Flint, Michigan’s water crisis is ongoing as Erika Dickerson-Despenza clearly establishes in the world premiere production of Cullud Wattah currently at The Public Theater. Directed by Candis C. Jones the play is evocative, heartfelt and praiseworthy in its power to shock and anger the audience, as it clues them in to the Cooper family’s stoic struggles to get to the next day. Their trials become more laborsome and earth-shattering as they confront the irreparable contamination of their water supply that is slowly killing them because they were notified too late by city and state officials of its toxicity.
Dickerson-Despenza gradually evolves the situation acquainting us with three generations of the Cooper family of women who live in the house that Marion (the edgy Crystal Dickinson) and her deceased husband purchased through their hard work at the GM plant which outsourced, downsized and ended his job. Thus, to make money, her husband joined the military where he was later killed in the U.S. war with Afghanistan.
Living in the Flint house with Marion are her mother, Big Ma (the humorous and no nonsense Lizan Mitchell) her pregnant sister Ainee (the superb and empathy evoking Andrea Patterson) and Marion’s two daughters Plum, the totem-like representative for all Flint’s younger children, portrayed by Alicia Pilgrim, and Reesee. As Reesee, Lauren F. Walker delivers an apt portrayal of the strong, self-determined older daughter, who loses faith in her relationship to the Yoruba water goddess Yemoje, who doesn’t protect the family from hardship and injury.
Dickerson-Despenza’s work is culturally powerful. Her characters establish their ancestry through dialect and dialogue using an easy Black accented speech, save Marion who has been influenced and perhaps soulfully compromised by working at the General Motors plant for most of her life.
Though General Motors has provided opportunity, it has been responsible for abusing its employees when they protested for better working conditions and wages. During the play Ainee reminds Marion that GM polluted the Flint River for years and abusive workers (members of the Klan) killed their father and took vengeance out on their mother, Big Ma, for her work actions against the company which left her disabled.
As the family discusses the situation and with the news Big Ma listens to running in the background, the facts of the crisis are manifest. City and state officials are accountable for switching the water supply to the toxic Flint River from Lake Huron running on a platform to “save money.” Their MO for reelection (fiscal responsibility) did the opposite negligently and incompetently. They discounted that the Flint River had been polluted with toxic sludge from GM for years and was completely undrinkable and unusable. However, since the water was mostly going into the black community and since that community contributed less in property taxes, officials wantonly ignored the danger lurking in their unresearched, inherently racist and negligent actions.
Interestingly, the city and state grew a conscience when GM noted that the water needed for their industrial process building engines was corroding and destroying their product and bottom line. GM screamed to change the water back to the clean Lake Huron. Rather than for GM to close or sue Flint, immediately city officials and the state responded. However, only GM received the clean water. And when word of the situation leaked, city officials and then Republican Michigan Governor Snyder wickedly lied. They declared the water was safe to drink. Their lies killed, destroyed families and cost billions of dollars in medical bills and future liabilities for sick adults. The financial burden to educate and medically care for young children brain damaged by lead poisoning and confronting other ills (cancer) from the water is ongoing and especially egregious.
We learn during the play that Marion, knowledgeable about this situation at GM, withholds the secret from her family. Though she attempts to bring the water from GM to their home, it is too late. Eventually, her silence backfires on her through Plum’s sickness and the ill effects of rashes, hair loss and other conditions the family endures from being poisoned by the toxic soup.
Dickerson-Despenza uses Ainee as the foil in the arguments supporting the “good” that GM did for Flint versus their criminal behavior in not protecting their workers and their abusive acts against the union. Ainee’s stance is an indictment against GM and those workers who allowed themselves to be compromised and exploited as she argues with Marion that she owes GM nothing, and must become involved in a Class Action lawsuit against the city and officials for their negligence and responsibility in decimating the Flint community via the toxic water.
As the situation unfolds, we learn how each of the women respond in dealing with the crisis on a personal level and as a member of the Cooper family. Ainee attempts to become an activist, though this runs counter to Marion who is moving up at GM, despite their initial attempt to lay her off. How Marion manages to finesse herself an opportunity is revealed later in the play.
Marion’s daughter Reesee attempts to keep sane during the crises by praying and giving offerings to the Yoruba goddess of water which she reveals to Plum as a secret because Big Ma is religious and doesn’t approve of black folk gods. Plum attempts to take control of the situation with her mathematical skills, figuring out how much daily water they need for each of their activities.
Big Ma prays to the Christian God and helps with the chores and generally chides each of them if they step over the line of decency, especially with regard to vulgar language. However, the rock of the family is Marion. She is the only one able to work. She takes care of their financial burdens with no help from the others and is pressured by their debts: Plum’s medical bills, the upkeep of the house, their great quantity of water purchases, utilities and more.
The playwright’s details about the bottles of water required to wash vegetables, the turkey and trimmings for Thanksgiving dinner, to clean up and take care of their daily needs is a staggering reminder of how much we depend upon water in our lives. Wherever you turn in the theater, you see the reminder of the importance of clean water via Adam Rigg’s wonderful set design. Through Plum, who is dying because of the corrupted water, we note the numbers. At the play’s beginning, she chalks off the days Flint’s water supply has been corrupted since 2014: it is in the thousands surrounding the walls of the theater. On sides of the stage, Riggs has suspended bottles of water hanging down against the walls. It looks clean, but is it? The stage is filled with bottles of yellow, toxic water that the women label as a record that their water supply is still contaminated.
Dickerson-Despenza’s themes are paramount: timeless as well as politically current. What happens when an elite power structure controls the resources all of us need to thrive? What happens if they are discriminatory, partisan, bigoted killers at heart? What happens if the people they put in power in the government are those who they pay off to continue destroying the communities they despise, the voices that must be heard, but are killed off to keep them silent and the power structure intact?
Cullud Wattah is essentially a play about water as a life source spiritually, psychically and materially using the horrific backdrop of Flint, Michigan to show how Republicans and corporates (represented by GM) amorally decimated the black community with impunity safeguarded by bought corporate-backed politicos for decades. Breaking down the will, soul and spirit of a community, oppressing it, makes it easier for politicians and their donors to overcome their righteous voices and resistance. Soon, unable to maintain and uphold their rights in a country whose laws guarantee “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” but judicially allows oppressors to staunch their rights, democracy, one voice one vote, becomes compromised.
Dickerson-Despenza leaves no stone unturned in claridly, unapologetically dramatizing the painful, terrible crimes against humanity represented by the Cooper family as a microcosm of the macrocosm. The abomination not only concerns Flint, Michigan, it threatens every community in the US and globally. The higher ups briefly mentioned on Big Ma’s newscasts are as invisible in the play as a clear glass of water looks clean. You have to get up close and examine the molecular structure to note the contamination, corruption, poisonous, corrosive toxicity.
Indeed, though Dickerson-Despenza and Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s lighting design and Sinan Refik Zafar’s sound design and composition includes a digital blow up of the litigation against the city and state officials, that the blow up is not visibly large enough for the back row to see the fine print is symbolic. Such litigation is not enough to recompense what the Cooper family has endured in psychic and emotional suffering. And indeed, lengthy jail terms for the Republican officials, including the former disgraced Governor Snyder, must be leveled, if not as a deterrent to Republicans seeking positions of power to line their pockets, but as a warning for citizens to not elect such wanton, miscreant criminally minded individuals, regardless of political party.
To elect moral, efficacious officials, one has to bring out a microscope and “test the waters.” With the lies politicos glibly use to get elected, and the collusion between them and corporations to abuse the public and communities where they settle, this appears to be impossible. However, thanks to Republicans, you can see whether the water is clean or dirty and can assess if the politicians have the public’s interest at heart. Republican extremists which govern their party are making it very obvious that their water is filthy and toxic.
Cullud Wattah covers much ground and speaks volumes about victims, activists and the unseen criminal politicos who abuse their citizens. In its unabashed indictment of racism that emerges from the discussions and conflict between Ainee and Marion, are the warnings. If this happens in one community, it can happen in every community, because certain parties don’t care who is hurt, who dies as long as they 1)make money 2)get away with murder. The title is symbolic inferring the beautiful spirit and resilience of these women who are black. Of course, it refers to Flint’s water which is yellow, and the fact that officials criminally saw “fit” to let the blacks (the cullud) drink it, a hate crime which the federal government must address.
The play is heartbreaking with terrifically current themes. The particular irony and idiocy of white supremacists is that they believe their bought “Republican” politicians will always have their best interests at heart. Those white folks who lived in Flint also drank contaminated water and suffered, but predominately, the black community was hit: this is a crime of federal proportions.
Polluted water, like COVID, is not subject to race. Regardless of your heritage, you get sick. Polluted politicians are subject to race to get elected. Once in office, in their amoral perspectives, the election gives them the legitimacy and impunity to harm citizens regardless of race, creed, religion. But the truly wicked ones unleash their hatred on specific communities, deemed to be too “weak,” to protest and be heard. Flint is emblematic of this. It is to her great credit that Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s Cullud Wattah, its director Candis C. Jones, the wonderful actors and the astute creative team brought this play to The Public. It needs to be seen across the U.S.
Kudos to the creative team not heretofore mentioned: Kara Harmon (costume design) Earon Chew Healey (hair, wigs and makeup design). Cullud Wattah is a must see that runs until December 12th at the Public Theater. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
The Visitor, a haunting musical based on Thomas McCarthy’s resonant titular film (2007) has been extended at The Public Theater and is ending December 5th, 2021. That we are able to see it at all, given the former president’s COVID botch job, which, for a time, made New York City the global epicenter of death, shuttering theater for months, is nothing short of miraculous.
The egregious hell of the previous administration, including its threatened overthrow of the nation led by the former president and white supremacists who oppose immigration and the constitutional rule of law, may influence one toward a jaded view of The Visitor as woefully “uncurrent.” Some critics suggested this, sadly. Indeed, that is dismissive of the musical’s inherent hope, goodness and prescience. Not to view it through the proper lens of historical time would be as limiting as the unjust institutions and failed immigration policies that the production thematically indicts.
The Visitor, acutely directed by Daniel Sullivan, takes place after 2001 during the Bush Jr. administration when certain groups viewed Muslim immigrants as possible terrorists. The period 2001-2007 was a less divisive time in the nation, but our failed immigration policies did stagnate and worsen, setting us up for future debacles and the growth of white domestic terrorism. Nevertheless, if one’s sensibilities are too upended by the traumas of the Trump administration to enjoy the musical without keeping the 2001-2007 time period in mind, the themes and the human core of this work by Tom Kitt (music) Brian Yorkey (lyrics) Kwame Kwei-Armah & Brian Yorkey (book) will be overlooked and given short shrift.
The themes are relayed principally through the relationships established between white college professor Walter (David Hyde Pierce in an emotional and effecting portrayal), Syrian Tarek (the likeable Ahmad Maksoud) and his girlfriend from Senegal, Zainab (the golden voiced Alysha Deslorieux). Believing Walter’s Manhattan apartment has been vacated, Tarek and Zainab, tricked by an “Ivan,” have been staying there without Walter’s knowledge. What occurs after Walter discovers their presence, takes us back to a time before Donald Trump’s inhumane immigration policies, Republican party nihilism and Democratic governors’ establishment of sanctuary cities to protect the undocumented and waiting asylum seekers.
The opening numbers (“Prologue,” “Wake Up,” “Voices Through a Window”) establish why Walter is amenable to not behaving like a guard dog (who would note Zainab’s accent and Tarek’s swarthy looks) and immediately call the police to arrest the couple. Walter is a professor, not law enforcement and Zainab sees the precariousness of their situation and with passion mitigates their mistake (Zainab’s Apology”). After they leave, Walter finds Zainab’s sketch pad and runs after them. What results is an act of hospitality and generosity, as he allows the couple to stay until they find somewhere else to go.
