John Fleck might say that America has just elected a simulacrum as president, a “place marker for the real item.” The concept, discussed by French post-structuralist Jean Baudrillard, has a spectrum of meanings: one, the “perversion of reality,” which probably interests Fleck the most, since, as a member of the NEA4, he was called obscene (by conservative politicians led by Jesse Helms). The artist sued (and won, with three other performance artists) in federal district court, regarding “‘the so-called ‘standards of decency’ provision,” which grant recipients, at the time, were forced to accept. But that was the ‘90s. Today, the Internet may be in danger of further censorship and Americans wonder if they are being politically correct. Fortunately, Fleck is still obscene, and is performing now at New York’s Dixon Place, 11/12, 18, and 19.
He’s also oral: time the speed of his delivery or watch him open his mouth to do imitations of motors, dogs, birds, or squeaky doors in the night. He simulates oral sex, too. Maybe he’s just been mentally arrested at the entry point of early adolescence, at a fevered place of sexual confusion, where hormones are teeming and aren’t quite adjusted to the bloodstream. He cannot be liable to any societal norms, or else he’d break them, whether there is a philosophic argument behind his work or not—in fact it may remind of gay porn in the ‘70s, and maybe thereafter—when rebellion is what matters; rebellion is all that matters, against women, especially.
That’s the mood of Fleck’s new gothic horror one-man show called Blacktop Highway, which is an unsold movie script, narrated aloud, with video footage and Matchbox cars, and which includes camera angles and sound cues. The story takes place in Maine, but a creepy-clown, low-budget, black-and-white, Psycho Maine, where a young girl is being raised by sexual predators and is corrupted herself—of course, it’s a comedy. Baudrillard might say the story has become so far removed from truth that it becomes its own truth, which some say this political season has also been. Outside, Fifth Avenue is blocked for the third straight day, as chanting protesters are walking to Trump Tower–policemen are carrying rifles–and The New York Times has written a letter to its readers saying that it will be telling the truth in the future, after presenting skewed information in favor of Democrats during this political season. In theatre, which is a lie, John Fleck has become interested in virtual reality, but, actually, all of us have had to.
Kings of War, Ivo van Hove’s and Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s anti-heroic, anti-Romantic, anti-poetic staging of adaptations of Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III, defines political leaders as small and ordinary, anxious and neurotic, much like WikiLeaks does in revealing the e-mails of current politicians. One can lead, one can’t, and one moves further and further into evil, but none of the characters in this modern-dress reassessment can escape the monumentality of what surrounds them, whether that be Britain’s foreign conflicts and civil wars, or the expansive stage of the BAM Opera House. With the compositional eye of an academic painter, or fellow lowlander Rembrandt, van Hove fills it and then begins overflowing onto the backstage corridors. At the same time, live video and film are shown, along with placard information and English super-titles (the acting is in Dutch), which gives viewers simultaneous long-shots and close-ups.
Kings of War is cinematic, cold, and shockingly and methodically accurate in its detail and depictions—van Hove is a director in two mediums really, and he is also a relentless visual editor, precise in theatrical suggestion and manipulation (the lighting and cavernous, adaptable settings are by Jan Versweyveld). Van Hove does not want audiences to feel as much as think, though—and he has taken the theories of Piscator and Brecht as far as current technology can lead (Bergman is acknowledged, too, in terms of rigorous pacing, as well as in the footage of the various kings melding into one, as do the famous faces of Bibi Andersen and Liv Ullmann in Persona). The acting seems closer to mime or expressionism or even dance than the realistic work Americans are typically used to seeing–in fact, these actors rarely play to the audience; instead they are seen in profile–and it was virtually flawless last night, with special consideration for the work of Hans Kesting, as Richard III, and Aus Greidanus Jr., as Gloucester and Buckingham. These are arbitrary shout-outs, however, as the entire cast and musicians are excellent, including a counter-tenor, rarely seen (the two parts of Henry VI are seldom revived, too). Much more will be written about Kings of War–from staging the patriotic Henry V St. Crispin’s Day speech without actors to Richard III’s call for any horse, almost in slow motion, building to a physical trot and running in circles–because the production about medieval heads of states does nothing if not give an overwhelming example of the current state of theatrical art. There are only four New York performances and the production will close on Sunday, November 6. Attend if you still can, because, like the presidential election, no one’s going to stop talking about this for a long time.
