Category Archives: Bob’s Theatre Reviews

BYUNGKOO AHN: ‘13 FRUITCAKES’ (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Byungkoo Ahn’s distillation of the lives of Leonardo da Vinci, Alan Turing, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Hans Christian Andersen, among others, works so effectively—and is so different from other documentary biographies–because the director and author is more interested in high art than formulaic journalism or encyclopedic profiles.  His 13 Fruitcakes, which recently played at La MaMa for four days–June, 13-16–employs aria and poetry; couture and dance en pointe, never decadently, and always with understated, impeccable taste.  The show’s thirteen musical vignettes (a fraction of the material that could be chosen, of course) are replete with crisp original songs (typically classically oriented, with musical settings that can also recall Stephen Sondheim, Philip Glass, and even the American Old South), composed by Gihieh Lee–in a virtual embarrassment of riches, the  lyrics are by Lorca, Wilde, Whitman and other Queer poets. Intricate video arts, using period photographs and contemporary illustrations, are by Jui Mao, Julie Casper Roth, and Kevin Price; electronic music is from the Los Angeles Laptop Collective and the set designer is Jung Griffin; the lighting design is by Erin EarleFleming.

Watch the production’s care regarding color (the opulent costumes are by Leon Wiebers, and memorably include striking tunics–his luxurious palette contains deep green and muted orange, cream, and neon yellow–feather headdresses, punk wigs, top hats, and even angel’s wings.  The visual richness is never mindlessly flamboyant or even excessively sexualized—in fact, part of Ahn’s point seems to be that gay love, often stereotyped as jaded, is based on innocence, not lasciviousness. From a historical perspective, as opposed to a psychological one, he apparently finds LGBTQ+ love simply an alternate response to life.  Of course, a self-identifying Eleanor Roosevelt would be the best kind of validation of her passions,  as well as primary-source records for the others–simply an impossibility–but this has nothing to do with the injustices made against the communities, as a whole, in the ancient world, the Sixth century, the East and West or, of course, now. (13 Fruitcakes is performed in Korean with supertitles—but some of the wording can be missed because of length, timing, density, or even because what goes on elsewhere, on stage, seems more vital).

The performance, an object of rare, complex and dark beauty, which unfurls from a dressing room, presents the superbly talented leading South Korean drag artist, ‘More’ Zimin, a thin, muscular dancer-singer-follies girl-lip-syncher Christ figure, who plays the central character, named Orlando (it is no coincidence that Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West also enter the narrative). He “encourages people to start fighting against social injustice and oppression by telling them stories about great gay ancestors.” The impressive vocal talents of Jayoung Jeong are also on display, as well as a surprising, anachronistic modern nightclub singer.  The young supporting cast, of eleven, “the Fruitcakes,” include Jiung Kim, Kyungrok Kim, Gihyun Lee, Junghoun Jun, Nayeon Kim, Hyunhee Kim, Yoojung Park, Jieun Lee, Bookyung Chung, Daegwon Hong, and Joowon Shin.

The evening, part of the Stonewall 50 at La Mama, begins in 1969, after the death of Judy Garland, a time especially resonant in this reviewer’s mind, because he was drawn to begin reading The Wizard of Oz, days before her suicide; apparently, the time was also important to others: “I did research on the Stonewall Riots,” Ahn writes, “people say somehow the air that day was different from before, even though it was a routine police raid, and on this occasion they did not submit to the police.” Wanting to recreate that “different air” for the stage, perhaps the stirring winds of change, Ahn has stayed at La MaMa, a living museum to the avant-garde, for two short a time—yet his work and activism, will be remembered, in chiaroscuro.

© 2019 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Photos: Theo Cote

13 FRUITCAKES

Director/Playwright: Byungkoo Ahn Composer: Gihieh Lee LA Laptop Collective Artistic Director: Martin Herman Music Director: Hanul Chae SARC General Director: Jayoung Jeong Associate Director: Kimun Kim Choreographer: Jaseung Won Open call curator/Video Arts Head: Inhye Lee Video Arts: Juyi Mao, Julie Casper Roth, Kevin Price Set Designer: Jung Griffin Lighting Designer: Erin EarleFleming Costume Designer: Leon Wiebers Production Assistant: Samara E. Huggins Orchestrator: Jiwon Hahn & Gihieh Lee Producer: Sujin Kim Gayakeumist: Rami SeoPianist: Yeseul Yoon, Eunbin Kim The Los Angeles Laptop Collective Martin Herman, Alysia Michelle James, Cameron Johnston, Tobias Banks, Glen Gray, Sean Martineau Jones, David García Saldaña, Seth Shafer

Tiger Party Interactive Agency Singing Actors Repertory Company Orlando: More Zimin Mighty Orlando: Jayoung Jeong Fruitcakes: Jiung Kim, Kyungrok Kim, Gihyun Lee, Junghoun Jun, Nayeon Kim, Hyunhee Kim, Yoojung Park, Jieun Lee, Bookyung Chung, Daegwon Hong, Joowon Shin

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SEAN O’CASEY: ‘THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS’ AT IRISH REPERTORY THEATRE (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

The Plough and the Stars, by Sean O’Casey, is an inflammatory play, which insulted the families of those who died in the 1916 Easter Rising and started a riot at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre on February 9, 1926. Because of the upheaval, W. B. Yeats felt that theatregoers  had “disgraced themselves again,” recalling the Synge incitement during the Abbey’s 1907 production of The Playboy of the Western World, which offended public morals, with its theme of patricide and mention of female undergarments (Charlie Corcoran’s set design—costumes are by Linda Fisher and David Tosher; lighting design is by Michael Gottlieb –for The O’Casey Cycle, now playing at Irish Repertory until June 22, also makes use of hanging underclothing, as part of  its depiction of Dublin’s tenement life). What outraged the audience, in the O’Casey play, was a line, spoken by Rosie Redmond, a prostitute (Sarah Street), who states that “Bloodshed is a cleansing and a sanctifying thing, and the nation that regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood.”  Theatregoers might contest the sentiment even today, which is the antithesis of the point being made by one of the play’s leading characters, a young wife named Nora (Clare O’Malley), who has recently burned a private document (in his work, O’Casey freely references previous writers of drama, songs, poetry, and political thinking; in these cases, he is clearly alluding to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler).  “There’s no woman gives a son or a husband to be killed,” Nora believes, “if they say it, they’re lyin’, lyin’ against God, Nature, an’ against themselves.”

