates herself into Godfrey’s life, moving herself from girlfriend to wife in a matter of a few days. The siblings are shocked as is Lily Ann. Godfrey expects all of them to live together and accept Gerte as his new wife. The results are not only humorous, they are necessary for Ernestine’s and Godfrey’s growth, as well as Lily Ann’s movement away from the dream of settling down with her sister’s husband.

 (L to R): Malika Samuel, Shanel Bailey, Natalia Payne, Jason Bowen in 'Crumbs From the Table of Joy' (Julieta Cervantes)
(L to R): Malika Samuel, Shanel Bailey, Natalia Payne, Jason Bowen in Crumbs From the Table of Joy (Julieta Cervantes)

As Ernestine Crump, Shanel Bailey is a phenomenon. Her narration is on-point, sensitive, nuanced and heartbreaking, especially at the end when she discusses what happens to each of the family members. Mindful of the narrative’s lovely poetic phrases, Bailey travels forward in character portraying Ernestine’s feelings in active dialogue with her dad, Lily Ann and Gerte, then seamlessly transfers to narrating her ironic perspective of them with grace. Bailey is winning and the production which hinges on her broad acting talents is strengthened with her brilliance of authenticity.

Though all of the ensemble shines, held together through Robert’s fine direction, another standout is Natalia Payne’s Gerte. Her accent is near perfect as a a German swanning through English. Payne makes Gerte likeable in her color blindness and utter humanity, as she forges a path for herself after the war. Though Nottage doesn’t fill in much of her backstory, we see she is a charming operator with resilience and an ability to read and understand situations, a survivalist. She and Godfrey end up with each other as a mutual benefit and by the end of the play, they move toward the intimacy and companionship they seek and need.

Malika Samuel’s Ermina is a breath of joyful fresh air. Her role is an addendum. It is a shame that she doesn’t have more dialogue for her funny, bright personality is winsome and the relationship Samuel and Bailey effect together rings with authenticity.

Natalia Payne in 'Crumbs From the Table of Joy' (Julieta Cervantes)
Natalia Payne in Crumbs From the Table of Joy (Julieta Cervantes)

Nottage’s mouthpiece for her ideas, Lily Ann, is the most difficult of the characters to like because underneath her rhetoric, she is the most evasive. Though we attempt to infer the subtext of her character, Nottage doesn’t give us much to go on past what she stands for and says she believes in. However, her actions speak louder than her words and when Ernestine attempts to find the Harlem location of the communist party, the address that Lily Ann gives her doesn’t ring true. As Lily Ann, Sharina Martin is tough, manipulative, seductive and open-hearted with the sisters. She also layers Lily Ann’s personality so that we are wary that she is fronting and not delivering the truth to the family as she should be.

Jason Bowen’s Godfrey is spot-on believable and inhabits the role of the father desperate for answers in a world whose corrupt values make no sense except to be an incalculable frustration. His faith in Father Divine is believable to the point where we want Divine to be real. If he is duping Godfrey, who is vulnerable and heartbroken, it is a bitter and enraging Black on Black exploitation, skirting criminality. Because we empathize with Bowen’s Godfrey, we want the best for him. As Ernestine does we question his weak desperation falling for Gerte and marrying her so quickly. However, both are so needy. In the last scene Ernestine notes that Godfrey’s celibacy ends when Gerte and he make up after fighting. Bowen and Natalia Payne convey a roller coaster of emotions in their last scene together.

Kudos to the Keen Company’s creative team who bring together Colette Robert’s vision of the other 1950s America and how to prosper in spite of it. Creatives include Brendan Gonzales Boston’s spare, functional period scenic design, Johanna Pan’s costume design, Anshuman Bhatia’s lighting design, Broken Chord’s sound design and Nikiya Mathis’ wig design.

Crumbs from the Table of Joy continues until April 1 at Theatre Row. For tickets go to their website: https://www.keencompany.org/crumbsfromthetableofjoy

‘The Fire That Took Her,’ The Judy Malinowski Documentary at Athena Film Festival

Athena Film Festival (courtesy of Carole Di Tosti)
Athena Film Festival (courtesy of Carole Di Tosti)

The Judy Malinowski story by filmmaker Patricia Gillespie which screened at Athena Film Festival with a filmmaker Q and A afterward is like other women’s stories that involve abuse by heinous and monstrous men. One in four women in the nation suffer some form of emotional and physical abuse and violence from their partners or spouses.

