Category Archives: Bob’s Theatre Reviews

‘IN THE TUNNEL’ FROM GESHER THEATRE (ISRAEL) AND ‘I WAS MOST ALIVE WITH YOU’ AT PLAYWRIGHTS HORIZONS ·

By Bob Shuman

Leon Hadar has written, in the Spectator, that, generally, Israelis like Trump more than American Jews do. They also prefer him to Obama, with young Israeli voters favoring the political right, “raising the prospects for growing tension between Israel and America’s liberal elite and its large Jewish component.”  Hadar  explains further, “in contrast to the so, so smart and metrosexual Obama, the tough and unpolished Trump talks doogri—straight in-your-face,” and he is a “not-politically-correct kind-of-guy. What is there not to love about him?” Trump, many will recall, had tweeted that he had heard Hamilton was “overrated,” in 2016, after Mike Pence visited and had been lectured, at a curtain call, by Brandon Victor Dixon–who played Aaron Burr–as a representative of the cast. The president–apparently not uninterested in theater; he was a producer of the doomed comedy Paris Is Out! featuring Yiddish theatre star, Molly Picon, in 1970–might like In the Tunnel, from Tel-Aviv’s Gesher Theatre, however,  not only because of its Jewish bent.  The show, a political satire from the Cherry Orchard Festival, written by Roy Chen and  inspired by Danis Tanovic‘s film No Man’s Landand which played at the Gerald W. Lynch Theatre at John Jay College on October 6 and 7–as part of its North American tour, unlike so many politically correct evenings of American Theatre, also talks doogri.

Performed in Hebrew with English and Russian subtitles, the evening becomes compelling because it not only recognizes how much bull there is in society—from entertainment to advertising and politics, for example–but also because it acknowledges that the fakery has to be there.  Israelis have to be acquiescent to the nonsense of being able to get along because it’s part of the insulation that helps prevent the country from an escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian War; the deception is futile, though, because the positions can’t be negotiated.

The audience, during In the Tunnel, is led into a superficial commercial setting, as all-encompassing and chilly as a shopping spree at Zabar’s.  After a mine explosion, two Israeli soldiers and a Palestinian are buried underneath building debris, forced to cooperate as they wait in the hope of rescue.  The setting is a metaphor for the depth of the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians, continually becoming more and more dangerous. The young Israeli photographer, seated next to me, laughed in acknowledgment of the humor, mostly male, often puerile, and sometimes out of the gallows (“the one who dies always loses, no matter what side he’s on”).  There can be an unpretentiousness that verges on the rude in the story, but In the Tunnel is straight and authentic; the acting robust and specific.  At the center of the drama are Miki Leon (an injured Israeli soldier), Ido Moseri (the son of a peace activist), and Firas Nassar (a Palestinian fighter), who work well with and off each other; Nassar, especially demonstrates skills as a comic and mime.  The direction is by Irad Rubinstein.   

Craig Lucas wants his characters to “bone up” on the Old Testament’s Job in I Was Most Alive with You, which closed at Playwrights Horizons on October 14.  Only to them does the story seem obscure, despite passages included in religious study, college world literature syllabi, and secular adaptations, allowing all kinds of Christians, as well as Jews, and beyond, to have familiarity with the devastating losses of an “upright” man.  (Actually cascading images and examples are emphasized more in the book, rather than complex, character-driven plot development.)  For Broadway, Neil Simon wrote a play, God’s Favorite, based on Job, in 1974. Like Lucas, he would not take steps to a final catastrophe, which is where the dramatic line heads (although, in the Bible, the Lord “blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning”).  Here, the author, decides on a “have it your way” finish, which may be his solution for pleasing the audience. 

I Was Most Alive with You doesn’t seem authentic, like In the Tunnel, because, except for many Christians, it’s a big tent of a show and wants to be adulated so much: by Jews and women; minorities and gays; deaf people and those in recovery, for example.  It can both remind of Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam on the old Dick Van Dyke Show, as well as Ingmar Bergman’s repeated monologue in Persona.  The Job role (played by Michael Gaston) is strangely unsatisfactory, in writing and execution–not the least of which because he doesn’t try to communicate with God–although the fine deaf actor, Russell Harvard, as his son, is able to lift the rendering toward tragic space; likewise Marianna Bassham, as his mother, has the power to concentrate an audience and Lisa Emery is likable as the family friend and writing partner.  If only Lucas had realized that less could be more. 

He can find it in himself to forgive drinkers and drug-takers, batterers and those promiscuous, but for the white male Christian demographic, he writes a flash tirade, spoken by Lois Smith, as family matriarch and producer:  “If someone got sick in our church, we shunned them.  Fired from a job, look away.  I don’t think my Dad would have crossed the street if you were on fire, he’d have hurried along.”  Such a horrible, if not offensive, view of Christians. 

After the play was over, this reviewer, who so memorably recalls Reckless, from the ‘80s at Circle Rep, felt drawn to dig out Joni Mitchell’s idiosyncratic, secular take on Job: “The Sire of Sorrow,” which helped her album Turbulent Indigo win a Grammy in 1994.  The same music was later recorded for her Travelogue (2002). Whether politically correct or not, doogri or not—she gets it right.

(c) 20018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

I Was Most Alive with You

With Beth Applebaum, Marianna Bassham, Tad Cooley, Lisa Emery,  Kalen Feeney, Harold Foxx, Michael Gaston, Seth Gore, Russell Harvard, Amelia Hensley, Anthony Natale, Lois Smith, Alexandria Wailes, Gameela Wright

Directed by Tyne Rafaeli

In the Tunnel 

Written by: Roy Chen inspired by Danis Tanovic’s film No Man’s Land; Directed by: Irad Rubinstein; Set design: Michael Kramenko; Costumes: Oren Dar; Music: Roi Yarkoni; Lighting: Avi-Yona Bueno (Bambi); Sound: Michael Vaysburd; Movement: Amit Zamir; Assistant director (stage speech): Yonny Lucas; Assistant director: Yanna Adamovski; Executive Producer: Roman Kvetner

Cast – Tzlil: Ido Moseri | Iftach: Miki Leon | Hisam: Firras Nasser | Mansur/Josef, stage manager VO2/The Knesset MP: Assaf Pariente| Karnit, narrator of “Sunflowers” program: Karin Saruya | editor of the program VO/Thomas Handfiller, representative of the UN: Ori Yaniv | High-ranking politician: Alexander Senderovich | Nutrition expert in “Sunflowers” | program/Ricado Cabarel, sapper from UN: Paulo E. Moura | Dickla, border Guard official on a checkpoint/Hadassa/Mother of Tzlil/Daughter of Iftach : Noa Ar-Zion.

