del Rosso Review: Worse than Tigers

“Worse than Tigers,” an inventive new play by Mark Chrisler, presented by The Mill Theatre and New Ohio Theatre, concluded its run in downtown Manhattan on September 8th. I am still thinking about the play, which is a good thing. It may be more than the sum of its parts. But I am still not sure that sum is quite enough. 

  In the play’s first act, I thought Chrisler was heavily influenced by Harold Pinter. In the second act, by Edward Albee. But Chrisler throws both together and then adds a man-eating tiger to stir the pot. And it is one zany pot. 

 The play opens on an apartment tastefully decorated in shades of somber gray (expertly done by Scenic Designer Matt Carlin, with Lighting Design by Kate Ducey). The literally buttoned-up Humphrey (Braeson Herold) is married to the icy Olivia (Shannon Marie Sullivan) and for unknown reasons, their relationship has totally broken down. So Humphrey invites round a mutual friend from college in the hope he will bring them back together but instead gets a volatile cop named Kurt (Zach Wegner). What could go wrong?  But Kurt, who in addition to bringing a man-eating tiger along with him that he leaves outside the door, also oozes sex and violence in equal parts. This makes Humphrey nervous, while making Olivia thaw. Trouble ensues. 

Shannon Marie Sullivan as Olivia & Braeson Herold as Humphrey in “Worse than Tigers”

 The disparate styles in this play don’t seem to gel into a cohesive whole. Is it existential? Pinteresque? Albee-esque? Because by the time we get to the end, we are firmly in the land of realism.

The cast is uniformly excellent, as is the razor-sharp direction by Jaclyn Biskup.

 The reasons for the failure of the marriage, when we finally get to them, are  poignant. And the use of the tiger as a metaphor for facing one’s demons is effective. But two acts of roaring – by the tiger and the couple – feel protracted in getting to the crux of the play. 

It is true there are many things worse than tigers. But when getting to what’s worse takes a machete to cut through the jungle, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees.

  

Folliet: Even Against the Odds

 

Everything today is

everywhere precarious

& the future bodes ill

as we struggle on

against all the odds

to make it better

following Camus’s 

l’homme revolté 

Sisyphean primal cry:

“Art & revolt will die

only with the last man.”

Duty bound we stand

our revolting fate.

 

 

Mary Folliet

September 2018

NYC

del Rosso Review: The Naturalists

“The Naturalists,” a play by Jaki McCarrick and presented by The Pond Theatre Company is having its world premier at Walkerspace  in downtown Manhattan. It is directed by Colleen Clinton & Lily Dorment, both co-founders of the nascent Pond Theatre Company, to whom credit must be paid. With too few companies female-led and even fewer female directors, the New York City theater scene is grateful to these intrepid women. 

“The Naturalists” is set in 2010 Ireland, in County Monaghan where Francis (John Keating) and his slovenly brother Billy (Tim Ruddy, in excellent form) co-exist in a crappy caravan on family land (the on-point Scenic Design is by China Shimizu and evocative Lighting Design by Caitlin Smith Rapoport).  Eventually, they will fix up “the big house” on the hill, but given eighteen years have gone by and the two are still stuck in the same dilapidated quarters, this seems unlikely. They need help, so Francis hires Josie (Sarah Street) for “light housekeeping.” Ostensibly a dancer but more of a European wanderer, she quickly becomes a fixture in the caravan as well, and both men try unsuccessfully to contain their adoration.  Josie is unruffled by their attention. What does bother her is when Billy finally tells her that Francis, now a devotee of nature, going so far as to lead schoolchildren on nature walks,  was the mastermind behind an IRA bombing  that killed 18 British soldiers, for which he spent 12 years in prison. Additional complications include an unseen mother who has deserted the family, swans, money gone missing and an uninvited former IRA colleague  John-Joe (Michael Mellamphy, sufficiently menacing and thug-like) who turns up the temperature in the midst of all the bucolic, rolling hills. 

