Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

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

By Bob Shuman

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

 

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

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

ADRIENNE KENNEDY’S

HE BROUGHT HER HEART BACK IN A BOX

Cast

Juliana Canfield (Kay)

Tom Pecinka (Chris)

Creative Team

Adrienne Kennedy (Playwright)

Evan Yionoulis (Director

Christopher Barreca (Set Designer)

Montana Levi Blanco (Costume Designer)

Donald Holder (Lighting Designer)

Justin Ellington (Composer & Sound Designer

Austin Switser (Video Designer

Press: Blake Zidell

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STEVE COSSON: ‘THE UNDERTAKING’ FROM THE CIVILIANS (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

In Steve Cosson’s stage documentary on dying , The Undertaking (conceived in collaboration with Jessica Mitrani)–playing until February 4, at 59E59–vibrant, theatrical life comes from Aysan Celik and Dan Domingues jumping in and out of characters, like ones possessed, “ventriloquizing.” The term, discussed by philosopher Simon Critchley, who is impersonated in the show (and has been interviewed for it) posits that actors, in character, are  haunted by ghosts (the dramatic role itself), “a being about whom we cannot know for sure whether it is alive or dead.  It seems to be both.” Because Cosson provides a number of varied personalities in the work, The Undertaking highlights the transformative abilities of its two actors, speaking verbatim dialogue and imitating the playwright’s interviewees (whom the audience hears in recordings), whether they be Critchley or a South American who has eaten hallucinogenic plants, the actor and director of the Ridiculous Theatre Everett Quinton, or a woman recounting a near-death experience, among others. 

Yet, despite his “palpable fear,” Cosson, who approaches current secular, perhaps faddish, thinking on dying, does not mention popular writers of the recent past, such as Harold M. Sherman and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (what Ms. Celik would do with a German accent), who could actually help him. Whether or not Marcel Duchamp has a pithy quotation about death on his gravestone only helps people think about death fashionably, and Cosson seems to limit his discussion by not incorporating wider religious or spiritual perspectives.  Obviously, the subject is uncomfortable for many, yet probably most maintain thoughts similar to the writer’s:  “I feel like my particular relationship to [the] fear is that it’s so constant and so integrated that I rarely even experience it as fear. I just experience it as this, uh, this sort of, u uh, disquieting presence.”  Still, Cosson can’t dramatize his feeling, beyond constructing a combine and describing it.  Whereas Williams, Albee, Beckett, or Bergman would show the cold terror–maybe even solemn grandeur–in moving close to death, Cosson decides to throw a blanket over his head and hide.

Director, as well as a writer, he also uses footage of classic film, a technique, in the avant-garde toolkit, overused today (also in January, Split Britches  rolled  clips from Dr. Strangelove for Unexploded Ordnances, for example).  Orpheus, the film referred to in Cosson’s piece, can be seen as parallel to the events of The Undertaking and is also drawn from an earlier story: the ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Cocteau sets his version in the modern day (the middle of the last century), and the script is the product of imaginative dramatic writing. Comparatively, Cosson has so overintellectualized his search for an understanding of dying that his performance piece can seem like a dramatic lecture or nonfiction book, a well-paced, well-produced evening of staged footnotes.  He also misses dramatizing the story of his mother, not portrayed,  whom the audience is told is currently in a nursing home with MS.  Like Hamlet’s father, however, she may be the ghost demanding to be remembered most.

© 2018 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.

Photo:  Dan Domingues and Aysan Celik in THE UNDERTAKING at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

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THE UNDERTAKING

CAST

Aysan Celik*
Dan Domingues* 

CREATIVE TEAM

Written and directed by Steve Cosson
Creative Collaborator and Psychopomp: Jessica Mitrani
Set and Costume Design: Marsha Ginsberg
Lighting Design: Thomas Dunn
Sound Design: Mikhail Fiksel
Projection Design: Tal Yarden
Stage Manager: Geoff Boronda*
Assistant Stage Manager: Rachael Gass*
Production Manager: Ron Nilson
Producer: Margaret Moll 

ADDITIONAL STAFF FOR THE UNDERTAKING

Assistant Set and Costume Designer: Blake Palmer
Sound Design Associate: Lee Kinney

Dramaturgy: Jocelyn Clarke and Jacey Erwin

Interviews conducted by Steve Cosson, Jessica Mitrani, and Leonie Ettinger.

