Category Archives: Bob’s Theatre Reviews

‘THIS IS WHY WE LIVE’ AND ‘OEDIPUS, SEX WITH MUM WAS BLINDING’ (REVIEWS FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman  

A cello stands at the center of This Is Why We Live, at La Mama, which closed September 29 and Oedipus, Sex with Mum was Blinding, at BAM Fisher, which also ended on that date, two international pieces—one based on the poetry of Wisława Symborska and the other after Sophocles, with a classical and jazz score by Tilemachos Moussas & Julia Kent.  Both are directed by women and focus, primarily, on women’s themes and talents, down to a string’s last pluck and bow. 

When she won the Nobel Prize in 1996, Symborska drew the attention, and hearts, of the world with something almost as small—the modesty of her Polish life (at the time, Edward Hirsh, writing for The New York Times, described the apartment where she lived: a fifth-floor walk-up, in “a nondescript building”; the living room, “where she writes, doubles as her bedroom”).  Today (Symborska died in 2012), twenty-one of her poems are acted earnestly, in Open Heart Surgery’s Canadian- and Polish-backed production (direction is by Coleen MacPherson, and the evening is performed by Elodie Monteau (France), Alaine Hutton (Canada) and Dobrochna Zubek (Poland/Canada) to music written by Zubek. Musical development and dramaturgy are by Tatiana Judycka and Dobrochna Zubek. Set and costume design are by Helen Yung.  Lighting design is by Rebecca Picherak.  The show is played in English, Polish, and French, using subtitles.

L-R: Alaine Hutton, Elodie Monteau, Dobrochna Zubek. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Men have contributed editorially, even if they are not in the show:  the French translation is by Piotr Kaminski; English translation is by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak; Dramaturgy and translation support is by Viktor Lukawski—all of which might have confounded the poet: ”I think that dividing literature or poetry into women’s and men’s poetry is starting to sound absurd,” Symborska states in the Hirsh interview, ”Perhaps there was a time when a woman’s world did exist, separated from certain issues and problems, but at present there are no things that would not concern women and men at the same time.”  New Yorkers have been watching the crystallization of women’s theatre in the city’s arts scene, though, even when co-opting writers, such as Symborska, who might be philosophically opposed to such a conceptualization.  Her work, playful and ironic (“Don’t blame me for borrowing big words and then struggling to make them light”) does not find itself dramatically in the current production, despite the skill and dedication of the Butoh and Lecoq-trained theatremakers.  Yet her writing is reflective of the issues being explored today by women in the arts and nonfiction–eating disorders are alluded to in one segment of This Is Why We Live, for example, as one of the dancers stuffs herself with cake.  The self-deprecation, penetrating self-criticism is apparent in a piece like “Under One Small Star,” ideas which will reappear in Greek director Elli Papakonstantinou’s goth Oedipus.

My apologies to time for all the world I overlook each second /

My apologies to past loves for thinking that the latest is the first /

Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home /

Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger /

I apologize for my record of minuets to those who cry from the depths /

I apologize to those who wait in railway stations for being asleep today /

Pardon me, hounded hope, for laughing from time to time . . .

Unless it is deeply, painfully ironic, laughter is not associated with Jocasta, the wife and mother of Oedipus. If Papakonstantinou (she also conceived and wrote the immersive opera) is to be believed, the ancient queen’s self-recriminatory behavior is also well-known in the lives of women today—and is an issue for men as well. ODC Ensemble’s Oedipus, Sex with Mum was Blinding is an intensification of Szymboska’s examination of women’s guilt, as well as a deep-dive into the psychology of the ancient queen (the seer Teireias also appears, who lived life both as a woman and a man). The grunge immersion—the often grainy cinematic environment is by Stephanie Sherriff–uses singing and technology, pop culture and neuroscience (advised by professor Manos Tsakiris), even an m.c., a keyboardist for the show, Misha Piatigorsky, who combines Joaquin Phoenix in Joker and Joel Grey in Cabaret.  Other men in the cast include Lito Messini as Oedipus, Elias Husiak, and Tsakiris. Papakonstantinou may seem indiscriminate, because she can pull from everywhere—she is unafraid of postmodernism, myth, and onstage cameras–the kind many Americans will recognize having seen work by Ivo van Hove—music (Kent plays the cello onstage)—including Philip Glass sounds and an excerpt from “Nature Boy”–languages, social media, and politics—“this country is based on racism.” Debatably, she shapes the work into the story of three women, an actor (Nassia Gofa) and two singers (Anastasia Katsinavaki, Theodora Loukas), one classical and the other jazz, who might seem to be refracting the same character, in guilt and trauma. Papakonstantinou is never exactly clear in her excursion through the subconscious—but she understands and elicits the feelings Symborska transcribes, in, as another illustration, the baldly titled poem:  “In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself”:

The buzzard never says it is to blame. /

The panther wouldn’t know what scruples mean. /

When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame. /

If snakes had hands, they’d claim their hands were clean.”

The poet finishes:  “On this third planet of the sun / among the signs of bestiality / a clear conscience is number one.”

Current women’s theatre explicates, however, that no human, at least, has one.

© 2019 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

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THIS IS WHY WE LIVE

Design Assistant: Judie Plaza
Set Design Assistant: Kevin Yung
Lighting Design by Rebecca Picherak
Lighting Associate: Nic Vincent
Projection Design by Wesley McKenzie
Stage Management by A.J. Morra

Dramaturgy and Translation Support by Viktor Lukawski
Poetry by Wisława Szymborska
French Translation by Piotr Kamiński
English Translation by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak
Artistic Support by Yearime Castel Barragan and Sallie Lyons

This project is funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, Polish Consulate (Canada) & The Polish Institute

Press:  Jonathan Slaff

OEDIPUS, SEX WITH MUM WAS BLINDING

ODC Ensemble (Athens, Greece) with
The Directors Company

OEDIPUS:
Sex with Mum Was Blinding

An Immersive Opera
Conceived, written and directed by
Elli Papakonstantinou

Original Music Composed by
Tilemachos Moussas
and Julia Kent

Cinematic Environments by
Stephanie Sherriff

Lighting design: Elli Papakonstantinou
Mask concepts, design and materialization: Maritina Keleri & Chrysanthi Avloniti
Costume Design: Jolene Richardson

Featuring
Nassia Gofa, Elias Husiak, Anastasia Katsinavaki, Theodora Loukas, Lito Messini, Manos Tsakiris, Julia Kent (cello), Misha Piatigorsky (piano), Hassan Estakhrian, Barbara Nerness (electroacoustic environments), and Stephanie Sherriff (live cinematic environment)

Scientific Advisor: Professor Manos Tsakiris

Press:   Michelle Tabnick

Photos–This Is Why We Live: Jonathan Slaff; Oedipus: Carol Rosegg

       

PTP/NYC (POTOMAC THEATRE PROJECT):  ‘HAVEL: THE PASSION OF THOUGHT’ AND STOPPARD’S ‘DOGG’S HAMLET’ AND ‘CAHOOT’S MACBETH’ (REVIEWS FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Historians, looking back at contemporary American theatre, will have to evaluate whether our stages were reflections of society or partisan distortions. Were our artists “living in the truth,” as former Czech president Václav Havel would ask, or were they politically motivated, sold out, blindsided, outfinanced, or unable to speak due to silencing opinion-makers, the market, or even Google, facebook, or twitter.  A work like Rob Ackerman’s Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson, from The Working Theater, which played off-Broadway, during June and July, sees America’s employed as powerless and compliant–and the boss as original and supremely intelligent, even while he demonstrates only basic knowledge.  In Christopher Shinn’s Dying City, which ran at Second Stage this spring and summer, the highlight is the storytelling, although the characters are types—the smart, contemporary woman, the sensitive, uncloseted gay actor, and the disturbed soldier—all meeting progressive expectations.  What audiences may not be questioning, though, is to what degree the arts in the U.S. are really free—and this is where a writer like Havel, whose rarely performed Vanek plays (three of them here, of four; banned during communism), are now running at PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project) until August 4, alongside two short pieces by Beckett and Pinter, in Havel: The Passion of Thought.  Even if most Americans can not know the horror of life in Czechoslovakia, in the last century, one of the short plays in the evening, a two-hander called “Protest” is a pros-and-cons checklist for the conscience, universally true for anyone who must challenge authority, in any of its guises–or even only intends to send a tweet.  America itself has powerful censoring mechanisms, despite the First Amendment, strongly expressed in 1978 by Russian Nobelist and Soviet labor camp survivor, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whom Thomas Farnan, in Human Events, reminds us, wrote that the media, Western news reporting,  “[endorses] ‘fashionable trends of thought and ideas’ while suppressing ‘independent-minded people from giving their contribution to public life.’” Solzhenitsyn was severely criticized—in fact, told to go back where he came from, like “the Squad” today–but his observation regarding “fashionable trends of thought and ideas” is essential when thinking about American arts.

