Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

“TONYA PINKINS’ TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION: WOMYN WORKING IT OUT!” AND “THE GLASS MENAGERIE” (REVIEWS FROM NEW YORK) ·


By Bob Shuman

Director Tonya Pinkins asked six American women of multi-cultural backgrounds to compose one-acts on the theme of women oppressing women—her seven actors are all women, too—a counterintuitive assignment given the age of #MeToo and #TimesUpNow, as contraindicated as hearing Meryl Streep observe, in May, that “women can be pretty fucking toxic.” While the unexpected results appeared as Tonya Pinkins’ Truth and Reconciliation: Womyn Working It Out! for three days, at The Tank in early October, concurrently, The Glass Menagerie, directed by Austin Pendleton and Peter Bloch, opened at the Wild Project–which some might conclude is a play about a woman oppressing her daughter (especially if the work is considered biographically). Both open a larger discussion about how men and women dramatists think about domination, even if each would recoil from the issue itself: for the women, the subject is considered in a social and political light, a topic which can—and should—be placed under authority and governance; noticeably, none of their plays take place in homes. For Tennessee Williams (and Ibsen, in Hedda Gabler, or Ingmar Bergman, in a film like Autumn Sonata, to name three—white men of different nationalities and sexualities) the issue is familial, taking place in the homestead; any oppressor, whether one has been exchanged for another, is too many, even if goals are esteemed necessary for the common good. The distinctions do not end there, though, because of the importance of political issues to the Arts today, where many have come to believe that theatre is politics—an idea which would have been anathema to the still highly relevant acting theorist Constantin Stanislavki (1863-1938), who in My Life in Art writes, “Everyday cares, politics, economics, the larger part of general social interests—these make the kitchen of life. Art lives higher, observing from the height of its birdlike flights all that takes place beneath it.” The idea is still alive in his Russia today, expressed by Evgeny Mironov, one of that country’s acclaimed contemporary actors, who agreed with the thought that art is above politics, while talking about his portrayal of Ivanov, in June 2018. Even at the time of the 1900 massacre in Kazansky Square, when he was playing Dr. Stockman in An Enemy of the People in St. Petersburg, Stanislavski felt, “We who knew the true nature of the theatre, understood that the boards of our stage could never become a platform for the spread of propaganda, for the simple reason that the very least utilitarian purpose or tendency, brought into the realm of pure art, kills art instantly.” If he is right, most of today’s Off-Off Broadway theatre is a parade of ghosts.

Stanislavki considered the subject of politics further when he was evaluating Gorky’s The Lower Depths, in 1902. He believed that the spectator could make his own conclusions . . . from what he receives in the theatre”—yet today’s world of clear, automatic, correct answers, from behind the proscenium arch and on social media, are didactic, even for those who have a tendency to agree with them. An example of this is apparent in, but not limited to, Jaisey Bates’s “To History,” in the Pinkins’ project, a presentational piece on the personal damage wrought by misappropriation of mascots, emblems usually based on power symbols. Even though female participants would probably wear a pink pussyhat to a reading of this play, if requested, the presentation of the work is timely given the response of St. Louis Cardinals rookie Ryan Helsley, who is part Cherokee, and needed to pitch after hearing the Atlanta Braves’ “Tomahawk Chop,” a chant he found to be “a disappointment” and “disrespectful,” as did the Georgia native tribes.  Subsequently, when it was announced that he would be playing again, plastic tomahawks were not placed on seats for fans.  Another example is Lucy Thurber’s retro and injured writing in “Bank,” about a teller, a Georgian, from the country, who never met a lesbian before. Pieces like these are faits accomplis, which do not allow contemplation within the safe confines of theatrical experience and seem strident to those who are not part of the communities involved—and who would be excluded from voicing opinions about them, in any event. There is something of the Living Newspaper, from the Depression’s WPA Theatre, in at least three of the evening’s plays, as well, perhaps acting as substitutes for disappearing History classes in colleges and schools. “Tierra De Las Flores,” by G. Kadigan, describes a hidden, vengeful solution for wife beating in St. Augustine, Florida, during the early 1800s; “Law 136,” by Carmen Rivera, chronicles forced sterilization of women in Puerto Rico, during the twentieth century, in a dramatic situation that is reminiscent of sickening moments in a Tennessee Williams play, and “The Grandmothers,” by Kristine M. Reyes, which confronts the legacy of comfort women in Korea during World War II–a subject this reviewer included in a 2009 scene book, in writing by Lavonne Mueller, because the horror of the subject had been going virtually uncovered. Two more one-acts make up Truth and Reconciliation—one, “The Proposal,” by Nandita Shenoy, about the legacy of sexual abuse re-emerging on a school campus after many years and a two-part piece by Jasmine McLeish, “Other,” on the dubious nature of racial characterization. Pinkins incorporates dance (Briana Reed is the choreographer), song (by Amanda Green and Shaina Taub), and whimsy into the show, which allows moments of lightness, but the point that emerges is that when women oppress other women, there is a man, institution, or government entity behind it, which a feminist like Camille Paglia would find unacceptable (“stop blaming men”). Males can be fired, devastated, and brutalized, too, and their careers shattered, but in dramatic terms, at least, they may respond differently than women, even if they have become universal scapegoats.