*appearing courtesy of Actors’ Equity Association
member of United Scenic Artists, Local USA 829

Press: Karen Greco

PINTER: ‘THE BIRTHDAY PARTY’ (SV PICK, UK) ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/18.)

“The first test of any work of art,” claimed George Orwell, “is survival.” If that is true, it is one Harold Pinter’s play passes with flying colours.

Derided on its debut in 1958, 60 years on The Birthday Party has lost none of its capacity to intrigue. In Ian Rickson’s starry production, it emerges not simply as a rep thriller filtered through a European sensibility – a cross between Agatha Christie and Kafka, as a German director once said – but as a play of intense psychological realism.

It is well known that the action concerns the abduction from a seaside boarding house of a recalcitrant lodger, Stanley, by a pair of visitors. But Rickson immediately establishes the plausibility of the situation. Meg and Petey, who own the house, are often played as cartoon grotesques. Here, however, there is a key moment when Zoë Wanamaker’s trim, doting Meg and Peter Wight’s sturdily reliable Petey exchange wistful glances over the breakfast table about the son they never had. Instantly this establishes Stanley as their surrogate child, and explains why Wanamaker drops her shopping bags in terror on first encountering the visitors.

(Read more)

 

REVIEW: A WONDROUS ‘PINOCCHIO’ WITH THAT ‘LION KING’ MAGIC ·

(Ben Brantley’s article appeared in The New York Times, 1/ 4; via Pam Green.)

LONDON — The most uncanny thing of all about the National Theaterproduction of “Pinocchio” — a show that is wondrously strange from top to bottom — is how simple it appears. This may seem an unlikely characterization of an obviously expensive musical, replete with special effects that brim well over the edges of the National’s vast Lyttelton stage.

Yet this adaptation of the 1940 animated Walt Disney classic, directed by John Tiffany and designed by Bob Crowley, exudes the rough magic of a world that seems shaped, by hand and before your eyes, from rudimentary elements. Step ladders, strings and ropes, blocks of wood, the letters of the alphabet: Such is the basic visual vocabulary that is deployed to retell the familiar story of an existentially challenged puppet’s quest to become human.

In this regard, “Pinocchio” comes into being as if through the eyes of a child, whose gaze transforms the mundane into whatever the imagination (and perhaps the Jungian subconscious) wills. The show’s scale, too, is that of a little boy for whom the world looms dauntingly and tantalizingly large, where grown-ups appear as giants who are not entirely real. Or not as real, in any case, as a child’s own sovereign self.

For while the marionette of the title is portrayed by a fully grown adult actor (the perfectly cast newcomer Joe Idris-Roberts), he is less than half the size of many of the figures with whom he shares the stage. That includes the artisan father who carved him into life, Geppetto (Mark Hadfield), and the mysterious, otherworldly guardian known as the Blue Fairy (Annette McLaughlin).

(Read more)

SPLIT BRITCHES: ‘UNEXPLODED ORDNANCES (UXO)'(REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Theatregoers may be wondering whether La MaMa follows the news or whether the news is, in fact, following La MaMa—a paranoid insight pertinent to its two current productions, running until January 21,  both part of the Public’s Under the Radar Festival.  Downstairs, because of the comprehensiveness of its creators’ theatrical and artistic understanding, Panorama, in which its cast is told not to “act,” transcends being sensitivity training on the immigrant crisis (read this author’s review of that show).  Upstairs, in the Ellen Stewart Theatre, Split Britches (Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw), popular downtown (and international) feminist/lesbian artists, detonate unexplored desire, H-bombs and communal anxiety in Unexploded Ordnances (UXO), a Dr. Strangelove-inspired end-of the-world scenario—this article is being written a day after mass panic in Hawaii, when the state was put on a ballistic missile alert, by mistake.

In addition to showing prescience, the Split Britches play lets viewers consider forum theatre, a style, theorized and employed by Augusto Boal, which allows spectators (in this case older audience members, who are brought to glowing tables of a Pentagon-like war room) to participate in the themes and  questions posed by the play.  The creators also relate that the gathering follows the meeting example of Lenni Lenape and Canarsie Native-American leaders–other peripheral observers are invited to actively engage in the content, too, permitting the work to be composed of what’s in the air and who’s in the room—an “elder” giving a one-night-only, dead-on imitation of Eleanor Roosevelt, for example.

