Thorton Wilder’s Pulitizer Prize winning The Skin of Our Teeth currently in revival at Lincoln Center’s Viviane Beaumont, presents the fate of the human race in three segments when the human family represented by the Antrobuses (Greek for man or human), faces extinction. The first debacle is the ice age; the second is the great deluge; the third is a seven years war. The play leaves off in uncertainty for surely humanity will continue to face threats of extermination and will continue to shake these off, repair itself and scientifically progress to greater heights and lower depths in its struggle to survive as a species. Though Wilder leaves this conclusion uncertain through the character of Sabina (the vibrant and versatile Gabby Beans), the very fact that the characters make it as far as they do is a witness to human resilience and tenacity.
The production, one of spectacle and moment, whimsy and humor is acutely directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz for maximum effect. It succeeds in various instances, to be poignant and profound as the Antrobus family (James Vincent Meredith-Dad, Roslyn Ruff-Mom, Julian Robertson-Henry, Paige Gilbert-Gladys) and their maid Sabina (Gabby Beans), the narrator who breaks the fourth wall to address the audience, claw their way through history to survive. These “every men” and “every women” archetypes experience representative cataclysms, all the while confronting the questions about the human race and their place in history until the end of time.
Though Wilder references Bible figures like Cain, suggests Adam, Eve and Lilith (Lily Sabina), and the disasters that have foundations in tribal religious mythology (the great flood myth is recorded in most indigenous cultures), other cataclysms are scientifically and historically referenced (the ice age, dinosaur extinction, seven year’s war between England and France). Wilder is intentionally out of chronological order, suggestive, melding various historical/cultural documents of literature and religion with scientific discovery. Throughout, the vital thread is humanity’s survival.
The questions the characters raise which float throughout each act are philosophical and moral. For example is the human race worth saving from the struggles, trials and horrors which will continue to threaten both people and their environment? Should humanity just throw in the towel, lay down and refuse to repair itself or evolve technologically, artistically, scientifically? Given the rapacity and murderous ruthlessness of son Henry (aka the Biblical Cain, the spirit of murder in humanity), will the human race just exterminate itself with weapons of its own making? Or as humanity’s mother, Ruff’s Mrs. Antrobus suggests, will the family unit sustain the human species, enabling it to succeed in each progressive and evolving era?
Given the latest foray into extinction by Vladimir Putin as he attempts to obliterate Ukraine into the dust bin of history, bully democratic countries to heel to his genocide, and bribe apologist lackeys in the extreme global radical right, including the QAnon members of the Republican Party, Wilder’s overriding questions are current. This is especially so in the last segment when Ruff’s Mrs. Antrobus and daughter Paige Gilbert’s Gladys emerge from the basement where they’ve been sheltering for a seven years war to reunite with Sabina (Gabby Beans). All welcome the new peace. However, they consider how they will rebuild as they view the burned wreckage of their bombed out home.
As the curtain of the last act rises on the devastation, one can’t help think of Ukrainian towns (the Russian soldiers have since left), and Mariupol, where Ukrainian families and soldiers shelter in basements and in a steel factory, as they suffer Putin’s inhumane starvation, while bombs blast above, uselessly pulverizing dust. The irony is so beyond the pale; Putin bombs dust in helpless fury while every minute the heroism, bravery and resilience of Ukraine’s “Antrobus” spirit thrusts into the heavens, memorializing that Ukraine will never capitulate to the likes of Putin. It is a humiliation for Russia. They for allowed such a serial killer to usurp power, genocide women and children and bomb dust because the Ukrainians embody the slogan, “live free or die,”refusing to bow to one man rule and an abdication of their human rights.
Electing to die honorable Roman deaths, rather than submit to Putin’s vengeful, psychotic temper tantrums, they shame those officials who pretend to uphold democracy but, like Putin, vitiate human rights with lies. Uncannily, what’s happening in Mariupol dovetails with Wilder’s prescient theme, that the human race will never capitulate to fires, floods, and its own murderous instincts.
Though Sabina grouses that she’s sick and tired of being sick and tired as she begins the first lines at the top of the play again, the wheel of irrevocable change and life goes around once more with new things for humanity to learn in a new way that is never a repetition of the past. However, Sabina doesn’t see that human history is a spiral and not a circle. She is blind to the human experiment, which Wilder suggests we must understand beyond her limited vision.
Indeed, no human being desires going into survival mode. But cataclysm squeezes out benefit from humanity’s collective soul during great trials. Wilder suggests it is worth the price. Through these actors’ sterling portrayals, we understand that human tenacity and hope propel the human race to make it to the next day. And as the species collectively moves through the days, weeks and years, it evolves a finer wisdom, strength and efficacy. Wilder suggests, this is confirmed again and again and again with each debacle, each disaster, each cataclysm, each deranged maniac that would make war on his brothers and himself.
Some scenes in this enlightened production are particularly adorable. The representative sentient beings of the ice age, the dinosaur and mammoth are the most lovable pets thanks to the brilliant puppeteers (Jeremy Gallardo, Beau Thom, Alphonso Walker Jr., Sarin Monae West).
Unfortunately, Antrobus (the solid James Vincent Meredith), tells the dinosaur and mammoth to leave the warmth of their Jersey home so he has room to take in refugees like prophet Moses, the ancient Greek poet Homer and the three Muses: Melete, “Practice,” Mneme, “Memory” and Aoide, “Song,” who would otherwise freeze to death. The dinosaur’s and mammoth’s expulsion is heartbreaking; the ice age destroys their kind. However, Wilder ties their extinction to necessity. Humanity gave up some unique, particular species and from that arose incalculable value. In this instance the preservation includes the foundation of human laws of civilization, timeless poetry and the spirits who inspire art to soothe the collective human soul and generate its hope and creativity.
The sounds of the ice shelf moving, the projection of the towers of ice and the smashing of the home are particularly compelling thanks to the technical team, as the Antrobus family and their maid and sometime object of Mr. Antrobus’ affections escape, “by the skin of their teeth.”
Wilder’s zany, human account has the same setting of bucolic New Jersey throughout. In Act II it’s still New Jersey, but it’s the wild equivalent of sin city in Atlantic City and the boardwalk that has a carnival atmosphere with a lovely gypsy fortune teller (Priscilla Lopez) who warns Antrobus that she can tell him his future, but his past is lost and incomprehensible. It is an interesting notion because one then thinks of the adjuration, “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” However, this doesn’t quite follow for the Antrobus family who are forward moving in progress.
Lopez’s Fortune Teller predicts the great deluge. Terrifying warning sounds rendered by a huge mechanism register the wind velocity and impending storm ferocity. The sounding of the alarm of the impending deluge is scarily effected. Warnings are ignored by the tourists and those who enjoy the fun, dancing, drugging and alluring lights of the Atlantic City boardwalk. As doom approaches, they party. Of course the Antrobus family flees to a boat after pursuing their natures (slippery Robertson’s Henry has killed someone else). Gabby Beans’ Sabina follows them, a veritable member of the family in her seductions of Antrobus, manifested in Act II, hinted at in Act I.
A powerful scene in Act III occurs after the war is over and the Antrobuses convene at what’s left of their Jersey home. Henry confronts his father, for he is the enemy and Antrobus senior threatens to kill him. Of all the characters, the murderous Henry is the most useless. The daughter is the golden child as was the child they no longer speak of, the beautiful, gifted Abel who Henry resentfully killed. But in Act III, after Henry expresses his feelings of isolation, loneliness and desolation being insulted and demeaned by his father, there is a breakthrough and resolution which is heartening. The scene, beautifully rendered by Julian Robertson, who is in his element as the enraged and hurt son and James Vincent Meredith as the commanding then empathetic father, suggests that hope and love are possible through communication.
Director Lileana-Blain Cruz shepherds her fine, spot-on cast with aplomb to performances that never appear off focus or muted for Wilder’s unique characterizations.
The fun of this production also is in the set design, aptly configured by Adam Rigg, effervescent and vibrant in the first two acts, symbolic and moving in Act III. The colorful costumes by Montana Levi reveal the time periods. Act I presents suburban housewife and family and children with happy-go-lucky flowery dresses, with the appropriate fur coat and stylized costumes for Homer, Moses and the others. Act II presents the 1920s flapper style and for the men the orange pin stripes typically emotive for officials of the Convention for Mammals. The lovely Fortune Teller outfit is glamorous, as she is like a Hollywood celebrity and Sabina is the seductress in shimmering red. In Act III the outfits are back to the housewife/mother and maid look similar to the costumes in Act I. Levi’s stylized flair takes in the themes of the act and threads the overall survival mode of the play with precision and care.
With Blanco, Yi Zhao’s accompanying lighting, Palmer Hefferan’s terrific sound design and the integrated, vital projections by Hannah Wasileski, the artistic technical team provides the canvas which sets off the events and the performances, making them more striking. Even more fun are the expert puppeteers who made me fall in love with the animals and shed a tear at their demise. I am calling out these individuals again, BRAVO to Jeremy Gallardo, Beau Thom, Alphonso Walker Jr., Sarin Monae West.