Photos (top to bottom):   Representative of the UN (Ori Yaniv), Israeli soldier Iftach (Miki Leon) and Hisam, Palestinian Hamas member (Firras Nasser); the cast of  I Was Most Alive with You (Joan Marcus)

 

 

 

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS: ‘A LOVELY SUNDAY FOR CREVE COEUR’ (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Four years before his death in 1983, Tennessee Williams gave critics what they wanted:  a play that wouldn’t turn their stomachs.  Even Harold Clurman, reviewer and Williams’s director for Orpheus Descending, had noted his discomfort with the playwright’s “sexual obsession,” writing, “Since The Night of the Iguana (1961), I have not cared much for Williams’s plays, though all of them bear the marks of his ‘splendid gifts.’” A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, now in a rare revival at Theatre at St. Clements until Oct 21, directed by Austin Pendleton, with a first-rate cast, is Williams as good citizen–he’s trying to clean up his act (although admittedly, the playwright confessed he had used the same characters, and some of the dialogue, for an unproduced teleplay, which he said he had forgotten about, a decade earlier). His writing concerns a Civics teacher, her scholarly discipline as obscure today as it must have seemed to the playwright then.  The drama itself is hardly more than a one act–the French translates as “bitter disappointment” and, beyond symbolism, refers to a suburb outside of St. Louis, which became known for its amusement park, as well as a nearby lake, in the shape of a broken heart.  Legend relates an Indian maiden plunged herself into the water here, after her love for a fur trader was rejected. In this novelty, only for four women, Williams is writing superbly, even if his rhythms can be off. Nevertheless, the structuring seems better than in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a more powerful play—and  his controlled, recurrent setups for heartbreak, offer echoes of Blanche and Catherine and Laura and Tom. The characters, in A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, are not exact replicas, though.  They’re on diets and doing calisthenics, discussing balanced grocery budgets and the stolid precepts of the Lutheran church–gone are the trademark booze and drugs; violence and sexual deviancy.  

Resetting the Native American lore in the middle to late 1930’s (at the time when The Glass Menagerie is also placed), Williams brought along the deplorables of the city:  the hardworking white lower-middle class teachers and store and brewery workers.  Transmuted, the legend had become what goes on behind the scenes in a workplace romance, concerning an aging woman (Dorothea) who lives in an “efficiency apartment” with her nearly deaf friend (Bodey), someone intent on dissuading the match.  Williams, however, was also signaling his behind-the-scenes surrender to theatrical convention,  despite the large aesthetic risks, which someone else might not even contemplate:  Did he really want his work to be seen as more directly comparable to that of William Inge, Horton Foote, N. Richard Nash, and Tad Mosel?   What would he lose by stripping away the elements of stifling family dynamics and sexual power, to please his detractors, albeit retaining the basic, recognizable “stranded woman” motif?  He was getting older,  68, but perhaps his theatre could not be the theatre of his time. Painfully, he decided to purloin virtually the same ending, for this play, that he had written for Summer and Smoke (1948) and its reworked companion, The Eccentricities of a Nightingale (1964)–which is even more amoral at its finish–although he would invert their hard-won meanings.  A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur has Dorothea subsumed into the homogeneous culture that looks down on her romantic dreams; she is socialized enough, however, to become part of the herd.  

In his 1975 Memoirs, William’s wrote: “To know me is not to love me.  At best it is to tolerate me and of drama critics I would say that tolerance seems now to be just about worn out.”  A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur was his attempt to do it their way, be conciliatory, and become socialized himself—but despite some respectable notices, including Harold Clurman’s in The Nation, the play ran for only a month in 1979, for the Hudson Guild, in New York:  Hardly worth the price of destroying a vision.

Jean Lichty plays the romantic Southerner, Dorothea, in the Theatre at St. Clements production, from La Femme, steely as a young Elizabeth Ashley.  Kristine Nielsen, impervious to a life beyond work, children, and God, is her roommate, who finds employment at a shoe factory, as did Tom Wingfield and Williams himself. Annette O’Toole hopes for upward social mobility and a clothes brush, no matter how rigid she must be to obtain them.  Polly McKie, virtually a character from Bergman, is an upstairs neighbor, unable to speak English, haunted by the “spooks” of her dead family. 

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur may be the last time Williams wrote to please anybody or in a way so recognizably comparable to his acclaimed previous work—but perhaps, he also felt he must start renouncing himself. Two of the plays to follow would be A Recluse and His Guest, where the playwright gave up his voice to channel Isak Dinesen and the dark and disturbing The Remarkable Rooming House of Mme. Le Monde, which seems a rejection of his craft as we had come to know it, absurd and idiosyncratic; extreme and without compassion.  

Larry Feiner’s design provides dappled lighting and clashing reds for the “fiercely bright colors of the interior” of A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, and Beth Goldenberg‘s costumes show period fashions of poverty and acceptability.  Austin Pendleton continues in his championship of the work of Williams, who, despite an attempt like this, realized that “there is rarely a graceful way to say goodbye.”

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Tennessee Williams’s A LOVELY SUNDAY FOR CREVE COEUR

Theatre at St. Clements
423 West 46th Street
New York, NY 10036

Performances until Oct 21, 2018

Tickets 

Photos by Joan Marcus (top to bottom): Kristine Nielsen, Jean Lichty, and Annette O’Toole; Annette O’Toole, Jean Lichty, Kristine Nielsen, and Polly McKie; Jean Lichty, and Annette O’Toole.

Press: JT Public Relations

‘THE EMPEROR’ FROM THEATRE FOR A NEW AUDIENCE AND ‘ANTIGONE IN FERGUSON’ AT HARLEM STAGE (REVIEWS FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

The Emperor, Colin Teevan’s adaptation of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s reportage on the forty-four-year reign of Haile Selassie, from Theatre for a New Audience, now playing at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn until September 30, is more than an anti-Trump metaphor, although it does point to the impact of American politics on global theatre.  The subject is perhaps as little considered in the West today as when, in 1973, BBC correspondent Jonathan Dimbleby documented the horror of famine in East Africa, and the dramatization, cleanly directed by Walter Meierjohann, which played at the Young Vic, London; HOME, Manchester; and Les Theatre de la Ville de Luxembourg, mostly told through small monologues, offers a compelling, modern history of Ethiopia, during the early and mid-twentieth century. 