Amanda Wingfield is not afraid to say that she knows “all about the tyranny of women” in The Glass Menagerie, a drama that Pendleton and Bloch have not chosen to embalm, in their current production, which plays until October 20. Their Tom, Matt de Rogatis, is not playing a great artist-in-the-making, as some would perceive the role to be. Instead, he seems like someone who can actually work at a warehouse, even if he isn’t a very good employee—he may not even be able to write that well, either. Jobs, however, can dumb a person down, and they can be boring—and one would go to the movies, or drink, or find illicit sex, or yearn for adventure or the Merchant Marines. This is the only production of the play in memory where one might actually think, “I hope he sends money back to the family when he leaves.” Ginger Grace’s Amanda may be providing the least gothic interpretation, too—and, for once, you can actually believe that she was really a popular debutante. An interesting parallel, a kind of family resemblance emerged, by noting that just as Amanda does not go to her DAR meeting, Laura has not been going to Rubicam’s Business College. But the constructions, in this RuthStage production, want to be contemporary–Sean Hagerty‘s music refers to Mike Oldfield‘s score for The Exorcist. You can not believe that Amanda has never talked to Laura about finding a man to marry before, maybe in any production–and one wonders if history, the Depression, of older ways of being parents and children need to be informing the text more and causing rifts. If you want to see Stanislavski in motion, though, go. There is the restraint, there is the natural pace. Alexandra Rose makes a lovely, oversensitive Laura—and the directors’ concept of keeping her onstage while other actors are playing is arresting. Spencer Scott, as the Gentleman Caller stays in tune with the production’s naturalism.

Of course, Tom leaves St. Louis, and does not send money home, and it is naive of me to imagine that it could be any other way. Looking at the male dramatists, escape from oppression must be total.

(c) 2019 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.

 

Visit “The Glass Menagerie”: http://www.theglassmenagerieplay.com/

Visit The Tank: https://thetanknyc.org/

Photo Credits–Pinkins: (From top) ShowShowdown; SkinthePlay; The Tank; Menagerie: Chris Loupos; Wild Project 10/5/19, Shuman

 

Truth and Reconciliation: Womyn Working It Out! is a collective piece of theatre that includes multiple 10-minute plays and songs by and about womyn. Each play contains different ways womyn oppress each other and how we find ways to heal.
The performance will run approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Directed by
Tonya Pinkins

Written by
Jaisey Bates
Glory Kadigan
Jasmine McLeish
Tonya Pinkins
Kristine M. Reyes
Carmen Rivera
Nandita Shenoy
Lucy Thurber
Choreography
Briana Reed

Featuring
Mary Teresa Archbold
Siho Ellsmore
Akiko Hiroshima
Tonya Pinkins
Lina Sarrello
Lili Stiefel
June Ballinger

The Glass Menagerie

The cast, led by Ginger Grace as the iconic Amanda Wingfield, consists of Matt de Rogatis as her son Tom Wingfield, Alexandra Rose as Laura Wingfield, and Spencer Scott as The Gentlemen Caller. Set designer Jessie Bonaventure, who was the assistant Set designer on the Broadway musical Hadestown, which garnered four Tony Awards, including Best Scenic Design, collaborates with lighting designer Steven Wolf to create a version of Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece that borders on horror.

Dimly lit and surrealistic, the set itself will consist of props made of glass and the actors will live in a chilling, dreamlike world. Taking inspiration from The Exorcist soundtrack, Sean Hagerty writes the score for this “Wes Craven meets Tennessee Williams” production. Allison Hohman designs the sound for the Wingfield house of horrors.

Press, “Womyn”: Emily Owens; “Glass Menagerie”: Karen Greco

REVIEW: ‘CAESAR & CLEOPATRA,’ DRESSED DOWN YET WISED UP (SV PICK, NY) ·

(Laura Collins-Hughes’s article appeared in The New York Times, 10/3; via Pam Green.)

George Bernard Shaw gets sensitively streamlined in a briskly entertaining production with winning performers at its center.

At first glance, Cleopatra seems every inch an ordinary teenager. In a ponytail and sneakers, her white pants rolled up below her knees, she’s hiding from Caesar’s approaching army. A stranger appears, and she urges him to save himself.

“Climb up here,” she says, “or the Romans’ll come and eat you.”

She has no inkling that the mild man before her is Caesar himself. In George Bernard Shaw’s “Caesar & Cleopatra,” adapted and directed by David Staller in a briskly entertaining, winningly down-to-earth revival for Gingold Theatrical Group, the young queen of Egypt is charming in her naïveté.

Of course she is, right? Much like Eliza Doolittle in Shaw’s later play “Pygmalion,” she’s raw female material, ready for molding by an expert male hand. Shaw liked that dynamic. But he also genuinely liked women as human beings, intellectual sparring partners and actors. The parts he wrote for them have real substance.

Teresa Avia Lim digs into this role with a vengeance, delivering a smartly calibrated comic performance. A blustering, artless kid as the play begins, Cleopatra is amused by her new mystery acquaintance, who stays mum about his identity as she mulls how to get the upper hand with the Romans.

(Read more)

Photo credit: Carol Rosegg

A BLACK ACTOR’S UNREQUITED LOVE FOR SHAKESPEARE ·

 

(Patricia Storace’s article appeared in The New York Review of Books, 10/5.)

Keith Hamilton Cobb in American Moor

The first recorded African-American theater troupe, the African Company, was founded in New York City in 1821, a company that the white theater establishment was determined to crush. A contemporary report describes the police shutting down a performance, hustling the actors off to jail, “whereupon they were released by the magistrate only after they pledged never again to act Shakespeare.”

The works of Shakespeare were a contested possession in the United States, often used by white America to reassure itself of the country’s Anglo-Saxonness, assuaging its fear of being a creole nation, a mulatto people. In 1835, for example, former President John Quincy Adams wrote: “the great moral lesson of the tragedy of ‘Othello’ is, that black and white blood cannot be intermingled in marriage without a gross outrage upon the Law of Nature.” Nearly a century later, in 1932, his descendant Joseph Quincy Adams, the first director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, remarked in his inaugural address, “Shakespeare and America,” that Shakespeare’s works functioned, as they had during previous challenges, “during the period of foreign immigration, when the ethnic texture of our people was seriously altered,” to maintain the United States “in bonds of a common Anglo-Saxon culture.”

In the nineteenth century, Othello was a role played by white men, with only rare exceptions. An African-American actor named Ira Aldridge, who had made his debut with the African Company, emigrated to England in 1824 as the backstage assistant to an English actor. There, he not only practiced his craft, but won lasting acclaim and recognition as one of the great Shakespearean actors of the period, celebrated throughout Europe as the first black actor to play Othello, along with other leading roles in Shakespeare he couldn’t dream of playing in the United States. You can see one of the many portraits painted of Aldridge as Othello in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. He is described as having changed the very declamatory style—stylized and operatic—in which Othello had been played. Aldridge seemed to live the character rather than perform him.

(Read more)

Photo: OnBostonStages

REVIEW: A SPELLBINDING ‘ANTIGONE,’ BOTH TIMELESS AND URGENT (SV PICK, NY) ·

(Laura Collins-Hughes’s article appeared in The New York Times, 9/26; via Pam Green.)

An easily legible production of the ancient Greek tragedy borrows from the tradition of Noh theater at the Park Avenue Armory.

They make the gentlest rippling sound, these candlelit figures gliding ever so slowly through the water, perambulating around a spare scattering of boulders. In a vast, shallow pool, beneath the high-arched ceiling of the Park Avenue Armory’s Wade Thompson Drill Hall, the hems of their filmy white kimonos trail along the surface.

The tableau is so tranquil that you might not even notice, as you take your seat, that you’re already being drawn into the ethereal, meditative otherworld where Satoshi Miyagi’s spellbinding “Antigone” will unfold.

An ancient Greek tragedy by way of Japan, it is visually and aurally splendrous — a large-cast spectacle, with hypnotically paced choreography borrowed from the tradition of Noh theater. Most of the principals here are played by two actors: one, kneeling in the water, to speak the dialogue; the other, on a nearby rock, to perform the movements.

(Read more)

 

PINTER: ‘BETRAYAL’ WITH TOM HIDDLESTON (SV REVIEW PICK, NY) ·

(Ben Brantley’s article appeared in The New York Times, 9/5.)

How can a naked space seem so full? Feelings furnish the stage in the resplendently spare new production of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” which opened on Thursday night at the Bernard Jacobs Theater, and they shimmer, bend and change color like light streaming through a prism.

Directed by Jamie Lloyd — and acted with surgical precision by Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox — this stripped-down revival of Pinter’s 1978 tale of a sexual triangle places its central characters under microscopic scrutiny, with no place to hide. Especially not from one another, as everybody is on everybody else’s mind, all the time. They are also all almost always fully visible to the audience.

This British version is the most merciless and empathic interpretation of this much performed work I’ve seen, and it keeps returning to my thoughts in piercing shards, like the remnants of a too-revealing dream. I had heard good things about this “Betrayal” when it debuted in London earlier this year, but I didn’t expect it to be one of those rare shows I seem destined to think about forever.

“Betrayal” was dismissed as lightweight by Pinter standards when it opened at the National Theater in London four decades ago, and hearing it described baldly, you can sort of understand why. The high concept pitch could be: “Love among the literati in London leads to disaster, when a publisher discovers his wife is having an affair with his best friend!”…

(Read more)

Photo: Merlin, The New York Times

LARRY TODD COUSINEAU:  ‘ALL THAT HE WAS’ (REVIEW PICK, CHI)  ·

(Chris Jones’s article appeared in the Chicago Tribune, 8/21.)

I find myself haunted by the funerals of the AIDS era.

I attended too many of them and the creative lives they celebrated were far too young to end.

Moreover, in the agony of loss you often could discern veiled conflicts: it was hardly unusual, for example, to see pained parents not accepting lovers at the time when we most need to feel a sense of community. It was hardly unusual to look over at a bereaved family and wonder why someone wasn’t there.

The so-called call-out culture is often seen as a contemporary phenomenon, because social media puts so much outrage in our feeds. But we quickly forget how much blame was flung around in the early 1990s. It just came directly out of people’s mouths back then. Time and time again, the unknowing and the innocent were blamed for death.

At what other moment in American history were the deceased so widely perceived as being culpable in their own demise?

“All That He Was,” a piece of theater that I found inestimably difficult to watch on Sunday night, was not the first show to flood my mind with these thoughts. That was “Mothers and Sons,” the vastly under-rated Terrence McNally play that made a brave attempt to reconcile AIDS, death, love and blame by exploring all of the different ways in which people hurt and understanding that pain often is expressed as anger.

(Read more)

Photo: Rick Rapp, Joe Giovannetti, Sarah Hayes and Matthew Huston in “All That He Was” at the Pride Arts Center’s Buena stage. (Nicholas Swatz photo / HANDOUT)

***** LUGHNASA FRIELFEST REVIEW – ART OVER TROUBLED BORDERS (VARIOUS VENUES, DERRY AND DONEGAL) ·

(Clare Brennan’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/25.)

The annual celebration of the work of Brian Friel carries powerful reminders of the work of building community

“Politics are so obtrusive here.” The great Irish playwright Brian Friel (1929-2015) was being interviewed in the Guildhall in Derry in 1980. Gesturing to the Ebrington barracks beyond the window, on the other side of the River Foyle, he continued: “For people like ourselves… definitions of identity have to be developed and analysed much more frequently [than in England]. We’ve got to keep questioning until we find… some kind of generosity that can embrace the whole island.”

The cross-border FrielFest, now in its fourth year, invites audiences to participate in both the questioning and the embrace. In doing so, it reflects Friel’s own strength – making works particular to time and place that express our universal experiences. The quest for answers to shifting questions is reflected in the peripatetic form of the festival, with dramatic readings of Friel’s works presented in and around Derry and Donegal – and audiences, on occasion, visiting multiple venues in the course of one performance.

First produced in 1973, The Freedom of the City is set in Derry’s Guildhall, where, poignantly, this production is staged. A few hundred yards away, people are gathering around a makeshift music stage to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bogside. On the night I attend, the audience meets outside the Museum of Free Derry (on other evenings, the rendezvous point is the Ebrington barracks). We are sung to the Guildhall by Nigerian-born, Liverpool-based performer and playwright Tayo Aluko, and walk in the wake of his resonant spirituals. Where some of us see city streets, others see invisible barriers crumbled (“I would never have crossed this road when I was young,” says one). The play is partially based on events around 1972’s Bloody Sunday. Its action unfurls in double-time. The fictional experiences of three civil rights demonstrators, who stumble into the Guildhall, fleeing a tear gas onslaught, are interspersed with the official inquiry into their subsequent deaths (shot leaving the building by the army, which maintains they were armed terrorists).

(Read more)

Photo: Guardian

 

***** SCHNITZLER: ‘THE DOCTOR’ FROM ROBERT ICKE, WITH JULIET STEVENSON (SV PICK, UK) ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/21.)

Juliet Stevenson delivers one of the peak performances of the theatrical year in Robert Icke’s striking reimagining of Schnitzler

As a director and writer, Robert Icke specialises in updating the classics. But where his version of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck struck me as an impertinence, this adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi is a brilliant expansion of the original’s themes. Icke’s production also yields a performance by Juliet Stevenson that is one of the peaks of the theatrical year.

First performed in 1912, Schnitzler’s play offers a devastating portrait of Viennese antisemitism in showing a Jewish doctor attacked for refusing a Catholic priest permission to administer the last rites to a patient. Icke retains Schnitzler’s premise while subtly rewriting it. His protagonist, Ruth Wolff, is a secular Jew who runs a prestigious institute specialising in Alzheimer’s disease. But when Ruth prevents a priest seeing a 14-year-old girl dying from a self-administered abortion, the incident acquires a toxic publicity. It goes viral on social media, provokes petitions and TV debates, and jeopardises not only Ruth’s future but that of the institute and a government-bankrolled new building. 

Stevenson beautifully portrays the human cost of making medicine one’s god

Impressively, Icke enlarges the original to take on not just religion but also race, gender and class. He even adds a creative dissonance in casting women to play male roles, black actors to play white characters and vice versa.

(Read more)

Photo: London Theatre

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.

(Read more)

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).