Renowned award winning novelist, essayist and short story writer, Patricia Highsmith isolates herself in Switzerland with views of the gorgeous snow-capped Alps glinting beams of light cheerily toward her house. As her desk and old-fashioned typewriter face opposite the window, we understand the writer is not in Switzerland for a pleasant reprieve from the United States which she often excoriated in newspaper articles and editorials.
No! She is there for another purpose. As we hop on the erratic train ride of her mind over the peaks and valleys of Highsmith’s jagged mental state fueled by alcohol, we discover what that purpose is in the Hudson Stage Company production of Switzerland. Highsmith’s goal emerges from the thrust and parry of her cruel, epithetical witticisms directed at guest Edward Ridgeway’s ineffective, mewling arguments.
From the opening of Switzerland (written by Joanna Murray-Smith) as Highsmith fronts off against Edward Ridgeway and continues until the conclusion, their menacing pas de deux fascinates and thrills. Theirs is a standoff that requires no compromise, just “a winner take all” attitude to finish off the opponent. In her inimical and irrevocable way, Highsmith finally triumphs.
Ridgeway (Daniel Petzold’s performance surprises and titillates) has been sent by her publisher who intends for Highsmith (the irascible and cantankerous Peggy J. Scott) to write one more crime novel in the globally successful series about mesmerizing murderer Tom Ripley. Ridgeway employs the typical mundanely unsophisticated patter of an underling sent on an impossible mission to get Highsmith to sign a last contract. Highsmith flays his emotional skin and carves up his pride like a parboiled turkey and dumps the carcass in the toilet as dung. The process is humorous to watch as he sinks further into himself and she blossoms with the sardonic verve of a yellow-jacket wasp tearing at a stink weed flower.
Nevertheless, Ridgeway sustains her sneering barbs about his age, US society and more. He persists and gradually threads together the spot-on phrases and allurements to seduce Highsmith. What initially intrigues Highsmith is that Ridgeway may be psychologically traumatized by the loss of his parents in a car accident. She points out that he must be an orphan for he plays the part of an orphan willing to please. Intrigued and puffed up at her accurate assumptions about him, Highsmith cruelly revels with glee as she penetrates his emotions forcing him to rehash the accident’s how, when and where like a criminal investigator. Her enthusiastic reactions to his morbid retelling are humorous and we become as interested as she about this first appearances milk-toast who seemed to fit in with the furniture until she drew him out.
During the course of Ridgeway’s sojourn into this indelicate persuasion to seduce Highsmith to do what for a decade she has chosen not to, we learn of her noxious views and stances which are racist, anti-semitic, and somewhat homophobic, though she herself is admittedly gay. Joanna Murray-Smith paints this dark portrait of the beloved writer’s underbelly which reflects the truth if one reads her fans’ and detractors’ commentary about her personal life. As Ridgeway continues his persuasion, Highsmith gradually is pulled in and accedes after he suggests plot points for the new work. She takes the bait and they contrive together. He stays the night and the scene converts and heads in a completely different direction in the morning. It is then we realize that up is down, black is white and appearances like books cannot be judged by their covers.
What emerges Murray-Smith cleverly twists into high intrigue. The logic of this turning point is exacting and perfect. And the shock of it is succinctly and boldly enacted by Petzold’s adroit, flexible and admirable acting chops. Scott deftly works in concert holding her own with commensurate power and delight. Confronting this plot switch on a switch with hints of magical realism, Highsmith enters into her glory. Her enthusiasm is boundless once more, as if she has been given a new lease on a life that she had grown weary of in its sameness, inane vanities and boredoms.
Directed by Dan Foster, the staging, the choices of the actors and director in a pacing of revelations shine especially at the beginning and the conclusion of the production. After the “switch” the scenes evolve rapidly. And we are riveted when the music shifts and Petzold’s Ridgeway and Scott’s Highsmith move in a delicious tango with a hints of love and attraction.
There are no spoiler alerts here. You will have to appreciate for yourself the excellent acting and the superb ensemble work of Scott and Petzold who listen, react, nuance and rightly divide their tone to enjoy the fun and humor of the relationship that they create between these characters.
Kudos to the creative team. I thought the music was a particularly fine choice (Garrett Hood is responsible for the Sound Design and Composing). Kudos go to James J. Fenton for his thoughtful set design, to Charlotte Palmer-Lane who creates the Highsmith “look” and Ridgeway’s clothing finesses; and to Andrew Gmoser for apt, suggestive lighting design.
The production in its New York City premiere is a must-see for Highsmith fans and mystery fans. And for those who may have seen a few of Highsmith’s works made into films like the Ripley series, Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock version, 1951) and wacky comedic take-offs like Throw Momma From the Train (Danny DeVito version, 1987), you will appreciate how Murray-Smith generates this fascinating piece which is well-shepherded by Dan Foster and finely rendered by Peggy J. Scott and Daniel Petzold.
Switzerland runs with no intermission (1 hour 30 minutes) at 59E59 Theaters (Fifty-nine East 59th Street) until 3 March. For tickets you may call 59E59 Theaters at 212-753 5959 or go online by CLICKING HERE
HBO DOCUMENTARY FILM THE APOLLO ON WEDNESDAY, APRIL 24
Academy Award® winning director Roger Ross Williams’ film celebrates the historic New York City cultural landmark where musical legends were discovered
Features interviews with Pharrell Williams, Jamie Foxx, Patti LaBelle, Ta-Nehisi Coates and more
NEW YORK, NY – February 13, 2019 – The Tribeca Film Festival, presented by AT&T, will open its 18th edition with the world premiere of the HBO Documentary Film The Apollo. Helmed by Academy and Emmy Award-winning director Roger Ross Williams, The Apollo chronicles the unique history and contemporary legacy of the New York City landmark, the Apollo Theater. The film will debut at the iconic theater itself on Wednesday, April 24, 2019 and later this year on HBO. The feature-length documentary weaves together archival footage, music, comedy and dance performances, and behind-the-scenes verité with the team that makes the theater run. The Apollo features interviews with artists including Patti LaBelle, Pharrell Williams, Smokey Robinson, and Jamie Foxx. The documentary is produced by Lisa Cortés, Nigel Sinclair’s White Horse Pictures, and Williams. The 2019 Tribeca Film Festival runs April 24-May 5.
The Apollo covers the rich history of the storied performance space over its 85 years and follows a new production of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me as it comes to the theater’s grand stage. The creation of this vibrant multi-media stage show frames the way in which The Apollo explores the current struggle of black lives in America, the role that art plays in that struggle and the broad range of African American achievement that the Apollo Theater represents.
The Apollo Theater is internationally renowned for having influenced American and pop culture more than any other entertainment venue. The space has created opportunities for new talent to be seen and has served as a launchpad for a myriad of artists including Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson 5, Luther Vandross, Dave Chappelle, Lauryn Hill, Jimi Hendrix, and more.
“We’re excited to finally be going uptown to play the Apollo,” said Jane Rosenthal, Co-Founder and CEO of the Tribeca Film Festival. “The Apollo gives audiences an inside look at the major role this institution has played for the past 85 years. It’s seen the emergence of everything from Jazz to R&B to Soul and Gospel – all quintessential American music genres, and this is the time to remind people of our nation’s rich history. ”
“The Apollo is about so much more than just music, it’s about how we used music and art to lift ourselves out of oppression,“ commented director Roger Ross Williams. “The story of the Apollo is the story of the evolution of black American identity and how it grew to become the defining cultural movement of our time. I was fortunate to make my first film with HBO and I am thrilled to be coming back home with The Apollo. Premiering at The Tribeca Film Festival, at the Apollo Theater in Harlem is a dream come true.”
“The Apollo Theater is a symbol of the creative spirit of New York and beyond, and I’m very happy that we’re kicking off our 18th Festival celebrating it with this documentary from Roger Ross Williams,” said Tribeca Co-Founder Robert De Niro.
The Apollo, directed by Academy Award-winning and Tribeca alumnus Roger Ross Williams (Music by Prudence; Life, Animated) and is produced by Lisa Cortés (Precious), White Horse’s Nigel Sinclair (George Harrison: Living in the Material World; Undefeated), Jeanne Elfant Festa (Foo Fighters: Back and Forth, Pavarotti) and Cassidy Hartmann (The Beatles: Eight Days A Week, Pavarotti) along with Williams.
The Apollo will have additional screenings during the Festival. Passes and packages to attend the Festival go on sale on February 19, 2019.
The 2019 Tribeca Film Festival will announce its feature film slate on March 5.
Sean O’Casey’s compelling The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), the first play of his Dublin Trilogy, has been selected by the Irish Repertory Theatre as the “send off” to introduce their Sean O’Casey Season which has been running from January 30 and will continue through May 25,2019. The first play of the O’Casey Cycle is presented in repertory along with O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars on the Irish Rep’s main stage (132 West 22nd Street).
The plays of the trilogy take place during three pivotal and violent confrontations between Ireland and the United Kingdom: The Irish War of Independence (January 21, 1919-July 11, 1921); The Irish Civil War (June 1922-May 1923) and The Easter Rising (April 24-29, 1916). These wars led to the Republic of Ireland achieving independence from the United Kingdom. However the tribal wounds and ferocious heartbreak and resentments incurred centuries ago that exploded into these wars and ended in an uncertain peace, still abide to this day.
The Irish Rep has chosen to celebrate its 30th anniversary by featuring O’Casey’s trilogy which chronicles the impact of dire events on the impoverished tenement dwellers of Dublin who were often the casualties of war. Revisiting the plays remains important for our time because as O’Casey highlights the effects of division and internecine hatreds, he raises questions about the nature of freedom, sacrifice, art, nationalism, Republicanism and more. Always in the background is the price average individuals are “willing” to pay to achieve self-governance and negotiate the political power plays of forces, organizations and governments not readily understandable nor controllable.
The Shadow of a Gunman ably and concisely directed by Ciarán O’Reilly to achieve O’Casey’s maximum intended effect has as its setting Dublin during the Irish War of Independence (see dates above). The largely guerilla warfare campaigns encompassed brutal clashes between the IRA (referred to as the Old IRA today) appointed as the enforcers of Irish Independence, and many former British WWI veterans known as the “Black and Tans.” These British military units were “volunteered” by England to safeguard Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. However, their undisciplined and harsh tactics exacerbated the conflicts so that repeated incidents of bloodshed and devastation were wrecked upon Dublin society by the IRA and the British military.
