American Brecht

The play that sold me on Suzan-Lori Parks as earning a place in the American theatrical pantheon was not – unlike probably for most folks – Top Dog/Underdog but Father Comes Home from the Wars (which premiered at The Public in 2014). I loved the inventiveness of that work and how she threaded the needle of both Homeric Epic and American Realism. I also loved Jacob Ming-Trent as Dog.

The Red Letter Plays: Fucking A, now playing at The Signature,  is equally inventive, if not more so. Always daring, always pushing the envelope, always bravely dramatizing controversial material, Parks strives to inculcate the principles of Brecht within an American vernacular. She succeeds. Indeed, at intermission, I often found myself referring to the heroine Hester Smith (Christine Lahti) as Mother Courage, though that is not the most precise parallel.

In a world both recognizable and strange, Hester is an abortionist (hence the letter A branded into her). Abortionists are the untouchables of this society, performing a necessary function and yet marginalized and vilified. Hester works to earn enough money to pay for her son’s release from prison, which, because of an overly complex and incompetent bureaucracy worthy of Terry  Gilliam’s Brazil, seems an ever more remote possibility. Adding to the the pessimistic mood, her son is in prison because of an accusation and trumped up charges courtesy of the Mayor’s wife.

What follows is a spiraling tale of revenge and tragedy (in the Ancient Greek sense of the term). Hester has her hope destroyed, which unleashes her dark program of revenge. Parks walks a tightrope in her construction in echoes of Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan. In her trajectory, Hester commits both good and bad deads, is understandable and monstrous, worthy of pity and terror. Parks, like her predecessor, manages in the course of the evening to coax the audience to abandon its standard ethical compass and finally view Hester within the very specific context of her life and world rather than judge her from the comfort and privilege of a bourgeois point-of-view. In one regard, the play demands: how we can possibly judge her? She is neither saint nor sinner, but a product of her own history. The message is clear. Parks and director Jo Bonney want us to emerge from this theatrical experience and apply that same principle to those marginalized in our own world.

And that theatrical experience is often dizzying. The work conveys the terrible cost of a society bound by hierarchies of class and gender. Prostitution is another profession that has been institutionalized. Canary Mary (Joaquina Kalukango) has some limited perks and influence because the Mayor is her sole “client”; as the play progresses, she too learns how powerless she truly is. The bond of women (particularly lower class women) remains the one ray of light in an otherwise dark landscape. That the women have their own language that the men do not understand further enhances the image that they are a conquered people communicating under the noise of the colonizing power.

Despite the bleakness, the play is often funny. There is a monologue near the end of Act I that deliriously ups the comedic absurdity with each and every breath. It is a moment of artistic virtuosity and exemplary craft. The production includes a number of songs, that, in Brechtian fashion, comment more upon the action than give voice to the characters’ emotions.

Stand-outs in the cast include Kalukango, who deploys the tartness of her character to hide and then reveal the wisdom and underlying humanity of her character, and Ralph Nash Thompson as Butcher, who delivers the above mentioned monologue. But the evening belongs to Lahti, who travels the spectrum of ridiculous hope to deep despair to cold anger with ease.

Fucking A is not always an easy play to sit through, but it is a vital, necessary evening of theatre that further cements Parks’ earned reputation as one of our leading playwrights.

For more information about the production, please follow this link: https://www.signaturetheatre.org

Just a Fun Show

Nothing particularly revelatory here. I had the opportunity to see The Play that Goes Wrong while I was in London. It’s a fun show. It’s a very fun show. I have nothing to add to what seems to be commonplace knowledge. If you want a show where you can turn off your brain and just laugh, this is the one. I would argue that it is better than Noises Off, which peaks in the second act with a third act that just doesn’t quite deliver the same oomph. I’m just happy that a show that started as fringe theatre has had so much success on both sides of the Atlantic. And kudos too to Seán Carey, who understudied for Leonard Cook the night I saw it. I didn’t notice until later that he was not a regular performer.

Millenium Retreats

[Note: I had the opportunity to travel to London in July. What follows is one in an occasional series to report on the theatre productions I attended while there.]