Kevin Confoy’s staging of Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui should be seen for nonpolitical reasons, even if it fits in well with attempts to paint Donald Trump as a fascist. The inflammatory descriptor probably has less to do with American conservatism and more to do with Socialism, but the media has worked hard during the last year to make the label stick. The current production, from Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, which plays in the East Village until November 13 at the Wild Project, is thoughtful, complex, and informative, not only regarding Brecht’s solidly structured Chicago gangster retelling of the rise of Hitler, but also in its appreciation of the work of Erwin Piscator, a name that may seem remote to today’s students of drama. The producer, in the vanguard of German political theatre, during the first part of the twentieth century, was a sometime collaborator of Brecht (although not on this play), who brought film into the medium and, as C. D. Innes states, “made it possible to shift viewpoints, so that the action could be extended to global scope and [allow] the ‘epic’ the ability to comment on itself.” Piscator’s innovations (both he and Brecht were Communists) included revolving and simultaneous stages, treadmills, multiple platforms, projections, placards, marionettes, simultaneous scene work, sound, and more. Obie winner Confoy, who worked with Piscator’s wife, Maria, has made this Brecht outing seem especially authentic (as well as timely with flashes of current music and even the spoutings of conservative commentator Mark Levin).
Theatremakers, who have decided to forgo political issues, such as immigration, refugees, radical Islam, Benghazi, and Trump’s wall, may want to consider the words of ninety-one-year-old Peter Brook, whose seventy-minute companion piece to his classic nine-hour 1987 Mahabharata (which is available on disk and YouTube) recently played at BAM’s Harvey Theatre (Battlefield ended October 9). Brook said he wanted his new work to “find something relevant for today” and, perhaps counter-intuitively, returned to the classic ancient Indian poem, not out of nostalgia, but because of its ability to see “all aspects of human existence”; it includes an apocalyptic war, which leaves ten million dead. “It could be Hiroshima or Syria,” Brook says, “When one watches the news one is angry, disgusted, furious.” So also may be the informed public, not just of today, but also those who will look back at what was being produced during our time and question why so many essential parts of the national dialogue were BleachBitted from our stages, despite a public disposal toward interest in history, demonstrated by the mega-hit Hamilton.
Battlefield is Brook in shorthand, overshadowed by the real theatre of the moment: the American election. Nevertheless, he says he is speaking to power “in a space of concentration” regarding “what happens after the battle,” for both winners and losers. He knows who he specifically wants to appeal to, as well: “Obama and his successor, Hollande and his successor, Putin, and all the presidents.” Are they actually listening? Probably not, largely because arts leaders have allowed theatre to become inconsequential, overwhelming audiences with immature and merely entertaining work, but if art can instead be entertained, Brook’s modest piece might be taken as seriously as any. He has been in the public eye for approximately 70 years and although his techniques do not seem cutting edge, or dangerous, anymore, his stagings and his books, most famously The Empty Space (1968), are essential to understanding experimental theatre. Brook’s influence is seen everywhere, from Broadway to La Mama, both places which would be impossible to understand without him. With regard to TheMahabharata, Brook has been accused of “exoticism,” by uprooting the sacred text without understanding it as would an Indian—but he might also make a case about the appropriation of his own theatrical research and methods. In his defense, in respect to the 200,000 line poem, he has said, “It is a failure of us to have spent so long to recognize that it [The Mahabharata] is for humanity.”