Every evening can provide such an anomaly—in fact, performances have the potential to be very different from each other.  Split Britches, however,  is probably too uniform in its audience demographic to make Unexploded Ordnances (OXO) into an evening of scintillating debate—one unsatisfying answer to what needs to be done, given the world’s current state of affairs (from the old lefties in the East Village, the bleeding hearts who are willing to actually bleed), is “end capitalism” and replace with “Marxism.” Nevertheless, the most surprising takeaway, in entertaining the question, “How do we change?,” which is asked during the play, is the degree to which the audience can veer into the self-lacerating. “It’s too late,” comes one reply, explained as the result of too much guilty consumption, addiction, and ease. Protests are needed, is seen as a solution, or a strike against the government, and the complete breakdown of the rule of law. Then, a reality: “I’m too tired to strike.” 

Ordnances, weapons such as cannons, grenades and military materiel, is apt as part of the show’s title and its overriding metaphor, because the creators want to emphasize what can be buried inside and exploded—personally and politically.  The signature Split Britches routine, along with a fascination regarding finishing sentences, has, traditionally, been women-loving-women tripping up into the flirty awkwardness and Freudian slips of falling in love.  By extension, they are now playing generals and presidents who can flub into destroying the planet, even as the audience has the potential to be more interesting than the broad, satiric characters being portrayed (in a necessarily broad outline for a show). 

Weaver, Shaw, and Hannah Maxwell, the writers, might actually miss, and endorse the ways of a sinning, older America, a point made in the title of their 2008 show, Miss America.  You can feel this in Unexploded Ordnances (OXO), as well, when a popular song, by the Dominoes, is played and snippets of the Cold War drive-in movie, Dr. Strangelove are shown. Whatever the case, whether the audience gives thoughtful or knee-jerk reactions to current social considerations, the chance to engage with and contemplate community issues and action is rewarding:  Someone has to be thinking about whose finger is on the button.

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved. Photos (top to bottom): Theo Cote; Roosevelt, History.com; Matt Delbridge; Matt Delbridge (Peggy Shaw)   

Split Britches
Unexploded Ordnances (UXO)
Written by Peggy ShawLois Weaver, and Hannah Maxwell
Performed by Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver

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MOTUS: ‘PANORAMA’ AT LA MAMA (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Panorama, a burning expression of lives disassociated from the American overculture, is playing at the Downstairs at La MaMa, as part of the Public’s Under The Radar Festival, until January 21. Using audition tapes, from the Great Jones Repertory Company, to introduce six live actors (as well as ten on video), who identify or resonate with the immigrant experiencethe cast contends with American oppression in forms such as inequality and racism.  Motus, the Italian theatre company, which devised and directed the work, under Enrico Casagrande and Daniela Nicolò, with dramaturgy by Erik Ehn and Daniela Nicolò, has based its interviews and discussions on 40 questions, such as “Have you ever had to start your life over?”; What is your strongest understanding of the term ‘far away’, based on your experience?”; “When have you been welcomed by a stranger?” and when were you lost . . . and found?”  The multicultural cast, who physicalize the results include Maura Nguyen Donohue, John Gutierrez, Valois Mickens, eugene the poogene, Perry Yung, and Zishan Ugurlu, who can be intentionally blurred, in the play between video and stage action, as if a Psychology experiment is being conducted, where the color blue is called red.  The creators are using the technique to give expression to human, as opposed to individual, experience in the work, which is ferociously timely, given that Trump is seeking negotiation of his “bill of love,” regarding DACA, U.S. border security, family-based “chain migration,” and the visa lottery program.

Fluidity is salient in terms of the play’s views on national identity and  borders, but not on Capitalism, anathema to the collective.  None of the creators get around to saying how they might actually build businesses or make the economic situation better on their own, but Motus, as a touchstone of contemporary truth-telling, is ferocious and unflinching.  Examples, beyond politics, would include use of frontal nudity of both sexes (without being exploitive), and even the use of drugs.  Yet, the directors are able to counter controversial, perhaps shocking, stage elements by, for example, showing Donohue’s orgasm as she gets ready to eat Cheez Doodles (which may remind of Tina Turner’s Acid Queen) or recreating a ridiculously smoky world of crystal  meth.  Most piercing is Mickens’s close-up reaction to sexual harassment (the technical designs are by Sangmin Chae & Billy Clark, Seoungho Jeong, Bosul Kim, Varie Vazquez, and Youngsun Lim). 

