del Rosso Review: Quietly

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The newly and beautifully-renovated Irish Repertory Theatre in association with The Public Theater in New York City have brought in a doozy of a production from The Abbey Theatre in Ireland: “Quietly” by Owen McCafferty. About “The Troubles” and their aftermath but set in present-day Belfast, “Quietly” offers a day of “truth and reconciliation” – or at least, the truth, as ugly and painful as it may be.

Robert (Robert Zawadzki, solid and convincing) tends an empty pub and to pass the time, watches football on the telly, irritated as his home country of Poland gets trounced by Northern Ireland. In comes the tightly-wound Jimmy (a superb Patrick O’Kane) who knows an awful lot about football and one match in particular: July 3rd, 1974, when Poland played West Germany in the World Cup. Jimmy was sixteen years old at the time. When Robert asks how he knows so much about that game, Jimmy says, “Never mind how I know.” And by the way, Jimmy tells Robert, he has invited a man to meet him in the pub, and there might be a bit of shouting but nothing to worry about. Robert looks unconvinced, and he is right, because the moment Ian (Declan Conlon, equally superb and more than a match for O’Kane) walks in, there is a lot to worry about.

The pub in question has a special significance: a crime took place there, and for Jimmy, it may as well have been yesterday, not in 1974. Ian is a contemporary of Jimmy’s; he is a shambling wreck of a man trying to take stock of what is left of his life. This and their age are what Ian and Jimmy have in common: they are both prisoners of the past, inextricably linked, haunted, existing only in “bits and pieces.” Jimmy, coiled like a snake and ready to strike at any second, hangs onto his anger; Ian can no longer look at himself in the mirror when he shaves. But if absolution is elusive, perhaps what the two men have in common is enough to move forward.

The past, if not forgotten, has the ability to inform the present; man can learn from his mistakes. But the end of “Quietly” suggests that no matter how much the world has changed, clans and tribes and religion will aways demand you conform, or get out – and that includes “others” from far-flung countries who do not support the Northern Ireland football team.

Director Jimmy Fay has created a powder keg in a pub.The tension is sustained for the 75 minute running time, and I did not know if all of the men would leave the pub alive. For Jimmy and Ian, the past can never be left in the past, and one rash decision at the age of sixteen ruined lives and the effects have rippled on for years.

Photo: James Higgins

McCafferty’s “Quietly” owes a lot to Conor McPherson’s “The Weir.” Both Irish plays are set in pubs and there is much drink, talk, and male camaraderie. But “The Weir” is more elusive, less direct. Each character is haunted for different reasons, and they are only bound by the village they come from. What haunts the men in “Quietly” is opposing sides of same event, making their bond both permanent and devastating.

del Rosso Review: No End of Blame: Scenes of Overcoming

2-Alex Draper (Bela) and Stephanie Janssen (Ilona) in NO END OF BLAME-p-2

In British playwright Howard Barker’s “No End of Blame: Scenes of Overcoming” Bela (Alex Draper), a poet, begins his journey toward truth and freedom on the Hungarian battlefields at the end of WWI. By the time he is back in Budapest, at the Institute of Fine Art, Bela has renounced poetry and emerged as a gifted painter, a genius, the most talented in the school, with an ego to match. But Bela’s calling is not the brush; it is the pen. A political cartoonist, speaking truth to power, is what he is compelled to do. Consequences be damned.

Fanatical and driven, Bela produces an inflammatory cartoon that gets himself expelled not only from the art institute but also the country. Even his mentor Bilwitz (Jonathan Tindle, affecting and wonderful), who reveres Bela’s gifts but not his choice of application, can’t save him. No matter. Bela is ecstatic at the news. He will find freedom elsewhere.

Bela walks across the border to Russia with his long-time, long-suffering friend Grigor (David Barlow), a painter, and his girlfriend IIona (Stephanie Janssen). Here is where he believes he will find the freedom to make his political art. But after twelve years, in 1934, Russia is the land of Lenin, Stalin and the Russian Revolution gone wrong. It is not long before Bela comes to the attention of the government and an official government arts committee strongly recommends he compromise his vision – which, for once, he does. After an angry scene in the street, it is suggested he take a “vacation.” Bela is hell-bent on finding some place where freedom of expression truly exists, not for himself but for humanity; he rejects anyone who challenges his singular pursuit of truth and art, including Grigor, his now-wife IIona, and their daughter, Judith, all of whom he leaves behind.