In the Fire That Took Her, Judy Malinowski’s story is particularly egregious. The 31-year-old mother of two was in an abusive relationship with a man with a criminal history. After an argument, he doused her with gasoline, then burned her alive. This story separates from most women’s stories in its incredible and heartbreaking outcome that produced a landmark case and laws in the right direction helping women abused by men. After her death Judy’s video testimony about her murder was played before judge and jury and helped to sentence murderer Michael Slager to life without parole, which Judy felt was just. He would have received the death penalty if he had pleaded innocent, but his defense attorney insisted he plead guilty in case Judy died of her horrific injuries. She did.

AFF Q and A on The Fire That Took Her, Patricia Gillespie’s documentary (courtesy of Carole Di Tosti)

Gillespie’s amazing work, which she also produced, chronicles a portrait of this brave, Franklin County Ohio woman told in video clips of her childhood, archived family photos and interviews with her galvanizing mom Bonnie Bowes, her sister Danielle Gorman and Judy’s two daughters Kaylyn and Maddie. In these comprehensive videos, the family relates their feelings about Judy, emphasizing that she did well in school and she was a social butterfly growing up. Her situation started to go downhill after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and unbeknownst to her became addicted to pain medication. After she met Slager, she fell apart because she used heroin to take the place of Oxycontin prescribed to her after her surgeries. When the doctors cut her off Oxycontin, her use of heroin instigated by Michael Slager as a control feature of their abusive relationship began.

Through interviews principally with Bonnie Bowes and sister Danielle, Gillespie unravels the story. Slager became Judy’s “go-to” drug guy and sometimes paid for heroin to keep her addicted and close. The relationship grew so abusive that she became afraid of him. The day he attacked her, he was driving her to rehab where she was actually going to escape him and be safe. He knew it and most probably, it enraged him. When he insinuated himself on her to take her to rehab, as a weakness, so often found in abusive relationships between women and their partners, she allowed Slager to drive her to rehab. It was the last time she was to see life under normal circumstances ever again.

Bonnie Bowes and Judy’s sister Danielle during this segment profiling Judy discuss Slager and Judy’s toxic relationship. Slager manipulated and controlled her using with the drugs and “got off” on the power he felt as a result. The mother and sister give an account of the Judy’s deteriorating state of mind and physical condition, which was not only emblematic of the emotional abuse she was experiencing, but it was evidence of his negativity and condemnation which exacerbated her depression, low self-esteem and fear of him. To say their relationship was the antithesis of beneficial is an understatement. Though Slager’s attack on her was beyond calculation, he gained power through his sadism and keeping her under his own surveillance using her drug dependence. And when she tried to disengage or hide from him, he always found a way back to her.

In the segments where Gillespie explores Judy’s condition in the hospital, she uses commentary from interviews with the nurse who took care of her. Stacy Best describes burn wounds as the most horrifically painful to overcome. She discusses how the hospital gave probability stats on burn patients based upon the proportion of their body that was burned. When Judy came in, she was burned over 95% of her body. Her prognosis was very poor and they didn’t expect her to live. Judy continually amazed Best and those medical staff who took care of her. Best lifts up Judy as a strong, courageous woman and affirms that Judy’s fight to remain alive through the trial and presentation of video testimony that would convict Slager was miraculous.

Considering that she was in a coma for many months through her many surgeries and skin grafts, that she lived for two years after the attack was a testament to her extraordinary will and bravery. Best saw how Judy endured the psychological and physical trauma that she had to face each day she woke up to an unrecognizable face and searing, screaming pain coursing through her body. Nevertheless, she pushed through each day to become the integral witness to Slager’s felonious assault trial which moved to a murder trial after she died. The filmmaker uses salient film clips of the trial in her documentary.