Kathryn Hunter’s Chaplinesque star turn allows her to play the “little man” as mime and social champion, which can remind of The Great Dictator and Modern Times. The audience doesn’t lose her when she talks, though, as they did when starting to turn away from Chaplin after hearing him speak literary English on screen.  They revel in her throaty, deep voice and accents, and attune to her slightly crooked, if flexible, body, a puppet clown, playing the menials and servants at the court:  from those among the pillow bearers to doormen; chauffeurs to clerks and ministers (Selassie is never shown or portrayed).  Perhaps ironically, none of her creations is a woman–of any race (Hunter is white); she is  always a man of color, which may be daring, but would be criticized if the role concept was taken by a white male in the States, opening up an Actors’ Equity nightmare.  Hunter is joined by musicians of Eastern African Krar, including Temesgren Zeleke, who spikes the evening with the sound of the electric lyre (the music is by Dave Price), unusual, penetrating, and rhythmic.

Visit Theatre for a New Audience

Doubtless, other artists will see the show and want to splice together anecdotes about the Trump White House, based on books by Bob Woodward, Michael Wolff, and Omarosa, but The Emperor concerns acting out lives lived in collusion, in order for a power structure to be maintained–blinding oneself to objective reality. Contradictorily, life outside the Trump administration is not a nation on its knees—it includes high employment statistics among diverse ethnic and racial populations.  At an evening of forum theatre, called Antigone in Fergusonwhich plays until October 13 at Harlem Stagefrom Theater of War, where passages from Antigone are placed alongside powerful Gospel music, sung by, according to the program note, “diverse choirs,” who “include police officers, activists, youth, teachers, and concerned citizens from Ferguson, Missouri and New York City.” One participant was even brave enough to say, “many people like Donald Trump.”  There was also a call made to vote during the midterm elections, which was not unanimously praised, room also being given to the idea, from  one woman, that there was little interest in dismantling “a system that I did not make.”  

Sophocles’ play, “about what happens when personal conviction and state law clash”—and which includes the dictatorial Creon–is simplified but clearly translated and adapted by Brian Doerrie, with musical direction and compositions by Phil Woodmore, who works with many roof-raising singers: soloists include De-Rance Blaylock, John Leggette, Duane Foster, Gheremi Clay, and Tamara Fingal.  The cast, which will change weekly during the run, on September 15, included the following actors:  Tamara Tunie, Tate Donovan, Chris Myers and Chinasa Obguagu. The audience, speaking their own truths, responded to questions, such as: “What crossed time about the story to touch you?” and “Do people have to die to come together as a community?”  Many agreed that the arts are not involved enough in politics and that most of us see something or someone the way we are conditioned to, which may have been at issue with Michael Brown, in 2014. 

This reviewer randomly wrote in the margin of his notes, during the audience participation section: “Art allows us to feel normal.”

Visit Harlem Stage

Visit Theater of War

Theatrical historians who look back on our period and see the current fascination with dictators may wonder why theatrical imaginations were stoked by an American president who legitimately won the 2016 election and improved the economy to the point where the nation’s middle-class income had never been higher.  What future investigators may not realize, however, is that theatregoers could have already stopped caring  about the continual subtexts of propagandistic artistic choices, with plays by Brecht and Shakespeare’s evil kings, African dictators, or Ancient Greek resisters filling stages. Instead, the current cultural metaphor about Trump and fascism might have been rejected for something more persuasive: the fun of watching actors excel at creating challenging antiheroes found in the pages and entertainments of villainy.

Copyright 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Photos (top to bottom): Simon Annand; All Arts; Harlem Stage

  

 

‘WARS OF THE ROSES: HENRY VI & RICHARD III’, DIRECTED AND ADAPTED BY AUSTIN PENDLETON, AT HB STUDIO, 124 BANK STREET (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Although Queen Elizabeth, the unpretentious Johanna Leister in Austin Pendleton’s Wars of the Roses, now running at 124 Bank Street until August 19 (he co-directed with Peter Bloch), asks Richard III, “Shall I be tempted by the devil?” all the characters in this unbound adaptation of Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III might wonder the same. Each of the characters plays with evil and, because of the widened scope of bringing the two plays together (both feature Richard), their choices are horrifying and riveting, despite the fact that the bravura role of the humpbacked king (passionately played by Matt de Rogatis, in a hoodie), allows room for smaller roles to pop. Pendleton himself portrays a reticent Henry, wearing a black t-shirt with a red cross, his hand to his mouth or hand to his face—even sitting on his hands at one point.  Such are his skills that he can appear relaxed on stage, while, at the same time destroying any illusion that he is playing a role at all. Of course, going to one of his productions, whether that be in a black box, church, Lincoln  Center, on Broadway, or even the National Theatre in London, means reflecting on acting, perhaps more seriously than with work shown by virtually any other current director.  Here he seems to want the audience to reach out to the work artistically, rather than be steered by it, which, after so many busy shows–with projections and music and politics and computerized scenery changes–can take a minute to adjust to. His set, perhaps like one in a company meeting room, is made up only of chairs, a table, and a white backdrop, spattered with red to suggest blood (there isn’t even a credit for the scenic designer in the program, although the lighting is by Steven Wolf); the costumes are largely dark street clothes (Maya Luz consulted on them); and this powerful distillation and fusion, lasting three hours, with intermission, disregards pomp, coronets, or even much in the way of any props or technology. 

Wars of the Roses doesn’t offer much in the way of role models, either, unless one wants to sharpen his or her Machiavellian skills. In The Stranger, Camus writes about cinemagoers leaving the theatre, after an American movie, walking like John Wayne. Here, because the characters are compromised, the reflection on them must run deep and does not encourage imitation. The ensemble of fifteen (some play multiple roles), examine the dark characters intensely.  Debra Lass’s Queen Margaret is a strong, almost Nordic or Teutonic, warrior queen, a “she-wolf,” wearing a studded motorcycle jacket, her hair in a braid down the back; Pete McElligott’s real tears, as the imprisoned Clarence, are indicative of the inner truth this production is striving to reveal—and, while discussing eyes, watch the mourning, mesmerizing ones of Carolyn Groves, playing the Duchess of YorkGreg Pragel delivers his lines with speed, pacing, and command—and he can be humorous, too—although his rebuff by de Rogatis, with a prayer book (into his face), is swift and malicious.  Michael Villastrigo has found the manner of an assertive young king (Edward) and Adam Dodway (Tyrell and Ratcliffe), because of his naturalness on the stage, makes an impressive appearance.  Rachel Marcus is a strong, intelligent actress, forced to make sense of Richard’s mystifying behavior, finally succumbing to him (like Ophelia must do with Hamlet).  Excellence is also seen in Jim Broaddus’s York, Milton Elliott’s Warwick and Murderer,  John L. Payne’s Backenbury and Catesby,  Tomas Russo’s Rutland and Dorset,  and  John Constantine’s Prince Edward and Murderer, twirling a chair. 