When Bela lands in England, he kisses the ground. Freedom from tyranny at last! He is welcomed and employed at the Daily Mirror, until 1943, when he pisses off Churchill, and a smaller “committee” meeting follows. The British fussiness and tea service in this scene is hilarious, and David Barlow is just as shockingly good as Deeds, a twit of a bureaucrat, as he is with the sensitive, simple Grigor. By 1975, in England but soon to be out of a job, Bela has not found a place that gives him the freedom to make his political art. Everywhere he goes, he is kicked out for not towing the party line. He has managed to avoid prosecution at every turn, but he cannot avoid the ghosts of his past. His singular pursuit in the service of freedom for mankind comes with the price of isolation and a tortured soul.

In truth, Bela belongs nowhere. He embodies the artist’s eternal quest.

Barker’s play is one of the first PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project), celebrating their 30th season, ever produced. To choose to revive it now was timely, for myriad reasons, and I could not help but think of Charlie Hebdo and the price those artists paid for freedom.

In order for this play to work and work well, Bela has to be perfectly cast. Onstage virtually the entire time, he has to be arrogant, yes, but sympathetic and charismatic. Alex Draper achieves this brilliantly. His Bela portrays why genius makes bad company: he is magnetic and maddening, talking and interrupting with no filter, telling people exactly what they don’t want to hear with no guile whatsoever. But when he recognizes Grigor in a London park, entirely transformed and broken, Bela breaks, too. Not for long, though. He has to protect what is in his great artist’s head. There is no room for anything, or anyone else.

Barker’s play is astonishing in both scope and structure. Director Richard Romagnoli is to be credited for his own vision, and clarity. “No End of Blame: Scenes of Overcoming” is not an easy play, and to be able to get the brutality of Barker as well as the emotional depth of the piece is something. And that ending is a wonder.

I can’t say enough about the dynamic, brilliant Potomac Theatre Project. Does it make a difference that these actors have known and worked with each other for years, and does that translate to the relationships onstage? Yes, it does. These actors are tremendous. They exude warmth and they shine with brilliance. All of them, including Christopher Marshall, Nicholas Hemerling, Jonathan Tindle, Christo Grabowski, the chameleon-like Valerie Leonard, Alexander Burnett, Steven Medina, Shannon Gibbs, Gabrielle Owens, and Ashley Michelle. Do they blow most of the thrown-together-to-look-like-a-family-but-I-don’t-believe-it-for-a-second Broadway plays out of the water? Yes, they do. And if I have not made it abundantly clear, you must go and see this difficult, wondrous, rewarding play, running till August 7th. PTP/NYC’s “No End of Blame: Scenes of Overcoming” is a superb realization of the power of theater.


del Rosso Review: Good

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The always-challenging, provocative PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project) is celebrating their 30th anniversary season by bringing back two plays in repertory: “No End of Blame: Scenes of Overcoming,” by British playwright Howard Barker, and “Good” by Glasgow-born playwright C.P. Taylor. “Good,” written in 1981, contains lines that would not sound out of place in the mouth of the current Republican presidential candidate. This is unsurprising, considering the play is set in the 1930’s of Hitler’s Germany. For the record, Hitler (Noah Berman, stellar) is portrayed as a vain, demented clown.

“Good” ostensibly tackles how it is possible for an ordinary, “good” German, John Halder (Michael Kaye) to alter his belief system in order to justify unspeakable acts. John, a successful professor and novelist at university, has a neurotic wife, Helen (Valerie Leonard), children, a Jewish best friend, Maurice (Tim Spears), and an ailing mother (Judith Chafee) confined to a nursing home. What separates him is “bringing music into the dramatic moments of my life.” This method of escapism blinds him to others’ needs, and eventually blots out his own conscience. John is recognized by the SS as a potential recruit via his novel: part of it suggests that euthanizing the ill and infirm is a mercy and in the best interests of both patient and family, this despite the fact that John is not a medical doctor and that the SS fail to differentiate fiction from non-fiction. Nevertheless, once John agrees to “write a document,” it is a slippery slope to betrayal of everything and everyone he knows, and cares about.