At the beginning of the documentary outlining Slager’s fiery attack, Gillespie relies on interviews with Detective Chad Cohagen. He describes watching the ATM videos which captured a cinema verite account of of Slager’s diabolical, murderous assault on Judy at a Speedway gas station. Cohagen says how he couldn’t get the scenes out of his mind and was haunted by their remembrance which indicated the brutality and hatefulness of Slager’s violence. The ATM videos were used at the Slager trials and provided the prosecution with the evidence of Slager’s behavior. Importantly, they confirmed that he was lying about how the fire occurred which he said was an accident. He insisted (Gillespie includes this video of Slager in a hospital bed spouting his innocence) that he didn’t intentionally burn Judy. He claimed when she asked him to light her cigarette, somehow in doing that, she was ignited. That Judy would even ask to have an open flame around her while she was drenched in gasoline whose fumes can ignite, places the blame on Judy and makes her appear the provocative aggressor and Slager the victim of her suicidal request.

Patricia Gillespie, documentarian, producer of 'The Fire That Took Her' (courtesy of Carole Di Tosti)
Patricia Gillespie, documentarian, producer of The Fire That Took Her (courtesy of Carole Di Tosti)

Misogyny always places the blame on women for the violent acts men do to them. “They made me do it,” becomes a common refrain: from “she wanted it dressed like that,” to it was “an accident that she tripped down the stairs and broke open her skull.” The likelihood in a relationship filled with violence and abuse is that the man once more violated his partner. Oftentimes, women cover up men’s abusive physical behavior out of humiliation. That the men instigate this pattern with women, who minimize it, reveals the likelihood that there will especially be an attempt to to cover up a violent action if the result is death.

Throughout her documentary, Gillespsie refers to the ATM videos. In them we see Judy has an argument with Michael Slager during which she throws a cup of soda on him. His retaliation, psychotically out of proportion to her soda throwing, is to get a gasoline canister from the back of his truck, then douse Judy with the gasoline starting from the top of the head and down her back. After some seconds elapse, he ignites her and there is an explosion of flame with Judy struggling under the conflagration and begging for help.

(L to R): Co-Founder of AFF Melissa Silverstein and Patricia Gillespie discussing The Fire That Took Her (courtesy of Carole Di Tosti)
(L to R): Co-Founder of AFF Melissa Silverstein and Patricia Gillespie discussing The Fire That Took Her (courtesy of Carole Di Tosti)

Gillespie explores Detective Cohagen’s examination of Slager’s lies about intent which would help to get him off for first degree murder as to motive. The filmmaker also includes clips of the prosecution’s and Slager’s defense attorney Bob Krapence. Their discussion centers around Slager’s innocence versus willfully, knowingly, intentionally lighting her on fire to punish her for throwing soda on him. According to Krapence, Slager didn’t mean to harm Judy. The fact that he poured gasoline over her starting from her head wasn’t enough of an intent. The live flame was. And the video gives proof that he was not innocent about the open flame. Gillespie has law enforcement give a shot by shot explanation which confirms Judy’s testimony that she recorded in a deposition in the hospital before she died. Certainly, her injuries confirm what the video shows which is Slager’s intent to torture her.

Slager also lied about when he got a fire extinguisher to put out the flames, which he says he did immediately which proves his intent was to do no harm. However, the ATM video shows that it was only until a Good Samaritan bystander who witnessed his actions and screamed for help returned him to a consciousness of his own guilty actions. Then, he got a fire extinguisher and put out the fire that engulfed the woman that he said he loved. Prior to the bystander he waited and ignored Judy’s cries for help, watching her immolation.

(L to R): Mom Bonnie Bowes and Judy Malinowski before the attack (courtesy of the family to Marion Star)
(L to R): Mom Bonnie Bowes and Judy Malinowski before the attack (courtesy of the family to Marion Star)

The ATM videos were key pieces of evidence. In her interviews, Bonnie Bowes states she was in shock, finding it difficult to believe such an action could be done by human hands. Each of the subjects that Gillepsie interviews defines Slager’s actions to be reprehensible and beyond logic. Even Michael Slager’s defense attorney Bob Krapence, who futilely tries to contend that Michael didn’t mean to do Judy harm admits to Gillespsie in an interview that the film showing Slager’s actions is practically impossible to overcome. Thus, he leads Slager to take a guilty plea, knowing the possibility that Judy will die and he will be convicted of murder.