Walter’s state of mind, character, background and the loss of his wife and emotional destitution prompt this irregular action. On the couple’s part, Zainab who has been through an undocumented female’s hell which we later discover (“Bound for America”) doesn’t trust Walter and presses Tarek to leave, despite their desperate circumstances. David Hyde Pierce, a consummate actor whose Walter floats like a ghost without any sense of purpose, mission or happiness, sparks to interest identifying with the couple’s romantic love (“Tarek and Zainab,”). He wants to trust in their goodness and decency because he has already lost everything worth anything to him and he has nothing left to lose.
Walter, Tarek and Zainab take this incredible risk because of their overwhelming needs. All are visitors to this land of human decency which they extend to each other by hope and a faith that grows and changes their lives. When Tarek teaches Walter how to play one of his djembes (a goblet drum played with bare hands that originated in West Africa) and takes him to the park to play with others (the incredible “Drum Circle”) a bond is formed that will never be broken.
Above all the music (thanks to Rick Edinger, Emily Whitaker, musicians and the entire music team) solidifies the themes of friendship, unity, empathy, humanity. Significantly, it suggests that it is through our cultural differences, if we are open to them, via artistic soul expression, that the commonality among all of us may best be found. These themes, at what appears to be the height of racism and white supremacy in our nation today must be affirmed more than ever. The Visitor does this with subtlety like a grand slam played with two cool finesses.
At the first turning point in the production, the center starts to give way. Though Walter tries to advocate for the inaccuracy of the transit cops’ charges, Tarek is arrested for “jumping” a subway turn style after he pays but can’t fit himself and his drum through it. The cops’ action underscores the inequity of the justice system (if he were white, they probably wouldn’t arrest him). The cops find it “inconvenient” to believe Tarek’s explanation, nor do they follow Walter’s advice to check his card to verify Tarek’s truthfulness.
Discovering Tarek is undocumented, they put him in a detention center in Queens. Feeling responsible for Tarek’s situation, Walter hires an attorney, visits Tarek and keeps Zainab encouraged. It is in the detention center that we note the cruelty toward the undocumented who are treated as criminals though they are asylum seekers and willing to work for a better life for themselves. The music, lyrics and Lorin Latarro’s choreography, especially in “World Between Two Worlds” by Tarek, Walter and the Ensemble are superbly expressive, heart-wrenching and powerful.
As the stakes become higher in the second turning point, Tarek’s mother Mouna (the effecting, soulful Jacqueline Antaramian) visits Walter’s apartment looking for Tarek. Events complicate. Walter finds Mouna appealing and authentic. Mouna and Zainab ride the Staten Island Ferry, finally becoming friends (“Lady Liberty”) sharing how they believed the seductive promises of the “American Dream.” Because Mouna and Zainab may never see Tarek again in the U.S., Walter becomes the one they must turn to (“Heart in Your Hands,” “Blessings,” “Such Beautiful Music.”). Beyond hope (“What Little I Can Do”) Walter does his best, but the institutions fail him, fail everyone.
It is through the relationships with Tarek, Mouna, Zainab that Walter’s humanity and empathy are stirred to change his soul and his direction in life. It is the love for Tarek and the hope of his release that changes Mouna’s and Zainab’s relationship with each other. And their relationship with Walter establishes a new level of understanding that there are some “good” people who will help. Finally, it is the stirring of Tarek’s concern for Zainab that helps him realize his spiritual love and connection with her is not bounded by the material plane (“My Love is Free”) or held in by the walls of his jail cell or deportation back to Syria. And it is that spiritual love for her and his connection to Walter that will help him face whatever he encounters.
As an archetype for all sane individuals, Walter realizes the issues underlying Tarek’s, Zainab’s, Mouna’s situation. We are to agree with him, the creative team hopes. These individuals are not “the other” that their nationless position or the white supremacists’ fascistic stereotyping suggests they are: dangerous, encroaching, grifting. In the showstopping “Better Angels” David Hyde Pierce prodigiously, emotionally expresses his song-prayer for Tarek. He petitions against the injustice of Tarek’s situation by a nation which should act better, but itself has become unmoored from its founding ideals of liberty and the inalienable rights of human beings. (“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”)
As Pierce sings, the irony of an older white gentleman whose life has been bled out of him, standing in the gap for a young undocumented Syrian, who is full of vitality and hope, wanting to live his life to the fullest in a country that doesn’t deserve him, is beyond fabulous. It is heartbreaking. Pierce, impassioned, speak/sings it out into the nether regions of spiritual consciousness. Is anyone listening? Have we forsaken our citizen right to help others?
I apologize for being moved as I thought of what was to come because of these failed immigration policies which continued and inspired Trump’s white supremacist fascism: kids in camps at the Southern Border, kids lost to parents for years, the undocumented dying in stifling heat and horrific conditions, proud Trumpers appreciating Steven Miller’s cruelty while donating to grifter Steve Bannon’s fake “Build the Wall” fund.
The Visitor presciently, horrifically intimates what happens if injustice and cruelty are institutionalized and the populace is inured to it or worse, uses it as a grinding post to domestically terrorize others for pleasure’s sake. White supremacists have evolved to do so precisely because of failed immigration policies which a craven, unhinged politician exploited for his own grifting agenda.
Equally terrifying is the war of attrition against decency and the lack of wisdom to appreciate this historically as revealed by The Visitor. If we consider that critics are inured/jaded not to see in The Visitor the failed state of our culture in 2001-2007, that the next eight years augmented via the Obama administration. And while many were thrilled with Obama, in the shadows, white supremacy groups grew by demonizing “the other” until they blossomed to a “first wave” of fascism which supported the president of white supremacy who followed up with inhuman, indecent acts from immigration crimes to COVID deaths. And still no one is suing for “crimes against humanity?”
The character of Walter reminds white males it’s OK to be human and humane and decent and empathetic. To think this production is not “current” enough via its historical perspective is misguided.
In Kitt’s. Yorkey’s, Kwame Kwei-Armah’s work fueling Thomas McCarthy’s film, Tarek, Mouna symbolize the courageous willing to take horrific risks. We need to be reminded of this again and again. Sullivan’s The Visitor seeks to move us from being stones kicked around by politicians, to understand the impossible hardship of leaving all that was once familiar and comforting in the hope of escaping catastrophe only to never gain the security sought (“Where Is Home?/No Home”). As climate change continues to roil the planet and immigration issues exacerbate, we can’t drop a stitch in our understanding.
The actor/singers, phenomenal swings, musicians and creative team stir us to care and act in this call to arms to change our failed historical US immigration policies that have caused horrific pain for asylum seekers and dreamers as they wait for citizenship to no avail. Not only must changes be made, they must be made permanent so that no Executive Order, lawsuit or state can reverse it to pleasure a fascist.
Specific shout outs to David Zinn’s evocative scenic design: the steel backdrop of the detention center and its ironic contrast, Walter’s comfortable apartment. Kudos to Toni-Leslie James (costumes) Japhy Weideman (lighting) and others who helped to make The Visitor a compelling, must-see show. For tickets and times visit the website: CLICK HERE.
David Henry Hwang’s awards and honors are too numerous to list here. Suffice to say he won the Tony Award, Drama Desk and Outer Circle Critics Award for M. Butterfly (1988). He is a prodigious author, playwright, librettist and screenwriter who was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize three times. With Soft Power, directed by Leigh Silverman, Hwang has crafted a mesmerizing production. Soft Power is a genre hybrid, a musical-fantasy-farce within a satire-comedy with autobiographical overtones. Primarily, the musical within a play concerns Chinese/American custom disparities, U.S./China relations and events around the U.S. 2016 election and afterward. To my mind it is Hwang’s finest theatrical production to date.
I saw a number of his works including the original production of M. Butterfly (1988) and the revival (2017), productions at the Pershing Square Signature Center (Dance and the Railroad-2013, Golden Child-2013, Kung Fu-2014) and an Off Off Broadway production of Yellow Face in 2009. I saw Chinglish on Broadway (2011) twice.
For Soft Power, Hwang wrote the lyrics, with Jeanine Tesori composing the music and additional lyrics. With choreography by Sam Pinkleton and a large Asian cast, Leigh Silverman, a long time collaborator with Hwang, shepherded the creatives and ensemble with sensitivity. Her adroit mastery pushing the envelope to achieve the right balance of comedy, irony, satire, humor, musical-fantasy-farce and stark reality to elucidate Hwang’s varied themes is a prime achievement of this production.
Hwang’s themes in this play/musical are on steroids to his credit. One should see this production a number of times; it is replete with concepts to think about including these: the U.S. is considered a dangerous country and visitors from abroad are warned of the mass shootings and white nationalist terrorist attacks. Among other concepts Hwang confronts with irony in the musical-fantasy sequence are the proliferation of guns. There is a sardonically funny song the Veep sings with the ensemble, “Good Guy With a Gun.” Hwang highlights the increasing bigoted, racist, xenophobic attacks on those who are not “white and right.” And he ironically underscores China’s move toward westernization with the U.S. creep into autocracy under an unnamed (Hwang will not dignify his name, again to his credit) lawless president and the culture his lawlessness promotes.
Another important theme the entire play and the musical presents is what it is to be an American who lives in a democracy whose constitution guarantees the freedoms it does and most especially the right of every citizen to vote. In the musical-fantasy sequence and even in the play that frames the musical, Hwang’s protagonists go head to head arguing the benefits of freedom and democracy vs. China’s autocracy and selection of leaders. Throughout, the playwright zeroes in on what it is like to be a Chinese-American in a nation that had deep xenophobic roots and anti-immigrant sentiment that since the last election have surfaced and would continue to grow into a poisonous tree overshadowing constitutional freedoms unless the equivalent of weed killer in the form of love dissolves it at the root!
The opening scene of the play is autobiographical. DHH is on the street with groceries in front of his home, right before he was stabbed in his neck and nearly died. Played by Francis Jue who is nuanced, innocent, astutely honest, funny and sings with gorgeous resonance and power, DHH questions whether he will be “able to live in the country anymore.” Then the scene quickly shifts. Hwang cleverly dislocates us in time and we follow along to the next scene unaware of what will happen to him and the import of his comment.
In the next scene DHH meets with Xūe Xíng (Conrad Ricamora is near perfect as the debonair, well-meaning, sophisticated, musical lead-Chinese style) head of the North American Division of Dragon Entertainment based in Shanghai. Xūe Xíng presents the “soft power” idea to commission DHH to write a musical based on a film with a hysterical title roughly translated, “Stick With Your Mistake.” Xūe Xíng tells the dubious DHH that because he is a renowned and successful Chinese American playwright, he would be the perfect candidate to write a musical that will open the Dragon Palace in Shanghai when it is finished. But when Xūe Xíng tells him what the film is about, DHH disagrees with the ending based on cultural American values. The film is about a couple who love other people and desire to split up; following Chinese mores, they remain together. We discover later that this film is “close” to Xūe Xíng’s heart, though the Chinese populace is changing and may find the ending “old-fashioned” as DHH suggests.
DHH must leave because he is off to see The King and I then meet Hillary Clinton at a presidential candidate reception. He invites Xūe Xíng to go with him and the married Xūe Xíng brings his lover Zoe Samuels (Alyse Alan Louis). Louis also plays Hillary Clinton in the musical-fantasy sequences and is hysterical when she sings as Hillary the “Song of The Campaign Trail” and then in full throated, uplifted glory, the smashing “Democracy.” She is sensational.
In this scene between DHH and Xūe Xíng and then with Zoe, Hwang establishes many of the humorous tropes that will follow throughout the play. The playwright references differences between Chinese culture and American culture regarding politics and election of leaders. The dialogue reveals the differences in understanding and behavior. And there is the usual mangling of the Chinese language by Americans which is humorous, especially as DHH doesn’t know how to speak his Dad’s and mom’s birth language because he was born in the U.S.
For the Chinese, duty and obligation are paramount. For Americans following one’s heart is paramount. Chinese rarely show emotion; Americans as a group show emotions and allow their feelings to be expressed. Also, during this exchange we see the exemplification of China’s concept of “soft power“ in what Xūe Xíng hopes to accomplish with Chinese-American DHH. DHH will be perfect to write a smash hit for the Chinese in a cross cultural exchange. Humorously, Xūe Xíng references Lion King and Mama Mia, but since they will be seeing The King and I before meeting Hillary, Xūe Xíng hopes DHH will write that type of musical hit for China. Considering the elements of colonialism, DHH ironically points out the problems with the Rogers and Hammerstein II musical as something he would not want to write.