 

The effective script may remind of the stories told by the dancers in A Chorus Line or the schoolchildren in The Me Nobody Knows.  Because an Aristotelian plot is not key in the show, the similarity in using monologues and question-and-answer formatting is aided by the virtually continuous pacing of Heather Paauwe’s nonintrusive music (Chorus Line also used a score that rarely stopped).  This bold evening, which uses minimal props and tight, specific, often solitary physical action, such as doing the Moonwalk or blowing up a balloon, does move nomadically, even if, ultimately, the artists yearn for a place to call home.  Where they find that is not so much in a country, which has offered aid—and is expected to supply more—but, rather, in the theatre, poor and ephemeral.

© 2018 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved. Photos: Perry Yung, Valois Mickens, and eugene the poogene by Theo Cote.

PANORAMA

World Premiere
Devised and Directed by
Enrico Casagrande and Daniela Nicolò
Dramaturgy by Erik Ehn and Daniela Nicolò
With the actors of the Great Jones Repertory Company

CAST & CREATIVE TEAM

CAST
Maura Nguyen Donohue, John Gutierrez, Valois Mickens, Eugene the Poogene, Perry Yung & Zishan Ugurlu

Assistant Director: Lola Giouse
Music: Heather Paauwe
Set Design: Seung Ho Yeong
Visual Design: Bosul Kim
Video Design: CultureHub with Sangmin Chae
Technical Direction: Yarie Vazquez

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CLAIRE VAN KAMPEN: ‘FARINELLI AND THE KING’ WITH MARK RYLANCE (SV PICK, NY) ·

(Ben Brantley’s article appeared in The New York Times, 12/17.)

His Majesty is not himself today. His most unserene highness, the King of Spain, does not know who or what he is, except that he’s not where he belongs. Approach him with caution: He bites. And allow me, if you will, to advise you never to take your eyes off him.

Not that you’ll want to.

As was observed of another stark raving royal (named Hamlet), “Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.” This is especially true when a great one is portrayed by one of the greatest actors on the planet.

Uncork the Champagne and unfurl the straitjacket. Mark Rylance is once again ruling audiences at the Belasco Theater, where the strangely enchanting “Farinelli and the King,” Claire van Kampen’s shimmering fairy tale for grown-ups, opened on Sunday night.

Mr. Rylance, a three-time Tony winner (and an Oscar and Olivier Award winner) was last seen at the Belasco four years ago, during the triumphant residency of the London-based Shakespeare’s Globe. At that time, he alternated in the roles of the uncertain Countess Olivia (in “Twelfth Night”), for whom falling in love becomes an existential crisis, and the demonically assured title character of “Richard III.”

(Read more)

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/17/theater/farinelli-and-the-king-review-mark-rylance.html

AUGUST STRINDBERG REP: ‘THE BLACK GLOVE’–ONLY UNTIL 12/16 (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

Pilar Garcia as Tomte, Mary Tierney as Christmas Angel. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

By Bob Shuman

Although audiences are aware of Strindberg’s Easter, many do not know of his rarely performed 1911 Christmas lyrical fantasy, The Black Glove, now in production from Strindberg Rep at the Gene Frankel Theatre, only through December 16.  A children’s holiday show by the stern Swedish master?  Yes, even with an elf and Christmas angel (butter cookies are also served at the door by director, Robert Greer).  Apparently, this fifth chamber play missed opportunities to be widely anthologized (the current verse translation is by Charlotte Hanes Harvey) because it opened after Strindberg’s Intimate Theater had closed. What this means is that there is a new, classic option for the holidays—an old-fashioned yule tale, cast today with women—a fact that may surprise, in performance), and led by the charming actress Pilar Garcia.  She’s so good, some will wonder why the art of mime is not, currently, taken more seriously, much less seen more.  Her work is specific, professional, and good-natured (she might even be compared to a Robin Williams): after seeing her, you can just start believing in the magic of Christmas again, and children will be enchanted.

Jo Vetter as Curator, Diane Perell as CaretakerPhoto by Kamoier Williams. 

