The production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” that opened Thursday night at Westchester Broadway Theatre is the real McCoy, a fact that will delight devotees of Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller and his music—the Harlem-style swing that bridged Ragtime and mid-century jazz idioms. It will also tickle anybody with a scintilla of rhythm. Those lacking that innate quality should sit back and let the syncopated melodies and mischievous wordplay get their toes and fingers tapping.Read More
1965’s “Man of La Mancha,” the “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” of musicals, can be read as a bridge between the countercultural tumult of the 1960s and the naval-gazing tendencies that characterized the “Me” generation of the 1970s. It’s also easy to see why its pliant message about the power of the imagination to uplift and transform resonates with artists—or anyone willing to fight for the right to self-expression and, crucially, prepared to risk rejection, ruination and despair in pursuit of their personal vision.Read More
In this sense, “Constellations” constitutes a dazzling counterargument on both the theoretical and practical level to the idea that all meaning lies dormant in, for example, a script or sealed up inside the words on a page; and that no matter who utters them, or how, or in what context and physical space, they will mean the same thing. For this and many other reasons, it follows that only a talented and experienced actor can pull off Payne’s play. No doubt with invaluable assistance from director Mark Shanahan, and fostered by an excellent company that rarely misfires, Sandberg and Williams are terrific. They never miss a beat.Read More
“Another Op'nin', Another Show” at the always reliable Westchester Broadway Theatre. Though not Cole Porter’s peerless “Kiss Me, Kate” which WBT staged several seasons ago, the musical just launched in fine fashion is his shipboard lark “Anything Goes,” a show laden with hit songs and swells engaging in lyrical romance and silly hijinks.
Speaking of openings, this production starts rather inauspiciously with a desultory overture during which three couples dance to a few bars of the title song before the first scene begins. Director and choreographer Richard Stafford sticks to this pattern of having short, quasi-balletic interludes during scene changes—a boon for chorus members, even if it contributes to a choppy passage.Read More
While doubtlessly conversant with the medium, those born after 1990 probably don’t appreciate the full extent of television’s influence on American culture. Prior to the advent of the personal computer, the Internet and cell phones, TV was how people got most of their information and entertainment.Read More
John P. McCarthy
- Associate New York Theatre Critic
Mark St. Germain has turned writing plays about historical figures into a cottage industry. And “Relativity,” which opened last Sunday at Rockland County’s Penguin Rep Theatre, can now be added to a list of titles that includes “Freud’s Last Session,” “Camping with Henry and Tom,” and “Becoming Dr. Ruth.”
Whether sexologist Ruth Westheimer belongs in the company of Sigmund Freud, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and “Relativity’s” Albert Einstein is debatable. Nevertheless, St. Germain’s commitment to dramatizing the lives of luminaries meshes with Penguin Rep’s pedagogical mission. And so, with Artistic Director Joe Brancato at the controls, the Rockland County troupe launches its 41st season with another vibrant piece that entertains and stimulates the gray matter.
While I’ll readily admit I’m no Einstein, it occurs to me that “Relativity” can be read as the rejection of a false dichotomy according to which the aims of leading a morally good life and achieving great things are either mutually exclusive or inextricably linked. Reckoning with discrepancies between private behavior and public image is front-and-center nowadays; and yet the idea of separating or compartmentalizing the two spheres is a fairly recent development.
In past eras, people were much more likely to assume that private virtue and public accomplishment went hand-in-hand—you couldn’t have one without the other. Now it seems as though we’ve gone to the other extreme and cynically assume that all great public figures have a dark, sinister side—as if their success must be the result of some Faustian bargain. Like any artist worth his salt, St. Germain wants to explode this binary way of thinking and the false conclusions it produces; his task as a dramatist is to explore the conflict that arises in the gray area between two poles without necessarily offering any definitive answers.
The pertinent skeleton in Einstein’s closet—the potential stain on his reputation—stems from the fact that in 1902 he and his first wife Mileva had a daughter, Lieserl, whose existence they never publicly acknowledged. The mystery surrounding this biographical tidbit prompted St. Germain to devise a scenario that takes place in December of 1949. Having wrangled an interview with Einstein (Robert Zukerman) in the study of his Princeton, New Jersey home, a persistent reporter Margaret Harding (Celeste Ciulla) grills the elderly physicist about his past and, in particular, the fate of Lieserl. Melodrama, interspersed with often-eloquent descriptions of the weighty issues involved, ensues.
All would be for naught without a worthy Einstein, and Zukerman does a masterful job of bringing the character to life, taking full advantage of the script, director Brancato’s knack for breezy staging, and myriad devices plucked from his own bag of acting tricks. Sporting a thick (and consistent) accent, a rather tame silver mane and moustache, this Einstein is a complicated figure. On the one hand, he’s a smooth operator who’s able to charm and disarm with a joke or a smile, amenable to playing the role of impish sage that people expect. On the other, he displays a radical, almost ruthless devotion to the pursuit of scientific knowledge that entails a willingness to spurn convention and follow wherever it leads. Although both personas are genuine, the most moving moment in the play comes near the end when Einstein drops all his masks and wordlessly lets the emotion and stress of his encounter with Margaret wash over him.
Given whom she turns out to be, Margaret is inclined to view him as a “heartless monster” (his term) rather than as a normally flawed human being with an abnormally powerful intellect. She lashes out, “You poison lives of everyone around you!” While hardly a dispassionate assessment, the Einstein depicted certainly has a misanthropic streak and the ease with which he’s able to lie is disconcerting. He tries to “rid himself of the personal” in order to devote more time and energy to his work. This partly explains his willingness to play the huggable genius, the cantankerous, eccentric codger: the sooner he gives people what they want, the sooner they’ll stop bothering him and leave him to his work.
And even when it’s clear he’s driven less by ego than by a clear-sighted, logical analysis of things as they truly are—above all, he’s a pragmatist who believes in the utility of science when it comes to explaining the universe—there’s a chilling, Nietzchean quality to his outlook and to his defense of his past actions. When it comes down to it, he thinks there are special individuals who contribute more to the betterment of mankind than others; and, crucially, they are justified in behaving selfishly in order to fulfill their promise.