This is a rather linear description of a non-linear play, and the way Taylor has constructed it is genius. “Good” is told in overlapping scenes with minimal set pieces suggesting multiple locales (credit Mark Evancho for Scenic Design); it moves forward in time, then back, stops mid-scene and jumps to another scene, moves forward again, recedes. This gives it an energy and an inexorable pull: you, as an audience member, know what’s coming, and in your head you still shout NO NO NO. But John can’t hear you. He can only hear the music in his head; music which was used to great effect and added much-needed levity (sound design is by Seth Clayton).
All credit is due to Director Jim Petosa for a seamless, thrilling production, and in particular for the restraint taken with Hitler’s henchman (Adam Ludwig as Bouller and Eichmann, Christo Grabowski as Freddie) portrayed as flesh and blood men, rather than simply evil.

The most difficult part, of course, is Michael Kaye’s John. For me, he perfectly embodies Hannah Arendt’s “the banality of evil” – organizing the gassing of the Jews not out of malice, but out of “careerism and obedience.”

“Good” does not answer how this happens, but maybe it does not have to. Maybe knowing why is enough. What concerns me is what always does when I see excellent, thought-provoking theater: that the people who are seeing “Good” aren’t the ones who need to be seeing this play, and that the people who don’t see this play wind up electing another vain, demented clown as their leader.

del Rosso Review: I’m Bleeding All Over the Place: A Living History Tour


For me, the most exciting part of “I’m Bleeding All Over the Place: A Living History Tour” created and directed by Brooke O’ Harra at La Mama Experimental Theatre in Manhattan’s East Village, was that I stood next to downtown actress Kate Valk. If you have ever seen The Wooster Group’s phenomenal, avant-garde productions as I have, you will know founding member Valk’s work; from their interpretations of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape” and “The Emperor Jones” to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” she is, according to Hilton Als of The New Yorker, a “classical actress who performs in an experimental medium.” She is also chameleon-like from role to role, and electrifying onstage. It is no surprise Valk was at La Mama, supporting another great theater company.
I am a huge fan.
“I’m Bleeding…” is a traveling show; the audience is moved to different locations around the theater (which is how I came to be standing beside Valk) and though it is not interactive, the audience is ostensibly who the play is about. So prepare to have your space invaded, to be a participant as well as an viewer. It is a fascinating reversal.
Additionally, the living history tour deals with what we say and what we mean; repetitive phrases that begin as something innocuous and end as something entirely different; sexual and violent thoughts that are rarely said aloud but are said and confronted, including a song with the following chorus:

“I want to punch you in the face!
I want to punch you in the face!
Because I am a woman* and you are the Aud- ience
I want to punch you in the face!
I want to punch you in the face!
Because I am a Brooke and you are the audience I am an actor.”
All the performers excel at understated magnificence: Becca Blackwell, Jane Bradley, Hye Young Chyun, Sharon Hayes, Laryssa Husiak, Anna Kohler, Zavé Martohardjono, Greg Mehrten, Alexander Paris, Tanya Selvaratnam, with Nick Auer, Donna Barkman, and Dan Kuan Peeples. The inventive sets were by Andreea Mincic, lights by Sarah Johnston, costumes courtesy of Alice Tavener, sound Brendan Connelly and * original design concept Justin Townsend.
“I’m Bleeding All Over the Place: A Living History Tour” is the fourth component of a nine-part project titled “I’m Bleeding All Over the Place: studies in directing or nine encounters between me and you.” Given that, I would now like to see all of them. And hope Kate Valk also attends.