Straightforward, with a central black box as a focal point, Battlefield makes use of brilliantly hued fabric and bamboo sticks as props in a setting the color of blood. Its ancient story regards a blind king, who has lost his sons. He is meeting his nephew, who does not know how to accept the responsibilities of having won a war. “The winners say ‘victory is a defeat’ and the ones who lost admit that ‘they could have prevented the war’. More than asking for an imitation of behavior or psychological depth, Brook is most interested in storytelling—as was the American avant-garde he began influencing, including Ellen Stewart and Elizabeth Swados. Here, mortality seems to consume Brook most, even more than war: “What you have planned to do tomorrow must be done today. Only death is certain. Readiness is most important.” Wisdom, perhaps, from a creator who has been called “our greatest living theatre director,” having won Tonys and Emmys, the Praemium Imperiale and the Prix Italia. His four actors, in Battlefield (Carole Karemera, Jared McNeill, Ery Nzaramba, and Sean O’Callaghan), play for seventy minutes, telling folkloric parables, sometimes comically and from the point of view of animals, such as a snake, mongoose, worm, and monkey. The cast makes use of simple pantomiming, and is often staged in a circular pattern, accompanied by Toshi Tsuchitori (who performed in the original Mahabharata) on African drum—the co-director and co-adapter is Brook’s long-time collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne and the text is by the writer of the stage version, Jean-Claude Carrière. Brook, the impresario, went around the world to find the essence of theatre and some may say he found the ingredients of a good children’s play—what they forget is how difficult the proposition of simplicity is.
Those who saw Brook’s film of Lord of the Flies (1963)–and have read about his redefining, symbolic version of Titus Andronicus (1958)—know of the director’s facility with horror, which infused the American avant-garde, along with Artaud and his Theatre of Cruelty. Lone Wolf Tribe’s The God Projekt, a domestic history of God–from lifelike primordial spit to today’s suicide of the West–is close to a gross-out show, written by Kevin Augustine and Edward Einhorn (it closed at La Mama on October 16). The team follows similar concerns as those in Battlefield, including the idea of repeated apocalypses, interest in ancient civilizations, ingesting of another person, and even animals—in this case a monkey. Kevin Augustine, the leading player (the show is virtually a monologue) displays a talent for disguise. He and Einhorn (with puppeteers Joseph Garner and Emily Marsh), are like pre-meds who have studied Darwin too long, sniffing formaldehyde, or like kids boiling a frog or eating worms; they’re politically incorrect heralds of the grotesque tradition. Unlike Brook, however, they haven’t found minimalism, even if in terms of form, all find themselves telling large mythic tales. Incorporated here are the stories of Adam, the Queen of Heaven, and even Christ—which, in a seeming counterculture template, move toward audience participation. The God Projeckt may be an ur text, or part of one anyway, which holds the motherload of themes for the partnership. Of special interest is the anatomically correct and wet and squishy war between Christianity and Paganism: La Mama, Ellen Stewart herself, may have liked the emphasis on polytheism in The God Projekt, supplemented by bygone tunes such as “Isn’t It Nice to Have a Wife Around the house?” and “My Blue Heaven.” Such work might have inspired her to produce a new puppet Frankenstein—or Augustine’s and Einhorn’s own version of Titus, complete with internal organs.
Even if the title reference to theoretical physics is inflated, Simon Stephens’s Heisenberg, now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club until December 11, uses minimalism in set (two tables and two chairs) and props (virtually none) and confirms Brook’s notion that “if you [take] away the big scenery . . . we listen more purely.” He’s right–theatregoers will hear Stephens’s engaging script and be impressed by the tight acting of Denis Arndt and Mary-Louise Parker (even if her pronunciation makes the character seem slow at the start). The creative team, including director Mark Brokaw with scenic designer Mark Wendland, seem to be appropriating the technique of working with absence, as well as TV news alert scene starters, in order to make contemporary a vehicle, which in the 1960s, would have gone to Sandy Dennis. During that era, Stephens’s central male character did forget to write about Vietnam in his diaries, and the English playwright’s “average people” love story has chosen not to mention our own searing current events, except in a jab at Garden State Republicans, apparently in order to pander to Manhattan Theatre Club audiences. Stephens’s work was especially raw in his short A Canopy of Stars, where a young English mother rages against the Afghanistan War—calling the Mideast country “a hole in the bottom of the world.” Here he is less successful in finding his chatty Jersey girl’s idiom: how many women have you met from the state called Georgie, to begin with, and how often would you hear them say, that suits me “down to the ground”? Even if Stephens doesn’t convince that he’s figured out how the American character translates abroad, there was appreciation for this two-hander in the house, which might recall the way people reacted to Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly. Our section of the theatre was disrupted twice during the performance when a woman first exclaimed, “This is charming,” and, later, “This is fabulous.” If commercial stage work can elicit this kind of on-the-spot euphoric word of mouth, then there really is no reason for a critic. Whether one has left the theatre, “nourished by his own thoughts,” as Brook would hope, is subjective.