Understandably, this argument doesn’t hold much water with Margaret, who is consumed with righteous anger. Yet it’s a drawback of “Relativity” that she isn’t very likeable or doesn’t trigger more sympathy. This is a function of how the character is written (one-dimensionally) as well as Celeste Ciulla’s constricted performance. Ciulla is convincing as a rootless, Mittel-European woman of the period—arguably too much so, since her awkward vocal inflections and physical unease accurately reflect Margaret’s situation but keep the audience at a distance.
Allowing Margaret to be eclipsed and her feelings displaced can be interpreted as tacit confirmation of the “Great Man” theory of history and the notion that certain individuals naturally attract more light, and therefore receive more attention and latitude. Or maybe St. Germain thinks Margaret will win the audience over simply because of her plight and the fact that she serves as a kind of surrogate for present-day attitudes toward the play’s themes. She doesn’t appear inclined to kowtow to authority or to those whom society esteems and celebrates. In any case, the intriguing third character in “Relativity” has the potential to redress the imbalance between the two primary roles, which is why it’s too bad the part of Miss Dukas, Einstein’s fiercely protective housekeeper and secretary, isn’t bigger (especially because she’s portrayed by the talented Susan Pellegrino).
Ultimately, Margaret isn’t a formidable enough interlocutor. She confronts Einstein about a painful episode from his past but doesn’t have the detachment to rebut the explanation he gives for his past decisions. Therefore he ends up debating himself in a sense; and he issues a series of pronouncements or epigrams, Einstein’s actual quotes, that may be apt but don’t allow for meaningful dialogue and don’t propel the narrative. Margaret voices her hurt and outrage, along with some anachronistic (or at least very modern-sounding) opinions, but lands few rhetorical punches. Einstein takes the floor and never yields it, so there’s not the scintillating exchange of ideas, the crackling back-and-forth, the verbal sparring that could potentially change the minds of people onstage or in the audience. Moreover, the dramatic action isn’t substantial enough; the premise, which telegraphs the main twist, practically exhausts the story. And so, despite an engrossing theme, a sterling lead performance, and a more than serviceable production (William Neal’s music has a nice celestial ring), “Relativity” is a conundrum—too heavy and too glib at the same time.
We’re left to conclude that the amoral or even immoral genius—whether an artist, scientist or politician—is as much of a straw man as the genius who is deemed beyond moral reproach by virtue of his or her achievements. That’s not to suggest we ought to ignore transgressions or suspend moral judgment. Nor does it mean playwrights should never attempt to weigh in on history or historical figures from their own vantage point, through their own prism (as if that were possible). No. Unless the goal is to affirm what we already know and believe, the key is to present ideas and arguments in the best aesthetic form, in the most viable artistic structure or vehicle one can imagine and build. It’s good to know Mark St. Germain is probably hard at work doing just that.
“Relativity” runs at Penguin Rep Theatre, Stony Point, NY through June 10, 2018
Because James Fenton’s set design for “Switzerland” is so stunning, it takes several minutes to notice the antique weapons arrayed inside the beautiful, sleekly modernist study he’s fashioned. This collection of swords, daggers and pistols brings to mind crime thrillers like “Sleuth” and “Deathtrap,” which is apt since the room and the armaments in question belong to writer Patricia Highsmith, best known for novels and short stories that meld murder, eroticism and moral psychology. No doubt this small arsenal will figure prominently in the plot of “Switzerland.” That is to say, there will be blood, along with much speculation about what spilling it may mean.Read More
John P. McCarthy
- OnStage New York Columnist
Garrison, NY – Giddy describes the dizzying swirl of emotions most of us experience when in the throes of love. Not knowing whether the feeling is mutual only adds to the excitement, heightening the sense of disorientation as we seesaw between dread and ecstasy.
Shakespeare both revels in and mocks this symptom of romantic love in his pastoral comedy “As You Like It,” so it’s appropriate that giddiness is the main sensation engendered by Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s new production of the play. Perhaps it achieves this at the expense of articulating the more cerebral and less effervescent phenomena associated with love that the Bard addresses. But it never loses sight of how painful and difficult being in love can be.
Moreover, this humane and warmly compassionate production directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch does an admirable job of highlighting the other types of love that Shakespeare has the perspicacity and breadth of imagination to consider in “As You Like It.”
No character is so besotted that they don’t question their amorous feelings; and yet this only adds to their giddiness. Everyone is in a state of disbelief, unsure whether to dive headlong into love or to proceed with caution. Orlando (LeRoy McClain), who has been disinherited and driven away from home by his older brother Oliver, has the fewest doubts. Just before going into the forest he sets eyes on Rosalind and instantly falls for her. “Neither rhyme nor reason can express how much” in love Orlando is. “I am he that is so love-shaked,” he later admits.
Rosalind also falls in love at first sight. But, unable to ignore her queasiness, she won’t allow her feelings to take over. She gives her uncertainty a full hearing, making the path to her inevitable union with Orlando more complicated. Banished by her uncle Duke Frederick, she retreats to the same forest—along with her cousin and best friend Celia, and Frederick’s jester Touchstone—disguised as a country boy. As Rosalind, the aptly surnamed Jessica Love is winsomely attractive and buoyantly clever, adept at communicating the debate between Rosalind’s head and heart, her struggle to choose a path to happiness.
Three other couples become entangled and provide vehicles for Shakespeare’s musings on romantic love. And he also paints vivid portraits of other kinds of love. The devotion cousins Rosalind and Celia have for one another is held up as a model of friendship. And the bonds of sibling love—between Oliver and Orlando, and between Duke Frederick and Duke Senior—are broken and then mended, which introduces another major theme of the play, forgiveness.
Director Upchurch is intent upon emphasizing a third type of non-romantic or platonic love in “As You Like It.” At the risk of putting too moral a point on it, call it love for one’s fellow man or love for thy neighbor. In this context, that means care for displaced persons—castaways from the court—and anyone needing food, shelter and/or the sustenance of human interaction while in the wilderness. Orlando has traveled into exile with his father’s loyal servant Adam (Stephen Paul Johnson). Though old and infirm, Adam insists on accompanying him because he can’t abide Oliver’s mistreatment of Orlando. (The fealty of a servant for his master, and vice versa, is yet another kind of love.) But the arduous journey and lack of food in the harsh environment brings Adam close to death. Desperate to secure food for he who “after me hath many a weary step limped in pure love,” Orlando accosts Duke Senior and his entourage as they are about to have a meal.