Judy’s deposition, taken in the last months of her life by the prosecution, was done with little pain medication. Thus, her agonized testimony is delivered in excruciating pain because prosecutors didn’t want it to be interpreted by the defense that the pain meds made her a euphoric liar. Gillespie includes the video taped deposition in her documentary. In the deposition Judy states how Slager’s eyes turned black and he was a personification of evil. Clearly, Slager’s prior record which goes on for pages indicates a personality of control and criminality. That he was not stopped before this event is a testament to the ineffective justice system and law enforcement. That the police didn’t focus on Slager as capable of such an act even though Judy repeatedly told them he was going to kill her and had to go in hiding from him indicates that law enforcement, as in many instances with violence toward women, doesn’t take domestic abuse and the threats to kill as seriously as it should.

Judy Malinowski before the attack and in the hospital after over 95% of her body was burned by Michael Slage (courtesy of Now/This)
Judy Malinowski before the attack and in the hospital after over 95% of her body was burned by Michael Slage (courtesy of Now/This)

Patricia Gillespie intersperses the interviews by the subjects with the trial video of the judge, Slager with his attorney and his family’s upset at the verdict of life without parole.The sentence of life without parole was what Judy wanted for him before she passed away. She didn’t want him to get the death penalty. Ironically, Judy was more merciful to him than he was to her which is one aspect of her personality which the superb documentary The Fire That Took Her reveals. Another aspect is how even after her death, she still is exerting her influence on the laws in Ohio and the federal jurisprudence system with Judy’s Foundation established by Judy’s family.

The maximum sentence that Slager would have received in Ohio was 11 years behind bars. While she was still alive, with her mother and family, Judy helped Ohio representatives pass a bill into law that would make assaults like Slager’s come with longer prison sentences for violent criminals who intentionally disfigure their victims by using accelerants to set them on fire. Prior to Judy’s campaign to get the law passed, a car had the same rights as a woman. One could light a car on fire and for that receive 11 years behind bars. What is a human being worth? Under the law the same value as a car. This is an egregious example of the justice system that doesn’t work.

Judy's Law being signed by Gov. John Kasich here present with Judy's family. (courtesy of Karen Kasler)
Judy’s Law being signed by Gov. John Kasich here present with Judy’s family. (courtesy of Karen Kasler)

Ohio’s HB 63, a.k.a. Judy’s Law, passed in May 2017, just a month before Judy’s death. Judy’s Foundation currently is working to federalize the Ohio law stiffening sentences and penalties so that victims are worth more than a car.

This is a vital documentary. Gillespie highlights the horrific permissiveness in the justice system that continually fails women when dealing with violent crimes committed against them. What Judy Malinowski had to do was die and leave testimony taken under horrifically painful circumstances to make sure her killer received the sentence she felt he deserved. Judy’s Law is a step in the right direction. However, folkways in this nation in many states which uplifted paternalism and viewed women with no rights as men’s chattel die hard. Gillespie points this out in the film’s themes which reveal the mistreatment of women has far reaching effects on the families, individual women and culture at large. That Big Pharma was an integral but hidden part of that mistreatment and abuse is another indictment found in the documentary.

This is one to see. It is a spur for us to continue to fight the good fight and to speak out and take agency and power when violent abuse and mistreatment is ignored and/or the perpetrators shielded. Judy Malinowski did not die in vain. As a force for goodness and Light, she lives on in the work being done with Judy’s Foundation.

You can see it streaming on your favorite channels.

‘Elyria,’ by Deepa Purohit, a Gujarati Diaspora in Ohio, Review

 Nilanjana Bose, Gulshan Mia in Elyria (courtesy of Ahron R. Foster)
Nilanjana Bose, Gulshan Mia in Elyria (courtesy of Ahron R. Foster)

The gorgeously vibrant sarees and salwar kameez take center stage as the characters spin and move exotically to traditional garba music. This is a festival celebration by Gujarati diasporans and other Indians who have found their way to Elyria, Ohio by 1982, the setting of the the titular play by Deepa Purohit. Currently in its World Premere at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Off Broadway Linda Gross Theater until March 19th, Elyria is incisively directed by Awoye Timpo and runs with one intermission. .

