What happens when Jewish orthodoxy and strict mores find intermarriage with someone of another faith verboten? Depending upon the orthodoxy of the Jewish community, this may be a serious issue. Cleverly, Cary Gitter, under the superb direction of Joe Brancato, keeps the difficult elements of love between a single Catholic woman and divorced, Orthodox Jewish man at bay in the lively, well-paced, delightful The Sabbath Girl currently at 59E59 Theaters. The production presented in its New York City premiere by Penguin Rep Theatre runs a slim 85 minutes with no intermission.
The romantic comedy’s tone and tenor skirts the dramatic in the opening scene when Nonna (portrayed exquisitely by Angelina Fiordellisi) visits with her beloved granddaughter Angie (the adorable Lauren Annunziata). Nonna checks on Angie to see how she is adjusting to her new apartment. In the process as is her custom, she chides Angie about not being in a love relationship. Angie assures Nonna she is a “modern woman,” perhaps a bit of a feminist. And she insists she doesn’t need a man to make her happy. She has her budding career, which encompasses her waking moments and keeps her busy. We note that Angie is ambitious, industrious and smart, especially since she intends to translate her success into even greater achievements.
Thus begins the theme of traditionalism vs. modernism framed by familial relationships. Gitter expands the themes around this conflict during the course of the play. With humor and irony, she drives the arc of the plot neatly and swiftly to a satisfying resolution.
An additional conflict in Angie’s life centers around the men she encounters as potential love interests. Throughout the play, when her Nonna visits to examine how her “love life” is going, Angie sweetly dismisses Nonna’s “traditionalist” suggestions about falling in love with the “right person” and hearing the “music of love” in her soul. Angie’s feminist bent is to negotiate and affirm her own definitions of what affection, love and marriage might be for her life. Gitter’s characterization of Angie also includes that she is rebounding from a failed relationship where her former boyfriend lied and cheated on her. In other words if she will become involved with someone, he will have to convince her he is unlike the cad she was with.
The first man she encounters is Seth (Jeremy Rishe) an Orthodox Jewish gentleman who discovers his former Shabbos goy has moved and Angie is now his neighbor. A Shabbos goy is a Yiddish term for a non Jew who is asked by Jews to perform actions that are forbidden to them on Saturday, the Sabbath, i.e. turning on lights, electrical devices, etc.. Seth explains to Angie that his other neighbor was his regular Shabbos goy. Since Angie is his new neighbor, he asks her to turn on his air conditioning. They share a few insights and he leaves. However, Seth, who, too, is recovering from a bad relationship can’t get Angie out of his mind.
For her part Angie is uninterested in Seth because there is someone else on her horizon with whom she has art in common. This man is the awesome and cool Blake (Ty Molbak) an artist that Angie wishes to exhibit in her gallery, but who is holding out for the best offers from galleries in the city. Blake wears dark glasses to fuel his image. He manipulates Angie and claims that she will have to “woo” him before he exhibits in the gallery.
Nonna, like a fairy godmother who is gentle, funny and sweet, guides Angie and encourages her against Blake and toward Seth. Of course our own weaknesses sometimes lead us to be enamored of individuals who will hurt us, and reject others for whom we are well- suited. Angie is initially attracted to Blake and assesses that Seth is not her type and his religion is a barrier which she is not interested in climbing over.
How the playwright turns these developments on their head becomes the focal point in the action, with complications added by Rachel (Lauren Singerman) Seth’s sister after Angie begins to return Seth’s interest in her. Rachel is another aspect and voice of traditionalism. But unlike Nonna, hers is predicated not on love, but on fear. On the one hand, she wants her brother to move on with life after his divorce and dismiss the recriminations he feels against his parents who forced a marriage on him that he lacked the courage to prevent. Yet, traditionally, she believes Seth should be with a nice, safe, Orthodox Jewish girl, and she has the right woman for him. Furthermore, Rachel’s interference in her brother’s life is rather witchy. She discourages his interest in Angie and encourages him to return to his community in Riverdale that he moved away from prompted by the negativity and depression of his divorce.
Another complication is Blake’s facade of unreality. It masks his troubled nature and his doubts about where he is going with his art. Ultimately, when he is unmasked, his artistic ambivalence and his relationship with another woman deep six his moving forward with Angie as a love interest and as an exhibiting artist. It appears that despite Nonna’s good will, cheerfulness and her advice to Angie about hearing the music of love, her granddaughter is going to be alone. Indeed, both Seth and Blake turn away from her.
This is no spoiler alert. You will just have to see this endearing romantic comedy to discover how Gitter resolves the conflicts and discovers answers for those who are bound by traditions whether self-imposed or externally imposed by cultural mores that perhaps are less stringent than one might imagine. One has only to test the boundaries of love to understand whether such external mores enhance living as they are supposed to, or nullify it which runs counter to love. Also, one must reject the traditionalism of believing if love failed once, it will fail again because one is incapable of finding it. Sometimes, love arrives in the most surprising ways.
The ensemble brings home the laughter seamlessly and the jokes centered about being Jewish and Jewish men are particularly hysterical. For the staging (set design by Christopher and Justin Swader) boxes are employed to suggest Angie’s apartment, Seth and Rachel’s Knish shop, the gallery and more. The presentation is supplemented by apt video projections and music between various scene changes in an interesting, fanciful way. The props that serve to key in changes in the development of Angie’s relationship with Seth and Blake are well appointed and symbolic.
Gitter’s themes about love transcending internal and external traditions are important reminders in this social time of divides: progressive vs. reactionary. By the end of the play, Angie learns that Nonna was more progressive than Angie thought she was because of Angie’s inflexibility about relaxing her perceptions of men. Likewise, Rachel is taught a lesson by her brother and learns to relax her own inflexibility as Seth begins to hope his life will turn away from despair.
Kudos to the creative team who brought Brancato’s vision of Gitter’s humorous play to the stage: Christopher & Justin Swader (scenic designers) Gregory Gale (costume designer) Todd O. Wren (lighting designer) Matt Otto (original music/sound designer) Yana Birÿkova (projection designer) Buffy Cardoza (properties).
The Sabbath Girl is just what is needed to brighten our hearts and spirits during the doldrums of February. You may see The Sabbath Girl at 59E59 Theaters (59E59th St. between Madison and Park) before it closes on 8th March. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
How does one survive in New York City without being subsidized by one’s parents while making a modest income to pay the rent on a 300 square foot studio that is half of one’s income? One has housemates. That way one can afford a larger space at a reduced cost and actually be able to enjoy a finer lifestyle. There are problems, though. As the human numbers augument to share the space, conflicts arise as each must accommodate and subvert their own idiosyncrasies and proclivities to compromise with their housemates, especially when sharing the common areas (kitchen, bathroom, etc.). In the mix and melding of personalities who live together, what can result may be funny, dramatic or challenging, but it is never dull. And for some it sure beats living ALONE!
Lily Akerman’s World Premiere comedy The Commons, presented by The Hearth and directed by Emma Miller, explores what happens when particular housemates attempt to survive in an environment of diminishing resources and increasingly complex habitats with limited space. In the play we note how the living situation becomes pressurized and the individuals become stressed by the mundane ordinary. Miniscule issues balloon to paramount proportion when housemates attempt to share responsibilities though there is no one in the lead and all must decide by gaining consensus. Housemates must “take up the slack” for each other, set rules, then hold each other accountable when there are violations. Something as simple as doing the dishes or making bread takes on significant heft and can cause hurt feelings and oppressed wills, unless individuals have the maturity and equanimity to reach viable agreements.