 

“The Protest” is set in Prague, outside a lovely garden home, marked by flowering magnolias and gladiolas–in thirty-two shades–of a television and film writer (played robustly by Danielle Skraastad), who admits that she is “pushing fifty.” She must make a decision on bold action, regarding a court decision, thinking aloud to an old theatrical friend, a dissident (a non-judging David Barlow): “When the rest of us want to do something of ordinary human decency, we automatically turn to you as though you were some sort of agency for the conduct of moral matters.  Perverse, isn’t it? Sickening, isn’t it?”  Her choice is to regain her self-esteem, lost freedom, and honor, even if it means losing her job—or to continue living on “the path of accommodation” and “shameful compromise.”  She realizes that she must be made an example of, and punished cruelly, if she chooses the first option.  She would be the bad conscience of people who do not act, and who will smear her, ultimately thinking her decision stupid, nothing more.  The dilemma is not simply Eastern European, of course, and must be made not only by the accommodating characters in Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson (also set in the television industry), but also in other contexts, such as teachers’ rooms in academia, validating disproven conclusions on Darwin’s theory, for example, the Hollywood of #MeToo, and at publishers and theatre companies, among various jobs throughout the country, adherent to the common wisdom, as opposed to critical, independent thinking.

“Interview” may remind of Chekhov’s short story, “Misery,” where the need to express thoughts, explain oneself, becomes so urgent that the central character begins confiding in a least likely figure.  In Chekhov, this is a horse.  In Havel’s short play, the character is Vanek, who is asked to inform on himself.  Havel’s plays can have elements of absurdism—as they drink and munch peanuts–but he is not whimsical, and his writing can even sound like O’Neill’s realism. It is not lost on viewers, at Atlantic Stage 2, that the playwright does not advocate socialism, part of the current U.S. national debate (what other son of a builder do you know who does not advocate socialism and became president of his country?).  Havel’s characters are bored and drunk, living futile lives, without work ethic and devoid of meaning: “What about me?” says the crass, tormented brewmaster (Michael Laurence), “I’m only good enough to be the shit on which your fucking principles can grow so you can be a goddamn hero. . . . You’re gonna show off  . . .  about the way you handled barrels in a brewery! But what about me?  What can I go back to?  Huh? What future have I got?  What?”  In the plays, Havel works full circle—climax and catharsis always lead back to stagnation, point zero; contradiction (Vanek, for example, is expected to make friends but not become “chummy”) and repetition. The characters can never progress psychologically, much less spiritually, which they appear to want to do, even if they can only make pretense to commercial mimicry.