  I confess to being a fan of John Keating. I have seen him in at least 25 stage plays in completely different roles and he ranges from the superlative to the sublime. He is incapable of giving a bad performance. Francis, the lead role in this play, is a departure for him. For Keating to go from the sweet, gentle man who has turned his life around with no desire to revisit the past to the “boss” capable of killing, showcases both his emotional and physical range. His voice is a great asset as well: it can be as soft as a lullaby and as stern and deadly as an army commander.

“The Naturalists” has a few structural flaws: the sluggish pace of the first act, clocking in at one hour and 15 minutes, needed to be picked up. The second act veers off in a direction that might make Martin McDonough fans happy, but did not seem to fit with the rest of the play. The character of Josie is the hardest role because it is a thankless role. Sarah Street could not have done any better with what she was given. It is too easy for Josie to move into the brothers’ lives; too easy to become romantically involved with both; too easy for what the ending suggests. Her background, her story, is flimsy. She is not a three-dimensional character; she is more a foil for the brothers’ continuing drama. 

As for the musical cues, as much as I appreciate the use of Tom Waits’s “Martha,” easily one of the saddest songs ever written about regret and nostalgia, for those unfamiliar with “Martha” that aspect is lost on them. To name the mother “Martha” and use the Waits song at the beginning of the play and at the end is a miscue.  But to use Vaughn Williams’s “The Lark Ascending”  was absolutely beautiful and made total sense. 

“The Naturalists” has great performances across the board and is a showcase for the talents of John Keating. Shakespeare’s kings are waiting for you, Mr. Keating. I hope the New York City theater scene takes note. 

Cast of “The Naturalists” : John Keating, Sarah Street, Michael Mellamphy, Tim Ruddy

del Rosso Review: Tell Me How I Did

Tell Me How I Did 

There was a time in Manhattan circa 1970 when actors performed “in the many places actors do plays in New York: churches, coffeehouses, bars, basement lofts, little theaters upstairs, little theaters downstairs, ELT (Equity Theatre Library), off-Broadway, on Broadway, everywhere,” said Michael Shurtleff,  the late, great acting teacher and author of “Audition.”

 I thought of that and of him while watching “Tell Me How I Did,” an evening of one-acts on August 6th & 10th, by up-and-coming playwright Justin McDevitt, courtesy of Cloudbusting Productions; not least because I had no idea the Duplex down on Christopher Street in the Village had a little theatre upstairs. And I do mean little. 

A small space forces a playwright as well as the creative team to be inventive. Clever. They deliver, with precision directing by Jessica Harika, Lights and Sound by Armando Bravi, and making the most of that space, Stage Manager Crystal Bellant. McDevitt does not disappoint, particularly with the title one-act, “Tell Me How I Did.” Set in a farcical, dystopian future that is not too far away, Lent, a waiter (Steven Ralph, sympathetic as a symbol of all the long-suffering service industry workers everywhere) has just arrived at his spare apartment, exhausted after a long shift. He drinks bourbon out of what appears to be a cat saucer, if he had a cat, and then collapses onto a chair. Enter two sleek women in black, Axby and Bet (Cat Capece and Kayla King, clearly enjoying the bad cop-worse cop routine) from CPS – Consumer Protection Services, who are not to be messed with.  They taunt Lent, rough him up, and all because of a negative consumer review on the Tell Me How I Did site. One Mariella (Thea K. Lammers, having a high time as a spoiled brat diner), complained that Lent made a face when she gave him her gum to dispose of, and worse, sang “Happy Birthday” to her off-key. It doesn’t end well, but it is worth noting that absolutely everything is subject to plebeian review on Tell Me How I Did – including CPS. 