Akerman examines four characters Robyn (Ben Newman) Janira (Olivia Khoshatefeh) Dee (Julia Greer) and Cliff (Ben Katz) and sets them interacting with and against each other as they confront homely situations like cleaning, dish washing, making bread and struggling against a mouse invasion. Akerman adds a fifth character, Anna (Olivia Abiassi) who is a romantic interest for Cliff. Anna’s brief visit convolutes the mix of personalities who already strain to get along. None of the housemates are friends, so it becomes an unusual occasion when they decide to go out to a bar together and in another segment let loose and dance their stress away.
The vitality and comedy of the production resides in the fine acting of the ensemble who make the most seemingly ridiculous superficialities (a dirty stovetop burner) of mega importance with authenticity, as if the issue was a matter of “life and death.” The humor of dealing with a mouse that had to be killed and the tragedy of the creature losing its life as memorialized by Janira (Koshatefeh does a wonderful job with this comedic bit) is marvelous.
As we chortle at the characters having to deal with their particular angst at the problem of living with others, we can’t help but note that their embroilios are telling. The common areas are the centers which carry the stress when a particular housemate like Cliff or Janira don’t act with accountability to the “whole.” As housemates attempt to resolve the issues the comedy rises and we identify with how humans act and react with guilt, excuses, judgment, subterfuge and inner upset as they attempt to manipulate the situation to their own satisfaction. Also, the philosophical approaches of each of the housemates become superimposed on the living situation for each. This is especially ironic as Robyn expresses his opinion that living with housemates communally is healthier than couples living and raising their family in isolation.
Aikerman’s play however, is about much more than the characters attempting to work out their living arrangements with compromises, meetings and rules enforcements. It is a metaphor for how we adjust to others “living on top of us” as sources and space diminish and we must decide whether we should open our borders or close them, accept refugees to forestall the humanitarian crisis or let them perish or ignore those who have been victimized by their own birth in third world countries. The Commons in microcosm is representative of the macrocosm. Behind the comedy bits and vignettes involving each of the characters in the hot seat, is the presentation of larger themes that Akerman highlights for all of us, whether we live in crowded cities with sparse affordable housing or less densely populated rural areas that hold few opportunities.
Some of these questions follow on a symbolic level: In the looming portent of climate change relocation, how will populations accommodate each other as refugees move from areas of devastation? How will dwindling resources prompted by global warming and weather weirding impact societies, turning the haves against the have nots who knock at their doors for help? Will cultures readily share or will there be genocide of ethnic groups? Do ethics and morality abide if leaders ignore human standards of right and wrong and replace them with money and power as the enforcement of decision making? Will everyone benefit if cultures shift to a “might is right” ethos or is that one more way of introducing self-destruction into the parameters of global reorganization necessitated by climate chaos which is already manifesting?
The Commons at its funniest reveals the base responses and reactions of housemates accused of their mistakes which are funny because they are exaggerated. But what becomes obvious is the dynamic of accountability. The housemates are accountable and responsible to each other. Selfishness no longer cuts it when one’s dishes are always left clogging up the sink and one is gobbling down another’s food because he or she forgot to go shopping. The results are humorous. But the underbelly of this is dark. In order to survive and thrive, we must live with each other and be responsible for our own actions as we contribute to the goodness of everyone else. Only by doing that do we all make our lives purposeful and valuable.
To fully appreciate Akerman’s larger themes, one must lift The Commons above the characters’ petty details to note the moral treatises underneath. Like the housemates who adjust to each other and hold each other accountable for their actions and “pull together,” so must we as nations globally do our part as contributors to each others’ greater good. Shirking our responsibility through science denial, moral and ethical turpitude, and negligence will only come back to haunt us in the end.
Kudos to the creative design team with scenic design by Emma Finckel, costume design by Dara Affholter, lighting design by Victoria Bain and sound design by Caroline Eng. The Commons runs with no intermission at 59E59 Theaters until 23rd February. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Why would anyone want to reenact the most bloody battles of American History? In the World Premiere of How to Load a Musket, currently at 59E59 Theaters until 26 January (unless it is extended which it should be) playwright Talene Monahon examines the nature and viewpoints of American citizens who devote time, energy, money and passion to acting out various historical wartime confrontations that founded and preserved our United States of America.
The play that Monahon configured relates perspectives based upon her interviews with reenactors in Massachusetts, New York and Virginia. With exceptional actors portraying the individuals she interviewed, director Jaki Bradley brilliantly stages a production that is vibrant, humorous, at times chilling and always memorable.
Monahan interviewed individuals addicted to portraying historic events principally those occurring during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. What she discovered turned out to be fascinating portraits of a unique group of impassioned citizens who “got the bug” to participate in reenactments, some for the past thirty years. In her interviews, she gleaned their demographics, their interest in American history and their views about our country, formed during and after their extensive research and their activities with others to conduct reenactments for an audience of history and battle lovers.
The production entertains us with these quirky, odd individuals, who put on battle dress and show us how to load and shoot a musket. In initial sequences related to the Revolutionary War, individuals familiarize us with this clannish hobby and identify the levels of those who engage in the fun of it. There are those who went out and did extensive research and are incredibly serious about “getting back into the past,” to the point of attempting to relive it with accuracy. These folks eat hardtack, sew their own outfits and starve themselves as happened because Congress didn’t allot enough provisions for our soldiers during the Revolutionary War. And then there are the “Farbies.” These folks are not authentic or historically accurate. So as Larry says, “For some of us, as we get older, we want a little more comforts of home; so when my ten flap is closed at night, it’s not 1776. It’s 2015.”
We learn about the typical positions of reenactors, from those who play fifes, to those who portray George and Martha Washington, British soldiers and even King George. The sheer fun of it is escapism, to remove oneself from the stresses of modernity and imagine a time when the air and water were cleaner. Of course, that is the male perspective. One of the women reenactors, the fifes-woman (Lucy Taylor) reminds us that women died in childbirth, oftentimes, and there were horrific childhood diseases that killed, “back in the day”. The beauty of reenactments is that one can imagine oneself living in a desired time and place as another individual for a few hours, and yet return to the comforts of one’s modern life.
From these interviewed the playwright teases out reactions fomented from the political climate, and the increasing social and cultural divide, after the 2016 election shifted participants’ attitudes and feelings. Their notions reflect the deepening discourse about the nation’s founders as slaveholders, the increasing acts of white supremacy under this presidency, and the confluence of racism and symbols of the confederacy, i.e. the flag, once thought harmless, now viewed by many as egregious remnants of our nation’s inglorious and inhuman past. Naturally, there are those who find these sentiments appalling, as if to nullify a history that is painful but moving in the progressive direction of “freedom for all.” Without the Civil War, no slaves would have been freed until many years later. The price paid, of course, is incalculable.
During the production which spans the years from Fall of 2015 through July 2017, and up to 2019, those interviewed discuss the present divisions in the country that reveal their roots in the Civil War, including the events in Charlottesville and the white supremacist marchers opposed to the “tearing down” of Robert E. Lee’s statue. Interestingly, for the first time ever after another reenactment, there is a bomb incident. This threatened violence for what once was a fun, staged event and hobby, indicates that spirits are darkening in the country. Those who are interviewed, note these changes with alarm.
Cleverly, Monahon uses issues to raise questions and reveal themes. Some of these concern our ideas about the formation of our nation to gain freedom. Others reveal divergent perspectives of citizens from the South and North. Interestingly, the interviewed (who are “characters”) point out, after a Revolutionary War enactment, the idea that America is an experiment which may or may not last. Throughout, issues related to slavery and its attendant racism are brought up stirring questions about what this means for us today. The actors portraying real people are reflected through the prism of changing trends based upon our social climate. Vitally, the playwright reveals the cultural shift in how these individuals view what the reenactments mean to them during the past five years.