During intermission, one gentleman, several rows back, stood to describe Wars of the Roses as “intimate,” which seems appropriate but also recalls Strindberg’s theatre.  Because of this production’s smaller scale, lack of castle scenery, for example, military action, and smoky battlefields that playwright seems to be watching over The Wars of the Roses, maybe more closely than even Shakespeare. The three imprisoned women (Lass, Leister, and Groves) mourning their lives, turning into mummies, might be part of The Ghost Sonata—and even Richard has a counterpart in Hummel, the handicapped man in that chamber play.  Both works examine cycles of suffering in communities—one explosive moment of pain, for example, in Wars of the Roses comes with Richard’s shocking kiss of Elizabeth, who has been asked to make her daughter a queen.  She is being hounded by a recognizable devil: part Weinstein, part Moonves, part Spacey.

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

The playing schedule for THE ROSES: HENRY VI & RICHARD III is as follows: Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7PM, with Sunday matinees at 3PM through August 19th.  Tickets are $25 and can be purchased by visiting  www.proveavillain.com

Press: Glenna Freedman PR.

Photos: de Rogatis: Chris Loupos; Pendleton: Playbill.

 

‘BRECHT ON BRECHT’ FROM POTOMAC THEATRE PROJECT (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Resisters who see a parallel between Trump’s America and Germany and Italy in the 1930s and ‘40s are making a misjudgment, even if they have grievances against the current administration.  Hitler and Mussolini were pursuing forms of Socialism, anathema to the Capitalist agenda of the president–and to the founding principles of this nation, for that matter.  But because some theatre professionals insist that the terror and evil of the Nazi period can be analogous to today’s burgeoning U.S. economy, Bertold Brecht (1888-1956) has found the renaissance he deserves, with recent New York productions of Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, The Good Person of Szechwan, Mother Courage and Her Children, and, currently, the anthology revue Brecht On Brecht, from Potomac Theatre Project (the PTP/NYC season runs until August 5 at Atlantic Stage 2).  In 1962, critic Harold Clurman’s discussion of the show, which includes music by Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler, and has been adapted by George Tabori, noted the dearth of representation of the playwright on American stages—he described the work, which Ethan Mordden says “began as a special matinee one-off, that launched an open run,” as “a full evening, yet it offers only a smattering of Brecht’s scope.  Still, it is better to have a bit of Brecht than none at all—especially since we have had so much discussion of Brecht, while the production of his work is still largely confined to foreign shores.”

Brecht, the poet, playwright, and director, a Marxist, did not always write his theatre pieces, in part or in total, yet out of a political crucible of horror and poverty, Epic Theatre was birthed, an achievement provoking awe, even if its cost was far too great.  Clurman encapsulated the show as: “devoted to [Brecht’s] life, short poems, anecdotes, a recording of his testimony at the hearing before the Un-American Activities Committee (1947), passages from diaries, epigrams, quips, and the readings of several songs (in the first part).  “Part Two—is composed of speeches and scenes from plays (also some songs).” The current director, Jim Petosa, reminds us of some of the writer’s slogans in his program note: “Sometimes it’s more important to be human, than to have good taste”;  “Do not fear death so much, but rather the inadequate life”; “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” An uncanny thought that occurred to this reviewer, during the evening, was that Brecht might have gotten along with Saul Alinsky.   Yet the performers, in the current production, do not seem to be coming out of deep, radical experience.   Brecht On Brecht demands a knowledge of harsh life, his canon, as well as the ability to give oneself over completely to the discordant material—things one might not wish on anyone.  The young, well-trained cast, staged in front of a grand piano on oriental rugs (set by Hallie Zieselman), excel most in musicality (the music director and pianist is Ronnie Romano) and they are clear in voice (soloists are Christine Hamel, Carla Martinez, Harrison Bryan, and Jake Murphy–and the cast also includes Miguel Castillo, Sebastian LaPointe, Olivia Christie, and Ashley Michelle)–but the edge is largely missing. No matter the quality of the ensemble–and their diligence—however, there is a difference between the singer’s voice and an actor’s art—and adapting both to a production (despite Petosa’s clean direction) is no small challenge.  Adding to the dilemma is the fact that in its initial run, Lotte Lenya, star of Threepenny Opera, and wife of Brecht’s collaborator Kurt Weill, was part of Brecht On Brecht—she automatically gave the evening authenticity and authority.  

Clurman said that Brecht On Brecht recalls a time of “strong feeling, witty eloquence, high aspiration, struggle, and fortitude.” In 1962, he felt those qualities were absent in American society—and, ultimately, he thought the show offered a “note of nostalgia.”  Today, America seems to be playing out a fantasy, with less and less people who can even remember the toxic brew of World War II.  If Brecht were escapist, the evening might be a way to get away from it all—but he’s not; he is always more than that.  Even so, the audience is left, after a largely illustrative performance, with the merely incomparable:  “Barbara Song,” “Mack the Knife,” “Pirate Jenny,” “Surabaya  Johnny” to  only name  four of the songs.  Forget Rodgers, Loewe, Porter, Lloyd-Webber, and Sondheim.  The evening makes a rock-solid case that the finest of them all is Weill.    

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

BRECHT ON BRECHT

Directed by Jim Petosa

Harrison Bryan, Christine Hamel, Carla Martinez, Jake Murphy, Miguel Castillo, Olivia Christie, Sebastian LaPointe and Ashley Michelle.

The production team for BRECHT ON BRECHT includes Ronnie Romano (Music Director and Pianist), Hallie Zieselman (Set Design), Joe Cabrera (Lighting Design), Annie Ulrich (Costume Design) and Alex Williamson (Production Stage Manager).

Brecht On Brecht photos:  Stan Barouh

Press: David Gibbs, DARR Publicity

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MADONNA, PAGLIA, AND ‘PLAYING TO THE GODS: SARAH BERNHARDT, ELEONORA DUSE, AND THE RIVALRY THAT CHANGED ACTING FOREVER’ BY PETER RADER  ·

By Bob Shuman

In August, Madonna will be sixty, a mean trick of time to any girl or boy who reeled at the thought of being “material” in 1984, barely out of the commune.  The Staff of Spin  notes she then went on to define and shock as “Coke-can-curled,  lipsticker movie star; barrier-crossing creator of the original Sexy Book of Sexy Sex; a ‘90s raver; a dancehall queen; an all-American girl; a Yoga mat toting goth child; and more.” Fans and feminists praise, defend, and sometimes revile her, the best-selling female rock artist of the twentieth century.  Two years ago, however, Camille Paglia, her intellectual advocate, wrote that the star had become a “prisoner of her own wealth and fame.”  At the Billboard Woman of the Year Awards at the time, Madonna said she stood before her audience as a “doormat”–she stated that David Bowie “made me think there were no rules.  But I was wrong.  There are no rules—if you’re a boy.  There are if you’re a girl.” Paglia, betrayed, called the performance “maudlin self-pity.” Madonna, the cultural barometer, the mistress of reinvention, “the real feminist,” had pinpointed the difference between the ‘80s and 20016 (and maybe now).  Imagine then the change in concerns, not of forty years, but of one hundred—or even fifty years beyond that.  Would anyone much care about Madonna then?  Or would the debate be rekindled?