How the innocent tenement dwellers of Dublin suffer for the price of a freedom and economic independence that largely remains beyond them is brilliantly chronicled by O’Casey. And indeed, through the excellent work of the ensemble and shepherding of the fine performances by Ciarán O’Reilly, we experience the ironic tragicomedy of happenstance and the true terror of being caught between two ranging enemies who do not care who is swept up in the brutality or destroyed.
The comedy resides largely in the human interactions of the residents of a rooming house and how they present themselves as they negotiate their own political positions and participation or lack of interest in effecting a free Ireland. One central irony is that they underestimate the danger of the warfare that surrounds them until it is too late. In their naivete they assume that struggling writer and poet Donal Davoren (James Russell in a sensitive, angst-ridden and nuanced portrayal) is a member of the IRA and the titular “gunman” of the play.
Davoren, who has newly arrived to the boarding house and is the roommate of Seumus Shields (the humorous, hapless and unwitting Michael Mellamphy whose cowardice is recognizable and empathetic) is treated with dignity and great respect by the other residents. Minnie Powell (Meg Hennessy renders a feisty, sweet and charming portrait of innocence and bravery) especially finds Donal irresistible for she is enamored of the romantic notions of heroism and courage that gunman fighting for a free Ireland display. Of course, the irony O’Casey delivers in blow after blow by the end of the play dispels everyone’s romantic notions of freedom fighters. And we are reminded that dying for freedom and liberty are propaganda, especially when there is a shortage of brave and courageous souls who are willing to take risks facing off against a loaded gun.
O’Casey presents the issues and themes immediately. He introduces the Everyman’s perspective which many of the renters embrace, particularly Mellamphy’s Shields. And the playwright fronts that view against the poet/philosopher’s pacifist view of Donal Davoren whom the renters believe to be with the IRA. The irony, if followed to its absurd conclusion in O’Casey’s plot, rings with horrific truth, considering the results and follow-through of their beliefs about him.
Meanwhile, discounting their attitudes about, yet slyly thinking to capture Minnie’s heart by saying little, to Shields Donal beats his breast and cries of the miseries and pains of being a poet. He rails against the commoners for whom he creates his art to little effect. Through him O’Casey reveals an ironic addendum. For all the angst and pain artists go through to create the beauties of art and literature, the works may or may not assert a place of importance in the hearts of citizens in a time of war. (Is O’Casey perhaps being sardonic about the importance of his own work through this character’s mewlings?)
Director O’Reilly gives attention to each of these characters. In his rendition of Casey’s work, we understand that they represent symbolic types in the human panoply of characters that manifest the cowardice and hypocrisy of those who inhabit every society in the throes of violent revolutionary change.
All of them reveal in one way or another the flaws that contribute to the tragedy that occurs by the play’s end. For example the kowtowing, gossiping Tommy Owens (Ed Malone in a humorous turn) exemplifies the toady and hypocrite who brings on the trouble. The alcoholic and abusive husband Mr. Grigson screams out his position as an “Orangeman” sympathetic to the opposite side. John Keating manages to be sincere in his drunkenness and hysterical to boot. However, we note another side of him when Mr. Grigson and Shields swap stories of their bravery in the face of the British, who in actuality frighten them out of their wits. Only Donal remains silent and renders himself invisible in the face of terror. Though the lying bravado is typically understandable, it is also cringe-worthy. For men should be stronger, should they not? O’Casey smashes this notion by the play’s end with a resounding exclamation point which this production succeeds in spearing through our hearts and minds.
Terry Donnelly as the long-suffering Mrs. Grigson delivers a superbly heartfelt, broken and poignant portrayal that takes us into a tragedy that we will remember long after the lights come up. Most importantly, the second act thrums with rapid pacing, suspense and “edge-of-your-seat” fear. We empathize with the Dubliners throughout the experience O’Reilly and the company put us through as they moment-to-moment envelop us with the emotion and horror of unfolding events in real time.
This immediacy is a vital element of O’Casey’s work and the ensemble and the production team render it superbly. For it is the terrifying experience that delivers our epiphany of what the historic Dubliners went through and what occupying troops in Syria and Yemen put innocents through today. The civilians are gun fodder for wars they have not willingly signed on for. Surely, they do not anticipate their lives threatened and lifestyles destroyed by both sides of the warring factions on streets and in homes where children once played and all was safe and secure. Surely, they do not choose between the Scylla and Charybdis of becoming an escaping refugee or staying to be numbered among the dead or disappeared. It was so in Ireland, then, it is so in wars that dot our planet and fuel defense manufacturers’ profits today.
As O’Casey reveals most acutely in the action conveyed by the actors, designers and director of this production, this is THE TERROR. And as the characters experience the horror, uncertainty and helplessness in the face of the oppression and tyranny from both sides, we experience it as well. The tragedy becomes that all who are present as witnesses become the accountable participants and they must live with the regrets imprinted on their souls until they are washed away, if ever.
Kudos to all in the acting ensemble who contribute to making this a soul-sonorous production. Kudos to the design team: Charlie Corcoran (scenic), Linda Fisher & David Toser (costume) Michael Gottlieb (lighting) Ryan Rumery & M. Florian Staab (sound) Ryan Rumery (original music).
This is a must-see, especially if you are unfamiliar with Shadow of a Gunman which runs with one intermission. The production is a wonderful introduction to Sean O’Casey and if you have been a forever fan, you will be very pleased. Additionally, the Irish Rep in celebration of the playwright is conducting free readings, symposiums, lectures, film screenings and music exhibitions. For more information on the Sean O’Casey Cycle and for tickets to the Dublin Trilogy, check the website.
The Classic Shakespeare Company is presenting two 19th century plays by August Strindberg in Repertory. The Dance of Death (see my review by “clicking here” in a new version by the award winning Conor McPherson) and Mies Julie in an adaptation by the award winning South African director and playwright Yaël Farber.
Farber has given Strindberg’s Miss Julie a renovation in texture, location, structure and dynamic by intensifying the conflict and shortening the arc of the play’s development. Inherent in this production directed by Shariffa Ali is the force and power to further elucidate the themes about classism, chauvinism, oppression, economic injustice, racism, white supremacy and cyclical revenge with the backdrop of a new setting, South Africa, 2012. Additionally. she has changed the characterization of Christine from Jean’s fiancee to John’s mother, and worldly servant Jean to Xhosa farm worker John, intriguingly characterizing him as one who grew up with Mies Julie on the farm that Julie’s father owns.
Christine has raised Mies Julie alongside her own son when Julie’s mother abandoned her daughter suffering from severe depression. The mother, alienated and isolated from the strangeness of the colonial women with whom she never could feel comfortable, the difficulty of the farming life and her own inner regrets caved in her soul. Without any sense of purpose or the obligation of duty to take care of her own child, she shoots herself and little Julie finds the disastrous ruin of the woman. Mies Julie thinks she is responsible for her mother’s death, but is nurtured by Christine’s love to eventually recover.
Nevertheless, Mies Julie bears the scars of the trauma. And during the course of the play we intuit that her rebellious behavior and impulsiveness suppresses an inner pain as she careens through her life. If not for Christiane’s love and an emotional attachment to Christine’s son John, who protects her and secretly, hopelessly loves her, Mies Julie might follow in her mother’s footsteps. The character of Mies Julie is most similar to Strindberg’s Miss Julie in ethos, however, the fascinating twists of transformation of setting reshape all of her actions and give them additional resonance and thematic richness.
Farber’s adaptation opens in a farmhouse kitchen in Eastern Cape, Karoo, South Africa on Freedom Day, 27 of April 2012, almost 20 years after all South Africans were give the right to vote in 1994. The day is a vital symbol integral to the complex themes of this adaptation. For the blacks of South Africa, the price of freedom was purchased by blood and suffering. The black culture’s redemption and return to the land of their ancestors will also be paid for by blood and suffering in a twisted karmic resolution in Farber’s Mies Julie.
Indeed, ancestors in the form of a ghostly grandmother seek revenge as she haunts the house which was built upon ancestral graves. Although this is not effected in the set design, Christine refers to the great tree which was cut down to make way for the house, but whose roots retained life and now break through the tiles of the floor of the kitchen and continue to grow in defiance of the white, man-made structure. The symbolism of the tree as representational of the Xhosa family which belongs on the land and whose culture can never be erased is a focal point. Unfortunately, without evidence of the tree breaking through the floor (due to the repertory’s need for minimalism) an important theme of Farber’s work is diminished, opaquely realized through Christine’s dialogue which becomes too easily lost in the hum of action.
Farber presents the underlying conflict when the workers on the farm and some squatters who have returned to the land that their ancestors lived on before the colonials came, have been celebrating and dancing on Freedom Day. Mies Julie dances with the workers a bold and inappropriate act. Because her father is away, she rebelliously revels in these liberties which lower her stature and respect in the workers’ eyes. When John attempts to admonish her, we see the emotional tensions between them and realize that the relationship they have developed in many ways runs past master/servant and portends elements of love or sado-masochism or both.
During the course of the production we discover that the South African’s hope is to one day take back the land from the colonials like Julie’s father. They consider this an act of restitution for the terrible bloodshed and misery caused in the years of usurpation which brought about cultural devastation. The economic struggles continue in the present day for the workers like John and Christine must still submit to servitude to survive. Decades of economic injustice and inequality have delayed their accumulation of enough capital to purchase the land that their ancestors lived on centuries ago.
Though John has educated himself and wants the freedom to be able to prosper beyond his “class and race,” he is not the urbane, world traveler of the Jean of Strindberg’s work. And though he has had women, he has loved Mies Julie from childhood. It is this night that erupts in a culmination of many subterranean wants and desires for both Mies Julie and for John. And of course it is this night of freedom that lifts up Mies Julie’s “Afrikaaner race” out from under the degradation and debasement of oppressing the Xhosa.
