Category Archives: Bob’s Theatre Reviews

IVO VAN HOVE/AYN RAND: ‘THE FOUNTAINHEAD’ (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Part of the reason why Ivan van Hove’s living-book adaptation of The Fountainhead is so formidable (the last showing of the four-hour long  Toneelgroep Amsterdam  production at BAM was December 2,  performed in Dutch with English titles) is because no American theatrical company would have crossed the political divide to mount it—and, more frighteningly, Americans would not have seen its potential, despite the fact that the work has been in print since 1943. Grudgingly called a classic (the stage translation is by Erica van Rijsewijk and Jan van Rheenen; the dramaturgy is by Peter Van Kraaij), the novel, commercial and virtually a setup for Jacqueline Susann to come, contains a philosophy, as Uncle Tom’s Cabin does, or even in a more literary way, The Stranger by Camus.  Sales of Rand’s work have reached well over six million copies, and the book has been translated into dozens of languages—there was even a movie made of The Fountainhead in 1949 (here, the author, also a dramatist, wrote the shooting script). 

Despite her appeal to traders on Wall Street, however, Rand has become a pariah, approaching popular art from the wrong side of the culture wars–the entertainment industry, at least in America, the compromised, left-wing, “give ‘em what they want” escapism industry, too readily exhibits the kind of thinking this author warns against in her novel.  Originally entitled Second-Hand Lives, she is referring to the pleasers and incompetent hanger-ons of the workaday world.  Not that the writing is great literature, except, perhaps, in its plot:  it’s uneconomically penned, inflated trash—a blunt, teeming, tawdry projection onto Americans of European ideas, such as ones by Freud, Marx, and von Mises—and now van Hove.  These distill into cinematic character types—the Dutch actors can have fun enunciating the melodramatic-sounding Hollywoodized names like Howard Roark (Ramsey Nasr) and Ellsworth Toohey (Bart Slegers) because they are fake, a step away from being allegorical, encased in polarizing thought—“Ayn Rand” is also a made-up name: her surname comes from a popular typewriter of the day, and an anachronistic typewriter figures in van Hove’s version). 

The director and the adapter Koen Tachelet, however, have not changed Rand’s words for the stage, but they have added, reordered, and emphasized so that The Fountainhead now focuses on two characters of the many; men who have known each other since college and become architects in New York City:  one, a rugged individualist and wild creative and the other, a born bureaucrat and lesser talent.   Of course, they both fall for the same woman—the writer can be an abuser of her women and actually one, the masochist, Dominique Francon (the beautiful and mature young actress Halina Reijn), is a character Rand has said is herself “in a bad mood.” The director may not even have understood the reactions he would elicit, by choosing the theatrical property, although the Netherlands was faced with a populist far-right political candidate, Geert Wilders, making international headlines, at about the time of the play’s inception—Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s later work, took years to find financing in Hollywood and when it opened, in 2011, was panned; dead on arrival.  

 

The author is so heavily associated with the American right, libertarianism, and then the Tea Party that some can’t believe that she was once considered a popular writer, albeit one with ideas idiosyncratic enough to attract former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Allen Greenspan  and psychoanalyst and writer Nathaniel Branden into her circle—nevertheless, a theatre friend this reviewer invited to see the play, refused on hearing the title.  To believe that Rand is foremost among conservative writers of fiction is an overstatement, however, despite the notoriety (in that area look toward Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Cormac McCarthy—not that there aren’t others, but mainstream publishers dismiss them, overall).  In an interview with The Brooklyn Rail, van Hove describes how he came to the text, in 2007, and couldn’t put it down: “I read the whole novel in two or three days. For me, it was like a page-turner.”   Inevitably criticism arose regarding his choice of project, in Holland—although he does not “idolize them,” he also does not avoid “right-wing thoughts” in his production.  The Fountainhead is logical for a director to want to undertake, though, because Rand’s philosophical theme, according to her biographer Barbara Branden, is “the rights of the individual versus the claims of the collective. . . . the crucial role of the creator, the thinker, the initiator. . .” 

Van Hove’s stage is a flexible workshop (set and lighting design are by Jan Versweyveld), at once the offices of the architects in the story, as well as  stage technicians, one wearing a headset.  Musicians man the stage and talk, joke, and drink coffee—they, as well as the cast, may simply stare into the audience.  Toward the rear an artist is playing the marimba—throughout the evening, onstage music, composed for The Fountainhead by Eric Sleichim, will be played on gongs, hanging metal sheets, and pianos, among other instruments.  Recordings by Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, and the Timo Lassy Band are also heard—poignantly, one selection recalls John Cage’s “In a Landscape”; other music is classical, ambient or even reminiscent of Owl City.  Those who have seen van Hove’s work previously will notice the large, segmented video screens placed first at the front, stage left, and later, deep in the back, on the right, which, recalling Erwin Pistcator, can be used as a way to provide real-time close-ups or pre-recorded footage and still photographs of the dramatic or mundane—including the Chrysler Building and the New York skyline, beckoning the ‘40s (the video design is by Tal Yarden).  At the edge of the proscenium—BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House is cavernous, with a surprising slope toward the orchestra–is an architect’s mechanical table, where the story begins.

As an artist, van Hove says in the Forward, “in a way I’m Howard Roark.  I’m not going to give in.”  However, to Rand, he probably already has, by advocating for a character she never liked: In The Brooklyn Rail, Van Hove states:  “I tried to balance Howard Roark and Peter Keating the two antagonists in the novel—and give them equal importance . . . I call The Fountainhead always a war of ideas.  The two opposite arguments, of course, are between Howard Roark, who’s an idealist who doesn’t want to give in to his clients—he wants to the make the building the way he thinks it should be made . . . . and on the other side there’s Peter Keating, his friend, who thinks that architecture is there to serve the people.”

Of course, they’re very different characters. . . . For Ayn Rand, Peter Keating (Aus Greidanus Jr.)—was “despicable.”   Specifically, he’s a “self-created mediocrity,” the conformist, a follower, a rising star who believes that someone must “always be what people want you to be.” He a plagiarist, in fact–and he believes in the wisdom of the crowd—art, for him, would be propaganda, not debate.  Greidanus sees him as affable, helpless, and nonthreatening—and for too long the audience is sympathetic toward him.  For Out, Van Hove has said, “As an artist I want to be an idealist—not pleasing but challenging the audience.  As a citizen, I’m not on Rand’s side,” although he acknowledges the deep thinking in the novel to the Forward: “[Rand’s view is that] people should take care of themselves; if you cannot take care of yourself, that’s a pity; you should work a little bit harder. . . .  [The Fountainhead is] very complicated . . . intellectually challenging, but also challenging on an emotional level.  Do we want a social society, or do we want a society of individuals. . . .? Van Hove says, “In Europe we are born to be aware that we have to pay also for the people that don’t have so much money.”  The director believes he has a bit of Keating in him.

Symbols are used by both artists, even if they do not both agree on meaning.  According to Barbara Branden, “Roark, Keating, Wynand, and Toohey, the major male protagonists, are symbols, they represent four distinct psychologies and ways of dealing with good and evil; but they may also be taken as realistically possible individuals engaged in realistically possible courses of action.  Only Dominique stands solely as a symbol—the symbol of idealism frozen in contempt.”  Perhaps this is why the characters seem remote, whether reading or watching them.  Rand sees Americans in terms of movie parts and characters in bestsellers and van Hove sees them as alternatives for people in a welfare state; for Rand, there are no alternatives—and she fought for her vision in her screenplay in Hollywood, nearly always successful. According to Branden: “The final courtroom scene began—and suddenly, like a knife cutting through her body, [Rand] saw that Roark’s most important line, the line that names the theme of the book and the total of its meaning—the line ‘I wished to come here and say that I am a man who does not exist for others’—had been cut.”  The real antagonists of van Hove’s production may finally be the writer and director—Rand , unapologetic ally, did not believe in taxation, much less funding for the arts.  For those who cannot provide for themselves, she, like former Texas Representative Ron Paul, would endorse charities.   Ayn Rand is not an aberration, though—all the way back to the Boston Tea Party there is a tradition in the United States regarding financial resistance.   Walt Whitman wrote of the U.S. worker in  “I Hear America Singing”:  “Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else/The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly.”