Peter Rader’s dual biography of Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse, Playing to the Gods (Simon & Schuster), is a popular tribute to icons of their own day, on the cusp of the twentieth century.  The theatrical period is largely unknown, in America, because serious productions of new plays are not normally said to have arrived until the twenties or even thirties.  Bernhardt (1844-1923) and Duse (1858-1924) are two of the handful of ghostly names we dimly recall from earlier, floating before us based on stage lore, sepia posed photographs, and sometimes ravishing Art Deco posters  They are considered to be the finest actresses of their time (French and Italian, respectively), influencing Stanislavski and Proust, Gielgud and Brando. However, the impermanency of theatre has left us with little in the way of primary source material regarding their artistry (which has let others snitch from stories told in the dark)—there are archaic, silent films of Bernhardt, and recordings were made of her; Duse leaves us one silent film.  Chekhov said of her, “I do not know Italian, but she acted so well that I felt I was understanding every word.  What a marvelous actress!  Never before have I seen anything like it.”  Method acting is her legacy passed through her to Stanislavki (who saw her and wrote books about her technique–more was learned as Americans ventured to Moscow),  and the knowledge was transmitted to Strasberg, AdlerMeisner and other teachers of the craft.  Duse, who looked up to Bernhardt, fourteen years her senior, wanted to be possessed by her roles, an idea about theatre which may remind of  philosopher Simon Critchley today—she also did not recognize the audience, constructing a fourth wall, which had not been used previously.  Her need for privacy may remind of Garbo, and her preference to stay still in a scene can recall Liv Ullmann, who would also, as Hugo von Hofmannsthal recorded, play “the gaiety that is not happiness, and with a light laugh . . .  play[s] all the arid darkness behind the laugh.”

Madonna seems closer to Bernhardt (because of her love of imitation, so does Meryl Streep), for both know that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Having acted in terrible movies (Who’s That Girl?, Body of Evidence, Swept Away) and given atrocious performances (nine Gold Raspberry Awards; sixteen nominations), Madonna’s is probably the most memorable character in Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan, however, because in it, she was the East Village of the 1980s. Bernhardt received her share of negative press, too, but she rarely listened to a critic, including George Bernard Shaw and his notable drubbing: “[the] childishly egotistical character of her acting . . . is not the art of making you think more highly or feel more deeply, but the art of making you admire her, pity her, champion her, weep with her, laugh at her jokes, follow her fortunes breathlessly, and applaud her.  The woman is always the same.  She does not enter into the leading character.  She substitutes herself for it.”  She didn’t have to listen to a man either: her great ambition was fueled by an ability to manipulate men and break rules (ethnically Jewish, she was the daughter of a courtesan and became one herself, as well as a novice in the Catholic church).  She formed her own companies, rented her own theatres, and toured the world (as did Duse). Bernhardt even played men, with much ado–watch her swordfight on YouTube as Hamlet

 She thought she could play a man better than a male: “There is one reason why I think a woman is better suited to play parts like L’Aiglon and Hamlet than a man.  These roles portray youths of twenty or twenty-one with the minds of men of forty.  A boy of twenty cannot understand the philosophy of Hamlet nor the poetic enthusiasm of L’Aiglon . . . . An older man . . . does not look the boy, nor has he the ready adaptability of the woman who can combine the light carriage of youth with the mature thoughts of the man.”  At the time Bernhardt was in her mid-fifties.

Playing to the Gods, however, misses another of Bernhardt’s arguments, by piggybacking on the success of the television series Feud: Bette and Joan. The amount of impressive research in the volume should actually not be in service of a tawdry answer to a reconsideration of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Although there are gothic moments in the lives of Bernhardt (her sleeping in a coffin, studying the faces of the dead, and horrifying leg operation) and Duse (her call to mysticism and the transcendence of materialism)—and although they were real competitors, at least battlers in upstaging, hoping to be considered the superior artist, they were also warring over a dominant aesthetic style.  Their determinations are still being deliberated today in the world of entertainment, but they might be seen as closer to characters in Les Liaisons Dangereuses rather than to those in B-movie Hollywood, as implied in the following: “But Bernhardt had her talons in [his] flesh with no intention of releasing him.” Because Bernhardt and Duse spent enormous amounts of their own money on productions, they kept the quality of  material high. For example, Bernhardt would not portray the realism of Ibsen, because she “felt it made theatre pedestrian.” Duse felt differently, and is lauded by feminists for making Nora known internationally. These actors are exemplars of high art, not trash—and this contradiction may be part of the reason why their personalities have difficulty coming through in the text.  Yet, the women did change with trends, regarding the subjects of their plays and the sets and costumes of their productions.  Playing to the Gods needs more nuance, ordering, and tightening, a sharper, less melodramatic construction—and a less colloquial editing: there is repetition and there are missing points.  Whatever the pronouncement of critics, however, some might hope that this was more of an academic volume, but the answer is actually in the title: “playing to the gods” means playing to those in the high-up, inexpensive seats.  Readers will see Peter Rader’s studio background in the work, but he’s still swimming in the material.  Hollywood, of course, as well as Schiller, would ask the women to confront each other face to face, a sad omission of history.

 

As a personal reaction, it was not Bernhardt, Duse, or even Madonna who made thinking about Playing to the Gods most interesting.  Rather, it was the lover, whom Bernhardt and Duse shared: Gabriele d’Annunzio (the women also shared roles, most memorably Camille, venues—they even  once acted in the same play in the same city, during the same week–and hired the same theatre practitioners).  D’Annunzio was a writer admired by Joyce, Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, Marcel Proust, and Ernest Hemingway, among others.  In a scandalous novel called The Flame, he discusses Duse and her art—an influence unforgotten, if not specifically understood. Bernhardt created herself as an icon, the first female megastar, through tireless work, expert publicity, the love of symbolism, and trouping—in Kansas City, for example, she played one performance to 6,500 people: a beacon for rock stars in huge arenas. Perhaps, Playing to the Gods should be seen as an accessible introduction to the period and its great artistic innovators–and maybe it will enable a further opening of this market and a continuing examination of the area. 