Eight actors portray the individual reenactors, switching into various parts. These are a cross-section: old, young, male, female, black, Hispanic, mother-son, father-son, educated, working class. The dialogue is lightly edited from the interviews. Essentially, the playwright quotes individuals verbatim. Thus, the accents, the humor, the chilling commentary ring with authenticity to reveal what folks in our country believe and think. Importantly, without the exceptional and adroit acting by the ensemble (Carolyn Braver, Adam Chanler-Berat, David J. Cork, Ryan Spahn, Andy Taylor, Lucy Taylor, Richard Topol and Nicole Villamil) who bring this production to its sweet spot, none of the import and power of the themes would resound as fully or shine as vitally, especially the theme about the encroaching violence in our culture.
The production from its scenic design (Lawrence E. Moten III) costumes (Olivia Vaughn Hern) lighting (Stacey Derosier) sound design (Jim Petty) original music (Zoe Sarnak) to staging is superior. Artifacts from the various periods of history adorn two walls of the set, including the costumes and hats the actors use throughout. Actors take their entrances and exists from three different sides of the set, two of which the audience surrounds as two sides of a rectangle; This is minimalistic and smart. The intimate setting allows the audience to feel a part of the action as the actors, at times, interact and directly address comments to them.
As a capstone to the ideas that are presented, Monahon introduces TM, the playwright, as a character (portrayed by Carolyn Braver). On a subway, TM and artist Dread Scott (David J. Cork) discuss the idea of genocide. An Armenian, she discusses its meaning to her (the Turks conducted a genocide and expulsion campaign against the Armenians (1914-1923). Indeed, as a black man Dread understands the meaning of genocide related to what happened during the American institution of slavery. As an important part of American History, he invites her to his proposed 1811 Slave Rebellion reenactment in New Orleans which TM attends two months after their subway meeting.
This powerful conclusion is telling. As an Armenian, TM is struck by Jeffrey’s (Richard Topol) use of the word “genocide” to indicate how he feels about his southern ancestry being vitiated with the removal of the confederate flag and statues of confederate soldiers from parks and federal buildings in the south. The application of Jeffrey’s “genocide” in juxtaposition with Dread’s idea to reenact the rebellion which has been removed from US history books and the Armenian genocide which has been largely left out of the History of Western Civilization is ironic. In a weird confluence, all have understood what being “wiped out,” means, and there is a unity. Perhaps, as Dread states at the end, it is a portentous recognition that “heroes in seeking liberation, receive mercy.” This is especially so in reenactments.
The production that rings with great truth provides a jumping off point for us to consider what our country means to each of us and how we can reconcile that meaning. Above all, the playwright, director and actors inspire us to broaden our understanding of aspects of our society beyond the stereotypic “Red States” and “Blue States” that we may not have considered before. As we question attitudes that may not resonate with ours, nevertheless, we must stand in each other’s shoes, especially those that we may have previously disdained.
How to Load a Musket is a must-see for its originality, ingeniousness and wonderful performances shepherded beautifully by Jaki Bradley. It is running with no intermission at 59E59 Theaters until 26 January. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Maz and Bricks by Eva O’Connor takes place on a tram, and on the streets of Dublin over two days in 2017. Its setting is monumental because at this time, the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland was at its height. Because of the popular support, reflected in the protests to repeal the amendment which banned abortion, the amendment was repealed in 2018, and a women’s right to make decisions about her own body was solidified under the law.
During the campaign, Maz, who is on her way to a massive protest in Dublin to repeal the constitutional abortion ban, meets Bricks. Their initial meeting filled with conflict and humorous, verbal smackdowns becomes the linchpin that changes both of their lives.
The production presented by Fishamble, The New Play Company, won an Olivier Award and is in its US premiere at 59E59 Theaters, as part of Origin’s 1st Irish. Experiencing the 80 minute production which has no intermission, a minimal, spare set and fine staging, one can understand why it is an award-winner. First, it is directed with precision and sensitivity by Jim Culleton. Secondly, O’Connor’s titular characterizations lure us with their vitality, and surprise us with their raw likeability. The play is well crafted with continually dynamic interchanges by the characters and an unadorned, satisfying, character-driven plot development, with powerful themes that hold currency for our times.
Thanks to the superb performances by Eva O’Connor (playwright) who also performs Maz, and Ciaran O’Brien as Bricks, we are led on a journey that moves deeper into the minds and hearts of these individuals, as they become acquainted, gain interest in each other, bounce apart, then couple together in mutual respect and caring. By the conclusion of the production we note how “in the twinkling of an eye, at the last sound of the trumpet,” individuals can open up and help each other reach a place of authenticity and healing, that they did not realize they could reach in themselves alone.
Upon first meeting Maz and Bricks, we are struck by Bricks’ over-confidence, braggadocio and utterly loutish behavior during a phone conversation on a tram, which one needs ear plugs to ignore. When Maz calls Bricks out for his “wildly inappropriate behavior,” and reveals that she is finishing a placard about a nineteen-year-old who died because she couldn’t get a legal abortion, Bricks recoups himself, twits her and tries to smooth over Maz’s attitude by sharing details about his life. After this meeting where he discovers her name and tells her his, the characters, in open monologues to the audience, share their perspectives about the meeting and then describe the next steps as they make their way through their day’s events. Maz goes to the protest; Bricks goes to Lara’s (his X partner) to pick up Yas, his daughter, to take her to the zoo.
The monologues are in rhymes which rhythmically play out with vibrance and power, adding interest and keeping the audience focused at their novelty. Bricks describes how Lara prevents him from his seeing their daughter because she heard about his untoward behavior with her cousin. Bricks’ forthright manner, as he eventually tells the truth to Maz, is a turning point. The playwright exacts a shift in Bricks’ characterization from the lout to the individual underneath the mask. We note his vulnerability, insecurity and upset at not being allowed to be with his daughter, whom he loves. We understand that the cousin may have set him up, so that Lara might punish him using Yas, a cruel action. Desolate, Bricks ends up at the protest. He is just in time to stop Maz from getting into trouble throwing stones at the anti-abortion protesters.
As they thrust and parry, with jibes and humor, O’Connor evolves the dialogue between these two flawed individuals. She heightens the monologues in a unique way so that the characters step away from the action, and with thoughtful, sometimes philosophical commentary, bring themselves to the next step in their relationship with each other. This is a clever device the playwright employs. It gives us the benefit of the characters’ inner thoughts to reveal their personalities and how their feelings relate to their resultant outer actions.
Thus, by degrees, we note the mystery of how Maz and Bricks, who appeared so antithetical to each other at the outset, find common ground with which to understand each other. They demonstrate that “opposites attract,” as Bricks indicates in his interest in Maz, who is unlike anyone he has ever known. However, once they find the raw and authentic centers of each other’s emotions, they realize they are not that different in their humanity and impulses toward decency.
The characters evolve in their relationship as they hang out with each other and spend the day. O’Connor uses their first interaction on the tram as a thematic prelude on a number of levels. She suggests that it is possible to compromise with others about political views, if one is open-minded and hopeful. That Bricks has an ulterior motive, turns into something deeper as Bricks tells us when he stops Maz’s stone throwing. He intuits that his interference, may lead to something between them. If not, he will crash and burn in humiliation. It is a risk he is willing to take.
O’Connor’s characters grow more likeable in their interest and acceptance of each other, driven by acute direction and nuanced, spot-on performances by the actors. We believe that Maz and Bricks might care for each other in a world that is chaotic and filled with pain for them, as we later learn. However, in spite of the problems and turmoil that they must confront and do confront with each other’s help, theirs is a relationship worth saving and deepening.
In its conclusion Maz and Bricks is refreshing, satisfying and real. O’Connor presents themes about prejudice, open-mindedness, truthfulness and human dignity in respecting one another’s viewpoint and in “standing in another’s shoes.” It is a behavior that we sorely need to reflect upon and practice in the current, divisive, political climate in the U.S. and elsewhere around the globe.