John and Julie are representative of their race and class. On one level Mies Julie becomes the sacrifice to expiate the “sins” of her forefathers when she chooses to become equal and unite in a physical consummation of love with John. Likewise for John, it is a night where he asserts his privilege to repossess the land (symbolized by Mies Julie’s body) and achieve a lifelong dream to be restored to his true sense of self-worth, identity and power.
The beauty and tragedy of portraying their relationship as Farber does in layer upon layer of intricate psychological and social texture is that we understand before the characters do that perhaps decades need to pass before the destructive social MATRIX in which both live and have their being disintegrates. John comes to this realization sooner than Mies Julie, who is impaled on the immediacy and unreality of wanting an idyllic life with John away from the farm. She intends to run away with him and use her father’s money that she’s stolen from the safe. John cannot trust Mies Julie enough to leave his mother and the stultifying but familiar identity that has oppressed him his entire life. The two are trapped and their end appears to be an inevitability. The time is surely “out of joint.” And only a few options remain for them to take before Julie’s father returns the next day and stasis consumes their lives once more.
In this adaption, Farber presents some of Strindberg’s themes front and center and then embellishes and expands them. Farber suggests the following. In order for the injustices between and among economic classes to ever be resolved, the classes themselves must be dissolved. For all human beings, the trials overcoming the miseries of childhood and the nullifying stricture of social mores, are uneasily won. For outsiders who are economically challenged, the trials are even greater. Only gradually through the passing of the generations will there ever be economic and social parity between and among disparate races and ethnic groups.
Christine knows this. She treasures her job and is willing to abide in her faith believing that for her son’s generation it will be better, but for her generation, it is finished. John wants change immediately and by fathering Mies Julie’s child he will overthrow the status quo, though he risks her father’s wrath. They must leave, for if a baby comes, her father will kill them both.
The harder he and Julie attempt to extricate themselves from the binding circumstances, the more they become mired in fear. It is a truism that they must leave or die. They cannot forge new identities in the same place where old hatreds and resentments float like ghosts above the blood-soaked land. Mies Julie wisely commands that they run away from her father and the farm’s oppression and migrate to a new identity and new existence in the city. But John is stuck. Christine adjures that she will never leave the farm. John must choose. Either he abandons his mother and goes with Mies Julie to freedom, or he remains with Christine in servitude. If there is a baby, all three will die.
Farber’s adaptation presented by the CSC and directed by Shariffa Ali enthralls with strong, emotional performances by James Udon as John, Elise Kibler as Mies Julie and Patrice Johnson-Chavannes as Christine. And when the ghost of the grandmother walks the kitchen, Vinnie Burrows is uncanny and foreboding. Because of her presence, we understand that a fearful retribution is coming, but it remains unclear until the play’s conclusion.
The production runs like a bullet train on a collusion course toward destruction especially in the scenes where Kibler and Udon spar, seek to dominate and control, then relent, succumbing to their tenuous love for each other. Kibler is effective in her smoldering, wild longing. Udon is sensitive and caring as the “fool” for love, then angry and rebellious in believing he is Mies Julie’s plaything. These emotions provide a field for incredible contrasts. On the one hand Julie and John collide with their fear of abandonment and betrayal. Then they fly to each other then fly to reinforce a love perches on the edge of desperation. These tensions and the heightened interplay between Kibler’s Mies Julie and Udon’s John is wrought with ferocious zeal.
A note of warning. Some of the dialect and the accents are muffled and strained. I found that swaths of dialogue were garbled because of an overemphasis to “get the accents right.” I am not referring to the words of Afrikaans or Indigenous words in Xhosa, but the heavily accented English. The accents are vital for they introduce the setting. However, the use remained problematic. When the emotion was presented organically, the dialogue followed and the actors were easily understood.
Finally, the set design was spare and adequate as it should be in this repertory Strindberg cycle. However, the incredible symbolism of the tree should be included as an important thematic thread of the play. The music, the effects, make-up and costumes are apt. When the ghostly presence enters and leaves, all these design elements effect the supernatural wonderfully.
Mies Julie and The Dance of Death alternate in repertory at CSC (13th Street between 3rd and 4th) until 10 March. Mies Julie is a spare 75 minutes with no intermission. You can pick up tickets at their website.
This is a continuation of the conversation that took place at the Bruno Walter Auditorium, Lincoln Center as presented in collaboration by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the League of Professional Theatre Women. The event was produced by Ludovica Villar-Hauser and Sophia Romma. For Part I Click this LINK.
Elisabeth Vincentelli: Could you talk about Mlima’s Tale. It was another different approach you took.
Lynn Nottage: It was commissioned by film director Katherine Bigelow (award winning director of Hurt Locker). And we were developing it together. She has incredible passion about elephants. Mlima’s Tale is told from the point of view of an elephant that’s been poached. And the play tracks the elephant’s tusks from the hands of the people who poach him to the hands of the people in China who buy his tusks. It’s a very stylized piece. Jo Bonny came in. And we decided that we wanted to make the piece very differently. It was based on my working with designers that was very collaborative. We decided that we wanted to work with designers from beginning to end which almost never happens. Usually what happens is that designers speak to the director during the first draft of the script and then they come back into the process during tech week. We thought we don’t want to make it that way. We want designers to be there very single day which is why I think the piece is more holistic and integrated on all levels. We were talking to each other and making creative decisions in the moment which was very exciting.
It was very imaginative with the lighting, music and movement.
We worked with a composer who had never done theater before. The equipment was all set up. During the first preview, a musician felt very deeply and he didn’t know he couldn’t just spontaneously sing. We had to say “Wait, you can’t do that.” (laughter)
What are the new musicals you are working on?
The first one is The Secret Life of Bees which is an adaptation of the book by Sue Monk with composer Duncan Sheik who did the music for Spring Awakening and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead who did Jelly’s Last Jam. Sam Gold is directing it and it will be at the Atlantic Theater Company in the Spring. And we’ve been working on it for a couple of years and it’s very beautiful.
Then you’re working on another musical of Intimate Apparel.
Well, it’s not exactly a musical. It’s an opera which is a co-commission between the Met Opera and Lincoln Center Theatre. It’s been interesting developing something which is kind of a hybrid and having Peter Gelb from the Met giving notes and Andre Bishop from the theater. Both of them have very different needs. (laughter) And Ricky Ian Gordon, the composer, is doing a brilliant job.
The third one which has been announced is?
The Michael Jackson musical. I’m writing the book on the Michael Jackson Musical. Michael Jackson’s written the music. (laughter)
What are the challenges for working on the book of a musical or opera,
The opera which is an adaptation of working on my own play Intimate Apparel? The challenge was in figuring out how to write a libretto from material I was so attached to. I didn’t want to let go of anything. And working with Ricky, the first time I handed him my libretto he said, ‘You’ve re-written the play.’ The second time I handed him the libretto he said, ‘You’ve re-written the play, again.’ And I asked, ‘How do I do this?’ He said, ‘You’re not trusting your collaborator. You have to understand in musical theater and opera, the music does 50% of the work. It is what makes it expansive. Trust that I’m going to allow people to feel and teach people to feel through my music.’ And once I trusted him, I was able to make some of those cuts and get rid of the exposition. I had to let him be the collaborator that he is, and allow him to do some of the heavy lifting. I had to let him do the story telling. He does beautiful story telling which allowed me to step away.
What about with Sue Monk’s Secret Life of Bees? How was it writing book for a work that was not yours?
Well Sue Monk gave us the license to do whatever we wanted. She was like ‘I’ve written the book.’ We made it clear that we made some massive changes and that we were not doing a strict adaptation of the book. We told her that we’re creating a piece that is inspired by the book that honors all her characters without making replicas of those characters.
How do you approach the writing of the book?
From my position of writing the book? I’m the architect of the narrative. It is my job to make sure that all the pieces come together. So I’m kind of like the contractor. I am there to make sure that everything is exactly as we want it.
How did you feel writing book for that musical?
It’s incredible and liberating as a book writer. So if get to a difficult point, I can turn to Susan (lyricist) and say, “You got this right?” (laughter) It’s the lyricist that’s doing a lot of the important story telling. I throw her the ball and she does the “slam dunk.”
You said you learned at Yale what “to do as a playwright and what not to do.” Could you elaborate on that?
Sure. When I arrived at Yale I had just gone from college to graduate school. So my assumptions when I was there was that they had a blueprint about how to be a good playwright. I learned a lot about structure, but I also think I also became imprisoned by a lot of what I learned because I didn’t realize I had the freedom to make my own decisions. I think that is what I meant.
Writing the play into a libretto are you turning it into prose or are you turning it into poetry?
I think it’s both. Some of it is definitely prose and some of it is definitely poetry. It’s a combination.
From the perspective of film how does that approach differ? What is the difference between a word and an image and what is special about each one?
The way in which film and theater function differently is clear. In theater we do a lot of problem solving through language. In film a lot of the problem solving is done through images. I think particularly in film there is the short cut you can take that you don’t have the luxury of doing onstage in the theater. You can quickly convey something by taking a character somewhere else in film, but because of the limitations of the stage, we have to use language sometimes to describe the visuals.
You were raised to appreciate the arts. What are you doing to advocate for young people in the arts?
I’ve been a professor for 17 years. I’m a teacher. And I think that’s the primary way to nurture young artists, because when I was young artist I didn’t feel that there were a lot of people to nurture young African American artists. I feel it’s essential to nurture the next generation and I’ve put in a lot of time and effort into helping directors and playwrights who are up and coming and emerging.
Which characters do you use to get their stories told?
I use the characters that assert themselves. The characters that come back and demand to be represented on the stage are ultimately the ones who win out.
Do you have a specific audience in mind that you are writing for?
I like to think that I’m writing for an audience who are friends. My friends are a very diverse group of people. So those are the friends I write for. But Intimate Apparel was very specific. It was for my mother. I don’t think I’ve written anything else with that kind of intention. I did this adaptation for this film director Lars Von Trier. (laughter) He would talk to me on the phone, but he would never direct any comments or questions to me. He wanted to speak to me through his producer. And this was on the telephone. The three of us would be on the phone and he would say, “Tell Lynn. . .” And I would respond, “I can hear you.” (laughter) The film was Manderlay.