When Shelagh Delaney was 18, in 1958, she wrote A Taste Honey, now running at the Pearl Theatre, extended until October 30. The play, an act of adolescent rebellion, integrates disparate issues and themes, from mothers to race; men to sex and motherhood to gays and abortion; from Shakespeare (“he said everything, didn’t he?) to theatre and movies (“mauling and muttering, can’t hear what they’re saying half the time. . . . ”). She had failed her 11-plus exams four times and spent her Saturdays at the movies, where she may have seen films like the ones mentioned or referred to in her play: I was a Teenage Werewolf, The Ten Commandments, The Wizard of Oz, and Desire Under the Elms. When the legendary director Joan Littlewood, who championed English working-class plays and Brechtian technique, read this “slice of life” (in a positive review, Harold Clurman used that descriptor), she said, “Delaney knows what she is angry about”—which was probably everything. But she is also comparing the author to John Osborne and the angry young men of British theatre. Graham Green weighed in on this count, too, saying that A Taste of Honey has “all the freshness of Mr. Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and a greater maturity.”
“A northern [English] sense of humor, lack of sentimentality, and robust approach” is how actress Lesley Sharp, who starred in the play in 2014, extemporizes on A Taste of Honey. Professor Nadine Holdsworth, from the University of Warwick, calls the language: “quick, sharp, witty banter.” When looking at footage or photos of Delaney, during this period, she seems knowing and well-mannered but slightly mischievous, too, impatient, or “restless,” as she would probably describe herself. She’s a large-eyed, soft-voiced perfect storm for a director like Austin Pendleton, who leads the current New York production of A Taste of Honey, because, on the page, she’s all sass and spunk and her lines move so fast. She forces Pendleton to keep up with her in his staging, the opinionated eighteen-year-old whose memory is like the NSA, and the actor’s director, with a penchant for British theatre. They both win.
Delaney did not often allow her first play to be produced (she died in 2011) and her daughter had never seen a staged version until she was an adult. This may have helped the unsentimental drama become sentimentalized over the years, after having been a play in the UK and the U.S., a movie, and fodder for a musical standard: Tony Richardson directed the New York production, as well as the classic, Bafta-winning film (for the movie, its screenplay, and the actresses), and he co-wrote the hit song, from which he never recouped royalties (he did not share credit; Bobby Scot and Ric Marlow did). Many artists have recorded A Taste of Honey, including The Beatles, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, and Herb Alpert (who uses a quick tempo similar to the one heard at the Pearl, where the tune is played onstage by a Beat Trilby-wearing jazz trio who remain on stage (they are guitarist Phil Faconti, trumpeter Max Boiko, with mute, and bassist Walter Stinson. The lyrics to the song probably do not allude to Jo’s point of view, in ways that other popular songs, based on British dramatic material, did during the sixties and seventies, such as “Somewhere My Love” (Dr. Zhivago), “It Was a Good Time” (Ryan’s Daughter), or Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Too Beautiful to Last” (Nicholas and Alexandra). The repeated line in the song, “I will return,” comes from and refers to the sailor who leaves Jo, the eighteen-year-old girl, and the young man on the boat is an enduring image from the film. The misty longing is momentary, though, and there is no serious consideration of his coming back—or for Jo to run after him.
The Brechtian impulse was lost as the play transitioned to New York and the screen, too. Richardson felt that Littlewood’s “policy of mixing working-class drama with pub vitality and vaudeville songs” did not integrate well in A Taste of Honey—he thought they made the play seem “coarse and forcedly jolly.” He also believed that film could only be a realistic medium. The black-and-white film that emerged, despite its lower-class milieu, is an example of Free Style Cinema, and is expertly photographed by its founder, Walter Lassally, with “a minimum of equipment, real locations, and a natural, unmade-up look.” Casting became immediately critical. Rita Tushingham won the part of Jo, playing against the formidable Dora Bryan, and she was the right age; Joan Plowright, who starred in the role on Broadway, and won a Tony Award for it, was a world-renowned actress—but was thirty-one years old. No need to feel bad for Plowright, though. Interestingly, Austin Pendleton, would write a comedy about her, Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Kenneth Tynan, and Vivian Leigh, set while A Taste of Honey was entering popular culture. The play is Orson’s Shadow (2003). Welcome to the 1960s.