Kudos to the creative team: Maree Kearns (set and costume design) Sinéad McKenna (lighting designer) Carl Kennedy (sound designer) who, with director Jim Culleton and the actors, have made this a must-see production. Maz and Bricks runs until 23 February at 59E59 Theaters, Theater B. This is one you won’t want to miss. For tickets and times, go to their website by CLICKING HERE.
One November Yankee the comedy written and directed by Joshua Ravetch sports an intriguing structure. The play is four scenes: a flashback and a flash forward framed by beginning and ending scenes between a brother and sister that take place at MOMA. This is where art curator Maggie and modern artist Ralph are putting the finishing touches on Ralph’s art installation. The play is about siblings, different pairs in each of the scenes played by Stefanie Powers and Harry Hamlin. Each pair of siblings with a combination of love and rancor face-off against each other with humor, with pathos. Eventually, they resolve their differences. With one pair the resolution has an unusual twist.
As the production opens Maggie and Ralph argue about Ralph’s art work. Maggie avers with sarcasm and witticisms about what the project stands for and what it is. In the center of the presentation area is a “tangled mangle of debris,” that appears to be a yellow Piper Cub that has crashed in the woods. We later discover the installation has a basis in truth. Ralph has entitled his piece “Crumpled Plane,” to exemplify his social criticism of a “Civilization in Ruin.” Maggie, who has helped to bring money in to fund the project is not “thrilled” with Ralph’s work.
The quippy thrust and parry of their argument is well-crafted with bits of irony. Harry Hamlin who is Ralph, and Stefanie Powers as Maggie carry off the coolness and chic of these well-healed characters with fine-tuned humor and aplomb. What becomes intriguing are the references and through-lines Ravetch establishes about the three different brother/sister relationships. These are picked up in the next scenes (a flashback, and flashforward to the present) and are cleverly related as we watch how the sibling pairs collaborate to make the best of difficult situations.
In the initial play frame Ravetch introduces the metaphor and thread of flight. Maggie describes how she is forced to fly Jet Blue coach (something which she never does) to get to New York and be present for Ralph’s exhibition. Is it a premonition of what she will be able to afford when Ralph’s exhibition doesn’t get off the ground? Perhaps. After being diverted to Philly because of bad weather, Maggie’s only recourse is to fly on a puddle jumper to Vermont where she must take a Greyhound to NYC. The puddle jumper thread hits home when she confronts her brother’s art installation, a smashed yellow puddle jumper with a forest behind it. This crashed plane symbolizes the possibility of another “crash,” the crush of negative critical reviews of Ralph’s art installation which may lead to the loss of Maggie’s job and the end of her career.
During the course of Ralph’s attempt to defend his work against Maggie’s jibes, he references their relationship to the one of the brother and sister who went missing after the plane crash he’s attempting to effect through art. This crash and the other hundreds of plane crashes which occur over the U.S. and which he represents with this artistic endeavor, complete with videos of the Wright Brothers, “flying machines” of old, and the journey of the yellow Piper Cub has great meaning for him. His art mimic’s life’s art, and as in much of the play is a facsimile to what has happened and will happen.
Ralph explains that his exhibit symbolizes how the expected “glorious” future which began with the Wright Brothers and promised “flying cars,” convenient monorails in suburban settings and an end to traffic jams has devolved into the decline and a “Civilization in Ruin.” What “began at Kitty Hawk, ends here in this room,” he suggests. That this is an overblown, self-important, humorous notion which Hamlin as Ralph delivers as a serious pronouncement is ironic as Power’s Maggie calls him on it. She responds to this and his defense of his work with sarcasm. Eventually she lands on the subject of her birthday which she spent alone without him because he forgot, another possible reason why she is so edgy.
Obviously, this brother and sister vie between being close as siblings and rancorous as rivals. The scene ends with Ralph playing the video of the Yellow Piper Cub’s journey as Maggie reads the article about the brother and sister lost in the mountains of New Hampshire five years prior. As the plane on the video flies into the flashback, Ravetch unspools what happened to the next brother and sister pair as they attempt to negotiate their downed plane that appears the same as Ralph’s artwork.
In the next scene Powers and Hamlin play Margo and Harry who sport different demographics than the first couple revealed in their dress, manner, hair and speech patterns. Both sets of siblings, however, are Jews and the humor connected with this gets a laugh, with the fine pacing and dead pan delivery by Hamlin and Powers. We discover that it is Margo’s carelessness that has brought about the crash which becomes more dire as time progresses for they are unequipped for the cold with no provisions and no functioning radio communications or beacon to signal where they are. Furthermore, Harry is injured and cannot walk out of the woods.
The second pair of siblings relate bits and pieces of their life and annoyances they’ve had with each other as they attempt to figure out what to do, for example, whether to wait for rescue or attempt to save themselves. References that Maggie and Ralph made in the framed scene five years later are eerily appropriate and tie in to the interactions of Margo and Harry. The space/time continuum melds somehow with the plane crash and the playwright suggests that each male/female sibling relationship has commonalities in a family dynamic that is relatable and empathetic. Ravetch is playful in drawing the similitude of characterizations. However, as the parallels and detail threads coincide, there is also a haunting and poignant tenor that we are seeing something profound in all of humanity.
One overriding question remains. Did Ralph decide to create his artwork of a disaster which occurred to Harry and Margo because of some ethereal reason? Why has his imagination been so stirred? As we leave the second set of siblings facing the dark and cold, we are left with Margo’s indecision to stay or leave to find rescuers. The scene ends as they sing a song from the past to comfort each other as the evening of cold closes in.
The third scene flashes forward to the setting of the plane crash in present time, the same month as the Ralph’s art opening which has been inspired by Margo and Harry. In this scene part of the mystery is solved by hikers Mia and Ronnie, again portrayed by Powers and Hamlin, who stumble upon the crash. These siblings, too, parry and thrust and yield prickly comments, merging discussions of the past issues as they search the area and find clues to what happened to the passengers. Again, Ravetch conveys similar elements and threads from the previous scenes and drops them in the Mia and Ronnie scene weaving a fabric of relationships. Mia and Ronnie discover what is left of one of the siblings, whose body is now a skeleton. Of course they must alert the authorities to see what happened to the other sibling
The scene shifts once more to MOMA. Maggie and Ralph capstone their relationship, face the music and the former reading of the plane crash segues into Maggie reading aloud a critical review which is priceless. The last tie in is to the real crash site which is evocative and the final mystery about the missing sibling.
The fun of the production is watching how Powers and Hamlin portray with lightheartedness and authenticity three sets of siblings during the backdrop of dealing with “One November Yankee,” the name of the Piper Cub. As it turns out, the title of the plane, too, is symbolic. The set design by Dana Moran Williams is ambitious and Kate Bergh’s costume design suggests the differences among the siblings. Lighting design by Scott Cocchiaro and sound design by Lucas Campbell help to execute Ravetch’s vision for the production.
One November Yankee is 90 minutes with no intermission. It runs at 59E59 Theaters through 29th of December. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
‘Fern Hill’ Starring John Glover, Jill Eikenberry and Mark Linn-Baker at 59E59 Theaters, a Sharp, Non-formulaic Comedic Drama About Friendship
Fern Hill by Michael Tucker is about three couples in their golden years who hope to confront the next phase of their lives with joie de vivre and vibrance. The idea of spending one’s last years in the bucolic farmhouse haven, whose name is an allusion to the Dylan Thomas poem “Fern Hill,” where Thomas spent his childhood, is a pleasurable one for the characters. Directed by Nadia Tass, Tucker’s play offers the opportunity for superb actors to shine in a comedy-drama that is relentless, “in your face,” human and clever.