With the second one-act, “The Happy,” we are in the hybrid territory of docu-drama crossed with Edward Albee – and it works. “The Happy” depicts a Haverhill, Massachusetts,  family: Kara (Jennifer Pace, wonderfully manipulative), Rose (Cat Capece, a study in arrested development), Duds (Tyler Adams, playing that guy who’s along for the ride), and Claudette, the grandmother (Steven Ralph – I’ll get to him shortly).  Kara has won the lottery, so she and the rest of the family have  turned up at an Orlando motel room at the behest of her embittered step-son Gabriel (Thea K. Lammers, unrecognizable and astonishing).  Gabriel has also contacted a documentary film maker  (Kayla King) who happens to be streaming the meeting live – unbeknownst to Gabriel. He wants to expose the family for what they are – and he does, but that comes with a terrible price. 

McDevitt has a natural way with witty dialogue that does not feel forced, and he is very, very funny. Consequently, the casting of Steven Ralph as Claudette equals everything that comes out of her mouth is absolutely hilarious. This is both good and bad: good because the first half of this one-act plays like comedy-drama; bad because once most of the family, including Claudette, exit, the comedy goes with them. So the play takes a turn that bisects it into two neat halves, and I would like to see those two halves integrated. I suspect, with all of that material, that there is a full-length play in there. We who will now follow the talented Justin McDevitt will just have to wait until it comes to fruition.

 

del Rosso Review: PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project) 32nd Season – Howard Barker +Bertolt Brecht + Caryl Churchill

I can find no better way to illustrate the significance of the PTP/NYC’s 32nd Season than to offer this excerpt from Brecht’s poem “Again and Again”: 

The rain

Can’t go back up

When the wound 

No longer hurts

The scar does. 

Indeed, again and again, history repeats itself because those in power learn nothing from history except, inadvertently, that absolute power corrupts absolutely. The time periods shift but little has changed, whether it is the early 20th century charting Brecht’s life, work and music in “Brecht on Brecht,” Barker’s “The Possibilities,” written in 1989, and Churchill’s “The After-Dinner Joke,” written a decade earlier. The more things change, the more they stay the same. 

Brilliantly directed by Jim Petosa, “Brecht on Brecht” which, to our happy surprise, turned out to be a musical, with dynamic musical direction by Ronnie Romano, opens on Scenic Designer Hallie Zieselman’s well-appointed, almost stately room: a black grand piano, expensive-looking Persian carpets, and four music stands facing the audience. Four corresponding company members come out: Harrison Bryan, Christine Hamel, Carla Martinez, Jake Murphy. They look at the sheet music, groan, toss it into the air, knock over the stands, create chaos, upending convention and stolidity and social order. 

What follows is a carefully curated collage of Brecht’s words, politics, music and how he took all of these elements and made them into theatre, into poetry, into singing, into art.   The company, including Miguel Castillo, Olivia Christie, Sebastian LaPointe, and Ashley Michelle, many of whom are new PTP faces, is uniformly excellent. 

“Brecht on Brecht” is both intermission-less and seamless. I mention the latter because there were highlights when the impulse was to burst into applause and jump out of one’s seat, but pauses were not encouraged.  

I am sure most people are familiar with the swing version of Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife,” from Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera” or Ella Fitzgerald’s version on the1960 live Berlin album (when she improvised the lyrics she had forgotten). Then comes the incomparable Harrison Bryan, and what he has done with “Mack the Knife” is a staggering work of genius that rattles the bones. Seated on top of the piano, with no props, nothing fancy, just that voice and a few simple hand gestures, the man Bryan is singing about is by turns charming and absolutely terrifying. He is not a man you would want to have a beer with. He is a man you avoid at all costs. Bryan withholds, lets loose and then reels all that emotion back in. He made Mack the Knife a cutthroat murderer’s torch song. Unforgettable.