Body: Anatomies of Being


New Ohio Theatre and Blessed Unrest ensemble are currently presenting “Body: Anatomies of Being” downtown in New York City’s  West Village until May 21st. It is an extraordinary, affecting theatrical experience about bodies: nine of them, to be exact. They are all different sizes, shapes, ethnicities, genders and ages. When the actors, at the beginning of the show, come out and face the audience, they stand at the lip of the stage, the lights are brought up and they look at us for an uncomfortable length of time: they are entirely nude, and it is meant to be uncomfortable. How often do any of us look at real, naked bodies? How often do we instead measure ourselves against the exterior photoshopped, perfect bodies in the media? In celebrity culture?

Conceived and directed by Jessica Burr (who is also the Artistic Director of Blessed Unrest), with the text by Matt Opatrny in collaboration with the Ensemble, this show is a brilliant example of incorporating parts of the actors’ histories and personal stories to create a cohesive whole. There are various threads woven together, and the actors break into pairs, with one exception. Each pair has their own story: a love affair between a trauma surgeon and a model who survived breast cancer; a nurse who loves a middle-aged man grieving his sister’s death; a tattoo artist and the Italian fling who rediscovers him;  an anthropologist and her painter husband; the same painter and his subject, the middle-aged man grieving his sister; his sister and the trauma surgeon who wants to save her, and is rebuffed.

But back to the bodies. These bodies, and this fantastic ensemble – Natalia Ivana Escobar, Catherine Gowl, Tatyana Kot, Poppy Liu, Sevrin Anne Mason, Darrell Stokes, Sonia Villani, Nathan Richard Wagner, and Joshua Wynter – are almost always in motion. They entwine, stretch, dress, undress, pose, tumble, touch. They are hardly ever at rest.  The fourth wall is broken and fun facts are thrown in about the epidermis, microbes, and poop. About scent and smell and the particulars of attraction.

Blessed Unrest is described as an “experimental physical theatre ensemble” but I would also call them adventurous. Brave. There is one incredibly moving moment when one of the characters actually takes flight; and another when a man finally releases his grief and comes to terms with the past. One more, in a hospital ER, when a woman stops all motion, and lets go, finally, of her body. The body at rest.

I wish everyone could see “Body: Anatomies of Being.” I wish it toured high schools and colleges. Because by the end of this singular, 100 minute, intermission-less show, you no longer see or judge the bodies onstage; you see people. You see their souls. Ordinary bodies that are extraordinary.

del Rosso review: Blessed Unrest’s LYING

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On 52nd Street in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, The Interart Theatre Development Series is presenting Blessed Unrest’s production of “Lying,” a stage adaptation by Matt Opatmy of Lauren Slater’s metaphorical memoir of the same title.  Going in, I knew Blessed Unrest to be an exuberant, adventurous company. I also knew Director Jessica Burr was a Lucille Lortel Award winner in 2011.

“Lying” is the coming-of-age of Lauren (Jessica Ranville)  – wait, the fourth wall is broken, so it’s really a meta-metaphorical adaptation of a metaphorical memoir.  Jessica the actress plays Lauren the writer though Matt did the adapting. Jessica playing Lauren’s coming of age is told through the prism of epilepsy – wait, but the real Lauren may not have had epilepsy; she may be “Lying.” Then again, the details about the auras and regarding the ground as a crash pad are spot-on, and I should know, because I have epilepsy, and I am not lying. So if the real Lauren did not have epilepsy, then she did an inordinate amount of research, including but not limited to what it feels like to be conscious during a brain operation.

My question is: Why?

Published in 2000, the book “Lying” was Lauren Slater’s fourth memoir; perhaps the words “fourth memoir” should give one pause.

Out of the mouth of Jesus, beautifully played by actor Nathan Richard Wagner, comes this: “Patients with Munchausen’s Syndrome use fake illness as a conduit for conveying real pain. They pretend or exaggerate not for money but for things beyond weight, beyond measure.

Many choose epilepsy.”

Near the end of the performance, Jessica the actress playing Lauren says, “I am not an epileptic. I am really really not an epileptic. I have had many serious psychiatric and neurological problems in my life, but epilepsy has not been one of them. I have a fitful, restless brain, I feel I have several selves. I have had auras all my life and I take anticonvulsant medication daily. The metaphorical world and the material world blend and blur, become each other; believe me, I have suffered seizures.