Yeats’s reaction (as well as Lady Gegory’s) to O’Casey’s next play, the horrific WWI, antiwar drama The Silver Tassie (1928), did not cite provocation as a reason for its rejection, after which O’Casey emigrated to England; Yeats called the work “wallpaper,” meaning that the plotline was too diffuse.  The structural trend, however, is already apparent in The Plough and the Stars, which argues for two central characters, among a large cast, in architecturally diverse settings (a directorial challenge, along with the inherent mayhem of the text and the simultaneous scene writing).  In John Ford’s 1937 film version (the director, who disowned the picture after RKO reshot scenes it claimed too political), focuses on a young wife (Barbara Stanwyck), whose husband  fights in the Irish Citizen Army (O’Casey is given screenwriting credit, along with Dudley Nichols, who also successfully adapted Liam O’Flaherty’s  The Informer for Ford). Aside from American stars Stanwyk and Preston Foster, original actors from the Abbey’s production of the play are used in the film, although the Protestant fruit seller, Bessie Burgess (Eileen Crowe), is reduced to a cameo. At Irish Rep, however, the role re-emerges with force. Theatregoers may not recognize Maryann Plunkett when she appears (she also plays Juno in Irish Rep’s production of Juno and the Paycock), but she burns with anger from her first words and is, in fact, a disrupter:  Perhaps you’ve even seen her today in a homeless person or drunk—someone you wouldn’t make eye contact with.  She knows the other characters are “Complainin’ about Bessie Burgess singin’ her hymns at night, when she has a few up,” but Plunkett rivets and takes viewers off guard because she can go so deep, so quickly, so unmercifully, brewing an emotional storm.  The experience may be like watching Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale for the first time, and realizing what an important role Paulina is, or perhaps like viewing Kari Sylwan at the start of Bergman’s Face to Face. The rest of the cast can take care of themselves, though, with special mention for Ed Malone as one of the wounded Irish Volunteers, Lieutenant Langon, and includes exciting names audiences may have been learning about for the first time, through the Irish Rep season.  Besides those already mentioned, the evening includes: Una Clancy, Terry Donnelly, Rory Duffy, Meg Hennessy, John Keats, Robert Langdon, Michael Mellamphy, Adam Petherbridge, James Russell, and Harry Smith.

 

Along with the power and technical accomplishment of Plunkett’s performance, American audiences and students of drama, who may not automatically think to attend Irish theatre, might contemplate how Ibsen influenced O’Casey (besides the two aforementioned works, The Wild Duck should also be included), as well as Strindberg and his Mummy from The Ghost Sonata , Shakespeare’s Ophelia and Lady Macbeth, and, Chekhov’s The Three Sisters (as an example of the importance of Russian Realism to the work), among other inspirations. Conversely, they might be intrigued also by how American theatre has been influenced by The Plough and the Stars. The director of this production, Charlotte Moore, would know better, but there seems to be something of the Tennessee Williams drama A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur here; a work she knows well, having been in the original 1979 production.  Although there has been mention of O’Casey’s impact on Williams previously, what seems concretely comparable are the settings, both in crowded apartment buildings among the lower classes, in two industrial cities:  Dublin and St. Louis (William’s play is set in the thirties, during the same time period as The Glass Menagerie). Both highlight the stories of two women, and interestingly, each features an invalid, a neighbor, who comes to be cared for.  Additionally, in the dramas, a young woman tries to hold on to a lover who is drifting away, and another is especially religious.  The Plough and the Stars, as well, reflects a swirl of contemporary American issues, such as Socialism, Nationalism, Pacifism and resistance—it should not be forgotten that the U.S. is currently involved in three wars, with fear that a fourth may break out with Iran, yet who is writing about them in a theatrical climate that values constant entertainment over art; in a theatrical climate that values identity politics over people? New York’s Irish Rep sees in O’Casey what Yeats did not—a talent who should never have been given the opportunity to get away.  Lady Gregory came to believe that.

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Copyright © by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Production photo: Irish Rep

SEAN O’CASEY: ‘THE SHADOW OF A GUNMAN’ AT IRISH REP–NOW THROUGH JUNE 22 (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Bob Shuman

In The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), now being splendidly revived at Irish Repertory Theatre, until June 22, Sean O’Casey describes his central character, a poet named Donal Davoren, as “attracted in thought towards the moon.”  The same might be said for director Ciarán O`Reilly, who has worked so well under cover of night—his 2009 production of The Emperor Jones was a revelation in pitch black, true to an experimental O’Neill, whom many had never envisaged.  The Shadow of a Gunman, set in Dublin in 1920 (one of O’Casey’s three early plays, collectively called the Dublin Cycle, all of which are being presented by Irish Rep this season), inhabits an overcrowded mise en scène, following daily life in a tenement, which does not allow for differentiation between “bombast and bombs,” to use a phrase from Kenneth Tynan. O’Casey also sees “ideological extremis” as a “spreading stain that distorts idealism and destroys individuals,” a point biographer Patrick McGilligan has made in comparing the overlapping themes of the playwright’s work and the late films of Alfred Hitchcock (the movie director’s early screen version of Juno and the Paycock–his roots were Irish–was made in 1930, and he continued to think highly of O’Casey’s characters, even if the two did not always get along). 