At its most powerful, Elyria captures the cultural nuances and shifting values gradually shaping the diasporans as they migrate from Kenya to London to Elyria. Through stylization and minimal, almost expressionistic set design, the play’s central tenet, how the past shakes itself into the present, unfolds in the imaginations of the characters, as they visualize their past interactions in flashbacks, which inform and drive their present behaviors.

 (L to R): Mohit Gautam, Omar Shafiuzzaman in Elyria (courtesy of Ahron R. Foster)
(L to R): Mohit Gautam, Omar Shafiuzzaman in Elyria (courtesy of Ahron R. Foster)

Elyria never descends completely into a melodrama of a threesome gone awry. This is because of the director’s elusive suggestion of the principals’ younger versions of themselves, portrayed by Mahima Saigal, Avanthika Srinivasan and Sanskar Agarwal, in flashbacks symbolically staged with accompanying music. The wistful compositions by Neel Murgai convey timber and moment. They are especially effective in the first act and in the flashbacks. For it is the nuance and surrealism of the past which lift Elyria beyond the mundane. As a result the evocative scenes present a dream-state atmosphere, like a series of meditations through which we intuit that Dhatta (Gulshan Mia) and Vasanta (Nilanjana Bose) make peace with themselves and each other by the play’s end.

Into the celebration of dance and happy festivities, Vasanta emerges on the dance floor to confront Dhatta and briefly move with her as they share awkward, stilted greetings. We anticipate from their encounter that they have known each other in another time and place, as it turns out when they were growing up together in Kenya. Though the contrast between the two women is not apparent initially, after they have additional encounters, we learn that Dhatta comes from an upper class strata of Gujarati society and Vasanta comes from a family with little means. As the play gradually unfolds, we learn that traditional cultural folkways bleed into the relationships and interactions of the characters, defining their social positions, identities and behaviors.

(L to R): Nilanjana Bose, Sanjit De Silva, Mahima Saigal Gulshan Mia, Bhavesh Patel in 'Elyria' (courtesy of Ahron R. Foster)
(L to R): Nilanjana Bose, Sanjit De Silva, Mahima Saigal Gulshan Mia, Bhavesh Patel in Elyria (courtesy of Ahron R. Foster)

Without slamming rhetorical intrusions into the love triangle which developed elsewhere and ended after Dhatta married Charu (Bhavesh Patel) the playwright gradually reveals the surreptitious bonds among the characters, using Vasanta as the catalyst. Though she promised she wouldn’t, Vasanta follows Dhatta and Charu all the way to Elyria to confront them about Rohan (Mohit Gautam) who is the child of Vasanta and Charu’s love relationship. Dhatta has told Rohan that she is not his birth mother, but she is his mother forever. Rohan tells his college friend Hassanali (Omar Shafiuzzaman) that he plans to locate his birth parents after he and Hassanali graduate from college. Hassanali, a self-proclaimed computer genius, promises that he will help Rohan locate them on the “Interweb.”

Two ironies immediately present themselves. Rohan and Hassanali will be searching globally on the nascent and clunky forerunner of the internet whose communication protocols were not yet standardized (the internet was born in 1983). Ironically, Rohan’s birth parents are in his backyard and he could know them if someone would just “spill the beans.” However, revealing the secret is a monumental endeavor for the one carrying it, a happening more far flung then landing a spaceship on Neptune.

But even mountains move and an upset Vasanta finds the means financially with her hairdresser skills to make it to Elyria, supporting charming, con man husband Shiv (Sanjit De Silva) to proclaim her truth and see her grown-up child. Thus, the forward momentum of Purohit’s delicate unfolding plot complication unravels and destroys Dhatta’s world.

 Gulshan Mia, Bhavesh Patel in Elyria (courtesy of Ahron R. Foster)
Gulshan Mia, Bhavesh Patel in Elyria (courtesy of Ahron R. Foster)

The secret is not revealed to Rohan during the play. Rohan believes that he was adopted by both Charu and Dhatta. It is his misfortune that he never receives the information that Charu is his real father with his mother’s childhood friend Vasanta as his birth mother. Dhatta is responsible for sharing the information that she promised Vasanta she would share. She doesn’t because she can’t; she is afraid. She knows that Charu loved Vasanta more, but until she begins to reconcile her past younger self with her older self’s experience, she can’t confront her husband about that love or the child it produced. The play is the revelation of the truth about Rohan and how it has impacted the characters and their love of themselves. Until they confront the truth, the guilt and self-loathing they’ve experienced keeping secrets from each other fester inside their souls and psyches.

