Tag Archives: Off-Broadway

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

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.

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/ 

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.

Looking Ahead to the 2017-18 Season

Excited to subscribe to the Signature Theater’s 2017-8 Season. That means two plays by Suzan-Lori Parks (In the Blood and Fucking A) and three by Stephen Adly Guirgis (Jesus Hopped the A TrainOur Lady of 121St Street, and a new work). Woot.

Link

http://www.playbill.com/article/annaleigh-ashford-stephen-adley-guirgis-nikki-m-james-set-for-shakespeare-in-the-park

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.

Link

http://www.signaturetheatre.org/News/New-Signature-Playwrights.aspx