One scene, featuring Christine Hamel, consists of four phone calls followed by a monologue. She is in the process of saying goodbye to family and friends because she is leaving. We learn it is 1935. She is a Jew in Germany and has suffered betrayal on all fronts: by her spineless husband whom she still loves and by her country. If she does not leave now, if she waits, she risks being sent away. Hamel’s face conveys all of this. The conversation with her husband that she rehearses alone and then what she actually says to him when confronted is a heartbreak. The parallels to today are… Brechtian.  

“The Tango Ballad,” a vicious, co-dependent relationship song, performed by Carla Martinez and Jake Murphy, walked a tightrope between farce and violence. Neither one of them will be leaving the other anytime soon. 

So at the end of this spectacular evening of Brecht, what has been learned?

Another illustration: after the deserved, protracted applause and the lights came up in the theatre, the gentleman sitting next to us asked, “What was that line? I missed the end of that line. ‘The bitch that…’?”

  Reading from my notes, I said, “The bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

He said, “Oh. Right. How did you happen to write that specific line down?”

Think about it. I mean, really. 

Think about it. 

“The Possibilities” by Howard Barker and “The After-Dinner Joke” by Caryl Churchill are running as a double-bill. It’s not hard to understand why. Both are British, formidable, political, glittering with brilliance. Barker, at 72, and Churchill, at 80, are also thankfully,  both still writing. My editor and I were discussing this before the performance. Righteous anger is a great motivator.

For this presentation, “The Possibilities,” superbly directed by Richard Romagnoli, PTP has selected four from the decalogue of short plays, in four different time periods. In “The Unforeseen Consequences of a Patriotic Act,” extending an Old Testament parable, Judith (Kathleen Wise, in a provocative, controlled performance) coiled, serpentine, has repaired to the country with her Servant (Marianne Tatum, a powerful presence, protective, motherly), recovering from lopping off the head of Holofernes, losing her voice and giving birth to a child. Having done more than her fair share of patriotic duty, she is content with solitude and silence. But a Woman (Eliza Renner, appropriately officious and class-conscious) sent from the government of Bethulia to convince Judith otherwise has a surprise in store for her. For Judith is a true warrior. And Judith has no shame or regret; rather, she knows the beheading was “a crime” and she will not repeat that crime or have anything more to do with the deed. The Woman in question gets nowhere tempting Judith with flattery or power or fame. So she extends her hand. But the Woman clearly did not realize the depth of Judith’s rage, and a loving gesture is exactly what she mistrusts the most. 

In the powerful “Reasons for the Fall of Emperors,” Jonathan Tindle plays an increasingly terrified Alexander of Russia during early 19th century wartime. Unable to bear the sound of his men’s screams in battle as their throats are slit, Tindle, terrific in his apparent vulnerability, is offered wax to stopper his ears by an Officer (Adam Milano) but declines. He gets no relief until a Peasant boot-shiner (played with grace, wit and humility by Christopher Marshall) pokes his head into the tent. The Peasant provides a sort of philosophical counsel and a tender display of humanity to the emperor which clearly he is not accustomed to. The scene climaxes in what can only be described as Alexander the Emperor standing in clothes he has never donned before. When Alexander offers himself up for assassination, the Peasant, affronted, declines. And because the peasant is the greater man, Alexander punishes him. 

“Only Some Can Take the Strain” is an Orwellian tale wrapped in a cockney accent. Set in the modern era – traffic, sirens, shopping carts – the Bookseller (Marianne Tatum, in a wonderful, canny performance ) initially comes off as eccentric, slightly daft, paranoid – a bag lady. But after an encounter with a Man (Adam Milano, thuggishly good) and a Woman (Eliza Renner) in a severe, black skirt suit, it is clear this “act” she puts on is with good reason. In her near-defeat, I was reminded of Lucky in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” chain around his neck, holding the luggage, can’t go on but will go on until the bitter end.

