Tag Archives: Signature Theatre

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”?

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

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.



Who, or What, is John?

I saw Annie Baker’s John at the Arden Theater in Philadelphia on my 50th birthday. This was perhaps not the best choice as the play, deep in Joseph Campbell territory, trades in the primordial forces lurking just beyond the veneer of civilization. It is The Bacchae kept at bay, a Lovecraft story except not, a connection with a past both unexplained and inexplicable.

The Arden production, overseen by director Matthew Decker, gets the creep just right. This is not as easy as it may first seem because the play also interweaves elements of a yuppie relationship gone sour story coupled with a fish-out-water story. Jenny (Jing Xu) and Elias (Kevin Meehan) check into a Gettysburg B&B run by Mertis (Nancy Boykin). The set-up here is that this dysfunctional city couple – that can neither quite stay together not can quite break up – will receive salt-of-the-wisdom from the good country folk and find some sort of happy medium in their relationship. That by play’s end they are as dysfunctional if not more so as the play began is one example of Baker’s strengths in playing with expectations and genre.

The real pleasure of the play, though, is how it touches on the elemental of earth, humanity, and life itself. The operative word here is “touches”, almost like a cold breeze on the back of the neck. Nothing is explicit or overwhelming, but one always feels that there is something sinister just beyond the forced cheer of the B&B’s décor. The history of the house (a make-shift field hospital during the famous battle), the utilization of birds and dolls (totems) as compelling images, the strange language Mertis and her friend Genevieve speak, and the sense of female power that harkens back to Maenads of legend places the orderly world we perceive on very shaky ground indeed.

MVP Carla Belver portrays the role of Genevieve, originally assayed by Lois Smith at the Signature Theater’s production in New York City. Though Genevieve has the shortest stage time of any of four characters, she is the thematic glue that holds the play together. Belver admirably keeps the audience guessing about Genevieve. Is she touched? By mental illness or the supernatural? We simply do not know. Her monologue concerning her descent into madness and the power of her husband John over here captivates. That a John also crops up in Jenny’s life just deepens the mystery. Not who is John but what? That this question – like so many in the play – is left unanswered may be initially frustrating, but should ultimately be satisfied as the play’s very structure becomes a part of the cosmic uncertainty it is dramatizing.

Baker’s work is very challenging requiring precision and complex engagement from cast and director alike. I was heartened to see that her play survives and thrives beyond its initial production.



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.