The award-winning cast (Mark Blum, Jill Eikenberry, John Glover, Mark-Linn-Baker, Jodi Long, Ellen Parker) whose combined credits in theater, film and television number over one hundred are simply divine. Throughout, they remain inspired to hit the emotional notes and spark the humor with resonating heat at every turn. The plot twists gyrate the play into increasingly subtle directions until the inevitable result concludes with realism and poignance. Tucker’s thematic points about love, aging, sex, friendship, alienation in marriage, intimacy and more settle well because of fine ensemble work and authentic, moment-to-moment performances.
Initially, the gathering of couples feels like a hippie reunion from the early 1970s. But we discover these individuals have advanced together in friendship and collegiality teaching at a university. Additionally, they have launched themselves in careers as professional artists (painters, writers, photographers and even a musician rocker in a band) who attempt to make a difference as they offer their talents to the world and each other for stimulation, fun and growth. These are the perfect friends to have. They share the same values and intelligence with high social IQs. Indeed, their interactions at “Sunny and Jer’s” farmhouse located upstate in Fern Hill are similar to those represented in Lawrence Kasdan’s film The Big Chill (1983). However, unlike the companions in the film who have not seen each other in five years, these couples frequently meet up and have long-lived friendships that have weathered storms.
Playwright Tucker through Tass’ amiable direction has weaved a happy tableau which we cannot conceive will ever end. And for precious moments the ensemble has made us feel so comfortable that we are happy to witness and be a part of their clan while they enjoy themselves riffing, joking, eating and drinking together. But as we are lulled into their “play,” reality hits with Vincent’s (John Glover) announcement about his hip-replacement. Though Vincent is older, the deterioration that comes with mortality has begun in earnest it seems.
And especially for the men, the creep of fear is plaguing each of them. In this pleasant farmhouse of joy, all does not really bode well. Despite the satisfaction of achieving successful careers, artistic purpose and comfortable lifestyles, the question looms: what remains next for Sunny (Jill Eikenberry) and Jer (Mark Blum), Billy (Mark Linn-Baker, who is a younger, lighter version of David Crosby of the band Crosby, Stills and Nash) and Michiko (Jodi Long), Darla (Ellen Parker) and Vincent (John Glover)? The answer is daunting. After all, “aging is not for sissies” (Bette Davis’ oft quoted comment).
Thinking outside the box during the last four months, these buddies have discussed the finest way to stave off the horror of aging, isolated, alone and desolate among strangers. Rather than be blind-sided by disease, loneliness and depression in the narrow construct of Assisted Living Centers and Nursing Homes, on this birthday celebration for Jer and Billy, they cement their agreement to live together as a commune at Fern Hill so that they can help each other as they transition into the next great adventure after retirement and moving toward their irrevocable sunset.
The playwright takes a while to set up this idyllic place with divine companions that we can visualize living together as an exceptional solution to the nation’s dire aging institutionalization foisted upon older citizens. So we don’t get why Jer attempts to end their discussion and close down a fabulous idea as a fantasy. Even his reasons appear lame: he doesn’t think they can live together; they will sabotage their closeness and loving relationships and end up without each other. When he becomes irate about it, we sense there are deeper reasons.
Tucker spins the plot twist abruptly in a few revelatory lines. Sunny shatters the peace, love and community of friends on this lovely evening with an explosion of truth. This truth threatens to nullify all their efforts at a togetherness that has encouraged power, integrity and strength. Deceitfulness like the worm of age leers at each of the characters so that they must check themselves and deal with this problem between Sunny and Jer which is also their problem.
It is fascinating to watch character responses. The wisdom and humor that emerges engages with honesty and love. And regardless of whether their camaraderie appears a bit fantastic or completely possible, Tucker has written a fine work that is grounded in logic and constructed brick by brick with solid characterizations. Finally, the actors’ portrayals are spot-on so that every segment of the journey that Sunny and Jer take to where they must go to resolve their relationship issues makes sense and seems right. Encouraged, we have followed them recognizing ourselves in their foibles and earthy humanity.
This is a terrific production made all the more exceptional by the performances and direction. Kudos to the creative team without which this ensemble piece would not have been neatly realized: Jessica Parks (scenic designer) Patricia E. Doherty (costume design) Kate MGee (lighting designer) Kenneth Goodwin (sound designer).
Fern Hill is currently running at 59E59 Theaters (59E59th Street between Madison and Lexington) with one intermission until 20 October. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
If you adore Dame Julie Andrews, you must see the Brits Off Broadway offering in its US Premiere fresh from its sold out runs in the West End and Toronto. Julie Madly Deeply celebrates the iconic performer who is still going strong at 83-years-old. Julie Clare Productions and New Diorama Theatre present this delightful musical cabaret in honor of the Dame. Written and performed by Sarah-Louise Young, directed by and with contributions from Russell Lucas and musical direction by Michael Roulston, who also appears and sings in the production, Julie Madly Deeply reminds us why Julie Andrews is not only a fabulous performer. It also reveals Julie Andrews as a survivor who is the last person to take her life and her career for granted.
Sarah-Louise Young has been a loving fan of Julie Andrews for most of her life. She humorously exposes this with a letter to Andrews she wrote as a child, asking her to be her mum and marry her Dad. After reading the letter, Young affirms that she never lost faith in Andrews emphasizing that this was more than the press could muster.
Young chronicles Andrews’ life in a vibrant, picaresque fashion, emphasizing the salient events in her career. To do this she begins with Andrews’ 2010 London return after her failed throat surgeries, billed as “The Gift of Music-An Evening With Julie Andrews.” The press dunned Andrews, but Young’s encomium to Andrews in this production indicates they were harsh and should have been forgiving considering what Andrews continues to accomplish. (Indeed she has a FB page and posts anecdotes from various Broadway productions, i.e. check out the one about Robert Goulet, Lancelot in Camelot.)
For Andrews, the evening was a tenuous comeback which required great bravery because it was believed that her singing career was finished. Indeed, husband Blake Edwards stated that she would never sing again after the botched throat surgeries. However, Andrews marshaled on and worked on therapies for her throat.
Would Andrews sing as she had before with her four octave range serenading a huge orchestra? No. However, she “talked sang” and Young who had kept the faith was thrilled to have seen her “live.” From this experience Young seques to interactive by asking audience members if they had seen Andrews live. Hands raised and responses were shared; this is an intriguing segment because it is extemporaneous and requires Young to be lightening quick and she shines with witty repartee. After this segment Young with a combination of brief narration and songs from the decade in Andrew’s career she is highlighting, accompanied by Michael Roulston, sings Andrews with a lovely, lyrical style.
Throughout, Young keeps the events and Andrews’ stories moving with comedy bits and snippet impersonations of celebrities, i.e. Liza Minnelli who took over for Julie Andrews in Victor Victoria when she was on vacation, and Audrey Hepburn who comments about being chosen as Eliza Doolittle in the film version of My Fair Lady.
Young’s talents with comedy, singing and movement, keep the production engaging and lively as she lovingly riffs on her favorite icon. She introduces each career milestone in Andrews’ life circling through The Boyfriend, My Fair Lady, Cinderella (television) and Camelot. Interestingly, when Walt Disney offered Andrews the part of Mary Poppins, a film which would take her away from live stage performance, she took it and won an Academy Award.
As Young pinpoints the various films and roles, singing some of the songs completely and others with a few bars, she finalizes Act I with a mention of Andrews’ divorce with Tony Walton. He worked on Mary Poppins with her doing costumes and set design. Then Young closes with a song from Mary Poppins and an interactive with the audience breaking for intermission with a send-off that after the “interval” she will be in the alps.
Act II is vintage Julie Andrews in the film The Sound of Music (1965). Again, Young sings snippets of favored songs and at one point, cleverly invites a sing-along. The audience was eager to oblige! Young’s patter includes quips about Andrews’ co-star Christopher Plummer. The film remains one of the highest grossing films of all times. And Young mentions that there are Julie Andrews sing-a-longs, some with the showing of the film. Indeed, the film is mythic and ironically, it resonates more and more as the uber right wing white supremacists don Nazi outfits and uplift fascism.