In my head, I dubbed “ She Sees the Argument But” the “ankle play.” I had to check when this was written, because this cautionary tale could be TODAY, though it is set in a futuristic society, where everything to do with women- clothing, makeup, hemlines – is controlled, policed to the nth degree. This is the ultimate blame-the-woman-before-it-happens universe. The Official (Kathleen Wise, in frightening, buttoned-up mode), interviews a Woman (Madeleine Russell, spirited, defiant), ostensibly about her sexually-provocative, above the ankle skirt. “We’re so glad you came,” the Official says repeatedly, and “We just want to understand.” The Woman is smart enough not believe this, but she is trapped. You should not believe this because you are in the real world, and you still have choices.  

In Caryl Churchill’s farcical “The After Dinner Joke” directed at a clip by Cheryl Faraone,  Selby (Tara Giordano, with an open-faced candor), is a bright, young do-gooder who hands in her resignation because she wants to save the world. Her boss, the aptly named Price (Jonathan Tindle), is the president of a multi-billion dollar corporation. Instead of letting her go, he puts her in charge of fundraising for his charity (the organization is loosely based on Oxfam). From there, with the best of intentions, Selby skips down the paved road to hell. Naively, she debates with the Labor-leaning Mayor (Christopher Marshall, in another stellar turn, nearly upstaged by his two-tone shoes and natty green socks) that not all things are political. He suggests his pet snakes. But there are snakes in the grass everywhere she turns: a businessman who runs banana farms bemoaning costs due to a devastating hurricane, never mind that it has killed thousands; a golfer who would rather give to “known causes,” meaning ones that benefit himself; Dent, the charity campaign manager (Kathleen Wise, all business here) who does not want slogans to remind people of their wealth or their complicity and undercuts Selby at every turn. 

  The thing is, poverty isn’t sexy. A hurricane that devastated an island, left it with no power and killed thousands isn’t sexy. And guilt certainly isn’t sexy. Better to devise a light-hearted, after-dinner joke to make giving to the charity more palatable, so everyone can believe they have a clean conscience and become a do-gooder just like Selby. Just don’t look at that python handbag too closely. 

I cannot recommend PTP/NYC highly enough.

Company, Brecht on Brecht, Photo by Stan Barouh

Christopher Marshall (Peasant) and Jonathan Tindle (Alexander of Russia) in Howard Barker’s Reasons For the Fall of Emperors – Photo by Stan Barouh

Tara Giordano (Selby) in Caryl Churchill’s The After-Dinner Joke – Photo by Stan Barouh

They are an extraordinary company.  They choose powerful, thought-provoking work, and the Potomac Theatre Project – actors, directors, technicians – work together in such a seamless way, there are no chinks in this armor. PTP/NYC is necessary theatre, right here, right now. 

del Rosso Review: Danger Signals

Photo by Charlie Dennis

Down at the New Ohio Theatre on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, there is an odd, interesting play by the talented Built for Collapse company called “Danger Signals,” ostensibly about time, anxiety and lobotomies.  A collaborative theatrical event with text by Nina Segal, composition by Jen Goma, choreography by Ben Hobbs, set and video design by Dave Tennent, lighting design by Joe Cantalupo, and directed by Sanaz Ghajar, “Danger Signals” is visually arresting and boasts three terrific performances. It disturbs, but not enough; probes, but not as deeply as it should. 

Jessica Almasy is about to give a lecture on the brain, specifically about lobotomies, to an auditorium full of people but is paralyzed by anxiety. Her dance/movement counterpart, the wonderful Eva Jaunzemis, tribal, other-worldly, mimics her and serves as a time-traveling narrator. Robert M. Johanson, stepping in for “All White Men who have trampled on others in the name of Progress,” is appropriately arrogant and extremely funny. 