As much as I love New York City theatre, I love London theatre more. It saddens me to report, then, that I found the most recent theatrical season there — at least based upon my own experiences — to be wanting. Angels in America by Tony Kushner at The National exemplifies this state of affairs.

While there, I could only manage to swing tickets for Millennium Approaches (I will have to see Perestroika via NT Live at my local cinema). I love this play. I saw soon after it transferred from the Public Theater back in the 1990’s. I believe it to be one of the most important American plays ever; it is also certainly a recent classic of the world stage. It powerful, resonant, funny, poignant, and painful. The HBO adaptation directed by Mike Nicholas was a rare transfer to the screen that did the original justice. On a bad day, The National does good work; on a great day, it shoots for the stars. The National knows this play. It provided an important foundational production before it even came to New York. So that this production was lackadaisical is both surprising and deeply disappointing.

Director Marianne Elliott comes to this production on the heels of her work on War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. As a consequence of only seeing Millennium, I could only glimpse at the angel effects that would receive greater play in Perestroika. The first part of the play, which offers the growing struggle between the realism and the magical of magical realism, felt extremely claustrophobic. I was unclear why the powers that be chose to perform the play on the Lyttelton stage and not the Olivier (which is unconstrained by a proscenium and allows for a more epic and less naturalistic scope). I understood that Elliott was slowly opening up her space as the evening went on, but I found the choice to constrain the energy of the show rather than setting free.

On a personal note, I came to New York City to attend university in September 1985 and lived in the city that Kushner describes. Elliott here too does not capture the feel of the time or place. The rawness and grit of New York pre-Bloomberg is missing; the set reflects the gentrification of the 21st century and so the danger and the counter-cultural excitement is missing.

It is with the acting that the production most lagged. James McCardle fails to capture the hyperkinetic energy and driving guilt of Louis. Nathan Lane has been pursuing more serious roles of late (such as his recent portrayal of Hickey in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh), but I found him an unconvincing Roy Cohn. After all, Cohn is a man Donald Trump counts as a mentor, and the cold reptilian nature of the man (both as historical figure as Kushner character)  should be front and center. Lane let too much heart leak through. That he shines in the small comic role of the ghost Prior simply reinforced how out-of-place he is as Cohn. I am all for actors getting out of their comfort zones and working muscles they do not normally use, but the casting choice here upset the balance of the play. And then there is Andrew Garfield. I wanted to like him. I was rooting for him. I enjoy most of his non-Spiderman film work. I do not pretend to understand his comments about his sexual identity while working on this production, but he just did not “get” Prior. He was indicating his way through the part, obviously putting on a fey voice rather than organically incorporating it into the character. There is a moment late in the evening when Prior is being examined and we get to witness the full extent of the damages to his body. With both Stephen Spinella and Justin Kirk, this is a moment of horror. Here, it was more on the order of “well, Garfield is really fit”.

As Joe Pitt, Russell Tovey really hits it out of the park. He poured confusion, pain, and conflicting priorities into his character. I don’t know why, but I am also surprised by the depth and nuance Tovey brings to his stage work from History Boys to A View from the Bridge. I should just realize he’s a great stage actor. And he had in Denise Gough as Harper an able scene partner who could match him complexity for complexity. Again, though, when Joe and Harper Pitt occupy the core of your emotional heartbreak, your Angels in America is in trouble.

I want this production of Angels of America to be good because I want all productions of Angels in America to be good. So perhaps I am being ridiculously optimistic that this is just a slow windup to a fantastic Perestroika. I am not holding my breath.

Burton’s Ghost is Happy

Concerning the current production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet now playing at The Public Theater, here is the short version the review: See it. Just see it.

Ok, for those who need more…

Among theatre geeks, the 1964 production of Hamlet starring Richard Burton and directed by John Gielgud has achieved legendary status. It gets copious mention in the first season of Slings & Arrows. It moved us past the Olivier interpretation onto fresh new ground. As best as I can piece together, what Oscar Isaac and Sam Gold have crafted here is the closest we are ever going to get in the 21st century to that landmark production. I was in London in July, and I had the chance to see the Andrew Scott take on the role (which, by all measure, is also superlative). I did not go because I felt like I have seen my definitive Hamlet.

