At the outset of Epiphany by Brian Watkins, directed by Tyne Rafaeli, we hear a thunderous, rumbling, like a breaking apart of the ethers, that signifies something momentous may occur. After all on one level, the title references the traditional yearly celebration after Christmas when the Magi acknowledged the divinity of the Christ child. On the other hand certainly, the play’s themes will stimulate us to have an “epiphany” about our own lives. As we sit in the dark theater, we wait to be moved by what may be some great stirring.
In the shaking and weird roaring noise that lasts a few seconds at the top of the play, we have a chance to peruse Morkan’s (Marylouise Burke) expansive, circular, den-dining room in her idyllic, barn-like mansion somewhere in the woods near a river. The place has been renovated and repainted, long-time friend Ames (the wonderful Jonathan Hadary) reveals during the course of the evening. Two large floor to ceiling windows are set equidistant to the right and left of the central staircase. They look out on an immense tangle of dark, surreal tree limbs and bushes upon which snow falls but never sticks. John Lee Beatty’s set is a magnificent throwback to a former Americana of dark, rich, wood paneled loveliness whose central point is three staircases: one short leap of stairs from the entrance opening onto the main floor, and two massive staircases leading to the second story presumably of bedrooms and a bathroom with a novel Japanese toilet that Freddy (C.J. Wilson) admires.
On January 6th, each year millions celebrate the Epiphany world-wide but not in America, the dinner hostess Morkan informs all her company after they have arrived. She has invited her friends and grand nephew Gabriel (name reference-the angelic messenger who announced the Christ child’s birth) to this unique January 6th dinner party for a celebration of the Epiphany during which her grandnephew will officiate. She doesn’t quite remember the significance of the day but thought it appropriate to have a gathering of friends she hasn’t seen for a long while to celebrate because the date is located in the dark loneliness of winter, after Christmas and the season of light.
However, Gabriel lets his aunt down. He can’t make the party, so he can’t officiate and Morkan is left to be mistress of ceremonies on this occasion, that no one in the group has celebrated before or even understands. However, she tries to guide the festivities and does so humorously in fits and starts. Interestingly, Gabriel makes up for his absence by sending his partner Aran (Carmen Zilles) the symbolic stranger (think “The Dead” by James Joyce that Watkins’ set up suggests). She is the only one to be able to relay something about Epiphany, manifestly suggesting its true meaning of the Magi bringing gifts to the Christ child, and referencing a layered meaning: the confluence of the divine in humanity by the play’s end.
The festivities that Morkan planned, whose order has been sent in an attachment to her friends that no one read, happen with the quirky turn of her mind. As she tries to remember them, she informs the guests that remembering is becoming harder because of her lack of focus. Nevertheless, she takes charge and this lovely evening among individuals not initially friends who become friends unfolds with beauty and poignancy encouraged by Morkan’s generous hospitality, openness and humanity (in divinity).
Watkins via director Rafaeli’s vision, cleverly, ironically misleads us throughout, beginning with the early fanfare to expect “greatness.” However, Watkins sidelines our anticipation for “the momentous” with the humorous interactions of the guests. We listen to Morkan’s prating about why she must confiscate their cell phones to everyone’s horror. To move the “epiphany celebration” along, she suggests they sing the related song. No one knows it.
We relax into the off handed conversational comments as guests help themselves to alcohol. We watch the very visual piano interpretation of a piece by Kelly (Heather Burns) which is a hysterically cacophonous substitute for the song of epiphany that no one learned. And to honor the celebration, Sam (Omar Metwally) brings out a galette des rois he has prepared, explaining someone must go under the table to call out who gets the first slice. Additionally, Sam shares that all must look for the surprise inside which if they find it, means they are the King or Queen of the celebration. Ames volunteers to go under the table and call out a name. And then we forget about him when Sam and Aran discuss the finer points of empiricism and the ineffable which are relational to the miracle of the epiphany.
And just when we think the play is about to take a really profound turn, Morkan shuffles up the cards and calls out “Who wants a slice of the galette.?” What occurs is the comical high point point of the production, seamlessly directed by Rafaeli and enacted by Jonathan Hadary’s Ames, Marylouise Burke’s Morkan and the others, like Loren (Colby Minifie) who stem the bleeding and help quell the chaos.