The generous Duke’s willingness to share what they have and feed Adam is the occasion for Upchurch to stage what can be described as a Eucharistic moment in which baskets of bread are passed around and shared with audience members in the first few rows. Later in the play, the love and compassion this communal experience of breaking bread signifies is linked to romantic love in a line Rosalind delivers about Orlando, “And his kissing is as full of sanctity as the touch of holy bread.”
Don’t worry. There’s little chance this or any production of “As You Like It” will become preachy or get bogged down in biblical allusions or religious import. The bawdy, lusty side of romance gets a full airing, as does the ridiculous behavior love can trigger. Mark Bedard and Nance Williamson steal the show as the supercilious fool Touchstone and the dimwitted object of his affection, a goatherd named Audrey. Meanwhile, the unlikely way love blossoms between the two other couples destined for the altar—Celia and Oliver, and the shepherd Silvius and the shepherdess Phoebe—defies all logical explanation. It also indicates Shakespeare was not overly concerned about plot.
The production falters somewhat when it comes to Jacques, the dyspeptic courtier who has fled so-called civilization to live in the woods and whose skepticism about love should provide a counterbalance to the giddiness that develops. Casting a woman in the role doesn’t add a great deal, despite Rosalind’s cross-dressing and any other gender indeterminacy in the play. Maria-Christina Oliveras delivers a gruff, cantankerous, raspy-voiced Jacques whose commentary is too easily dismissed as the complaints of a world-weary grouch. That said, Oliveras rises to the occasion and delivers the “All the World’s a stage” speech with a clarity and incisiveness that demands attention.
Everything about the play—its skepticism as well as its pleasurable, heartwarming affects—would be enhanced if the befuddlement that afflicts the lovers didn’t bleed into the production design, especially the costumes and music, which are a bit of a hodge-podge. Charlotte Palmer-Lane’s wardrobe includes some lovely pieces—the dresses worn by the women of Duke Frederick’s court, for instance—but it’s hard to see much continuity in her overall plan. The majority of outfits are betwixt and between the sophisticated elegance of the urbane court, on the one hand, and the earthy and supposedly more natural and liberating mode of the bucolic countryside on the other. More consistent whimsy and flare are called for on both fronts.
Likewise, the music composed by Heather Christian for one of Shakespeare’s most music-filled works is a cross between soulful jazz and country bluegrass. The production would be better served by a more precise, less fusion idiom. And the hip-hop version of the song “What Shall He Have That Killed the Deer” feels forced and doesn’t scan at all. Not helping matters, the ensemble doesn’t always appear comfortable when they sing and dance. This unintended awkwardness is less a reflection on their talents or abilities as it is on the general fuzziness of the overarching design concept, including the time period. The hicks-in-the-sticks accents adopted by some of those portraying country folk rather obvious, especially when they aren’t matched by hoity-toity tones amongst the aristocratic set.
Another example of randomness concerns the curate Sir Oliver Martext, who is to officiate over the marriage of Touchstone and Audrey. Played by Stacey Yen, he’s a pot-bellied Elvis impersonator who drives a golf cart that serves as his mobile wedding chapel. It’s a hilarious, crowd-pleasing bit that spawns great merriment and fits with the general thrust of the scene. But it’s such a specific modern allusion that it threatens to take you out of the play. Who knew this “As You Like It” was set in the Nevada desert, somewhere outside of Vegas?
A version of this production of is slated to open at the Folger Theatre in Washington, DC in January. Maybe some of these design issues will be addressed when it’s reconfigured for an indoor stage and if the budget grows. Generous and sympathetic, it has the potential to be an important imagining of Shakespeare’s celebration of “rustic revelry” and a decent attempt at making sense of this multifaceted thing called love.
Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s production of “As You Like It” runs through August 27, 2016 at Boscobel House and Gardens, 1601 Route 9D, Garrison, NY.
John P. McCarthy
- OnStage NY/CT Critic
Garrison, NY – Shakespeare was certainly familiar with single-sex casts. Men and teenage boys played every part on Elizabethan stages up until 1660. Nowadays, all-female casts are a fairly common way directors try to scramble the dynamics and boost the relevance of his plays. Phyllidia Lloyd’s all-female production of “Taming of the Shrew,” currently at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, is a fascinating example and a must-see for numerous reasons, not least being the chance to watch the great Janet McTeer limn Petruchio.
When “Macbeth” opened last Friday night at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, it was remarkable how much the stormy atmosphere and dark incantations of the first scene contrasted with the majestically balmy weather and the giddy mood of audience members, most of whom were picnicking on Boscobel House’s beautiful lawns minutes before entering the tented performance space. Still, it wasn’t necessary to douse one’s imagination in Rose to see beyond the actual meteorological conditions and serenely pastoral setting and conclude that the bluffs overlooking the mighty Hudson were ideal stand-ins for the Scottish highlands.
As for acclimating to the fact that an all-female cast performs the tragedy, encountering the witches at the outset is helpful. No, the problematic feature of this production isn’t the single-sex cast or the climate, topography or relaxed vibe of the venue. It’s the decision to mount the play using only a three-person ensemble. It’s the number of actors, not their gender--and definitely not the abilities of Maria-Christina Oliveras, Nance Williamson, and Stacey Yen--that holds this “Macbeth” back.
The underlying concept is traceable to the idea of a female chorus, which is partly the role served by the three witches, “the wayward sisters”. In her Director’s Note, Lee Sunday Evans writes, “Women are often outside the cycle of violence.” While “capable of violence” they “are more often witnesses to it” because they are less likely to be in positions of power. They tend to be the victims of violence or the ones left behind to deal with its aftermath and therefore in a position to observe and comment on events.
Setting aside the validity of this proposition, hinging a production of the Scottish play on it seems somewhat counterintuitive. No doubt the witches are outsiders, but they are more than mere spectators, wrinkled chorines; they are catalysts of the action via their prophecies and encounters with Macbeth. Even more strikingly, the character of Lady Macbeth belies the notion that women are typically bystanders and rarely authors of violence.