Delaney had written about what would matter to Americans during that decade, even though there wasn’t much chance to salvage Jo’s life in Manchester (Harry Feiner’s scenic design, at the Pearl, shows the roofs of the tenements in the city, as well as the dirty interior the two women inhabit). Some might compare A Taste of Honey to another Broadway show, which premiered in 1959, also set along the fringes of show business, with a domineering mother and her new boyfriend, as well as a daughter who runs off with a young man. A Taste of Honey, however, is no Gypsy, even though it prefigures the Kander and Ebb musical (such as Cabaret), because Jo will never be able to beat the English social system. In fact, Delaney barely could get out herself and remained a Marxist. Not that one producer didn’t try to fix the play’s structure, which actually is a problem with the work. According to Tony Richardson, in his autobiography The Long-Distance Runner, Darryl Zanuck “was interested in me directing it . . . on one condition: ‘a happy ending’. It has a happy ending—Jo is happy waiting for her baby to be born.” Zanuck: “That’s the point—the baby’s gotta die, and Mother and girl go off to a better life.” Richardson said no, thank you.
Jo is encased in her class, and her happy ending would be a dubious one in The United States. She does realize that there might be more elsewhere, but she makes fun of the book about her namesake when she says that her guide on having a baby sounds like Little Women. Delaney also may be making a reference to A Member of the Wedding when she talks about going on her mother’s honeymoon: “Can’t I come with you?” Delaney regains her senses against the pipe dream of becoming an artist, like Louisa May Alcott or Carson McCullers. She doesn’t allow the flower bulbs she has kept to blossom, and she won’t let Jo go to school to become an artist. The audience sees the similarities between the mother, a “semi-whore” and daughter, and both are cynical (a quality of those who live in Salford, according to Delaney) and fatalistic: “Don’t think. It doesn’t do you any good.”
At the Pearl, Rachel Botchan, as Helen, is ready to dance, and Delaney provides her with asides, direct addresses to the audience, and songs. When she retakes her rooms at the end of the play, however, she has become a destroyer and, we see how her daughter deserves to hate her. Botchan deploys dainty savagery–and, even for those who know the play, this can seem unexpected. Impressive also is Rebekah Brockman, who gives us Jo’s poignant side, which would be expected. However, despite the weight of the milieu, she allows Delaney’s wicked humor to come through in a way that lets theatregoers laugh out loud. Brockman plays a scene with her gay roommate, Geoffrey (John Evans Reese, who does not rely on stereotypes), which centers on the idea that Jo’s father may have been unintelligent. This is funny, suddenly, and it also shows how Delaney looks at issues from many angles, typically working from many tentative points of view. Bradford Cover plays Helen’s younger lover, a small-time Romeo ready to fly at a moment’s notice, a thin man starting a pot belly. Jimmy, the sailor, is played by Ade Otukoya, who, at one point, is placed downstage center and seated, the action spinning around him. He allows us to see what young love is—he may not be faithful, or truthful, but no one can say that Jo should not have become involved with him.
Alan Brien, writing in The Spectator, in the ‘50s, saw in A Taste of Honey “an adolescent contempt for logic or form or practicability upon a stage.” What he didn’t see was the challenge of putting a young woman’s gritty aesthetic on the stage, one that can make a very good contemporary play like Bachelorette, by Leslye Headland, recently seen at Walkerspace, in a good production, seem much more degenerate than A Taste of Honey (which is actually something Headland might agree with). Of course, the plays present two different worlds—postwar Britain and present-day, corporatized America, but many of the issues are the same, if not universal, and the feminism that Jo needed, seems to have been let down or erroneously redirected, if it is judged by Headland’s work. The screwed up, narcissistic young wedding-party crashers in Bachelorette are takers; Jo is a giver: “Blessings light upon you. If I had half a crown a day, I’d gladly give it to you.” This does not mean that Jo is naïve, which is how the women in Bachelorette might size her up. Actually, she is clear about her own mind. Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey in two weeks, in 1958, because she was angered by the insidious lives of those portrayed in drawing room comedies, specifically one by Terence Rattigan. She felt she could do better. May contemporary theatre find a Shelagh Delaney to do better for us and may her kind of anger continue to force the issue.