Did you have any influencers?
I did have influencers. I had my parents who took me to theater. As a professional playwright, I didn’t have mentors who helped me nurture this career.
Now you’ve reached a certain point in your career, is there another medium you would like to work in?
Because of the past year or two that I’ve become so overwhelmed and busy, I don’t feel that I have the time to nurture my self. I haven’t had the time to read books and to ruminate. I have to endeavor, in the next couple of years, just to make time to think and think about what it is I want to do.
Did you have a sense that those two pieces that won your Pulitzers would stand out in some way.
The Pultizer came as a complete and total surprise. Technically, the Pulitzer is supposed to be a play that deals with American culture. And Ruined is set in the Congo. So when I got that phone call it was an absolute surprise. For Sweat I never thought that lightening was going to strike twice. So that was a total surprise as well.
Could you still comment on the lack of production opportunities for women in theater. We’re still below 20% and women of color are really at the bottom.
I think you put it very well. (laughter) It is a fact there is work to be done. And very recently there was another survey about theater and women. I can’t speak to the specifics of this in all the other areas, but for women playwrights they found that for white women throughout the country, there’s been an increase to almost parity. But for women of color and men of color, the numbers are still staggeringly low.
How can we change the dynamics of theater pricing?
I think there is a way to make theater more affordable and more accessible, as we did in Sweat. I teach a course called American Spectacle about how to evolve beyond the proscenium. And I teach it because of my incredible frustration with we as playwrights and directors and artists. We craft our productions very specifically for the stage and proscenium of Off Broadway Theaters that are limited in space and also limited in the audience that they reach. The audience that I want to reach doesn’t necessarily relate to the audience that I look and see is watching my play.
One of the things I realized is that I don’t have to be locked into that problem. We can be incredibly flexible. We can take theater to the people. And that’s what we discovered with the mobile unit. We can break out of the proscenium and bring theater into a gym and if there’s an audience for it, we’ve broken away from that limitation. The very first production that we did in Pennsylvania, people showed up with their kids. They had not been to theater. They didn’t know they were going to sit for two and 1/2 hours and so Stephanie Ybarra, the Artistic Director of the mobile unit, and I ended up holding people’s babies while people watched theater (laughter).
And I thought, ‘This is great. Why can’t we do this in Off Broadway theaters.’ The other establishing fact was we realized that most of those folks had never been to theater before. Not a single cell phone rang. People sat rapt. And I thought ‘…there’s something about that audience that’s different from New York audiences because they want to be there and not because they bought a subscription and have to meet the quota of plays’ (laughter). They are there because they want this entire experience. I think that in some way we have to re-educate the audiences that see theater in New York. I think that there are really bad habits that are being nurtured and we have to change that. (applause)
I’m here from a class at NYU and I want to know if you consider yourself a feminist?
I do consider myself a feminist. My mother was a feminist. And she was very outspoken on women’s rights and so I’ve been a feminist since the time I can remember.
Are you inspired by to write about what is going on in current politics and what is going on at the border and the lies that we’re hearing.
Yes. I’d like to write about it. At the very end of the mobile unit tour, we ended at a Native American reservation and one of the elders stood up and said something incredibly moving. He said, “I don’t understand what this border wall is. There are no borders in America. These fences that they’ve erected where they arrest people if they cross over mean nothing.” He and others understand that these obstructions shouldn’t mean anything because this is land that has no boundaries. That’s how I feel. And there’s part of me that wants to do a Walkabout and walk the length of the border and talk to people and collect their stories but it would probably take a very long time. (applause and cheering)
You can see Lynn Nottage’s play By the Way, Meet Vera Stark at the Pershing Square Signature Center, Irene Diamond Stage. For a schedule of where Lynn’s plays are being produced and to learn more about Lynn, go to her website: CLICK HERE.
For more about The League of Professional Theatre Women or to become a member CLICK HERE.
Monday evening at the Bruno Walter Auditorium at Lincoln Center, the New York Library for the Performing Arts and The League of Professional Theatre Women presented another Oral History event celebrating renowned women in theater. Produced by Ludovia Villar-Hauser with Sophia Romma, those in attendance enjoyed Elisabeth Vincentelli’s interview of award-winning, globally renowned playwright and screenwriter Lynn Nottage. Elisabeth Vincentelli writes about the arts and theater for various publications including The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal to name a few of her many writing accomplishments. She also co-hosts the “Three on the Aisle” podcast with Peter Marks (Washington Post) and Terry Teachout (Wall Street Journal) The following interview has been lightly edited. Look for Part II next week.
Elisabeth: You are the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize twice (applause) You have such a rich career. I wanted to anchor it by having you talk about where you grew up. It was right here in New York.
Lynn: I was very fortunate to grow up in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. It was a community defined by people moving through it to get to other communities. It was a very marginal neighborhood at the time. My block was dominated by boarding houses. It was very multicultural. It was a neighborhood where people who were pushed out of other neighborhoods found refuge. And as an aspiring writer, I feel like it was the best place to grow up because it was so diverse and accepting and nurturing. It was a true community. Next door to me, for example, in one of the boarding houses, there was a woman who by day wore a full Burqa, a Hijab. She was completely covered up. Her husband was a taxi driver. At night when he would leave, she would actually take it off and put on a Kaftan. That was the type of community it was.
So I think it was inevitable that I would end up as a writer having lived there. As a matter of fact on the same block, if anyone knows the novelist Jonathan Lethem, he memorialized the block in the Fortress of Solitude. And the yard in back where everyone played was the yard where I grew up. Our house was the nexus point for the block. I started my first stories when I was five-years-old. I wanted to capture things that I heard. And the aspect of the place was very rich in texture. I knew there was something very special about that moment in time and about the people who congregated in that neighborhood.
Where did you go to college?
Before college, I went to the High School of Music and Art in Harlem. I was an aspiring musician. And when I got there, I discovered that I was not as good as the other aspiring musicians. (laughter) I decided to do something else. I went to Brown University as a Pre-med student with the assumption that I was going to be a doctor, not that I ever wanted to be a doctor. However, because I was very good in math and science, they decided to give me a scholarship and I got into Brown.
Even before I went to Brown I was writing plays and when I went to Brown I continued to write these little dramas that I managed to produce myself. When I was there I met two professors who were quite influential. One of them was Paula Vogel the first female playwright I had ever met. Up to then, there were only two other female playwrights that I had read. One of them was Lorraine Hansberry, the other was Ntozake Shange. At the time Lorraine Hanesberry had passed away and Ntozake Shange was not very prolific. I was under the assumption that playwriting was really a hobby for women and that it was something that I was never going to be able to make a living doing. Then I met Paula Vogel. She was the first woman who said, “You know, you can do this. And there’s strength in numbers.” There was another professor whose name was George Bass who was the executor of the Langston Hughes estate. He really taught me about the joys and the ritual of creating theater. Theater was not just about putting people on stage. But it was a place where healing could occur and where one could deal with community.
So at that point you’re still grappling with what you wanted to do.
I thought I was going to be a journalist. That summer I was working for a newspaper called The Villager. There were only four of us and we wrote the entire newspaper. For a very brief period of time I was the Arts Editor. And the only reason why I did it was because I could go to the Openings and drink wine. The Villager was located on East Fourth Street.
Did it compete with The Village Voice?
At some point it did. When I was there it did not. (audience laughter)
When did you decide to focus on writing?
I think my decision to focus on writing came when I was deciding what to do after college. I applied to Columbia Journalism School to be a journalist. And on a whim I applied to Yale School of Drama assuming I would never get in. I did. And I spent four very difficult, fraught years in Yale School of Drama where I learned how to be a playwright and then how not to be a playwright at the same time.
Did you go to the theater?
Not so much, then. I went to the theater a lot when I was young. I was fortunate to grow up in New York City. At the time there were a lot of rising African American Theater Companies. There was the New Federal Theater. There was The Negro Ensemble. There was the Billie Holiday Theatre. My parents, who were great lovers of art, made sure that not every weekend, but certainly a few times a year we saw plays. So I encountered the work of Charles Fuller. I remember when I was in High School going to see Giancarlo Esposito. I was with my girlfriends and we were so excited. The performance was electric. At that time theater was affordable. We could go as teenagers.
What about the Billie Holiday Theatre?
They did a renovation and it is thriving. There are wonderful artists that are working there and they are doing representative work emphasizing being inclusive.
You mentioned that you dropped out of playwriting?
The time I was in graduate school coincided with the time that was a crucial moment in American Social History. It was the AIDS Crisis and the Crack Epidemic. So in school we were losing students, we were losing professors. It was really hard to make art in that environment. It felt like there were many more urgent things that needed to be attended to. After I graduated from Yale School of Drama, I felt that I wanted to do something with impact. I sold my computer, if you could call it that. It was sort of like a word processor, and I went to work for Amnesty International, which at the time was the largest human rights organization in the world. I was a press officer and I spent four, intense really concentrated years doing human rights work. In many ways the time I spent with Amnesty International became my second graduate school. It really shaped me not only as an artist but as a person. By the time I left, I knew exactly what I wanted to do as an artist which I didn’t know prior to that time.
Did you feel that playwriting could convey what you wanted to say?
I did. I will tell you a story. It was the moment that I decided to go back to playwriting. A woman named Donna Ferrato, who is a quite famous photographer came to our office. She’d taken these beautiful and disturbing photographs of women arriving at a battered women’s shelter. I saw these images of women who were in a moment of absolute crisis, but there was a look of relief on their faces as well. I was incredibly moved by the photographs.
During that time at Amnesty International, we were struggling with the notion that women’s rights should be separated out from human rights. The organization wasn’t doing enough to address specific human rights abuses. I saw these photographs and I knew that there was nothing that we as an organization could do. But as a human being I felt that I needed to respond to those images. So I closed my office door and I wrote a play. It was the first time I had done that in four years. The play was Poof. Poof is a short play about a woman who’s abused. She tells her husband to go to hell. He spontaneously combusts and turns into a pile of ash. (laughter) She calls her best friend on the phone and she comes down and they have a discussion about what to do with this pile of ash. Finally, they decide to sweep it under the rug. (laughter)
I had returned to playwriting and it felt really good. I arrived at a total synthesis of the “human rights” brain and the “writing” brain. I thought, I can do both things. I don’t know why I have to compartmentalize. For me that was incredibly liberating.