All seven actors are strong, in fact, and include Jo Vetter, as a drowsy old professor; Diane Perell, as the caretaker of an apartment building that is falling apart; and the maids, Crystal Edn and Amy Fulgham, perennially in trouble with their mistress, Amber CrawfordMary Tierney is the Christmas angel, wearing a Santa Lucia crown (costumes are by Janet Mervin; lighting design is by Gilbert “Lucky” Pearto; production designer is Donna Miskend; sound design is by Giovanni Villari, and stage manager is Charles Casano).  Those who are studying Strindberg and drama may be reminded of A Dream Play and even a tad of Miss Julie—but really this is A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the dark half of the year, with Ms. Garcia as a sprightly Puck.

Visit August Strindberg Rep: http://www.strindbergrep.com/

Visit Gene Frankel Theatre: http://www.genefrankeltheatre.com/

Press: Jonathan Slaff

© 2017 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

INGMAR BERGMAN: ‘PRIVATE CONFESSIONS’ DIRECTED BY LIV ULLMANN (SV PICK, WASHINGTON, D.C.) ·

(Nelson Pressley’s article appeared in the Washington Post, 12/7.)

In “Private Confessions,” the late Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman applied his astringent style to the story of his mother’s marital infidelity. The story is scoured free of distractions; in a series of murmured discussions peppered with anguished outbursts, nothing comes between the audience and Bergman’s fundamental concerns of guilt and desire, love and God.

Longtime Bergman actress Liv Ullmann, Bergman’s romantic partner for a time, directed the film of the autobiographical script in 1996, and she’s scaled it up for the National Theater of Norway stage version that’s in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater through Saturday. That’s not to say she’s pumped it up: the small cast is mic’d, so the one-on-one confessionals and confrontations, in Norwegian with projected English titles, are still acted as if the camera’s in tight.

[A close up with Liv Ullmann]

(Read more)

https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/theater_dance/bergmans-private-confessions-portrait-of-the-artists-mothers-affair/2017/12/07/e2bddbdc-dadd-11e7-b1a8-62589434a581_story.html?utm_term=.331cbe9ad157

 

 

IVO VAN HOVE/AYN RAND: ‘THE FOUNTAINHEAD’ (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Part of the reason why Ivan van Hove’s living-book adaptation of The Fountainhead is so formidable (the last showing of the four-hour long  Toneelgroep Amsterdam  production at BAM was December 2,  performed in Dutch with English titles) is because no American theatrical company would have crossed the political divide to mount it—and, more frighteningly, Americans would not have seen its potential, despite the fact that the work has been in print since 1943. Grudgingly called a classic (the stage translation is by Erica van Rijsewijk and Jan van Rheenen; the dramaturgy is by Peter Van Kraaij), the novel, commercial and virtually a setup for Jacqueline Susann to come, contains a philosophy, as Uncle Tom’s Cabin does, or even in a more literary way, The Stranger by Camus.  Sales of Rand’s work have reached well over six million copies, and the book has been translated into dozens of languages—there was even a movie made of The Fountainhead in 1949 (here, the author, also a dramatist, wrote the shooting script). 

Despite her appeal to traders on Wall Street, however, Rand has become a pariah, approaching popular art from the wrong side of the culture wars–the entertainment industry, at least in America, the compromised, left-wing, “give ‘em what they want” escapism industry, too readily exhibits the kind of thinking this author warns against in her novel.  Originally entitled Second-Hand Lives, she is referring to the pleasers and incompetent hanger-ons of the workaday world.  Not that the writing is great literature, except, perhaps, in its plot:  it’s uneconomically penned, inflated trash—a blunt, teeming, tawdry projection onto Americans of European ideas, such as ones by Freud, Marx, and von Mises—and now van Hove.  These distill into cinematic character types—the Dutch actors can have fun enunciating the melodramatic-sounding Hollywoodized names like Howard Roark (Ramsey Nasr) and Ellsworth Toohey (Bart Slegers) because they are fake, a step away from being allegorical, encased in polarizing thought—“Ayn Rand” is also a made-up name: her surname comes from a popular typewriter of the day, and an anachronistic typewriter figures in van Hove’s version). 

The director and the adapter Koen Tachelet, however, have not changed Rand’s words for the stage, but they have added, reordered, and emphasized so that The Fountainhead now focuses on two characters of the many; men who have known each other since college and become architects in New York City:  one, a rugged individualist and wild creative and the other, a born bureaucrat and lesser talent.   Of course, they both fall for the same woman—the writer can be an abuser of her women and actually one, the masochist, Dominique Francon (the beautiful and mature young actress Halina Reijn), is a character Rand has said is herself “in a bad mood.” The director may not even have understood the reactions he would elicit, by choosing the theatrical property, although the Netherlands was faced with a populist far-right political candidate, Geert Wilders, making international headlines, at about the time of the play’s inception—Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s later work, took years to find financing in Hollywood and when it opened, in 2011, was panned; dead on arrival.  