In the new production, there is excitement in seeing Michael Mellamphy playing the spoon peddler, Seumas Shields, the tenant who owes eleven weeks of back rent, a man caught in a country’s political mechanisms (which only allow for cowards or the annihilated).  He’s a roaring Bert Lahr (“[the Irish people] treat a joke as a serious thing and a serious thing as a joke”), an absurd Ionesco cipher, who perfectly matches O’Casey’s intentions: “a heavily built man of thirty-five . . . in him is frequently manifested the superstition, the fear and malignity of primitive man.” His roommate, a sensitive Shelley wannabe, writing in an ancient country of poets, now a radicalized population, is a strange selection for Shields to lodge with. Davoren (James Russell, a dead ringer for a young Sam Waterston, in both looks and voice) does not seem to be much of a bard—but, more importantly, he apparently does not have any money, either. They are Felix and Oscar at the revolution, an Odd Couple, on the way to a beheading. Their housing is packed, with singers and drunks and gossips and itinerants; their lives so slack and slovenly, there is no way of differentiating between minutia and danger, for the characters or the audience.  Such blurring might have been of interest to Hitchcock, in terms of precedent and suspense creation—North by Northwest, for example, is also the unclarified story of a misidentified innocent man involved with a compromised heroine. In The Shadow of a Gunman, the young working girl, Minnie Powell (an unpretentious Meg Hennessy), is romantic as well as mixed up;  confused enough to believe that one of the roommates is an IRA hit man.

The second act, set under lighting designer Michael Gottlieb’s evocative moonlight (the scenic design is by Charlie Corcoran, with costumes by Linda Fisher and David Toser), is right for the Romantics, but piercing enough for the play’s stark militaristic underpinnings. When people say they like theatrical realism, this is what they are talking about—highly idiomatic writing, full and specific, even repeating.  O’Casey weaves in the mystical and paranormal, too, besides Catholic iconography, by the discussion of supernatural wall tappings (in Juno and the Paycock, one of the characters is involved in theosophy). David Lean, another famous director, also tried to juxtapose Ireland in dark and light, in romanticism and realism, in fantasy and tragedy, in a story set during the same historical period (an adaptation of Madame Bovary, really), only to produce a bomb of the cinematic kind (Freddie Young’s photography did win the Oscar, however).  Ryan’s Daughter (1970) was too expansive, too big for its story and went into filming without Marlon Brando, maybe someone who could have saved it.  Whether or not the movie has achieved greater estimation over the years, Lean, on reflection, thought it might have worked if he had added a single line for his young heroine, in Robert Bolt’s screenplay:  “Rosie, you’re looking at the world through rose-colored glasses now.”  Maybe a harsher insight to come by is that it is the rare Irish person who could ever see Ireland as rose-colored, even in love, given its history.  Although Casey explains, “The Irish people are very fond of turning a serious thing into a joke,” he refutes the idea in The Shadow of a Gunman, instead considering, along with O’Reilly, the dark costs of war and fervor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE SHADOW OF A GUNMAN by Sean O’Casey

Directed by Ciarán O`Reilly

With

James Russell, Una Clancy,  Terry Donnelly,  Rory Duffy, Meg Hennessy,  John Keating,  Robert Langdon Lloyd, Ed Malone,  Michael Mellamphy, and Harry Smith

Scenic design by Charli e Corcoran, costume design by Linda Fisher and David Toser, lighting design by Michael Gottlieb, sound design by Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab, and properties by Deirdre Brennan.

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Photos: (cast) Carol Rosegg; Tripadvisor.com

SEAN O’CASEY: ‘JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK’ AT IRISH REPERTORY THEATRE (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock is a hard and beautiful play, and Neil Pepe’s staging, at Irish Rep, is lovely, as one of its characters, Joxer (a Faginlike wingman, played by John Keating) might say. The production is a soft interpretation, though, right for an American moment, where long-term unemployment is accompanied by cell phones, flat screen TVs, and food stamps—not a fierce enough reflection on the devastation with which the playwright (O’Casey lived from 1880 to 1964) ruins his characters. 

The clashing colors and pristine, hanging laundry of Charlie Corcoran’s tenement setting, for the tragi-comedy, are reminders of gauche social class, but they don’t go far enough to artistically render the economic collapse of the Irish at the beginning of the twentieth century. Maybe producers and designers, who would never allow urine fumes to waft through the audience, as did a recent French production of Ionesco Suite at BAM, believe it’s too disturbing to present much beyond the bad taste of an underclass; but, nevertheless, the creators are manipulating history mendaciously.  A 1989 Juno and the Paycock, from the Gate Theatre, in Ireland, took a much harsher tack.  Frank Rich described the set in the following, and the audience could see why the characters would borrow to claw their way out:  “The tenement in O’Casey’s play belongs to the Boyle family of Dublin, during the Civil War days of 1922. The home’s crumbling walls are caked with slime, as if sewage had been flushed through the living room. The windowpanes, cracked and sooty, are framed by the cobweb remains of lace curtains, while the meager furniture has long since spilled its guts.” 

Pepe dilutes or Americanizes his Juno and the Paycock (the drama is being performed as part of its important Sean O’Casey Season, which runs until May 25) by treating the work as if it is a middle-class play, as opposed to a working-class one, or more directly, as one about abject poverty.  As ‘Captain’ Jack, the “paycock,” the loafer, the idler on the dole, Ciaran O’Reilly, with hand in his vest pocket, leaning back on his heels, appears too stolid in the role, perhaps, out of Ibsen; he’s not a bluffer or con or strutter, from which he gets his nickname.  The Paycock actually seems akin to Alfred P. Doolittle in Pygmalion–O’Casey and Shaw became friends—who is horrified at having been roped into joining the bourgeoisie. Juno (Maryann Plunkett) is a character who doesn’t make sense in the context of today’s society—if she was ever anything other than an ideal.  Feminism has made it clear that women are not saints or martyrs—she and her daughter (Sarah Street) can not even be said to be representative personae of Ireland anymore, after divorce and pro-choice legalization. These are strong characters (and characterizations) to be booed in the public square.