Was Poof your first professional production?
Yes. It was my first professional production. I submitted it to it the Humana Festival. It won the Heideman Award. And Seret Scott who was a fantastic director became my first professional director and my first professional mentor who guided me through the process.
You had three plays in quick succession in the 1990s being produced around the country: Crumbs From the Table of Joy; Mud, River, Stone; and Por’Knockers. Could you speak about each?
Crumbs from the Table of Joy was my very first professional commission. It was commissioned by Second Stage which was still uptown in a 97-seat theater. The play was specifically commissioned for young audiences. I wrote this play assuming it would never get produced. They decided to do it.
It’s really interesting because it was directed by Joe Morton. People know him as “Papa Pope.” At the time he had a very robust acting career and in the middle of directing it he got a job and he was drawn away. So the previews went on for a really long time. As a result the play began to build an audience. By the time he came back, it actually was a success even before it opened. Word of mouth sold it. It starred Ella Joyce and she had just come off of a very popular series. And she used to go to the Beacon Theater which, at the time, was a venue for The Chitlin Circuit. And she would hand out flyers. She would say, “You think this is good, just walk down a few blocks.” People recognized her because she was on the series (Roc) and they followed her advice. She was really responsible for this robust audience that we had.
Mud, River, Stone was commissioned by The Acting Company. We actually developed it on the road before we brought it into New York. When it came to New York, we did a short performance at Playwrights Horizons and then were invited back to do a larger production. I never felt that I finished that play. Before we went into rehearsal at Playwrights Horizons, I had my first child. I was nursing and at rehearsal. Every time she cried, I’d sneak out. The day of the first preview, my mother died. So I had all of these major life events occur during that play. As a result, I felt that I never really had the opportunity to properly tend to that play. That was my great frustration with it.
My other play which was Por’Knockers began at New York Theater Workshop. It came out of this multicultural group that I was in. We presented a short evening of plays. The Vineyard Theater came to see the play which is about a group of terrorists who blow up an FBI building and inadvertently kill some children. They have to decide over the course of the evening whether to take responsibility for their actions or not. They each get their turn to go to the phone to inform others about the explosion. Each one has to figure out what is the price they are willing to pay for their beliefs. At the end, none of them are able to make the phone call. The play was enormously successful at NY Theater Workshop. Then we did it at the Vineyard Theater. But the world had changed. Six months before we did it at the Vineyard, Oklahoma City Bombing happened. The FBI building was blown up. And the day we opened at the Vineyard Theater was the Million Man March. So the play that was a social satire suddenly became very different and much more intense. As a result people just didn’t respond to it.
Now, we’ll move on to Las Meninas which is an outlier, but every one of your plays is an outlier. That’s beautiful. I love that. Could you speak about Las Meninas
Sure. Las Meninas was actually a play that I wrote in graduate school. The play is based on a tiny slip of history that I read about. It was the relationship between Queen Maria Theresa of Spain, the wife of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and her African servant, Nabo who was a dwarf. When I read about this, I thought this is fascinating. Why don’t we know more? I ended up doing years and years of research. True story. I found a book in the New York Public Library, the main branch. I think I was the first person to ever read this book. It was written in 1710 and it was a translation of one of the memoirs written by a mistress. In this memoir the mistress detailed this relationship. I wrote a little bit about this and became an almost expert. I was getting calls from historians asking “How did you find this?” I said, “I don’t know. I’m a playwright.” Because the play is so whimsical and is a costume drama, it doesn’t get done that often. But it is one of my favorite plays because it is so delightful and it’s a true story told from the point of view of their daughter.
Now we move on to a key play in your career, Intimate Apparel directed by Kate Whoriskey. Was that your first collaboration?
Yes. I describe our meeting as a theater blind date. Someone said ‘Oh you and Kate should meet.’ I remember that we met at New Dramatist, in their library which was very cold. We both talked to each other shivering. We decided to work together. I was excited to work with her. Intimate Apparel was a commission by Center Stage. And it was the first play that I had written after my mother died. My mother died of Lou Gehrig’s disease and I spent a lot of time caring for her. During that period, I didn’t have time to write. Also, I had a child. I was having to figure out, how do I make all of these pieces work. When my mother died, suddenly I became the main caregiver of my grandmother. My mother was just an only child. It was just my mother and my grandmother. My grandfather was there, but that’s a different story.
I was going through my grandmother’s things and literally, she would put photographs in the middle of magazines for some unknown reason. I found a photograph and it was the first time I had seen a photo of my great grandmother, my grandmother and her sister. And I was struck by the fact that my grandmother who had dementia, couldn’t answer questions about this woman in the photograph. I couldn’t ask my mother who was dead. And it really broke my heart. So I wanted to reconstruct her life. I went to the New York Public Library. I wanted to figure out who was this African American woman who came to New York at the turn of the century, by herself. Who was this seamstress? How did she survive? How did she make a living that enabled her to build a family and that led to me being on this stage today? So Intimate Apparel became an examination into my own ancestry.
You wrote this at the same time…you say that you work on a number of plays at the same time. While you were working on Intimate Apparel, you were working on Fabulation?
Yes, Fabulation is a social satire. I was imagining Esther who is the central character in Intimate Apparel. Esther is an African American seamstress who falls in love with a Romanian Jewish man and she’s corresponding with a Caribbean man. It’s this little love triangle. I was imagining who might Esther be one hundred years later, if she had gone through the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Rights Movement and felt fully empowered. So Undine of Fabulation is Esther 100-years later. Also, I wanted an outlet. Intimate Apparel was a play I wrote for my mother. I imagined what play might my mother want to see? Fabulation became my escape…the place that I went, when I didn’t want to cry.
You were working on poems at the same time, also. But how do you handle the juggling act of writing two plays at the same time?
I have two screens. (laughter) Literally, when I would get stuck on one play, rather than step away from my computer and do something else, I can literally switch the screen and write something else. The plays are so different and use completely different muscles, I can enter in both worlds without feeling burdened by the other.
You have discussed that your plays are thoroughly researched. Then you transmogrify the information into drama.
I found in my writing process, that procrastination is a form of creative exploration. (laughter) When I’m not writing and beating up on myself, I just continue to investigate. When I was working on Sweat, for instance, I spent two-and-one-half years exploring. But I felt that I needed that time to explore. I needed that time to know my characters. Rather than to rush into writing, I felt I needed that time to know a completely different world and immerse myself. I did the same thing for Ruined. I spent three years of immersion with Ruined, going to and from East Africa trying to find a story that I wanted to tell. And I thought it was a very productive way to spend my time.
Ruined was a run-away success. It was extended numerous times. I remember one time I was seeing it with a school group in the audience, and I thought, “Oh, my God.” But they completely adored the story.
When you wrote Sweat, it was a fascinating project that you spent time researching, but you had a companion project with it.
It was a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival that specifically invited playwrights to write plays about an “American Revolution.” The revolution that I wanted to write about was the Industrial Revolution in America. By the time I finished, I thought it would be history and it would be living history.
I went to Reading, PA, and spent a lot of time. I began forging these very deep, complicated relationships with people in the community. But I didn’t want to be a carpetbagger. I didn’t want to write this play that goes to Oregon, and travels to various theaters then comes to New York. I didn’t want to forget the play’s origins. I wanted to create something, a play that was still very connected to the people who were in Reading, PA and make use of these hundreds of hours of interviews that I didn’t use and didn’t filter into the play.
So after I did Sweat, the following year, I decided to build this massive performance installation that would be set in Reading, PA. We decided we wanted to re-animate the Reading Railroad that everyone knows from Monopoly. It had been abandoned since 1981. When it was closed down, it effectively shut Reading off from the rest of the country. Suddenly, people who used to get to Philadelphia in 55 minutes could no longer get there easily. They had to take a bus to Allentown and then go to Reading.
When I got to Reading, PA it was the poorest city of that size in America. When you walked around, you felt the sadness and the frustration and you felt all the things you experienced in a place that once had been an industrial powerhouse. It was literally withering on the vine. We thought, how do we revitalize this downtown area? The railroad station became symbolic. It was one of the few places that everyone had a connection to. At some point in time, everyone had passed through it.
We thought it was going to be difficult to get keys to the station. But the guy who had the keys said, ‘Yeah.” He tossed us the keys, and said “Here, just leave it in the same condition you found it.’ And we then went about building this installation that charted Reading from the moment the station closed down to the present. We wanted to create a space, like we said in our mission statement: “To create a space where a homeless person and the mayor could sit down together and recognize that they shared the same narrative,” and that they could sit side by side together. It’s not hyperbole to say that we achieved that. We didn’t get the present Mayor of Reading, PA. For various complicated reasons he was our antagonist. However, we did get two former Mayors who came and sat there and wept along with a lot of homeless folks. So it was successful and really gratifying to know that you could make theater outside of the proscenium that had resonance.
In 2017 Sweat was on Broadway. Then there was another stage in the Sweat saga with the Public Theater. (See This is Reading on Lynn Nottage’s website)
When we first produced Sweat at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, we raised a grand to bring Sweat back to Reading, PA with the same cast. So the day we closed Sweat at the Public Theater, the next day we got up at 7:30 am and drove down to Reading and performed Sweat for 250 people in the Reading community. When we drove down there we were terrified about how the community would react to the production. However, we were overwhelmed by the response. We had a Q and A and people testified and told their stories and didn’t want to leave. We recognized that there was a real necessity for people who were going through the same predicaments as the characters in the play…for them to have an outlet for them to talk about their own struggles.
Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of the Public Theater, was overwhelmed by the response. He said, “I’d like to do this on a larger scale.” The Public Theater has their Mobile Unit which moves around New York City, but never does that nationally. We spent a year to try and identify places to go. We decided to do a mobile tour of the Rust Belt. We selected five swing cities that first voted for Obama and then voted for Trump. We didn’t want to go to just places that were Red or Blue. We wanted to go to places where you would have a real dialogue and where you could bring people into a space where people would listen to each other. We did that in the fall of 2018. It was not just spaces, it was union halls, small colleges, we went to churches, we went to school gymnasiums. These were stripped down, bare bones productions. It was quite powerful. End of Part I
Historically, marriage has been an economic arrangement. It will continue to be so for the upper classes who understand the necessity of securing their financial legacy for posterity. Emotions of love and caring might be a by-product, but they have been secondary considerations for the wealthy who remain keen-eyed and empirical when it comes to their fortunes. However, the middle class prompted by myth and fairy tale, believed and still believes in love and marriage, stoked by romantic films, songs and lucrative cultural artifices that reinforce the notion that marriage is an imperative for the straight as well as the LGBTQ set. Cultural consumerism pivots on romance and everything in between to culminate in the big white event. When government involvement and the legal system enforced marriage as an entrenched cultural institution with privileges and prohibitions, for good or ill, everyone was impacted and still are.
Marriage folkways and the idea that the ubiquitous institution brings comfort and joy to the bonded couple is turned humorously on its head by August Strindberg (1849-1912) in The Dance of Death. Strindberg’s play at times may be difficult to balance in its tenors between tragedy and comedy. Conor McPherson has transformed it into the most hysterical of blackest comedies about what may be for some, the bleakest of social arrangements in his new version which currently runs at CSC in an August Strindberg repertory (Mies Julie, The Dance of Death). McPherson, an award winning playwright is noted for such superb works as Shining City, The Seafarer, and most recently, Girl From the North Country.
McPherson easily leaps into and out of the precipices and crevices of irony, sarcasm and sardonic interplay in this new version. Many of McPherson’s works produce uncanny grotesques that meld fear, surprise and humor and always engage, startle and most assuredly enthrall. What he has accomplished with Strindberg’s The Dance of Death is the best of McPherson.
In this new version the extraordinary relationship of bondage, fear, familiarity, loathing, quasi affection and sometime tolerance between Edgar (a Captain in the military) and Alice (a former stage actress) plays off Strindberg’s characterizations of the married couple. However, in McPherson’s iteration, the dialogue skips along in a rendering that is crisp and bold. The pace and clarity of the character and situation creates a dynamic that facilitates the humor and flat out comical brutality of husband Edgar (Rich Topol) as he jousts, using sword wit and hyperbole, with wife Alice (Cassie Beck) who as a formidable opponent dodges and wounds him with his every thrust.
The play takes place on an isolated island in a converted fortress that once housed condemned prisoners. The island surrounded by little other than the military regiment housing and social life related to a few high-placed neighbors. During the course of a few evenings, we discover the boundaries of this couple and what they fancy. Edgar is an unsuccessful skinflint who is barely able to perform his military duties as an older man in his 60s. As Edgar Topol reveals his incredible versatility, flexibility and vitality as he negotiates Edgar’s infirmities and attempts to dance, defying the illness that would swamp Edgar and remove all the luxuries and pleasantries of life, for example alcohol, a cigar, women. Topol’s ironic delivery is pitched for humor directed to deride and deliver underhanded insults at Alice. His performance is masterful.
Cassie Beck as Alice stomps down Edgar’s attempts with well-paced, clear, clipped delivery that is modulated for its utmost sardonic injury to Edgar’s ego. She transfers moods and graces with immediacy and vitality most producing audience laughter. Topol’s Edgar and Beck’s Alice are each other’s match and as the play progresses we note that their seething hate graduates to finer and fiercer levels as they insult, then bait and switch to more excoriating repartee. They are in earnest and desperate which makes the situation even more comical, for they are not playing for humor, they are clawing to get out of prison and wounding their jailer at every turn.
With the shepherding of the incisive and able director Victoria Clark, the actors reveal their characters and display them in full. We completely understand by the end of the play that Edgar’s and Alice’s seriously humorous, witty invective has been fined-tuned over their twenty-five years of marriage into an incredible waltz that appears more like a Fandago, a courtship dance that is anything but. The irony is that we realize these two devils have somehow worked out and in a perverse and sadistic/masochistic way configured the dance steps which no one watching except for themselves revel in and enjoy.
Ah! Edgar and Alice embody the pleasures/ horrors of being married to someone they despise, yet are too embroiled in knowing familiarity to consider either killing or leaving. This indeed, as McPherson/Strindberg shoves into our laughing faces suits the marriage vows,” ’til death do them part.” The problem is that though Edgar is old, and Alice is 15 years his junior, Edgar totters between mini seizures, black-outs, obstreperous dying-ins, visions of an old woman who may or may not symbolize death that no one sees but him, and energetic dancing which he vigorously enjoys, then collapses to, yet, Edgar doesn’t die. For her part, Alice repeatedly announces in bell-like tones her wish for him to die, her relish in having him die. And that she will be thrilled if he hurries up and does it. How monstrous! How funny! How can we laugh? Well, indeed, how can we? These two maul each other with finesse which because of McPherson’s ear for language manages to be damn hysterical.
When Edgar’s “friend”/Alice’s cousin Kurt (the most excellent, equally riveting Christopher Innvar) enters into the fray, he too becomes bloodied. It has been a hiatus of 15 years since he’s seen the devilish couple,. During that estrangement he obtained money but went through incredible personal trials which he weathered, the circumstance of which we learn as he is brought into their “fold.” The mysteries of affairs (Kurt’s wife was intimate with Edgar and Alice was intimate with Kurt) are not clearly drawn but they are delicious to consider as we note that the age of Edgar’s and Alice’s daughter coincides with the last time Alice saw Kurt.
The beauty of dynamically throwing Kurt into the mix is that his character remains fluid. On the one hand he must see his cousin Alice and Edgar since he will be working with him to set up a Quarantine station on the island. On the other hand, Alice paints him into the corner of rescuing her from her dire marriage. Yet, Kurt is friends with Edgar, though he has had an affair with Alice. The complications and contradictions abound with glorious humor as the characters trip over their own logic and irrationality, confound themselves and each other.
The situation is exacerbated when Alice tells Kurt that Edgar will be locked up for embezzlement as she has blown the whistle on him so that she will finally be able to free herself, divorce Edgar and be with Kurt. This is no spoiler alert. Importantly, the philosophical wisdom and underpinnings of Alice’s relationship with Edgar are revealed by the end. And we understand that perhaps even in the afterlife, these two will be scratching, slicing and impaling each other on their latest witty barbs for the love of the process and the fact that each has bestowed the good will on the other to dance in this way.
Strindberg/McPherson’s themes are playful, trenchant, profound, socially satiric. Of course the target both playwrights hit is loveless marriage, loving marriage. Couples tend to stay in long-lived marriages for they have found the “way” to be together. Everyone’s “way” is different. If there is no “way,” there is divorce or immediate death. The notions of death in life and the chain of death being wrapped around couples that can only be severed when one or the other dies may be a dangerous one. In how many marriages over the centuries has the one spouse dispatched the other becoming the inheritor of wealth, or lands or freedom unjustly, malevolently?
Perhaps Edgar and Alice are more comforting in their outrageous, authentic and honest antics. Nothing surreptitious there. With Edgar and Alice, after each “dance of death” where they have at each other in their death matches of soul and ego wounding, there is no victor standing. The resurrection comes when they live to the next day to experience some peace and reconciliation until the next bout of rancor and explosive verbal violence. In between they can laugh and that we can laugh at them is the recognition that the human condition is so strange and tragic as to be a cosmic joke. And if at the end of the play, the end of this truly marvelous production, we can laugh and have joy, that is miraculous.
This version by McPherson incredibly directed by Clark with the measured and brilliant performances by Topol, Beck and Innvar is a complete treasure that you must see. The Dance of Death currently runs with no intermission at CSC (136 East 13th Street) until 10th March. It should be extended for its actors’ clearly expressed intentions out of which the hysterical comedy arises, for McPherson’s crackling, gobsmacking version and appreciation of the genius of Strindberg’s work, for Clark’s concise staging and direction. You can purchase tickets at the CSC website.
The Mindblasting Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano Cave to Primal Hatreds and Private Desolations in Sam Shepard’s ‘True West’
True West by Sam Shepard is a tour de force which easily reveals actors’ talents or their infelicities. Indeed, it may be a devastating on-stage nightmare if the actors’ skills do not resonate with a fluid “moment-to-moment” dynamic that sits precariously on the knife-edge of emotional chaos and crisis. This is especially so in Act II of Shepard’s True West which is currently in revival at the American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street, starring the consummate Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano. Both actors rise to the pinnacle of their skills surfing their own moment-to-moment impulses in this sense-memory tearing, emotional slug-fest of a play about siblings. This is a glorious, shattering production thanks to Hawke and Dano who once more prove to be among the great actors of their generation. If Shepard is apprised of this production in another realm of consciousness, surely he is thrilled.
The arc of True West‘s development reveals Shepard’s acute examination of brothers Lee and Austin who wrangle and rage against each other to finally emerge from the emotional and familial folkways they’ve spun into their own self-fabricated prisons. The second act especially (the first act is more expositional and slower paced) screams with the taut, granular impact of subtly shifting, increasingly augmenting collisions of the mind, will and emotions of the older, social outcast and thief Lee (portrayed with dark tension, authenticity, humanity by Ethan Hawke) and the younger, ambitious, middle class Austin (the “mild-mannered” Dano seethes with fury and sub rosa angst that simmers to a boil). As these two attempt to reconnect after an estrangement, they thinly reconcile, negotiating confrontation and abrasion, while they attempt to deal with personal dissatisfaction. During their reunion, they discover that too far is never far enough to unleash the emotional convolutions, chaos and conundrums of their relationship.
Of course, Shepard’s searing, dark humor and sardonic irony resides in Lee’s and Austin’s attempt to achieve an inner and outer expurgation. Interestingly, they use each other’s “being” as a battering ram against themselves and their complex, twisted “brotherhood.” And as they pummel and propel themselves “forward” through the charged, electrified atmosphere between them, they disintegrate their inner soul rot and misery. By the conclusion of the play, they have reached their own TRUE WEST. This is brilliantly symbolized and effected by Jane Cox’s Lighting Design, Mimi Lien’s Set Design and Bray Poor’s Original Music and Sound Design.