Evans might argue that “Macbeth” offers exceptions that prove the rule and thus lends itself to unisex casting. If so, her further claim that women gain a special understanding by primarily functioning as witness and chronicler is crucial. In fact, it’s the key to deciding whether her version works. According to her hypothesis, the female perspective, one step removed from the action, gives women deeper insight into the “violent pursuit of power” than those who seek it, i.e., men. The point is not that gender distinctions are fluid or mutable and so don’t matter. Just the opposite. Having females embody male characters and utter their lines should yield unique wisdom about the mayhem that springs from unbridled ambition.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to determine whether or not that occurs. First off, it’s asking a lot since it should entail close readings of the text and detailed comparative analysis with other performances. Second, it’s not easy to embark on that interpretive process when, initially at least, you spend so much effort sussing out who is who and keeping up with the story. That’s not to say the company doesn’t do a decent job of guiding the audience. The ensemble members often, but not always, announce the name of the major character or utter a stage direction in unison—for example, “Enter Banquo.” And remembering, or apprehending for the first time, the broad outlines of the plot doesn’t take too long. But comprehension isn’t the main casualty.
The chief drawback with this production is that doesn’t engage or involve the audience as much as it ought due to its scale. By having three actresses perform all the parts, the play feels severely pared down, almost shrunken and borderline muddled. Already Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, this “Macbeth” seems rushed and condensed, like its only hitting the highlights of the play. This has the virtue of expediency—the running time, including intermission, is a mere two hours—but it makes it harder for audience members to become engrossed emotionally, to appreciate the poetry, and to interpret and analyze. In the production’s defense, the majority of the killing happens off-stage, so the seeming dearth of incident and spectacle is organic to a degree. Yet the staging doesn’t have enough energy or provide a big enough visceral impact to compensate for the rather shapeless narrative.
Now the good news. All this pertains to the first half of the play more than to the second. In other words, it gets better and finishes strong. Prior to intermission, the blocking is mechanical and the movements are formalized; the actors appear confined and restricted, perhaps to illustrate the idea of woman as having no choice but to remain still and bear witness. But if they are stuck at one remove from the action, then the audience is pushed even further away. And at two removes, we feel shut out. Not until the second half when the emotional fallout of the Macbeth’s brutality is dramatized do things loosen up. The actors do their best work and the play demands your full attention. Oliveras gives the character of Macbeth a modern, colloquial sense of humor that works surprisingly well. Yen is aptly conniving and then believably deranged as Lady Macbeth. And Williamson communicates Macduff’s grief and anger with a graceful fierceness that is absolutely riveting.
The production has other virtues. Since the performers often break into song, it highlights how integral singing and music are to “Macbeth”. And one can’t deny that the basic device gives certain themes and particular lines greater, often ironic meaning. “Unsex me here!”; Lady M’s interrogation of her husband’s manhood (“Are you a man?”); and the prophecy concerning Macbeth’s capitulation to one not “born of woman” are three examples.
On the technical side, sound and lighting are relied upon to help delineate the action and designers Eric Southern and Stowe Nelson are up to the challenge. By placing six light strips on stools at the back of the tent, Southern accentuates the artificiality of the proceedings and the impression that everyone’s identity is being cross-examined, audience members included; and the use of a portable spot at the end of the play is quite brilliant. Nelson has created precise, evocative sound effects that sometimes serve as de facto scene changes and frequently denote essential comings and goings.
In general, Evans and HVSF deserve credit for presenting an interpretation of the play that dares to be intimate and small-scale. It whets the appetite for seeing the tragedy performed by a full compliment of female actors. A bigger production would stand a better chance of achieving Evans’ goal of a “communal reckoning with the devastation and destruction in the story of Macbeth”. As they are deployed here, three actors, no matter how talented, cannot bring about the inter-subjective moment of clarification she seeks.
To paraphrase Lady Macbeth, both the concept and the attempt to execute it are confounding. One unfortunate result is that it risks further marginalizing the female perspective by feeding the stereotype that women are best suited to bemoaning the costs of violence and are ill-equipped to take steps that might prevent violence from happening in the first place.
Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Macbeth” runs through August 26, 2016 at Boscobel House and Gardens, 1601 Route 9D, Garrison, NY.
John P. McCarthy
- OnStage CT/NY Critic
Stony Point, NY – Penguin Rep kicks off its 39th season in customary fashion with a relevant, thought-provoking work. Mark Harelik’s “The Immigrant” tells the story of his paternal grandfather’s transformation from Russian peasant to Texas businessman, from émigré outsider to bona fide American.
The play doesn’t go as far or cut as deeply as many of the topical pieces that Penguin Rep has mounted in recent years, largely because of how it is structured. Yet even if it comes up a little short, it’s a journey well worth taking.
If there’s something incongruous about the image of a Jewish man dressed in black wool pushing a banana cart through a small Texas town circa 1909, that’s precisely the point of this fish-out-of-water family history, chock full of comedy and pathos. (First produced back in 1988, the play has also been turned into a musical.) The sight of Harelik’s grandfather, Haskell, peddling bananas in the hot sun as he’s doing at the beginning of the play wouldn’t seem extraordinary if the setting were the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side and not a dusty lane in Hamilton, Texas (population 1,203).
Turns out Haskell, fleeing the pogroms in Russia, entered America through the port of Galveston, as many European Jews did during that period. Most made their way north and east to urban centers. Haskell decided to settle in Hamilton, where he was the only Jew and where making a life for himself was not going to be easy.
As we discover, the kindness of one local couple helps him survive and thrive. Accordingly, the four-character play is also the story of a long friendship between two families. When Haskell stops his cart outside the home of banker Milton Perry and his wife Ima, they are taken aback. What to make of this bedraggled foreigner plying his edible, tropical wares? Later in town, Ima buys some bananas from him and before you know it he’s renting a room in their house.
It doesn’t take long for Milton to see that the hard-working Haskell has a flare for business and so he lends him the money to diversify his offerings. Eventually, after his young wife Leah has joined him from Russia, Haskell opens up a store with Milton’s backing and over time, the business and the friendship both prosper.
Ima is the catalyst. Her kindheartedness and strong Christian faith lead her to reach out to Haskell and, in turn, spur her unbelieving and casually anti-Semitic husband to give him a chance. Tina Johnson, a native Texan, wears the role as comfortably as she did her part in “The Savannah Disputation” at Penguin Rep two seasons ago. She’s an excellent actress with great timing and the ability to project a warmth that blankets everything around her. And, Bill Phillips, who also appeared in “The Savannah Disputation,” nearly manages to turn the pinched, acerbic Milton into a likeable figure.
The folkloric superstitions that marked Ima’s rural upbringing are a point of commonality between she and Leah. In addition to feeling lonely and isolated, Leah is deeply disturbed by the degree to which she thinks Haskell has shed his own religious identity and assimilated. Leah is such a dour figure—at least initially—that she brings to mind Olya Povlatsky, the gloom-and-doom Russian lady played by Kate McKinnon on SNL’s Weekend Update. And, unfortunately, there’s not much Melissa Miller can do to dispel that impression.
Yet it becomes clear that Haskell has not turned away from his Jewish faith in any appreciable way. He does his best to maintain their traditions and rituals. What weighs on his conscience is the shame he feels at having run away from his homeland and his people in the first place. He is driven by the determination not to experience that fear again and by the realization that he must confront any future dread head-on.
Courage is not Haskell’s most pronounced quality during Act 1 however. In fact, although one might not realize it from my description thus far, “The Immigrant” is brimming with humor and Haskell is something of a clownish figure. Many chuckles are wrung from his struggle to communicate in Yiddish while he teaches himself English. These jokes are contained in a string of short scenes that offer an earnest, homespun, brand of comedy that borders on cutesy and whose charms are palpable yet fleeting. The existential threats Haskell faces are talked about rather than dramatized and consequently the first half of the play is fairly placid and conflict-free.
Director Joe Brancato, Penguin Rep’s founding artistic director, and lead Jason Liebman accentuate this by frequently depicting Haskell as almost buffoonish. Rather than function as comic relief, this masks the gravitas in the character and whets your appetite for a more serious investigation of Haskell’s plight.
This comes, along with flashes of Haskell’s nobility and strong moral fiber, after intermission when a clear contrast emerges between the struggling, striving man on the run (with echoes of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp) and the Haskell of Act 2—a patriarch with financial and spiritual heft. The skill of Liebman’s performance is evidenced by the fact he is able to embody this maturation without the aid of any conspicuous makeup. (Per usual, the design and technical credits on this Penguin Rep production are solidly professional.)
Still, Liebman’s creditable turn cannot erase the fact that “The Immigrant” suffers from a structural imbalance: the interesting clash of ideas and the only moments of real dramatic tension come too late in the proceedings to be satisfyingly explored. In the play’s pivotal scene—also it’s best written and acted—Haskell and Milton have a weighty political argument during Seder dinner. Their heated discussion concerns the rise of fascism in Europe in the late 1930s, with Milton espousing an isolationist view and Haskell favoring American intervention. Their disagreement over how best to react to atrocity and injustice spills over into their personal history, threatening their friendship.
Playwright Harkelik cogently presents their viewpoints and wrings feeling out of the tensions, without letting the story verge into sentimentality. You just wish it came sooner because he doesn’t have time to develop the ideas. In effect, he is asking how we honor the fact that we are a nation of immigrants. With immigration such a prominent issue during this political season—with talk of building walls along our borders and barring entry to everyone of a single faith—“The Immigrant” tells us that tolerance and compassion should be our default response to people who are different than us, whom we do not fully understand and whom we may fear. This is the riskiest reaction perhaps, but it’s the one most likely to lead to a positive outcome. And, finally, in a nod to Milton Perry’s point of view, it doesn’t entail abandoning all reason and caution.
This is a profound message, no matter how imperfectly it is communicated in the text. The Harelik’s American story, like millions of others, is bound to inspire faith in the future of our melting-pot nation. Likewise, the existence of theater groups such as Penguin Rep that endeavor to entertain while tackling this and similarly vital topics is a cause for optimism.
Penguin Rep’s production of “The Immigrant” runs through June 12, 2016 at 7 Crickettown Road, Stony Point, NY.
John P. McCarthy
- OnStage NY/CT Critic
Stratford, CT – Motherhood is best celebrated in suburbia. Sure, mothers are found everywhere, but moms and the suburbs just seem to go together. This notion really hits home when the ups and downs of childbearing and child-rearing are saluted on the grounds of an elementary school as they are in Square One Theatre’s production of “Motherhood Out Loud”.
The pedagogic venue in question is the company’s new home—the auditorium at Stratford Academy, an arts-oriented magnet school in Stratford. Rather than employ the hall in a conventional way, Square One has opted to create an intimate space on the auditorium’s proscenium stage, where audience members sit in comfortably padded chairs on three sides of a small performance area.
This set-up works well for the compilation comedy conceived by Susan R. Rose and Joan Stein. Presented without an intermission and lasting ninety minutes, “Motherhood Out Loud” is comprised of seventeen short scenes, many of which are monologues, authored by eleven playwrights. (Beth Henley and Lisa Loomer are the most recognizable names.) The pieces are grouped under five chapter headings loosely arranged chronologically, as in life stages—“Fast Births,” “First Day Fugue,” “Sex Talk,” “Stepping Out” and “Coming Home”.
In the opener, three women—played by Lucy Babbitt, Lillian Garcia and Leigh Katz—hold forth on the physical pain and discomfort of childbirth. Then comes writer Cheryl L. West’s vignette entitled “Squeeze, Hold, Release,” in which a woman claims that the postpartum advice she receives about keeping her nether regions toned is an accurate description of motherhood. The next, and arguably most raucous, entry is set in a park, where one mother vapes pot while comparing the playground to Dante’s Purgatory (Hell would be too exciting a parallel) before encountering two snobby mums.
Hot-button topical issues are raised in three successive pieces. In the poignant “Queen Esther,” a mother quietly describes her 7-year-old son’s insistence on wearing dresses. Her anguished response to his gender fluidity is heartening. “Baby Girl” deals with the adoption of a child of another race. And in Marco Pennette’s “If We’re Using a Surrogate…”, a gay father (Kiel Stango) describes how he and his partner dealt with the minutiae of the surrogacy process and the challenges they face while broadening the definition of family.