Fine work also comes from the Boyle’s severely injured son (Ed Malone)–Juno and the Paycock is a war play, written by a top-tier playwright, both facts often overshadowed. The suitors of Mrs. Boyle’s daughter create clear, tiny portraits of cowardice (James Russell and Harry Smith) and Terry Donnelly works to give a glimpse of art as it emerges from the school of hard knocks. Perhaps one of the finest roles in the play is that of a woman who loses her son to the revolutionary movement.  Hers carries an aching monologue, here performed, unsentimentalized, out of earth and sorrow, by Una Clancy.  Even in a production that normalizes despair, O’Casey’s keening shrouds the eyes in mist.

© 2019 by Bob Shuman.  All rights Reserved.

Production photos: Carol Rosegg

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NOW ABOUT THESE WOMEN: STRINDBERG, POST-BERGMAN—FARBER/ALI/ CLARK/ULLMANNS/MORE  (REVIEWS FROM NEW YORK) ·

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Bob Shuman

The frantic sex in Yaël Farber’s adaptation of Miss Julie, directed by Shariffa Ali and retitled Mies Julie, now playing at Classic Stage Company (CSC) until March 10, provides a contrast to Liv Ullmann’s stately 2014 film version; but, in both, viewers are left staring at semen-stained underwear on the floor.  Other current Strindberg directors, like Victoria Clark and Arin Arbus, make Strindberg (1849-1912) conventional for our time—they can’t unleash him or really take him seriously, although Alf Sjöberg did so in his 1951 film on the daughter of a count who sleeps with a servant–a classic, which opens up the story, on the order of Birth of a Nation. Ullmann, who has directed A Streetcar Named Desire and can see Strindberg’s influence on Tennessee Williams, encloses her Miss Julie in an Irish castle, but her apparent lack of budget (this is really a filmed play) and two hour running time undermine Strindberg’s brevity and pace (Farber’s setting is a farmhouse in the Karoo of South Africa, and she relentlessly brings her inter-racial version in at 75 minutes; Strindberg timed the original at 90). 

Farber’s other changes include making the third character, Jean’s mother (Vinie Burrows, of the sheet-metal screech), instead of his intended, and giving the idea to start a hotel, to Julie, instead of Jean (James Udom).  Elise Kibler seems too young and unglamorous to be playing the title role, although a friend corrected me: “She’s not that young.”  She is a tomboy, though, who still seems imprinted from parochial school, and the audience is stunned by her voracious entry  into sex, not unlike when reading the reminiscences of Linn Ullmann in Unquiet (Norton, 2015, 2019), in which the author, daughter of  director Ingmar Bergman (1918-2017), himself no stranger to Strindberg (Americans may recall his production of Miss Julie, brought to BAM in 1991, starring Lena Olin  and Peter Stormare) pretends not to discuss the final part of the life of her father: as a teen, though, she describes wanting an older lover to keep “doing it” and when she comes, it surprises them both: “How sudden and violent it was, like shame, like betrayal.”

Ingmar Bergman in Stockholm, 1961

Udom kisses Kibler’s foot: “Kiss my foot; fucking do it!” (in The Dance of Death, also playing a CSC—the boot is kissed, the fetish Strindberg calls for in both scripts).  Udom continues up the lower leg, matching Julie’s boldness. Liv Ullmann, in her film, shows that Julie and Jean are really children, which is a point also repeated in Ingmar Bergman’s corpus; in fact, her Julie, Jessica Chastain, appears to be stunted in terms of her emotional growth, because of the early death of her mother:  Kibler and Udom, however, seem to be experimenting, “playing with fire” (they’ve known each other all their lives).  On the evening of the annual Freedom Day celebration, neither has ever been so fearless or unaware of the messiness of love.  Ali’s direction, at a kitchen table, with African drumming, music, and a ghost, however, may be one variation of Strindberg’s play that outdoes even the playwright, regarding misogyny: Farber’s reconstruction includes a death even more violent than that of the original. 

Although it does seem as though women artists trying to solve Strindberg, usually in their favor, are part of a current trend, the idea is actually not new.  The concept goes at least as far back as Trifles, the 1916 play, and curriculum staple,  by Susan Glaspell, which is an obvious riposte to Miss Julie, and also includes killing a canary; but here, the man in the relationship is killed, not the woman.  Arbus’s direction of The Father, in 2016, asked the audience to laugh at Strindberg, as she analyzed him in a multiracial context, rather than via the kind of homogeneous society he wrote in; nevertheless, Laurie Slade’s 2013 BBC production was compelling because it was brutal.  New York producers equate entertainment with comedy, but Strindberg, whose play The Dance of Death, about the death spiral of an aging couple—and which has influenced, in a hasty, incomplete tally, Bergman, Brook, O’Neill, Albee, and Ionesco–while not unfunny, poses an issue for casts, because without appropriate transitions (an actor has supplied the correct terminology), his sentiments can play like laff lines: “there are no real men today.” Actors may want the instant gratification of the audience response, but Strindberg is on to something deeper;  yet, this production’s vigorous actors, Cassie Beck, Richard Topol, and Christopher Innvar, using an adaptation by Connor McPherson, are only finding identifiable contemporary counterparts to Swedes of 1887; not essences.  Maybe a clearer way to say this is that they seem to be playing at their roles, but they haven’t become them yet. 

For a successful immersion into Strindberg-like characters, one might watch Bibi Andersson and Jan Malmsjo in Scenes from a Marriage, where Strindberg is quoted.  What the director, Victoria Clark, does bring to her production, which also plays until March 10 (this reviewer can recall an earlier production at CSC, in 1984) is an interest in movement, literally allowing the actors to present choreographed dances of death during the evening.