In “Private View” a couple (Christopher Marshall and Emily Kron) looks toward the West for its cues on everyday life, such as food, art, sex, parenting, and purchase of consumer goods.  The ideas have not grown organically out of their own culture, however, and the characters come across as earnest and empty fakes.  Although the PTP/NYC season 2019 centers on four writers, known for their contributions to the subject of human rights, the chief among them are Havel and Tom Stoppard, both of Czech origin (although Stoppard, for much of his life, has been a British citizen).  In “Private View,” the playwright most invoked, in Havel’s one act, is Ionesco, another Eastern European (in this case, from Romania, who settled in France).  Students and readers can sometimes not understand why artists will speak figuratively–in symbol, for example (a rhinoceros) or metaphor (a cabaret to represent Nazi Germany—the sad news of the death of Hal Prince has just been announced), instead of being direct and exposing the thing itself.  The explanation is usually, “Because it would be too painful”; another reason may that it is too dangerous.  The Vanek plays may seem to talk around what’s really going in a Communist satellite fifty years ago, which had led  PTP’s Co-Artistic Director Richard Romagnoli, in 1991, to add two further short plays in creating Havel: The Passion of Thought, by Pinter and Beckett.  Yet, even so, you may be able to hear the screaming: “Life is hard and the world is divided. Our country has been written off by everybody, nobody’s going to help us, we’re in a very bad way, and it’s only going to get worse–and you can’t change it!”

Pinter’s sobering play, “The New World Order,” takes the audience into a torture room, where assumptions are dismantled, as a hooded man listens to his captor’s threats, spoken as banalities: “He hasn’t got any idea at all of what we’re going to do to him.” Although the assassins are about as bored as the brewery workers in “Interview”—in fact, one seems to maliciously echo the brewmaster’s monologue in Havel’s play: “Before he came here he was a big shot, he never stopped shooting his mouth off”—the leader explains that they are “keeping the world safe for democracy.”  Beckett’s play, “Catastrophe,” actually written in honor of Havel—a work in which Pinter had also played as an actor–has especial bite and edge at PTP/NYC (the consummate direction for the Havel evening is by Richard Romagnoli).  The play (here, the speaking roles are, nontraditionally, played by two women, Madeline Ciocci and Emily Ballou, whose forward-march pacing give the play a fascist edge)–seems to be questioning how the media distorts—and makes fashionable–human rights’ victims—Havel and Solzhenitsyn, for examples, and Natalia Kaliada and Nikolai Khalezin, from Belarus Free Theatre, and Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, to only begin a listing—who might say that what they were doing had nothing to do with becoming celebrities.

Although this review is being finished, at the end of July, during the second night of the Detroit Democratic debates, it should be mentioned that people can be fearful of socialism, despite its current fashionableness in the United States. One need only look at Sir Tom Stoppard’s Dogg’s Hamlet (known for its 15-minute rendition of Hamlet) and Cahoot’s Macbeth, probably a director’s nightmare (ably undertaken here by Cheryl Faraone), a complicated mosaic of different languages (Early Modern English, Modern English, as well as one the playwright has completely made up), utilizing a large cast. Additionally, as if a new society is being constructed during the plays, there are different settings and shifting set pieces, including huge, brutalist alphabet blocks, created for a Stalinist era (the design is by Mark Evancho; the three costume designers for the evenings are Glenna Ryer, Chris Romagnoli, and Rebecca Lafon;  and Hallie Zieselman designed the lighting). Amit Prakash, visiting assistant professor, Middlebury College,  has written, “In a society dominated by ideology, words are completely untethered from their meanings, shared human experience is always up for debate, and truth is as evasive as a hunted animal.”

Stoppard seems to see dislocation and language reconstruction as occurring due to changing ideology, and these plays appear to be giving a Stoppardian mirror image of Czechoslovakia, during the 1970s and 1980s (Ed Berman, who worked with the playwright at Almost Free Theatre in London, has also been consulted for Potomac Theater Project’s Stoppard plays). Although based on Shakespeare, the work is also influenced by Beckett, Havel, Wiggenstein, Pavel Kohout, detective novels, Ionesco, and the Theatre of the Absurd, to start.  One setting for Cahoots Macbeth is a home, which can seem unusual, given that plays are being performed there, instead of at a theatre.  Faraone writes, “forbidden to practice their art in public, one survival strategy (for artists, in Czechoslovakia) became performing Shakespeare in ‘apartment theatre.’” Such playing areas affirm what Kaliada has said, in interviews about stagings in another Eastern European country, Belarus (performances are given in apartments or at birthdays or weddings, to elude authorities).  Havel discusses how to evade them in “The Protest”–by hiding in a department store:  “You mingle with the crowd, then at the moment when they aren’t looking, you sneak into the bathroom and wait for about two hours. They become convinced you managed to sneak off through a side entrance and give up.”

