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

Link

http://www.npr.org/2017/05/20/529146027/whos-afraid-of-a-diverse-cast

Link

http://www.newyorker.com/books/second-read/the-alternative-facts-of-samuel-becketts-watt?mbid=social_twitter