I’ve said enough. Go see it. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.lct.org/shows/skin-our-teeth/
The year 1965 signifies a momentous occasion. By 204 votes to 104, The Murder Act has abolished hanging and the death penalty for those convicted of murder in Great Britain. For human rights advocates and those agreeing that capital punishment isn’t a deterrent, thus, civilized countries shouldn’t practice tribal law, there is rejoicing. For hangmen across the UK, there is less enthusiasm. Martin McDonagh’s sardonic, brutal, unapologetic and macabre humor works brilliantly in his dark comedy Hangmen about some hangmen which centers around the end of hanging in the UK. Hangmen which won McDonagh the 2016 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play, begins with an official hanging and ends two years later after the death penalty has been abolished.
Currently on Broadway at the Golden Theatre, in Hangmen McDonagh centrifuges the wicked human impulses of irrationality, arrogance, machismo and the mechanical banality of evil, then sends these elements into the stratosphere of random circumstance. Add to that mischance, misadventure and mishap, an ironic and inevitably surprising McDonagh-style conclusion is seamlessly effected in this engaging, comedic work. One finds the events mysterious, grisly and lurid until one allows the belly laughs to erupt and the smiles to pop up on one’s face at the systematic take down of males, their grotesque appreciation of insult humor, barbarism and their dung-heap grossness which females are sometimes a party to.
How McDonagh maintains the balancing act of the humorous with the gruesome, effectively weaving the tonal grace to bring on laughter through organic characterizations, always astounds. He accomplished this in the uproarious A Behanding in Spokane (2010) on Broadway (starring Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell), and in his other works, with the selection of exceptional actors who understand not to “force the laughs” but just to slide into inhabiting the beings that are incredibly loathsome under other circumstances. In the McDonagh settings and arc of developments, what unfolds is the revelation of humanity in all its inglorious ungraciousness. McDonagh’s humans suffer and joke about it, not attempting to evolve or better their soul wretchedness. They just wallow and lay about. In that there is the humor.
This especially applies for the characters and situations in Hangmen, whose chief irony is that the national acceptance of brutality in destroying human life as a punishment for destroying human life (a mild form of genocide), has ended. But the state of human nature which is tribal and hideously, wickedly murderous continues. It’s the same old, same old. And perhaps with capital punishment abolished, it is indeed worse.
McDonagh investigates various themes about “the company of men,” the willful deceit of human nature and its impish cruelty and brutality, and other themes in the Hangmen, whose focus lands on Harry, the hangman (the wonderful David Threlfall). Harry owns a pub in the north of England and entertains as the king of his space the usual locals who come in for more than a pint. These wayward alcoholics, which he obliges and indulges, include Bill (Richard Hollis), Charlie (Ryan Pope), and the near deaf Arthur (the hysterical John Horton). Occasionally, Inspector Fry (Jeremy Crutchley), drops in, adds his wisdom to the comments of the tipsy crowd, who fall into a natural banter as the alcohol buzz takes over their minds.
On the sterling occasion (for potential murderers in the UK), of the passage of The Murder Act, reporter Clegg (Owen Campbell), comes to the pub to interview Harry about his past glories as a hangman, which initially Harry refuses, then agrees to out of earshot of his clientele. Others who drop in and exacerbate the events which gyrate out of control in Act II are Syd (Ryan Pope), Harry’s former colleague that Harry fired for exclaiming about a male corpse’s lifted genetalia and other inappropriate mistakes. Additionally, there is Harry’s wife Alice (Tracie Bennett), and his teenage daughter Shirley (Gaby French).
Alice who helps in the pub puts up with Harry and the others and encourages her husband, who she is proud of in a mindless kind of thoughtlessness. But it is obvious that Shirley, who receives the brunt of her parents negative comments because of the age gap and her mopey disposition, is chaffing at the bit to have some adventures. If only someone would give her the opportunity.
The opportunity arises when a rather mysterious, menacing bloke from the south comes into the pub, has a few pints then inquires about lodging. Mooney (Alfie Allen), is the catalyst who propels the action along with Syd, whose deviousness and impulse for revenge sets in motion the sequence of events from which there is no turning. The events are inexorable, especially since Harry’s rival and fellow hangmen Albert (Peter Bradbury when I saw the production), shows up in a coincidental irony and adds to the final debacle.
There is no spoiler alert because so much of the fun of this play is in the twisting plot, incorrect assumptions that McDonagh whimsically leads you to make, and overall uncertainty about which characters are truly malevolent and which ones are actually fronting evil but are almost nice and kind. Beneath this foray into the darkness of human nature, the elements are profound and frightening as the scripture does say that wickedness lurks in the human heart. Naturally, in the culture’s global lexicon, the heart is tender and sweet. Not for McDonagh in the Hangmen, in this entertaining look at machismo, revenge, female complicity, arrogance, pride, lawlessness and fronting.
If you enjoy McDonagh and are wanting a laugh or two or many, this is one to see for its wit, cleverness and sardonic finger-pointing at who you really are in your soul. Threlfall’s portrayal of the fascinating character Harry and the solid cast performances shine a light on McDonagh’s themes about human nature. Ironically, in this current time, these themes seem to resonate roundly with Vladimir Putin’s current expose of the misery of his own soul and a want of humor and laughter. Thankfully, McDonagh reminds us of ourselves with brilliant humor which might makes us want to be different for an occasional minute or two.
Directed by Matthew Dunster, who collaborated with Anna Fleischle (scenic and costume designer), about the intriguing two level sets that are quite elaborate with spectacle yet functionality (a cafe, a prison, a darkly paneled, expansive pub), the play succeeds on many levels (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Perhaps there’s a bit of symbolism to think about as you get to watch the pub set rise from hell (as it was referred to in Elizabethan times-the space under the proscenium), as the prison and place where poor Hennessy-whether guilty or innocent was hanged- slowly moves to the second level atop the pub. Thus, the pub becomes the set on the main stage and the prison cell and cafe are above it.
Finally, kudos goes to Joshua Carr’s lighting design and Ian Dickinson for Autograph in sound design.
For tickets and times go to their website: https://hangmenbroadway.com/
For much of Michael Jackson’s life, there was controversy. Extraordinary genius is not often reverenced by those who attempt to control it, exploit it or covet it as theirs. Sometimes it is least understood by the person who possesses such talent, until it is too late, and there are only a few years left to try to get it all down.
One-of-a-kind greatness is as ineffable and mighty as what we imagine divinity is. But divinity streams in a multitude of directions. In spirit and light it is incapable of being contained. A bit of that was Michael Jackson’s talent, genius, divinity that he emblazoned on our planet for too brief a time. It is a bit of that Michael Jackson which Myles Frost so lovingly portrays with precision, excellence and prodigious beauty in MJ, with the book by the sterling Lynn Nottage that currently runs on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre. This production is an unforgettable, blinding amazement, full of wonder.
Unlike other shows that have been dubbed jukebox musicals, MJ cannot be categorized as such and defies pat, convenient labels. First, though Michael Jackson’s music is featured throughout, the music threads who he is albeit “through a glass darkly,” if we can ever know another individual. The production soars because, as Myles’ MJ tells MTV documentarian Rachel (Whitney Bashor), if we “listen” to his music, it “answers questions” we might have. Thus, if we really intend to know who Michael Jackson is, we must examine his music. MJ does this by presenting riffs of his treasured, award-winning songs in two acts, though not in completeness because the breadth of his work would require days to display in full.
Wisely, Nottage focuses on a period in Michael’s life which manifests a turning point right before he travels globally on his Dangerous tour. It is 1992 in a L.A. rehearsal studio. Through flashback and flashing forward, framed by the present in the studio, Nottage provides richness and depth, crystallizing vital themes and conflicts MJ confronted externally and internally. These include: 1) the media’s rapacious hunger to exploit scandal and create MJ’s twisted identity that it hypocritically blamed him for; 2)his struggles with his father in going solo and breaking from his family to obtain his own autonomy as a person and artist; 3)his struggles to evolve his music beyond his industry producers and labels represented by his father Joseph (Antoine L. Smith), Berry Gordy (Ramone Nelson), and Quincy Jones (Apollo Levine).
Additionally, Nottage examines his work ethic and quest to be perfect, a recurrent theme in MJ. For example after rehearsing various numbers for the Dangerous tour to the breaking point, MJ asks, “But is it perfect?” It is a refrain he’s internalized from his childhood when his father pushed the Jackson 5 to the brink and didn’t allow them to “be children.” Finally, MJ is representational as a black every man striving against the color bar everywhere. Thus, we see his father, his family and his life struggles against institutional racism in the music industry and culture.
Complexly encapsulated throughout, Nottage reveals his personal struggles to manifest love, and overthrow the cruel abuse he received as a child, teen and adult (in the media and entertainment industry). He must do this to spread the love in his music and not transfer the culture’s hatred which is so easy to internalize. This is most probably the most difficult ask of himself that Michael pushes himself toward. This is the thing which is impossible, not the incredible nature of his tours or finding the money his financial manager Dave (Joey Sorge), requires, using his Neverland Ranch as collateral to fund the Dangerous tour. Importantly, Nottage notes his personal struggle to understand and forgive himself reflected in the incredible performance of “Man in the Mirror.” However, does he achieve self-love finally, the bane of all human existence? Ah, well…
Interwoven to spotlight these themes and conflicts is Michael Jackson’s fabulous music featured with the dancers in later songs during the rehearsal period for the Dangerous tour and in memory vignettes. Also, we enjoy featured songs in MJ’s discussion of his work with Rachel which includes numbers from his albums Off the Wall and Thriller.