The mundane questions Linn Ullmann thinks to ask her father, Ingmar Bergman, during the end of his life, in Unquiet, A Novel, do nothing to illuminate an understanding of August Strindberg, by his foremost contemporary interpreter and literary inheritor.  Bergman only allowed Ullmann to see him for one month every summer–on a remote Swedish island, from which her mother successfully freed herself, in the sixties.  Unspoken depicts a daughter continuing to inhabit the isolated landscape, in an obsessively repetitive text, Joycean in some sentence lengths, and often banal in the points made, along with a bad copyedit (a lack of understanding of the difference between a comma and a semi-colon, is apparent, for example).  Nevertheless, her book (true in all of Linn Ullmann’s work) has been highly influenced by her father’s film techniques and writing, as well as her mother’s books, Changing and Choices.  Ullmann documents a man “vanishing,” as Bergman describes it, agreeing with Strindberg, in The Dance of Death, that “growing old is horrible,” passing his artistic legacy on to an observer, whom he might not even recognize.

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View Unquiet on Amazon

Production photos: Joan Marcus

Linn Ullmann photo: Berliner Zeitung

Press: Blake Zidell/Adriana Leshko

© by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

 

ECLIPSES GROUP THEATRE NEW YORK:  ‘HERCULES:  IN SEARCH OF A HERO’ (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Eclipses Group Theatre New York (EGTNY), a nonprofit that “serves as a cultural bridge between Greece and The United States,” is presenting  Hercules:  In Search of a Hero, inspired by EuipidesAlcestis and Hercules until February 10 at Abrons Arts Center.  The evening offers singing, dancing, film sequences, and two plays, by the “the most tragic of all poets,” translated by Demetri Bonaros, edited, and spliced together.  The texts present Hercules as he, first, makes the decision to bring back Alcestis from Hades (she has sacrificed herself for her husband) and, second, as the demigod inadvertently kills his own family, which may remind of The Bacchae.  But is the audience meant to interpret the latter act as retribution for the former?

As a cultural project for Greek artists, as well as others, Hercules appears a worthy locus for investigation and experiment, but talking beyond the community, to a larger audience, without the knowledge base of the company, viewers need ballast to stay centered in a cold theatre, in winter. According to director, Ioanna Katsarous, Hercules: In Search of a Hero is asking what heroism is in our times:  “Is an act heroic if it involves violence?  Where is the place of women in the modern mythology of heroism, and do we need to create new mythologies and eventually a new concept of the world?”  These inquiries may or may not be critical to considering Euripides, but would many actually reject the idea that women display acts of heroism? Was not Athena a warrior Goddess? Sometimes revisionism can seem only a caterpillar sentenced for not being a butterfly. Purely from a nonacademic, nonfeminist standpoint, though, the evening’s clarity, linearity, and meaning are what are at stake: we are in the past and present, as well as in the worlds of two plays. Aristotle would probably look at this piece and say that unity is lacking.  What’s a quick fix for that?  Study the ancient Greeks.

‘HERCULES:  IN SEARCH OF A HERO’

The cast includes Luisa Alarcón (Lonely Leela at HERE), Demetri Bonaros (The Caucasian Chalk Circle at Theatre at 45 Bleecker), Luke Couzens (Macbeth at Stages on the Sound), Helena Farhi (what she found at Frigid Festival), Alexandra Skendrou (Carnegie Hall, Bruno Walter Auditorium) and Taj Sood.

The production team includes Christos Alexandridis (Set Design), Christina Watanabe (Lighting Design), Marina Gkoumla (Costume Design), Alex Agisilaou (Video Design), Ioanna Katsarou (Dramaturge) and Anastasia Thanasoula (Production Stage Manager).

Performances are Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:30pm with an added show on Sunday, January 27 at 6pm. Tickets are $25 and $20 (students and seniors). Purchase at http://www.AbronsArtsCenter.org or by calling 212-598-0400. The running time is 75 minutes. For more info visit https://www.egtny.com, Like them on Facebook at /egtny (https://www.facebook.com/egtny), and follow on Twitter (https://twitter.com/EclipsesGTNY) and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/eclipsesgtny) at @eclipsesgtny.

Photos by Selim Cayligil: Luke Couzens as Hercules.

Press: David Gibbs | DARR Publicity

© by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

‘THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE’ FROM GILBERT & SULLIVAN PLAYERS (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Culturally, winter holidays and families may be more important to Arts curriculum than what is taught in schools.  During the recess, children can be exposed to The Nutcracker or Hamilton, see a movie, receive a book, or listen to show tunes—and something in them may open up.  Hopefully, they will feel surprise at what they discover, and suddenly, have a memory to savor for a lifetime.  The occasion can give a student special definition or identification, which has nothing to do with grades or societal programming, expectations or approval.  Some may even believe that such a turning point has the potential to turn the young into future ticket buyers, but that is too crass an estimation.   Building this secret place might begin with Rodgers and Hammerstein, The Lion King, or learning about the settling of New Amsterdam  or Winston Churchill.  The subject might be old-fashioned or quirky, like first reading Alice in Wonderland, going to the circus, or listening to a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. What is important is that, in a nation where most people do about the same things during a day, the mundane is broken and  individualism can emerge.

Cleverly directed, as well as conducted, by Albert Bergeret and choreographed by Bill Fabris, with ballet, comic marches, and even a nod to A Chorus Line, The Pirates of Penzance, from New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (which ran at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College from December 27-30) strikes this reviewer as a production with ingredients to inspire—coming from the kind of theatre company you always hoped was out there and getting supported. The cast, on the evening of December 28, included David Macaluso, Mathew Wages, James Mills, Carter Lynch, David Auxier, Katie Dixon, Hannah Holmes, Abigail Benke, Merrill Grant, and Angela Christine Smith, among other well-trained singers in an ensemble of pirates, police, and wards, working with good humor and high spirits. The set, an old-fashioned painted backdrop with rainbow lighting—including a Celtic ruin and the dangerous clifftops of Cornwall, England–was by Lou Anne Gilleland (scenic design) and Benjamin Weill (lights)—the period costumes come from Gail J. Wofford & Quinto Ott W.S. Gilbert’s libretto is nonsensical, using Queen Victoria as a deus ex machina, but there are moments in Shaw and Shakespeare that seem about as contrived, as well.

