Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Mound Builders and the Conquest of the Nice

I’ll admit it right off; other than Fifth of July, I am not that familiar with Lanford Wilson’s work. That’s right – shame on me. A couple of weeks ago I went to see The Mound Builders at The Pershing Square Signature Center. As a dramatic literature scholar, I have come to find the Signature invaluable to my research. But the company is also a terrific resource for those who have a deep love for the American stage. Signature explores the richness of the canon beyond the tired trinity of Miller, Williams, and O’Neill. (Nothing wrong with any of these writers, but too often productions of their plays have become, in the words of Brooks, deadly).

And in that regard, The Mound Builders is a very important play. In terms of style, it has a loose disjointed feel — particularly in the first act — that was endemic of its era (mid-1970’s). 21st century attention spans might find the pacing a bit off-putting, which is shame because there is a great deal lurking beneath the bellbottoms and headbands.

Wilson’s piece follows a group of archaeologists who travel to the southern tip of Illinois every summer to investigate the mounds left by pre-Columbian peoples. This particular summer, they are racing time as the local lake has been damned up and the water is rising, threatening to engulf the site of the dig. An important find sets off the tragic events at the end of the play. The characters consist mostly of the researchers and members of their immediate families. The only exception is Chad Jasker (a wonderfully conflicted Will Rogers), whose family owns the land the scientists use as a staging ground.  Familial dysfunction informs most of the relations. Couples are married just because.

The Mound Builders though is a searing indictment of a cultural imperialism (though within the confines of these shores) in a number of different forms. We realize how fleeting our time on this continent has been, and yet how much destruction we have wrought. Further, the archaeologists are so concerned with their find that the needs of the people living in the community barely register. They condescend and manipulate Jasker (a touch of the red state/blue state divide that would come later). They change state laws without consulting anyone. They will take their discoveries far away from the community for their own purposes.

The character who is on point in this deception is Dr. Dan Loggins. Zachary Booth’s take on the character is particularly riveting. His Dan is a nice, happy-go-lucky, come-what-may kind of guy – on the surface. Booth’s Dan very much reminds me of Pyle from Graham Greene’s The Quiet American; the awe-shucks attitude masks a resourceful cunning. Like Pyle, Dan is trying to get what he wants out of the local population and is quite relentless in his approach. He will provoke Jasker’s sexual confusion, look the other way when the latter is trying to seduce his wife, and push him in the direction he needs him. Nice does not mean kind, and Dan is a very rare sort of villain – one who believes that he is doing nothing but good and yet causes nothing but harm.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the wonderful turn of Danielle Skraastad as D.K. I had seen this marvelous actress in Tony Kushner’s iHomo. She had a small part in that earlier play but was mesmerizing as a pregnant theology doctoral student. Here, as D.K., she embodies the ennui and disillusionment of the time. She falls somewhere between Dorothy Parker and Mrs. Robinson.

I have seen three plays in as many months at The Signature — August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, David Henry Hwang’s The Dance and the Railroad, and finally The Mound Builders – and it has quickly become one of my primary go-to theaters. Their mission and dedication to playwright makes this company essential, and their moderate pricing makes their productions affordable. Check them out.

Neva: Must See Theatre at The Public

The following is a review I wrote on Neva, a new play currently in production for the Under the Radar Festival at The Public Theatre. The review appeared in (Welcome to

The American stage needs more plays like Neva.

Written and directed by Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón and translated by Andrea Thome, the production is a part of the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theatre. Calderón sets his play in St. Petersburg, Russia on January 2, 1905. This infamous date is significant because striking workers, protesting peacefully, were gunned down by Tsarist troops; that day, known as Bloody Sunday, would become the impetus for violent revolution a decade later. Meanwhile, Olga Knipper (a fantastic Bianca Amato), Anton Chekhov’s widow, rehearses for a production of The Cherry Orchard in an empty theater. She is joined by two members of the acting company: Masha (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) and Aleko (Luke Robertson). Together they muse and argue about art and revolution and the intersections thereof.

Neva stands as an excellent example of a Modernist text fully realized as both an intellectually intense and emotionally exciting night at the theatre. Calderon incorporates a number of different elements in order to breathe life into his work while nonetheless creating something new and true to his own vision. Most important of these elements is the one pertaining to Chekhov that incorporates the playwright’s artistry and biography; it revolves around The Cherry Orchard. In Chekhov’s last play, we know that change is coming to and for Russia. But what shape will that change take? Will it be that of the coarse and low-born merchant Lopakhin, or that of the idealistic and reform-minded student Trofimov? Chekhov did not know the answer –the play premiered a year before Bloody Sunday and Chekhov died during the summer in between – though he does tip the scales in favor of Lopakhin. Had he lived to see Bloody Summer, his estimation might have – nay, would have – been different. Calderón sets his play crucially when one such road to the future would be closed (or at least put on hold for several decades). Suddenly, we are in a world that Chekhov would no longer recognize, and yet his presence still dominates the lives of these characters, especially Olga’s.

As director, Calderón confines the action to a very tight space – a small dais, little more than an island awash in the darkness of the Anspacher – and provides only a single practical for lighting. He utilizes a blending of styles including Chekhovian, Brechtian, and Absurdist.

The effect of such a construction is to raise the stakes appreciably for the audience. Yes, the work is historical but not the sort of history where we are privileged with a point of “objective” observation. Rather, the history here more closely fits the German notion of Geschichte wherein political forces are in continual process from past to present in order to give form to the future. It is that conversation between past and present with which Calderón engages his audience. Neva is as much about the playwright’s native Chile – and the shadow that the Pinochet regime still casts – and the contemporary United States (a society currently in a state of transition) as it is about Russia of a century ago. True to the Modernist paradigm, he reimagines forms and ideas from the past to speak urgently of the now.

Here, Calderón follows in the tradition of two of his nation’s foremost authors. First, like Pablo Neruda, he investigates the moment where love (and a gentle eroticism) elides with the revolutionary spirit. Unlike Neruda, whose style was often one of elegiac romanticism, Calderón’s voice is a raw, primal, visceral howl. (NB: Neruda and Calderón bookend the Pinochet regime as the former died suspiciously of heart failure three days after the start of the military coup.) Second, like Vicente Huidobro, he is on a quest for authenticity in writing (here playwriting instead of poetry). But unlike Huidobro, he finds history not a burden but a source of freedom. Added to this mix is a post-colonial rejection of hegemonic cultural dominance, represented by Olga’s belief in the superiority of the German over all else.

These components make for compelling theatre indeed. Calderón anchors his play, beginning and end, with two monologues that demonstrate his virtuosity as an artist. The first, Olga’s, appears on the surface to be an egotistical actor’s rant, but beneath lurks the contradictions and paradoxes of the life in the theatre. The last, Masha’s, also exposes the many conflicting factors that contribute to a revolutionary’s state-of-mind, and Bernstine mines the role of Masha for her glorious complications and nuances. The third member of the cast, Robertson, fully embodies the role of Aleko, who must, at Olga’s bidding, constantly reenact Chekhov’s death in a mockery of a realist theatre’s catharsis. Most poignant is the scene where Chekov does not die and witnesses Lenin’s return at Finland Station and the launch of Sputnik. Aleko, the aristocrat turned actor, serves as a bridge between Olga and Masha as his politics are closer to Tolstoy’s than Trotsky’s.

I cannot say enough about this excellent, exciting, and necessary play. I am not familiar with Calderón’s other works, but now I want to be.