Almasy has the largest part but also the least to do, which is unfortunate. I wish her character had been better written. I understand why she stood in front of us inert, counting out beats, but found this ineffective. It didn’t make the audience uncomfortable enough. And while it is clever to have her and Jaunzemis morph into Lucy and Becky, and while it is disturbing for neurophysiologist John Fulton to have done experiments on chimps, it is perhaps even more disturbing for neurologist Walter Freeman, the “Father of the Lobotomy” to have traversed mental hospitals throughout the United States, experimenting on patients without a surgeon, including 228 lobotomies in a two-week period for a West Virginia state-sponsored lobotomy project, referred to by the press as “Operation Ice Pick.” 

That I find deeply disturbing. Like the poor chimps, these people had no choice in the matter of what was done to them or their brains. Most often, the patients were women.                   

The surgeons were always men. “Danger Signals” could have mined more of this for a sense of immediacy, of sexism, control, hubris. For a contrast between then and now. Today, to treat anxiety and mental disorders, we have swerved to many expensive doctors prescribing many expensive pills. We have come a long way, haven’t we?  

del Rosso Review: Pity in History and Arcadia

No Pity in History

from No Pity in History: Gaukroger (Steven Dykes) and Pool (Matt Ball) Photo: Stan Barouh

from Arcadia: Septimus Hodge (Andrew William Smith) and Thomasina Coverly (Caitlin Duffy)
Photo: Stan Barouh

from Arcadia: Hannah Jarvis (Stephanie Janssen) and Bernard Nightingale (Alex Draper)

Every summer, at Atlantic Stage 2 in the Chelsea district of Manhattan, the exceptional Potomac Theatre Project comes to town under the PTP/NYC umbrella. This year is especially good, and marks their 31st season, with two plays by British playwrights in rep: Howard Barker’s Pity in History and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. The contrast of these timely plays – politics, patriotism and war vs. knowledge, philosophy and carnal embraces – highlights the versatility of all the actors, without exception. PTP is an extraordinary company.
“Theatre should be a taxing experience,” said Howard Barker in a 2012 Guardian interview, adding, “The greatest achievement of a writer is to produce a character who creates anxiety.” Pity in History, bracingly directed by Richard Romagnoli, gives us all that and more, setting the play inside a cathedral near London during the beginning of the English Revolution. Opening with a bang not a whimper, there is the chaos caused by the rabid patriotism of crazed, pack-mentality soldiers led by Factor (Jay Dunn) a nationalistic officer, destroying the cathedral’s artifacts and “idols” ; there is “collateral damage” in the form of Murgatroyd (Jonathan Tindle), a cook, dying slowly in excruciating fashion and as Croop (Christopher Marshall), the cool-as-marble chaplain remarks, “I never knew a man dies so badly, it dishonours the regiment.” Croop, an arrogant ideologue, fancies that the soldiers will become “soldiers of God” and he their cultish leader. In the middle of this is a mason, Gaukroger (a terrific Steven Dykes) and note that Barker did not name this character “artist.” Gaukroger is too pragmatic to be only an artist, with the wrong upbringing and class to call himself one. Instead, he works on commission building monuments to the dead of upper-class patrons like the widow Venables (the appropriately glacial Kathleen Wise). This pragmatism is what saves him: war, politics, patriotism, idealism are of no interest. Gaukroger is the artist as survivor, waiting out the chaos until the next wave of history washes over him. As he says to his sweet, wayward apprentice, Pool (Matt Ball), “You have all sculpture in the world stored in your fingertips if you watch. And if they do not crush your fingers you can build it all again, like the books can be re-written and all the pictures painted over again…” What is left to history after the cycles of destruction and violence and chaos is what is built and rebuilt, pieces put back together again, Caravaggios stored in a basement for posterity to unearth… the artist survives.
The Atlantic 2 is not an easy space to make look like a cathedral, so praise to Mark Evancho’s Scenic Design, to the Lighting Design of Hallie Zieselman, the Sound Design of Cormac Bluestone, some of which was truly frightening.