Eschewing sets, costumes, and pyrotechnics, Gold just focuses on the language, the narrative, and forming on ensemble that will fully inhabit the world of the play. He succeeds. I had seen his Othello at New York Theatre Workshop, and he exceeded the high bar he established there. The claim of this production is that you get the full text. That is not quite true. Anything having to do with Fortinbras and Norway has been excised. Still, that’s 95% of the script, making for an evening long in hours (but far from an endurance test, at least for the audience).

Given his work in indie films (Inside Llewyn Davis) and major studio releases (the new Stars Wars trilogy), Isaac is known to have considerable acting chops. He lives up to that reputation. This is fully as realized a performance as we are likely to get. He embodies grief and the feeling of being completely at sea. When Hamlet feigns madness in Act II and III, one wonders here how much he is actually feigning. As Hamlet plunges into torment and guilt after killing Polonius, Isaac ably communicates the rawness of what the Prince of Denmark is experiencing. The final duel with Laertes is a welcome escape from the ever-mounting pain.

Isaac is surrounded by a cast equal to his talents. Keegan-Michael Key is an extraordinarily dynamic and funny Horatio; for once, I felt the necessity of Horatio in the play beyond serving as a sounding board for Hamlet. Ritchie Coster is an able (finally!) Claudius and sorrowful Old Hamlet. Peter Friedman offers the wiliest Polonius (plus Grave Digger) in a long time, and he has able support from Gayle Rankin as a bulimic Ophelia and Anatol Yusef (Boardwalk Empire) as a cooler-than-usual Laertes. If there is a link weak in the chain, it belongs to Charlene Woodard’s Gertrude; she just did not seem to get into the swing of the proceedings.

Throughout Gold makes bold choices, and even if they do not always quite connect, you have to admire the invention and love of the play that never once wavers. Foremost, this is a celebration of Hamlet and so, even given the play’s elegiac turns, the evening never turns turgid. We are on a journey and glad to be on it.

This production closes Labor Day weekend. It needs to be seen.

Back on the Grid

I’ve been off the grid for a few weeks because of vacation and family health emergencies. But I’ll be updating the site a bit more regularly going forward.

Millennium Approaches for Millennials

As a member of a Generation X and a university professor, I often wonder and worry about the world being left behind for succeeding generations. “Not much of anything” would appear to be the answer if Alex Riad’s new play The Floor is Lava serves as a guide. A sense of existential despair pervades every nook and cranny of this work and speaks to a larger crisis of the generation.

A uniformly superlative cast ably directed by Jessica O’Hara Baker propels the narrative forward. Tom (a wily wicked Ian Poake) was the high school misfit who in a few short years has found himself the beneficiary of a Gatsby-esque rise to the height of wealth thanks to an innovative social media tool he created. He hosts a holiday party/business launch party and has invited his high school friends: Sean (Vin Kridakorn), Matt (John DiMino), and Kat (Molly Collier). Long-festering bitter discontent fueled by drugs and a particularly expensive single malt will manifest itself over the evening. There is always a danger when writing about the travails of those with wealth and privilege: are their problems “first world” problems, and are we asked to feel sorry because it rained during their week in Aruba? Riad avoids that trap. Yes, his characters have access to wealth, but the world they inhabit seems to offer little conciliation regardless of economic class. Even the one character who offers some hope occupies an ambivalent space in that regard.

The play nonetheless feels like it is in need of another rewrite. The mechanics of getting Character A off stage so Characters B and C can have a  two-hander scene feel forced.  The motivation for Sean to be there in the first place is never fully explored (but, let’s face it, the motivations for Peter and Jerry to be on that park bench in Albee’s “Zoo Story” are strained). And the coda feels too neat and runs against the mood and tone of the rest of the piece. But these are for the most part craft issues which can be easily resolved in a rewrite.