When Xūe Xíng suggests that China be in the position of the colonial power (the “I”) schooling the “King” (the U.S.) the implication is absolutely hysterical. Xūe Xíng’s sardonic riff about the U.S. barbaric Asian war policies abroad (with Japan, Korea, Viet Nam, China) and at home (the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese Internment during WWII) needing to be refined toward civility (as the teacher schools the King and the children in The King and I) is priceless. Also, the concept of China being the advanced and the U.S. being the inferior (it is happening as I write this thanks to the current U.S. president’s policies from Climate Change to tariffs) is not only funny it is incredibly ironic.
Hwang riffs on himself with humor as character DHH responds ironically about his plays-they are not quite in the same vein as Lion King, nor is his idea of a smash musical being “Sticking With Your Mistake.” But it is at this juncture we understand the underlying premise of China’s initiative to curry favor with globalists by “leveraging their cultural assets and spending large sums of money” to create initiatives in the arts, etc. This is how to influence, how to find an acceptable way into other countries’ minds and hearts. When DHH suggests that such a film may not be what the younger Chinese want that they are modernizing toward America, Xūe Xíng suggests that America may become more like China. Hwang’s portentous meaning cannot be understated.
The scene shifts again and DHH’s America is falling apart; Hillary lost. DHH argues with Xūe Xíng about the efficacy of everyone having the right to vote and electing the most qualified candidate in the popular vote and losing in the electoral college which Xūe Xíng finds appalling and illogical. It is a humorously frustrating exchange. The scene shifts; DHH is alone in front of his home in Brooklyn. Xūe Xíng has rubbed his point in about the election in the U.S. DHH questions how he can remain in a country that “voted for a guy that doesn’t believe we belong here,” and remain in a country to be nothing more than “supporting characters in someone else’s story.”
It is then Hwang brings us full circle out from the flashback into the opening scene of the play. As he ruminates about being a second class citizen as a Chinese American in the U.S., something happens that confirms his estimation, but it is beyond expectation. Reality slams into him and us. DHH as David Henry Hwang is stabbed by some white guy. Luckily, he yells in UNACCENTED ENGLISH, “WTF!” and the attacker runs away. As DHH applies pressure to the wound as per the Boy Scout instructions he learned as a kid, he walks toward the hospital and just before losing consciousness and fainting, he hears violins. And the musical-fantasy-satire emerges with chorus, dancing, orchestra and more as DHH hovers between life and death in what is a also a metaphoric rendering of his identity as a Chinese American.
Act One of the musical begins as DHH’s dream. The previous action repeats but with intensified be-spectacled musical numbers sung by Asian actors in white face. In another sardonic twist we are back in time at the beginning of Xūe Xíng’s story revealed from his perspective about his time in the U.S. After he says goodbye to his daughter (Kendyl Ito) who warns him about going to the dangerous country (“Dutiful”) he lands at Kennedy airport (“Welcome to America”) in what Hwang describes as a “deeply militarized, religious fundamentalist, violent society.” Hwang’s focus on Xūe Xíng’s perspective reveals what it is like for a foreign traveler nearly getting defrauded. However, Xūe Xíng, the hero, humorously turns the situation around by hiring a body guard Bobby Bob (the funny Austin Ku) who is always in the shadows to protect him. After all, this is a positive musical.
In this segment, DHH again converses with Xūe Xíng about the play he might write, and they go to meet Hillary (“I’m With Her,” ). In Hwang’s roiling unconsciousness he dreams Xūe Xíng and Hillary bond together as Xūe attempts to teach her his name (“It Just Takes Time”). They satirize the reverse of the relationship in “The King and I” with Hillary in the barbaric country position and Xūe Xíng as the “I.” The scene is sardonic, considering the idealized players; Alyse Alan Louis is an exuberant Hillary (she looks like Chelsea) and Conrad Ricamora is the civil, gentlemanly, Asian leading man. The satire and irony here are profound as they dance a waltz referencing, The King and I.
As the election results are tabulated, the song “Election Night” is sung by the Chief Justice (the very funny Jon Hoche) and the ensemble. They sing a LOL description of the American election process and the dire Electoral College. But at the announcement that the “guy who hates China” won, white nationalists storm the building and in the process DHH is stabbed. In a dramatic duet (“I Am”) beautifully sung by DHH (Ju) and Xūe Xíng (Ricamora) DHH realizes he has been a fake, neither Chinese, nor American in a full blown identity crisis. With Xūe Xíng’s encouragement, he affirms he is one whole not separate and distinct cultures. That viewpoint is one of love. Holding the bleeding DHH, Xūe Xíng counsels himself to the Chinese way of not showing feeling or emotion. As he faints, DHH states “Democracy has broken my heart.” The angry white nationalist mob marches with tiki torches, guns and bats. Xūe Xíng poignantly questions, “What is this America? Why do I cry for America?” as Act I chillingly ends with an emotional and heart-wrenching flourish.
Soft Power as a musical is maverick. It is revolutionary theater breaking genre molds. It diverges in the arc of development which swings like a pendulum including flashback, framing of the main story of DHH’s stabbing and his interactions and impact on Xūe Xíng and vice-versa. The action in the musical loops back revealing the story focusing more on Xūe Xíng’s perspective and the quasi love story between him and Hillary which could be read as symbolic of two countries brought together by love. Of course in DHH’s dream to recovery, there is the realistic component, but the musical is fantastic truth; in it DHH has supplanted Zoe with Hillary.
Additionally, in another amazing twist of the plot and in full on irony in a theater of the absurdist style, Act Two begins with a commentary interlude as a panel sits to discuss the impact of Soft Power fifty years later. Hwang’s panel comments on DHH’s stabbing as a “secondary character” and they argue about the form of the musical being developed in China by Xūe Xíng as “spoken and sung drama.” One expert states there are no American artists, only native craftspeople.
In this brief scene, we as audience members have been shifted via sci-fi to the future. We get to view the play in a retrospective as Hwang comments on himself ironically. The experts (one who specializes in second-world nations-that is what America has become) argues with an American expert, Adjunct Professor of American Folklore at Columbia University about the genre. The Professor argues that some of the New York entertainments were sophisticated: “One of the most popular was entirely about cats.” Clearly, Hwang gets to dish on Broadway’s tourist fare which rankles New Yorkers especially at the holidays. The Chinese refer to these American shows by “a second-world nation” as “regional folk art” which the Chinese as a first world nation elevated. The ironies are telling.
Sadly, their discussion of why DHH was stabbed is Hwang’s factual indictment of white supremacy which his experts fifty years later also refer to as a “random act of violence.” Hwang’s theme of the U.S. as a dangerous country for a traveler is brought to bear for all Americans, especially the politician who would refuse to bring the gun legislation that has been passed in the House to the floor of the Senate.
In reality, David Henry Wang was stabbed before the 2016 election. The violent undercurrents in this nation have been there in each century. America as fantasy-land of the golden dream has many caveats, one of them gun violence, the other xenophobia. These two have been merged into companions by the current president whose rhetoric has exacerbated the violence. Hwang uses the musical to unleash the satire about the election, guns, etc., because when all has been said, satire hits the target most memorably and is unforgettable.
The musical resumes and ends with Hillary overcoming her losing blues and upholding “Democracy,” perhaps the finest song in the show. DHH awakens and the ensemble joins him in singing the reprise of “Democracy,” which is beyond uplifting for not only Americans but for those remaining democracies in the world. Finally, DHH encapsulates what the citizens of this nation believe, “good fortune will follow; if we somehow survive in America.”
Kudos to all creatives involved Clint Ramos (scenic design) Anita Yavich (costume design) Mark Barton (lighting design) Kai Harada (sound design) Bart Fasbender (sound effects design) Bryce Cutler (video design) Tom Watson (hair, wig and makeup design) Lillis Meeh (special effects) Danny Troob (orchestrations) with John Clancy (dance music arrangement/additional orchestrations), Larry Hochman (additional orchestrations) Antoine Silverman (music contractor) Chris Fenwick (music supervisor/music director).
Currently playing at the Public Theater until 17th November, Soft Power is sold out after a number of extensions. Someone may donate their tickets to the Public, so check the theater in the remaining days. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait until Soft Power goes to Broadway which it must. The show is astonishing. David Henry Hwang has exceeded even himself and it would be a shame if more people didn’t see it, especially this next year before the 2020 elections. In its hope, its simplicity and complexity, its truth, its charity, it is what we need right now and for as long as we are able to maintain our democratic republic.
The Michaels written and directed by Richard Nelson Tony Award-winning playwright (Best Book of a musical for The Dead) is in its world premiere at The Public. The play is part of the Rhinebeck Panaroma cycle of eight plays which include The Apple Family Plays and The Gabriels.
The Michaels takes place in Rhinebeck, New York on the Michaels’ farm in the kitchen of Rose Michaels (Brenda Wehle) a celebrated choreographer who is facing the trial of her life with an acute illness. Present are David, Rose’s former husband, a producer and arts manager (the continually on point, always listening, fiercely authentic Jay O. Sanders) Sally, David’s wife and a former dancer with Rose’s company. Sally is finely portrayed by Rita Wolf. Joining them are Irenie Walker (Haviland Morris) a former dancer with Rose’s company and Kate Harris, a retired high school history teacher. As Kate Maryann Plunkett is superb and equally on point in her moment-to-moment performance. The next generation of the Michaels family includes Lucy Michaels (Charlotte Bydwell) dancer/choreographer who is Rose’s and David’s daughter and May Smith, (Matilda Sakamoto) Rose’s niece who also is a dancer.
The Michaels is a “slice of life” drama where the development occurs within the characters as they gather for a reunion of sorts together in mindfulness of Rose’s upcoming exhibition and retrospective. They enjoy reminiscing about the past dancing. And they discuss experiences and highlight issues of currency and more. The interactions are laid back and flow like wisps on the wind that are there and gone. Their comments reveal Richard Nelson’s mastery of “everyday” dialogue. With this he manifests the importance of the little things, of appreciating what appears to be the insignificant detail that surrounds our lives, but which indeed, makes up the substance of the days and hours that we live. By emphasizing the apparently unimportant, these elements become the most crucial materials that saturate our beings in wonder.
The drama is layered with various textures. Although on one level, there isn’t much overt action, we note with the passage of time, the “how” of when friends and family are together. In the coherence there is a dynamism. During the process of gathering themselves, Rose physically reveals the nature of her condition: she is exhausted and must rest. In the first segment she goes upstairs to rest and we glide through this without much thought listening to the conversations generation about various subjects related to family, etc.
Nelson builds this situation as the play unfolds, first with lighthearted easiness then with heavier tones. Rose’s illness becomes more and more central to this evening which in fact is a turning point in all of these characters’ lives. But it is the first night they are all together to celebrate Rose’s contributions and celebration of the dance in a coming exhibit. And gradually we realize that the gathering is a reckoning that time is fleeting and their lives are moving in wheel and woe toward a rise and close on the next part of the journey.
As the conversation touches upon the dance world (primarily in New York) where everyone knows everyone else, and subjects come up about the country, politics and more, eventually Lucy and May are inspired to show the dances they are working on. They have a quasi rehearsal in the kitchen which is more of a presentation and we wonder if there is room to dance in the tight space. There is and we are amazed at their grace, their movements, their physicality and comprehension of every inch of the area they make theirs to rehearse in.
Interestingly, their dance becomes symbolic as Rose watches their progress. Another generation is rising as the previous generation of dancers is passing. We appreciate Lucy’s and May’s energy and vibrance which is a counterbalance to the stasis of the conversation which isn’t a climactic series of revelations, but of small personal observations, opinions, shared memories and moments.