Jessica Burr is a fascinating director: endlessly inventive, visually exciting. She is an innovator when it comes to combining music and choreography, and the results can be transformative.

Why choose this material?

If Lauren’s truth as well as her journey is mercurial, Burr can go meta-crazy: she can break the fourth wall at will; she can tease as much humor and fun out of the script without sacrificing poignancy. She can cast brilliantly -Charise Green, Nathan Richard Wagner, Sonia Villani, Rich Brown- who play up to eleven roles each, including Lauren’s three-headed mother, her small father, nuns, Jesus, a neurosurgeon, a therapist, AA members, and a sexually-addicted famous writer. And that’s not even half. Jessica Ranville is equally adept at the various incarnations of Lauren. Burr can evoke emotions through the use of music and employ an industrial-sized fan in a witty, olfactory way. In short, she has a lot of room, and knows how to use every inch.

It’s interesting to like “Lying” yet find the source material for this devised work distasteful. Then again, that could be my epilepsy talking. I thought Act I was superb and Act II less successful. On the long but pleasant walk home from Hell’s Kitchen to the Upper West Side, I tried to figure out why. There was less humor. It seemed to be full of desperate people. Or maybe, instead of running out of ideas (not something Blessed Unrest could ever be accused of), it had too many all at once.

When Jessica the actress playing Lauren finally learns how to fall (in Act I), I was genuinely moved. That is a testament to Director Jessica Burr and her talented cast. “Lying” may actually be about a liar, a thief, a manipulator, a sociopath: Burr made me care about her. And that is no lie.

del Rosso Review:

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It is not often I see a flawless production of a brilliant play, one which transports me in time and space. One where I stop taking notes and just give in because I have no choice. “Indian Ink” by Tom Stoppard, finally getting its New York premier courtesy of the Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre, is a flawless production. It is brilliantly acted, beautiful to look at, compelling, moving, and smart.

The play alternates between 1980’s England and 1930’s India with Eleanor (the estimable Rosemary Harris) reading her younger sister’s letters to Eldon Pike (Neal Huff, appropriately irritating). Her sister, Flora Crewe (Romola Garai, very fine), was a poet, famous only after her death, and Eldon, who has already published her poems, is now publishing her letters. But he wants more than that; a biography of Flora is in the works, and he believes Eleanor does not know this. He is wrong. Not only does Eleanor know, she disapproves. As she says, “…biography is the worst possible excuse for getting people wrong.”

With only a few props against a vibrantly colored set, the play shifts elegantly and effortlessly in time (take that, Broadway), and begins just as Flora arrives from the UK. She is there ostensibly to work, but really for her health, which she believes no one else knows about. An Indian painter, Nirad Das (Firdous Bamji, superb) asks her to pose for a portrait, and she obliges. Despite some cultural misunderstandings and miscommunications (Das admires everything British, much to Flora’s dismay), their artistry – painter and poet – creates an erotically charged bond between them.

Stoppard interweaves the personal with the political: there is the generational defense of “The Empire” by Eleanor and the long-term effects colonization had on India. There is a search for identity by Das’s son Anish (Bhavesh Patel, terrific), and he is not the only one. There is a learning curve on Flora’s part, about art and the rich cultural and spiritual history of India. There is the shifting meaning of the word “home.” And there is inevitable loss.

Director Carey Perloff’s production is nuanced, and beautifully, achingly realized. Nothing here is heavy-handed. “Indian Ink” is one of the best things I’ve seen, and has stayed with me. In this busy, bustling Manhattan world, that’s saying something.

ONE contributor Elliott Murphy to be awarded Medaille Vermil by the City of Paris

Congratulations to Elliot Murphy:
Mayor Bertrand Delanoë is bestowing the Médaille de Vermeil of the city of Paris to an accomplished musician and writer.
Mon 1 Oct 18:00
Salon Hotel de Ville

Excellence is still key.