By the time the food arrives on the table, we understand that something fascinating is going on. The shining moments of meaning that signify joy that the tradition encourages should happen happen. Indeed, much happens in the apparent little insignificances. Individuals listen and respond to each other and enjoy each other. The moments move serendipitously during the evening of this diverse, wacky group of individuals who have been divorced from their phones by Morkan so they can relate to each other in a live, spontaneous interactive dynamic. That alone is miraculous for her to insist upon, and of course, grandly funny.
As the food is passed around and they comment the goose is dark, toward the end of the meal the subject turns into the years one has yet to live. And as Ames recalls a humorous story, at the end of it Morkan’s revelations about her sister abruptly emerge. They are still a shock to her and they are a shock to her friends who begin to understand Morkan’s comments about lack of focus and her need for company during the darkest time of the year.
Nevertheless, continuing the celebratory spirit, Morkan, ever the thoughtful hostess brings out the dessert which she insists they eat. And it is during the dessert, she explains the devastation she has been feeling, the need of forgiving herself and the importance of forgiveness in her life, in everyone’s lives. These feelings which she shares are made all the more real for herself and her friends in their public revelation. Her deeply intimate confession touches their hearts and is codified by Aran as an “epiphany.” The theme of revelation coalesces into the symbolism of the miraculous that Morkan seeks. And the recognition of her friends to celebrate the Epiphany the following year as a tradition indicates that they seek that divine in humanity in the sharing of community. The last moments are particularly heart wrenching.
This is one to see for the terrific ensemble work and smart, smooth direction by Rafaeli, the sets, humorous moments and atmospheric tone poetry suggested by the lighting among other elements. Kudos to Beatty for his sets, Montana Levi Blanco for costumes, Isabella Byrd for lighting, Daniel Kluger for original music and sound. Epiphany runs with no intermission and ends July 23rd. Don’t miss it. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.lct.org/shows/epiphany/
The Mindblasting Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano Cave to Primal Hatreds and Private Desolations in Sam Shepard’s ‘True West’
True West by Sam Shepard is a tour de force which easily reveals actors’ talents or their infelicities. Indeed, it may be a devastating on-stage nightmare if the actors’ skills do not resonate with a fluid “moment-to-moment” dynamic that sits precariously on the knife-edge of emotional chaos and crisis. This is especially so in Act II of Shepard’s True West which is currently in revival at the American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street, starring the consummate Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano. Both actors rise to the pinnacle of their skills surfing their own moment-to-moment impulses in this sense-memory tearing, emotional slug-fest of a play about siblings. This is a glorious, shattering production thanks to Hawke and Dano who once more prove to be among the great actors of their generation. If Shepard is apprised of this production in another realm of consciousness, surely he is thrilled.
The arc of True West‘s development reveals Shepard’s acute examination of brothers Lee and Austin who wrangle and rage against each other to finally emerge from the emotional and familial folkways they’ve spun into their own self-fabricated prisons. The second act especially (the first act is more expositional and slower paced) screams with the taut, granular impact of subtly shifting, increasingly augmenting collisions of the mind, will and emotions of the older, social outcast and thief Lee (portrayed with dark tension, authenticity, humanity by Ethan Hawke) and the younger, ambitious, middle class Austin (the “mild-mannered” Dano seethes with fury and sub rosa angst that simmers to a boil). As these two attempt to reconnect after an estrangement, they thinly reconcile, negotiating confrontation and abrasion, while they attempt to deal with personal dissatisfaction. During their reunion, they discover that too far is never far enough to unleash the emotional convolutions, chaos and conundrums of their relationship.
Of course, Shepard’s searing, dark humor and sardonic irony resides in Lee’s and Austin’s attempt to achieve an inner and outer expurgation. Interestingly, they use each other’s “being” as a battering ram against themselves and their complex, twisted “brotherhood.” And as they pummel and propel themselves “forward” through the charged, electrified atmosphere between them, they disintegrate their inner soul rot and misery. By the conclusion of the play, they have reached their own TRUE WEST. This is brilliantly symbolized and effected by Jane Cox’s Lighting Design, Mimi Lien’s Set Design and Bray Poor’s Original Music and Sound Design.
In the last moments between life, death and resurrection, Lee and Austin stand on the edge of a precipice eyeballing each other with uncertain respect and caution as they assess who they are and what they have wrought together. We realize that they have sought this desert of their creation. That they, by primal impulses, destroyed and trashed everything around them including some of their mother’s prized possessions to get there, is unfathomable to us. It is incomprehensible unless we examine our own self-destructive behaviors. However, their behavior is an achievement necessary to get to who they are. At the least they’ve shed pretense. They are raw creature/creations like the the yapping coyotes that lure pets, grab them and chow down for supper. However, where these characters go from this still point remains uncertain. But the hope is that it will result in a new identity for each, away from the annihilation and alienation of the parents who raised them.