As Rose’s daughter and her niece dance, Rose, may be overcome by the realization of what once was that will never be again. She falters in her strength, exhausted from the illness. She must leave the gathering once again to rest and Kate goes with her a caretaker of sorts. This is a recognition for Lucy who goes for a walk with May to deal with this incident and perhaps consider the increasing changes that will continue to occur in her mother’s condition..
In this segment where Rose is in excruciating pain and must go up for her pills assisted by Kate, a chain reaction like a surge of current ripples through the group. Expressions of what will happen spill out. It’s an irony. Mortality has a way of sneaking into the conversation when friends with a history together sit with drinks and food. Rose’s pain attack delivers a hushed response from friends and family. The characters’ sub rosa emotional ebb and flow breaks the surface and we intimate how they may be thinking what life will be like without Rose. But as David characterizes it succinctly, Rose’s condition “is what it is.” Kate will continue to help Rose deal with all practical matters. And when Kate returns to continue the dinner preparation, she mentions that Rose and she did discuss Rose moving in with her into town, leaving the farm, at some point in the future.
These are telling moments toward which all of the other “unimportant” details actually move. And we understand that this is a network of individuals who have circled each other and had their being around Rose who has been an artistic leader and the fountain from which they have been drinking and receiving their nourishment. Indeed, it is a credit to Rose and her congeniality and generosity that her former husband and she have remained friends and that David and Sally are welcome there, integral to this dinner at her farm.
As Kate finishes preparations, they converse and the others help set up the table and begin to eat, there is a familiarity that is stunning and exceptional. All of us have been in this place; we bond with the actors’ characterizations and their acceptance of “what is is, and what’s next is next.”
In revealing what is mundane and ordinary, the precious actions and conversations of these unique individuals are lifted to a “once-in-a-lifetime” event. They are there, in this space around the table eating and communing. It is a holy event. And because the ensemble brilliantly appear to be so “matter-of-fact” about it, we understand that for them such an event will never return again.
Kudos to the scenic designer Jason Ardizzone-West whose functional, well-thought out spacial arrangements and utilitarian props and set pieces i.e. stove, etc., appeared authentic. Likewise, co-costume designers Susan Hilferty and Mark Koss conveyed the mood and tenor of this family unit of relatives and friends in their dress. Jennifer Tipton (lighting designer) Scott Lehrer (sound designer) rounded out the creative team. The dances based on Original Choreography by Dan Wagoner were superb and kudos to Sara Rudner for her dance coaching.
The Michaels runs with no intermission until 24 November at The Public Theater. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
From Emilio Sosa’s vibrant costumes to Beowulf Boritt’s impeccable set design (a landscape of roses, luscious, ripe-for-the-plucking peaches on the Georgia peach tree, the luxuriant front lawn, the Georgian-styled, two-story mansion-representative of an orderly, harmonious, idyllic world) this update of Much Ado About Nothing resonates as an abiding Shakespearean classic. Director Kenny Leon’s vision for the comedy with threads of tragedy evokes a one-of-a-kind production with currency and moment. This is especially so as we challenge the noxious onslaught of Trumpism’s war on democratic principles, our constitution and the rule of law.
Directed with a studied reverence for eternal verities, Leon, with the help of his talented ensemble, carve out valuable takeaways. They focus on key elements that gem-like, reflect beauty and truth in Shakespeare’s characterizations, conflicts and themes. By the conclusion of the profound, spectacular evening of delight, of sorrow, and of laughter, we are uplifted. As we walk out into a shadowy Central Park, our minds and hearts have been inspired to shutter fear and cloak our souls against siren calls that would lure us from reason into irrational insentience and hatred.
Kenny Leon has chosen for his setting a wealthy black neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia, whose Lord of the realm, Leonato (Chuck Cooper’s prodigious, comedic and stentorian acting talents are on full display) shows his political persuasion with prominent signs on the front and side of his house that read, “Stacey Abrams 2020.” The impressive “Georgian-style” mansion which could be out of East Egg, the upper class setting of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is ironic with the addition of its advocating support for Abrams.
With this particular set piece, we note Leon’s comment on black progress toward a sustained economic prosperity amidst a backdrop of oppression, if one considers the chicanery that happened during Abrams’ run for the 2018 gubernatorial election. It also is reminiscent of the house of the racist, misogynistic villain of Gatsby, the arrogant, presumptuous Tom Buchannan and other such elites (i.e. wealthy conservatives) who give no thought to destroying “people and things” of the underclasses with their policies. Yet Lord Leonato and his friends and relatives are not turned away from justice and empathy for others. This the director highlights through this Shakespearean update whose characters seek justice and truth and encourage each other to abide in kindness, love and forgiveness.
Leon approaches his vision of justice through love by weaving in songs and music. At the outset Leon incorporates such music with a refrain sung by Beatrice (the inimitable Danielle Brooks):
“Mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying, brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying. You know we’ve got to find a way to bring some lovin’ here today.”
As Beatrice finishes the refrain by asking “What’s happening?” her ensemble of friends which include Hero (Margaret Odette), Margaret (Olivia Washington) and Ursula (Tiffany Denise Hobbs) sing the patriotic ballad “America the Beautiful” as a prayer and inspiration for the country to follow its ideals of “brotherhood from sea to shining sea.” This is not a war-like unction, it a solicitation for peace and goodness. Clearly, the women importune God to “shed His grace” on America. One infers their feeling as an imperative for political and social change hoped for, in a true democracy which can guarantee economic equality and justice.
The arrangement of “America the Beautiful” is lyrical and soulfully harmonious. As the women sing this anointed version they transform the text from hackneyed cliche, long abandoned by politicos and wealthy Federalist Society adherents, and uplift it with profound meaning. They encourage us toward authentically pursuing justice, brotherhood and unity in love and grace, elements which are sorely tried during the central focus of Much Ado About Nothing during Hero’s unjust slander and infamy until she receives vindication.
After the women finish singing, the men march in from the wars. Instead of arms, they carry protest signs decrying hate, uplifting love, proclaiming the right of democracy. Instead of a warlike manner they are calm. The theme of justice and the imperative for political and social brotherhood prayed for in the previous song is reaffirmed as we understand what the “soldiers” are fighting for. In Leon’s genius it is a spiritual warfare, a battle for the soul of American democracy. Leonato appreciates their endeavors and invites them to stay with him for one month to be refreshed and gain strength before they go back out for another skirmish against the forces of darkness.
The music and songs composed by Jason Michael Webb strategically unfold throughout the development of the primary love story between Leonato’s daughter, Hero (the superb Margaret Odette) and family friend Claudio (the excellent Jeremie Harris). And they follow to the conclusion with the funeral and redemption of Hero and her final marriage and dual wedding celebrations with the parallel love story between Beatrice and Benedick. The songs not only illustrate and solidify the themes of love, forgiveness, and the seasons of life, “a time for joy, a time for sorrow,” they unify the friends and family with hope and happiness through dancing and merriment. The melding of the music organically in the various scenes throughout the production is evocative, seamless and just grand.
After the men arrive from their protest, the director cleverly switches gears and the tone moves to one of playful humor and exuberance. With expert comic timing, Brooks’ Beatrice wags about Benedick in a war of sage wits and words. Coleman’s Benedick quips back to her with equal ferocity that belies both potentially have romantic feelings but must circle each other like well-matched competitors enjoying their “war” games as sport. They offer up the perfect foils to a plot their friends later devise using rumor to get Beatrice and Benedick to fall in love with each other in a twisted mix up that is hysterical in its revelations of human pride and ego.
The relationship between Beatrice (the marvelous Danielle Brooks) and Benedick (Grantham Coleman is her equally marvelous suitor and sparring partner) is portrayed with brilliance. The couple serves their delicious comedic fare with great good will and extraordinary fun. Their portrayals provide ballast and drive much of the forward action in the delightful plot events. Danielle Brooks gives a wondrously funny, soulfully witty portrayal. As Benedick, Grantham Coleman is Brooks’ partner in spontaneity, LOL humor, inventiveness and shimmering acuity.
Various interludes in Act I are also a time for male banter about the ladies Hero and Beatrice and the love match with Hero that friend of the family Don Pedro (Billy Eugene Jones) effects for his friend Claudio (Jeremie Harris). The scene between Benedick, Claudio and Don Pedro is superbly wrought with Benedick’s insistence he will remain a bachelor. The audience knows he “doth protest too much” for himself and for Claudio. The pacing of their taunts and jests is expertly rendered. The three actors draw out every bit of humor in Shakespeare’s characterizations.
Into this beauteous garden of delight, exuberance and order creeps the snake Don John (Hubert Point-Du Jour), brother of Don Pedro, and his confidante and friend Conrade (Khiry Walker). Though they support the fight for democracy, Don John is engaged in sub rosa familial warfare. We move from the macrocosm to the microcosm of the human heart which can be a place of extreme wickedness as it is with Don John who quarreled with his brother Don Pedro, his elder and does not forgive him. Don Pedro extended forgiveness and grace to Don John, which Don John feels forced to accept though he is not happy about it. Indeed, he is filled with rancor and seeks revenge, to abuse his brother and anyone near him, if the opportunity presents itself which it does.
The conversation between Conrade and Don John is intriguing for what Shakespeare’s characterizations reveal about the human condition, forgiveness and remorse. Indeed, Don John is reprobate. Whether out of jealousy or the thought that he has done no wrong, he feels bullied to accept his brother’s public forgiveness. The theme “grace bestowed is not grace received unless there is true remorse,” is an important message highlighted by this production through the character of evil Don John who eschews grace. Indeed, extending grace and forgiveness to such individuals is a waste of time. No wonder Don John would rather “be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace.”
Trusting Conrade, Don John admits he is a plain-dealing villain. When he learns of Claudio’s marriage, he plots revenge on Don Pedro by attacking his best friend and smearing Hero’s integrity and fidelity to Claudio. The jealous Claudio is skeptical, but later “proof” during a duplicitous arrangement with an unwitting Margaret, Claudio becomes convinced that Hero is an unfaithful, unchaste philistine.
Claudio’s jealous behavior and immaturity believing Don John turns goodness into another wickedness as evil begets evil. As they stand at the alter Claudio excoriates Hero as an unfit whore to the entire wedding party. Hero, injured unjustly by Don John’s wicked lie and Claudio’s extreme cruelty, collapses. In a classic historical repetition, once again misogyny raises its ugly head and condemns the innocent Hero destroying her once good name. Benedick, the uncanny Friar and Leonato stand with Hero. This key turning point in the production is wrought with great clarity by the actors so that the injustice is believable and it is shocking as injustice always is.
Thankfully, The Friar’s (a fine Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) suggestion to return Hero to grace and redemption in Claudio’s eyes by proclaiming her death to bring her again to a new life is effected with power. Finally, we appreciate a cleric who bestows love not condemnation or a rush to judgment! The emotional tenor of the scene is in perfect balance. Odette and Harris are heartfelt as is Cooper’s Leonato. The scene works in shifting the comedy to tragedy and of uplifting lies believed in as facts with wickedness overcoming love and light. Once again we are reminded that Shakespeare’s greatness is in his timelessness; that if allowed the opportunity for vengeance and evil, humanity will corruptly, wickedly use lies cast as facts to dupe and deceive the gullible, in this case Claudio.
I absolutely adore how the truth comes to light, through the lower classes represented by Dogberry (a hysterical Lateefah Holder) and her assistants who are witnesses to Don John’s accomplices to nefariousness. I also appreciate that all the villains in the work admit their wrongdoing; it is a marvel which doesn’t always occur the higher the ladder of power and ambition one ascends. But this is a comedy with tragic elements, thus, evil is turned to the light and Beatrice and Benedick the principle conveyors of humor are lightening strokes of genius which soothe us to patience until justice arrives right on time.
I also was thrilled to see that the remorseful, apologetic Claudio willingly accepts Hero’s recompense (Leon has Hero dog him in the face) as she unleashes her rage at his unjust treatment. These scenes of redemption and reconciliation ring with authenticity: Cooper, Odette and Harris shine.