From his childhood Little Michael’s ( the superbly talented Walter Russell and Christian Wilson alternate) incredible voice shines with his brothers portrayed by performers who also take on different roles. In the segments when Myles’ MJ in the present reflects about correlating events in his childhood, we note his father’s gruff, abusive prodding as a taskmaster (portrayed by Antoine L. Smith the night I saw the production). And we appreciate his loving mother’s comfort as a counterbalance who MJ relies on. Katherine Jackson’s incredible voice is poignant and lovely as she sings with Little Michael, i.e. “I’ll Be There.” When MJ comes back from his thoughts about the past, answering questions from the documentarian at times and other times just letting memories emerge, Myles as the adult MJ sings with Little Michael and they encapsulate the convergence of the past with the present. Perhaps this is a healing, self-revelatory moment.
Likewise, the same occurs with teenage Michael, portrayed by Tavon Olds-Sample as Nottage explores the height of the Jackson’s fame with their appearance on Soul Train performing “Dancing Machine.” Especially when MJ steps back into the past, songs in the vignettes explore his emotions at the time. Then MJ comes back to the present into the rehearsal studio where the dancers are singing the same number. The past turmoil is concurrent with the turmoil he goes through in the present with his managers and directors telling him what he wants isn’t possible. It is a refrain he received his entire life and must overcome continually. The transitions from flashback to forward present are beautifully effective as rendered in songs.
Wisely, the structure and organization of MJ is complexly framed by the present and is driven by a confluence of emotional and personal issues which erupt throughout the production. These issues, Nottage intimates were the ones to spiral out of control later in Jackson’s life. The issues explored in flashbacks reveal that MJ is a fluid memory piece and musical. It is as if Jackson, given over to his own talent and unconscious, becomes haunted by the past which intrudes upon the present to generate the direction of his art and personal life. It is that past from which “he runs” (a superficial assessment by the media). Regardless, it is that chaos and emotional angst from the past which infuses and creates the greatness of his being and work, Nottage suggests throughout. It is even reflected in the words of Barry Gordy who claims that Little Michael sings with the pain of an adult’s experience.
Though I wasn’t a Michael Jackson fan, after seeing MJ, I have become one, learning of some the facets of his talent and genius which he attempted to perfect and which anyone who looks deeper into his life with understanding recognizes what he accomplished as one of the most significant global cultural icons of the twentieth century. Importantly, MJ is a celebration of Michael Jackson’s goodness, graciousness, gentleness and love, revealed in his spectacular ability to compose, sing, dance, produce and innovate new music styles and initiate forward trends in all these listed, including fashion.
MJ is also a memorial to Michael Jackson’s work given that through great pain comes art which is timeless. Though some would quibble that “his” type of music isn’t art, Nottage’s book and this production rises above that inanity in its affirmation that what Michael Jackson accomplished must be reviewed seriously apart from scurrilous tabloid journalism or even an attempt at documentary. Though he was Known as the “King of Pop,” the Broadway production reveals that “handle” was a superficial, limiting meme.
He was a phenomenon that we will not see again, a sensitive maverick “music man” who morphed into mythic beings and as easily shapeshifted out of them into new personas. As he evolved, he swiftly left history and the media in the dust, something which the media appears to refuse to understand. One has only to view his vast body of awards and global recognition, his millions of record sales the dollar amounts, the presidential awards, global awards, the breaking of 39 Guinness World records to begin to “get this.” Indeed, he is the most awarded individual music artist in history.
MJ the Musical begins in an L.A. rehearsal studio in 1992 as dancers and the soft-spoken Michael (the shining Myles Frost) suggests ways to improve “Beat It,” the number the dancers work on. Sequestered in a corner, a two-person MTV documentary film crew records until the overexcited camera man, Alejandro (Gabriel Ruiz), loses his cool in the presence of this living myth and MJ “yells” about the how and why of cameras in the studio. Rachel (Whitney Bashor) steps in and saves the day assuring Rob (Antoine L. Smith) and Michael they are “unobtrusively” there to record MJ’s process of putting together his Dangerous World Tour. Frost’s Jackson quietly explains that the tour to promote his album Dangerous will travel four continents excluding the U.S. and Canada in the hope of raising $100 million for his newly established charity Heal the World Foundation to help children and the environment.
Immediately, the strains and pressures of conflict between the media’s mission to raise dirt, versus the sensitive artist and the private individual who yearn to be understood are manifest. Behind MJ’s back Rachel affirms to Alejandro that she wants to delve into his personal struggles, blowing by his art. It is the reason why they insinuated themselves into the rehearsal studios with the guise of filming his tour preparations. Once again, MJ is trusting and allows her to stay to publicize the tour.
Intriguingly, Nottage points out that the documentarian attempts cinema veritae. However, by the end of MJ we see this is a blind. Rachel gets “what she wants.” She has overheard a conversation by MJ’s close associates Rob (Antoine L. Smith) and Nick (Ramone Nelson) about his taking too many painkillers because of the accident filming a Pepsi commercial. Instead of concentrating on his music, though she says she will be fair, we understand “fair” means not necessarily giving MJ the benefit of the doubt. It is “The Price of Fame” that he learns from his father and without which he couldn’t perform. Regardless, it is a cul de sac in which “You Can’t Win,” sung by Berry Gordy (Ramone Nelson) and teenage Michael (Tavon Olds-Sample).
By the conclusion of MJ, we discover that “facts,” too can be twisted into untruths, and what is called for and never pursued by the media is understanding and empathy. Thus, as a theme media exploitation manifests three minutes into MJ, revealing what dogged him and grew to an insanity by the end of his life. The media’s rapacious commercialism to get “the exclusive” scandal to tear down the myth it grudgingly helped to create is integral to MJ. The constant struggle with the media later strengthened him to transcend every barrier institutional racism put up to thwart him in exploitative cruelty that Jackson later excoriated and exposed, using his songs as a weapon to beat back injustice, planet devastation, global child trafficking and more.
In a perfect meld of music and dance numbers, Nottage’s book is the skeleton upon which the creative team of Jason Michael Webb (music direction, orchestrations, arrangements), David Holcenberg (music supervision, orchestrations, arrangements), and Christopher Wheeldon (director, choreographer) sculpt the greatness of Michael Jackson’s artistry in his humanity. Songs represented are from all of his albums; in alphabetical order they include (ABC, Bad, Beat it, Billie Jean, Black or White, Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough, Keep the Faith, Rock With You, Smooth Criminal, The Way You Make Me Feel, Wanna Be Startin’ Something) to name only a few. With Thriller (look at how his father in costume moves off stage into the nightmare world which emerges from his imagination) how the song is incorporated with his living, awake nightmares in his own life at this point in time is just fantastic.
The set design (Derek McLane) exemplifies MJ’s inner and outer conflicts magnificently, in vibrant colors for the dynamic award winning numbers. They even get the opening propulsion up from the trap under the stage for a huge WOW! It signifies MJ successfully got his crew to do this for his Dangerous tour. See the production MJ for this rush of excitement, and explosive fun surprise. Or look it up on YouTube if you are not coming to NYC.
For the “smaller” intimate moments in the Jackson family home, the design is simpler, but functional and appropriate to the time. The retro look continued for the Soul Train vignette is heartwarming as the introductory music opens, reminding us of our youth and the time in the nation where black entertainers like Michael rarely crossed over. They had to appear on Soul Train for publicity. The lighting (Natasha Katz), complementing the set design for the maximum striking “fantastical,” especially with the “Thriller” number that just kills it are all other-worldly, as Paul Tazewell’s costumes provide the fearful/graveyard monster touch. The costumes of course are so varied, but all are MJ. Importantly, Gareth Owen’s sound design is spot on so the lyrics are clear, the music strongly wonderful.
Peter Negrini’s production design, Charles LaPointe’s wig and hair design, Joe Dulude II’s make-up design all thrust the actors and especially Myles Frost into glory and provide the unity of spectacle this production so fabulously renders. Enough cannot be said about Myles Frost’s portrayal that is emotionally devastating because he is Michael Jackson’s beating heart and so gratefully appreciated for his amazing talents and will to become MJ for each of the nights of the week. Shepherded by Christopher Wheeldon’s masterful direction and thrilling, hot choreography, they are MJ‘s lifeblood along with the cast who entertain us to their last nerve. All are nonpareil.
We see that in the songs in his later life, MJ attempts to overthrow the forces that exemplify the worst manifestations of greed, pernicious exploitation, hypocrisy, falsehood and hatred in the culture and in his personal life. What he went through first with the media which built him up to destroy him, we have witnessed these past years in the propaganda used to destroy in the service of furthering others’ hidden agendas, regardless of the facts in this heightened time of political power plays.
As the last individual walks away from the Neil Simon Theatre, after seeing MJ, they should leave with the knowledge that what Michael Jackson represented to fans, foes, colleagues and those nearest and dearest to him is incalculable. Whether one scorned, predatorized, idolized, exploited, manipulated, in short any action word you might use to exemplify how people related to him, Michael Jackson impacted all of us through his music, his humanity and his tragedy. Lynn Nottage, the actors and the creative team have done a sensational and dazzling job of assisting Myles Frost in bringing the legend to life.
Finally, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. With regard to Michael Jackson and the production’s greatness, this scripture seems appropriate to leave you with.