What history leaves behind also occupies the minds in Tom Stoppard’s astonishing, time-traveling Arcadia.  Beautifully directed by Cheryl Faraone,  seemingly disparate elements of two parallel worlds- the laws of attraction, Romanticism vs. Classicism, landscape gardening, academia, a mathematical prodigy, misogyny, the known and the unknown – coalesce into one where heart and mind work in unison.
The play opens in 1809. Septimus (a fine Andrew William Smith) is tutoring his thirteen year-old pupil, Thomasina Coverly (Caitlin Duffy, great in a difficult part) at her family’s very large country home in Derbyshire. He is also cuckolding one “poet” Ezra Chater (Jonathan Tindle, in humorous form after his long death in No Pity in History) while also having it off with Thomasina’s mother, Lady Croom (a fantastic Megan Byrne) and palling around with an unseen Lord Byron. It becomes quite clear that the young Thomasina, a math prodigy, is outpacing her teacher, and indeed, everyone else around her. It takes a while for her mother to cotton on, what with this garden of hers in need of landscaping by one Noakes (Sebastian LaPointe), who eschews Classicism for a touch of the Gothic. Lady Croom is also aware of the amorous notes going back and forth in her own home, ferried by Jellaby, the butler (Steven Dykes, superb and almost unrecognizable from No Pity in History).
The counterpoint, in alternating scenes, is set at the turn of the millennium in the same country house. Hannah (Stephanie Janssen, excellent), a scholar and author, is excavating the history of the Gothic garden for her new book with the help of the Coverly descendants: Chloe (Eliza Renner, delightful), Valentine (Jackson Prince, spot on), a mathematician, and Gus (Manny Duran, expressive and elegant). Hannah is quite happy mucking about in the garden until she is rudely interrupted by Bernard Nightingale (Alex Draper, magnificent in a role to relish), an insufferable don and critic of the first degree. He lies, dismisses her work, then suggests a partnership of sorts, as long as it suits him. While Hannah is increasingly motivated by her fascination with Thomasina and digs deeper in the library archives, researching her relationship with Septimus and her prodigious gifts, Bernard becomes more and more enamored of his quasi-fictional story. But there are consequences for hubristic ambition. Bernard, publicly humiliated, cries, “Of course it’s a disaster! I was on ‘The Breakfast Hour’!”
There are parallels between Hannah and Thomasina. Hannah says to Valentine, “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter.” Thomasina, on the other hand, not only wants to know everything, she wants to know that which is unknowable. Witness her lament at the burning of the great library of Alexandria: “Oh Septimus! – can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides – thousands of poems – Aristotle’s own library brought to Egypt by the noodle’s ancestors! How can we sleep for grief?”
Septimus replies, “….We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind.” What Thomasina does not yet know is she, too, will become part of the lost brilliance she fears; and what Septimus does not yet understand is love that comes too late, and the grief he will carry with him for the rest of his life. And that is the case with all of the arguments in this play: in the end, we are complex, contradictory, flesh-and-blood human beings, with wants, needs, desires, emotions and confusion.
PTP’s production of Arcadia is exquisite, nuanced, funny, heartrending. All credit to the beautiful costuming by Mira Veikley; the Scenic Design by Mark Evancho and his choice of tortoise; the gorgeous Lighting Design of Hallie Zieselman. Arcadia is a highlight in the heat of this 2017 New York City summer.
Pity in History was written in 1984; Arcadia in 1993. Both plays are about history, about what remains. Fortunately for us, these plays have remained and seem neither dusty nor dated; they are applicable to our world today. Great art does that. Great art survives. PTP/NYC keeps great dramatic art on the stage. We here at ONE wish PTP would come to New York City more often, and stay a good deal longer.

 

 

del Rosso Review: Quietly

Screen Shot 2016-08-03 at 12.03.47 PM

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

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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

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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.

-MLB

http://www.paristribune.info/agenda/1er-octobre-Elliott-Murphy-decore-de-la-Medaille-de-Vermeil-de-la-Ville-de-Paris_ae202480.html