In the last moments between life, death and resurrection, Lee and Austin stand on the edge of a precipice eyeballing each other with uncertain respect and caution as they assess who they are and what they have wrought together. We realize that they have sought this desert of their creation. That they, by primal impulses, destroyed and trashed everything around them including some of their mother’s prized possessions to get there, is unfathomable to us. It is incomprehensible unless we examine our own self-destructive behaviors. However, their behavior is an achievement necessary to get to who they are. At the least they’ve shed pretense. They are raw creature/creations like the the yapping coyotes that lure pets, grab them and chow down for supper. However, where these characters go from this still point remains uncertain. But the hope is that it will result in a new identity for each, away from the annihilation and alienation of the parents who raised them.
Though Shepard’s play is set in the distant past, the themes and relationship that Hawke and Dano establish is vital, energetic, heart-breaking, mind-blowing, current. Each actor has brought so much of his own grist to Lee and Austin and responds with such familiarity and raw honesty to the other, it is absolutely breathtaking. It remains impossible not to watch both and be in awe of their craft. One is utterly engaged in the suspense of where the brothers’ impulses will take them as they scrape and claw at each other’s nerve endings to create bleeding wounds.
Thanks go to James Macdonald’s direction and staging to facilitate Dano’s and Hawke’s memorable portrayals. With extraordinary performances like theirs, we are compelled to consider the characters, and determine how and why they are smashing each other’s personal boundaries to reveal inner resentments, hurts, and the chaotic forces that have swamped each of them in the most particular ways. The ties that bind them run so deep these two are oxymorons. They have identical twin souls, though they are externally antithetical. Why they clash is because they are like minded: raging, though controlled. Their emotions, like subterranean lava flows wait for the precise moment to explode and change the landscape around them. Lee is the more mature volcano; but his earthquakes create the chain reaction that stirs Austin’s. No smoke and mirrors here; just raw power.
As a perfect foil to spur the play’s development Gary Wilmes portrays Saul Kimmer, the producer hack who smarmes his way into Austin’s heart, then dumps him because he will not exact a devil’s bargain which Austin refuses to accept. Austin’s rejection of the “bargain,” enragese Lee. Wilmes is appropriately diffuse and opaque. Where does he really stand? What happened to make him turn on a dime regarding hiring Austin who has invested sweat equity and emotional integrity in a project Kimmer professed interest in? Wilmes is both authentic and the Hollywood “type,” to drive Lee and Austin against each other.
Likewise, as a foil, Marylouise Burke is LOL hysterical but frightening as their quirky mother. Her responses to their behavior are hyperbolic in the reverse and they speak volumes about how this family “functioned” in the past. She, too, helps to engine the suspense as Austin takes his power over Lee and she remains sanguine. All of the audience who are parents and especially those who have avoided the role are screaming silently in horror as the two “have at one another.” The situation and their confrontation is insane and humorous. Burke is perfect in the role as non-mediator. And Macdonald has done a magnificent job of balancing the tone and tenor of the last scene. As a result, Burke, Hawke, Dano deliver the lightening blow that helps us to realize the brothers’ intentions and the result of where they find themselves at the finale.
So much of the production resides in these incredible portrayals, of Lee and Austin’s devolution into the abyss to come to an epiphany. Caught up with that, one may overlook the artistic design. But it is so integral for it reveals the family and reflects the dynamic interactions. Superb, for example are the sound effects which augment in intensity, the frame of lights contrasting the stage into darkness for set changes, the homely, well-ordered kitchen and alcove writing area, the lovely plants and their “growth” (a field-day for symbolists), and the props. The toasting scene is just fabulous. Kudos go to Mimi Lien (Set Design) Kaye Voyce (Costume Design) Jane Cox (Lighting Design) Bray Poor (Original Music & Sound Design) Tom Watson (Hair & Wig Design) Thomas Shall (Fight Choreographer).
Sam Shepard’s play is a powerful revelation of brotherly love and hate, its design and usefulness. At the heart of our global issues resides familial relationships. To what impact on the whole is the sum of its parts? To what extent do families foment their own hatred upon themselves and the culture to exacerbate the issues? Likewise, what of families who love each other? The interplay between families and society is present but understanding it remains elusive and opaque. Shepard attempts clarity. Certainly, Lee points out that family relationships are high stakes and sometimes the warring relatives kill each other. Certainly, Austin points out that he and Lee will not kill each other over a film script. But he underestimates how far he or Lee are willing to go. How far are any of us willing to go if pushed by a relative?
Life’s uncertainty, as in the best of plays is all about surprise and not knowing what will happen in the next moments. This production of True West lives onstage because the actors are immersed in the genius of acting uncertainty that is always present. Most probably, their performance is different daily because the actors have dared to breathe out the characters whose souls they have elicited. Just W.O.W! (wild, obstreperous, wonderful)
‘Brunello di Montalcino 2014 Vintage is ‘Grace Under Pressure,’ Benvenuto Brunello Tasting at Tribeca 360
There are a number of lovely Tuscan wines. One of the finest I have been introduced to is the Brunello di Montalcino.
The DOCG is produced in the area around Montalcino central Italy around 40 kilometers South of the city of Siena. The vineyards and the historic, pristine lands were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004. Montalcino is mostly one weathered mountain, really al hill, covered by oak forests from which the name Montalcino is thought to have derived.
The small historic hill town is surrounded by vineyards, olive groves and seeded crops dotted with renovated stone buildings evidence of ancient cultivation. Montalicino and surrounding hamlets, Castelnuovo dell-Abate, Sant’Angelo and Torrenieri represent a quaint and glorious celebration of the past. The population totals a little over five thousand inhabitants and during the peak tourist season, the population swells. Naturally, it is a gorgeous tourist attraction year-round, but it is best in the spring, summer and fall with its typical Mediterranean climate and elevation of up to 500 metres.
If you are traveling to Tuscany and specifically going to Siena, stop by Montalcino cantinas to sample the wines at the producers I mention here. If you are not traveling there, I list some of the wonderful Brunellos di Montalcinos that you may purchase online or ask your local wine store to order for you. Some information to note about Brunello di Montalcino. To achieve a DOCG the wine must be composed of 100% Sangiovese grapes. It must be aged for at least 30 months in oak barrels. However, some producers age their Brunellos longer. After the oak aging, then the wine is aged in bottles. Again, this may range with some producers between 6 months to a year. The wines age very well, and go fabulously with wild board found in the hills of Montalcino, roasts, sharp cheeses, meaty stews and rustic cooking. But if you are into making wonderful hamburgers with Japanese beef or other excellent, organic beef, then this wine would be smashing with that meat as well.
The 2014 vintage of Brunello di Montalcino was a diversion from previous years. The season was wetter than usual. The producers had to constantly monitor the harvest to prevent fungus. Some producers went to their vineyards four or five times to select the grapes that they determined had finally ripened. Copper was sprayed on the leaves repeatedly because the wetness could have spoiled the entire crop. As it was the yield was much smaller, but the elegance of the wine produced with the attention the vintners gave the harvest was particular to this year. The result is quite amazing, and the wines are ready to drink now.
From the 2014 vintage, I tasted wines in the seminar “Grace Under Pressure: the 2014 vintage of Brunello di Montalcino led by Nick Jackson and Giacomo Pondini, the new Director of the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino. The 2014 vintage wines were from the following producers: Ridolfi, Capanna, Beatesca, La Togata and La Magia
The Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2014 Donna Rebecca from Ridolfi Winery was savory on the nose with soft, authentic and welcome tannins to promote a lasting finish.This powerful, earthy Brunello is drinkable with hardy breads and cheeses and meats. If has been aging for four to six years and is ready now. The Ridolfi family has been producing for many years and their lineage harkens back to Florence in 1290.
Their neighbor producer Capanna is in a different section of the territory, but not very far situated in the North of Montalcino. The 2014 Brunello was fruity on the nose and less earthy than the Donna Rebecca. There were elegant herbal notes and those of licorice and spice. The rounded rich fruit was sweeter on the palate with a less savory finish than the Donna Rebecca, but long structured aftertaste nevertheless. I would drink it with less sharp cheeses and with different accoutrements like nuts. And of course as with all the Brunellos, rare steak and pasta dishes with meat sauce, for example a Bolognese or wild boar sauce would be sumptuous.
The Beatesca Winery and vineyards are located in a higher elevation and nearer to Montalcino. On the nose this 2014 DOCG Brunello has sour cherry notes and florality. It is a beautifully elegant wine with plenty of structure and with detail on the palate. The wine differing from the Donna Rebecca is more about finesse than about power because of its fresh, pure taste of jam and melodic tannins. The wine has a 14.5 alcohol content by volume. Total aging as with the other Brunellos is 2 years in oak and 2 years in the bottle.
La Togata Winery produces it 2014 Vintage DOCG Brunello by ageing it 36 months in Slavonian oak barrels and then refines the wine a minimum of 12 months in bottles. The color is a lovely intense ruby red with hints of garnet. The nose is complex and the perfumed aroma speaks of spices and fruit. This is a distinct Brunello that is detailed and has structure and power. The finish is a lasting one.
Finally La Magia Winery is in the central part of Montalcino, in the highest areas in front of the Abby about 400-500 metres high. This wine is an organic vintage with no chemical products. It is very drinkable with minimum tannins. The 2014 vintage produced only 8,000 bottles out of the normal 30,000. And this was accomplished with careful selection of grapes as the vintners went into the vineyards again and again looking for the best and ripest Sangiovese. Copper had to repeatedly be sprayed on the vines to insure a coherent harvest. The power and structure of the wine are balanced and not overpowering. It is elegant, a remarkable wine that is aged for 3 years mainly in French oak barrels. Like the other Brunellos it is ruby red with garnet flourishes. On the nose there are notes of sour cherry, with spices and freshness. The finish is long lasting and pleasurable.
There were two 2013 Brunello di Montalcino vintages that we tasted which were absolutely lovely and different. The vintage was a much easier one as the weather did not feature the extreme rain of the 2014 year.