Van Hove’s symbolism includes dressing Peter Keating’s abandoned fiancé, Katie (Helene Devos) in black and blue—a subliminal way to think about her emotional bruises (the costume design is by An D’Huys).  At another point, in an encounter between the weak Keating and Roark, the latter wears a belt that hangs like a phallus.  Blood will cover the mechanical table, a wedding dress is see-through,  and mist prefigures cataclysm.  Van Hove does not seem kind to sexuality, and admittedly this is also true for Rand.  One of the lines reads, “I want you like an animal”—in fact, Rand thought workers in a welfare state were sacrificial.  Van Hove’s nudity is intentionally boring, unarousing, graphic, cold, even painful. Dominique is apparently raped by Roark, but when asked about it, Rand answered, “If it was rape, it was rape by engraved invitation.”  Obviously, van Hove’s cast is not playing Americans.  They’re low-key and intellectual–they can’t find the drive for characters in a survival-of-the-fittest America, although van Hove once found them for O’Neill’s More Stately Mansions —in the 1997 production, there was a humiliating scene where a man had lost his job and had no idea how to support his family. 

Nasr, despite being surrounded by rock and clay–he’s asked to be a non-hero by van Hove and worthy of worship by Rand–seems more fetishistic than a diamond-in-the-rough entrepreneur or heart-throb (like Gary Cooper, who played Roark in the film. Rand was actually disappointed in his performance, although she wanted him for the part long before movie rights were sold). Ultimately, the issue may be generational:  Rand wrote her book in the age of Modernism—she writes about quarries and skyscrapers; industry, steel, weight, and strength. Van Hove is a Post-modernist working with highly intricate technology and digital cues; minimalist settings, open space, and streaming video. To the Modernist, his work can seem geeky, arty, decadent, and fatalistic. He wants his audience to think about the rise of the contemporary European right with the U.S. as a setting, but theatremakers in The Fountainhead barely register the pressure of Capitalism—the only time when the show feels like the U.S. is when it’s stopped and the audience must make a confused choice to go or remain—that’s Capitalism. ​The director uses New York as a stand-in, in The Fountainhead, like Brecht used Chicago in Arturo Ui, although with nothing cartoonish, and his work seems overly communal, with theatremakers in white and khaki operating in efficient lean teams, changing sets and working productively.  Rand herself was deeply fearful of Socialism and the Welfare State, having been raised in St. Petersburg:  In the 1930s, she thought that Americans “were not sufficiently aware of the menace and evil of communism . . . [She] took it for granted that no one could advocate altruism [but did not realize] the enormity of what had to be fought.”

Despite Rand’s contentiousness, her best message may be that “striving for excellence is important.”  Van Hove’s achievement is to have bravely re-asserted the ever-present dangers of the left before the artistic community of New York.     

The 2017 Richard B. Fisher Next Wave Award at BAM has honored Ivo van Hover and the production of The Fountainhead.

Visit BAM: https://www.bam.org/

© 2017 by Bob Shuman.  Additional information: Pam Green.  All rights reserved.

Photos: Richard Termine, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, BAM 

CHARLES LUDLAM: ‘CONQUEST OF THE UNIVERSE  OR WHEN QUEENS COLLIDE’ (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Theatregoers looking for an artistic reflection of the age of Harvey Weinstein might sit in on Conquest of the Universe or When Queens Collide, written by Charles Ludlam, a 1967 work from the Theatre of the Ridiculous, now playing at La MaMa until November 19.  Superficially, the comedy is about the takeover of the solar system, a retelling of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine—there, the conqueror subjugates the Arab world–but elements of Hamlet, Candide, and Titus Andronicus, to name three, are also apparent.  Offering a premonition of today, Ludlam’s unfeeling characters manipulate, objectify, and abuse subordinates in their lust for power and sex. Unlike the sickening Titus Andronicus, however, Ludlam’s pileups of abuses aren’t shocking or alarming–and no one needs to leave the theatre feeling queasy. 

Much like listening to what is coming out about Hollywood and show business, those in the play know offenses are happening, but they’re too self-involved and power hungry to notice.  Shakespeare might think the elements in Conquest of the Universe should add up to tragedy but Ludlam’s characters only see momentary diversions and opportunities for histrionics.  Although this makes the cast difficult to distinguish—actors might play the opposite sex or take multiple parts—perhaps what is most important to emphasize is that, in this world, no one is in real pain–they can no longer feel it and they’re too busy anyway.  Virtually all the assembled components stand in the way of finding what’s human:  loud and garish sets and props (blacklight planets, huge plastic phalluses, and even a seashell worthy of Bette Midler); costumes of neon green, orange, red, silver, and blue; scene structuring with no builds or modulation; as well as the artificiality of the language: “I free mankind from the yoke of reason, which weighs upon it.  Rape and behead them.”

Identification with real, nuanced emotional distress is a point that recently flummoxed Alec Baldwin and made him shut down his twitter account—he couldn’t see that anyone was being hurt in the sex-to play schemes of the entertainment world.  Despite her own protests regarding her rape, Rose McGowan believes, “no one cared.”  Being ignored, but used, is captured in the lively, blaring, attention-grabbing, “anti-moral” Theatre of the Ridiculous–perhaps this is its point–evidenced by what was happening during the time in which it was born: deep discrimination against gays and minorities, the Vietnam War, and to come, the AIDS epidemic. America, in the ‘60s, would probably be seen as rather heartless compared to what is politically correct today—and the Weinstein story is a holdover from years when many felt they had to accept the unacceptable (in fact, felt they had to be tough enough to take it).  Like a 3,000-year-old shark with razor-sharp teeth, dredged up from the bottom of the sea, Weinstein reminds us of what’s inhuman, in a hypercompetitive business, ironically one about feelings.  

Like a three-dimensional Drudge Report, Ludlam’s theatre demonstrates why society is too preoccupied to care.  The playwright offers distractions, from blood-craving stories of the Renaissance to dirty jokes and puns from below Fourteenth Street; from discussion of the conflict in Indo-China (“Life is a war that never ends”) to references to Elmer Fudd and the Three Stooges; from poetry, stylized or lewd, to the tough talk of the city and boroughs.  Conquest of the Universe is an allegory about the Weinstein era, written long before anyone ever heard of him.  Entertaining as it is, the play also shows the significance of Ludlam’s vision and work.  Like a Rorschach, important art can announce itself without being premeditated—it simply describes where we are, now.  At the end of the play, Ludlam explains it is time to stop: a witch says: “Life is but a lying dream.  He only wakes who casts the world aside.”  Previous to this, the author has been temporally prescriptive:  “The vast majority of men as well as women are sexually disturbed. . . .  What is necessary, therefore, is the establishment of a sufficient number of clinics for . . .  treatment.”  Harvey Weinstein’s lawyers might have been listening.  As many know, the tyrannical producer was booked into an Arizona sex addiction clinic–for a week.  

Ridiculous?

As it was, he missed counseling.

