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‘The Dark Outside’ by Bernard Kops, Starring Austin Pendleton and Katharine Cullison

The Dark Outside by Bernard Kops currently at Theater for the New City is the renowned 94-year-old English playwright’s most recent work. The play uplifts the importance of family with themes of unity, love, encouragement, light and hope against the all-encroaching darkness that would turn family members against each other and destroy them. Kops’ lyrical play had a staged reading at London’s National Portrait Gallery in 2020. It is a great irony that The Dark Outside presciently foreshadowed the tenor of the times as the pandemic broke out and upended global society and culture right after the reading.

Katharine Cullison, Austin Pendleton in The Dark Outside by Bernard Kops, directed by Jack Serio at Theater for the New City (Emilio Madrid)

Through the COVID-19 chaos and upheaval, which bred uncertainty, want and fear, oftentimes, family provided the bulwark of steadfastness against psychic and physical infirmities and death. Disastrously, in the United States the divisiveness over how to handle COVID-19 became a political football which, to this day, divides families and ends friendships. Most importantly, Kops’ The Dark Outside reminds us of the moral, sociological and personal imperative of the family unit to sustain its members. Though the inevitable tribulations of life will come, they can be withstood through love’s immutable power.

(standing) Kathleen Simmonds, (sitting) Brenna Donohue inThe Dark Outside by Bernard Kops, directed by Jack Serio at Theater for the New City (Emilio Madrid)

In this premiere at Theater for the New City, director Jack Serio and the creative team deliver the beauty and sanctity of the play’s themes with a fascinating production that is incredibly timely. Serio highlights the British dramatist’s poetic sensibilities and notes Kops’ homage to archetypal character types through the production’s staging and overall design elements.

To achieve Kops’ ethereality, Serio selects minimalism. The production strips away material clutter and simplifies, using the bareness of space. In the atmosphere created, the superb acting ensemble conjures up the symbolic mulberry tree, the garden behind the house, the dinner, and more. All are in the service of Kops’ revelations about this family’s unity, inspired by the beautiful and loving mother and wife, Helen, portrayed with precision by Katharine Cullison and supported by the wounded, sensitive, poetic father and husband Paul, played by the impeccable Austin Pendleton.

Austin Pendleton in The Dark Outside by Bernard Kops, directed by Jack Serio at Theater for the New City (Emilio Madrid)

At the outset, Kops introduces us to Paul (Pendleton) the father/husband, a former East London tailor who faces a life crisis after he loses the use of his arm in an accident. To inspire and encourage Paul, wife/mother Helen (Cullison) gathers their children, Penny (Kathleen Simmonds) Ben (Jesse McCormick) and Sophie (Brenna Donahue) to unify the family at the important occasion of celebrating Paul’s birthday.

As the play progresses, we discover that each of the children confronts conflicts and traumas in their own lives. Thus, the chaos that is outside on the streets and in the neighborhoods that Paul often refers to threatens to disturb and destroy each of the family members unless they are able to work through their problems, seeking the comfort of each other to tide them over to face another day.

L-R: Austin Pendleton, Katharine Cullison, Kathleen Simmonds, Brenna Donahue, Jesse McCormick, The Dark Outside by Bernard Kops, directed by Jack Serio at Theater for the New City (Emilio Madrid)

Kops uses the majestic mulberry tree in the family’s garden to reveal the issues of the characters. For strength and peace, family members confess their angst and deep secrets to the tree whose life force listens and, in its silence, allows the characters to gain an inner solace and calm. Additionally, sisters Sophie and Penny share confidences. Sophie relates a horrific experience that caused her to leave college and spiral downward into emotional devastation and near destruction.

Sophie’s salvation is in coming home where she finds love, acceptance and redemption. Revitalized, Ben and Sophie receive great comfort in the arms and soul strength of Helen, who soothes and reassures both as she helps them overcome their inner hell. Paul’s great appreciation of his amazing wife is his continual blessing. Cullison and Pendleton are authentic and believable in the relationship they build of the loving couple. Thus, it follows that the children, despite their heart-rending troubles, have rightly come home to heal, as they receive encouragement and love from their parents.

(center L to R): Jesse McCormick, Brenna Donahue in The Dark Outside by Bernard Kops, directed by Jack Serio at Theater for the New City (Emilio Madrid)

Of the joys in this production are the poems and songs that are wide-ranging and eclectic. These, the family sings together or recites individually as expressions of emotion that are difficult to articulate. The songs resonate and recapture the play’s themes. They indicate how the family copes when a member needs help and uplifting. This is especially so in the poignant conclusion when Helen sweetly sings Paul to sleep with soothing grace. The moment is mythic in its power, and it is obvious that love’s sanctity is a balm which never falls short or fails. Thus, by the conclusion, joy returns to the household. The “darkness” has been thwarted with regard to Ben and Sophie who return to the family to complete the circle of love.

Katharine Cullison, Austin Pendleton in The Dark Outside by Bernard Kops, directed by Jack Serio at Theater for the New City (Emilio Madrid)

The only one who does not join them and leaves for New York City with her husband is Penny. In her move it is intimated that the wholeness of the family may remain incomplete for a season. But we have seen the strength of the archetypal mother who unites her children and husband. Regardless of whether the external darkness is in London or in New York City, Helen will continue to be the binding force that holds the family together with grace.

Jack Serio, the cast and the creative team have delivered the essence of Kops’ work and made it memorable. With the music and sound (Nick T. Moore) scenic design (Walt Spangler’s leaves are a lovely addition) the modulations of the darkness and light symbolism through Keith Parham’s lighting design, the production’s heightened moments are felt acutely. This is one that should be seen because of its cast and the symbolic iteration of one of Kops most heart-felt works.