What is noticeable, however, is how well the tuneful music continues to captivate and flow–and here its orchestration is superior to the rather tinny, electronic hurdy-gurdy sounds used for the Joseph Papp production of 1980, starring Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt.  Maybe this is all a way of saying that this reviewer had something of an epiphany himself regarding Gilbert and Sullivan, after assuming that such a piece would be rather moldy.  But the presentation, played at a human scale, glistens like the bright, sparkling earrings worn by Dixon’s Mabel. Tell someone about the integrity of this company and perhaps recommend it to a young person looking for purpose—maybe he or she will ask the artists what they did over their holidays as kids.

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© by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.   

Production photos: Carol Rosegg   

 

FAVORITES: ‘WAITING FOR GODOT’ FROM DRUID, ‘THE PRISONER’ FROM BROOK, AND ‘NOURA’ AT PLAYWRIGHTS HORIZONS ·

By Bob Shuman

Camille Paglia has noted that Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is part of the counterfeit legacy of the American sixties—it never belonged here, along with the academic poststructuralists, who gave it currency: “the work is shot through with callow wordplay and oafish low comedy, the defense mechanism of clammy, adolescent males squirming before the complexity of biology–the procreative realm ruled by woman.”  Paglia claimed 1960s Pop Art was the real inheritance, instead—“passionate engagement” with our art, borne out of sexual experience and emergent as: “Dionysian rock ‘n’ roll, based in African-American rhythm and blues . . . our pagan ode to life.”  Hers is not the only assessment, however—Cuban-American playwright Maria Irene Fornes, who died in November, had another—one many would like to have had. She said, “The first play that amazed me (I thought it was the most powerful thing of all—not only in theatre but in painting, film, everything!) was Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.  I saw the play in Paris and I didn’t understand a word of the French, but I left the theatre as if I’d been hit over the head.  I understood every moment of it.  That play had a profound influence on me.  When I returned from Europe, I started writing.  That was 1959.”  During the 1970s and beyond, Beckett was someone to be talked about later—after a painstaking and painful anesthetizing.  The film director, Todd Solondz, at a Beckett reading, from Mabou Mines in the 1980s, noted the similarity of the set design to an Excedrin tablet—one he wished he could have taken.

Waiting for Godot 

Maybe the Irish director, Garry Hynes, from Druid Theatre Company, who brought her production of Waiting for Godot to America in October and November, as part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival at John Jay College, can give helpful advice for those feeling similar distress (she apparently considered doing the project with trepidation): actually she recommends, not asking too much of yourself, as an audience member (realize that Beckett may be refusing to give more): simply witness.

(Listen to a BBC Garry Hynes interview on Beckett.)

Godot (here pronounced GOD-oh, not Good-oh, as is more common in the States) is perhaps a metaphysical name or even a curse word, linked to other informal, maybe even nonsensical names (some believe they represent nationalities): Gogo or Estragon (French), Vladimir or Didi (Russian), Pozzo (Italian; more specifically, a Mussolini), and Lucky (American)—here, played with long hair.  These can be important to the play because Waiting for Godot may reflect a state of consciousness resultant of WWII’s destruction. As noted on a BBC4 podcast on the play, Beckett, who was part of the French resistance, waited for the end of the war in France (where subsistence might have depended on the root vegetables noted in the play: “I’ll never forget this carrot.” He most likely left Ireland because of its conservativism and wrote this play in French (and also translated his work back into English) to distance himself from an overwhelming literary influence—for whom he also acted as an assistant and researcher:  James Joyce.   Hynes also contends that there is another Irish presence to be reckoned with regarding Godot, which is not reactionary:  A play by J. M. Synge called The Well of the Saints, which also includes beggars waiting in the elements for the miracle of having their sight restored (Pozzo has lost his sight in the second half of Godot).  Once it is, they see the ugliness of the world and wish they had never been able to see. 

Marty Rea is the taller Vladimir and Aaron Monaghan is Estragon, a Laurel and Hardy team (almost out of a T.V. cartoon) performing over the abyss. Instead of a vision of the cruelty of living, based on imagery of hanging, beatings, whips, killings, and humiliation, and for all the issues that the writer refutes—plot, as an example, as well as setting–Hynes discovers a warmer Godot, maybe one that can even be said to have charm.  She appreciates clever humor in the play and makes use of pantomime, mirroring and repetition with her actors, as they walk arm in arm, march, and pose melodramatically. Peter Brook, who knew Beckett and staged his pieces—including one close in subject and characters to Waiting for Godot, “Rough for Theatre I,” recalls Beckett as less severe than his public face—actually he “loved a drink, adored a joke, and loved women.” Hynes’s production  infuses the text with Beckett’s lost Irish legacy—the colors of the white-bordered set, by Francis O’Connor, are the earth tones of Irish ceramics (although the larger effect may remind of sculpture by Henry Moore or even Seurat’s paintings–from an American point of view, the costumes give an almost Amish look to the actors.  

Perhaps Godot always needed a transition from starkness to simplicity, as opposed to the concept of proving funny actors could demonstrate how unfunny the play actually is.  Hynes also seems willing to believe that there is a story and a setting, by letting the audience see the play’s pentimento–in a play that happens nowhere, outside of time and place, there are references to the Pyrenees, yoga-posture, and Rodin’s “Thinker”–which give a sense of a generalized living place.  She lets us know that the play takes place in a post-modern somewhere as opposed to a universal nowhere.  To put it in Paglia’s terminology, the work now takes place in a “procreative realm.”

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The Prisoner

Beckett’s tree for Godot is part of David Violi’s set for The Prisoner, which played at Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, from November 24 to December 16, 2018—a woman at a December 8 talkback confirmed the impression, although Peter Brook would probably dispute the observation.  The text—the language is straightforward–by Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, concerns the punishment and repentance of a young man who must weigh his own physical crime against the moral one of his father.  