Dying in Paris, Bernhardt had a younger actress take over her leading role in L’Aiglon.  Like O’Neill, who cursed that he was born in a hotel and would die in one, Duse, born on the road, died on it, too, in Pittsburgh.  Madonna, swearing that she’ll never make another movie, may have let her fans down on feminism, an issue both Bernhardt and Duse championed. Paglia can not forgive her for it.  Will time? 

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

View ‘Playing to the Gods‘ on Amazon

 

DE NIRO AND THE 2018 TONY AWARDS/‘IVANOV’ FROM MOSCOW’S STATE THEATRE OF NATIONS (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

In a week where Robert De Niro’s curse out of Donald Trump received a standing ovation at the 2018 Tony Awards, Russian actor Evgeny Mironov, who immerses himself in the title character of Anton Chekhov’s Ivanovat New York City Center from June 14-17–notes, in a Playbill interview with Katie Labovitz, that “Art is above politics.” The two actors, who were not reacting to one other’s comments, emphasize a cultural distinction between the aesthetics of the two countries and raise a tortuous, ugly subject for both—the degree to and ways in which censorship is employed.  American theatre, where politics is a marketing hook (Trump as Julius Caesar at the Delacorte last summer, for example) does silence through marginalizing and ignoring even important work and artists, admonishing or condemning them for mistakes in liberal thinking—recall the careless lack of perspective in the title for The New York Times review of the Pearl’s 2016 A Taste of Honey; “She’s Having the Baby.  How Quaint.” Or consider the roughly half of American voters who would not concur with Mr. De Niro or even want their children to have to listen to him on such a subject on a night which largely celebrates musicals.  Maybe Russians are more accustomed to abrupt changes in the political climate than those in the West, which may help explain why De Niro has had trouble accepting a free election that happened over a year and a half ago.  Or is he just emissary of the unofficial censorship from the left?  Here’s a simple observation:  Why do reviews of plays, books, art, concentrate so heavily on divining an author’s politics, real or imagined—and passing judgment on them, instead of discussing the work itself?  Have we become a nation not of art aficionados, but of inspectors patrolling the slippery slope of political correctness?  Within the last year the BAM production of the Flemish director Ivo van Hove’s conflicted dramatic interpretation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, a novel he shamefully admires—but without him, without his standing in the artistic community, without his being native to another country, where would Objectivism, akin to Conservatism, have a chance to be contemplated on stage in this country?  Chekhov, of course, talks about the need to shift cultural perspectives through his character Konstantin, in The Seagull.  Perhaps, he is right to impute that a cultural collision is necessary to shake up prevailing artistic norms.

Ivanov (Mironov), the title character in the new Theatre of Nations production, brought to the U.S. as part of the Cherry Orchard Festival, would never be deemed politically correct, much less producible, if written by an American playwright, although the current settings and costumes are contemporary. This may upset the paradigm of understanding the playwright’s work in terms of needing to see him as part of Old Russia: fading, if grandiose; but Ivanov himself, plagued by financial crises and alcohol abuse, a dying wife he doesn’t love (Chulpan Khamatova), and a young woman he is attracted to (Elizaveta Boyarskaya) would also not win him much sympathy with the #MeToo Movement or raise much interest in the shrinking men’s market (a work with similar themes by Derek Ahonen of the Amoralists, The Qualification of Douglas Evans, did not make much impact in 2014).  Such a character is not unknown in the American vernacular, however; he’s just more akin to others who have had their day, like those in the writings of John Updike and John Cheever.  All of the actors—part of Ivanov’s family and social circle–need mention, though, because of their stamina throughout the evening (three hours and ten minutes, performed in Russian with English surtitles) and the complexity of their performances: Viktor Verzhbitskiy, Igor Gordin, Natalya Pavlenkova, Dmitry Serdyuk, Alexander Novin, Marianna Shults, Olga Lapshina, Aleksey Kalinin, Ilya Orshanskiy, Irina Gordina, and Andrey Andreev

Oleg Golovko’s settings for the play also inadvertently recall the American 1970’s—his decor is at first heavy, unmatched patterns and drywall, perhaps brutalist, reminiscent of paneling and prefab, pre-Martha Stewart. Elsewhere he recreates a dacha lit by candlelight (and sparklers), a utilitarian doctor’s office devoid of personality, except overseen by a large kitschy painting of a German Shepherd, and the back room of a wedding hall—the amplified lighting, using fluorescents, is by Denis Solntsev. Chekhov shows that Ivanov is despondent (“When I’m depressed, I fall out of love with you”), but that seems like a bad excuse for his transgressions.  Audiences are not asked to ascertain a minimal production, though; a current, cost-effective mode. The cast has also apparently been given time to move beyond telegraphing and shortcuts, to think past the next line or plot point.  They work naturalistically to achieve independent characters, arriving at fullness: the condition of entropy just before chaos.  Whether the credit should be given to the actors or to the director, Timofey Kulyabin, or all, the emphasis rests on accumulations of behaviors, quite detailed. Examples include the twirling of a plate on a tabletop or clapping the hands of a partner in a birthday dance, or doing chin-ups, or kissing hands—the depth of specific touches may be missed by the audience and some might never be known.  Whether they have been improvised or consciously blocked, Stanislavski is noting them.

Evgeny Mironov’s appraisal of art as above politics registers with a purity to American ears who have come to believe that art is only politics.  Internationally, there is much to be learned regarding fine art from other cultures, beyond the American status quo.  Domestically, though, art is not politically balanced and has been appropriated propagandistically.  There is work to see, but the American theatremaker has largely been abandoned by the right—to the point where his or her art can be demonized, if it can even be visualized at all.  During the time of year where lists are compiled about winning dramatic works, accolades are one-sided and incomplete.  Theatre does not have a Regnery, the publisher of Conservative books, to provide any kind of balance.  To a liberal, that may come as a relief on different levels, but it does not show the world the true range of possibilities for finding our own Chekhov, no matter his or her political affiliation.  One way Americans can start to confront this matter, as the #MeToo Movement raises its voice, is to allow someone, like Jon Voight, who, incidentally, played Trigorin in The Seagull on Broadway, to be part of the Tony ceremonies next year.  Part of becoming nonpartisan regarding the arts–and coming to a reckoning with the past–is to acknowledge how partisan they actually are.  

Update, 6/18:  In an apparent answer to Robert De Niro’s Tony performance,  Chris Perez, in The New York Post reported, on June 18, that a Trump supporter tried to disrupt the curtain call of the musical Bronx Tale, directed by Mr. De Niro, on June 16, by standing to display a  Trump 2020 campaign flag.