 

The author is so heavily associated with the American right, libertarianism, and then the Tea Party that some can’t believe that she was once considered a popular writer, albeit one with ideas idiosyncratic enough to attract former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Allen Greenspan  and psychoanalyst and writer Nathaniel Branden into her circle—nevertheless, a theatre friend this reviewer invited to see the play, refused on hearing the title.  To believe that Rand is foremost among conservative writers of fiction is an overstatement, however, despite the notoriety (in that area look toward Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Cormac McCarthy—not that there aren’t others, but mainstream publishers dismiss them, overall).  In an interview with The Brooklyn Rail, van Hove describes how he came to the text, in 2007, and couldn’t put it down: “I read the whole novel in two or three days. For me, it was like a page-turner.”   Inevitably criticism arose regarding his choice of project, in Holland—although he does not “idolize them,” he also does not avoid “right-wing thoughts” in his production.  The Fountainhead is logical for a director to want to undertake, though, because Rand’s philosophical theme, according to her biographer Barbara Branden, is “the rights of the individual versus the claims of the collective. . . . the crucial role of the creator, the thinker, the initiator. . .” 

Van Hove’s stage is a flexible workshop (set and lighting design are by Jan Versweyveld), at once the offices of the architects in the story, as well as  stage technicians, one wearing a headset.  Musicians man the stage and talk, joke, and drink coffee—they, as well as the cast, may simply stare into the audience.  Toward the rear an artist is playing the marimba—throughout the evening, onstage music, composed for The Fountainhead by Eric Sleichim, will be played on gongs, hanging metal sheets, and pianos, among other instruments.  Recordings by Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, and the Timo Lassy Band are also heard—poignantly, one selection recalls John Cage’s “In a Landscape”; other music is classical, ambient or even reminiscent of Owl City.  Those who have seen van Hove’s work previously will notice the large, segmented video screens placed first at the front, stage left, and later, deep in the back, on the right, which, recalling Erwin Pistcator, can be used as a way to provide real-time close-ups or pre-recorded footage and still photographs of the dramatic or mundane—including the Chrysler Building and the New York skyline, beckoning the ‘40s (the video design is by Tal Yarden).  At the edge of the proscenium—BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House is cavernous, with a surprising slope toward the orchestra–is an architect’s mechanical table, where the story begins.

As an artist, van Hove says in the Forward, “in a way I’m Howard Roark.  I’m not going to give in.”  However, to Rand, he probably already has, by advocating for a character she never liked: In The Brooklyn Rail, Van Hove states:  “I tried to balance Howard Roark and Peter Keating the two antagonists in the novel—and give them equal importance . . . I call The Fountainhead always a war of ideas.  The two opposite arguments, of course, are between Howard Roark, who’s an idealist who doesn’t want to give in to his clients—he wants to the make the building the way he thinks it should be made . . . . and on the other side there’s Peter Keating, his friend, who thinks that architecture is there to serve the people.”

Of course, they’re very different characters. . . . For Ayn Rand, Peter Keating (Aus Greidanus Jr.)—was “despicable.”   Specifically, he’s a “self-created mediocrity,” the conformist, a follower, a rising star who believes that someone must “always be what people want you to be.” He a plagiarist, in fact–and he believes in the wisdom of the crowd—art, for him, would be propaganda, not debate.  Greidanus sees him as affable, helpless, and nonthreatening—and for too long the audience is sympathetic toward him.  For Out, Van Hove has said, “As an artist I want to be an idealist—not pleasing but challenging the audience.  As a citizen, I’m not on Rand’s side,” although he acknowledges the deep thinking in the novel to the Forward: “[Rand’s view is that] people should take care of themselves; if you cannot take care of yourself, that’s a pity; you should work a little bit harder. . . .  [The Fountainhead is] very complicated . . . intellectually challenging, but also challenging on an emotional level.  Do we want a social society, or do we want a society of individuals. . . .? Van Hove says, “In Europe we are born to be aware that we have to pay also for the people that don’t have so much money.”  The director believes he has a bit of Keating in him.