For tickets and times go to the MJ website: https://mjthemusical.com/
John Milton Synge stated of the “things which nourish the imagination, humor is one of the most needful, and it is dangerous to limit or destroy it.” Two of Synge works which employ satire and raucous humor to entertain and make fun of stereotypes found amongst the Irish country folk around 1903 are The Tinker’s Wedding and In the Shadow of the Glen. Directed by Charlotte Moore and starring wonderful actors from those often seen at The Irish Repertory Theatre, the enjoyable evening of these two Synge works flies by. One leaves with a belly-full of laughter and a smile on their face.
Both plays are set in 1903 County Wicklow in Ireland before Ireland was a Republic. And one imagines a fairly desolate area is the terrain where the humorous events take place in each work.
In The Tinker’s Wedding, the cast sings an upbeat folk song about a wedding where one pictures the happy townsfolk dancing and carousing “heel for heel and toe for toe, arm and arm and row on row, all for ‘Marie’s Wedding.'” The ebullient mood of the piece displayed in the music and vibrancy of the actors quickly shifts to argument between Michael Byrne (John Keating), and Sarah Casey (Jo Kinsella), who are companions but who have not yet married.
The irony is clear for couples getting married in Ireland and elsewhere. On the wedding day everyone is happy. Afterward, marriage is a different can of beans and couples are as miserable as they can stand each other to be. Interestingly, Michael Byrne and Sarah Casey have jumped to the difficulties without being married. And now with a marriage ceremony to be conducted by the priest who is nearby, perhaps they may have some joy.
As they argue about the ring which Michael makes for Sarah which doesn’t fit, Michael questions why they need to be married at all. Sarah replies that she is renown in the county as the Beauty of Ballinacree and could get a number of the men who have acknowledged her beauty to marry her if Michael refuses. She says this to spur Michael from his intractable reluctance. However, Michael is having none of her boasting and doesn’t in the least act jealous, but uses her self-puffery as an occasion for irony and humor. He likens other individuals’ comments about her to the names of the horses that race at Arklow and refers to her easily swallowing the words of “liars.” Their banter is humorous and we question why they should be married after the fact of their having been together, especially since Sarah threatens to leave him because of his funny but insulting retorts.
When the Priest (Sean Gormley) comes into their midst, Sarah bargains with him for the money he wants to marry them. We question the Priest’s “high and mighty” attitude and think that he is classist because he won’t perform the ceremony for free for tinkers who roam the country side, have no roots and persuing questionable activities in the dark of the moon. Later in the play it comes out why he is reluctant; he is aware of their thefts in the neighborhood, though they manage to get away with it. Nevertheless, he agrees to marry them for money and a “tin can” that Michael has been laboring over.
Enter Mary Byrne (the humorous Terry Donnelly), Michael’s mother. Tipsy, cradling a bottle of alcohol like a baby, she is a humorous caricature of one who obviously enjoys slaking her thirst daily. For hospitality and “friendship,” she offers a drink to the Priest to manipulate him to favor her son and daughter-in-law’s marriage request.
Afterwards, when Mary Byrne is alone, she sees an opportunity to steal from her son an item promised to the Priest which she then will sell for drink. The complications arise between the characters. Mary Byrne throws the couple’s wedding plans into the bog after they discover she double crosses them. They double cross the priest who vows not to get revenge. However, he has a better plan for their reckoning which they can never flee, though they scramble with their belongings far away from the praying cleric.
In the Shadow of the Glen, a Tramp (John Keating), knocks on Nora Burke’s (Jo Kinsella) door. Lonesome with her husband possibly just having died since he hasn’t moved or made a peep, Nora opens the door and invites him in from the storm. Hospitably, she offers the Tramp a drink and tells him the story of her husband who she fears is dead and who cursed her not to lay a hand on him if he died in his bed. Only his sister can prepare him for the funeral ceremony and burial, Nora tells the Tramp. Their conversation is laced with spooky mystery as the subjects range from the quick to the dead and Nora explains that her husband was a queer old man who went up to the hills where he was “thinking dark thoughts.”
When she asks the Tramp to see if her husband Dan Burke (Sean Gormley) is cold and dead, the Tramp protests that he doesn’t want to bring down the curse on his own head. They continue to discuss their tribulations and the death of one they both know until finally Nora tells him she must find the young farmer who would do chores for them and who the Tramp ran into on his way toward the Burkes. She will ask the farmer to stop by with her, check on her husband. If he is dead, the next morning he can tell the village that Dan Burke has passed. Most possibly, Burke’s sister who lives about ten miles away will then be notified. Nora asks the Tramp to stay with her husband’s dead body until she returns.
One anticipates what will happen next which is absolutely hysterical. The hijinx continue after Nora returns with the young Michael Dara (Ciaran Bowling), who is well off and appears to be interested in Nora’s inheritance from Dan Burke’s estate. With the body not yet “cold” nor burned in ashes, Dara makes plans for Nora to be his wife. However, she is not so easily persuaded. And as events transpire, the humorous explosions (I belly laughed so heard) heighten then resolve into an ironic ending.
Charlotte Moore strikes just the right tone, shepherding her cast into the humor inherent in Synge’s characterizations, as he satirizes these couples and the relationships that bind them that can’t quite be referred to as loving. In each instances we understand the importance of money, the fear of destitution and the solitude of the environs contributing to the dynamic and topsy turvy events.
The music and song that introduces each work sets the scene and establishes the tenor of Synge’s plays. Marie’s Wedding appropriately opens The Tinker’s Wedding sung by the entire cast and accompanied on guitar by Sean Gormley. As the character of Mary in The Tinker’s Wedding, Terry Donnelly sings with lyrical humor “The Night Before Larry Was Stretched,” a traditional Irish ballad, and two refrains, one from “A Lonesome Ditch in Ballygan,” and the other from “Whisper With One.” Between the Acts in The Tinker’s Wedding, Sean Gormley sings and performs his original song, “A Smile Upon My Face.” In the second play, In The Shadow of the Glen, Ciaran Bowling’s clear, bell-ringing voice beautifully interprets “Red is the Rose,” a traditional Gaelic ballad.
Moore has cleverly employed the space of the W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre to suggest the settings with whimsy and attention to details in the play. The economy of props and accessibility to them is thoughtful and acute as always, thanks to creatives Daniel Geggatt (set design), David Toser (costume design), Michael O’Connor (lighting design), Nathanael Brown (co-sound design) Kimberly S. O’Loughlin (co-sound design).
Two by Synge is a highly enjoyable and finely presented example of why Synge’s work lasts in its evocation of human nature and particular Irish themes conveyed with light hearted humor and grace. For tickets and times go to the Irish Repertory Theatre website: https://irishrep.org/?gclid=Cj0KCQjw6pOTBhCTARIsAHF23fLAjBdNTydq_KkznLEVR1YEogYRKeF4w1gWXnS8RFwGqLnyR5GBZTMaAmfpEALw_wcB
Mary Louise Parker, David Morse Renegotiate Their Roles in the always amazing ‘How I Learned to Drive’
Paula Vogel’s Pulitizer Prize winning How I Learned to Drive in revival at the Samuel Friedman Theater is a stunning reminder of how far we’ve come as a society and how much we’ve remained in the status quo when it comes to our social, psychological, sexual and emotional health, regarding straight male-female relationships. Pedophilia and incest by proxy are as common as history and not surprising in and of themselves. On the other hand how particular male and female victims lure each other into illicit sexual self-devastation is unique and horrifically fascinating.
This is especially so as leads Mary-Louise Parker, David Morse, and director Mark Brokaw put their incredible imprint on Vogel’s trenchant and timeless play. Interestingly, Parker and Morse are reprising their roles from the original off-Broadway production, with original director Mark Brokaw shepherding the Manhattan Theatre Club presentation. Parker (Li’l Bit) and Morse (Uncle Peck) are mesmerizing as they portray characters who manipulate, circle and symbolically search each other out for affection, love and connection. The relationship the actors beautifully, authentically establish between the characters is heartbreaking and doomed because it cannot come out from under the umbrella of the culture’s changing social mores, Peck’s psychological illness from the war, and Li’l Bit’s familial sexual psychoses.
How I Learned to Drive reveals what happens to two individuals (a teen girl and an adult male) who engage in the dance of psycho-sexual destruction while negotiating feelings of desire, love, attraction, fear and guilt under society’s and family’s repressive sexual folkways and double standards. What makes the play so intriguing is not only Vogel’s dynamic and empathetic characterizations, it is her unspooling of the story of the key sexual-emotional relationship between Li’l Bit and Peck.
Li’l Bit and Peck’s relationship is not easily defined or described as sexually abusive, though in a court of law, that is what it is, if an excellent prosecutor makes that case in a blue state. However, in a red state, it might be viewed differently. Consider 13 states in the US allow marriage under 18, and Tennessee has recent records of marriages of girls at 10 years-old with parental or judicial agreement.
Sexual abuse, if the players are amenable and influencing each other for reasons they themselves don’t understand, is a slippery slope depending upon the state’s political and social folkways, the familial mores and the perspectives of the players themselves. Ironically and eventually, a turning point comes IF the abuse is recognized and the relationship ends whether exposed to the light of public scrutiny or not as in the case of Lil’Bit and Peck.