The production runs at Theater for the New City until November 28th when Bernard Kops turns 95-years old. It is a feat for one of Europe’s best-known and most admired playwrights who the Queen awarded a Civil List pension for his services to literature. It is an award garnered by a very select few, namely Lord Byron, Wordsworth and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. For tickets and times go to the website https://theaterforthenewcity.net/shows/the-dark-outside/

‘Sotto Voce,’ Nilo Cruz’s Transformative Spin on the Tragedy of the MS St. Louis

Franca Sofia Barchiesi in the world premiere of Sotto Voce by Nilo Cruz at Theater for the New City until March 9th.

Franca Sofia Barchiesi in the world premiere of Sotto Voce by Nilo Cruz at Theater for the New City until March 9th. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

When one speaks “sotto voce,” one speaks in a softer, lower tone for emphasis or perhaps to give the impression of an involuntary utterance of truth which may shock or antagonize. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz (Anna in the Tropics, 2003), is revealing great truths through undercurrents and whisperings of poignant and impossible love in the world premiere of Sotto Voce. The play, which he also directed, is being performed at Theater for the New City until March 9.

As the play opens, we hear a foghorn and see two separate scenes that are going on simultaneously, one from the past and one in the present. The scene from the past involves memory and imagination. The scene in the present is of uncompromising reality. In the present we see Bemadette, a the renowned German-born writer, composing her work center stage at her desk in her apartment in New York City. A voiceover narration of Bemadette’s rich and beautiful prose describing the scene she has written makes the prose alive. We see a sister and her brother, the Strausses, walking happily on their way toward the ship they will soon board on their way out of Germany to Cuba. Along with 937 other Jewish refugees they are seeking asylum from Hitler’s Germany. The year is 1939, The ship is the ill-fated SS St. Louis.

L to R: Franca Sofia Barchiesi and Arielle Jacobs in Sotto Voce by Nilo Cruz. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

L to R: Franca Sofia Barchiesi and Arielle Jacobs in Sotto Voce by Nilo Cruz. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

The tragedy of the St. Louis is one of the more egregious examples of politics, human profiteering and discrimination involving democratic countries to come out of the pre-WWII years. After the ship made it to the alleged place of asylum, the refugees never were allowed into Cuba. They sought help from Canada and the U.S. but were denied immigration status and turned away. After voyages to the Florida coast and back to Cuba, they were running out of supplies. The ship was forced to return to Europe. Belgium, France, England and Holland agreed to take in the refugees. Of them, 254 died when the European countries were occupied by the Nazis (England excepted). Of these 254, many were sent to the camps. The St. Louis incident is integral to Sotto Voce. How Cruz uses it to evoke wonderful themes about memory, lost love, regret, reconciliation and rebirth is poetic and illuminating.

Andhy Mendez in Sotto Voce by Nilo Cruz, directed by Nilo Cruz. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Andhy Mendez in Sotto Voce by Nilo Cruz, directed by Nilo Cruz. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

As Cruz develops the play, he intertwines memory, imagination and current reality to tell the story of Bemadette. Her lover was Strauss, who with his sister, were refugees on the St. Louis. Bemadette cannot deal with past regrets about her lover who died in the camps. Her stability and her enjoyment of the present have been warped by pain. When we meet Bemadette (an astounding and emotionally taut performance by Franca Sofia Barchiesi), we recognize she is a dried husk. Guilt has sucked out the choicest portions of her lifeblood. In her attempt to reconcile the past, she writes, but it is poor recompense and she is haunted by nightmares and ghosts.

Then a life-changing event occurs. It helps her expiate the sadness and desolation that has kept her pinned to the past in repeated agonizing remembrances. The catalyst comes in a beautiful form, a Cuban college student, Saquiel (an intense and provocative Andhy Mendez) who has read her writings and who shares a bond with her. His grandfather’s sister was on the St. Louis and was killed in the Holocaust. In seeking out Bemadette, he is looking for his past and wanting to understand the sources of the beauty of her writings and her own history that she would prefer to nullify but cannot.

L to R: Andhy Mendez and Franca Sofia Barchiesi in Sotto Voce by Nilo Cruz at Theater for the New City. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

L to R: Andhy Mendez and Franca Sofia Barchiesi in Sotto Voce by Nilo Cruz at Theater for the New City. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

An ethereal and platonic relationship via phone and email develops between Bemadette and Saquiel, fueled by an intermediary, Bemadette’s maid Lucila (an excellent Arielle Jacobs). The student and the writer help one another, even though they do not physically see each other but instead imagine they are together. It is through their loving, healthful relationship and their probing discussions that we discover the mysteries of Bemadette’s horrific regrets and misery about her Jewish lover. It is through Saquiel’s perseverance, love and appreciation of Bemadette’s artistry and history that she is able to reconcile her memories with the present realities. By the play’s conclusion Saquiel and Bemadette are transported to a new understanding of themselves and what they are willing to sacrifice to gain peace and hope.

In Sotto Voce Nilo Cruz has created a sumptuous work of art, integrating poetic forms within the structure of the plot to fuel the dialogue and characterizations. He does this with beauty and grace that convey a wistfulness and longing for health and wholeness which both characters are on their way to achieving by the play’s end. Most importantly, Cruz reminds us of the power of human relationships to heal. It is a power that transcends the limitations of time and space and age differences. If it is allowed to develop and grow, one may receive the energy to create new dreams to replace those lost to time and regret.

Sotto Voce was performed in a limited run at Theater for the New City.

This review first appeared on Blogcritics.

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