Tag Archives: Revival

So Holden Caulfield Made It To Adulthood. Now What?

Because of the complications of copyright, we may never see a living embodiment of Holden Caulfield on either stage or screen. Terrence McNally, however, offered us the next best thing with Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone?, a work that premiered in 1971 at the Yale Rep. It combines autobiographical elements with a not-so-subtextual musing of what Holden Caulfield would have been like if he had made it to adulthood and the 1960’s. Indeed, the narrative movement conforms much to the original novel’s: a journey to New York City (this time in a plan instead of a train), a disastrous dalliance in a hotel, an ambivalent relationship with an older brother, a nervous breakdown in the rain. Now, though, the rebel without a cause suddenly has a cause.

There are some dated elements to McNally’s script (a starchy female customer at Bloomingdale’s for instance), but much of it remains surprisingly relevant in part because the playwright did not construct a realistic work. It is more of a meditation on the 1960’s counter-culture movement and its relationship to its roots in the 1950’s. In pushing his Holden-like character forward, McNally also does the same with other 1950’s icons such as James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. Tommy himself embodies both the positive and negative of that counter-culture movement (in 1971 the country found itself in a pretty dark place and elements of the peace movement turned to violence for political purpose). One can hear echoes of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when he reflects, “So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” The play and character walk the razor’s edge between the wave and the place where it broke, between Woodstock and Altamont.

It is in that ambiguity that the plays finds its resonance, particularly a year into the Trump Era. In a time when the old idealism is lost, when a sense of loss and abandonment is profound, and when desperation builds to an overwhelming force, it requires no great act of imagination what troubling path some might choose.

Of course, what is needed to convey this 1971 work in 2017 is a creative team that can navigate its extremely treacherous currents. Fortunately, Starting 5 Productions has done just that. Director Laura Braza and her design team have just done that. Scene designer Zach Serafin constructed one of the better sets I have seen on an off-off-Broadway budget that both tells the (expressionistic) story and conveys a certain beauty of the underground in its own right. Braza, further, keeps the the production moving at pace without sacrificing emotional depth.

The ensemble moves seamlessly from the ridiculous to the realistic. Emily Kitchens, playing numerous roles, does a hilarious job as an oblivious Pat Nixon. Portraying Ben Delight, Daniel O’Shea finds nuance in the role of the gentleman beggar. Emma Geer infuses Nedda Lemon with a melancholy that informs even her happier moments. When she admits to her deep unhappiness in her final scene with Tommy, we can just hear her heart break.

The lynchpin of all of this is Tommy, played by the exceptional David Gow. Gow does not so much embody the role as devour it. The danger of Holden or Tommy is that either could easily be reduced to a sociopath. The necessary approach, therefore, is to embrace the damaged child  that is Tommy, that he has been damaged by the family, nation, world, and his own dreams. Gow pulls back from the bombast and hubris that often colored individuals from the counter-culture and instead fills his Tommy with vulnerability and despair. Even as he sits in the airplane drinking champagne looking across at America, an elegiac note sounds in his voice. When in the play’s coda, he loses everyone, we know, from Gow’s careful construction, that these are in fact losses that he cannot bare (despite his seeming bravado to the contrary). Yet, he finds puckish fun in the more surreal elements; he offers a vaudevillian physical battle with Mrs. Nixon as a blind handicapped girl at a photo op, a dead-on parody of James Dean, and a wonderfully demented performance as a Trotskyite Marilyn Monroe. This last left parody behind in the rear-view window and entered the realm of the sublime. Throughout, Gow finds the humanity that underscores all the character’s actions, and thus finds the tragic in the play’s final moments.

Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? performs through December 17. More information can be found here: https://wherehastommyflowersgone.weebly.com

What Happens to the Message if the Messenger is Flawed?

Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Jesus Hopped The “A” Train is a play and a poem, a prophesy and a prayer, a profane rant and a psalm. Underlining this extremely tender and human work set entirely on Rikers Island in New York are the questions: can we see God in the most unlikely of places and can we hear his message even if the messenger is flawed? Guirgis has rightly earned a reputation for taking the language of the street, and like Charles Bukowski, elevating it to poetry. Yet, I have always found there to be an intense spirituality to his plays (this is the man after all who penned The Last Days of Judas Iscariot after all) that ask the impossible questions of faith and our relationship with the divine.

The revival of this work currently playing at the Signature does full justice to the script. Indeed, it feels more relevant now than it did in the waning days of the Clinton Administration. For in a time and a place that is increasingly divided between us and them and between the haves and have-nots, who better than to spread the word of Jesus (who, in his own day, was a refugee and a member of a marginalized community on the periphery of a great empire) than someone wearing a prison uniform? Guirgis forces his audience to confront the comforts of their own belief systems by placing the gospel in the mouth of Lucius Jenkins, a serial killer. Performed with a fiery intensity by Edi Gathegi, Lucius stands as a paradox. Lucius admits to being a killer, but he is no penitent either. “Every day I got left,” he says, “I’m a live free. I’m a open up that gift God  give me each and every day, save me the wrappin’ paper so’s I could package up my gift and pass it on.” The gauntlet has been thrown down. Do we have the ears to hear even though this perfectly acceptable notion within the Christian tradition (and a good deal others) are said by someone we find morally repugnant? And if we cannot, then is not us that are lacking?

This is a fantastic direction for a play to take for it is impossible to leave that question in the theater. It haunts one in the hours and days after the performance. And it is in that the theater finds its true mission. A film cannot live on in us this way a theatrical performance can, and as theatre has its origins in religious ritual, it works best when it incubates questions of the metaphysical. The playwright dazzles with easy elisions of the sacred and sacrilegious, but all the while he is laying the foundation of his moral inquiry – and that is what lasts.

Gathegi is ably joined by Sean Carvajal in the lead role of Angel. When Carvajal’s Angel appears , we can feel the suffering coursing through his body, which manifests itself as added weight as if Angel alone were walking on a higher gravity planet. He navigates beautifully the shoals of dialogue, moving quickly from his tough guy persona to his more intimate reflections. In the end, Angel has the choice between the expedient path and the morally correct but harder path. We at last realize that he was actually listening to Lucius. We as the audience may have been rooting for him to choose expedience, but in the end, he was right and we were wrong. Both Gathegi and Carvajal take on parts originally played by Ron Cephas Jones and Jon Ortiz, and they invest them fully in their own energy, their own truth.

Ricardo Chavira, Stephanie DiMaggio, and Erick Betancourt round out the rest of the excellent ensemble. Paula R. Clarkson’s direction keeps the focus on the moral complexity of the world on stage and not pyrotechnics.

Thornton Wilder once stated, “I regard the theater as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being. ” When theatre is doing its job – as Jesus Hopped The “A” Train surely is – then it communicates what it means to be human. The audience member having experienced this play would be hard pressed after not to use the lens of the play to wonder if certain decisions are made because they are socially acceptable or if they are truly right. Can we see that Jesus is on the “A” Train and “see us safe to bed”?

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.

Link

http://www.playbill.com/article/2017-tony-award-nominations-the-great-comet-and-hello-dolly-lead-the-pack

Link

http://www.thejournal.ie/waiting-for-godot-the-abbey-play-3329047-Apr2017/

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.

A Psychologically Complex Lear

In The Empty Space, Peter Brook argued that one of the reasons contemporary productions of William Shakespeare’s plays were so deadly (as in boring) was because actors were so familiar with the material that they played the end of the play from the start. He used as an example Goneril and Regan’s professions of love for their father in the opening scene of King Lear. Professional actresses would transfer their characters’ final descent into villainy to their introductory appearance thus robbing themselves and the audience of any sense of journey. I am pleased to report that the production of King Lear currently performing at The Secret Theatre in Long Island City has taken Brook’s injunction seriously and have escaped the pitfalls that have plagued so many other productions of the tragedy.