Memorable is Young’s segment about Andrews’ love of her second husband Blake Edwards and their work together after their marriage. Young highlights Andrews’ grappling with the limitations of her sunny, sweet image that her fans adored. When she attempted to do serious films i.e. Torn Curtain, The Americanization of Emily and others, her box office smash records evaporated. Her fans couldn’t accept her cross-over to other work and she went through a bumpy period, settling for work in Blake Edwards 10 and as Young humorously points out in S.O.B. a satire in which Andrews twits the idea she is more than a sugary, sweet flower by showing her breasts (tits).
Young sings partials from Victor Victoria (1982) and discusses its adaptation as a successful Broadway production which Julie Andrews performed in 1995 until she had to quit the show in 1997 after vocal problems and a botched surgery.
Throughout, Julie Madly Deeply remains ebullient and informative thanks to Young’s clever working of the material and interspersing the humorous bits with songs and anecdotes which Andrews’ fans will enjoy.
Julie Madly Deeply has one intermission and runs at 59e59 Theaters as a part of their Brits Off Broadway series until 30 June. For tickets and times go to the website by CLICKING HERE.
Round House Theatre production’s Handbagged is an extraordinary evening of history, humor, philosophy, politics, economics, parody and satire. Offering a view of the Thatcher years in the U.K. (1979-1990) until Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stepped down from the leadership of her party, playwright Moira Buffini encapsulates the past. With acute themes, Buffini parallels two disparate views which still hold sway today in the U.K. and in the U.S. These are posited and embodied by Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher. The production is a comedy as the two women go head to head. And it is a poignant reminder of where the world has “progressed” since then.
The evening is rollicking fun. In almost every scene Queen Elizabeth II bests (handbags) Margaret Thatcher with her wit, her grace, her level headedness, her humanity and her decency. And Margaret Thatcher can only be her dour, unsympathetic, unyielding, cruel self, whose watchword “No,” seems to permeate even the rigidness of her tailored suits.
Directed by Indhu Rubasingham, Handbagged is based upon the original production with the same director at the Kiln Theater. As part of the Brits Off Broadway season at 59e59 Theaters, from start to finish, the production engages and delights with its humor and with the fine performances delivered by the ensemble and especially by the “older” versions of the Queen (Anita Carey) and Thatcher (Kate Fahy) whose similitude with their true counterparts appears to be “right-on.”
To chronicle the Thatcher years and Queen Elizabeth’s sub rosa influence during that time, the playwright’s characterizations move in tandem with two actors each, playing the Queen and Margaret Thatcher (young and old). Beth Hylton portrays the young Queen, “Liz,” with posh accent and sweet demeanor. Anita Carey is the older Queen, “Q,” whose quiet stature, edgy wit and motherly probity of today’s Queen Elizabeth reveals an astute wisdom and gently forceful authority.
Both “Queens” deliver quips, undercurrents and subtle chastening to the inflexible, conservative, hard-right, iron lady with smashing, crashing wit and sometimes LOL humor. They do it with such aplomb and timing we appreciate the through-line that Queen Elizabeth II understood who Margaret Thatcher was and held her own with her throughout. In a changing of the Empire to a Commonwealth of Nations, she proved a beacon, though she had no official power or authority. In her shadow, Thatcher held her head high but had to admit defeat when she stepped down in a painful process of changing leadership.
Susan Lynskey delineates the younger Thatcher, “Mags” with smiling, chilling certitude, hot and solid in her determination to change the U.K. for “the better,” according to her perspective and that of her conservative “neoliberal” party that eschewed “socialism” like the plague. Working in tandem with her is the old Thatcher “T” portrayed by Kate Fahy who in a forceful, deliberate, sternly exacting manner reveals why the handle “the iron lady” was used as a noxious epithet and descriptor of praise by detractors and supporters of the ferrous Margaret Thatcher.
Filling in the characterizations of Thatcher’s husband Denis, Prince Philip, President Ronald Regan, Nancy Regan, the Queen’s Footman, and political leaders (Enoch Powell, Michael Heseltine, Arthur Scargill, etc.) are the versatile and very humorous Cody Leroy Wilson and John Lescault. The playwright’s device to break the fourth wall by having Actor 1 and Actor 2 argue about the roles they are playing is humorous. At one juncture “T” demands that Actor 2 not abandon his role of her husband Denis and he argues, “I’m playing several roles…some are thin caricatures but times are hard and it’s a job.”
This “breaking the fourth wall” device elevates the play into the realm of Theatre of the Absurd where the actors comment on the play and their roles. As they break from their roles and portray themselves as actors, we understand that this is still a part of the play; they are portraying the characters as the actors in the play. At one point or another, all of the characters step out of their roles and comment that this play is of their own making or that they don’t want to play the roles they do or are “switching” roles. This break in the play’s chronology of the Thatcher years melds the action, is enlivening and provides the twists that maintain energy throughout.
With regard to The Queen and Thatcher, this “breaking the wall” convention reminds us that the characters, though representative of real individuals, are fictionalized with some basis in truth. Buffini also uses this device to insert humor and to present information of the time period and of individuals that the audience may not know or remember. Actor 1 for example takes the liberties with the script to describe that in the “midst of all that Diana wedding stuff, the whole country was boiling with rage.” Thus, we understand the historical period seamlessly and find the information fascinating.
Overall, Buffini’s infusion of what the dialogue was between the two women constantly intrigues. Importantly, we understand their different roles. Thatcher, propagating her polices under the guise of freedom and democracy (she proclaims this as the elderly “T”) sustains an iron-fisted “control” of the U.K. The difficult times for the country are chronicled: the 1981 IRA bombings and killings, the miner’s strikes, the War in the Falkland Islands, the closing down of the Empire gradually into a Commonwealth of Nations (which the Queen comments on happily), Princess Diana’s wedding to Prince Charles, Reganism, the rise of Rupert Murdock and his amoral, untoward scandal sheets and more.
During various events, ingeniously with subtle conflict between the characters and little exposition, we are reminded of the backstory with just enough information to be able to understand how the two women’s viewpoints and actions diverged. Thatcher obviates the cruelty of her own behavior; Queen Elizabeth II attempts to modify Thatcher’s understanding of her policies and practices, applying a humanity not readily found in Thatcher’s comportment.
Thus, we are appalled when Thatcher destroys the trade unions and boastfully touts her win of the miner’s strike which lasts a year and causes tremendous hardship. With quiet reserve, Queen Elizabeth II asks both “T” and “Mags” if she has ever been down in a coal mine which Queen Elizabeth II has. We walk away from that encounter with the stark view of both women. With eyes open, we note Thatcher’s recalcitrance and blindness to the populace’s suffering, a condition which she blames on them.
In each of her actions, closing coal mines, privatizing public companies, de-regulating financial institutions, refusing sanctions on South African apartheid, Thatcher effects misery and the citizens’ anger and protests. Though “T” and “Liz” do not counsel, they level broadsides at these actions. Indeed, in the Queen’s Christmas message of hope, Thatcher is publicly humiliated as the Queen’s message of Christian love is broadcast.
One of the most humorous segments in the revisiting of the Queen’s and Thatcher’s “relationship” during these years, the playwright examines their bonding with U.S. President Ronald Regan (an effusive, enthusiastic John Lescault) with Cody Leroy Wilson as Nancy Regan. The Regan scenes are hysterical and the relationships of the Regans’ visits with Queen Elizabeth at Windsor and as Thatcher and Regan meet and visit is excellent. That Thatcher and Regan agree in policies and practices (“trickle down economics”) is a pointed reminder of how many of the same policies embraced then took hold in the U.S. and U.K. and should “die a death.” They have not because the wealthy benefit from the destruction of the middle class and policies that feather their own nest (i.e. the destruction of the trade unions, tax breaks, de-regulation).