At the heart of the complications, emotional problems and self-revulsion that each of the characters feel, are Indian cultural folkways. These (arranged marriages, economic status, paternalism) have oppressed both Vasanta and Dhatta and have damned Charu to a life of remote isolation from his son and his wife, as he perfunctorily performs his role as a father and husband. Indeed, Dhatta has devoted all of her love to Rohan and has unconsciously closed out Charu. He accuses her of foiling their marriage and giving all her attention to Rohan in a dynamic scene where Dhatta finally is able to tell him she knows about Vasanta. Admitting that she has raised up his son from a woman he still loves clears the air. On the other hand the truth heaps recriminations on Charu for clearly Dhatta is the better person, despite his accusations that accepting Rohan and raising him as her own son has negatively impacted their marriage.

Gulshan Mia, Mohit Gautam in 'Elyria' (courtesy of Ahron R. Foster)
Gulshan Mia, Mohit Gautam in Elyria (courtesy of Ahron R. Foster)

Eventually, we discover their past and the traditions that bound them and still bind them making Charu culpable in what has happened. Years before Elyria and his marriage to Dhatta, Charu and Vasanta were lovers. However, their future marriage was doomed by her parent’s financial status and inability to pay the high dowry price required. Thus, Charu must marry someone financially well-off, in an economically viable arranged marriage of which his parents and Dhatta’s parents approve. Vasanta keeps secret her pregnancy and when Rohan is born, she delivers her son to Dhatta, keeping the baby with at least one birth parent, that is, if Dhatta agrees to the secrecy, which Vasanta eventually wants to be divulged to everyone.

Of course human beings don’t keep their promises, as we learn from the brief conversations between Bose’s Vasanta and Mia’s Dhatta. Dhatta never tells Charu she knows about his love for Vasanta. In the complication of generously swallowing dishonor and raising her husband’s former lover’s child, the secret lays dormant and calcifies her marriage and relationship with Charu. Interestingly, they aren’t able to have another child. To what extent this is because of the burden of secrets that Dhatta carries is unclear. However, when Vasanta’s stalks Dhatta and Charu to Elyria, she, too, breaks the promise that she would never pursue them or interfere in their marriage. Spending the time and money to hunt them down, then dragging along her unsuspecting, career failed husband Shiv to Elyria, we recognize how high the stakes are for her to reconcile with her son and former lover.

(L to R): Bhavesh Patel, Mohit Gautam in Elyria (courtesy of Ahron R. Foster)

Both women must receive satisfaction; one to remain in darkness, the other to expose Rohan to the light. The result is devastaing and wonderful. The upheaval at the top of the play which sets in motion a dynamic that could have unfolded in a more forceful way is not the intent of Purohit’s subtle, delicate work, which meanders and flows until a final truth emerges on the brink of revelation. Who will be the first to bravely speak it out?

There are many themes in Elyria. One is an indictment of the mores whose strictures create problems for families, binding individual in fear. Charu is a traditional, conservative man who refuses to marry Vasanta though he loves her. He chooses to stay with his parent’s ways, hurting himself and all involved. Adhering to these folkways threatens to derail Rohan’s circumstances in the future because Charu wants Rohan to marry a woman of economic means, matching if not exceeding his own lifestyle as a surgeon. In one scene Charu attempts to steer Rohan toward beginning to get serious about meeting a girl he will marry. However, in his interactions with Hassanali, we discover Rohan is attracted to men. Unless the family is truthful and frees itself from such bondages, more trouble, pain and sorrow will follow them.

Kudos to Elyria‘s creative team which includes Parijat Desai (choreography) Jason Ardizzone-West (sets) Sarita Fellows (costumes) Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew (lighting) Amatus Karim-Ali (sound) Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew (projections) Nikiya Mathis (hair design) Neel Murgai (compositions). Praise to the ensemble, who are vibrant and on-point, and the director whose vision brings Purohit’s work to life and endears us to her characters’ movement toward reconciliation.

