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!