© by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.

(Photos by Sergei Petrov–from top: Ensemble;  l. to r. Chulpan Khamatova and Dmitry Serdyuk; Elizaveta Boyarskaya and Evgeny Mironov; Ivanov Evgeny Mironov at table.)

 

‘TWELFTH NIGHT’ AT THE POLONSKY SHAKESPEARE CENTER–FROM THE ACTING CO. AND DELAWARE’S RESIDENT ENSEMBLE PLAYERS (REP) (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Maria Aitken takes the edge off overwrought Summer Shakespeare with a droll, whimsical Twelfth Night from the Acting Co. in a co-production with Delaware’s Resident Ensemble Players (REP), now playing until May 27, at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn (an essential theatrical destination, which seems to transfigure for each new presentation).  Her light surrealism sets Illyria in the Thirties, maybe in California, probably not on the Adriatic and far away from traditional England or Trump’s America. What matters to her is the hair, the wigs (which go uncredited):  bouffants, bobs, punk dreadlocks, pageboys, coiffures piled high and on the verge of Versailles.  The costume designer, Candice Donnelly, provides veils, tams, netting and curlers, party hats, berets, and kerchiefs; variegated livery, period golf wear, ruffles at the neck, asymmetrical gowns, and old-fashioned black swimsuits–she even makes an allowance for nothing at all.  Some might surmise that to dwell on costumes is another way of saying that there isn’t much going for the show, but here, Shakespeare is what happens when the audience is looking the other way. 

The play has been called the finest of the bard’s comedies, and Aitken’s may be one director who can actually prove that, by insisting on lucidity–she does not clutter her stage, for example, for all her satirical idiosyncrasies, and the design, by Lee Savage, is white and clear, a little beat up, maybe a deck on a ship or the villa of a Hollywood star, a mystical swirl of eternity at the apex.  The backdrop, virtually a map, is as vivid and impersonal as the screensaver of a Dell computer.  As Viola, the page searching for her lost brother after a shipwreck, Susanna Stahlmann reminds of a young Isabella Rossellini—she’s giving a classic portrait, placing a knee up on a bench to intimidate or intimate virility or putting hands on hips to imitate manliness.  At the other extreme is Michael Gotch, as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a role typically seen as secondary—however, in this Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole incarnation, he is the one through which the audience realizes it can laugh.  Gotch is thin and inventive, always in the moment, on, maybe like a Robin Williams.  Aitken and her cast are looking at what’s really comic in a Shakespeare comedy, such a Sir Tobey Belch (Lee E. Ernst) line: “She’s a beagle,” insulting and whacked out at the same time. 

The simplicity of the textual structure is allowed to be contemplated, without unnecessary stress from too much music, ham acting, and societal comment.  The director’s specific detail in scene work, one including a fake pheasant, for instance, highlights the lunacy. By the end of the evening, she will have brought in the kazoos and ukuleles, even guns and terrorists; the cold white scenic design, sometimes like reflective tiles, with bright lighting, by Philip S. Rosenberg, can project fissures of red and blue.  Shakespearean comedy is not often seen so unconventionally, with secrets of the interpretation, known only to the auteur, kept intact, yet a love of absurd eccentricity and lyricism on the verge of slapstick are apparent; very dry, of course.  Elizabeth Heflin, as Olivia, seems Californian, an American with a pioneering spirit–a self-assured woman who might roll the dice for love in the city of angels or star in a silent-era two-reeler.  Stephen Pelinski may be the one Malvolio who has found a way to recite his speeches without eliciting impatience.  Others in the cast are also actors to take note of, if they are not known to readers already: Kate Forbes, John Skelley, Michael Stewart Allen, Hassan El-Amin, Mathew Greer, Mic Matarrese, Antoinette Robinson, Joshua David Robinson, and Mickey Theis.  They add credence to the idea that the best way to enjoy Shakespeare is to not think about him . . . or Donald Trump . . .  or the number 1 train on weekends . . . or the rain.

Copyright © 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.   

Photos: The New York Times; University of Delaware.  All rights reserved.      

Twelfth Night

Directed by Maria Aitken 

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262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY, 11217

 

About The Acting Company

Founded in 1972 by John Houseman and Margot Harley, The Acting Company (Ian Belknap, Artistic Director; Elisa Spencer-Kaplan, Executive Director) is “the major touring classical theater in the United States” (The New York Times) and the only professional repertory company dedicated to the development of classical actors. The Company has reached 4 million people in 48 states and 10 foreign countries with its productions and education programs, and has helped to launch the careers of some 400 actors, including Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone, Rainn Wilson, Jesse L. Martin, Keith David, Frances Conroy, David Ogden Stiers, Harriet Harris, David Schramm, Jeffrey Wright and Hamish Linklater. Over a dozen commissioned new works and adaptations include plays by Lynn Nottage, Tony Kushner, John Guare, David Mamet, Beth Henley, Rebecca Gilman, Maria Irene Fornes, William Finn, Ntozake Shange, and more. The Company received a special Tony Honor for Excellence in Theater in 2003 for its contributions to the American theater.

About Resident Ensemble Players

The Resident Ensemble Players (REP) is a professional theatre company located at the University of Delaware, headed by Producing Artistic Director Sanford (Sandy) Robbins. The REP offers frequent productions of outstanding classic, modern and contemporary plays performed in a wide variety of styles that celebrate and demonstrate the range and breadth of its resident acting company.  The REP is committed to create future audiences for live theatre by offering its productions at low prices that enable and encourage the attendance of everyone in the region, regardless of income.

Press: Sam Parrott, Blake Zidell & Associates

CHEKHOV: ‘PLATONOV’ FROM BLESSED UNREST (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

When the eye-catching actress, Becca Schneider, tells Platonov, the title character in Chekhov’s first unfinished drama (1878), he needs to “slow down,” she’s explaining the directorial concept of Jessica Burr’s production from Blessed Unrest, now playing at the New Ohio Theatre until March 11.  The momentum of her version is fast, and for a while, the speed, the mobility and the fluidity, along with the loose physicality of the actors, seems like a way to bring the early modernist playwright into the postmodernist world of downtown theatre–the way Eric Tucker did for Shakespeare, in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, as an example. Platonov gets away from Burr, though, because Chekhov depends on connectivity, not fragments, in a way that Shakespeare’s mostly second-hand materials don’t. She emphasizes mechanics, and ultimately, the pace seems like a refutation of this supremely empathetic author.