For tickets go to the Atlantic Theater Company website https://atlantictheater.org/

‘The Trees,’ Agnes Borinsky’s Fantasy of Stasis, a Review

Crystal Dickinson, Jess Barbagallo in 'The Trees' (courtesy of Chelcie Parry)
Crystal Dickinson, Jess Barbagallo in The Trees (courtesy of Chelcie Parry)

The abstract white, platformed set design (Parker Lutz) appears stark and majestic with arched rectangular pillars proscribing a curvilinear playing area center and downstage. The set is a symbolic representation of a park, interestingly absent any greenery. It’s a fine space to present a metaphoric fantasy like Agnes Borinsky’s The Trees, directed by Tina Satter, currently at Playwrights Horizons.

The Trees opens with the possibilities of a unique, mysterious conflict, and ends in medias res, as Borinsky mines the central conceit adding various layers and meandering back and forth with no seeming resolution, though there is one that is abstract and philosophical. As the playwright suggests she is wont to do, The Trees avoids a developed plot. It concerns the logistics of arranging the movement of players and supplies around the static protagonists whose human condition changes at the top of the play.

(L to R): Danusia Trevino, Crystal Dickinson in 'The Trees' (courtesy of Chelcie Parry
(L to R): Danusia Trevino, Crystal Dickinson in The Trees (courtesy of Chelcie Parry

Brother David (Jess Barbagallo) and sister Sheila (Crystal Dickinson) who is visiting from Seattle, return home from a party playfully drunk. Appreciative of the night’s beauty and environs, they decide to stay outside and spend some enjoyable time in the park adjacent to their family home, which they’ve inherited from their father, who recently died. Overnight, a cataclysm occurs without rhyme or reason that neither we nor the characters are a party to. It involves a mega change that defies description.

Absurdly, David and Sheila awake the next morning in horrified shock to find themselves rooted to the soil, their feet immobilized and frozen in place. Theirs is an unexplained miraculous transmogrification from flesh to plant matter, though they retain cellular structures of both humans and trees. They refer to their tree selves as humans and identify as humans, however, physically in defiance of reality, they are also trees.

    (L to R): Max Gordon Moore, Ray Anthony Thomas, Crystal Dickinson in 'The Trees' (courtesy of Chelcie Parry)
(L to R): Max Gordon Moore, Ray Anthony Thomas, Crystal Dickinson in The Trees (courtesy of Chelcie Parry)

In this hyper-state of existence, the siblings learn to overcome the conflict of former identities abutting their new beings. Gradually, their consciousness expands. They accept their new lives, but cannot move nor take care of their past identities, activities and relationships. For Sheila this means having to give up her life and work in Seattle. For David this entails perhaps never having sex again. Sheila reveals a nature that is flexible, accepts, goes with the flow, makes the best and follows all the cliches people use in life when there is nothing they can do to change things. However, David resists and is not happy with “what is.” In fact after David’s transformation, his old lover Jared (Sean Donovan) throws him over for someone else, though they still remain friends and Jared joins the community which sprouts up to nurture and care for Sheila and David. David learns to accept, but he always complains and resists before he settles into the status quo.

The playwright asks us to suspend our disbelief by suggesting anything is possible in her her fairy tale. In the twinkling of a few hours worlds can come and go, consciousnesses can be raised and a new perspective and ethos might be a pleasant, happy experience that exists in and of itself for the purpose of whimsy, if we are open-minded. Indeed and perhaps.

This appears to be one of Borinsky’s themes in The Trees. The circumstances are because they are and exist despite all defiance to science and logic. For that reason alone, The Trees is worthy of presentation. Understanding it as an allegory of human experience and the human condition, one is able to translate the metaphors and reactions of the protagonists to the unusual, whether in the play’s instance they have turned into a tree or in another instance, someone has been turned into deteriorating flesh through disease, drugs and their side effects.

(L to R): Jess Barbagallo, Sean Donovan in 'The Trees' (courtesy of Chelcie Parry)
(L to R): Jess Barbagallo, Sean Donovan in The Trees (courtesy of Chelcie Parry)

Acutely directed by Tina Satter, who shepherds the actors, all do a yeoman’s job with the fantastic elements and fluid happenings that take place representationally over a seven year period. This is especially so of Crystal Dickinson and Jess Barbagallo, who make sense of the absurd, as we watch how Sheila and David confront their new genetic transformation.