One of the greatest strengths of Handbagged, in addition to its providing a wonderful evening of entertainment in imagining the relationship between Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher, is in its themes which both women embody. Much of that time period has currency for us today in laying bare the noxiousness and inhumanity of policies of conservatism represented by Thatcherism. These parallel with Trumpism in the U.S. today and faux, fascist populism of the uber right groups which are attempting to take over in the European Union. As the Thatcher government had its rallying cry of “no socialism,” there is the same rallying cry today by Trumpists.
Then and now, these are twisted remnants of the politics of fear to bring about an advancement of corporate greed and hegemony. The elite powerful are those who seek to control, one of the mantras of Thatcher’s commentary that the playwright reinforces. The irony is that the Queen, the richest woman in the U.K., stands against these policies and pushes for equity, remembering the horrors of WW II when the country fought a common enemy. The economic policies that were catastrophic and led to the fall of Thatcherism are present in the Trump administration today. They foment economic inequality, and the economic divide between the haves and have nots. Indeed, when Thatcher left the government, there was jubilation and crowds in the streets celebrated the hope that things would get better. An irony, indeed and one wonders if the same will occur with Trump.
Handbagged is a must-see for its performances, its clever send up of two iconic individuals, its ironies and the historical infusions of vital information with dollops of humor slipped in-between. It is vital in how it reflects and reminds us of the economic and political dynamic that exists today globally. Kudos to the team of creatives and the production team that made this excellent production soar.
Handbagged runs with one 15-minute intermission until 30th of June at 59e59 Theaters on 59th Street between Madison and Park Avenues. For tickets go to their website by CLICKING HERE.
Tortoise in a Nutshell, an Edinburgh-based visual theater company has finally been able to coordinate with 59E59 Theaters for its 2019 Brits Off Broadway season. The company, which first premiered Feral at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is a multi-award-winning group which combines film, and digital theatricals. These include watching the technicians as performers create a show with pre-set miniature pieces which they then animate to tell a story.
The company which travels far and wide and has presented its works not only in the UK, but also in Denmark, Austria and Mexico enjoys creating productions that are unique, innovative and impossible to categorize. Feral in its U.S. Premiere is one such production that combines a use of miniature puppetry, small digital video cameras, live camera action projected on a screen. The productions include background lighting of the set pieces and sound effects as well as a mixed musical score that enhances the story-telling.
Feral, which Tortoise in a Nutshell is presenting in an original co-production with Cumbernauld Theatre, focuses on a family. Sister Dawn, brother Joe and their mum live in a town by the sea. They are symbolic and representative as is their town whose “town fathers” decide to allow developers to come in and open a “Supercade.”
What happens as a result of this development becomes disastrous. The picturesque landscape eventually is marred by the types of people who come to the “Supercade.” The quaint shops and daily life of the town’s citizens are wrecked and increasingly law enforcement must be called in to stop muggings, thefts, violent crimes, sexual assaults and general vandalism that occurs. Additionally, it is suggested that the developers used chicanery to bribe the officials or worm their way into the area. This corruption has been overlooked and the Supercade occludes everything. Though we don’t know whom, someone has probably become very rich at the expense of the citizens undermining the tenor and gracefulness of a once peaceful place.
The townspeople attempt to protest what is going on to little effect. And the once lovely beginnings have tragic endings as the wildness in human nature takes over spurred on by the Supercade. However, the production doesn’t end on a completely nihilistic note. There is always hope.
The ingenuity of Feral is not in the “what” but in the “how.” Process is everything with this theater company. The miniatures used are tiny by comparison to average sized puppets. This enhances our interest in them. The model town is all of a piece, the same type of delicate architecture and color and made from the same materials. The beauty of this work is in how the collaborators put the setting together and effect the characters operation in it.
It takes a while for the town and its individuals to be introduced by the cast (Alex Bird, Jim Harbourne, Aaran Howie, Matthew Leonard and Ross Mackay) who build the setting with the houses and shops and then place the inhabitants in their appropriate settings or work the music and background sound effects. This set-up is an important part of the presentation because we see the Hair Shop, the Bakery, the Lighting Shop, the Church, etc., the typical patrons and even some of the animals as familiar, homely residents. We readily identify.
As the cast completes the initial set it up, we do appreciate how adorable the miniatures appear and the camera work that focuses on them in close-up so that we are present on the same level with the characters. Thus, we become a part of what can only be described as a sweet, functioning, bucolic, little piece of heaven where the inhabitants are contented and enjoy their placement there in the universe.
However, we only see the externals. The presentation never proceeds into anything deeper within the individuals. It is a parable with a larger symbolic focus, that of the microcosm reflecting the macrocosm. In miniature, the cast, creative team and production team have engendered what happens when a town’s equilibrium is upset by development that has, at its basis, corruption and malfeasance. And when the goals do not align with human beings’ needs, desires and well being, catastrophe occurs.
In Feral the wild impulse is diverted in the goal to make money without consideration for how the “development” whether it be digital-technological (the iPhone, Facebook, Amazon) or a material “play-land,” “Gentleman’s Club” or casino will impact the community at large. Thus, we understand that the inhabitants are acted upon by unforeseen forces that in the guise of “developmental prosperity” actually foment destruction as a by-product. The wild impulses the entertainment is designed to exploit for money overwhelm. Once the Supercade opens, entropy lopes in and takes over.
Feral is obviously a labor of love by the creative team: Amelia Bird (Scenic Design) Simon Wilkinson (Lighting Design) and Jim Harbourne (Original Music and Sound Design) and theri director Ross Mackay. Their innovative, human-friendly designs immediately convey the audience into the creators’ world of imagination. To its credit, the designers work to make the audience an integral part of the ongoing events as the camera angles move our vision from a distant perspective closer and closer into Dawn’s and Joe’s house to see their kitty cat and close to see the interiors of the various shops. The camera moves our vision into the beauty parlor, around the park and pier and into an adorableness that includes our watching a cute squirrel fed daily by the pastor of the town church.
Thus, as we identify with this mini corner of the universe, we are engaged and become concerned when the “Supercade” is built despite protest. Most probably money changes hands surreptitiously for the entertainment palace to be built. It is then the themes shift to the macrocosm as we consider what has transpired in the last 10 years almost exponentially along waterfronts and elsewhere.
Such displacing, nefarious development is happening in too many cities and towns across the globe. Those who have the most to lose are overcome by those who have the money and power to do what they want and not be held accountable for the damages. Indeed, though it is not clear in this production, most developers live in their own bucolic paradise surrounded by three-acres, with security teams, gates and high walls to keep out the “riff-raff” whom they prey upon to fund their selfishness, the “riff-raff” being these townspeople who just want to live life with some modicum of happiness..
Feral is imaginative, particular and profound if not disconcerting. The creators’ process is complicated but it delivers a simple metaphor of our times in identifiable human terms. Bravo to both the creative team listed above and the production team Andrew Gannon (Technical Diretor) and AEA Stage Manager (Alyssa K. Howard).
Tortoise in a Nutshell’s Feral runs for 50 minutes with no intermission at 59E59 Theaters until 9 June. For tickets and times go to their website by CLICKING HERE.
In Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, the setting of the play is Britain 1942. Based on a pamphlet of the same time (valuable historical/cultural ephemera) created by the American War Office, the comedic play is a fascinating bit of history. It reveals the cultural divide between America and Britain and pointed differences in words, coinage, foods, phrases, social graces, sports, class system and much more.