The celebrations, masked dance, marriage between Hero and Claudio, Hero’s funeral and the final marriages are staged with exceptional interest and flow; they reveal that each in the ensemble is a key player in the action. The choreography by Camille A. Brown and the fight direction by Thomas Schall are standouts. Kudos also goes to those in the creative team not previously mentioned. Peter Kaczorowski’s gorgeous lighting design conveys romance and subtly of focus during the side scenes; Jessica Paz’s sound design is right on (I heard every word) and Mia Neal for the beautiful wigs, hair and makeup design receives my praise.
Leon’s Much Ado About Nothing is one for the ages. It leaves us with the men doing warfare for the soul of democracy leaving Leonato’s ordered world of right vs. wrong where the right prevails. Once again soldiers fight the good fight and go out to resist and stand against the world of “alternate facts” where chaos, anarchy, and the overthrown rule of law abide (at this point) with impunity. Leon counsels hope and humor; progress does happen, if slowly.
This production’s greatness is in how the director and cast extract immutable themes. These serve as a beacon to guide us through times that “try our souls,” and they encourage us to persist despite the dark impulses of money-driven power dynamics and fascist hegemony that would keep us enthralled.
I saw Much Ado About Nothing in a near downpour then fitful stop and start to continual light rain during which no one in the audience left. Despite this the actors were anointed, phenomenal! I would love to see this work again. I do hope it is recorded somewhere. It’s just wow. The show runs until June 23rd. You may luck out with tickets at their lottery. Go to their website by CLICKING HERE.
Uncle Vanya is Chekhov’s masterwork that is Four Acts, hours long and requires tremendous acting and interesting staging, as the play is interior and the character development intricately opaque. In New Saloon’s humorous iteration of the classic play in a varied English language translation that “becomes” Minor Character defies the stodgy, fusty tradition of the Chekhov century-old drama. It turns gender on its head with great humor. And it elicits the characters and the plot purely for the genius of being lightening-like electric. As an added benefit, Chekhov’s profound insights are clarified. Noting the foolishness of our human selves is sheer delight.
If you know and have seen a good version of Uncle Vanya or two or three, you will enjoy New Saloon’s helter-skelter, explosion of humor and dolor in random order. Are you familiar with Chekhov’s hypersonic, beating breast misery and his characters’ static flatline of life ending before its begun? If so, you will enjoy the outrageous spin on Chekhov’s characters and the whip-saw dialogue which borders on Theatre of the Absurd. If you are a “current” modernist, you will love it as I did. I recommend you get a ticket immediately, because it will be there at The Public Theater and gone before you can recite the alphabet backward.
Why is Minor Character a must-see? For one, it’s the way the ensemble (Mile Cramer, Ron Domingo, Rona Figueroa, Fernando Gonzalet, David Greenspan, LaToya Lewis, Caitlin Morris, Madeline Wise) seamlessly negotiates the extreme variations of pacing, dialogue twists and turns and fluid staging. Not only does the wild production reveal an acutely clever director in Morgan Green, but the performers demonstrate solid acting chops and musicality.
To segue a bit, their vocal skills are notable. The music and songs appear pointedly and effectively. They reflect the haunting evocation of Chekhov’s themes and relate the music of the soul and heart of the characters. The music composed by Deepali Gupta with Music Direction by Robert Frost is in fine contrast to the dialogue and one of the highpoints of Minor Character. Of course the mundane dialogue is one of the key points of the human condition that Chekhov extends in Uncle Vanya. So much of what the characters say, as so much of what we say is inconsequential, repetitive, without emotion and unworthy of listening to. And ironically, this is why people are not particularly good listeners. There is nothing much of value that anyone says. Minor Character reveals this in spades, in 85 minutes. Bravo!
Notably, when the ensemble sings, we listen, we record, we empathize, we know. The tonal harmonies in the minor keys of some songs resonate with our nerve fibers and quell the jarring character clashes of language because the actors live in the music. The melodies are gorgeous. And we feel that like the whirlwind emotions of Sonya, Yelena, the Doctor, Uncle Vanya, Professor Alexander and the others, we are the “minor characters” whose lives come and go without our making one wave of excitation in the movement of the stars. Nevertheless, the music of our hearts is universal and aligns with the spheres as Johannes Kepler intimated.
The actors are superb. Their timing, quirkiness bar none. How they and don and take off their character mantles and costumes is richly varied. Their zaniness elucidates the characters of Uncle Vanya in their weird reminiscence of the bleeps and burps of language on Social Media. Additionally the sameness of the characters’ love dance, the miseries and depressions of the human condition are emphasized and experienced carefully by the actors in a chaos like musical chairs as they embrace a multiplicity of roles.
Sonya’s revelation of her love for the Doctor is echoed by three inverted gender couples concurrently. The theme of recognition that the central characters like the narrator of T. S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” will never be Hamlet-like protagonists, but will only “swell a scene of two,” is also echoed in threes by three sets of actors. However, Yelena’s and the Doctor’s intimation of a meet up which most probably will never occur, at the conclusion of the production is singular. Indeed, a couple’s love begins in particularity. It is only after the relationship achieves its peak, then like a canker worm, the sameness and repetitiveness of misery takes over with the acute result that “the bloom is off the rose.” In a banal finality the once “love-struck” couple manifests the most ridiculous foolishness and boredom after all is said and done.
As in Chekhov given an uplift by New Saloon’s actors and director, romantic hope dances on the wind. It is pregnant with expectation, as all romances begin filled with excitement, longing and anticipation. The most wonderful of relationships as Minor Character and Uncle Vanya suggest happen in the imagination; thus Sonya doesn’t want to know if the Doctor cares for her or not, at one point. She is thrilled to live in hope. Until…
What I particularly enjoyed about Minor Character is how Morgan Green and the actors risk landing on their heads in an epic fail and of course, land on their feet accumulating an excess of success. The seemingly clever abandon and aplomb that each of them embraces reveal precision, exceptional skill, and prodigious talent. In their downright foolish costumes (the mock fur capes worn by female characters despite the actor’s gender), and robes which clue us in to Chekhov’s characterization of Vanya, etc., the portraits of their motley humanity gradually manifest. Indeed, sometimes to realize the greatness of a classic, one must extrapolate to the end of the continuum of absurdity as New Saloon has done with this production. When one can go no further, there is a crystallization of understanding and epiphany. Whether 100+ years ago or today, human beings are the most stupidly adorable of all creatures.
Kudos to the following creatives: Deepali Gupta (Composer) Robert Frost (Music Director), Kristen Robinson (Scenic Designer) Alice Tavener (Costume Designer) Masha Tsimring (Lighting Designer) M. Florian Staab (Sound Designer) and all the translators.
Minor Character at the Public Theater celebrates Chekhov’s wit and humor taking it to an extraordinary level as profound themes glide under the surface of our laughter. You can ride the waves of fun including the variant English translations of character dialogue with the marvelous cast on the following dates and times.
5 January (Saturday) at 10 PM, 6 January (Sunday) at 9 PM, 9 January (Wednesday) 5:30, 8:30 PM, 11 January (Friday) 10 PM, 12 January (Saturday) 1:30 PM, 13 January (Sunday) 6:00 PM, 9:30 PM.
For tickets go to their website at The Public Theater.
Wild Goose Dreams by Hansol Jung, the captivating and uniquely relevant production currently at the Public Theatre, promises no hackneyed storytelling. Its settings of South Korea, North Korea, social media platforms, and individual consciousness meld irreverently and ingeniously. Directed by Leigh Silverman, Jung’s characterizations and plot receive the clever staging and conceptualizations they deserve. Coupled with sensitive performances by lead actors Peter Kim, Francis Jue, and Michelle Krusiec, this innovative work is vibrant and exciting.
Intriguingly, the production accomplishes this while striking into hot themes about virtual dependency. Traveling through disparate settings, we avidly follow the characters, empathizing with their loves, aspirations, and dashed dreams and hopes.
The production’s dramatization of the ever-presence of virtual reality in our lives becomes one of the annoying yet graceful saving impulses that ping the characters throughout. For Guk Minsung, virtual reality becomes a way, however ineffective, to try to acquaint himself with his daughter, separated from him by time and distance. For Yoo Nanhee it remains the way through which she attempts to deal with her guilt after leaving family, boyfriend, and friends to escape from North Korea to South Korea. And for Minsung and Nanhee it is the medium through which they, like countless others, attempt to ameliorate gnawing loneliness and the pain of grappling with their own inner struggles, regrets, and self-flagellating failures.
The rhythmic propulsion of the internet intrudes on our consciousness like an addiction. Jung and Silverman convey this with the ensemble’s kraks, “beeps,” and 111001s, evoking in rhythmic poetry the allure of connecting with others across social media. The effect achieved is astounding and grindingly inescapable. As a thematic metaphor the humor and “randomness” conveyed simultaneously made me laugh and threatened like a monster.
But before this sensory assault, the Father (a wonderful, emotionally varied portrayal by Francis Jue) recalls an ancient process of communication: oral bedtime storytelling. The fable he relates to Nanhee tells of an angel who flies to earth with fellow angels. Her flight robe stolen by a woodcutter, she is forced to remain earthbound. Despite the woodcutter’s love, his care for her, their marriage, children, and growing old together, when the angel finds her buried robe, she flies away. The Father reinforces the theme: If one has a choice between family and flying away, fly!
The myth becomes Nanhee’s haunting reality. And the theme of selecting flight over family threads throughout the entire play. Not only is it acute for Nanhee, whose physical flight from North Korea floods her soul with guilt, fear, nightmares, and regrets. This flight from family also abides as a central theme in the life of Minsung, who remains in South Korea. Separated from his wife and daughter, he financially supports them, living “small” while they create a better life in America against a time he can join them.
Yoo Nanhee, whose Father told her the story as a child, becomes plagued by it. The nightmare myth worsens in her imagination even after her “successful” integration into South Korean culture. Should she return to family? Has her flight put family in danger? To stem the tide of anxiety when a conversation with her Father provokes her sense of failure in her new life, she goes online. A “love” platform invites her to seek a man, so the next time she speaks to her Father she won’t lie to him anymore about being married with sons.
Likewise, Minsung goes online because he is lonely for his wife and daughter. He cannot fly to them or “fly from them” to a new life until he finds someone to fly with.
Continually intruding on this couple is the allure of virtuality, where one can connect with family and friends, especially if one is estranged from them. Also, the chance at meeting someone on a dating platform enthralls and addicts. Both take the plunge. The effusion of noises signifying the devices humming to retrieve information we need and our comments and responses to what we read or search for online puts us on overload.
Nevertheless, Minsung and Nanhee meet online. From that they move even more quickly to have sex, converse, know a bit of each other, then separate. This attempt at bonding becomes as ephemeral as digital 10110s. But the impact they have on one another remains unmistakable. The reality of their live, physical meet-up, coupling, and conversation becomes irrevocable. Jung’s argument for supporting the virtual as a meld with live exchange titillates.
Ironically, their head-on, live, intimate interaction also exacerbates their personal struggles and issues. With their power of dynamic confrontation, living interactions have a way of forcing growth. Eventually, both enter a crossroads. Though they meet only one more time, the exchange motivates each to act almost in a parallel reversal. One indeed returns to family. The other flies away. These decisions lead to fascinating, unexpected results.
This brief description cannot intimate the profound themes of Jung’s drama, which is both humorous and tragic. Nor will I define the fantastic dreamscape of Nanhee’s imagination, wonderfully evoked by Silverman’s interpretation of Jung’s story using surreal characters. I will state that Jung effectively employs clever, striking symbols and metaphors that the production chillingly brings to life. The match symbol is particularly revelatory and poetic. You will just have to get to the Public Theatre to witness for yourself the surprise, the production’s danger, beauty, pathos, and uplifting poignancy.
Peter Kim’s performance as Guk Minsung builds, turns surprisingly, and blossoms with his versatility. He remains touching and heartfelt at the conclusion. Michelle Krusiec’s Yoo Nanhee reveals a subtle range of emotion. She moves from shock to anger, numbness, and cool indifference. Indeed, her aloofness masks the turmoil underneath. And the dominant, sinister, mythic Father portrayed with precision by Francis Jue charges and gives grist to the other portrayals.