The stage is open and unhyped—and the barefoot actors and mimes (the cast is made of five:  Hiran Abeysekera, Hayley Carmichael, Herve Goffings, Omar Silva, and Kalieaswari Srinivasan) wear loose, unpretentious rehearsal clothing. 

Brook is theatre’s spiritual guru—a great artist and a fabulous promoter–who pays particular attention to simplification (perhaps he might prefer the word “elimination”) and international influence and casting. The cultural atmosphere around him has changed, however, and Americans have lost their religion—philosophical debate on theatrical themes tends to end up being about dollars and cents. Theoretically, he is essential, but Brook’s recent fables are examples of his theory, not so much daring experiments, like ones he made in his past: for example, The Tragedy of Carmen (1981), and The Mahabharata (1985).  Whether because he has made such an impact on theatrical culture (he is in his nineties) or because his storytelling methods can seem obvious today—Brook might say his work is renewing and deepening—one has to ask of the material: how differently would another director, with the same story–who never had access to Brook’s enormous experience and knowledge–actually stage it? 

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Noura

Henrik Ibsen did not see himself as a proto-feminist—he was concerned about the rights of all human beings.  This, however, has not stopped him, as well as other artists, from being employed to legitimize the writing of those less famous—and less talented.  Much of the new work around the city really should be credited to two authors—the contemporary one, owning the politics necessary for a positive review, and the older, who is considered classic. Recently, besides the dour Norwegian, Hermann Melville, Camus, Chekhov, an ancient scribe, Cocteau, and Stanley Kubrick have been featured.  The practice is not new, certainly, but it is unimaginative.  Although it is the fashion, Heather Raffo really doesn’t even need Ibsen to give ballast to her play—she has materials and options enough not to set Noura (which plays at Playwrights Horizons until December 30) at Christmas (the large tree and stunning wooden, cubby-holed set are part of Andrew Lieberman’s scenic design), with a visit from someone from her past, interjections from an ardent admirer, like a Dr. Rank, and the inclusion of others of Ibsen’s concerns—for example, early paternity. Noura is too educated, wise, and  of the world, to recall Nora, symbolically, really (Mrs. Helmer does not understand money, the law, or working in a profession—“a doll” whom, during the course of her ordeal, does not want to, and can not, play house anymore (closer, might be Ibsen’s haunted, orphanage story Ghosts). 

Noura, by contrast, is a refugee, who has lost the option of being a homebody, at least eight years before.  Yet, she continues to contribute money to a convent in Iraq.  Raffo keeps adding different colors to her tale, which don’t become muddy—she’s game to take on virtually any contemporary issue, even if she doesn’t do justice to Ibsen.  She’s a formidable actress, though (and a strong cast has been assembled around her: Dahlia Azama, Liam Campora, Matthew David, and Nabil Elouahabi), but there are holes in the script and maybe it is contradictory; Raffo also holds a tin cup for the understanding of second-wave feminists.  Ingmar Bergman thought differently about A Doll’s House, actually, and has demonstrated that the play is also Torvald’s tragedy, not just Nora’s, (and you’ll see a nasty moment from Fanny and Alexander replayed in Joanna Settle’s direction).

Those who interpret the play usually pile on the husband, forcing the character to become a villain—in the ‘70s, Sam Waterston used a crutch to gain sympathy when he was playing the part. Certainly, Ibsen has been hijacked before, it is true, but perhaps without such poetic, or passionate force.

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Happy holidays from Stage Voices!

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Photo: Fornes, Playbill; Godot, The New York Times; Noura, Joan Marcus 

‘CHASING THE NEW WHITE WHALE’ AT LA MAMA AND ‘36 JUNIPER’ AT TEATRO CIRCULO  (REVIEWS FROM NEW YORK) ·

 

By Bob Shuman

Plays are such complicated mechanisms that they usually can never be gotten right, which gives pathos to the writer and heroism to those involved in any production.  There is always Romanticism in a theatrical endeavor, and there is probably no way that drama can’t fail on some level.  Realists might say that the Internet only speeds the futility, but it is unlikely that artists will stop trying to use it—the Web can put them together, act as a research tool, and quantify trends. Development, however, the labor, not the speed of thought, can not be rushed—and may insist on being slow-moving,  even with the foreknowledge that art rarely can inspire people to action.  Two recent plays, Chasing the New White Whale, at La MaMa until December 9, and 36 Juniper, next door at Teatro Circulo—the production closed December 8–suffer the conundrum of wanting to act fast and needing to work slow. The creators have taken issues of contemporary importance: one concerning the opioid epidemic, as seen in the New England fishing industry,  and the latter, on the effect of mass shootings on the millennial generation—but they are not fully explored plays and might be called hashtag shows; riveting concepts without the substance they need.

 

Chasing the New White Whale, which appears the more authentically infused of the two is repetitive and simplistic—taking a Chicken Little approach, when there needs to be more dramatic situation and example.  The drug issues are real and devastating, as the evening clearly points out, but, artistically, Michael Gorman and Arthur Adair (the writer and director) can only see the alarm, instead of culling a kind of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the issue.  Yeats might say that what the audience is viewing is wall paper: the ambiance is in place, with hard rock music and a fishing boat that comes onto the stage—but our exposure to the nautical context is too brief and the characters are types, stuck in a skeletal, updated version of Carousel.  Maybe flash agitprop, with passages from Melville to give the production weight, is all the creators have in mind, but is awareness their only goal? 