There is abundant good in the play, and that comes from the artistic side of its creation. In articulating a clear authorial voice, expressing complex thematic concerns, and undertaking an emotional deep-dive, Riad demonstrates that he has a command of his medium that much older writers would envy. With The Floor is Lava, he marries the concerns of both Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) and John Steinbeck while building a piece uniquely his own.

Tom’s improbable success has not granted him any wisdom or the tools with which to engage the world. He is still that sad-sack kid back in school. That he has crashed into the the domain of the one percent has not made the rest of the super-wealthy all that glad to have him in their company. They hope for his fall, and when it arrives, they rejoice in it. Sean is that extraordinarily bright kid who does well in all his classes and extracurriculars. He is never going to be in the one-percent, but he will be in the next level down that expertly executes the one-percent’s decrees. Tom revels in the world of social media, while Sean despises it (I wish Riad could have personalized this for the character a bit more). Tom and Sean and were once best friends, but have since had a falling out. Their arguments are visceral and raw. The final clash and ultimate emotional collapse delivers a wallop thanks to the honest and unadorned performances of both Poake and Kridakorn. Additionally, Kridakorn never shies away from the dark and ugly parts of his character as he unsuccessfully struggles with depression.

DiMino as Matt has a fascinating journey of his own. In his first scene, he comes across as the stereotypical North California stoner. In his second scene, though, he reveals hidden depths. The play is set in San Jose. Matt, the slacker of the group, has never attained the stereotypical success of his friends. In a confrontation with Sean, he tears into his friend for this idea of achievement. Steinbeck’s Monterey, made famous in Cannery Row, is only 70 miles from San Jose. Matt offers a full-throated defense of the kind of life Steinbeck celebrated: of simple living; of doing something that you love; of freedom from money, ambition, and acquisition. But that Steinbeckian Monterey seems an impossible distance away from Riad’s San Jose. And Matt must at the end confess that he will never been taken seriously by anyone else; you can read the terrible pain of that in DiMino’s face.

I would say this moment represents the playwright at his most-self-assured, but there is another moment that exceeds even this one. Kat gets to confront Sean as well. She laments the place of women in Silicon Valley, indeed all of corporate America, and how she is stuck cleaning up the mess created by Sean and how it left man-child Tom defeated. It is a powerful condemnation of how the nation at large has a double-standard with regard to women, not just in business but in politics and all other institutions. Collier, who plays Kat, is in rare form here. I have followed her work for years, and she just keeps getting better and better with each year; and she started at a high water mark to begin with. Here she does the impossible. She speaks for the struggle of all women, and yet she elides that larger macro argument with a deep personal investment that reaches to very core of her character. Universal and specific at the same time — an extremely difficult feat to pull off, and Collier pulls it off with panache. She becomes the hero the piece, and I kind of wishes the play ended with her scene.

Riad has a lot going for himself here. I would advise that he trust his instincts, let the characters breathe and worry less about logistics. What we have here is a very good play on its way to becoming a great play. And when it is done: wow.

The Floor is Lava, produced by The Farm Theatre, is currently playing at Planet Connections: http://planetconnections.org/2017-full-productions/the-floor-is-lava-presented-by-the-farm-theater/

Theatre of the Absurd is Alive and Well in the 21st Century

I had the opportunity to see Natalie Menna’s Occasionally Nothing last night at the Planet Connections 2017 Festivity. I had seen a previous shorter version of the play in the 2016 version of the festival. What struck me most about the work was Menna’s sure command of the tools of the Theatre of the Absurd.

The masters of Theatre of the Absurd — Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Eugene Ionesco — developed their art under the twin shadows of the Holocaust and nuclear armageddon. Menna is no different. She sees the dangers of the current state of the world — manifested by Trump but certainly not exclusive to his election — and extrapolates a downward spiral. Menna focuses not on political polemics but on the spiritual and emotional devastation that our less-than-brave new world is wreaking. The writing here is spare, brutal, and emotionally resonate. She has imbued her work with a musicality for both he words and the long silences that fall in between. Such writing requires an extraordinary discipline and specificity of the rest of the creative team, both well-orchestrated by director Ivette Dumeng.

