Category Archives: Bob’s Theatre Reviews

‘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.

Visit New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players 

© 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.”

Visit Lincoln Center

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? 

Visit Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky

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.

Visit Playwrights Horizons

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

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

By Bob Shuman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Was Most Alive with You

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

Directed by Tyne Rafaeli

In the Tunnel 

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

By Bob Shuman

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Tennessee Williams’s A LOVELY SUNDAY FOR CREVE COEUR

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

Performances until Oct 21, 2018

Tickets 

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

Press: JT Public Relations

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

By Bob Shuman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

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

  

 

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

By Bob Shuman

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

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

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

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

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

Press: Glenna Freedman PR.

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

 

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

By Bob Shuman

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

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

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

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

BRECHT ON BRECHT

Directed by Jim Petosa

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

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

Brecht On Brecht photos:  Stan Barouh

Press: David Gibbs, DARR Publicity

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

By Bob Shuman

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

View ‘Playing to the Gods‘ on Amazon