I particularly enjoyed the adroit costumes, lighting, and scenic and sound design, which cohered with the themes, characterizations, and story development. Special kudos are due Clint Ramos (Scenic Design), Linda Cho (Costume Design), Keith Parham (Lighting Design), Palmer Hefferan (Sound Design), Paul Castles (Composer), Jongbin Jung (Korean Music Composer), Charity Wicks (Music Supervisor), Lillis Meeh (Special Effects Designer), and Yasmine Lee (Movement Director). Finally, I liked the water effects and the recreations of club settings. The projections used to convey these coupled with the lighting provided colorful interest.
And to the ensemble, who effectively evoke the technological platforms and digital thrumming that have sorrowfully yet vitally become our lifeblood, more kudos. The ensemble includes Dan Domingues, Lulu Fall, Kendyl Ito, Jaygee Macpugay, Joel Perez, Jamar Williams, and Katrina Yaukey.
Wild Goose Dreams is at The Public Theatre, until 16 December. Tickets are available online.
Joan of Arc lived for about 19 years on this earth. However brief her life, Joan enthralled artists. In every century, they have made her the subject of works of literature, painting, sculpture, film, plays, even operas. She was a darling of the Catholic Church, which canonized her in 1920. And the French declared her one of the country’s nine secondary patron saints. If we view her inimitable character, dramatic adventures, visions, and brutal death, Joan of Arc remains “larger than life.” Indeed, her mysterious divinity inspires us. But it is her humanity that infuses Jane Anderson’s Mother of the Maid directed by Matthew Penn, currently at the Public Theater.
What does a mother (the ineffable Glenn Close) do with a forthright, determined, headstrong daughter? (Grace Van Patten’s Joan is solid throughout.) She pushes back. Until one retreats or the other relents and acquiesces, sturm und drang will characterize their relationship. Anderson sustains the pressure and strain between Isabelle and Joan throughout this intense drama spinning the human relationship between mother and daughter that created an icon and established Isabelle d’Arc as a woman of power in her own right.
Joan’s reckoning with destiny, touches off a veritable cataclysm of agony for Isabelle. Only after death does their conflict pivot and become rerouted in another direction. When Isabelle recovers from her daughter’s and her husband Jacques’ death, she gains her own identity, burnished by the flames of Joan’s immolation. It is then that she charges into history and writes her own exalted epilogue. With persistence and the strength that she demonstrated throughout her life, Isabelle memorializes her great love for her amazing Joannie and acquires justice at the hands of the Catholic Church.
Anderson reveals the mother/daughter conflict at the outset of the play. And Matthew Penn shepherds Glenn Close as Isabelle and Grace Van Patten as the maid of Orleans with directorial precision and energy. Anderson’s logic, economy, and adroitly crafted portrayals, elucidate the women’s disparate natures. Close and Van Patten are perfectly suited for their emotional jousting matches. As Isabelle attempts to interpret Joan’s behavior, we understand the dynamic between the divinely called Joan, and the earthly-minded Isabelle. Indeed, Anderson capitalizes upon our knowledge of Joan of Arc’s canonization by the Catholic Church. At the very least we find humorous, Isabelle’s doubts about Joan’s “wild” determination to “lead an army and drive the English out of France.”
The playwright ingeniously lays bare how Joan must persuade her parents to support her on the divine mission. Following the scripture’s admonition to “honor thy father and mother,” Joan allows them to beat her. She does not run away, nor resist their recriminations, but she affirms her identity as a servant of God. Joan assures them she will remain steadfast unto death, even if they kill her to forestall her crazy plans. Ironically, her parents give her a worse time accepting her divine unction than the “captain up at the castle,” who will escort her to the Dauphin (heir apparent). Because she becomes persuaded that Joan lives in God’s will, Isabelle finally acknowledges the beatings have no impact. Indeed, she may suffer God’s wrath if she tries to prevent Joan from living in her obedience to God’s plans.
This turning point defines the family’s enlightenment and support of Joan’s Godly purpose. Furthermore, Isabelle makes it clear to Joan that she recognizes and admires her piety and determination as an outgrowth of Isabelle’s fervent relationship to God. When Isabelle and Jacques give their permission, with humility, they acknowledge she is in God’s grace.
Anderson’s characterization and Penn’s measured direction of Close’s and Van Patten’s moment-to-moment acting keep us on the edge of our seats. Together they make the reality of her parents’ s acceptance of Joan’s mission miraculous. Anderson’s detailed revelations of her conflict with her parents actually heighten Joan of Arc’s humanity. And it is this that encourages us to understand that the potential for courage and strength is rooted in every human being. However, Joan’s affirmation and belief that her mission is divinely guided separates the rest of us from her. How her divinity is tested against her humanity, then, Anderson sets up in the second half of the play.
Joan’s greatness spins off at this juncture of having to deal with mom and dad. After she leaves her home and confronts the passion of God’s plans for France, her earthly persona gradually dissolves. Through various interactions with her mom both progress along an emotional and spiritual journey. We and Isabelle watch in awe how Joan becomes the Maid of Orleans. Yet, Jacques and Isabelle fear and doubt Joan’s every step. Reluctantly, after her successful battles against the British, they join her to celebrate the Dauphin’s coronation as Charles VII, King of France. Afterward, the situation worsens as the King’s enemies threaten. Jacques’ and Isabelle’s fears escalate, unabated by circumstances, faith or the King’s recognition of Joan’s favor with God.
We discover in the first segment that the actions her parents take to stop her, ironically strengthen Joan’s will. Eventually, her persistence and faith and their final spiritual illumination bring them to agreement, but only momentarily. We see the importance of Joan’s family to her character, and how their doubts and misgivings buffet her. Her father distrusts the soldiers, her cause, the church, the King, the English. And Joan must counter his arguments with reason and faith. Likewise, she and her mother develop as they abrade each other’s wits and souls. From these scourges, Joan’s mind and spirit become tempered to confront her enemy accusers. Brilliant, strengthened, resolved by faith, her answers to their entrapping questions during her trial astound them. As a result in historical archives, her trial and her death sentence appear unjustly ludicrous and political in the face of her innocence and agile mental acumen.
To the very end, Joan chooses to carve out her own path with passionate enthusiasm. Though sometimes misery caves in her energy, she always remains in defiance of her mother’s doubts This courage to overcome her parents’ fears helps her overcome her own. As Anderson draws her, we glean how parental forces, primarily Isabelle’s, shape this illiterate teenage girl’s extraordinary character.
Surmounting each plateau of the suspenseful emotional/spiritual journey, Isabelle shifts between the joy of seeing her daughter’s success and the pain of fearing her injury and torture by the British. When Joan is captured Isabelle embarks on her own path to greatness and individuality. Walking for miles over the rough country through the darkness, the difficult terrain and the fear of encounters with enemy soldiers, Isabelle finally arrives at Joan’s prison. And she insists with the guards that she be allowed to minister to her daughter. Though happy to receive her mother, Joan is unhappy to hear her protestations and argues with her, once more. For the last time Joan calls off her mother’s adjurations to recant and save herself from the fires.
This will be the last time the earthly Isabelle strives against the divinely inspired Joan who chooses death over hypocrisy. For her there is no turning. Close and Van Patten engage us in the arguments so that we empathize with both and even cheer on Close’s Isabelle in our hearts. However, we know the outcome and cheer on Joan for remaining courageous in the face of the coming brutality. Ultimately, this tension between immerses them in the feelings of love, sorrow, fear.
The rendering of the prickly mother-and-daughter relationship is the crux of the production. Anderson’s characterizations inspire us to see underneath the icon that the Catholic Church has deified. Yet, in the playwright’s reveal of these simple yet profound human souls, we learn of another miracle: that of human love ranged against the ineffable love and belief in God which cannot be quantified nor understood. Joan’s conscience is her own. Her mother can empathize and attempt to understand, but Joan must walk this walk of faith alone. And if Joan is to succeed, her mother, her father, her brother may sharpen her determination, but must ultimately get out of her way and let her go into the flames.
What parent cannot identify with the heartbreak of saying goodbye to their child and hello to the unrecognizable adult burgeoning before them? It is a bitter reckoning, more so when the parents must relent and let their beloved child whom they put their hopes in, fulfill these hopes in death. That Isabelle did not argue her daughter’s insanity before the authorities speaks to Anderson’s adroit characterization. For at this point, Close’s Isabelle though desperate, turns to God for His help, knowing it may be to no avail. It is apparent to us that she doubts and believes Joan will die. We intuit that Isabelle senses that Joan, fatally Christ-like, will be martyred for France. Whether divinely willed or not, Isabelle is out of it. This is between God and Joan. And France.
The scenes ground the miraculous past, present, and future trenchantly in logic. Eagerly, we throw ourselves into this soul journey with Isabelle. And we hope against hope that God and St. Catherine will see Joanie through, knowing the opposite will occur. Anderson’s delicious infusion of Joan’s divinity with reality and the elevation of Isabelle and Jacques from their mundane existence is inspired! Shepherded by the sterling direction of Matthew Penn, Close and Van Patten enthrall us as they fiercely breathe life into a legend we find hard to fathom. Yet because of Anderson’s craft and superb rationale, we are closer to that legend because we see Joan from Isabelle’s perspective. She is her daughter, regardless of how divine.
Isabelle evolves as a mother mentored by Joan’s calling. Indeed, at the court ,and visiting Joan in prison, she becomes her handmaiden. While Close inhabits this “mother for all time,” Van Patten wears Joan’s anointing and humanity credibly. Through their profound, enlightened and thought-provoking portrayals, we understand the complexity of their relationship and the powerful impact of their love for one another. Isabelle demonstrates great faith, courage, and humility in navigating the pretensions of the royal court. And we become immersed in her torment as she assists Joan through the sham trial and pronouncement of the fearful death sentence. The second act is particularly chilling and suspenseful, driven by Isabelle’s urgency.
Close’s quicksilver acting leaves one experiencing a torrent of emotions. She portrays the affirmative, down-to-earth, fiercely maternal Isabelle as if by second nature. With methodical calculation and matter-of-fact counter-arguments, Van Patten’s Joan extinguishes mom’s reality to justify what becomes unknowable except by faith. Her parents come to know that the tragedy of Joan’s calling is not of her choosing. Thus, they distrust and doubt her for it, not able to understand her dense faith. How the ensemble and the director establish this arc of realization, doubt, torment, sorrow, and exaltation is breathtaking.
As Close works through Isabelle’s evolution toward believing in her daughter, we experience Joan’s affirmation of all she believes in her successes at the court. These are snatched away when she falls from grace into the malevolent hands of political enemies. Both Van Patten and Close are acutely present throughout. With nuanced emotions, each of Isabelle’s intentions sharpens with clarity as the women strike like flint against one another.
By the conclusion, it is because of Close’s investment in truth that we experience Isabelle’s painful resolution, affirmation, and final ascendance into autonomy and empowerment. With Joan’s death, Isabelle comes into her own. The flames that destroyed her daughter’s body kindle a renewed and even greater courage and love in Isabell. It is a love which allows her to rage against the very God who gloriously martyred her daughter with an ignominious and unjust end. Thus, with passion Isabelle will shake the very heavens until Joan achieves through an eternal justice, a public vindication and glorification.
Mother of the Maid should not be missed. It must be seen for Glenn Close’s electrifying performance and for Grace Van Patten’s humanly realized Joan. As for the adroit staging and direction and the superb ensemble (Dermot Crowley, Andrew Hovelson, Kate Jennings Grant, Daniel Pearce, Olivia Gilliatt), all contribute to make this a must-see.
The set design (John Lee Beatty), costume design (Jane Greenwood), lighting design (Lap Chi Chu), sound design & original music (Alexander Sovronsky), and sound design (Joanna Lynne Staub) aptly enhance the development of the action with stylized grace.
Mother of the Maid runs until 23 December. For tickets visit the Public Theater website.