Though Shepard’s play is set in the distant past, the themes and relationship that Hawke and Dano establish is vital, energetic, heart-breaking, mind-blowing, current. Each actor has brought so much of his own grist to Lee and Austin and responds with such familiarity and raw honesty to the other, it is absolutely breathtaking. It remains impossible not to watch both and be in awe of their craft. One is utterly engaged in the suspense of where the brothers’ impulses will take them as they scrape and claw at each other’s nerve endings to create bleeding wounds.
Thanks go to James Macdonald’s direction and staging to facilitate Dano’s and Hawke’s memorable portrayals. With extraordinary performances like theirs, we are compelled to consider the characters, and determine how and why they are smashing each other’s personal boundaries to reveal inner resentments, hurts, and the chaotic forces that have swamped each of them in the most particular ways. The ties that bind them run so deep these two are oxymorons. They have identical twin souls, though they are externally antithetical. Why they clash is because they are like minded: raging, though controlled. Their emotions, like subterranean lava flows wait for the precise moment to explode and change the landscape around them. Lee is the more mature volcano; but his earthquakes create the chain reaction that stirs Austin’s. No smoke and mirrors here; just raw power.
As a perfect foil to spur the play’s development Gary Wilmes portrays Saul Kimmer, the producer hack who smarmes his way into Austin’s heart, then dumps him because he will not exact a devil’s bargain which Austin refuses to accept. Austin’s rejection of the “bargain,” enragese Lee. Wilmes is appropriately diffuse and opaque. Where does he really stand? What happened to make him turn on a dime regarding hiring Austin who has invested sweat equity and emotional integrity in a project Kimmer professed interest in? Wilmes is both authentic and the Hollywood “type,” to drive Lee and Austin against each other.
Likewise, as a foil, Marylouise Burke is LOL hysterical but frightening as their quirky mother. Her responses to their behavior are hyperbolic in the reverse and they speak volumes about how this family “functioned” in the past. She, too, helps to engine the suspense as Austin takes his power over Lee and she remains sanguine. All of the audience who are parents and especially those who have avoided the role are screaming silently in horror as the two “have at one another.” The situation and their confrontation is insane and humorous. Burke is perfect in the role as non-mediator. And Macdonald has done a magnificent job of balancing the tone and tenor of the last scene. As a result, Burke, Hawke, Dano deliver the lightening blow that helps us to realize the brothers’ intentions and the result of where they find themselves at the finale.
So much of the production resides in these incredible portrayals, of Lee and Austin’s devolution into the abyss to come to an epiphany. Caught up with that, one may overlook the artistic design. But it is so integral for it reveals the family and reflects the dynamic interactions. Superb, for example are the sound effects which augment in intensity, the frame of lights contrasting the stage into darkness for set changes, the homely, well-ordered kitchen and alcove writing area, the lovely plants and their “growth” (a field-day for symbolists), and the props. The toasting scene is just fabulous. Kudos go to Mimi Lien (Set Design) Kaye Voyce (Costume Design) Jane Cox (Lighting Design) Bray Poor (Original Music & Sound Design) Tom Watson (Hair & Wig Design) Thomas Shall (Fight Choreographer).
Sam Shepard’s play is a powerful revelation of brotherly love and hate, its design and usefulness. At the heart of our global issues resides familial relationships. To what impact on the whole is the sum of its parts? To what extent do families foment their own hatred upon themselves and the culture to exacerbate the issues? Likewise, what of families who love each other? The interplay between families and society is present but understanding it remains elusive and opaque. Shepard attempts clarity. Certainly, Lee points out that family relationships are high stakes and sometimes the warring relatives kill each other. Certainly, Austin points out that he and Lee will not kill each other over a film script. But he underestimates how far he or Lee are willing to go. How far are any of us willing to go if pushed by a relative?
Life’s uncertainty, as in the best of plays is all about surprise and not knowing what will happen in the next moments. This production of True West lives onstage because the actors are immersed in the genius of acting uncertainty that is always present. Most probably, their performance is different daily because the actors have dared to breathe out the characters whose souls they have elicited. Just W.O.W! (wild, obstreperous, wonderful)