Harry (an amusingly bellicose David Triacca) and Clay (the always sterling Sean Hoagland) are trapped in a shelter  that provides some basic security against the dangers of devastating war going on outside its walls. Off-stage for the first half is Luella (a dynamic Maiken Wiese), wife of the former and aunt of the latter. Survival and shielding the psychologically fragile Luella from the harsh realities occupy the totality of their time.

Menna’s dialogue crackles with energy and wit. Hoagland, in particular, excels at finding every last nugget the nuance in the rollercoaster ride of the play’s early dialogue. The play takes a turn, though, and lands an emotional wallop on the audience. Pain and loss pervade the second half; Dumeng infuses an elegiac tone into the work to stunning effect. Luella suffers partial amnesia, and the collaboration of Menna, Dumeng, and Wiese conveys the overwhelming feeling of despair that that condition has on all the characters on stage. It is a beautiful moment of raw emotional power, and it takes one’s breath away.

My one complaint about the work is that the nationalities of the characters was unclear. But that is a trifling matter.

Most artists have game-changing works, a piece that catapults them to the next level of their medium; Occasionally Nothing is that work for Menna.   The play clearly belongs to the same tradition of Beckett’s End Game, which does not rob it of its importance or necessity. It speaks to the dark shadows of the 21st-century in a vibrant and yes comic voice. It should be seen.

For information and tickets, follow this link: http://planetconnections.org/2017-full-productions/occasionally-nothing-presented-by-natalie-menna/ 

Terezin, A New Play about the Holocaust, Premieres in New York City

There awaits an almost impossible challenge for any artist, regardless of medium, who attempts to engage with the Holocaust. The sheer scale of the evil that spanned a continent during the 1930’s and 1940’s defies any attempt to capture it upon a single “canvas”. Documentary film-maker Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah was nine-hours long and built out of 350 hours of unedited footage, and it still was not enough. Until Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, narrative film-makers struggled to depict the vastness of this most horrible moment in human history. Simply put, the Holocaust creates a paradoxical conflict: the artistic need, on the one hand, to craft a powerful story and the human need, on the other hand, to throw light on every horror encountered, to honor as many victims as possible. It is a conflict that ultimately can harm the work. Theatre, which is a more intimate form of performance than the cinema, feels this struggle acutely.

Spielberg, however, showed the way. While it is impossible to depict the entirety of the Holocaust, art can shine a light on one small corner of it. The theatre can play an important role in this. Since the Holocaust is the ultimate crime, since anyone in an SS uniform becomes the ultimate evil, we feel a safe distance from it: it isn’t us, we couldn’t do that, they were inhuman monsters, almost aliens. The theatre’s job here is to make those who perpetuated the genocide of millions what they really were: not monsters but humans who did this terrible deed. In Hannah Arendt’s words, they did not choose to do evil but rather did not make a choice between good or evil. In short, but for circumstances, they are us.

Alas, Nicholas Tolkien, author and director of Terezin now playing at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, has fallen into the quagmire of so many who have preceded him. Set in the spa town of what was then Czechoslovakia, the play concerns the journey of two girls – Violet (Sasha K. Gordon) and Alexi (Natasa Petrovic) – as they try to survive the concentration camp set aside for distinguished and prominent Jewish individuals. Tolkien bites off more than he can chew. There are some attempts to employ magical realism a la Pan’s Labyrinth, but the production never really commits to this choice. Sometimes these elements work, and sometimes they do not (those just shot crawling off-stage is simply distracting). Too much time is given over to the family dysfunction of the commandant Karl Rahm (Michael Leigh Cook) and his son Eric (Skyler Gallun), which plays more like soap opera than tragedy. The dialogue varies between anachronistic (too many characters defy Rahm in 21st-century attitude and terminology) and ham-fisted (of the 1940’s film German stereotype variety). Sample dialogue has Person 1 saying, “I don’t believe you” to which Person 2 responds, “But you must believe me”, and that explanation suffices. The accent work crosses the spectrum from Blake Lewis’s spot-on Ralph Fiennes homage to others on stage who seem to have wandered on from the set of ‘Allo, ‘Allo. Again, all of these issues stem from the core problem of attempting to cram in too much material so that short-hand, indication, and stereotypes are needed to move us from Point A to Point B.