Symbols are used by both artists, even if they do not both agree on meaning.  According to Barbara Branden, “Roark, Keating, Wynand, and Toohey, the major male protagonists, are symbols, they represent four distinct psychologies and ways of dealing with good and evil; but they may also be taken as realistically possible individuals engaged in realistically possible courses of action.  Only Dominique stands solely as a symbol—the symbol of idealism frozen in contempt.”  Perhaps this is why the characters seem remote, whether reading or watching them.  Rand sees Americans in terms of movie parts and characters in bestsellers and van Hove sees them as alternatives for people in a welfare state; for Rand, there are no alternatives—and she fought for her vision in her screenplay in Hollywood, nearly always successful. According to Branden: “The final courtroom scene began—and suddenly, like a knife cutting through her body, [Rand] saw that Roark’s most important line, the line that names the theme of the book and the total of its meaning—the line ‘I wished to come here and say that I am a man who does not exist for others’—had been cut.”  The real antagonists of van Hove’s production may finally be the writer and director—Rand , unapologetic ally, did not believe in taxation, much less funding for the arts.  For those who cannot provide for themselves, she, like former Texas Representative Ron Paul, would endorse charities.   Ayn Rand is not an aberration, though—all the way back to the Boston Tea Party there is a tradition in the United States regarding financial resistance.   Walt Whitman wrote of the U.S. worker in  “I Hear America Singing”:  “Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else/The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly.”

Van Hove’s symbolism includes dressing Peter Keating’s abandoned fiancé, Katie (Helene Devos) in black and blue—a subliminal way to think about her emotional bruises (the costume design is by An D’Huys).  At another point, in an encounter between the weak Keating and Roark, the latter wears a belt that hangs like a phallus.  Blood will cover the mechanical table, a wedding dress is see-through,  and mist prefigures cataclysm.  Van Hove does not seem kind to sexuality, and admittedly this is also true for Rand.  One of the lines reads, “I want you like an animal”—in fact, Rand thought workers in a welfare state were sacrificial.  Van Hove’s nudity is intentionally boring, unarousing, graphic, cold, even painful. Dominique is apparently raped by Roark, but when asked about it, Rand answered, “If it was rape, it was rape by engraved invitation.”  Obviously, van Hove’s cast is not playing Americans.  They’re low-key and intellectual–they can’t find the drive for characters in a survival-of-the-fittest America, although van Hove once found them for O’Neill’s More Stately Mansions —in the 1997 production, there was a humiliating scene where a man had lost his job and had no idea how to support his family. 

Nasr, despite being surrounded by rock and clay–he’s asked to be a non-hero by van Hove and worthy of worship by Rand–seems more fetishistic than a diamond-in-the-rough entrepreneur or heart-throb (like Gary Cooper, who played Roark in the film. Rand was actually disappointed in his performance, although she wanted him for the part long before movie rights were sold). Ultimately, the issue may be generational:  Rand wrote her book in the age of Modernism—she writes about quarries and skyscrapers; industry, steel, weight, and strength. Van Hove is a Post-modernist working with highly intricate technology and digital cues; minimalist settings, open space, and streaming video. To the Modernist, his work can seem geeky, arty, decadent, and fatalistic. He wants his audience to think about the rise of the contemporary European right with the U.S. as a setting, but theatremakers in The Fountainhead barely register the pressure of Capitalism—the only time when the show feels like the U.S. is when it’s stopped and the audience must make a confused choice to go or remain—that’s Capitalism. ​The director uses New York as a stand-in, in The Fountainhead, like Brecht used Chicago in Arturo Ui, although with nothing cartoonish, and his work seems overly communal, with theatremakers in white and khaki operating in efficient lean teams, changing sets and working productively.  Rand herself was deeply fearful of Socialism and the Welfare State, having been raised in St. Petersburg:  In the 1930s, she thought that Americans “were not sufficiently aware of the menace and evil of communism . . . [She] took it for granted that no one could advocate altruism [but did not realize] the enormity of what had to be fought.”

Despite Rand’s contentiousness, her best message may be that “striving for excellence is important.”  Van Hove’s achievement is to have bravely re-asserted the ever-present dangers of the left before the artistic community of New York.     

The 2017 Richard B. Fisher Next Wave Award at BAM has honored Ivo van Hover and the production of The Fountainhead.

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© 2017 by Bob Shuman.  Additional information: Pam Green.  All rights reserved.

Photos: Richard Termine, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, BAM