At the time military and civilian officials anticipated that the socio-cultural differences between the U.S. and the U.K. could create havoc in cooperation during the war effort, unless Americans were provided with a guide book to smooth over relations between the two countries. Germany had already initiated a propaganda campaign against Britain and hoped to keep America out of the war. Military officials didn’t want servicemen to so influenced by the propaganda that Americans and British would be attacking each other instead of the Germans. Hence the “Instructions.”
The comedy, part of an offering in the Brits Off Broadway season is refreshingly quaint in light of advances after WWII in technology through the digital age, Google, Wikipedia, and social media which have made knowledge and interactions with the UK’s culture and society ubiquitous. However, in those days, paper in the form of pamphlets was the vehicle used to educate servicemen about British lifestyles.
At the top of the play friendly, intelligent, socially attuned Lieutenant Schultz (James Millard) who already lives in Britain and is a stalwart mentor of proper comportment welcomes the servicemen (audience) and informally shakes hands with them to make them feel comfortable in a potentially awkward situation.. As Schultz, James Millard portrays an immediately likable and well meaning American soldier that we can be proud of. Schultz introduces himself to the Eight Air Force squadron (the audience) and gives his resounding interactive opening remarks. He then answers a few logistical questions, i.e. “Private Welch-yes if you can find somewhere to put it.” Millard’s superb interplay essentially sets the tone and exuberance of the production which carries through to the second act.
After this humorous interchange which actually preps the audience for the smartly paced jokes to follow, Schultz attempts to oil the way for the bulk of the program handed off to the imperial, crass and vapidly dense (single digit IQ dense) Colonel Atwood (the excellent Dan March). Atwood unwittingly manages to insult the British in every conceivable way imaginable after Major Randolph Gibbons arrives. Matt Sheahan portrays the endearing senior-ranked British officer who is the perfect foil for Atwood to lay his cultural “Brutish” stupid on.
What follows is Atwood’s disconnect and Randolph’s attempt to correct him with great frustration. Their resistant attempts at establishing a relationship is a bumpy ride throughout the production. Randolph is the standard polite Brit whose social norms and phrases completely confuse the rough and ready American cowboy style of Atwood, who must defer to Schultz to clear up his muddle. (i.e. “It’s very urgent, I’m afraid.” Atwood: “He’s afraid?”)
Eventually, as Randolph attempts to assume his authorized position to instruct the men, Atwood refuses to give place to “a smart ass in short pants.” Indeed, we think if these instructive sessions are populated by other Atwoods and Randolphs in American bases dotted throughout the English countryside like this one, the Germans don’t need to lift one more finger to sow discord. Americans and British are doing an excellent job of disrespecting one another on their own and dissolving the good will to cooperate and unify against the Germans.
Throughout Act I Colonel Atwood embarrasses himself as a rude, dim-witted ugly American, albeit one in a position of power who thinks he is the “smartest guy on the base.” Considering that we understand the outcome of the war and the importance of the US to winning it, of course the vignettes about learning British coinage, going out in a social setting, having tea, etc. are hysterically funny and we enjoy laughing at Colonel Atwood.
However, the underlying irony is that the British do not know the outcome of the war in 1942 and were very frightened of the Nazi aggressions, i.e. bombing London and threatening invasion. If Atwood illustrates the typical American higher up military man with “know-how and bravery”, the Germans will easily win. This gap in logic should have been strengthened in the play’s writing for even more laughs. But indeed, with aplomb, the writers (also the actors) Dan March, James Millard, Matt Sheahan emphasize the theme that the Peter Principle is alive and well and running the US and British military, in an all too familiar dynamic that the greater the incompetence, the higher the rank.
That the Peter Principle applies to the British military resides in Atwood’s humorous observations that because of mismanagement and incompetence, the British blew it against the Germans, nearly lost it at Dunkirk and had to beg the Americans to come there and “save the day.” This most calumnous of truth-based insults sets Randoph and Atwood in a competitive war of one-up-manship. Schultz, ever the peacemaker attentive to the servicemen (us) watching this mini-attack of the Americans against the British points out their divisiveness is just what the German’s intend with their propaganda. Schultz (his name is an irony) effects a truce and diverts the men so they proceed calmly.
Some of the high points in this act occur when Randolph takes over the command which he has been authorized to do to educate the servicemen despite Atwood’s bombastic protestations which reveal he has lost the point of the entire military exercise. Randolph’s explanation of British coinage is fascinating (we see how large the 5 pound notes were). Atwood’s muddle-headed confusion about the specific values and differences between shillings, guineas, tuppence, etc. (which he never learns) is hysterical as is our confusion.
Also in Act I to school the servicemen in the social graces and polite conversation (you always talk about the weather) while going to a pub, Schultz impersonates Randolph’s wife as “she” and Atwood have drinks. The scene is Monty Pythonesque in its absurd ridiculousness. James Millard’s demure, shy wife is thick with hilarity as is Randolph’s outrage at Atwood overstepping his boundaries and going against propriety. If one thing is obvious, Atwood has learned little, and Randolph underscores this by tossing his own weaponry in the form of ironic asides at the dull-witted Colonel Atwood which, like duds, never register or square away on their target.
Act II continues the humor with an intensive conducted by the enemy at Nazi Spy School. March, Millard and Sheahan use puppets to reveal how the Germans are prepping for the invasion of the British countryside and sowing discord in their propaganda between the Americans and the British. Then in additional vignettes, we meet Lord Tolly, learn the differences between cricket and baseball, discover British puddings and end with learning the steps to Morris Dancing. The vignettes are redirected and the last, depending upon the audience flies or falls. However it is fun and instructive.
The production has many fine points in revealing the history and customs, attitudes and variabilities between the two countries during wartime. And importantly, not only is the writing, especially in Act I crisp and well paced, it illustrates that although both countries evolved, some of the particularly noxious elements of behavior associated with both countries has not. The pompousness and sense of superiority that manifests culturally in Americans and the British needs work certainly.
The enlightened spoof of a typical Nazi spy school which instructs German soldier-spies and officers how to sow division and discord and how to pass for a countryman in England or America is an excellent reminder of how countries attempt to gain superiority in power domination. The carry-over is that this is done even in peacetime.
I couldn’t help but think of Russian efforts in their cyber-warfare campaigns against the UK with regard to Brexit and the US with regard to the 2016 election. Currently, Americans like Steven Bannon and other conservative groups in Germany and France are pushing forth an ultra right-wing propaganda agenda in concert with Russian efforts to push out liberal, democratic views, policies and perspectives. The spy techniques used in the theater of war in the Pacific and Europe during WWII, evidenced in this play, then and now are now effective psychological weapons to gain advantage. Indeed, many of these techniques and principles are largely used today in social media and alternative news sights to influence unwitting global citizens and strengthen lies, memes, mythologies to promote the policies of political groups, and also to divide. The divisions continue and of course, the country that remains unified and in a solid state will dominate.
In that I found this to be a vital production, not only in its humorous approach and clever writing and acting but also in the important themes of which we need to be reminded. Knowledge about the underlying customs, mores and graces that have held a culture together for centuries is valuable not only in war but also in peace. Divisions can only be created when religious sects, cultural groups with different values and mores are kept divided in separate communities without speaking to one another or sharing a cup of coffee or cup of sugar. Cultural divisions create discord, the perfect medium for an attacking enemy, especially on the internet.
Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is instructive, funny and prescient. For a delightful and thematically trenchant evening give it a look-see at 59E59 Theaters. It runs with one intermission until 12 May. For tickets, go to their website by CLICKING HERE.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR AMERICAN SERVICEMEN IN BRITAIN
Adapted with kind permission from the Bodleian Library’s publication “Instructions for American Servicemen, 1942” by Dan March, Matt Sheahan, James Millard, and John Walton; directed by John Walton
Produced by Fol Espoir in association with Jermyn Street Theatre and The Real MacGuffins, for Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters.