Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

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

By Bob Shuman

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

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

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

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

© 2019 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Photos: Theo Cote

13 FRUITCAKES

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

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

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

By Bob Shuman

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

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

 

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

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Copyright © by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Production photo: Irish Rep

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Bob Shuman

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE SHADOW OF A GUNMAN by Sean O’Casey

Directed by Ciarán O`Reilly

With

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

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

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Photos: (cast) Carol Rosegg; Tripadvisor.com

‘TOOTSIE’: THEATER REVIEW ·

(David Rooney’s article appeared on The Hollywood Reporter, 4/23; via the Drudge Report.)

Santino Fontana steps into Dustin Hoffman’s Spanx in this contemporary musical update of the classic screen comedy about a gifted but unemployable actor who goes incognito as a woman to land a role.

Alongside a sparkling script and a situation that was pure comedy gold, the key element that made Sydney Pollack’s 1982 movie Tootsie such a warmly pleasurable farce was the fact that Dustin Hoffman’s frustrated actor Michael Dorsey doesn’t just slip on a dress, wig and heels and assume a female voice to pass himself off as actress Dorothy Michaels, he creates a three-dimensional character. She’s the fanatical actor’s greatest role. Sure, the insufferable perfectionist that blew a thousand auditions is still in there, but Dorothy also is a fully realized individual. She thinks and acts with her own instincts, experiencing the realities of working in a demoralizingly sexist industry in a way Michael never could.

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Photo: The New York Times

 

CHRISTOPHER HAMPTON: ‘A GERMAN LIFE’ REVIEW – MAGGIE SMITH SHINES AS GOEBBELS’ SECRETARY ·

(Michael Billlington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/12.)

Absent from the stage for 12 years, Maggie Smith returns in triumph. But this is no barnstorming performance. She plays, with just the right verbal hesitancy and moral evasiveness, a woman who worked in Joseph Goebbels’ ministry of propaganda during the second world war.

Based by Christopher Hampton on a German TV documentary shot when the woman in question, Brunhilde Pomsel, was 102, the play is a record of a life rather than a form of judicial enquiry.

Pomsel found herself at the centre of events almost by chance. Through her shorthand skills, she quickly moved from work with an insurance broker to a job at the German Broadcasting Corporation before becoming part of Goebbels’ propaganda machine.

What comes across is her apolitical naivety. Instructed by the radio company to become a member of the party, she takes a Jewish female chum along to the requisite office. Even when she was a secretary in Goebbels’ office, she suggests that she had no notion of the horrors being perpetrated by the Nazis.

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***** WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME REVIEW – A FIVE-STAR BROADWAY TRIUMPH ·

(Alexis Soloski’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/31; via Pam Green.)

Shattering, galvanizing and very funny, Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me close reads an old text in new and breathlessly exciting ways.

When Schreck, a longtime off-Broadway actor and more recently a playwright, was a teenager, she traveled around American Legions Halls, winning money for college by delivering a speech called Casting Spells: The Crucible of the Constitution. In this mostly solo show (Schreck is joined by the actor Mike Iveson as a legionnaire and later by a teenage debater), Schreck, sunny in a daffodil blazer stands inside a re-creation of one of those halls. (The design is by Rachel Hauck.) Persuasively, she conjures both that brace-faced Patrick Swayze-swooning teenager, and the woman she became.

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A MAGNIFICENT ROAD TO RUIN IN ‘THE LEHMAN TRILOGY’ ·

(Ben Brantley’s article appeared in The New York Time, 3/28; via Pam Green.)

In the beginning, there is nothing. And in the end, there is — nothing, once again.

Such is the way of all flesh, no? And, since the subject here is the accumulation of money, let’s say the way of all cash, too. But in this case, out of nothing there emerges such a heaving ferment of aspiration, energy, tenacity and audacity that you’re left reeling by the scope and vitality of it all.

That, in essence, is what the magnificent play “The Lehman Trilogy,” at the Park Avenue Armory, both is about and, more important, simply is. This genuinely epic production out of London, directed with surging sweep and fine-tooled precision by Sam Mendes, charts the history of the financial institution that would come to be known as Lehman Brothers, from its humble origins to its epical implosion, over a span of three centuries and many generations.

The script by the Italian playwright Stefano Massini, exquisitely adapted into English by Ben Power, follows the blossoming of a small Alabama clothing store in the 1840s, founded by three immigrant Jewish brothers from Bavaria, into an international powerhouse of the stock exchange, before its world-rattling collapse in 2008.

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

By Bob Shuman

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

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

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

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

© 2019 by Bob Shuman.  All rights Reserved.

Production photos: Carol Rosegg

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PETER SHAFFER: ‘EQUUS’ (SV PICK, UK) ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/26.)

I’ve often complained about the move towards a directors’ theatre. But directors can also renew a familiar work – which is precisely what Ned Bennett does in his exhilarating staging of Peter Shaffer’s modern classic. I was present at the first performance in 1973 but, without violating the text, Bennett’s production has enabled me to see the play through fresh eyes.

Shaffer shows a psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, attempting to discover what drove a teenage boy, Alan Strang, to blind six horses with a metal spike: it is not so much a whodunnit as a why-did-he-do-it? Dysart patiently explores Alan’s parental background – a puritanical father, an obsessively religious mother – and the boy’s preoccupation with horses. But, while Dysart envies the boy’s capacity for worship, he only gets to the truth when he tricks Alan into reliving the events of the night of the blinding.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Bob Shuman

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

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

Ingmar Bergman in Stockholm, 1961

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

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

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

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

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Production photos: Joan Marcus

Linn Ullmann photo: Berliner Zeitung

Press: Blake Zidell/Adriana Leshko

© by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.