© by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.  

Visit La MaMa: http://lamama.org/

ABOUT THE ARTISTS:

Charles Ludlam was an American actor, director, and playwright. Ludlam joined John Vaccaro’s Play-House of the Ridiculous, and after a falling out, became one of the founders of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in New York City in 1967. He taught or staged productions at New York University, Connecticut College for Women, Yale University, and Carnegie Mellon University. He won fellowships from the Guggenheim, Rockefeller and Ford Foundations and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts. He won six Obie Awards, the Rosamund Gilder Award for distinguished achievement in the theater in 1986 and in 2009, Ludlam was inducted posthumously into the American Theater Hall of Fame. He wrote nearly 30 plays, some of which include: Turds in Hell, an adaptation of The Satyricon (1969); Bluebeard (1970), an adaptation of H. G. Wells’s TheIsland of Dr Moreau; Corn (1972); Camille (1973); Der Ring Gott Farblonjet (1977), an adaptation of The Ring Cycle; The Enchanted Pig (1979); Exquisite Torture (1982); The Mystery of Irma Vep (1984); Galas (1983), inspired by the life of Maria Callas; and The Artificial Jungle (1986)

Everett Quinton recently directed Charles Ludlam’s, THE ARTIFICIAL JUNGLE with Theater Breaking Through Barriers.  Everett also directed IN THE BAR OF A TOKYO HOTEL by Tennessee Willliams with Theater 292 and THE WINTER’S TALE by William Shakespeare with Yorick Theater. As an actor Everett recently appeared as Enobarbus and one of five Cleopatras in Shakespeare’s ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA.  Everett also appeared as Paulina and Autolycus in THE WINTER’S TALE, and Idris Seabright in DROP DEAD PERFECT, to name a few. Everett is a long time member of THE RIDICULOUS THEATRICAL COMPANY where he appeared in Charles Ludlam’s CAMILLE, BLUEBEARD AND THE SECRET LIVES OF THE SEXISTS.  Georg Osterman’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE and BROTHER TRUCKERS.  As well as his own plays, A TALE OF TWO CITIES, LINDA AND CARMEN.

CONQUEST OF THE UNIVERSE cast includes: Everett Quinton, Géraldine Dulex,
Beth Dodye BassGrant Neale, Jeanne Lauren SmithJohn GutierrezLenys SamáSommer CarbucciaShane Baker, Brian Belovitch & Eugene the Poogene.

Production images by Theo Cote

(from top):  Shane Baker, Beth Dodye Bass and Everett Quinton

production postcard

Shane Baker and Everett Quinton

Ludlam photo: Pig Iron Theatre Company

 

MURIELLE BORST-TARRANT: ‘DON’T FEED THE INDIANS’ AT LA MAMA (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

 

By Bob Shuman

Don’t Feed the Indians, a comedy revue now playing at La MaMa until November 19, doesn’t get around to ascertaining the politics of the horrific 2016 dog attacks on Native Americans, at the Dakota Pipeline, defending sacred burial ground.  The show also doesn’t mention the issues being raised by Idle No More, the Canadian grassroots movement protesting neo-colonialism. Instead, Safe Harbors Indigenous Collective Projects’ divine comedy pageant embraces the Broadway and Tin Pan Alley versions of aboriginal lives, as caricatured in Peter Pan, Annie Get Your Gun, South Pacific and Good News—without much outrage. Muriel Borst-Tarrant, humorous, tough, and tart, might be at home in an early talkie, (“Hello, happy Caucasians”). She’s a stand-up comedienne, not exactly sanguine about European settlers having had the chutzpah to ask Native Americans to give up the “rights to all your resources.” But she’s over it: “Get it?  Got it?  Good.” 

 

Perhaps part of the point in Don’t Feed the Indians is that Native Americans feel so integrated into American mainstream culture that their invisibility is on par with Danish-Americans or Swiss-Americans.  Perhaps also, the Broadway versions of indigenous peoples acted as ways to have an identity in popular culture—the shtick was held onto, no matter how inauthentic.  The eight Native-American actors in Don’t Feed the Indians know they’re in a “shitty show,” but they can’t figure out how to get out of it—and as standards go, rolling out “Pass That Peace Pipe” and “Bali Ha’i” isn’t too shameful. 

The script doesn’t find appropriation offensive or the stereotypes less than comic.  In fact, the pageant seems to want to learn from musical comedy, as in a distressing speech about the winner of a National Native-American Poetry Contest, reminiscent of Sammy Williams’s gay-themed monologue in A Chorus Line (performed well by Nic Billey).  The easy history lesson and wigwam wiggling might be part of a road company that remembers the days of Gypsy: old-fashioned,  unoriginal, inoffensive vaudeville—certainly lacking contemporary edge or passion.  On the way out of the play, theatregoers next to me were mentioning seeing Buffy Sainte-Marie in the Seventies.  Don’t Feed the Indians has a retro feel, presenting indigenous people as having the same issues as those in mainstream American society (“I’m an Indian, too”). Show business may be being used to buffer painful issues in the Native American community—and, thankfully, Sainte-Marie is still out there.  Are Native Americans living in a time warp?  In Don’t Feed the Indians, the audience isn’t asked to investigate or witness an alternative.

© 2017 by Bob Shuman

World Premiere

‘Don’t Feed the Indians—A Divine Comedy Pageant’

 

Visit La MaMa: http://lamama.org/dont_feed_the_indians/

Conceived, Written and Directed by Murielle Borst-Tarrant [Kuna/Rappahannock Nations]
Musical Direction by Kevin Tarrant [Hopi/Hochunk Nations]

A Safe Harbors Indigenous Collective Project

CAST

Henu Josephine Tarrant
[Hopi/ Hochunk/ Kuna/ Rappahannock Nations]

Nic Billey
[Choctaw/ Delaware/ Creek Nations]

Danielle Soames
[Mohawk]

John Scott-Richardson 
[Haliwa-Saponi Nation]

Press: David Gibbs, DARR Publicity

Photos, from top, by Maya Bitan:  

Danielle Soames (Mohawk/Kahnawake Nations);

John Scott-Richardson (Haliwa-Saponi Nation), Danielle Soames (Mohawk/Kahnawake Nations), Kevin Tarrant (Hopi/Ho-Chunk Nations), Nicholson Billey (Delaware/Choctaw/Creek Nations), George Stonefish (Delaware/Chippewa Nations) 

Murielle Borst-Tarrant (Kuna/Rappahannock Nations), Nicholson Billey (Delaware/Choctaw/Creek Nations)

Henu Josephine Tarrant (Hopi/Ho-Chunk/Kuna/Rappahannock Nations), Danielle Soames (Mohawk/Kahnawake Nations), Nicholson Billey (Delaware/Choctaw/Creek Nations)

 

SIMON GODWIN’S ‘MEASURE FOR MEASURE’ AT THEATRE FOR A NEW AUDIENCE–ONLY UNTIL JULY 16 (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

In his staging of Measure for Measure, from Theatre for a New Audience, now playing at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center until July 16, Simon Godwin takes his time in getting to the Bard. His production opens the problem play (Shakespeare places us in  a decadent Vienna), written circa 1603, with a brothel tour, one curated seriously, as if it’s part of a downtown gallery exhibit (the scenic and costume design is by Paul Wills; the light designer is Matthew Richards).  The director comes at us from a different direction, later, too, by placing the audience in a country-western bar, where an up-and-coming Linda Ronstadt might be singing. (Jane Shaw composed the music and designed the sound; the musicians are Drew Bastian, Robert Cowie, and Osei Essed.)  Whether he is laughing behind our backs or not, trying to prick the bourgeoisie, by letting subscribers peruse, among others, dildos, ben wa balls, S&M masks, handcuffs, and even a Donald Trump sex toy, Godwin is not merely a smooth, hip director. 