Of all playwrights, Shakespeare is the one most associated with outdoor stages, and, perhaps, this has aided his survival for four hundred years. American playwrights don’t typically think to commune outside like him, on pitch-black nights—they’re working too hard to get in theatres. Central Park, Riverside Park, Inwood Hill Park, Brooklyn's Carroll Park, Battery Park, Carl Schurz Park, and Brooklyn Bridge Park–and others inside and outside of the city–offer performance space, often overlooked to show work, Elizabethan or otherwise; yet, there can be magic in using these settings.
In late July, on a day when thunderstorms are forecast, a young man and his wife were eating off the kiosk on a bench in Central Park, and the weather had become cool. “Shakespeare in the Park doesn’t get any better than this," the husband said, diving into his pasta—and he was right; the rain never appeared. For anyone still dreaming of that perfect night with the Bard, there are still chances to see his work this summer, before his, and most theatre, returns to its hothouses and boilercookers of intensity and compression. One festive example, set in New Orleans, during the jazz age, is the Drilling Company’s free production of Measure for Measure, which continues to play at Bryant Park through September 17.
You’ll hear a banjo and brass giving renditions of “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Poor Butterfly” (when is the last time you’ve heard that one?), and you’ll see the endeavor as an ornament to the night, like the lights on Christmas trees in winter. The story follows a young novice, Isabella, who must decide whether to trade her chastity to save her brother’s life—but retelling more than that is inessential. Street theatre and Shakespeare in the Park can often be like picking up parts of conversations, like overhearing the guy on the park bench. Plot only has to make sense in the moment—much of the story and dialogue is allowed to get by you, because the evening’s randomness is filling in the rest.
This theatre is broad and the characters immediately recognizable—sheriffs and hookers and old-fashioned ladies, who have just had their hair done. They can be played by either sex—and they can make you laugh. Whether we are watching circus or a form of commedia dell’arte really doesn’t matter because the art is in letting us have it all: a cacophony of sounds–southern dialects, Jamaican accents, German pronunciations, sirens, and radio signals. Hamilton Clancy’s direction embraces the lights coming on, behind the bare-bones set, at the New York Public Library, and he sees this problem play as essentially comic. The unpremeditated night may require that because, unlike many outside theatres, there is no bandstand or shell to work with—the company, who include Emmanuel Elpenord, Eric Paterniani, Lukas Raphael, and Ivory Aquino, are especially exposed. For a staging more consistent in tone, Desmond Davis’s production, starring Kate Nelligan, might be considered. But how would that play under the stars?
Outdoor theatre has to make trade-offs. Is the vision of the director strong enough to overtake the evening’s unpredictability or can it live side by side with it, without petering out or becoming too fragmentary? One of the best examples of taking over the darkness, piercing it, is Daniel Sullivan’s now-departed Troilus and Cressida, which played at the Delacorte in Central Park from July 19 to August 24. A point of embarrassment in our theatrical period is the way American theatre-makers have looked the other way regarding U.S. involvement in its Mid-East wars, whether because of lack of knowledge or interest. Whatever the cause, if we choose to really believe that the stage can have an impact on society, then the American conversation on Iraq and Afghanistan has been let down through its theatre (this reviewer knows the issue firsthand, having co-edited a volume of antiwar plays that has garnered little interest and performed negligibly). That is why Shakespeare’s dark contemporariness concerning battling Greeks and Trojans in Troilus and Cressida has been so needed and why this unabashed production is so noteworthy. Sullivan, additionally, very plainly goes after and realizes the gay themes in the work. His Achilles can be muscled, and into leather, and mean and rough voiced—and for a military man, his bisexuality is unapologetic. Themes of war and sexuality, so disgracefully marginalized elsewhere, have been brought to light. Yes, out of the darkness.
Troilus and Cressida’s cast includes: Zach Appelman, Tala Ashe, Connor Bond, Alex Breaux, Andrew Burnap, Louis Cancelmi, Max Casella, Andrew Chaffee, Michael Bradley Cohen, Sanjit De Silva, Paul Deo Jr., John Glover, Jin Ha, Bill Heck, Hunter Hoffman, Nicholas Hoge, Edward James Hyland, Keilyn Durrel Jones, Maurice Jones, Forrest Malloy, Ismenia Mendes, Nneka Okafor, Tom Pecinka, Kario Pereira-Bailey, Miguel Perez, Grace Rao, Corey Stoll, John Douglas Thompson.
Visit the Drilling Company/Shakespeare in the Parking Lot:
Americans can’t get China right in Christopher Chen’s Caught, now being produced by the Play Company at La Mama and directed cleanly by Lee Sunday Evans in a white downstairs studio. The author’s four loosely connected playlets are comic and subversive, cerebral exercises on the culture wars in the U.S., as well as in China. We are reminded of the lapses in judgment of Mike Daisey and James Frey—and their lashings in the media–as well as the enormous prices Chinese artists have had to pay regarding freedom of speech. The playwright’s technique is reminiscent of that in Dadaism, and one of his early impulses may have been to draw mustaches on capitalistic artists who, although working on socially relevant subjects, are, in reality, more interested in personal success (“tasting a peach to understand an apple”). Slyly, Chen plants tares in with his dramaturgical wheat, and these one acts become about rooting them out, as, ultimately, little jokes sprout into lies. The characters are intellectuals, wannabe artists, editors, and professors—people who seem more drawn to the dangerous art of packaging and interpreting. They are examining the infrastructure and cultural paradigms of a China critically misinterpreted in the West—and come up dumbfounded or physically ill: One of Chen’s strong abilities in these works is to destabilize an audience, finding intellectual soft spots and toying with illusion vs. reality. Nevertheless, whether Chen is just being playful or proud of his heritage or both, he appears to be saying that those from China have more cultural dimension, more understanding of life than Americans or even Chinese-Americans, portrayed here scarfing down fast food.
Arin Arbus’s production of Strindberg’s The Father is a slap in the face of the great Swedish playwright, but her misinterpretation shall be rationalized as part of an artist’s creative freedom. The rendering will be defended, like other productions that have similarly overstretched artistic bounds, such as the Foundry Theater’s and Taylor Mack’s LGBTQ Good Person of Szechwan (the author, Margarete Steffin, was writing about herself, a woman, and alter-ego of Bertolt Brecht) and Diane Paulus’s The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, which dispensed with credit for the story and lyrics by DuBose Heyward (Stephen Sondheim sounded off on that one to The New York Times, in 2011, where he believed the work was good enough as written, and could be left intact).
What Arbus has done is to contradict Strindberg’s central thesis—that a father can never know if he is the actual sire of his children (Strindberg wrote the play in 1887, which is why my own wording sounds old fashioned). To do this, the director has formed her cast from only two races, mostly white (so we can’t view the play in terms of the audience being color blind). It's an emperor's new clothes moment when we see a biracial child (the parents are one black and one white): Shouldn't it be obvious that the black father would be able to tell whether he is related or not? Arbus wants to glean maximum comedy from this tormented tragedy, too, which throws John Douglas Thompson into declamation mode, instead of his fine, deeper acting. Neither he nor Maggie Lacey, as the wife, Laura, have to wrestle with ambiguity in front of us, and David Greig’s translation sounds too contemporary, only adding to the feeling of a lost context (much more impressive is his work on Creditors). Greig brings up aliens, for example, which, I believe Strindberg, would have discussed differently, according to other translations I’ve heard (most recently on the BBC in 2013, using Laurie Slade’s brutally compelling version).
It’s not unpopular to disavow Strindberg, but Arbus verges on unconscious disdain. Strindberg has his own raging logic and the right, most convincing director would be someone who can understand it, even in our world of DNA testing. To come up with a production team with the metal not to want to gang up on the playwright is what's germinal.