There is, however, a good play lying here, waiting to be born. The last 15 minutes of Act I are completely set apart from everything else around it. In order to please a Red Cross inspector, Rahm turns Terezin into a Potemkin Village with shops, theaters, schools, and playgrounds to give the impression that the Jews are treated well. The Nazis then build on their successful deception to utilize this fake town as a set for a propaganda film for how well Jews are treated by the Reich. In these moments, Tolkien uses the tools of the theatre to create a powerful indictment of the Holocaust. The efforts to create essentially works of art in the midst of a genocide to prove you are not engaging in genocide are unique, grotesque, and strangely human (at worst). These moments culminate in a wrenching monologue, an incredible piece of writing, where Petrovic as Alexi breaks the fourth wall and expresses how the flickering images of this film are all that remain of her. With these fifteen minutes, Tolkien deploys the tools of the theatre – from Brecht to the Theatre of the Absurd – to weave a more powerful, complicated, and nuanced indictment of the Holocaust than the rest of the play combined. Sometimes, we have to step back from our need to record everything and simply be artists that we are truly at our most effective. He would also be advised to enlist the services of an experienced director; another set of eyes would help enormously.

It may come across as churlish to criticize a play so loaded with good and worthy intentions. But intentions alone do not make good art. Tolkien has a good play waiting for him, a diamond in the rough. If he can do more with less, focus on the inspection and propaganda film, and find the universal in the specific, then he will be well on the road to creating a great play that will honor all the victims of Terezin. They will then be more than the flickering images on the screen.

For information and tickets, please follow this link: https://www.terezintheplay.com/the-play

The Power of Political Theatre is Often Its Simplicity

In Ancient Greece, poets (such as it was believed with Homer) would travel from city to city and recite epic poems in the palaces in the public squares. Somewhere along the line, someone had the idea of adding a second voice and thus theatre was born. Robert Schenkkan’s new play, Building the Wall — which recently had a limited run in New York and is set to perform in other cities across the nation — is a theatrical work in only this most elemental sense. Rather than detract from its power, this strategy only serves to heighten the works power.

The setting is a prison in El Paso, Texas; it is late 2019. Rick, played in the New York run by the user-intense James Badge Dale (The PacificRubiconThe Departed) is being held for crimes that, at the beginning of the play, are unspecified but apparently monstrous. Rick is ex-military, ex-law enforcement, and ex-Trump voter. His rationale for his support is refreshingly complex. Tamara Tunie (Law & Order: SVU) plays Gloria, a professor doing research on Rick and the criminal event in which he was involved. While her character has been given a rather perfunctory backstory, she serves as witness and confessor (who may not accept the supplicant’s confession).

The vast majority of the play is taken up with Rick telling the story of how he ended up in prison. Alas, I cannot say much more than that as it would give away the punch-in-the-gut ending. Here, Schenkkan has crafted his work so that narrative is argument, and argument is narrative. As we come closer and closer to the events that unmade Rick. it is clear that the playwright is borrowing another aspect from Greek theatre: the inevitability of tragedy.

Building the Wall is an unapologetic cry against the policies of Trump and Trumpism. The President’s kleptocratic impulses and obstruction of justice are venial sins in comparison to what Schenkkan charts. The playwright honestly and sincerely — and thus chillingly — finds a great darkness and evil at the very heart of this administration’s policies. Sometimes it is difficult to look at this play, but look at it we must. As the recent controversy surrounding Shakespeare in the Parks production of Julius Caesar illustrates, art often provides the clearest moral lens on the actions the state allegedly takes on our behalf.  Building the Wall then is more than just a warning. Again, borrowing from the Greek, it is a portent of the (possible) terrible things yet to come.

Link

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/16/shakespeare-plays-and-civic-strife-the-julius-caesar-fiasco-is-nothing-new