Theater Review (NYC): ‘Girl from the North Country’ by Conor McPherson, Music and Lyrics by Bob Dylan
I cannot imagine any writer but Conor McPherson effectively providing such a dramatic flight path to Bob Dylan’s repertoire. The playwright’s eerie, atmospheric writing effectively implies connections between the material at hand and otherworldly realms. Dylan’s titular song is part of the hybrid McPherson musical Girl from the North Country, which is part song cycle, part winsome and effusive-with-longing memory play. Extended, the production currently runs at The Public Theater until 23 December.
Indeed, in this musical, which the playwright also directed, McPherson’s writing and Dylan’s songs have reached an apotheosis of sorts. Their collaboration is a fascinating meld. And their works morph like sand under the tremendous heat and pressure of sadness, fear, and desperation to depict a desperate time in 1934. The result when cooled becomes a glass through which we see clearly the emotional and spiritual impact of longing, desiccated dreams, the desolation of impoverishment, unfulfilled love and loss.
We recognize that that era is like our current one. Thus, these elements in the characters’ songs and word-arias become empathetic fragments. And in them we find threads familiar from our own lives meshing with the raw, explicit rendering of soul-weakened characters who “can’t catch a break.”
McPherson, the seminal Irish playwright of the haunting Shining City, The Weir, and The Seafarer, always exposes the spiritual elements present in our midst, whether we want to acknowledge them or not. For his part, Dylan for over 50 years has entertained and moved us with poetic evocations of life’s gritty and hope-inspired underbelly. Indeed, his brilliance manifests in his reverse chameleon-like morphology. Incrementally, he started trends, then left them to form others after musician admirers saturated the field with imitations. Always fresh, insightful, wise, Dylan has become a treasured cultural prophet and minstrel wandering through the times of our lives.
Over the decades he has proven himself more than a masterful tunesmith, though the Nobel Prize Committee bestowed its award for his songwriting. His word-craft and storytelling ballads remain unique and particular to Dylan. He has shepherded us through repeated social crises and cultural transformations. But Dylan stayed true to himself. He adhered only to the shifting currents within, despite the outward tug of his fans’ pressure to keep doing the same stuff.
Together McPherson and Dylan achieve a new boldness and resonance. Surely, that remains one reason why this stellar production at the Public inspires and rises to an extraordinary level. This abides especially because of the striking voices of the cast. It also comes from the stunning portrayals that echo characters from John Steinbeck’s Depression-era short stories and novels. Mare Winningham’s depiction of Elizabeth Laine is just gobsmacking.
Thus, the memorable fusion of two greats illuminates like starlight. Indeed, the production may guide the way for future collaborations by others of like kin. McPherson’s and Dylan’s first time out of the gate wins with grace, humor, delight, and poignancy. Its rich fullness bears seeing more than once. For you may miss the book’s subtle themes intermingled with the parallel thematic thrust of Dylan’s songs. Gleaning how the show subtly weaves the songs into the characterizations and story development pleasantly startles. Dylan’s “Sign on the Window” and “You Aint Goin’ Nowhere” exemplify the characters’ ironic, spiritual situations, for example.
In all of McPherson’s works, spirits materialize. Sometimes, devils manifest, including a few “Christian” human devils. Some leave once they have moved humanity to act. Other spirits continue to haunt his characters with surreal guilt. In Girl From the North Country, a sister’s horrific end floats in the consciousness of Nick Laine, a fact Dr. Walker (Robert Joy) and Elizabeth Laine his wife (Mare Winningham) affirm.
Nick doesn’t admit to this “haunting.” But Elizabeth, at times strikingly sentient, other times searingly dementia-addled, suggests its impact. She refers to “hearing the girl down the hole” when she resists Nick’s struggles to attend her. In another instance, when Nick attempts to finalize the deal to marry off their adopted daughter, the pregnant Marianne (a moving Kimber Sprawl), to the 70-year-old Mr. Perry (a fine Tom Nelis), Elizabeth speaks of “the girl.” Thus, “the girl” becomes the signifier of women as casualties of abandonment, accidental negligence, and death at the unwitting hands of men.
This metaphor, further strengthened by the male/female interactions throughout, provides the backdrop for various songs. Love, its strength, its loss, is a theme found in Dylan’s songs: “Tight Connection to My Heart,” “I Want You,” “Make You feel My Love.” The husband/wife relationships weakened by want and economic stresses languish (“True Love Tends to Forget,” “What Can I Do For You,” “Is Your Love in Vain.”) And the young girls Kate (Caitlin Houlahan) and Marianne have few options but to settle for those they do not love, in order to gain security and shelter.
Escape from this desolation of want and hopelessness lurks in every character’s mind, especially in Elizabeth’s. Her “escape hatch” under her chair, where she’s collected coins and dollars, suggests women’s behavior from time immemorial. Sadly, the paltry sum wouldn’t take her far. And her dementia, if she did “escape,” would result in her being placed in a mental institution. Thus, Nick, the best husband he can be under the circumstances, humors and takes care of her with Marianne’s and his mistress Mrs. Neilsen’s (Jeannette Bayardelle) help.
After Dr. Walker apprises us of what happened and “the girl”‘s relationship to Nick, we understand why, throughout the production, Nick never sings his own individual/solo song. Unable to forgive himself for her death, he increasingly allows his inner life to wither. Laine’s emotional and psychic state remains doubly clear when he says to Mrs. Neilsen that he “has no soul” and can’t tell her he loves her. Desolation would overcome him with alcoholism, but he must take care of Elizabeth. It is she whom he lives for, as her caretaker. Their occasional interaction during Elizabeth’s sentient periods forces edgy and humorous exchanges.
Except for Dr. Walker and the elderly Mr. Perry, each character sings either his soul’s theme that typifies his/her existence or a song of regret and loss that asks questions about life and love. Most striking for me is Sydney James Harcourt’s portrayal as the boxer Joe Scott. His rendition of “The Hurricane,” portends the (racial) storm coming, both physically and metaphorically. Obviously, McPherson has drawn parallels between his Joe Scott and the boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, whose quest for freedom Dylan supported against wrongful imprisonment in the 1960s.
Winningham brilliantly delivers “Like a Rolling Stone” with nuanced depth and power. With it Elizabeth indicts all who have entered their boarding house, her family, herself, indeed all humanity. For all, whether they admit it or not, are “on their own,” facing their own abyss. The rhetorical question “How does it feel?” and the silent answer we all fear and know in our “aloneness” become the signature theme of the musical. Fabulous!
Dr. Walker narrates the story of the Laines and their guesthouse. And Mr. Perry delivers a powerful word-aria when he attempts to persuade 19-year-old Marianne that he will take care of her, die soon, and leave her his inheritance – so why not couple? However, like Nick Laine, both Perry and Walker remain songless. It is as if they haven’t the heart/soul to pour out their feelings in melodic phrases.
Stephen Bogardus’ (recently Dr. Mark Bruchner in Irish Rep’s On a Clear Day) dynamic voice has been closed off to portray Nick Laine. His Laine draws us in as he exhibits tireless efforts as proprietor of the boarding house he manages in Duluth, Minnesota in 1934. This semi-stolid figure, in his chaotic guesthouse, offering cheap room and board to a bankrupt businessman, his wife and son, a widow, a Bible salesman, and a boxer, cannot keep his family prospering. Like his impoverished guests, he struggles to make it to the next day and attempts to be sanguine about it. Of course he dreams and works at escape with Mrs. Neilsen; they wish to leave with her inheritance and start a hotel. It’s a Eugene O’Neill pipe dream!
As the musical develops, every hopeful door slams in Nick’s face. Son Gene (Colton Ryan) never gets that railroad job Nick moved heaven and earth to get for him. And Marianne doesn’t settle down with Mr. Perry, who offered to provide Laine with a check to pay a bit of his mortgage debt. Living with Perry would safeguard his daughter and her baby, Nick believes, though Marianne prefers seeking the baby’s father. When lawyers defraud Mrs. Neilsen, she decides to leave. For Nick this last door slams in his face.
And when there appears to be no way out, Nick considers suicide. Dr. Walker mentions the high suicide rates after the Wall Street crash. Surely, suicides continued in high numbers during those Depression years. Homelessness, want, sickness, starvation – Nick has seen sufferers in tent embankments like those so trenchantly described in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Nick fears for himself and Elizabeth, for in a few months the bank will foreclose on their mortgage. Assuredly, they will end up like the other ragtags living in tents unless he finds a way for them.
Considering that Dylan’s songs range over decades, written before this project ever could have been conceived, McPherson selected an appropriate setting and characters for his musical’s book. Every character’s desperation spills out into urgent need for money and shelter. Like the Joads of Grapes of Wrath, right before they lose their home and travel, these characters strive and seek the comfort of one another. Thankfully, Nick’s boarding house provides “a welcome for lost souls.” There, Nick feeds them, they celebrate Thanksgiving, they dance. However, Mrs. Burke (Luba Mason), Mr. Burke (Marc Kudisch), and Elias Burke (Todd Almond) hide secrets. So do Reverend Marlowe (David Pittu) and Joe Scott (Sydney James Harcourt). On the run, they bring their fears and hidden sorrows to this guesthouse and eventually their darkness is brought into the light.
Perhaps the most poignant of fears concerns the Burkes, whose strong, powerfully built son Elias manifests the mind of a three-year-old. Like the character Lennie in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, he understands little of his world around him and stumbles into fearful trouble.
The poignance of his demise is uplifted when Todd Almond as Elias magnificently sings “Duquesne Whistle.” As a spirit he has gone to the afterlife. No more materialistic pain and suffering shackles his mind and heart in darkness. Dressed in a white suit, free of his mental challenges, he and the chorus celebrate that other dimension McPherson beautifully presents. It is a full-on, gospel “coming home” ceremony. Elias (like his name-variant prophet Elijah), “makes it to the other side” of Light in a wonderful capstone to Almond’s complex and nuanced portrayal that stuns.
Thanksgiving, the last memorable party, follows with grim realities that unload truths on all of them. Only Elizabeth, after her marvelous speech about love and her marriage to Nick, afterward singing “Forever Young,” remains stalwart in her sentience and distraction. Indeed, with Nick’s help she has mastered the art of balance even in her dementia.
With finality, we look in the background at their last Thanksgiving together in tableau, as Dr. Walker narrates what he knows of the characters’ futures, reminiscent of the narrator in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. And as McPherson is wont to do and does believably, Dr. Walker shares his passing to “the other side” in Christmas of 1934. We realize then that he has been speaking to us as a spirit of his memories of the Laines, the guests, and that time.
What more can be said about this marvelous must-see-a-few-times production? The chorus/ensemble (Matthew Frederick Harris, John Schiappa, Rachel Stern, Chelsea Lee Williams), are exceptional in voice and movement. Kudos to Rae Smith (scenic & costume design), Mark Henderson (lighting design), and Simon Baker (sound design). Simon Hale’s orchestrations and arrangements of Dylan’s music are exceptional. Additionally, without Lucy Hind, Unkledave’s Fight-House, Dean Sharenow, Marco Paguia, the actors who played in the band (Todd Almond, Marc Kudisch, Luba Mason), and musicians Martha McDonnell, Mary Ann McSweeney, and others, the full impact of the production would be lessened.
When Donald Trump won the 2016 election, Oskar Eustis decided that he would present the opening of the summer season of The Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park with the timeless production where Shakespeare asks through conspirators who just assassinated Julius Caesar, “How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown!” If Shakespeare could have conceived of his work being done to reflect the current social and political times of one of the foremost nation’s on the planet, a state not born in Shakespeare’s time, he would have appreciated how the director and cast presented his immutable themes about power, violence, greed, political dynamics with a current spin to make the audience think. To an admirable extent, Eustis’ direction “got it right!”
The assassination of a political figure, especially one as accomplished, militarily gifted and innately brilliant as the real Julius Caesar contains lessons for every era and generation of humanity. Considering Shakespeare’s concentration on the very human issues of envy, injustice, pride and ease with which the witless masses are manipulated by politicians, all of which his work emphasizes, the US version of Julius Caesar presented by the Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park in its modern day interpretation sits as a clarion call. It is a harbinger not of things to come, but is an echo of what has been and what will always be.