In Vogel’s play, how and why Lil’Bit ends her forbidden relationship with Uncle Peck is astounding, if one looks to Vogel’s profound clues of Lil’Bit’s emotions which are an admixture of confusion, regret, love, affection, annoyance, fear and disgust of going legal/public and against family, her Aunt, whom she has “stolen” Peck from. Indeed, Lil’Bit is willing to forget what happened and stop their secret “drives” after she goes away to college. But when she is disturbed by Peck’s obsessive letters, and drinking to excess, she flunks out. She is haunted by the events (sexual grooming in 2022 parlance), that began when she was eleven, so she ends “them.” The last time she sees him is in a hotel room, though at 18-years-old she is of age and old enough for intercourse under the law. However, she must be willing.
Her ambivalence is reflected when she lies down with him on a bed, obviously feels something but gets up. Yes, she agrees to do that after she has two glasses of champagne. But when he asks her to marry him and go public with their affection with each other, it’s over. The irony is magnificent. When they were secret, she let it happen and told no one and continued her drives with him until college. The public exposure of a public marriage is loathsome for her as she would have to confront what has transpired between them for seven years.
As Vogel relates the process through Lil’Bit’s sometimes chaotic flashback/flashforward, unchronological remembrances, we understand the anatomy of Peck’s behavior and hers. The finality of this revelation occurs when she divulges the precipitating abusive event on Lil’Bit’s first driving lesson in Peck’s car. Driving becomes the sardonic, humorous metaphor by which Peck reels her in, linking her desires to his (part of the affectionate aspect of grooming). Her mother (the funny and wonderful Johanna Day), despite negative premonitions, allows her eleven-year-old to go with her uncle, though she “doesn’t like the way” he “looks” at her.
The dialogue is brilliant. Li’l Bit chides her mother for thinking all men are “evil,” for losing her husband and having no father to look out for her, something Uncle Peck can do, she claims. Li’l Bit uses guilt to manipulate her mother to let her go with him. Her mother states, “I will feel terrible if something happens” but is soothed by Li’l Bit who says she can “handle Uncle Peck.” The mother, instead of being firm, says, “…if anything happens, I hold you responsible.”
Thus, Li’l Bit is in the driver’s seat from then on, responsible for what happens in her relationship with Peck, given that warning by her mother. This, in itself is incredible but the family has contributed to this result in their own personal relationships with each other as Vogel reveals through flashbacks of scenes which have psycho-sexual components between Peck and Lil’Bit and Lil’Bit and family members. However, this is a play of Lil’Bit’s remembrance. We accept her as a reliable narrator, knowing that things may have been far different than what she tells us. As she is coming to grips with what happened to her as a child, we must admit, it could have been worse, or better, any of the representations less or more severe. Indeed, she is narrating this story of her teen years as a 35 or 40-year-old who is plagued by the tragedies of the past which include what happens to her Uncle which she may feel responsible for.
During the flashbacks which are prompted by themes of unhealthy sexual experiences (including male schoolmates’ obsession with her large breasts), Lil’Bit reveals prurient details about her family’s approach toward their own sexuality and hers. It is not only skewed, it is psychologically damaged. For example, Lil’Bit explains they are nicknamed crudely and humorously for their genitalia. Her grandfather represented by Male Greek Chorus (the superb Chris Myers), continually references her large breasts salaciously, one time to the point where she is so embarrassed she threatens to leave home. Of course, she is comforted by Uncle Peck who understands her and never insults or mocks her. However, in retrospect, he does this because it’s a part of their “close” driving relationship.
In another example her mother chides her grandmother for not telling her about the facts of life because she was most probably gently forced into sex, got pregnant, had a shotgun wedding and ended up in an unhappy, unsuitable marriage. From the women’s kitchen table of women-only sexual discussions, we learn that grandmother married very young and grandfather had to have sex for lunch and after dinner, almost daily. And with all that sex, grandma never had an orgasm.
When Lil’Bit asks does “it” hurt (note the reference isn’t to love or intimacy or even the more clinical intercourse), the grandmother portrayed by the Teenage Greek Chorus (Alyssa May Gold who looks to be around a teenager), humorously tells her, “It hurts. You bleed like a stuck pig,” and “You think you’re going to die, especially if you do ‘it’ before marriage.” The superb Alyssa May Gold is so humorously adamant, she frightens Lil’Bit so that even her mother’s comments about not being hurt if a man loves you are diminished. Indeed, reflecting on her mother’s unwanted pregnancy and her grandparents’ cruelty forcing her mother to marry a “good-for-nothing-man,” the discussions are so painful Li’l Bit can’t bear to remember their comments “after all these years.”
Thus, romance, love and affection and sweet intimacy are absent from most discussions about men who are neither sensitive, caring, loving or accommodating to her mother (an alcoholic with tips on drinks and how to avoid being raped on dates), and grandmother who never had an orgasm with her beast-like husband. Only her Aunt seems satisfied with Uncle Peck, who is a good, sensitive man, who is troubled and needs her, and who reveals that she sees through Li’l Bit’s slick manipulation of him. She knows when Li’l Bit leaves for college, her husband will return to her and things will be as before. An irony.
Vogel takes liberties in the arc of the flashbacks with intruding speeches by family. As all memories emerge surprisingly when they are disturbing ones, Li’l Bit’s are jumbled. The exception is of those memories which organically spring from the times Peck and Li’l Bit drive in his car as he teaches her various important points and helps her get her driver’s license on her first try. After, they celebrate and he takes her to a lovely restaurant and she gets drunk.
Again and again, Vogel reveals Peck doesn’t want to take advantage of her because he will not do anything she doesn’t want him to do, he proclaims. Thus, his attentions are normalized. And Lil’Bit shows affection yet, at times apprehension, ambivalence and acceptance. On their drives, Peck has become her quasi father figure, a confidant and supportive friend. Thus, she accepts his physical liberties with her (unstrapping her bra, etc).
Because the scenes are in a disordered cacophony, each must be threaded back to the initial event of Peck’s molestation which happens at the end of the play. SPOILER ALERT. STOP READING IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS.
The mystery is revealed why Li’l Bit continues her driving lessons until she goes to college, and even then ambivalently meets him in the hotel room where he proposes. When she is eleven (Gold stands off to the side reminding us of her age as Parker and Morse enact what happens), she touches Peck’s face as she sits on his lap. While driving, Peck touches Li’l Bit who cannot reach the breaks, but only holds her hands on the wheel so she doesn’t kill them both. Though she accepts what he does initially, then tells him to stop, he ignores her. Then she states, “This isn’t happening,” making the incident vanish, though it happens. And she tells us, “That was the last day I lived in my body.”
It is a shocking moment and is a revelation at the play’s near conclusion. Prior to that Morse is so exceptional we take Peck at his word, that he won’t do what she doesn’t want him to. In the last scene, we see he lies. Likewise, we realize the impact of his horrific behavior on Li’l Bit. When she is twenty-seven as an almost aside, in the middle of the play, she cavalierly tells us she had sex with an underaged high school student, then reflects upon her experiences with Peck. She realizes for Peck, as for herself, it is the allure of power, of being the mentor and teacher to someone younger, using sex to hook them like a fish.
By this point, we have learned that Uncle Peck became alcoholic, lost everything and died of a fall seven years after she never saw him again. At this juncture in her life, perhaps she is reconciling and working through all of those traumatic experiences growing up. And then Lil’Bit tells us of her love of driving as she gets into a car and Peck’s spirit gets into the back seat and races down the road with her as the others stand outside and watch. Indeed, taking Peck with her, the damage is everpresent. Though she will never die in a car, she has learned to destroy others with the driving techniques of allurement, denial and “gentle affection” Peck showed her.
The actors do admirable justice toward rendering Vogel’s work to be magnificent, complex and memorable. With her profound examination via Li’l Bit’s remembrances, we see Parker’s and Morse’s astonishing balancing act inhabiting these characters and making them completely believable and identifiable. The audience tension is palpable with expectation as we become the voyeurs of a slow seduction: we wonder if the cat who mesmerizes the bird will really pounce or the bird merely enthralls the cat, knowing its wings enables it to an even quicker escape, leaving the cat in devastation of its own faculties.
Rachel Hauck’s minimalist set is suggestive of memory without a conundrum of details, just the bare essentials to fill in the locations with the time stated by the chorus (Johanna Day, Alyssa May Gold, Chris Myers). The depth and sage layering of Vogel’s production envisioned by Brokaw disintegrates the superficiality and sensationalism of pundits on the left in #metoo and on the right with #QAnon pedophile conspirators. It echos the tragedy of the human condition and the revisiting of the sins upon each generation who dares to breathe life into the next set of progeny.
Kudos to the creative team Dede Ayite (costume design), Mark McCullough (lighting design), David van Tieghem (original music and sound design), Lucy MacKinnon (video design), Stephen Oremus (music direction & vocal arrangements). This is another must-see with this cast and director who have lived the play since before COVID. You will not see their likes again. For tickets and times go to https://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/shows/2021-22-season/how-i-learned-to-drive/
Birthday Candles by Noah Haidle, directed by Vivenne Benesch allows Debra Messing to shine as the aging Ernestine who moves from 17 to 107. As she traditionally bakes her birthday cake, over the years, first taught by her mom Alice (Susannah Flood), she gradually understands that she can only realize her dreams by being herself. And all along, getting married, raising a family, getting a divorce and finding the love of hr life, she has achieved her goal, taking her rightful place in the universe.
