Category Archives: Experimental Theatre

Oedipus el Rey Tells a Familiar Tale in Startling New Ways

I haven’t had a chance to sit down until now and reflect on Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus el Rey at The Public Theatre until now (three days before it closes). So I will keep this brief.

The play tells Sophocles’s infamous story through the twin lenses of modern American society and Mexican folk tradition. What is startling is how well the original holds up AND gains immediacy and relevance in its movement through time and space. Alfaro puts on stage what Sophocles puts off stage, including a particularly long and brave and compelling scene between Oedipus (Juan Castano) and Jocasta (Sandra Delgado) when they unknowingly violate the laws of both gods and men.

The play is spare and yet full. The ensemble cast performed superbly, and the more mystical effects were both of the New World and Otherworldly.

A Revelatory Hairy Ape

It is not enough to say that The Hairy Ape, currently playing at the Park Avenue Armory and a co-production with the Old Vic, is a superlative production – though it is. It should also spark a revision of how we receive Eugene O’Neill’s work in the twenty-first century. That is a lot to place on this production, but its broad shoulder can handle the load and responsibility.

The play is not one of the better known in the O’Neill canon. I read it as part of a graduate school class on twentieth-century American drama, but have never seen it performed until now. There have been multiple productions of Long Day’s Journey, Iceman, Moon, and even the odd Anna Christie, Elms, and Wilderness. Since its 1922 premiere in New York City (transferring to Broadway from The Provincetown Players), The Hairy Ape has rarely made it onstage – a 1930 London production with Paul Robeson would certainly have been interesting but problematic through our lens of 2017.

It is easy to see why. Expressionistic, political, and focused on class in America, The Hairy Ape does not dive into the psychological complexity of its characters we associate with the playwright’s later work. That, however, does not make any less valuable and vital. The plot is simplicity itself. Yank (Bobby Cannavale), a stoker on a cruise liner, loses all sense of pride as a hard-working working class man after a brief encounter with heiress Mildred Douglas (Catherine Combs). The lion’s share of the play follows Yank as he moves through New York’s Upper East Side seeking revenge and instead finding humiliation and after humiliation. He at last arrives at the gorilla’s cage at the zoo, and even there, a hoped-for comradeship is nothing more than a pipe dream.

Sitting at the Park Avenue Armory (physically located in the midst of most of the play’s action), I felt the scales falling from my eyes. What had been relegated as an interesting curiosity from O’Neill’s early career spoke to our present moment with a clear and angry voice as any of the soliloquies from The Iceman Cometh. Here was a working class man who lost all sense of his place within the American community. With the passing of each scene, he spirals further and further downward into irrelevance. Even the Wobblies, portrayed as members of the coastal elites, have no use for Yank and throw him out the door. His tragedy (and it is a tragedy in the Ancient Greek sense) is as relevant today the drama of Lynn Nottage’s Sweat.

Hairy Ape should allow us to open our eyes to the larger O’Neill canon. Like Miller and Williams, O’Neill has become a part of the American drama museum: works from a “golden age” of theatre that are now given prestige if ultimately safe productions. The playwright chronicles those who do not fit into American life, even the relatively prosperous Tyrones. His characters have fallen into despair, financial ruin, and driftlessness. Even when O’Neill takes a certain mocking tone toward radicals and Socialists, it has much more to do with their lack of effectiveness than ideology. His America is harsh and uninviting; it is quick to destroy any and all, including its greatest adherents. Yank moves from a sense of exaggerated pride (he is the “guts” of the ship) to an ultimate desolation. Despite his physical strength, he is emotionally and psychological brittle and unprepared for the realities of a society bound up with a social hierarchy.

As Yank, Cannavale is a wonder. Whether in film (The Station Agent), television (Boardwalk Empire, Vinyl), or stage (Glengarry Glen Ross, The Motherfucker with the Hat), Cannavale is poetry in motion and action. He brings his usual vitality, energy, and intelligence – and then some! – to Yank. Thus, Yank never feels like a caricature or a representation, but a fully complex and nuanced character whose downward descent into a personal Hell, despite the expressionistic nature of the play, always feels so very, very real. The excellent cast – that feels much larger than it is – gives full and complete support to its lead. Combs hilariously portrays the petulant and spoiled Mildred. As Paddy, David Constable gives life to O’Neill’s elegiac poetry concerning life at sea (something that wends its way throughout the playwright’s career through to the famous Edmund monologue in Long Day’s Journey). Chris Bannow is a wonderfully sniveling Long.

Aletta Collins (choreographer) and Thomas Schall (fight director) have crafted a beautiful, pulsating, and textured physical life for the production; every movement adds to the narrative drive and there is not a wasted motion throughout. Director Richard Jones deserves a standing ovation in his own right. The production was flawless from the character work with the actors to the design elements to the production logistics; that it all looked so easy meant that he must have spent numerous hours of hard labor to make it all happen. His use of the Park Avenue Armory space itself was innovative, fully utilizing every nook and cranny and creating a sense of depth rarely seen outside of cinema; the upstage wall resembled, for all the world, the Odeon of Herod Atticus.

From start to finish, it was a dazzling achievement.

Geoff Sobelle = Charlie Chaplin + Spalding Gray

I run hot and cold on performance art, but I found The Object Lesson — Geoff Sobelle’s art installation piece currently playing at New York Theatre Workshop — to be delightful, mostly. The   end result is more a meditation on the place of things in our lives rather than a piece with a clear linear narrative arc.

Which is fine. Different can be good. The audience walks into NYTW’s space — which has had a distinctive look each of the last five times I have visited — and is confronted by what could be best described as Miss Havisham’s attic on steroids. With no clear center as to what the playing area might be, the audience is left to wander and roam a seemingly endless array of boxes, some of which prompt conversation with one’s fellow patrons. Chairs and couches are mixed in with yoga matts and stools. What is perhaps refreshing about Sobelle’s approach is that he does value some objects; this is not an all out attack on material culture. Some items become tokens of memory, of something significant from the past, of something shared.

Sobelle reminded me of two notable, if very different, past performers. On the one hand, when he broke into monologue, he reminded me very much of Spalding Gray. I cannot really say why this should be so. There was nothing Gray-esque necessarily about his focus, but nonetheless, the tone struck a chord that reminded me of that much-missed monologist. On the other hand, there was something clearly Chaplin-esque about the performance. Like his predecessor, Sobelle imbued the inanimate objects about him with life, personality, character. Like Chaplin, Sobelle was confounded and confused by anything representing a technological advance. And like Chaplin, his physicality was extraordinary. His training at École Jacques Lecoq in Paris was very much on display, and it served the performer and his construct well.

Highlights of the performance included two vignettes that make use of circular phone conversations, a monologue about a visit to the French countryside, and a a bit with ice skates and salad (which really has to be experienced rather than described). The ending, however, was something of a let down. The final vignette really did not provide a satisfying coda for all that had transpired up until that point. What was needed was perhaps not some sort of Aristotelian sense of narrative closure — because that is not what The Object Lesson is about — but rather some sort of emotional epiphany that would have made the end of the journey more pointed.

That point of criticism aside, The Object Lesson is very much a worthwhile evening of theatre. If anything, for those of who were there, it brings up fond memories of the kind of work that used to be a staple of the downtown theatre scene. Perhaps it’s time for a large-scale return to that kind of experimentation.