Fortunately, when word gets around, friends help the tree/humans with food and other necessities. No logical sensibility is relayed as to why they need human food, why they need clothing, etc. They are immobilized in the trans-state of human/tree and achieve a status quo state of being in the park, where events transpire around them, where people enter and join them in community, while they are stuck and going nowhere. All seamlessly coheres as the thrust of Borinsky’s conceit. With these friends, neighbors and strangers, David and Sheila might live forever. Certainly, trees can live longer than human beings, if their environment is not undone by commercialization, fire and development. These possible undoings do threaten David and Sheila’s community as we see later in the play.

The fairy-tale elements of The Trees are heavily fantastical and provide some of the humor and most of the conundrum of illogical occurrences as David and Sheila grow a network of friends, who appreciate how they have embraced a back to nature, celebration of the earth lifestyle as tree/humans.

 Crystal Dickinson, Jess Barbagallo in 'The Trees' (courtesy of Chelcie Parry)
Crystal Dickinson, Jess Barbagallo in The Trees (courtesy of Chelcie Parry)

Those who visit feel an affinity to the siblings and become friends. These include Julian (Nile Harris) who makes a documentary on the siblings and Tavish (Pauli Pontrelli) who saves David and Sheila’s grandmother from a fire. As their Grandmother, Danusia Trevino speaks the entire role in Polish and references the mystical elements of David and Sheila’s “back to nature” movement as an inherent part of their ancestry. Others include Norm (Ray Anthony Thomas) a gay man cruising in the park, and importantly, Saul (Max Gordon Moore) a rabbi who believes in the miracle of their transformation by God and eventually marries Sheila and has Ezra (Xander Fenyes) with her. Lastly are friend Charlotte (Becky Yamamoto) and Sheryl (Marcia Debonis) a member of the Rabbi’s former congregation, whose heartfelt description of her Dad quickens Sheila in remembrance of her father.

The interesting villain who actually joins the community of friends begins as Vendor (Sam Breslin Wright). He hawks chips, pretzels and water to park visitors. As Wright’s Vendor ingratiates himself to the community eventually, he presents plans which would protect their human/tree status. Ironically, as quickly as they morphed into trees, he becomes the developer whose thrust is to build a mall in the park that will house David and Sheila. When the community that initially accepted the Vendor’s plans come to the final decision about the mall, there is another magnificent change. Sheila, David and their community decide that they don’t want a mall in the park. They want the park to remain undeveloped.

In a superb rant decrying how their decision is disloyal and has caused him time and money (he has been giving them checks for their support) Wright’s Vendor expertly magnifies all the hope and despair of progress and the destruction of land and environment for a questionable result.

Gordon Moore, Crystal Dickinson in 'The Trees' (courtesy of Chelcie Parry)
Max Gordon Moore, Crystal Dickinson in The Trees (courtesy of Chelcie Parry)

The community and specifically David and Sheila have lost his friendship which Sheila is sanguine about, a reflection of her nature. She has been flexible about all that life and the situation has thrown at them. When David questions what will happen, Borinsky’s main theme comes to the fore. Love and community have been sustained by their transformation into trees, as they have provided an ecosystem that gives and receives, is nurtured and has nurtured. David counters that a mall will destroy what they’ve built with love. However, Sheila reminds him that nothing is certain. Truly, when they unwittingly began their fantastical adventure, goodness and love abounded from it because they accepted it instead of calling up woodcutters to chop off their legs.

Though at times the play appears illogical, the characterizations as uneven as some of them are give the play a quirky and exotic rhythm. In appearing to go “nowhere” the playwright takes her characters to an open ended conclusion which emphasizes love, community and the inability to know much of anything in the vast future which can turn on a dime overnight. Sometimes, even when malls are being scheduled to be built, they never materialize. And that’s a good thing, especially if the love of the surrounding community has petitioned their demise.

Kudos to the creative team which includes Parker Lutz (scenic design) Enver Chakartash (costume design) Thomas Dunn (lighting design) Tei Blow (sound design) Amanda Villalobos (puppet designer) and Nazareth Hassan (original music). The Trees runs until March 19th. For tickets go to their website https://www.playwrightshorizons.org/tickets-packages/buy-show-tickets/

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