He also allows the audience to see the play’s confrontations with serious intellectual intent, as he explores Shakespeare’s scene work, as well as his language and storytelling—asking us to find our way into them, unrushed, almost in the way he might have asked himself and his actors to analyze and interpret during rehearsals.  Unpretentiously, they have found original, defensible characterizations, which may seem completely new.  Notable among them is the work of Thomas J. Ryan, who shows Angelo to be a boring, awkward bureaucrat (he may even be banal and evil)–yet his likes are found in thousands of offices every day—here, the character compulsively grabs for the Purell.  Jonathan Cake is not the partying jock he played as the lead in Antony and Cleopatra at the Public in 2014—now he is paler, a wild aristo before decline, hiding behind glasses that are too big.  Perhaps his character will remind of Hal in  Henry IV, Part 2–a work that is believed to be written earlier than this one, in 1596.   More recently, Prince Harry has stated, relevant to this discussion, that no one in his family really wants to be King, “but we will carry out our duties at the right time.”  That, of course, is the story of  the aforementioned Henry play and Measure for Measure—Cake does play his Duke as a modern British royal, one who is aware of what all his training and position mean (down to where and how to place his feet and hold his hands at the back); he also knows how to find the mellifluous meter of the Bard. Cara Ricketts makes an impressive Isabella because she concentrates on the character’s essence and heart (some consider the character cruel, but does anyone think a nun, the bride of Christ, would enter into the bargain Angelo is asking her to be part of?).

By taking his time with Shakespeare, walking with him and letting him take his own time, Godwin creates new interest in the play, even if he also shows the Bard’s warts and beauty marks.  For example:

  • Information can be repeated (Claudio’s execution)
  • One wonders why there is so much concern with this one criminal and crime, when there must be other, more dangerous activities happening in this depraved city
  • The Duke takes time to act on a problem that he is sympathetic to. Like Glinda in The Wizard of Oz, he could set everything right immediately, but he waits
  • Isabella seems to be allowed to stay away from her convent and keep her own hours, as if there are no internal rules for her order
  • There’s the obvious sexism of the bed trick
  • Among other issues.

Godwin must also deal with the problem of anachronism—Mariana (Merritt Janson) is introduced as a modern, independent woman, but, by the end of the play, she contorts into a submissive wife, as does Kate in The Taming of the Shrew or even Katharine Hepburn in many of her star vehicles. Whatever he can’t do to help Measure for Measure, however, Godwin should be commended for creating a true color-blind production.  Actors of different races may be used to show how progressive a company is regarding diversity, often in order to make a political point.  Although a more practical reason may be that actors of different backgrounds can help the audience keep characters straight, Godwin isn’t holding up casting choices as a shield or to telegraph his political correctness.

Perhaps one of the larger problems the director encountered with Measure for Measure, is the fact that the play insists that every character is obstructed and must be hyper-alive to choices that cannot be postponed.  There is no normal in the drama (perhaps this is what the Duke is trying to figure out)—and there is no one who can be identified as normal either (to put the dilemma in terms of Hamlet, there is no Horatio in this play). What was once considered status quo is no longer, as the Austrian laws have changed for the whole citizenry.  Meeting only those living on the edge, the audience may decide the work oddly reflects the current state of the U.S. and the West, whether they are flag-waving or not (and those who see this Measure for Measure will be able to actually do this if they want).  The play is such a perennial for simplified, unnuanced summer stages that viewers may have become inured to its complexities, dissonances, and differences: Measure for Measure, for example, is Shakespeare where a male spends most of the play in disguise. Godwin, treats the work as unusual, intellectual, suitable only for an unusual production, underplayed and stimulating, sexual or not.  

© 2017 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.

Visit Theatre for a New Audience: http://www.tfana.org/?gclid=CJnqv7zu8NQCFc1XDQodOtEDpQ

Press: Blake Zidell at Blake Zidell & Associates, Rachael Shearer.

MEASURE FOR MEASURE BY WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

The Cast

OBERON K.A. ADJEPONG (Provost)

JONATHAN CAKE (Duke Vincentio) 

 KENNETH DE ABREW (Froth/Abhorson/Friar Peter) 

 ZACHARY FINE (Friar Thomas/Elbow/Barnardine, Gentleman). 

 LELAND FOWLER (Claudio) 

 MERRITT JANSON (Mariana)

JANUARY LAVOY (Mistress Overdone/Escala/Francisca) 

CHRISTOPHER MICHAEL MCFARLAND (Pompey)

SAM MORALES (Juliet)

CARA RICKETTS (Isabella)

THOMAS JAY RYAN (Angelo)

HAYNES THIGPEN (Lucio)

DREW BASTIAN (Musician)

ROBERT COWIE (Music Director/Musician) 

OSEI ESSED (Musician) 

 

Creative Team

SIMON GODWIN (Director) 

 BRIAN BROOKS (Choreographer) 

PAUL WILLS (Scenic & Costume Designer)

MATTHEW RICHARDS (Lighting Designer)

JANE SHAW (Composer & Sound Designer)

ALISON BOMBER (Voice & Text Coach) 

 ERIC REYNOLDS (Properties Supervision)

JONATHAN KALB (Production Dramaturg) 

MEGAN SCHWARZ DICKERT (Production Stage Manager)

GARY OWEN: ‘IPHIGENIA IN SPLOTT’—ONLY THROUGH 6/4 (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

??Iphigenia In Splott at The Sherman Theatre
By Gary Owen
Director: Rachel O’Riordan
Designer: Hayley Grindle
Lighting Designer: Rachel Mortimer
Sound Designer: Sam Jones
Sophie Melville as Effie

By Bob Shuman

According to legend, Iphigenia gives her life so that the Greeks can sail to the Trojan War.  Aside from those in the military, not many think much about sacrificing themselves–and their families–for their country today—but this is the central issue of Iphigenia In Splott—the story of a legal choice, made over a medical issue, by a “stupid slag,” a “nasty skank,” which has come to Brits Off Broadway (59E59 Theatres) via the U.K.’s National Theatre.  Gary Owen’s play, written in Cardiff dialect, won the 2015 Best New Play in Britain and the Stage Award for Acting Excellence 2015, yet Americans may ponder the vernacular of the work and the play’s dramatic resolution.  Maybe British people don’t concur with it either, but the U.K. healthcare system is more entrenched than ours: it started in 1948; by comparison, look at the trouble Americans are having replacing Obamacare, which was only signed into law in 2010.  Those in the U.S. can see Iphigenia In Splott as a cautionary tale, an argument as to why socialized medicine should never take hold here—and a reason for why the Affordable Care Act had to be rejected.  They also might end up thinking that, ultimately, despite her outrageous life of alcohol and drugs and casual sex, Effie, the central character, makes the decision someone in the British lower classes should–that this is how her society had programmed her.  If Iphigenia In Splott had happened in New York, lawyers, without compunction, would have been standing in line to represent the case.  They also would be outraged as to what happened to Effie, although Americans, of course, have their own problems with the medical system: on the subway yesterday, a newly retired African-American gentleman was explaining how during his stroke, he instructed his 911 caller to say that he was Jewish, so that an ambulance would arrive faster.