What happens if you are caught?  Stoppard’s detective/government inspector (Tara Giordano, in a trench coat) explains:  “I must warn you that anything you say will be taken down and played back at your trial.”

For more info visit http://PTPNYC.org, Like them on Facebook at https://www.Facebook.com/pages/Potomac-Theatre-Project-PTP/32709392256, follow on Twitter at @ptpnyc (https://twitter.com/ptpnyc), and on Instagram at @ptpnyc.official (https://www.instagram.com/ptpnyc.official).         

The Atlantic Stage 2 is accessible from the A, C, E, L trains to 14 St./8 Ave. or the 1, 2, 3 trains to 14 St.

 © by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.  Production photos: Stan Barouh.

Press: David Gibbs, DARR Publicity

The cast for HAVEL: THE PASSION OF THOUGHT includes David Barlow (PTP: No End of Blame, Victory, The Castle), Emily Kron (PTP: The Europeans, Sweet Tooth at Cherry Lane), Michael Laurence (Broadway: Talk Radio, Desire Under the Elms, NBC’s “Shades of Blue”), Christopher Marshall (PTP: The Possibilities, The After-Dinner Joke, Pity In History), Danielle Skraastad (Broadway: All My Sons, Hurricane Diane with Women’s Project & NYTW, The Architecture of Becoming with Women’s Project), Emily Ballou and Madeline Ciocci (PTP: The After-Dinner Joke).

The production team for HAVEL: THE PASSION OF THOUGHT includes Mark Evancho (Set Design), Hallie Zieselman (Lighting Design), Glenna Ryer (Costume Design), Sam Tompkins Martin (Props Design), Peter B. Schmitz and Adam Milano (Movement) and Devin Wein (Production Stage Manager).

The cast for DOGG’S HAMLET, CAHOOT’S MACBETH includes Matthew Ball (PTP: Pity In History, Pentecost), Denise Cormier (Broadway national tour The Graduate, Showtime’s “The Affair”), Tara Giordano (PTP: The After-Dinner Joke, Vinegar Tom, Serious Money), Christo Grabowski (PTP: The After-Dinner Joke, Pity In History, No End of Blame), Christopher Marshall (PTP: The Possibilities, The After-Dinner Joke, Pity In History), Peter B. Schmitz (PTP: Lovesong of the Electric Bear, Therese Raquin), Lucy Van Atta (PTP: The After-Dinner Joke, Serious Money, Spatter Pattern), Olivia Christie (PTP: Brecht on Brecht), Will Koch, Emily Ma, Katie Marshall, Madeleine Russell (PTP: The After-Dinner Joke, The Possibilities), Lior Selve, Zach Varicchione and Connor Wright (PTP: Pity In History).

The production team for DOGG’S HAMLET, CAHOOT’S MACBETH includes Mark Evancho (Set Design), Hallie Zieselman (Lighting Design), Chris Romagnoli (Costume Design Dogg’s Hamlet), Rebecca LaFon (Costume Design Cahoot’s Macbeth), Sam Tompkins Martin (Props Design), Peter B. Schmitz and Adam Milano (Movement) and Alex Williamson (Production Stage Manager).

ROB ACKERMAN: ‘DROPPING GUMBALLS ON LUKE WILSON’–THROUGH JULY 6 (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK)  ·

By Bob Shuman

Rob Ackerman’s Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson is a cute fake out, with all the commercial patter of a Tootsie or Neil Simon–even David Ives—comedy, but on larger issues, it can only shadowbox: like the Advertising sales phrase, in the business where it is set, it serves the sizzle, instead of the steak.  The generic characters (audiences will recognize them from at least as far back as The Mary Tyler Moore Show) are trying to survive in the entertainment world herd, while making a dissing, nonsensical 2010 AT&T commercial, apparently now considered a classic.  The over-glorified director of the shoot (David Wohl) may be putting an actor at risk, though—and the crew could be deemed complicit, for employing what the play believes to be a startling concept:  Naturalism. The script, which provides more waffling than a presidential impeachment hearing, is indecisive regarding its ending, as well, like it’s Rashomon, yet the obvious solution, which is not done, is to grab the director and throw gumballs at him.  A comparable step would have been a no-brainer for a character like Dorothy Gale, in The Wizard of Oz (1939), who flings water at the Wicked Witch—and kills her.  Marlon Brando stands up against union bigs in On the Waterfront (1954), only to become badly beaten, bruised, and battered.  In 9-5 (1980), three women fantasize, slip up, and take action against their sexist boss. Only in contemporary America are workers, in the entertainment industry, so afraid of their shadows.