One miscalculation may have been underestimating how much people want to listen to him—they want to see a significant Platonov (even if its five hours are cut), not a literalized one or one that feels truncated, especially given the potential of the cast (of multiple races and ethnicities, playing multiple parts, some across genders). Probably most notable are a tantalizing Irina Abraham, as Anna, a general’s daughter, and the handsome Darrell Stokes in the title role, a womanizer, subdued by female vigilante justice.  Many could argue that he is a product of soul-destroying ennui, but this production, apparently politicized,  has been timed to echo the #MeToo movement and the Harvey Weinstein case—in a reductionist assault, perhaps too gratified in taking Chekhov apart and setting him whirling. 

The author, however, may have simply been learning to tell a story and creating a multidimensional world, not a legal brief, just as Ibsen did not think A Doll’s House was a feminist tract. What happens to Burr is that her center gets lost—the play arrives at one hundred minutes (the translation, with slangy colloquialisms, is by Laura Wickens) and the piece is skeletal, missing the connective tissue of character development and builds.  Working in the round, the director uses a minimal set, by Matt Opatrny, based on vodka bottles, chess pieces, and an oriental rug, and her staging is especially physicalized; her Russia, spinning and kaleidoscopic, can’t be still and can’t be bored. The last moments of the play aren’t prepared for, and they don’t shock or surprise in the way that a well-directed version of The Seagull can. Perhaps to contemplate the play, we have to comprehend the playwright—understanding his own time and his own purposes more fully–not our own–in slow motion.

Platonov by Anton Chekhov

with

Irina Abraham, Ashley N. Hildreth, Javon Q. Minter,
Becca Schneider, Darrell Stokes, Taylor Valentine

Production Stage Manager
Darielle Shandler

Set Design
Matt Opatrny, Teddy Jefferson, Anna Alisa Belous

Costume Design
Sarah Thea

Lighting Design
Miriam Nilofa Crowe

Sound Design
Fan Zhang

Dramaturg
Jessi Blue Gormezano

Fight Choreographer & Assistant Director
Ben Peterson

Publicist
PR-ism, Kamila Slawinski & Ivan Talijančić

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© by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Production Photos: Blessed Unrest

 

ADRIENNE KENNEDY: ‘HE BROUGHT HER HEART BACK IN A BOX’ (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

For those who have lived in the South, Adrienne Kennedy’s He Brought Her Heart Back in a Boxfrom Theatre for a New Audiencenow playing, until February 11,  at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, offers the recognizable.  Donald Holder’s lighting captures a Georgia morning–where there are perhaps some of the most beautiful mornings in the world–and the period drama, set in the 1940s, does not exploit racial violence (Christopher Barreca’s unit set features the utilitarian chairs, stairs, and doorway of a high school). Kennedy’s two-character play, written using the ambiguous imagery of a poet, is made up almost entirely of monologues, and the director, Evan Yionoulis, allows the audience to listen to the young actors, to want to listen and watch their fine abilities, which includes Tom Pecinka’s splendid singing. Kennedy’s story is as old-fashioned as the plot of an operetta:  a mixed-race schoolgirl (Juliana Canfield) accepts a declaration of love from a young white opera singer (Pecinka), whose family has helped build their town.  He hopes she will come with him to marry in Harlem and live in New York and Paris–but to tell more would give away too much. What can be said is that the characters are allowed innocence, unrushed, and history.  “Dear Little Café,” from Noël Coward’s Bittersweet, is heard during the evening (the score was written in 1929, although a movie was made in 1940). When this correspondent lived in Georgia, in the early 1980s, two older maiden sisters, one a lawyer, helped the poor and black in the town do their taxes, free of charge—one favorite topic of conversation for them was speaking of the beautiful voice of American soprano Geraldine Farrar.  Jazz, of course, was not the only song of the South, despite the fact that its birthplace was New Orleans, yet the great form is what is stereotypically heard on soundtracks.  Eudora Welty also talks about hymns and popular classical music in her autobiography, One Writer’s Beginnings, where, as a child, she listened, and “moved” to:  “Overture to Daughter of the Regiment,”  “Selections from The Fortune Teller,”  “Kiss Me Again,” and  “Gypsy Dance from Carmen,” “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and “When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam.”

 

In an interview in BOMB magazine, with Suzan-Lori Parks, Kennedy explains that she writes “little scenes” about “what’s going on in life,” yet her Georgia contains “contradictions,” which is how she describes her white grandfather in her poem “Forget”:  He  sent her African-American sister and half-sister “to college, bought them beautiful things/but still maintained the distance. They called him by his surname and he never shared a meal with them.” Part of the dilemma, in talking about the South today, remains its contradictions and “complexities” (another word that Kennedy uses in “Forget”), ones that may not be present in other areas of the country, at least not to the same degree.  Even Southern literature is a tangle of styles: gothic (Flannery O’Connor) and mythic (William Faulkner), literary historic (Alice Walker) and real (Tennessee Williams), comic (Mark Twain) and tragic (William Styron), and ideological (Thomas Jefferson) and MGM (Margaret Mitchell), to give a sampling.  Yet, someone from outside the South may believe the media: that its inhabitants are dishonest, bigoted, deplorable or worse: stereotypes repeated until they appear to be true.  Kennedy, fortunately, continues to hope, for what can be found in He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, is the aspiration to live side by side. Activists may not want the South to have had its past, but instead of attempting to erase it, to take down Confederate monuments and change state flags (South Carolina did this after the Charleston church shootings of Dylann Roof), Kennedy places markers within her work, which may be used for explication:  the rise of Nazism, for example, or Segregation, the underworld in The Aeneid, and even the mass murder of the Huguenots.  Patrick J. Buchanan has written that, “Since the ’60s, there has arisen an ideology that holds that the Confederacy was the moral equivalent of Nazi Germany and those who fought under its battle flag should be regarded as traitors or worse,” yet Kennedy does not seem to be advocating for retaliation, although she may be inferring that she is watching, noting.   Likewise, her opinion of the industrial North is also not without suspicion, for this is where the overt continental violence in her play takes place.  While historians may decide to write on the continued complexities of agrarianism vs. modernity in the history of America’s South and North, what theatregoers will observe, in He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, is how such complex subject matter can find this kind of formal clarity and simplicity:  as simple as a Georgia morning.  

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved. Photo (top to bottom): The New York Times; Bob Shuman 

ADRIENNE KENNEDY’S

HE BROUGHT HER HEART BACK IN A BOX

Cast

Juliana Canfield (Kay)

Tom Pecinka (Chris)

Creative Team

Adrienne Kennedy (Playwright)

Evan Yionoulis (Director

Christopher Barreca (Set Designer)

Montana Levi Blanco (Costume Designer)

Donald Holder (Lighting Designer)

Justin Ellington (Composer & Sound Designer

Austin Switser (Video Designer

Press: Blake Zidell

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