At the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Theatre for a New Audience (down the street from BAM)
Irondale Ensemble’s marking of the Shakespeare anniversary (his death was 400 years ago) is exciting and original—with a completely avant-garde American pulse. Six actors play four works by the Bard in a cavernous, two-level space in an historic Brooklyn church, during a painless four plus hours—where there are also breaks and a picnic (provided by caterer Naturally Delicious). The rationale for bringing together Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet is that they were all written during one year, 1599, as scholar James Shapiro has illuminated in his book A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005). Finding that fact inspirational, Irondale then spent six years sculpting their evening, with a mostly spare design, using rigorous and sensitive editing of the texts by, and according to the concept of, co-founder and director Jim Niesen.
Of course, it’s all insane—these sound like Russian artists, or downtown bohemians of yesterday, not Americans tackling the star system now (Irondale has been in existence since 1983). Philosophically, the plays raise the question of whether America needs this kind of theater, no matter how idealistic the concerns of the troupe. Even in several years where Shakespeare is getting special attention; even in a time where everyone talks about acting and appearing on YouTube videos, the play is not the thing—packaging, marketing, and promotions typically are. What are the cumulative advantages of knowing about the works of Shakespeare, anyway? Does it matter that his breakthroughs in soliloquies are based on English texts following the essay writing of Montaigne or that As You Like It changed the way love could be portrayed on stage by making it more complex? Is it worth comparing the issue of censorship in Julius Caesar to IRS targeting of conservatives during the Obama years or seeing Shakespeare’s depiction of war in Henry V as commenting not only on Ireland in his time, but also on America’s wars in this and the last century (or all wars, for that matter)? A crucial insight about Shakespeare today is not that he has allowed a celebration of his plays, but that we might quietly be disallowing or disavowing his work by not listening to and understanding the depth of his thoughts.
Tennessee Williams’s rarely performed Orpheus Descending is being produced at St. John’s Lutheran Church in the West Village, directed by Austin Pendleton. The challenge is not a simple one—especially since the director is trying to cram a large-scale work into a chancel. The author-director meet-up is a flawed attraction to begin with—which also best describes the lust story at the center of the text. Harold Clurman, who directed the 1957 drama on Broadway, with Maureen Stapleton and Cliff Robertson, wondered what kind of love this was. Williams then implied that the lead male, Val (Todd d’Amour), was only casually interested in the heroine, Lady (Irene Glezos). This takes nothing away from Williams’s point that human beings are starkly alone, but it garners little sympathy for the characters, despite the role of Lady having been written for a force of nature: Anna Magnani. Williams apparently also wrote the play (a recasting of his early work, a bomb in Boston, called Battle of Angels) with Elvis Presley in mind as the guitar-strumming Val. After A Streetcar Named Desire, the writer wanted Brando to play the lead (Brando is in the 1960 movie version, The Fugitive Kind, a dark, hot, and sweaty retelling).
Where Williams and Pendleton noticeably overlap is in the improvisational nature of their work. Perhaps some of the problems with the late plays of Williams are that he is less rigid with his structuring than in, for example, A Streetcar Named Desire. Elia Kazan, of course, wanted Williams to change the ending of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (which he did) and Baby Doll (which he didn’t, and they fought about). Orpheus Descending reinforces Williams’s experimentalism—a transitional play that finds its own course in its own way. Viewers may sympathize with Todd d’Amour, as Val, because the machismo he is trying to relay is outmoded. D’Amour is in good physical condition, and he is up for the method acting, but his muttering and laughing to himself and eye blinking and eyebrow raising, may be more attuned for a larger space, as well as a different era. His depth of technique can remind of De Niro, but the work and William’s theme make him into the ultimate 50s loner—which only makes the play seem more remote for today. Both leads, of course, are taking on celebrity persona roles, as opposed to purely human ones. The scorched earth mother role of Lady can be beautiful and is, perhaps miswritten: Clurman noted that Lady is not actually Italian, like Anna Magnani, but Italian-American. Irene Glezos plays William’s Italian accent with sweat on her upper lip and around her eyes—pointing to the heat of the South and the character’s emotionality. Playing this relationship—a woman who cannot find love in a loveless world—awkwardly allows operatic heights. Ultimately, the audience is watching alienation, which is not grand enough for tragedy.