Later, a Muslim mother—an émigré from the Middle East who has settled with her family in Las Vegas—discusses menstrual cycles and ideas of womanhood within her faith tradition. Subsequent scenes address more familiar, less delicate topics such as being an in-law, empty nest syndrome, various approaches to the Thanksgiving holiday, and elderly dementia.
It all adds up to a compact yet comprehensive look at motherhood that, it must be said, is best suited to mature audiences. Frank and slightly risqué at times, the omnibus show inevitably contains several installments that feel slight or perplexingly brief and others you’d like to see expanded into full-length, or at least longer, works.
Under the direction of Tom Holehan, Square One’s AD, the material is conveyed with admirable dispatch. Restricted to a degree by the confines of the small space, the blocking isn’t terribly imaginative; yet that has the advantage of allowing audience members to focus on the words. This being the company’s third show in their new space, over time they’ll no doubt discover how to use it in the most creative ways. The serviceable set consists of three benches arranged on two risers between two shingled walls. Children’s garments hang on a clothesline stretching across the back wall and the overall look suggests a dollhouse.
Wearing simple black tees and pants, the four uniformly strong cast members are allowed occasional costume accessories, props, and hairstyle changes to help texturize their characterizations. But it’s largely left to their acting skills. Each proves up to the task and the ensemble should be congratulated for successfully avoiding sentimentality.
Maternal love prevails in most of the sketches, but in part because it’s a comedy and the mandate is to entertain and provoke reflection, “Motherhood Out Loud” is not all sweetness and light. News flash: not all mothers are wonderful, caring human beings. Though this shouldn’t come as a surprise, it’s still something of a welcome surprise when the characters behave badly or confess to less-than-nurturing feelings. A good example comes in the penultimate scene, written by Beth Henley, when a great-grandmother tells her twelve-year-old daughter that she doesn’t like all seven of her children equally. Far from a “Mommy Dearest” moment, this is simply honesty.
An entertaining ode to both the joys and the sorrows of motherhood, “Motherhood Out Loud” satisfies because it features positive, conventional portraits alongside glimpses of the hardship and suffering—the upside and the downside of being a mother. That’s no small task since, like much in life, parenting is rooted in routine and repetition and is expressly designed to avoid highs and lows.
Square One Theatre Company’s production of “Motherhood Out Loud” runs at Stratford Academy, 719 Birdseye Street, Stratford, CT through May 29, 2016.
John P. McCarthy
- OnStage Tri-State Critic
ARMONK NY - As subject matter for a play, origami is almost too rich in that it offers a trove of metaphorical patterns and interpretive juxtapositions that, if not predictable, are fairly easy to identify. The moderator of a writing workshop might commend a budding dramatist’s choice of origami (the art of paper folding) as “a motif ripe for commentary on the human condition.” Yet this imagined instructor ought to also warn how difficult it is to avoid clichés and tidy insights when handling such low-hanging thematic fruit.
In his 2008 play “Animals Out of Paper,” now being revived by the Hudson Stage Company in Armonk, Rajiv Joseph uses origami to examine the emotional lives of three nerds—highly intelligent, socially awkward individuals whose abilities and avocations set them apart. Joseph is skilled enough to configure this geeks’ ménage a trois in a way that isn’t too pat or grossly obvious.
This doesn’t mean “Animals Out of Paper” is entirely successful or a great play. It’s a good play; and, as usual, HSC does the piece justice by presenting a polished, forthright production with strong contributions from every department. There’s something too schematic and artificial about it however. I came away thinking Joseph, whose subsequent play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” was a Pulitzer-Prize finalist, was mainly interested in tinkering with an idea and working on his craft. While far from hollow, the play is short on viscera. It needs more emotional innards.
The central character Ilana (Jenny Sheffer Stevens) is an acclaimed practitioner of origami who’s in a deep funk because both her husband and her three-legged, earless dog have left her. Depressed and reclusive, she’s living in her unkempt work studio (strewn with Chinese takeout boxes and various professional and personal effects) and doesn’t take kindly to the unannounced visit of Andy (Michael Guagno), a high school calculus teacher and origami enthusiast.
Andy is a huge fan of Ilana’s work and greatly admires the memoir she’s written about her need to make things out of folded paper. Perpetually upbeat and cheery, he carries around his own (unpublished) volume titled “Book of Blessings” in which he jots down everything in his life he’s grateful for. Andy is genuinely, and somewhat creepily, concerned about Ilana’s well being and it doesn’t take long for him to admit he has a crush on her.
The third point in the triangle is Suresh (Adit Dileep), one of Andy’s students and an origami prodigy. The son of Indian immigrants, Suresh is despondent over his mother’s recent death and Andy wants Ilana to supervise his senior project. To mask his particular sorrow and generalized adolescent angst, Suresh has adopted a hip-hop, gangsta persona. Although this pose is pretty ridiculous, he does find profundity in the improvisational structure and spontaneity of rap music.
As the action proceeds—with a Valentine’s Day dinner, Ilana’s efforts to design a mesh heart insert for a medical device company, and a trip to an origami conference in Nagasaki, Japan—Joseph analyzes his characters’ reactions to pain, adversity and a sense of isolation. These might be considered the sources of all human conflict, yet he poses a somewhat narrower question as well: How do they overcome creative blocks—obstacles that prevent them from doing their work, solving problems and feeling productive? In her case, Ilana must impose order on chaos, to discern a structure where there only appears to be clutter and confusion. Often this entails creating the mess or fostering the chaos that she then tames, so it’s no wonder her personal life is in disarray and that she can’t bring herself to practice origami. Callous and quite destructive, she’s not very admirable.
Suresh takes a more freewheeling, intuitive approach. His outlook and default mode can be described as artistic and idealistic, in part because he’s still so young. He’s preternaturally attuned to truth and beauty and yet his faith in his ability is under siege. Andy, the least intellectually gifted of the three, focuses on keeping his head above water psychologically. His “Book of Blessings” is a ritual means of convincing himself things aren’t as bleak as they seem, that his glass is half full and that he’s not alone. He’s an extremely nice guy (read milquetoast or doormat) and when at his lowest ebb reveals how much effort it takes to appear so optimistic and tolerant.
All three roles are substantive, but since Ilana is in every scene and isn’t very sympathetic, Ms. Stevens has the toughest assignment. No significant stumbles were detectable in the performances, although the timing seemed a little off in scene one between Ilana and Andy. By his willingness to keep the audience on his toes and not over-explain, director Stephen Nachamie demonstrates his fealty to the text and to the idea that surface miscommunications aren’t damning and yet connections on a deeper, non-verbal level are no guarantee of happiness.
When casting Suresh, it’s too bad they couldn’t find an actor who looks more like he’s 17 or 18. Mr. Dileep gives a fine performance despite seeming too old for the part. It doesn’t help that, even allowing for what it says about Suresh’s maturity and its instructive parallels with origami, his fixation on hip hop and insistence on mimicking African-American speech feels passé. To counteract this impression, the time period in which the play is set should be around 2006 or 2007, not the “Present” as the program reads.
“Animals Out of Paper” concerns the clumsy stabs at intimacy and fellowship three hurting people make. It might benefit from sharper edges as well as softer moments of connectivity. In other words, more ferocity and more tenderness. And yet this desire to see more guts, metaphorically speaking, and less intellectual and emotional maneuvering, illustrates Joseph’s overarching point about how passive-aggressive and indirect people usually are. It’s tempting to think life would be easier and less frustrating if bad behavior was more overt—if we were more animalistic and less cerebral. That’s just another illusion however. Pain is pain, no matter how we try to disguise or deflect it.
“Animals Out of Paper” runs at Hudson Stage Company at the Whippoorwill Hall Theatre, North Castle Library in Armonk through May 14, 2016.
John P. McCarthy
What would possess a theater company to stage ‘Carrie: The Musical’? It’s a fair question, not least because the 1988 Broadway production ranks among the most notorious flops in the history of the Great White Way, closing after just five post-preview performances. Having bombed in a previous incarnation shouldn’t automatically disqualify a show, but it ought to raise a red flag. Especially to a new company—Theatre Now New York—searching for something to mount as its first full-scale production.
Perhaps knowing that ‘Carrie’ would open the night before Halloween, and in the appropriately suburban municipality of Irvington in Westchester, drove the decision. Or maybe TNNY was persuaded by the show’s topicality. Sadly, bullying, religious fanaticism, and supernatural-tinged, peer-on-peer violence are all-too-relevant themes. Maybe the near simultaneous Broadway opening of ‘Misery,’ adapted from another Stephen King novel, influenced their choice. Lastly, TNNY might have been motivated by the fact comedy-horror hybrids are in vogue.
Whatever their reasons for selecting it, ‘Carrie: The Musical’ is misbegotten in a number of crucial ways. Above all, it’s not a successful mix of comedy and horror. Michael Gore’s score has its mellifluous passages and the story—which King’s readers back in 1974 probably found shocking—is still sufficiently disturbing. Yet the song lyrics by Dean Pitchford and Lawrence Cohen’s book aren’t up to the task. They lack resonance and heft.
The tone is all over the place and the show is never sufficiently funny, frightening, or campy. It’s no wonder director Thomas Morrissey, also the artistic director of TNNY, isn’t able to mold ‘Carrie’ into a cohesive whole. Given the material’s inherent limitations and the challenges of a charming yet inflexible performance space, Irvington Town Hall Theater, he does pretty well however. It’s a spirited effort for sure. The dominant spirit just happens to be lighter than expected. In other words, the production tries to be more of a lark than is warranted.
Scenes between mousy Carrie White (Mary Malaney) and her domineering, literally bible-belting mother Margaret White (Alicia Irving) must be played without a hint of irony. And they are, which is why they’re the most impressive parts of the show. Malaney and Irving plumb their characters’ pain with operatic zeal. Armed with fine, compatible voices, their duets are lovely and haunting. But the contrast between their interactions and the tongue-in-cheek tenor of most of the other segments is jarring.
‘Carrie’’s plot is simple, even for a musical. TNNY sets it in the present day at Irvington High School where social media is essential to the kids’ lives. As theatergoers may recall from Brian De Palma’s famous movie, or from subsequent screen remakes, Carrie is mercilessly teased and shunned by her classmates. Following a particularly vicious incident in the school locker room, pretty and popular Sue Snell (Meg McWhorter) is overcome with guilt and tries to atone for her behavior by setting Carrie up with her BMOC boyfriend Tommy Ross (Pat Moran).
Sue persuades Tommy to take Carrie to the prom in her stead. Carrie’s attendance displeases mean girl Chris (Madeline Fansler), who schemes to humiliate our better-off-home-schooled Cinderella but who is unaware of her telekinetic powers and the bloody comeuppance she’s capable of meting out.
The ensemble is comprised of fresh-faced twenty-somethings who do a fine job of making us believe they’re adolescents and whose singing and dancing abilities are quite formidable. Morrissey can be forgiven for having them overplay the “Happy Days” jocularity, since Carrie’s plight has the potential to be devastating.
Still, it’s too bad no one takes any risks with their characterizations. The two authority figures, gym teacher Ms. Gardner (Stefanie Londino) and school administrator Mr. Stephens (Scott Mosenthal) are earnestly non-descript. Casting Mosenthal, an amateur thespian and former principal of Irvington High School, lends the production authenticity, just not in a good way.
Likewise, Irvington Town Hall Theater evokes a high school auditorium where an actual prom might be held, but this synchronicity ends up working against the show. The stage feels cramped and the acoustics, although (or because) enhanced by microphones, aren’t great. Too many lyrics and lines can’t be made out.
The four-person rock band sounds good. They play from the back of the stage behind strips of semi-translucent plastic that hang down from the ceiling and serve as scrim. This backdrop is employed to eerie effect when footage of Sue being interviewed by police after the prom is projected onto it.
When depicting the violence that springs from Carrie’s pent-up rage, the show’s designers rely on percussive sound effects and strobe lights. When she levitates several objects, strings or wires are visible. Since no effort is made to hide these aids, it suggests Morrissey and company are promulgating a farcical interpretation.
During the climactic sequence, the shower of pig’s blood is not attempted, but a tuxedoed teen dummy is propelled from the wings and out over the audience on a pulley. This generates laughs and erases any doubt as to whether TNNY was opting for hokey frivolity over anything genuinely scary. While it’s disappointing for the audience, actually Ms. Malaney and Ms. Irving are the ones left hanging. They give performances worthy of classical tragedy and deserve better than sophomoric pranks.