Haidle’s Birthday Candles, at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre, is poetic and complex with multiple themes. The most salient one focuses on Ernestine’s spiritual journey as the “every woman” sustaining emotional pain, trauma, loss, moving from weal to woe and finally reconciling a belated love with great joy in her 80s. As she moves quickly through time, she “looks through a glass darkly” without understanding, until she finally accepts the love and divinity in herself in her relationships with her family and partners. By her 107th year, she misses everyone and wishes them back as she has each time she gives the one passing (mother, daughter, son, grandchildren, etc.) up to the cosmos. Finally, her family spiritually appears and it would seem waits “in the wings” for her to accompany them on the next leg of her journey with them.
Haidle’s conceit about time and life’s passage in the “twinkling of an eye” (in the play 90 years in 90 minutes with some decades speeded up and others truncated) is most wonderful holistically as the characters live in the moments which they can’t fully appreciate. In this play the adage “life is short” is on steroids. Indeed, living one’s life while observing it alters it (a very rough comprehension of the Uncertainty Principle).
Thus, dramatically the play magnifies each character, present in their most vital of moments with Ernestine to heighten her life’s purpose in being herself, a mosaic of moments which come together at the conclusion. It is then that the audience and Ernestine reflect upon her life’s work and the revelation of Ernestine’s beauty is clarified. Of course, at that juncture when her work is finished, she moves to another realm in the starlit space/time continuum.
With the exception of Messing’s Ernestine, the actors portray multiple generationaly linked roles from mother Alice (Susannah Flood), to great grand daughter Ernie (Susannah Flood) with husband Matt (John Earl Jelks), son Billy (Christopher Livingston), daughter (Susannah Flood), grandchildren and forever sweetheart Kenneth (impeccably played by Enrico Colantoni). All these escort Ernestine through the years.
The dialogue and sounding of a bell for the passage of time clues us in to each generation as they come to celebrate Ernestine’s birthday while she bakes her plain butter cake over the 90 minutes of the play. Though birthday candles are never placed on top of the cake, nor is it iced, the title is enough. Indeed, Messing as Ernestine is both the icing and the candles, her soul and spirit, which are invisibly lit for eternity.
Importantly, every word of the dialogue is paramount and must be heard to appreciate Haidle’s depth of meaning, the poetry, the wisdom, the beauty and the sweet golden threads that bind from one generation to the next. In the performance that I saw (Wednesday evening), sometimes the dialogue was muffled and the words, not projected, slung together like a nondescript house salad without dressing. This was tragic because Haidle’s play is brilliant and achingly timeless and heartfelt. The humor is multi-layered and ripe. The conflicts which (if the actors don’t enunciate precisely) appear rather sparse. However, upon review, they are exceedingly well drawn and acute in each twinkle of time over the fast procession of years that transpose and spool Ernestine’s life.
Messing who is an accomplished TV (“Will & Grace”), film (The Mothman Prophecies) and stage actress (Outside Mullingar) is in her glory onstage throughout with “no rest,” (a meme in the play), a veritable tour de force. She is strongest and most poignant in the section of the play when Ernestine reaches a ripe seventy. She has negotiated life on her own terms, has become an entrepreneur, traveled to far flung places and is only taking care of herself. It is then when her granddaughter Alex (Crystal Finn) introduces the next surprising chapter in her spiritual evolution and she learns about reconciliations and renewals, and the fruition of faith and love.
Enrico Colantoni and Messing create the emotional grist for this section of the play which brings a sigh of relief to audience members and shouts from her children. They are truly stunning together and force us to look at those elements that Haidle insists upon in Birthday Candles, the spiritual, the ineffable, the timeless, the eternal. Their relationship which has been growing unseen for Ernestine, always felt to Kenneth, is breathtakingly conceived by the playwright, authentically manifested by Messing and Colantoni. It is the high-point, and Haidle has cleverly made us wait for it, so when it comes we are happily stunned and gratified.
Kudos to the cast when they projected (Colantoni and Messing had no problem) and the creatives: Christine Jones (set design), Toni-Leslie James (costume design), Jen Schriever (lighting design), John Gromada (sound design), Kate Hopgood (original music).
Birthday Candles is on limited engagement. See if before May 29th when it closes. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/get-tickets/2021-2022-season/birthday-candles/performances
Once again, twenty years later, Take Me Out, the revival for the love of baseball running at 2nd Stage, strikes a pacing home run with bravura performances by Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Mason Marzac), Jesse Williams (Darren Lemming), and Brandon J. Dirden (Davey Battle). Richard Greenberg’s dialogue in the minds, mouths and hearts of the cast never seems more acute, dazzling and dangerous in this “piping time” of Red State/Blue State, as he pumps up the themes of machismo, homophobia, religious bias, gender bias, racism, identity conflicts with color blindness, celebrity privilege, corporate hypocrisy and much more. The second act really takes off, soaring into flight after a perhaps too long-winded first act, whose speeches may have been slimmed a bit to make them even more trenchant and viable.
There is no theme that Greenberg doesn’t touch upon which is current and heartbreaking, except #metoo. That is refreshing because one’s personal rights vs. accountability to the public good are paramount to all spirits inhabiting various bodies whether male, female, transgender, or other. The importance of human rights, human decency and love are paramount because the incapacity of all the characters to embody these qualities remains one of the focal points.
Finally, one does hope that the success of the production will remind all lovers of baseball (the most American of games), that it is the only sport where an active major league player has not come out as gay. As a matter of personal choice and risk, of course, such a decision would be momentous as it becomes for the star of the Empires (think Yankees), Darren Lemming, superbly played by Jesse Williams.
Scott Ellis’ direction is spare and thematically charged. Importantly, “sound” (thanks to Bray Poor, responsible for sound design), heightens the excitement. The emphasis is on the crack of the ball on the bat and the cheering fans. The lighting (Kenneth Posner), is spare. Florescent thin blue lines, representing team colors, square off the space to suggest the players’ emotional confinement. The staging elements rightly place front and center the social dynamic, arc of development and relationships between and among the players.
Initially, team camaraderie is thrown into disarray by Darren Lemming, who drips gold from his pores and walks upright in perfection but admits to being gay. His proclamation sends ripples of “shock and awe” through his envious teammates who worshiped Lemming’s “divinity,” his steely cool demeanor and very, very fat salary,
We find his teammates response to be humorous. In order not to appear femme they restrict all their male “locker-room” behaviors because they don’t want to “entice” Darren into thinking they are his sexual “kin.” Only Kippy, his self-appointed buddy and narrator who tells part of the story (the fine Patrick J. Adams), chides him for not alerting anyone before his press announcement. Afterward, Kippy humorously teases his friend that the team lionizes who he is and would love to “be him” or “be with him,” on the down low, except that he is now very public. And that would make them very public. So they must keep their distance. Darren is annoyed at this new leprosy which he never experienced or thought he would experience because he is who he is, the team’s greatest.
Meanwhile, Darren’s announcement has forced all to confront where they stand with their own sexuality and sensitive male identity, which Kippy suggests reveals latent gay repression, and Darren suggests is the opposite. From the initial conflict, the Empires go through a roller-coaster of events and emotions that Darren didn’t foresee when he blithely walked between the raindrops and dropped the bomb on his team and Major League Baseball, assuming that because he could handle it, they should handle it.
When it comes to his devoutly traditional Christian friend Davey Battle (the always excellent Brandon J. Dirden), Darren has a blind spot. Instead of quietly discussing his sexual orientation with Davey, a misunderstanding ensues when Davey encourages him to be himself and be unafraid.
Where certain Christians are concerned, being gay is another feature of Christ’s love. Darren assumes that especially with his devout Christian friend, Christ’s love means acceptance. Greenberg holds back the mystery of Davey’s and Darren’s conversation about his being gay, revealing its importance at the end of Act II, when the stakes are at an explosive level. When we discover the identity of the individual who overhears their conversation is a witness to “the event,” we are surprised at the superb twist. Immediately, we understand the conversation happened. There is no way the “overhearing witness” would be lying. It is this conversation that becomes the linchpin of uncertainty, a tripwire to set off questions with no easy answers. There is no spoiler alert. You’ll just have to see this wonderful production to find out the importance of the witness to the conversation.
Greenberg covers all his bases with runners in this take down and resurrection of America’s “favorite past-time.” There is personal locker room talk where nude teammates “let it all hang out,” as they shower and face-off against each other, responding to Darren’s announcement and humanizing him because of it. Greenberg’s wit and shimmering edginess work best revealing his spry characterizations in the banter between Kippy and Darren, and in the growing friendship between Darren and his new financial advisor Mason Marzac, the superbly heartfelt and riotous Jesse Tyler Ferguson. As the consummate outsider who becomes a fan, the character of Mason has the most interesting perspective on baseball, the gay community and the events that happen in real time that result in an unresolved tragedy.
Marzac, meets with cool, collected Darren after the celebrity star outs himself. Ferguson’s Marzac is humorously over the moon about Darren’s courage, his performance and the game. Darren states coming out was not “brave,” unless one thinks something bad will happen, because “God is in baseball,” and Darren is in baseball. And “nothing bad happens to Darren.” This Icarus is flying high. He takes advantage, surreptitiously, smoothly crowing about his stature which outshines his teammates and especially the awe-struck dweeby, unathletic, unbuff Mason.
Of course, the conversation carries tremendous irony in hindsight, because like Icarus who gets burned and crashes to the earth, so does Darren. How Greenberg fashions this is surprising and ingenious. Interestingly, not only does Darren take the team with him emotionally and psychically, they are rewarded despite their corrupt Machivellian machinations to achieve a win. The irony is heavenly. It is Greenberg’s device, savvy and sardonic, which speaks to theme. Sometimes when you win, it’s not a win if your heart breaks and there are no friends or teammates you can share it with because of emotional separation and alienation. So for the team and especially Kippy and Darren, the win becomes a grave loss that no one can ever appreciate, except baseball idolator, Mason.