Despite the fodder for debate, Owen’s play represents one of the few occasions where Americans can examine U.K. domestic policy—we’re so used to writers from the Guardian and English-trained Shakespeareans commenting on ours.  However, those in the U.S. would probably not have problems seeing the benefits of a free market rather than struggling to maintain an inefficient status quo.  This is not to say that Americans can’t be clueless about Britain, as when The New York Times ran a review of A Taste of Honey—a play that will remind of this one–under the title, “She’s Having the Baby. How Quaint.”  Jo, in Shelagh Delaney’s work, is younger, though—and she never reaches the volcanic heights of Effie (searingly played by Sophie Melville):  “Fuckin bottles, fuckin cans, fuckin ash trays. Fuckin boys swilling their drinks, bobbing their heads to the music, Looking sulky as fuck, and shit, shit.  Anywhere there’s space to cram something, there is something: and it’s shit. I can’t be here.”  But she is–and sociology can’t seem to correct it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While the English may like the denouement in Owen’s play because the character stands on her own two feet,  the problems of the welfare state continue to shape and plague the youth, forcing them to “take it” because they can take it (“the only way I get through the week is a cycle of hangovers,” Effie discloses).  Ann Coulter, an American who  can be known for her own  vitriol,  has written, “The rampaging mob might save England from itself, finally removing shaved-head, drunken parasites from the benefits rolls that Britain can’t find the will to abolish on moral or utilitarian grounds.”  But whether she is the cause or a casualty, Effie may be deluding herself that she is Iphigenia, and has helped save a nation.  Whether she knows it or not, she may have saved herself, though—this reviewer’s friend explained, after the play, that others, who have been in comparable situations, have tied themselves up emotionally and monetarily for years, fighting.  Some think it best just to move on.

Directed, with momentum, by Rachel O’Riordan.

To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org

‘IPHIGENIA IN SPLOTT’

EFFIE ………………………………………….SOPHIE MELVILLE

CREATIVE TEAM DESIGNER ………HAYLEY GRINDLE LIGHTING DESIGNER ………………………………… RACHEL MORTIMER SOUND DESIGNER ………………………………….SAM JONES

CASTING DIRECTOR …………………..KAY MAGSON, CDG COMPANY STAGE MANAGER……………………….CHARLOTTE UNWIN

AEA STAGE MANAGER ……………….VERONICA AGLOW *

The running time of Iphigenia in Splott is 80 minutes with no intermission.

Press: Karen Greco

(c) 2017 b Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

O’NEILL: ‘MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA’ FROM DAVID HERSKOVITS–ONLY UNTIL MAY 20 (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

The director David Herskovits has brought Mourning Becomes Electra to the Abrons Arts Center, which runs until May 20 (and has only 17 performances).  In this titanic, five-hour play–which includes a tasty vegan puffed tofu and sticky rice meal, eaten during a break for dinner–he’s interested in a deep scan of O’Neill’s moods and psyche.   Calculating blood pressure, heartbeat, and breathing, he and his excellent cast–Herskovits is the founder and  artistic director of Target Margin Theater–negotiate O’Neill’s Civil War history, as well as the ancient Greek underpinnings—the play is based on the Oresteia—and uses melodramatic techniques the dramatist gleaned from his matinee-idol-actor father.  Shakespeare, Strindberg, Ibsen, Melville, and Freud are also present—why shouldn’t O’Neill want us to be haunted, too (in fact, this is how he has entitled his last play in the trilogy)?

Herskovits’s version is “quieter and more personal” than the one that might be expected or the one that was originally produced on Broadway in 1931.  O’Neill liked doing a “big thing,” and, make no mistake about it, Mourning Becomes Electra is a major undertaking–consider all the lines to memorize, the focus and stamina needed, the antebellum set (Lenore Doxsee), the naked light (Doxsee and Sarah Lurie), the mosaic-like sound (Herskovits), tech cues, costume changes, and the glamorous wig fitting for Stephanie Weeks.  Families overwhelm us, the dramatist is saying–and so can plays about them. From “moment to moment,” Herskovits explains, “we slide between different modes of expression.  We can be big and more stylized; we can be small and intimate.”  The ensemble retains the language and the sequence of the original, but Herskovits—and his cast of six (in the ‘30s there were 18 performers) want to take us further, into the “different textures of the writing.”  Sudden, intimate voice amplification shows technological innovation; the acting includes presentational, realistic, and highly stylized work; performers know physical theatre and Mamet-technique, as well as Kabuki, Brechtian, and Bergman methods—then, they might sit with the audience or begin talking with their hands.  Tides of music are incorporated, from classical to jazz, Celtic to catchy Bacharach-like pop, and ambient sounds—“Shenendoah,” the shanty heard throughout the work is O’Neill’s contribution.

Closer and closer, the audience is continually directed to the stage, starting faraway in the lobby of the theatre and ending on the boards themselves—relentlessly, they seem to be asked to take part in the obsessions being portrayed. Once there, in the rough-hewn, black cubicle–amid ropes, wires, and lights–we realize the extent we have been projecting, enlarging, imagining, imbuing.  “The primary version hovers over us, like the ghost of a story we all shared years ago,” the director has said.  Whether ghosts are to be believed—especially O’Neill’s ghosts—there is a point where theatre, at this level, can only be discussed as a kind of madness. Yet, this production is the type of off-Broadway work people think about when they defend off-Broadway—experimental and riveting, with a dash of the Next Wave.  Should scholars be intrigued, Mourning Becomes Electra is also prophetic, as Long Day’s Journey Into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten are foreshadowed.  

Usually, actors are the ones thought of as overtaken or overwhelmed by theatrical creation—and that is true here, with Eunice Wong, as a New England Electra (O’Neill’s favorite character from the ancient Greeks); the mother she hates, Stephanie Weeks; and the father she worships—as well as the brother she controls–Satya BhabhaKristen Calgaro, Avi Glickstein, and Mary Neufeld are the townspeople drawn into the tragic spiralHerskovits, however, seems to be feeling along with O’Neill–he has made  Mourning Becomes Electra a second-by-second explication of compulsion and demons, out-of-control–a body might fall off the stage then or a gunshot be heard. Every moment of his production expresses what O’Neill is understanding, thinking, meaning, recoiling from. An exhumation of the Nobelist’s body might even find that the two artists share the same blood type and genetic code, so extreme is the identification.

Highly recommended.   

MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA
by Eugene O’Neill
Directed by David Herskovits

Visit TargetMargin Theater: http://www.targetmargin.org/

LIMITED ENGAGEMENT | ONLY 17 PERFORMANCES

Abrons Arts Center | April 26 – May 20, 2017
466 Grand Street, New York, NY 10002

From Target Margin Theater, “known for radically reinventing classic behemoths” (The New York Times), comes a new marathon production of Eugene O’Neill’s epic trilogy, MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA. Part Greek tragedy, part family play, part history play, MOURNING mashes myth, Freudian psychology and melodrama into a marathon five hour production. Each of the three plays of the MOURNING trilogy will be staged in a different part of the Abrons Playhouse, with the audience served a pu-pu platter meal and snack as they move between spaces.

Featuring: Satya Bhabha, Kristen Calgaro, Avi Glickstein, Mary Neufeld, Stephanie Weeks, and Eunice Wong.

Scenic & Lighting Design: Lenore Doxsee
Costumes Design: Kaye Voyce
Sound Demon: Jesse Freedman
Mic Demon: Matt Good
Assistant Director: Claire Moodey
Stage Manager: Olivia O’Brien
Assistant Stage Manager: Violet Tafari
Technical Director: Carl Whipple
Production Manager: Neal Wilkinson
Artistic Producers: Sarah Hughes + Moe Yousuf

Photos by Kelly Stuart

A NOTE ON YOUR COMPLIMENTARY PUPU PLATTERS:
During the second intermission, the audience will be given a complimentary pupu platter (a bed of coconut rice topped with a delicious soaked tofu and purple sweet potato salad topped with scallions), plus chili lime peanuts on the side. It is is 100% vegan (and 112% delicious). The menu comes as is and cannot be modified. If audience members have any known / severe food allergies (especially peanuts) they are encouraged to bring their own food. Beverages will also be available for purchase.