The Loacker Wine Estates have three wineries. Tenuta Corte Pavone Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2013 Fiore Del Vento was the wine I tried from the Tenuta Corte Pavone Winnery. The ageing during the first two years follows the Brunello style in smaller then larger oak. It ages in its entirety for three years in oak. It is in the higher area of Montalcino, 450-500 metres. It is currently drinkable and will age nicely for a few decades. It is aromatic on the nose with lovely perfumed finesse. Its expression is authentic with purity and is harmonious and well balanced with no overpowering tannins at the finish.
The Barbi Winery boasts vineyards and a Taverna/Restaurant with lovely food. I tasted the Brunello di Montalcino DOCG Riserva 2013 which was wonderful. This is a modern expression of an ancient wine whose family has had a vineyard and wine estate for centuries. In the South East part of the Montalcino area, the soil is sandy and the area with remnants of fossils was under the sea eons ago. But the soil yields a lovely, classic wine that is contemporary. The nose is aromatic and pleasant. It is elegant and vibrant with a depth and structure that goes well with sharp cheeses, pastas and meats. If you check the pictures of the Taverna, you will see what goes best with the Brunellos offered. It is a deep ruby red with garnet tones, a lovely, drinkable wine.
Tuscany, Italy was written about extensively by Frances Mayes who turned her Tuscan memoir and house renovation to a small business empire where she sells oil made from her trees, as an example. Another view of Tuscany is in the Brunello di Montalcinos. This wine is elegant, yet a throwback to the past. It is contemporary, yet has finesse. It is a competitor to the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano in the hill town of Montepulciano on the other side of Montalcino. Regardless, both are my favorites because of the Sangiovese grape which my father always talked about when he tried to make wine, but had to send to California for grapes, and truly, they weren’t very good then (1950s). Things have changed, of course. But now since it is easy to go online and have the wines shipped to your door, why make inferior wine? Don’t forget to order the Brunello or ask for it in your local wine store. Chin chin, happy drinking!
A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt currently at The Acorn Theatre until 3 March is an exceptional play about the value of one’s life and the hope of death when that value is removed. In the final decision to live a life of worth or die if one cannot, lies the honor of realizing one’s life has true purpose. The production by the Fellowship for Performing Arts promotes a superb iteration of Bolt’s work which posits interesting themes about self-worth, the rule of law, political cravenness and acts of conscience.
These heady themes are uplifted in this revival of Bolt’s work which examines Sir Thomas More’s conflict with King Henry VIII over the King’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn. More chose to follow his conscience and not the King’s feverish obsession to gain a male heir by putting away the barren Queen Catherine. When he took a stand that King Henry VIII interpreted as being against him, More knew the grave risks. Yet he held firm in his beliefs, maintaining his purpose and meaning for himself, an action which was used against him to advantage his enemies. Rather than to change his stance and support all the other powerful men who sided with the King, More followed his own conscience, martyring himself. He preferred to be in the afterlife with God, than in a physical existence among men abiding in lies and treason to his soul, a death far greater than any delivered by the executioner’s blow to his neck.
Bolt examines the strength required to abide in the grace of righteous beliefs even if it means dying for it, rather than follow the crowd to stay alive. The playwrite’s brilliant work written in the sixties seems especially trenchant in our times when lying to protect one’s physical life is no longer an art, but a gross and craven reality show in politics. This fine production of A Man for All Seasons seems more resonant than ever.
Bolt most probably took title which originated from an Oxford scholar Robert Whittington who in 1520 wrote, “More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.” Perhaps Whittington may have been inspired by the Biblical scripture, 2 Timothy 4:2 (NKJV) “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching.”
Bolt’s characterization of Sir Thomas More (Michael Countryman maintains a sensitive and thoughtful portrayal throughout) reflects the scripture and Whittington’s commentary. In Countryman’s rendering of More’s traits and interactions with his family, the King and Richard Rich, his foil and enemy, we understand the greatness of More’s mind and character.
Countryman also relays a profound appreciation of More’s humor and social affability. As Countryman presents More’s humility with the King (the effervescent and proud Trent Dawson), even though he disagrees with him we understand More’s sorrow at displeasing a man he loves. We also see the King’s sorrow that More is on a collusion course with the King’s soul. One of them will lose, the other will gain, and at that momentous juncture when the King visits More’s household, the actors and able direction reveal that there is no turning back for either man. It is an excellently rendered moment in the production, one of many that Director Christa Scott-Reed interprets and guides the actors to elicit.
Countryman, David McElswee as Richard Rich, Carolyn McCormick as Lady Alice More, Todd Cerveris as Thomas Cromwell Kim Wong as Meg are the principals who help establish the solid foundation upon which Bolt’s More rests. In various crucial scenes, the actors’ interplay heightens the stakes and pronounces the conundrum that More faces if he chooses conscience over king and loses everything he holds dear in the earthly realm to achieve a finer estate in the heavenly one.
In one particular example, the tension the cast creates when Meg, Lady Alice and Roper (Sean Dugan) tell More to have the pernicious Richard Rich arrested for being evil, we watch amazed as Countryman’s More defends McElwee’s Rich and upholds the law as paramount. Because of their acute sensitivity and the apt direction we understand how More is refining his position on the law to protect his own soul and, as Bolt perhaps wishes, we empathize and put ourselves in More’s shoes. Would we have the strength of character to follow the right and true dictates of our souls? Or would we as his family suggests he do use the law against others injudiciously and damn ourselves? Is such an action to uphold what is most precious important to us? Should it be? Bolt asks these intriguing questions and answers them by highlighting More’s difficult choices.
By the end of the play, McElwee’s Rich has become totally corrupted, rewarded for his betrayal of More by selling his soul for Wales. McElwee’s development from young man teetering on the brink of wickedness to world-hardened, wicked maturity having easily sold out a man he once greatly admired is well delivered. Both actors elicit the contrast between More and Rich beautifully. Rich achieves worldly power climbing from a lowly state upward and More moves in the opposite direction. But only More makes it to glory. Though Richard Rich dies peacefully in his bed unperturbed, unmolested by sending More to his beheading, More down through the centuries is venerated for his courage. He was canonized by the Church in 1935 and in 2000 Pope John Paul II named him “heavenly patron of statesmen and politicians.”
Countryman’s steadfast More, assisted by the ensemble’s excellence becomes especially powerful in the trial scene when More confronts his accusers, McElwee’s Rich, Cerveris’ Cromwell, Archbishop Cranmer (Sean Dugan), his former dear friend The Duke of Norfolk (Kevyn Morrow) and the executioner who also plays The Common Man (Harry Bouvy). Presented with the lies that Rich has told about him, More answers vehemently for his innocence and affirms that his silence about the oath taking is acquiescence under the law which they have misinterpreted because they do not know the law. The scene especially enthralls for we know that as More counters Rich’ lies, the blade will fall. He is as he says, “a dead man.”
Countryman’s More is poignant as he maintains his domination and will when someone questions his surety that he will go to heaven. More’s reply is without fear or doubt, “God will not reject one so cheerful to go to Him.” We believe then that what More has suffered has a higher purpose. Indeed, Countryman’s portrayal of More uplifts with hope and inspires as Bolt most probably intended.
Bolt’s play is given a very fine rendering by The Fellowship for Performing Arts. The ensemble, shepherded by director Christa Scott-Reed depict Bolt’s characters with authenticity and engage us throughout. Countryman’s More comes off as a human saint. How Bolt shapes More’s development rising to glory as the king’s Lord High Chancellor and devolving to infamy as a traitor to kingdom and crown is the genius of the drama. The characterizations of More, his long suffering wife Lady Alice (Carolyn McCormick) and daughter Meg (Kim Wong) are superb and perhaps strongest in the prison scene when they see each other for the last time. As contrasts to the enlightened and saintly More, Richard Rich (McElwee) The Duke of Norfolk (Kevyn Morrow) and Thomas Cromwell (Todd Cerveris) reveal an edgy hardness as the play reaches its conclusion and More is condemned for treason. John Ahlin is exceptional as Cardinal Wolsey and Signor Chapuys. The latter attempts to wrangle with More about supporting Catherine of Aragon’s Queenly fate in Henry’s Kindgom.
The character of The Common Man (excellently played by Harry Bouvy) is absent in some productions of A Man for All Seasons. Bouvy’s portrayal of the lowly roles (Matthew-More’s servant, the executioner, etc.) is one we identify with readily. His pronouncement of the earthly ends of More’s enemies Cranmer, Cromwell, The Duke of Norfolk is ironic. His sardonic humor at relating where Richard Rich ends up for sending a good man to his death is the exclamation point of Bolt’s work. But upon further research (More’s standing in the UK and with the Church as a saint), we note that Sir Thomas More comes off as a hero. On the other hand Richard Rich (hyperbolic name, indeed) comes off as the craven, mendacious coward. One of the strengths of the play and of this production is in the comparison between Rich and Moore. Indeed, Bolt uses Rich as a foil to burnish More’s greatness.
In this social climate of up is down black is white, there are many in power who behave as Richard Rich using clever manipulation, lying and amorality to achieve their desires. Bolt, a professed agnostic, leaves the final judgment about such individuals up to God. In the last analysis without a Richard Rich, would More have been so glorified?
Of late Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall downplays Bolt’s perspectives about More. She establishes the more vilifying and intriguing points about his religious beliefs. In uplifting Catholicism against Lutheran Protestantism which was spreading at the time of the play set in England between 1526-1535, Mantel emphasizes that More employed torture. Additionally, to force heretics to recant their beliefs in Protestantism, he believed in burning heretics who refused to recant. Others have been critical of More. For example, James Wood in his book The Broken Estate, refers to him as “cruel in punishment, evasive in argument, lusty for power, and repressive in politics.”
With controversial individuals like More, the jury is still out. However, with this production, the verdict is a resounding bravo. I especially enjoyed the John Gromada’s selection of music as Composer/Sound Design, and the staging and artistic of the production in its integration of the Scenic Design (Steven C. Kemp), Costume Design (Theresa Squire) and Lighting Design (Aaron Porter).
Man for All Seasons runs with one intermission at the Acorn Theatre (42nd Street between 8th and 9th) and is extended until 3 March. You can purchase tickets to see this fine production of Bolt’s great play at their website by CLICKING HERE.