The play, from Working Theater, may have provided more insight into artist coercion—such as the car accident in Kill Bill (2003) from Tarantino and Weinstein (his trial is currently set to take place 9/9)—but Ackerman wants to present provocation without ever having to stop being clever.  Uma Thurman, against her better judgment, as many will recall, also performed naturalistically, in unsafe working conditions, from which she sustained neck, head, and knee injuries–never fully recovering: “I went from being a creative contributor and performer to being like a broken tool.”  In Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson, Ackerman can’t match such stakes:  his climatic event is too small (and maybe not so dangerous, given the amount of money the actor is being paid) and his dramaturgy slippery–he ends up seeming like an apologist for gross behavior on set. Where the evening succeeds, however, is in its timing and brisk pacing–the show is only an hour and fifteen minutes, a one act really, which can deliver on old-fashioned laughs, such as a pie throwing montage (the video design is by Yana Biryukova; sound design is by Bart Fasbender, costumes are by Tricia Barsamian, and the all-important properties, by Addison Heeren).  The likable comic actors, almost as recognizable as figures out of commedia dell’arte, include: the eager, young propman (George Hampe), the “pro” electrician (Dean Nolen); the fraught assistant director (Ann Harada), the narcissistic star (Jonathan Sale), and the genius demon manipulator (Wohl).  Watch them at the Mezzanine Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres (502 W. 53rd Street), through July 6, because the smaller, open studio set (by Christopher Swader & Justin Swader; lighting design is by Mary Ellen Stebbins), allows good space for viewing vivid and lively acting (to be transparent, this reviewer attended workshops, at the Lark Play Development Center, where director Teresa Rebeck—also the playwright of Seminar and Bernhardt/Hamlet, among others–was one of the co-leaders, in the early 2000s). 

People will probably enjoy Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson–and be interested in the truth behind it–but, disappointingly, the script recedes to default cultural talking points (even the show’s advertising has the look of a blue Dem campaign poster), such as the need for feminism, disgust with white men (the spewing has gotten so bad an unlikely Meryl Streep has felt the need to come to the defense of boys: “Women can be pretty fucking toxic”), and realization that Verizon sucks.  Of course, in real life, proles aren’t so generic or innocent—position is cemented, in the competitive arts world, through talent and money, politics, legacy, or tribe.  Likewise, people can probably count on two hands the number of creators who are actually original and masters of their crafts.   Ackerman, who inflates the abilities of his fictional director–who does have power–sees the ineptness of the workers who don’t, simply preserving the status quo.  In another play (and movie), Network (2017, 1976), one more entertainment insider, also in TV (an anchorman), shouts, iconically, in exasperation and rage:  “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”  Why will the characters in Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson?  What has happened in American culture, where people can’t say no?

© 2019 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

WORKING THEATER

WORLD PREMIERE OF

“DROPPING GUMBALLS ON LUKE WILSON”

BY ROB ACKERMAN

DIRECTED BY THERESA REBECK

Cast:  REYNA DE COURCY (Film: Wetlands), GEORGE HAMPE (MTC’s REGRETS; TV: “Madame Secretary”), ANN HARADA (Broadway’s CINDERELLA, AVENUE Q), DEAN NOLEN (Broadway’s MAMMA MIA!. NY: OMNIUM GATHERUM, TABLETOP), JONATHAN SALE (NY: HANDLE WITH CARE. TV: “God Friended Me”) and DAVID WOHL (Broadway’s FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, DINNER AT EIGHT).

Photos: The New York Times, Playbill

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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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