‘Carrie: The Musical’ by Theatre Now New York runs at Irvington Town Hall Theatre through November 7, 2015
John P. McCarthy
Attention to detail is a hallmark of any successful piece of theater and playwright Jon Robin Baitz gets all the little things right in ‘Other Desert Cities’, which won the Outer Critics Circle Award after premiering at Lincoln Center in 2010.
Hudson Stage Company’s production, which opened this past weekend, displays equal care for the details. From the music choices—tracks from the American songbook crooned by Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Johnny Mathis and Rosemary Clooney—to the costumes, to David Arsenault’s perfectly observed set, HSC nails it.
Judging by its décor, the Palm Springs abode of Polly and Lyman Wyeth is stuck in the 1960s and ‘70s; while, as pals of Ronnie and Nancy Reagan, the couple’s politics is stuck in the 1980s. (Some might argue the 1950s.) The action takes place in 2004 and the Wyeth’s artwork, lighting fixtures, tile flooring, and earth-toned furnishings cry out for a makeover overseen by an expensive decorator. The well-heeled Wyeth’s can afford it but, as we learn, something prevents them from moving forward on this and every other front.
Floor-to-ceiling picture windows offer a dramatic view of the San Jacinto Mountains looming over the Coachella Valley. (Kudos to the design team for evoking the deep purple colors of the desert sky at dusk). Only as the play progresses do we notice a cinder block wall between this glass partition and the vista beyond—an apt symbol of the Wyeth’s isolation and how they’ve closed themselves off from the world.
It’s Christmastime and their two adult children are visiting. Trip, a producer of trashy reality TV has zipped two hours east from L.A.; their daughter Brooke, a novelist living in Sag Harbor, has flown in for the first time in six years. Rounding out the cast of characters is Silda, Polly’s dipsomaniac sister, who has taken up residence while she tries to quit drinking once and for all.
Way back when, Lyman was a Hollywood contract player specializing in “gunslingers and gumshoes”. Then he transitioned from acting to politics, serving as an ambassador during the Reagan administration and as chair of the Republican Party. Polly, who occasionally appeared on screen while co-writing (with Silda) a fairly popular movie series featuring a young heroine named Hillary, is not a vapid social X-ray.
Steely and substantial, she has no time for liberals or weakness of any kind. She’s especially tough on Brooke, who as recently emerged from a long bout of depression. Handsome, amiable Lyman shows more empathy where Brooke is concerned and is generally less rigid and judgmental than his wife.
As a couple, they’re obsessed with tradition, order, and discretion. And it goes beyond their conservative political outlook. A big reason for retreating into God’s west coast waiting room is that their eldest child, Henry, committed suicide after joining a cult and participating in a terrorist bombing.
The imminent publication of Brooke’s second book, a memoir about Henry’s death, drives the action. In addition to finding her parent’s politics reactionary, Brooke is appalled by their unwillingness to deal with this painful family tragedy. Even before reading her book, Polly and Lyman dread the scandal it will ignite and the damage it will do to their reputations.
Baitz, who created the TV series “Brothers & Sisters”, is extremely comfortable in this geographic and thematic milieu. A native Angelino, he drops the correct names and references—to showbiz eateries like Chasen’s and the Brown Derby, to establishment enclaves such as the Los Angeles Country Club and Bohemian Grove, and to Nancy Reagan’s besties Betsy Bloomindale and Wallis Annenberg. Demonstrating his pop culture bona fides, he even mentions Totie Fields, the zaftig comedienne of the 1960s and ‘70s.
Baitz has a flare for penning quips and showing how family members can push one another’s buttons with varying degrees of harshness. Among my favorite lines: Trip affectionately refers to his parents as “those WASP-ified GOP zombies in the other room.”
If ‘Other Desert Cities” initially comes off as a tad glib and melodramatic, simply an exercise in bashing a generation’s out-of-touch conservatism, things prove more complicated than they appear courtesy of a twist.
Dan Foster, a cofounder of HSC, directs with an appropriately light touch but doesn’t always keep the banter moving at a sufficiently rapid pace. As for the performances, Colleen Zenk, a longtime fixture on the soap opera “As the World Turns” is tailor-made for Polly. Oozing condescension and catty disdain, she perfectly embodies the suntanned entitlement and well-coiffed crustiness of a petrifying desert dame.
As Brooke, Brenda Withers gives as good as she gets from Ms. Zenk, while poignantly communicating her character’s slightly indulgent anguish. Malachy Cleary’s Lyman is sympathetic almost to the point of being a milquetoast. Peggy Scott can be relied on for laughs as Silda; and Davy Raphaely ably handles the hardest to pin-down character, Trip, who sees things from all sides and tries to be the voice of reason and neutrality.
The key to the piece is the brilliant way Baitz combines an incisive portrait of a certain political animal, one that flourished at specific time in modern American history, with universal and perennial family dysfunction. He also draws insightful links between the Reagan Revolution and Tinseltown artifice—the make-believe churned out by the Hollywood dream-factory.
Baitz understands that this brand of conservatism was more about stagecraft and effectively packaging messages than ideology. Incidentally, Baitz’s prescience regarding the connections between showbiz and this right-of-center, but above all pragmatic, approach to politics is born out by the rise of Donald Trump.
‘Other Desert Cities” treats forms of escapism, families and trust, the role and ethical obligations of the artist (a theme Baitz explored in greater depth in his earlier play ‘Ten Unknowns’), and the consequences of both lying and telling the truth. Ultimately, honesty does set these characters free, which can be interpreted as the most fanciful and artificially optimistic outcome of all.
At one point, Silda ridicules her sister and brother-in-law’s obsession with appearances and their desire to preserve their good name. “Nobody is watching. Nobody remembers,” she insists. Whether or not that accurately describes the Wyeth’s situation, anyone fortunate enough to catch Hudson Stage Company’s revival of ‘Other Desert Cities” will be hard-pressed to look away… and won’t easily forget what they see.
‘Other Desert Cities’ runs at Hudson Stage Company at the Whippoorwill Hall Theatre, North Castle Library in Armonk through October 31, 2015.