Photos from top: Theatermania, University of Nebraska,  Off Off Online.

Press:  John Wyszniewski, Rachael Shearer Blake Zidell & Associates 

Article: (c) 2017 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved. 

RICHARD MAXWELL: ‘SAMARA’ (ONLY THROUGH MAY 14–REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Richard Maxwell, a two-time Obie winner, has written a new drama—an anti-Western, set in deli milk crates (the imaginative scenic design is by Louisa Thompson)—that seems to miss home and identity.  Cultures have been taken away—and are mourned–in this piece—which has a poetry reading-, outside concert-like feel, especially given the inclusion of music by Steve Earle (and the mesmerizing uilleann pipes of Ivan Goff). Here, rain is being awaited, murders have taken place, and Maxwell finds himself meditating on being a father and raising children—he’s wiser, finding different ways to consider masculinity now.  Sam Shepard and Faulkner come to mind as reference points, but this really is more spiritually minded than its violence would indicate, and it could only be American, Americana.  So much is owed to the playwright Irene Fornes, in terms of the short scenes and unconscious inspirations, that one might suspect Maxwell was working with her workshop exercises. Maybe this hip, but less up-tight Maxwell, also owes something to his director, Sarah Benson (another Obie winner), and her clean direction, yet both have worked on harsher pieces, unrelenting ones: Samara, which could be referring to “tranquility,” stands in contrast to a similarly titled Maxwell play, The Good Samaritans—recently shown at Abrons Arts Center in February–a cold European-like concept work, important and brutal.  Here the lights are colored (Matt Frey designed them)—and even blink, while the other work showed the dead light of fluorescent tubes. 

The impulse of this reviewer is to say that Maxwell might be working artistically with the country’s return to nationalism.  As long ago as 2008, Split Britches wrote Miss America, in which they knew the nation was changing.  Today, an election has emphasized that it has.  The notion of thinking about this country’s past, earlier than the twentieth century, may be on the artistic mind, especially of course, given the success of Hamilton.  Instead of plays examining paralysis, new worlds of picaresque adventure may be inviting the imagination.  Maxwell might be hoping to make America remember itself again.

SAMARA

by Richard Maxwell
directed by Sarah Benson
with original music by Steve Earle

featuring:  Becca Blackwell, Vinie Burrows, Steve Earle, Roy Faudree, Ivan Goff, Modesto Flako Jimenez, Matthew Korahais, Paul Lazar, Jasper Newell, and Anna Wray

Set Design by Louisa Thompson; Costume Design: Junghyun Georgia Lee; Lighting Design: Matt Frey; Sound Design: Palmer Hefferan; Props: George Hoffmann and Greg Kozatek; Fight Director: J. David Brimmer; Choreographer: Annie-B Parson; Production Stage Manager: Rachel K. Gross; Assistant Stage Manager: Joanna Muhlfelder; Design: Studio Usher

Press:  John Wyszniewski, Rachel Shearer | Blake Zidell & Associates

Presnted at: Mezzanine Theatre
A.R.T./New York Theatres
502 West 53rd Street
New York, NY 10019

Visit Soho Rep: http://sohorep.org/samara

Photo Credits: Julieta Cervantes

Top: Vinie Burrows and Becca Blackwell; BottomL Jasper Newell 

KATE HAMILL: ‘VANITY FAIR’, DIRECTED BY ERIC TUCKER AT THE PEARL THEARE (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Eric Tucker’s fluid, physical production of Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Vanity Fair (now playing at the Pearl Theater Company, extended until May 14) will take some puzzling out, but both contemporary creators are trying to get underneath Thackeray’s certitude—unearthing worms and post-modern detritus.  Tucker is the director of the fabulous 2015 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which also played at the Pearl, an interpretation that actually felt like an inchoate, ephemeral dream.  Thackeray is not as malleable as Shakespeare, though—in fact, he’s a steamroller–and so is his leading character, Becky Sharp, who doesn’t “blush” (Hamill plays her unabashedly, with brio).  Adapters may be at odds with what to do with this prodigious Victorian writer, who won’t budge, except to shut him up, as Stanley Kubrick did in his epic Barry Lyndon (1975), a candlelit masterpiece of cinematic composition , with Oscar-winning costumes and production design, cold to the ear—Marisa Berenson, as Lady Lyndon, spoke only 13 lines.  Kubrick had thought of directing Vanity Fair, too, but he felt that “the story could not be successfully compressed into the relatively short time-span of a feature film”—he also may have had difficulty reigning in characters who want what they want when they want it.  At the Pearl, Hamill and Tucker poke at the materiality of Vanity Fair, and along with using other techniques, can remind us of Modernists, not Romantics—O’Casey, Ibsen, Fitzgerald, or Williams come to mind (even Chekhov, for good measure)—and, perhaps, Joel Grey’s Expressionistic demon Emcee in the Kander/Ebb/Masteroff  Cabaret.  Regency England, during the Napoleonic Wars, is where the novel takes place, but Tucker, Hamill, and Co., do not convey the age in ways that remind of the cinema or Masterpiece Theatre—this is perhaps because, by compacting the work, they’ve arrived less at Thackeray’s cheerful facade—but at his malevolence.

Vanity Fair, as a novel, is a tour de force of endless, damning opinion, led by a bossy, intrusive puppet-master, the author himself (he spends nearly 800 pages pulling rank on his characters—and his readers). Even if there is security in having everything spelled out, enjoying the book may have to do with how you can tolerate being told what to think and how to feel, while Thackeray’s pen compulsively chases the news of the day, scandal, and cliffhangers–even when his story loses tension or his characters aren’t focused. (Vanity Fair was originally written for serialization, illustrated by the author.) Becky Sharp is a charity case, who intends to rise in society—she’s honest and vulgar and the English class system will never let her through. Americans can accept her immediately because she’s willing to work and she’s willing to gamble and perhaps this is why Tucker and his designers, Sandra Goldmark (set) and Valérie Thérèse Bart (costumes) do not focus  obsessively on period detail.  Their conception involves placing Vanity Fair in a theatre, which corresponds with Thackery’s “Before the Curtain,” the prologue for his book. Hamill and Tucker radicalize this further by not placing this theatre in the early 1840s, when the book was written, or in the early 1800s, where the book is set.  Hamill’s and Tucker’s theatre, a surreal, contemporary theatre, is in the present day, or in the mind.  Soon, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” plays, a song released in 1982, as actors dance with contemporary moves.  “In Heaven There Ain’t No Beer” (1956) and “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” (1919) are also used—much in understanding and rationalizing this stage version is negotiating the culture shock.  But it goes beyond that. At one point the excellent Joey Parsons, as Amelia, Becky’s champion and friend, pulls long string from her mouth—oddly reminiscent of Lavinia in Peter Brook’s Titus Andronicus (1955). Vanity Fair, in a primitive, feral, anachronistic production, has wed one of the English language’s most literal-minded writers with a director excavating the unconscious.