But I get ahead of myself praising Greenberg’s irony.
As they discuss Darren’s financial picture, Darren clues Mason in to the finer points of baseball appreciation, for example to keep “watching” the number coincidences. There’s “a lot of that,” Darren implies as Mason rattles off wondrously, “…the guy who hit sixty-one home runs, to tie the guy who hits sixty-one home runs, in nineteen sixty-one, on his father’s sixty-first birthday.” Mason is ignited by speaking to the amazing and surprisingly gay Darren. He waxes over the Americanisms of the game, as pure egalitarian democracy, where everyone has a chance when they get up to bat. But then he states that baseball is more mature than democracy. This comment coupled with the arc of development is an incredible irony considering the team takes in a crackerjack pitcher who is one of the more florid Red Necks to ever appear on stage in pitcher Shane Mungitt. Michael Oberholtzer’s Shane is breathtaking, a stellar, in-the-moment portrayal of a bigot you can actually feel sorry for.
Ferguson’s superbly rendered speech about baseball opens a window into Mason’s kind, perceptive and loving nature as he effusively and humorously describes the requisite home run as a unique moment: the game stops and there is a five minute celebration of cheering time for the fans and the hitter, who rounds the bases like a king, though the ball has long spiraled out of the stadium into the universe. From watching the completely unnecessary round of the bases, Mason says, “I like to believe that something about being human is good. And what’s best about ourselves is manifested about our desire to show respect for one another. For what we can be.”
This is the crux of the play because after this eloquent and high-minded speech, everything falls apart. The winning streak of the Empires, the team relationships, the friendships between Davey and Darren, and between Darren and Kippy implode. And sadly, the once silent, “mind my own business” Shane unravels into a hellish state, careening into the other players with a vengeance that he may not be responsible for, given his upbringing. Thus, not even a winning season saves them from the inner reckoning they have brought upon themselves. If this is America’s favorite past time, it would be better to go back to reading.
Greenberg’s gives his play’s coda to Mason, who has “evolved” into a baseball idolator. As such he is brimful of hope, yet ironically perceptive. A tragedy has occurred. However, for him the greater tragedy is that he has to wait a whole half year for the season to begin again. Baseball is that tiny thing that takes one out of the misery of life and makes it worth living, even with its tragedies. In Take Me Out, that is true for the fans. For the players, what occurs is an entirely different and terrible consequence.
Kudos to the creative team which includes Linda Cho (costume design), David Rockwell (scenic design), and others already mentioned. Scott Ellis and the cast have delivered a profoundly humorous and vital, timeless work about a game played throughout our country, revealing that no one, regardless of how we lionize sports figures, is worthy of the greatness of the game itself.
For tickets and times go to the website: https://2st.com/shows/take-me-out?gclid=Cj0KCQjwjN-SBhCkARIsACsrBz798inP5l5pUV7hZGFHOj0rWRI1spG27oalp8HyLfnArPnBlPauavsaAkcwEALw_wcB
The Tale of King Crab (De Granchio) is a cinematically rich and gorgeously landscaped parable of forbidden love, identity, classism, soul freedom, and the power of storytelling to communicate wisdom and human fealty that rhetoric cannot. Written and directed by Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis, De Granchio made its World Premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival-Directors’ Fortnight and was an official selection at the 2021 New York Film Festival. The film went on to win 7 awards out of its thirteen nominations. Stunning and memorable for Simone D’Arcangelo’s cinematography and Vittorio Giampietro’s haunting, striking music, the layered story by de Righi, Zoppis, Tomasso Bertani and Carlo Lavagna moves through conflict and reprisal to suspenseful, eerie adventure before it settles on its mystical takeaway.
The film begins with the image of a bearded man who appears backlit in the shallow edge of a lake, picking up a thin golden hued ornament lying underwater on pebbles. From the shimmering lake image filmmakers transfer to the present evening where Bruno awaits his paesani who are elderly hunters in modern day Tusci, Italy. The established community of friends gather to eat pasta, sing, drink wine and reflect upon generational stories some have heard and others have not, as they enjoy each other’s company and fill in gaps of information for elucidation and edification.
The storytelling and communal singing is a throwback to ancient times when hunter-gathers and indigenous people sat around the campfire and shared lessons which entertained, yet brought a chill of recognition that would heal and uplift in cathartic moments of revelation. Likewise, in their film the directors pay homage to the process of storytelling with their extraordinary images and beautiful shot compositions. The arc of development is surprising because their spare evocative minimalism keeps the viewer enthralled, worried and engaged.
As the filmmakers flit from present to past, they unravel the legend merging the generational aspect of the tale as the elders in the present portray characters from over a hundred years ago. For example Bruno, who is the chief story-teller, singer (Tosca) and local Inn Keeper of Luciano’s village transposes from the present to the past and back to the present when the story takes an incredible voyage to a strange land of monstrous beauty.
As all great stories combine the fascination of the listeners as they build on the fascination of listeners past, the listeners intrude in the beauty of this legend of Luciano (Gabriele Silli) whose name in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese means light. Indeed, this Luciano is a bearer of light. He manifests this treasure because he has experienced great pain. As we watch his journey from weal to woe, we note his perception and growth as a man who has gained the wisdom to receive the timelessness of spiritual love.
The film progresses after the hunters eat. Bruno sings a refrain of the legend of Luciano, a doctor’s son in the town of Vejano, Italy around the turn of the century, near the place where they now hunt. Bruno sings the second refrain which in two lines summarizes the first chapter of events. Filmmakers use the haunting melody of Bruno’s song carried by a lone flute transporting us into the flashback of the past in the remote town in Tuscany, where the tall, massively dark bearded Luciano drinks from a bottle and meanders along the road, whistling the same melody that Bruno sang, as we seamlessly move from present to past. In Bruno’s voice over we note that the townsfolk have labeled Luciano many things, crazy, a drunk, a saint, an aristocrat, and as the film progresses, he is the full measure of all these characteristics and more.
Luciano lives a life of leisure it would seem, as a doctor’s son with possibly aristocratic patronage in a town of the very poor and a prince who lives in a castle. The “prince” is a vestige of feudal times which have just ended with Italy’s unification twenty years before. Immediately, the story moves to Luciano’s classist conflict with the prince who has blockaded a shortcut path through his property to the other side of the village. It is a path which has been accessible for generations. Seeing the gate has been locked and one of the shepherds has been inconvenienced, Luciano breaks open the gate and the shepherd takes his sheep through, even though he warns Luciano the prince will press charges for the damage.
We understand why Luciano accompanies the shepherd. He has a daughter Emma (Maria Alexandra Lungu) that Luciano has known for years and with whom he has formed a love attachment. They meet and talk to each other and Luciano gives her the thin ornament he retrieved from the lake that he tells Emma is Etruscan gold that has great significance. It is then she tells him of a dream she had about him and a desire for her destiny. How her dream comes true by the conclusion of the film is rapturous, if you understand the profound significance.
During the course of the next scenes, we learn that the prince has strengthened the locked gate and has hired two uneducated, crass thugs to confront Luciano in the Inn where he goes to drink, though his father warned him not to. When they tell him not to break the gate again, Luciano’s toast reveals his character and the nature of the town’s burden of class inequity between rich and poor. Luciano drinks to the prince, to their rights and to the Republic. When one of the thugs asks what he means, Luciano says, “Who do you think you are? You’re just pawns!” When the brute goes to respond with a smack, Luciano shows no fear and dares him, receiving a blow which knocks him out.
It is clear Luciano is ahead of his time and could be a leader against the prince’s oppressive, arrogant attempts to hold on to power signified by the ungracious act of locking a right of way his family allowed for generations. However, Luciano’s alcoholism provokes others and causes trouble for his father who takes him home, chides him then comforts him. Luciano humbly apologizes, tells his father he loves him and demeans the greatness of his character by claiming he’s just a “drunk.”
During their talk Luciano reveals he’s in love with Emma. His father gives him a piece of advice, that Severino, despite Luciano’s heritage, will not allow him to marry her. He doesn’t approve of Luciano. Knowing his daughter is fond of Luciano, Severino provokes Luciano with the thought that the Prince is interested in her when she goes to the Prince’s castle to prepare for the procession.
Indeed, Severino has given permission for his daughter to be dressed in feudal clothing as La Donna in the Saint Orsio procession. When Luciano confidently confronts her in the presence of the wealthy at the castle while they decide what she should wear, she admits she doesn’t fit in. One of the prince’s friends arrogantly states that Luciano is “a ghost,” as he speaks to Emma. This nobleman refuses to acknowledge that Luciano takes a rebellious stand in attempting to prove that the prince and the wealthy caste are like everyone else in Italy, even if they have money, since it has become a Republic.
Meanwhile, Severino elicits the help of the thugs to go after Luciano who is now the enemy of Severino and the Prince. Luciano, fueled by the wine from the communion table (symbolic), shows he will not be ruled by the prince in a symbolic act which ends in a catastrophe and horrific incident. Ambiguously, the filmmakers infer that Emma may or may not have been attacked and raped as the thugs take her to the prince, a situation that is unbeknownst to Luciano.
