Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

ON ADJACENT STAGES, TWO HAUNTED HOUSES, CIRCA 1882 AND 2019 (SV REVIEW PICK, MA) ·

(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York Times, 8/12; via Pam Green.)

A sumptuous Ibsen revival starring Uma Thurman and a knockout premiere by Adam Bock close the Williamstown season with a metaphysical “boo!”

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Two ghost stories are running side by side here at the Williamstown Theater Festival, but only one has “Ghosts” as its title.

That’s the headliner, on the festival’s main stage: Ibsen’s classic about a family and a society possessed (and literally sickened) by inbred amorality. To the play’s already overflowing grab bag of symbols and hot topics circa 1882 — syphilis, incest, arson, euthanasia — the director Carey Perloff adds gorgeous stage pictures, eerie live music and a glowy Uma Thurman giving a creditable performance in a famously difficult role.

Just across the lobby, on the festival’s Nikos Stage, is the other ghost story, as stylistically distant from Ibsen as a play could reasonably get. In Adam Bock’s “Before the Meeting,” the walking dead are recovering modern-day alcoholics and drug addicts, setting up a church basement for a series of 12-step meetings. They don’t discuss abstract philosophy; their chief concerns appear to be the maintenance of the coffee urn and the arrangement of the chairs.

But over the course of eight days, as the play digs deeper, its naturalistic trappings drop away. Eventually Mr. Bock takes us dangerously close to the glowing core of Ibsenism, giving the Off Broadway treasure Deirdre O’Connell a stupendous 25-minute monologue that rips open the story with heartbreaking self-reproach. Phantoms, she demonstrates, do not come unbidden into our lives; we invite them, over and over.

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Photo:  Troy Record.com

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

By Bob Shuman

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Press: David Gibbs, DARR Publicity

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

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

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

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

*****LIFE OF PI REVIEW – TRIUMPHANT TIGER BURNS BRIGHT IN A STUNNING SHOW (SV PICK, UK) ·

(Mark Fisher’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/9.)

Crucible, Sheffield

Transformative puppetry, design and direction, and a great human lead, make this adaptation of Yann Martel’s book unmissable

5/5 stars  

A tip for playwrights: when you want to field a formidable character, make sure you give them a good build-up. Do as Lolita Chakrabarti does in her theatrically savvy adaptation of the Yann Martel novel and keep us waiting. By the time Richard Parker, the accidentally named Bengal tiger, slinks on stage, she has primed us to expect something awesome. We already believe in his animal power and carnivorous appetite.novel and keep us waiting. 

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***** ‘THEATRE FOR ONE’ (REVIEW PICK, IE) ·

(Peter Crawley’s article appeared in The Irish Times, 6/25.)

Thought-provoking theatre where the audience is just you

Review: Theatre for One’s six microplays are bracing, intimate-as-a-whisper performances

THEATRE FOR ONE

Outside Cork Opera House
★★★★★
Annie Ryan of Corn Exchange once described her Car Show, which played to no more than three passengers at a time back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as “the best show you never saw”. Now, conspiring to populate Octopus Theatricals’ tiny collapsible venue with microplays from the nation’s finest writers and performers, Landmark Productions has a new claim to that title. The only thing these bracing, thought-provoking and intimate-as-a-whisper five-minute, one-on-one performances can’t satisfy is demand.

The structure that greets you outside Cork Opera House (which is presenting the show with Cork Midsummer Festival) is something between a giant gig case and a magician’s box. That seems appropriate. Srda Vasiljevic and Eoghan Carrick, their directors, make the plays feel as immediate as a song, revealing and then concealing their performers, as a kind of conjuring act. Now you see them. Now you don’t.

In that blink of intensity neither the playwrights, the actors nor the audience ever seemed so electrically aware of each other or, for that matter, themselves.

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Photos: Irish Times

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

By Bob Shuman

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

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

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

© 2019 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

WORKING THEATER

WORLD PREMIERE OF

“DROPPING GUMBALLS ON LUKE WILSON”

BY ROB ACKERMAN

DIRECTED BY THERESA REBECK

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

Photos: The New York Times, Playbill

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

By Bob Shuman

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

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

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

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

© 2019 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Photos: Theo Cote

13 FRUITCAKES

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

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

Visit La MaMa

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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