With Trey Adams, Khari Constantine, Chris Cornwell, Mark Daly, Mike Gorman, Rae Nelson, Alan Barnes Netherton, Meridith Nicholaev, Jim Reitz, Sabrina Fara Tosti, Victoria A. Villier

36 Juniper needs more documentary input—the real voices of those who have lived through mass shootings (here, the fictionalized story concerns survivors, who were part of such an event as teens).  In Britain, a writer like David Hare, Victoria Brittain, or Gillian Slovo would likely see this concept in terms of verbatim theatre.  Writers Jessika McQueen, Shannon McInally, and Alyssa Abraham seem to understand it in terms of celluloid—the space where their story is set might be the family room of a sitcom. They devolve into discussing teen crushes, weight issues, and marriage plans–a mishmash of Agatha Christie and The Big Chill, which doesn’t help anyone think about what seem like monthly murders today, in schools and other venues where young people meet.  In 36 Juniper, psychological examinations are not mentioned, gun control isn’t argued, and the lack of followup press stories, after the shootings, goes undiscussed, as well as the effects on the community and demands for protecting youth.  Of the six characters, only one offers a way for the audience to gain understanding of mass trauma—through a self-help book.  In the play, the most immediate death is left outside in a snowstorm and an obvious person of interest, to the police investigation, goes unexamined for years . . .   

Theatremakers want banner causes, but the path to rendering them may sometimes seem as harsh to the artists, as the subject areas they want to explore.  

Directed by Greg Pragel with  Brendan Byrne, Shannon McInally, Joe Reece, Jacob Dabby, Alyssa Abraham, Jessika McQueen  

 

© by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Photos: ‘Whale’:  Carlos Cardona; ‘Juniper’: AK47 Division 

ON KAREN FINLEY IN:  ‘GRABBING PUSSY/PARTS KNOWN’ AT LA MAMA (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Karen Finley’s set design for Grabbing Pussy/Parts Known is made up of flowering plants of pink and white and pastel colors—and for an early section of one of her monologues (three are read today: one a poem, written in the hours before curtain), she speaks as a film of time-elapsed lilies and orchids break into bloom behind her.  Blown-up, they appear comic and sexual and too fragile,  which, of course, is part of what Finley is, too, but on Saturday, October 27, she finds she is someone else, as well: an artistic first responder, to the eleven deaths at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.  She is playing at La MaMa, as part of the Call to Action weekend, a gear-up for the midterms and an opportune moment to publicize her new book, from which proceeds will be given to Planned Parenthood.  People who don’t believe that all actors must be liberals, as if it’s in their DNA, instead of it being more convenient or concessionary for their careers, do believe Finley’s activism, even if they disagree with her politics. They know that, famously, she has been attacked by the right, as part of the NEA4—and she still can be brought up derisively, as “the chocolate-smeared woman,” in Ann Coulter’s writing (Finley’s Tawana Brawley-inspired monologue actually goes way back to the ‘80s, however; probably a signal that the conservative columnist needs fresh material). 

Standing in front of her script, which rests on a music stand, now, in her stylish black-and-white performance shoes, pink top, black capri pants, and an academician’s glasses—her hair is loose and red–Finley seems taller than she appears in photos:  a distinguished Commissar of the left, like a Katarina Witt–not only because she also posed for Playboy.  As a veteran of the culture wars, the actress toes the party line—and she does so aggressively, fueled by the anger that has never left her, jumping on Trump’s “bleeding eyes” remark from the 2016 presidential campaign and bringing up, exasperatedly, “the obsession” with Hillary’s deleted e-mails—“30,000 of them,” should the number have been forgotten.  Unlike Camille Paglia,  Finley’s association, her alignment with the Democrat party—and mistrust of practically everything else–may not always serve her writing—which does not seem able to get above the political; above her politics–and which in Grabbing Pussy/Parts Known, could possibly be described as Beckettian punditry.  She knows how to pace a show, though—how to start and stop her work, how to move in and out of character, which may not always make for writerly, well-made theatre.   She works with tension that can explode—and she is superior as a performer and in improvisation–even as her own plays tend to invoke others, such as: Come Back, Little Sheba; Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf; or even her own previous work, for example We Keep Our Victims Ready.  Actually, it can be difficult to think of Karen Finley in a sustained role of length, although she should have been seen, when she was younger, as Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew–as long as she could change the ending.  Perhaps she’s  really an illusionist, always impatiently waiting to direct a new mirage, although now, she states, she has been moved to use “poetic” space, where she can keep her script with her and provide minimal movement–as opposed to playing on a traditional stage, theatrically.  

Don’t think she has gone too soft, though. She’s “one angry bitch,” she cautions, “never in a good mood and that’s on a good day.” In Grabbing Pussy/Parts Known, Finley goes off on, among others, Catholic priests, Harvey Weinstein, Brett Kavanaugh, and border separations: Her speech can be sarcastic, mocking, hysterical, overly hurt, decisively Midwestern, and even like that of a Southern preacher or witch hag. Yet the person she reminds one of most is . . . Rush Limbaugh.  She’s a shock jock, it’s true:  she doesn’t need to play off anyone, and she can rant and go into stream of consciousness: “It’s my body . . . not Sessions’s . . . not Jared’s . . . This body.  You’ll not own my body.  It’s my body.  Pussies speak out!”  In her public meltdown, amid free-floating anger, desperation, black comedy, anguish, outrage and outrageousness–on the day when it is learned that eight and then eleven have been slaughtered—she confides, as everyone must:  “I’m really trying to do something with this life.”

Looking at the vases and containers on the stage, the flowers seem funereal.   Yet the show must have been conceptualized weeks, if not months, ago.  This gathering couldn’t have been what was originally intended, but Finley has been working fast and doggedly to incorporate the new reality–leaving behind the remains of an event with an entirely different meaning: a memorial.  

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

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Photo credits, from top: Notey;  La MaMa;  Shuman, Mandatory Credit: Photo by JARED WICKERHAM/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock (9948253an)
The Star of David memorials are lined with flowers at the Tree of Life synagogue two days after a mass shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, 29 October 2018. Officials report 11 people were killed by the gunman identified as Robert Bowers who has been charged with hate crimes and other federal charges .
Vigil for victims of synagogue shooting, Pittsburgh, USA – 29 Oct 2018Variety