Hamill’s massive editing and adaptation of Thackeray work, ultimately, becomes two hours and fifteen minutes of stage time. By comparison Nicholas Nickleby, in 1980, involved two 4.5 hour performances to portray Dickens.  Both are exemplars of cutting-edge theatre of their times.  Now, however, audiences may be intent on shorter performances, or maybe they’ve gotten used to working with less.  Does post-modernism–the cuts, the chaos, the irrationality, the freewheeling, the confusion, and dreams– become more important than faithfulness to authors, including Thackeray? Maybe Hamill has made Becky so clear—the young woman wants money, pure and simple—that further discussion becomes unnecessary. Her characters transmute, furniture twirls; no one is locked into the inherent realism of a book or film.  The adapter focuses on the emotional stakes—and what the messy relationships leave behind.

The cast: Debargo Sanyal, who plays Miss Briggs, a cowed servant, has learned to hold his hands, as if he might unexpectedly need to protect his face.  In the next moment, we are watching the line of his legs, long, striding purposefully. Here he’s playing George Osborne, a young soldier, to the manor born—and about to have the rug pulled out from beneath his feet.  Zachary Fine plays, among other parts, the Manager of the theatre, as well as Miss Matilda Crawley, an aristocrat, who either needs to stop taking laxatives or requires them at once.  Thackeray is an interesting writer because he describes shy men, who wait a virtual eternally for love—two here, played well, are:  Brad Heberlee as Jos and Ryan Quinn as William Dobbin (most of the cast play multiple roles).   Rawdon Crawley—Becky’s husband, probably a bad choice to marry, given her goal,  is given appropriate nobility and dash by Tom O’Keefe.

Kubrick was doubtlessly right, that Vanity Fair cannot be done well in approximately two hours on screen—realism, which film demands, exclusively, needs time.  Theatregoers may wonder, however, how the stage can be so flexible—questions Tucker and Hamill can answer.  The two–important, serious, and informed–working untraditionally, have realized Vanity Fair,  the way Thackeray wanted it, not as a historical costume drama;   “not [as] a moral place, certainly; nor a merry one, though  very noisy.”

© 2017 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Visit the Pearl Theatre Company:  http://www.pearltheatre.org/

Press: Shaunda Miles, John Wyszniewski, Rachael Shearer at Blake Zidell & Associates

William Thackeray Kate Hamill, directed by Eric Tucker

Scenic Design by Sandra Goldmark

Costume Design by Valerie Therese Bart

Lighting design by Seth Reiser

Original music composted by Carmel Dean

Director of Production Gar Levinson

Production Gar Levinson

Production Darmaturg Kae Farrington

Production Manager Katharine Whitney

Artistic Director Hal Brooks

Managing Director Jess Burkle

Actors Zachary Fine, Kate Hamill, Brad Heberlee, Tom O’Keefe, Joey Parsons, Ryan Quinn, Debargo Sanyal

Photos, top to bottom:  Kate Hamill (Guthrie); Eric Tucker (D.C. Theater Scene); Cast ((c) Russ Rowland); Thackeray.

KEN URBAN: ‘NIBBLER’–FROM THE AMORALISTS (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

In the movie Alien (1979), John Hurt is killed when his chest explodes.  For those who do not know it’s coming—and maybe if they do–the scene can disorient. Matt Pilieci, an Amoralist, could be dislocating, too–in The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side (2009), he ran out of the shower, onto the stage with a hard-on, followed by two jovial women. Off-off-Broadway crossed a line there, whether good or bad: Derek Ahonen’s play didn’t always jibe, but his East Village was dirty, gritty, and vital—and he could confuse and disrupt. The plays that followed were off-the-presses hot, and they could reflect working-class concerns during the economically slow Obama years, as well as ‘60s idealism and trash culture.  The Amoralists are back now at the Rattlestick, until March 18, with a play by Ken Urban called Nibbler, but the show is a reverie on the spring semester of high school, when students are goofing off and waiting for late acceptances.  Lost are the raw, coarse emotional outbursts of the troupe—and its underground vibe–replaced with a white, middle-class defense of higher education.  

Apparently, Ahonen went off to make a movie (he may also have been burned-out)—and Matt Pilieci found less casting with the group.  Of the original three founders, only James Kautz is part of the new show.  He’s chipmunk-cheeked here, playing a kid who realizes he’s not going on to bigger and better things after graduation.  Kautz is probably as good here as he has ever been, and he has been very good before.  He is embarrassingly old for the part, almost a Lothario, but he has a pro’s aura: watch as he tries to wipe semen off his hand without a towel, after a masturbation scene (students may want to learn a different acting lesson, but there’s an acting lesson in it). The new writer, Ken Urban, dramatizes the upwardly mobile in South Jersey, who have a different social nomenclature than those in Ahonen’s boroughs and blue-collar burgs.  The Amoralist shows, in the past, proudly represented the underclass—it was their culture that Ahonen was prizing, perhaps comparable to the way Shelagh Delaney wrote about working-class Manchester.  Urban, however, has written a drama about add-on elements to legitimize his interest in nostalgia–such as the sci-fi subplot and the beating off.  He can’t speak for the working poor, those screwed by the government, or the merely dissolute. Although he actually puts a clunky alien onstage, one doesn’t burst from the gut—and that was what Ahonen could do. Even if he didn’t know who he was hitting or where that rage was going, underneath he wanted class protest.  A young woman (Elizabeth Lail), who works at a sex hotline, might have fit in perfectly in one of Ahonen’s plays, but here the role isn’t fleshed out.  Her boyfriend is only a type, the young business major (Spencer Davis Milford).  Urban can goose up his work with Amoralist trademarks, such as nudity and sex and dumbed-down conversations and characters, but, ultimately, he feels sorry for the ones who don’t make it.  He doesn’t love or champion them, as is.

 

 

 

 

 

Nibbler is a roomy play that could use more purpose and tension. Really, it’s the same high school story about the fears of going off to college that actual students write when they’re still living it—but they can tell it with innocence. Urban can’t find the drama of a Spring Awakening or Splendor in the Grass or Grease, much less Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story, because everyone in his world is on the same side. His point of view is schoolmarmish, if not elitist—get into Stanford, Trenton State isn’t good enough; those who don’t attend will be behaviorally delayed. Tell that to Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, David Green, Nancy Sinatra, Larry Ellison, or Rachael Ray.  Nibbler can be offensive to those who don’t go to college—as well as those who do–because people are not retarded in their growth just because they don’t go.  College admissions departments are very fallible—there is no need to flatter petty bureaucrats at the expense of contemporary drama.

Sean Patrick Monahan gets to stand around naked, like so many Amoralist actors have before: in one section of Hotel/Motel, by Adam Rapp, the action included naked men walking around the theatre in circles, in slow motion.  It was like not having towels in a locker room. Monahan, who might have been given more blocking (the director is Benjamin Kamine), is an interesting actor, because he comes out to us as gay, subtly.  He’s non-differentiated sexually at the start—he doesn’t drop any overt hints.  Perhaps this is a portrayal to notice, one of the few of youth in the closet. Rachel Franco plays the smart girl of the group well, according to the role’s parameters—but, Urban doesn’t make her seem especially singular, and her counterpart in Merrily We Roll Along is more conflicted. Matthew Lawler plays the cop, a character who wouldn’t be given much sympathy in previous Amoralist shows. Here, he is all but a tragic hero—and he is quite good in a graying, balding, vulnerable way. But the audience also must accept Urban’s bias:  that cops should be unsatisfied with being cops.  Too many, in the theatre, believe that the only real occupations to aspire to are being writers or artists—but don’t those in such jobs, statistically, tend to end up being the real underemployed workers?

 

Is college really worth it, considering the time and expense and debt?  The creators of Nibbler barely raise the subjects, perhaps because their pathways to production may not directly include blue-collar or unsubsidized points of view.  Some argue that the last election was a shock because the working-class vote was misunderstood. Theatre needs to be wary, too, in how it portrays and understands its characters–and also when complaining of a lack of audience. The creators may be reflecting themselves back in the work–or outmoded or hackneyed assumptions, not society.    

Recently, at the Peoples Improv Theater (PIT), actors in Department of Fools–who are closer to the age of high school students–improvised a show called A History of Servitude.  Masked, they portrayed and named great events in history, from Ancient Greece and Egypt to imaginary ones like Elon Musk’s proposed space travel.  As their foundations become established, will they be lucky enough to find a playwright to consistently knock out material and let the group retain authenticity? For the Amoralists 2017, the most important work seems past-tense.  Like seeing today’s East Village, it’s a gentrification job. That may actually sound impossible for  this group—just about as improbable as believing that there can be beings from outer space.

KEN URBAN’S NIBBLER, DIRECTED BY BENJAMIN KAMINE

Cast: Rachel Franco, James Kautz, Elizabeth Lail, Matthew Lawler, Spencer Davis Milford and Sean Patrick Monahan

The design team includes Anshuman Bhatia (Scenic Design), Christian Frederickson (Sound Design), Christina Watanabe (Lighting Design), Lux Haac (Costume Design), Stefano Brancato (Puppet Design), Ken Urban (Original Music), Alex J. Gould (Fight Choreography), Zach Serafin (Prop Design) and Alfred Schatz (Artistic Charge).
The production team includes Whitney Dearden (Production Stage Manager), Jeremy Duncan Pape (Production Manager), Jeremy Stoller (Dramaturg), Lico Whitfield (Lead Producer), Jessica Kazamel (Associate Producer), Alexandra Campos (Associate Producer), Dana Libbey (Assistant Stage Manager) and Judy Bowman CSA (Casting).

Performances are Thursdays – Saturdays at 8pm with added shows on Sunday 2/26 at 8pm, Monday 2/27 at 8pm, Sunday 3/12 at 2pm and Wednesday 3/15 at 8pm. Tickets are $31 and $16 for students (1 ticket limit with code STU1992, valid ID must be presented at box office), and can be purchased at http://www.Amoralists.com or by calling 1-866-811-4111. The show contains nudity. Running time is 95 minutes. Post-show panels follow select performances – check website for details. For more info visit http://www.Amoralists.com, Like them on Facebook at https://www.Facebook.com/TheAmoralists, and follow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/TheAmoralists and Instagram at https://www.Instagram.com/TheAmoralists.

© 2017 by Bob Shuman. All Rights Reserved.

Press: David Gibbs, DARR Publicity

Nibbler photographer: Russ Rowland. 

From top to bottom: James Kautz as Adam, Elizabeth Lail as Hayley, Spencer Davis Milford as Matt, Sean Patrick Monahan as Pete, Rachel Franco as Tara

James Kautz as Adam, Rachel Franco as Tara

Matthew Lawler as Officer Dan, Rachel Franco as Tara

Ken Urban photo: Soho Rep

Kautz, Pilieci, Ahonen: New York Times.

 

KANDER/PIERCE: ‘KID VICTORY’ (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Kid Victory, now playing at the Vineyard Theatre through March 19, is an Ordinary People without a shrink—or, to put it in a theatrical context, the musical is an Oklahoma! without a Curly.  It’s a dark hometown show set in modern Kansas—which draws on cases like Elizabeth Smart’s and Natascha Kampusch’s kidnappings and captivities.  Maybe William Inge or Lanford Wilson could have made sense of such sources dramatically, but the ending of John Kander’s and Greg Pierce’s work, directed frustratingly by Liesl Tommy, sits unsatisfactorily with a father (Daniel Jenkins) who accepts his son’s sexuality and who is also complicit in the year-long absence of the young man.  That Kid Victory, the story of sex abuse and pedophilia, premiered while the Milo Yiannopoulos Breitbart resignation and book cancellation stories were breaking, shows how timely and shocking the material is—and how far away the execution of the musical is from an in-depth dramatic examination of the subject. Kander, of course, set a musical in Nazi Germany and in Chicago’s penal system, one ablaze with syncopated “merry murderesses.” But now, with a missing, balancing character and an inability to heighten the material, he’s writing workmanlike numbers, which are really too small for him.  Artists may want to revisit their roots—and might even feel that they that have to (Kander is from Missouri)–but they could end up gagged, as if they are living the lives they would have lived if they had never left.

As the young man who has been abducted, Brandon Flynn is shakingly sensitive and may remind of a kid James Dean.  Audiences are not told why he has not been given immediate and lasting psychological help after release; he does get religious guidance, which only seems anachronistic.  Karen Ziemba plays the chilly and daffy mother, who does not understand the depth of trauma imprisonment would entail—in fact, neither does the whole town, with characters such as the young girlfriend (Laura Darrell) and a church friend (Ann Arvia). Kander has been playing with musicalizing Americana at least as far back as The Act, where he turned a plain, pious Shaker-inspired “Turning” into an up-tempo boogie for Liza Minnelli.  But Kid Victory doesn’t show us anything to sing about (in fact, Luke does not sing):  The book doesn’t take us far enough into the tragedy, and it’s not light enough for standard musical comedy. Thankfully, there is a Liza-like role in Kid Victory—played by Dee Roscioli, as a kooky garden-store owner.  She helps leaven the woes one feels that the show is up against:  Roscioli even sings a good Liza-like number: “People Like Us.”  That’s when we’re in heaven. A hookup of Luke’s is the talented dancer, Blake Zolfo, who tap dances like Tulsa in Gypsy.

But this is John Kander.  The dangerous, controversial subject and themes need to be detonated.  His trade book with Fred Ebb is called Colored Lights, not The Fluorescent Light, which is part of David Weiner’s design–the setting is by Clint Ramos.  Hal Prince was the one who saw that Cabaret was reflecting ‘60s America; after the critics hadn’t understood it, others realized that Chicago is talking about trash, corrupt celebrity culture–before the country even recognized the phenomenon.  Prince and Fosse would have, no doubt, seen the metaphor, the concept of Kid Victory. They probably wouldn’t have discussed it much in the way of an old-fashioned book musical, even if Kander is trying to write chamber work.  Doubtless, they would have pushed the book’s Thornton Wilder elements out into the cold, sarcastic, frightening, and Brechtian—remember Fosse filmed his own heart attack as a musical number in All That Jazz. Whether they would have seen this as the hallucinations of a sexual prisoner, which reflects the current state of the nation, is up for debate.  Or maybe they would have thought that all of America is going through Stockholm Syndrome,  which is part of this musical book—but, doubtless, the subject matter would have been attacked, acidly, head on.

And there would have been a musical vamp: a riveting, mesmerizing, penetrating vamp.

KID VICTORY

BOOK AND LYRICS BY GREG PIERCE
MUSIC BY JOHN KANDER 
STORY BY JOHN KANDER AND GREG PIERCE
CHOREOGRAPHY BY CHRISTOPHER WINDOM
DIRECTED BY LIESL TOMMY 
WITH ANN ARVIA, JOEL BLUM, LAURA DARRELL, JEFFRY DENMAN, BRANDON FLYNN, DANIEL JENKINS, DEE ROSCIOLI, KAREN ZIEMBA, BLAKE ZOLFO

Press: Shane Marshall Brown/Sam Rudy Media Relations

Visit The Vineyard Theatre: http://www.vineyardtheatre.org/kid-victory/

Photos: The New York Times; Bob Shuman.

© 2017 by Bob Shuman.