For as long as there are governments, political factions, power players and the will to murder and commit genocide to secure riches and power, Julius Caesar will be an iconic play. If human nature could only embrace the man who came after Julius Caesar born in Judea in the time of Augustus. Would that humanity could embody His spirit and virtues to change the very core of its flawed essence. Then Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar would be a quaint history play, an almost irrelevance. But such as humanity is, the play will always resound in studied human hearts and Caesar will bleed in sport on global stages for centuries to come..
Whether you dress Caesar up in a suit and long, red tie to mimicry and satirize the current fake and pompous American “man who would be king” or you costume Caesar in a toga replicating the times of Rome, there is much to understand about human beings and politics in this play, if one has the eyes to see, the ears to hear. If you managed to score a ticket to watch this very fine production which amassed responses of praise, excoriation and lukewarm dismissal during its controversial run, you would have been treated to a rousing occasion and would have judged for yourself whether it was offensive, too over the top or innovatively enlightened.
Indeed, the furor of misinterpretation by those who never saw it and complained in error about what they thought the production advocated prompted a few sponsors to pull their support from a play which normally draws yawns and zzzzs after the climax in Act III. That Eustis could raise controversy because of his directorial choices is to his credit and speaks to his courage, ingeniousness and focus on the purpose of great drama: to raise awareness, to show us ourselves and to encourage us toward amendment.
The outcry by those who most likely would not have appreciated the production’s cleverness, are probably not at the head of the class in understanding Shakespeare, his language, the subject, the poetic cadences, the metaphors, symbolism, themes, ironies and more. That is the real tragedy. For the commoners in Shakespeare’s time did recognize the poetic language, rhythms, the themes and even the psychological guilt in Brutus’ soul when Caesar’s ghost shows up to predict his death. Shakespeare’s work, unlike our atomized entertainment, was aimed at the working class and royalty alike; he wrote for everyone and his audience of Queen Elizabeth I and the groundlings appreciated and understood his plays.
Today, the intellect of commoners in the US who can or cannot appreciate Shakespeare knows no economic latitude and longitude. One may be a wealthy or poor Philistine: the vilifiers of Eustis’ production did not suppress their ire. They misunderstood his work with abandon, thinking it rightly due that they could uplift uninformed opinions though they didn’t see the performances. Right behind them the Russian trolls and bots stirred up cauldrons of boiling virtual mud online via fake social media accounts. So be it. They too, like Marc Antony will stumble over their own carcasses en route to an unhappy grave (the bots and trolls). Despite the hoopla, this presentation was a roaring fire and our nation and culture are better for it.
Eustis chose to accoutre his production with elements from our culture. He included these to poke fun at the chaos and clownish behaviors emanating from the United States’ once venerable seat of power, the White House, whose nobility has been sucked dry by the head canker worm with the red tie, and the other parasites that occupy the halls of power. Thus, from cell phones and twitter feeds to graffiti walls on subway stations where dissidents (ordinary citizens, protestors, Occupy Wall Street et. al.) wrote encouraging messages to counteract the disgust they felt after the 2016 election, the play manifests the struggle of American citizens on both the left and the right to solidify their agendas and make their voices known. The production emphasizes the horrific violence on both sides of the Roman coin which leads to the demise of the Roman republic and the rise of autocratic rule. That is the key warning for our age.
Some parallels between Julius Caesar’s Rome and U.S. politics are fascinating, but by no means does Eustis suggest the undercurrents of the tide and times are the same. Though he does make foreboding suggestions for our democracy, the US does not hang in the balance, certainly, not like Rome did. However, if there is a foreign power influencing our elections (this is not in Julius Caesar) to promote the demise of our two party system and push it against the principles of the constitution, then this must be looked into as a new type of warfare. We need to follow the example of our European allies who are currently working against Russia on many fronts including teaching children how to recognize fake sources of online news and the hallmark signs of propaganda. Ukraine and all of the EU nations are farther ahead of us who have not even recognized there is a devil in our virtual house, let alone protected against it.
Though there are hints at a comparison between Rome and the current US political situation, they are more for sardonic, dramatic and tonal purposes. Sadly, there is little to compare if one seriously considers the political players. Would that our current president and the politicians in our Senate and House be worthy of the exceptionalism, military soldiering, courage, erudition and genius of Julius Caesar and the senators of that day. Indeed, over the past devolution of decades, the current lot of politicians are more akin to the rabble of citizens (illiterate lower classes) who are easily swayed by the last speaker and motivated by gifts (Antony offers the citizens gold from Caesar’s treasuries to sway them to violence, and later reneges on his promise). Our current political “heroes” lack the honor, the soul power, the majesty, the courage, the talents, the skills and solidity of character that their equivalents in the play demonstrate.
By no means is the greatness of Caesar who led his legions, fought in battles next to his men and distinguished himself as an extraordinary individual who enriched the Roman empire to be lessened by a suggested reflection in the current president. If critics who so excoriated this production knew a bit about ancient history, Julius Caesar, the Roman senators, etc., they would have understood that the contrast between Donald Trump and Julius Caesar is indeed laughable to the extreme of hyperbole.
To think that Eustis is fomenting violence against the current president is even more laughable. And that is the point. This is one at whom one laughs, ridicules and mocks, for his actions are worthy of little more. Cutouts do not stand. They fall brought down by themselves. Julius Caesar the real man was very, very different. He was someone worthy, someone dangerous. His track record verifying this was miles long. The only wit who laughs about Caesar is Casca, no one else does in the play. The president’s behavior is imminently laughable and even more so that he does it to gain publicity which has been based on infamous shameless and untoward behavior unfit for the venerable office he holds and continually demeans.
There is no comparison between the two men. The fact that Eustis costumes the Caesar character in the tell-tale suit and red tie drives at the very cardboard cutout the president is proud to be: all show, all outer appearance, all image, no inner substance, no character, no strength, no courage, no bravery, not one wit of who Julius Caesar was, except perhaps in Shakespeare’s delineating his pride in not wanting to appear weak which is the fatal flaw that leads to Caesar’s death.
But even then Caesar had to be cleverly manipulated by a “close confidante” to turn against his own better judgment and go to the senate where death awaited him. Indeed, he goes because he is fatalistic. He has braved death many times in battle. He does not fear death, as he says, “The valiant fears death only once,” so let it be with Caesar. This man Julius tailors himself to fit the fullness of the role of Caesar which he respects and attempts to live up to, but cannot because he is mortal. The current president cannot fit the role of president, is unfit for that role and would shape it to fit the role of the leadership of another country whose oligarchy, fascism and tyranny is well documented.
Unlike the White House knave, Caesar was deserving of his honors. He earned them and was indeed a self-made man, a courageous leader, exceptional diplomat and lover of the reputed to be most beautiful woman in the world, Cleopatra. How he rose to power was daunting. And even if you consider that the Roman legions didn’t take BS from anyone, if he had proven himself less worthy, they would have just as soon slit his throat than suffer any clownish foolishness he might lay on them which in his nobility and stature he would never entertain. Again the contrast with the current president is wider than the ocean and Eustas’ production proves their difference in character and spirit to be galactic. And that key theme is screamed out with irony and sardonic humor.
By the time Shakespeare introduces Caesar in the production, the very Roman republic is thought by some to be at stake (an argument Cassius uses to convince Brutus to join the conspirators, which is hypothetical) because a majority of the Roman senators intend to proclaim Caesar emperor. Caesar, wisely, will not wear his crown in Rome, maintaining an apparent equality with the other rulers of Rome which he astutely understands want to keep Rome a republic. Nevertheless, it is because some senators supported Pompeii, the previous Roman ruler who Caesar fought during a civil war and killed in Gaul, that he has enemies. Rather than to kill many of Pompeii’s supporters (Cassius and the other conspirators) he pardons them. It is a fatal mistake because it is his enemies led by the noble, idealistic, impractical Brutus who kill him; only Brutus does so to preserve the republic. Brutus’ fatal error in fact destroys the Roman Republic forever.
As a result of the assassination, massive rioting takes over Rome, stirred up by Marc Antony who with Octavian and Lepidus foment another civil war between the old Pompeii supporters led by Brutus’ and Cassius’ legions versus Marc Antony’s, Lepidus’ and Octavian’s armies which eventually win against the conspirators. However, the cost in bloodshed is incalculable and Octavian/Augustus proves to be the very thing that Brutus and Cassius intended to prevent with Caesar’s assassination. In fact Octavian as a tyrannical autocrat is worse than Caesar would have been. Caesar’s grandnephew, Octavian, later Augustus, learned from his granduncle’s mistake of granting pardons. When he attains the leadership of Rome, after getting Antony to commit suicide and wiping out his “enemies” in battle, at home he rounds up anyone who would even whisper against him, not even allowing them a trial. The genocidal purge wipes out the best of Rome and leads to his Pax Romana (an irony as peace was purchased by bloodshed and kept by fear) and autocratic rule.
The Roman republic is destroyed. The catalyst is the assassination. If the conspiratorial senators had not taken matters into their own hands through violence, but trusted the very powerful democratic tools they had to strengthen their republic, thousands of lives would have been saved, and the intelligentsia would not have been wiped out as a potential threat to Augustus Caesar’s power base. Shakespeare’s principle theme that violence begets violence and a republic cannot be safeguarded by civil war is a powerful lesson he puts forth for future global generations.
Eustis’ production is assisted by fine performances by the ensemble and especially the standouts: the insidious, hypocritical Elizabeth Marvel as Marc Antony (with a southern voice, kind of like Jeff Sessions/Mitch McConnell and Strom Thurmond) Corey Stoll as Brutus, and John Douglas Thompson as Cassius. The latter two both portray a humanity and intelligence in their characters that is moving and real. In its entirety, Eustis’ Julius Caesar gives us a powerful reminder of the beauty of our democracy and constitution and the great tragedy if we lose it through violent means. ( or the new violence, cyber warfare).
Also, throughout this seminal, witty and sardonic presentation, there is an underlying, subtle exhortation to those who would govern us today, here and now: adhere to the constitution, respect the voices of the people, promote equity and justice through a free and accurate press, and insure solid educational opportunity which promotes a greater drive toward economic equity for all. To not do so encourages the hopelessness that begets violence and conspiracy such as made evident in Julius Caesar. Indeed, as this production and Shakespeare so tellingly relate, a country’s leadership is directly responsible for the evolution or devolution of its nation, because the leaders manipulate the people who are invariably less educated and have less power than they.
Shakespeare/Eustis also reinforces that those in power who would manipulate and use the commons to kill for them in the hope of securing power through violent civil strife and assassination, only sow their own demise and the demise of the republic.. With each act of bloodshed, with each body slain, with each bellicose threat of citizen against citizen, a republic and/or a democracy is weakened, as this production reveals. To interpret this work as anything but belies a senselessness and negligent/willful misinterpretation of Shakespeare’s great play and Eustis’ production which interprets Shakespeare’s immutable themes with a currency that encourages us to think, to meditate and delve beyond brainwashing pap uplifted in some media outlets.
The Public Theater is to be credited for its steadfastness to withstand the intense pressure to remove funding because of a production predominately miscued by those who didn’t see it. The controversy, used to generate publicity about an individual whose shamelessness and lack of respect for himself and the office he holds actually validated Eustis’ sardonic interpretation, is a further irony. I, for one, appreciate The Public’s undaunted courage to persist with their vision and mission to stand up for freedom of the press and the sanctity of artistic endeavor to bring a unique, fresh and ironic spin to a play that is often cast as a droll, frozen, rendering of antiquity, easily dismissed because it happened over 2000 years ago.
Eustis encouraged a new veneration for Shakespeare’s timeless work. And he unlike the head corporate philistine of Broadway who holds The Great White Way for ransom, follows in the venerated footsteps of its founder Joseph Papp. They offer sterling artistic works at a lower price and Shakespeare for FREE each year, if you cue up for it democratically. Bravo!