Filmmakers switch to the present and the hunters discuss that the catastrophe forces Luciano to flee the town and go to Argentina where he lives in exile. And they warn that from that point on, the story becomes unreliable. Filmmakers take us from the comfort of the apparently truthful paesano in Italy and launch out across the ocean where the story transports us into the realms of the mythic.
The next time we see Luciano and hear him in a voice over, he is wearing the cassock of a Salesian priest and on a treasure hunting adventure in “The Asshole of the Earth,” an island in the remote and visually fearsome and beautifully barren Tierra del Fuego. Here the music and cinematography meld in a pageantry of images, sounds and silences that create suspense and drama. Luciano must protect himself from vicious pirates who have nothing to lose in their search for gold as they accompany him in the hunt.
Luciano is the map to the gold with the help of a creature who is the most unlikely traveler up mountains and through rocky terrain, spongy tundra and wind-blasted trees. Together, the men look for the lost gold of the shipwrecked Jacinta owned by the Spanish monarchy. The Jacinta’s captain and crew died because they underestimated that death lurked everywhere on the island where they landed.
As the legend creates a life of its own, the hunters in the present fade away. Luciano becomes the hero living his legend before us. Resilient, experienced in fighting off those out to destroy him, Luciano proves to be far from the ghostly figure the arrogant lord described him to be years before. He has matured and stopped drinking. Valiant and on a mission to return home with gold, he delivers the drama, excitement and amazing revelation in this final chapter of his story. And as a legendary hero, he himself learns the significance of the gold ornament that he picked up in the lake in Tusci where we glimpsed him in the first image of the film.
This setting in the second segment of the film, like the tone and mood is stark, desolate and hardscrabble, as the first chapter is romantic, luscious and tragic. Filmmakers add even greater depth to the characterization of Luciano showing he has become more poetic, insightful and ironic in his search for the gold which becomes synonymous with home. Also, the filmmakers continue paying homage to the process of storytelling to uplift and educate in this segment as well. It is through the indigenous peoples’ stories someone wrote down that Luciano learns of the golden treasure on the island and how to find it.
In learning about the gold, Luciano, humorously states words to the effect, “I saw an opportunity. After all, this is America.” We are reminded of the stories that brought the explorers to the new world, and the emigrants who are brought to the Americas because of the streets metaphorically are paved with gold. However, for Luciano, the gold signifies something intangible. Interestingly, the symbolism and multiple meanings of this are revealed at the film’s conclusion. Most importantly, as a result of Luciano’s incredible journey to the other side of the world, he is brought to the greatest depths of his own spiritual growth and golden nature. Of course his greatness was within him all along, he just had to realize it.
The film is just dynamite in its multi-dimensional themes, (one of which is immigrants forever wish to return to home), homage to storytellers who keep legends alive, cinematic beauty, superb music, sound design, pacing and all of what I’ve mentioned above. Filmmakers were anointed ushering in the fabulous inwardly deep performance by Gabriele Silli whose piercing blue eyes seem to have traveled to deeper realms than we can ever understand. As his accompaniment the sweetness and peasant nobility of Maria Alexandra Lungu is graceful and worthy of the object of his forever love.
This is one to see. It opens in New York City on April 15 at Film at Lincoln Center. For tickets and times go to their calendar. https://www.filmlinc.org/calendar/ In Los Angeles The Tale of King Crab opens April 29th.
If you are in NYC why not get a membership to Film at Lincoln Center. With it you’ll be able to get a heads up on some of the finest films in the world as well as Academy Award Winners often predicted at the New York Film Festival.
Starting Over is Bittersweet
Peace by Chocolate, is the uplifting and poignant film telling the story of a family of Syrian refugees who make a completely new life for themselves in Canada. The award winning film written by Jonathan Keijser and Abdul Malik, and directed by Jonathan Keijser chronicles the journey of the Hadhad family through chaos and darkness into warmth, love and light. The film reveals that an open heart which loves others and helps, creates a sustaining fountain of giving that saves lives and encourages kindness, decency and community despite great differences in religion, language and culture.
Like many successful and loving families who are caught up as casualties of war, the Hadhad’s flee the bombing of Damascus in war-torn Syria where they have lost everything, but their lives. They lived in the once beautiful Damascus on the Mediterranean, the last stronghold of the rebel and jihadist groups that have been trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad since 2011. Al-Assad assisted by Putin’s general, the “Butcher of Syria” and other groups, left at least 350,000 people dead, and caused half the population to flee their homes, including almost six million refugees abroad as of October 2021.
The Hadhads who fled when Papa Isam’s factory was bombed and there was a window of escape, ended up in a refugee camp in Lebanon for three years. Upset with their homeless state and their plight there, they gain sponsorship to emigrate to Canada rather than to stay and wait for the war to end then return to their home. Theirs was a practical decision considering the Syrian Civil War is still going on today. However, the decision to leave their culture, identity, language and future in the land where their ancestors lived for centuries is a momentous one.
The result is fraught with sorrow and hardship, however, the film concentrates on the point that the Hadhads are flexible and never look back as painful as that is. The most important factor on their agenda is that they all be together. Thus, with a brief reference to the backstory, the film centers on Tareq (Ayham Abou Ammar) the oldest son who speaks English and is the first to arrive and make the way for the rest of the family. Tareq is disappointed about many things. Foremost is that he was almost done with his studies to be a doctor when the war dislocated his future. Will he be be able to continue his studies in Canada?
As Tareq’s sponsors drive him to his new home, Keijser emphasizes the humor in the tremendous culture and setting shifts Tareq experiences going from the warm Mediterranean to the freezing snow and wind driven Atlantic North. Unhappy and disappointed, he registers the unappealing facts about small town Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada. Nothing seems to be happening; there is little business, and there are no Syrians or Arabs. The Hadhads had preferred to stay with friends in Toronto, Ontario which would provide many employment opportunities and which had a large Syrian population. However, that opportunity is closed off to them. They have ended in the backside of nowhere. Is this their destiny?
Tareq does make one Arab friend and his sponsor Frank (Mark Camacho) is absolutely welcoming and kind. When his parents Isam (Hatem Ali) and Shahnaz (Yara Sabri) finally arrive, his father finds it difficult to settle in. He is displaced and bored. Though they receive public assistance, Isam refuses to take it and tries to ingratiate himself with the town’s candy maker, Kelly (Alika Autran) who is frightened when he comes behind the counter to check out her chocolate making operation.
At this point we don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Clearly, Isam was, as Tareq tells Kelly, the finest chocolatier in all of Syria and he is impatient to reveal his secrets to her and increase her business. However, he cannot convey to Kelly what he wishes for her to do to improve the taste of her chocolate and she freaks out. Just in time, Tareq comes into the store and saves his father and apologizes to her. But it is the first of a number of road blocks that the Hadhads must break through in order to begin to feel they can offer their gifts to the Canadians.
Above all, it is very depressing because their language, culture, intentions and differences appear to be an impossible leap for any of them to make to the other side to immerse themselves in a society that is vastly disparate from theirs. The only thing they have in common is that they are human beings.
On top of this Tareq finds the education that he had in Syria to become a doctor differs from Canadian requirements. He doesn’t have the right paperwork. All was lost to him, so he brings one sheet of paper to show examiners which isn’t hardly enough. As if that doesn’t push all of them near the edge, Alaa (Najla Al Kamri) has been detained and her passage to Canada has been denied. The only thing that keeps them going is their love for each other and Frank’s love and great encouragement. Frank has become a friend and his church does everything it can to help the family feel welcome.
As a last resort against boredom and the need to give back to the country that saved their lives, Isam goes to Kelly’s chocolate shop and buys chocolates with the money allotment that the government gives the family, which will run out in a year. He gathers the things together and makes delicious chocolates in the family’s small kitchen. Frank and Isam bring these to the church and they are a sellout. Because the chocolates are incredibly delicious and there’s a high demand, Frank and Isam collaborate and Isam expands.
However, Kelly is resentful especially after she invites Isam to make chocolate in her shop. He declines her offer because her ingredients and method are inferior. He knows if he doesn’t persist in what he can do best, it will be a curse. Isam always relies on God to show him the way and create the best way for him. He cannot leave his first estate. However, he can transfer his gifts to another country. That is a blessing. Of course, Kelly doesn’t understand and later this creates problems.
Meanwhile, Tareq is between a rock and a hard place wanting to become a doctor and helping his father grow the business which is his family’s treasure and legacy. The wedge becomes such a canyon of distrust between father and son, it creates terrible tensions which nearly cost all of them. This is especially so when they learn that Alaa’s husband has been killed in the war and she has yet to receive the proper visa to join her family in Canada.
How the Hadhads overleap the impossible and become known to Justin Trudeau is a miraculous story that has blessed everyone who hears it. Likewise, a blessing arrives to everyone who eats a piece of Isam’s chocolate. Why? It is named for the message the family brings to their new homeland, “Peace by Chocolate.”
This is a beautiful film rendered with care. Concerned for the social good, the superb director and wonderful actors. clue us in to what is important in life: family, kindness, decency and hospitality. It shouldn’t be missed especially now that another refugee crises is at our doorsteps and talented, loving individuals are needing to start a new life since their other life has been destroyed. Can we not open the doors to them knowing what they give to us will be a hundredfold of what we give to them?
Peace by Chocolate will be released in select theaters starting April 29th and On Demand thereafter on June 10th.