Director Alberto Bonilla and his ensemble focus on developing strong, complex, and believable characters. Bonilla moves the setting forward to a facility for ailing seniors. Lear (Austin Pendleton) suffers from Alzheimer’s, dementia, or potentially both, and the narrative of Lear plays out as a product of that illness. Pendleton has had a long, storied, and artistically rich career on both stage and screen, and he does not conform to the traditional image of Lear. Those who have assayed the role in the past – such as James Earl Jones or Laurence Olivier – can easily access bombast in their construction of the role. Pendleton takes a counter-intuitive turn. His style of acting is quiet and modest. He underplays where most others would over-play. He strays from received ideas about what Shakespearean performance should be and instead utilizes an acting approach more in keeping with an American sense of psychological realism. It is Lear by way of Willy Loman or Joe Keller. It is bound to be a controversial choice, but I think it pays dividend, especially in light of Brook’s argument.

What we therefore have is something I have never seen in a production of the play before: a full and intimate picture of the Lear family. British playwright Howard Barker wondered what became of Mrs. Lear and wrote his own Seven Lears to find out; he would have less to wonder about if he were to see this production. Pendleton, along with Elizabeth A. Davis (Once) as Goneril and Melissa Macleod as Regan, have brought the whole dark and dysfunctional history of this family onto the stage. This Lear does not bellow, but he laughs, he smirks, he cajoles, and we feel every smile as a lash on the backs of his two elder daughters. If they were not abused, they were certainly dominated and emotionally manipulated by a capricious and over-bearing patriarch. Even when they band together with the full power of the state behind them to deny him his entire retinue, they are still afraid of him. When Lear proclaims “I am more sinned against than sinning”, it is almost laughable here. In the hands of Davis and Macleod, Goneril and Regan’s choices are understandable and full of the contradictory greys that mark human choice in harrowing circumstances. When Lear attacks Goneril and wishes her a barren existence, our sympathies are with the daughter (it helps that Davis is obviously pregnant). This is a family with a penchant a la Albee for tearing into one another. The difference is that Lear makes a course correction and in abandoning power moves toward redemption, while his children continue on in their quest for power. Pendleton, Davis, and Maclead have created a Lear that is not just tragedy of Lear but also of Goneril and Regan – we cannot fully hate them nor can we fully forgive him for his responsibility in the play’s inevitable descent into darkness – and that is refreshing indeed.

Mounting a production of Shakespeare, especially on a tight showcase rehearsal schedule, presents a director a series of choices. Emphasize x, and you have to take the spotlight off of y. In focusing on Lear and his family, in fully grappling with their psychology and complexity, means less attention is given to the larger political reality of the play or world-building. King Lear has at its center a demonstrably irresponsible head-of-state who manipulates family and advisers (and the line between both is blurred) and sends his nation careening into chaos not because of threats from abroad but from self-inflicted wounds; it obviously speaks to our present moment. The larger geo-political implications of Lear’s choices got a little bit lost in the proceedings, and the design choice to confine the drama within the domestic sphere further isolated the impact of the tragedy from larger societal ramifications. I saw Bonilla’s excellent Macbeth (also at the Secret) a few years back, and the focus there was the opposite of here. World-building was at the forefront, and so there was less revelatory in terms of character exploration. What I look for in a Shakespeare production is to be shown something new or surprising in a canon I am all too familiar with. Bonilla, Pendleton, Davis, and Macleod made me want to spend time with these characters, and they found something both unexpected and deeply satisfying in the construction.

Also of note are Alexander Stine, who somehow managed to take the sanctimony out of the Duke of Albany and find both the darkness and the light in the part; Arthur Lazalde and Zachary Clark, who dive into Kent and Edmund respectively with great gusto; and most especially Jack Herholdt, whose portrayal of The Fool is quite simply brilliant. I had seen Herholdt as Dionysus in his own reworking of The Bacchae, and he never fails to captivate whenever on stage.

King Lear runs through April 9th. More information about the show can be found here: http://www.secrettheatre.com/KingLear.html

Link

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