Review: “In the Penal Colony” at New York Theater Workshop’s 4th Street Theater

Review: “In the Penal Colony” at New York Theater Workshop’s 4th Street Theater

“In the Penal Colony” is not a play that you can fully absorb minutes after the curtain closes. This is a play that sinks in to your skin and stays there. A play that you feel before you even know why. Twenty-four hours after seeing the show, there are still things that I am working to uncover.

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Off-Broadway Review: “Hurricane Diane” at New York Theatre Workshop

Off-Broadway Review: “Hurricane Diane” at New York Theatre Workshop

Playwright Madeleine George sets her “Hurricane Diane” in an Early Anthropocene Time, the era defined as “the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.” Most, except members of the current Administration, see that influence to have been deleterious at best and are aware of the dire predictions for Planet Earth’s future viability unless this human activity is modified speedily and thoroughly. The effects of climate change are as evident now as they were when Ms. George’s play had its debut at Two River Theatre in New Jersey in 2017. Perhaps even more so. So why does New York Theatre Workshop team up with Women’s Project Theater to resurrect this problematic play?

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Off-Broadway Review: “The House That Will Not Stand” at New York Theatre Workshop

Off-Broadway Review: “The House That Will Not Stand” at New York Theatre Workshop

Beartrice Albans (a resolute and Machiavellian Lynda Gravátt) spent her life under the oppressive laws that governed people of color in the colony of Louisiana. Specifically, she was Lazare’s placée a status that allows her as a woman of color to set up common law households with a white man to circumvent legal prohibitions. Beartrice’s mother signed the papers that placed the young woman into this form of indentured servitude. Lazare, of course, was married to a white woman although he and Beartrice had three daughters together. In “The House That Will Not Stand” at New York Theatre Workshop, Marcus Gardley examines what happens to Beartrice and her daughters when Lazare dies (mysteriously) and new American laws – post Louisiana Purchase in 1813 – threaten to leave them homeless and living in poverty. Is there any chance of survival for the house Beartrice “built” during her time with Lazare?

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“Sommerfugl” at New York Theatre Workshop’s 4th Street Theatre

Joseph Verlezza

“And I am like a deceiver, like a usurper who has reigned over a body which has ceased to be his own, like a person who owns merely the facade of his own house.” (Einar/Lili)

A fascinating story unfolds on the small performance space at the 4th Street Theatre thanks to the InViolet Theatre Theater Company’s engaging current production. “Sommerfugl” traces the life of Einar Wegener, the first person to receive gender confirming surgery in Germany in 1930 in order to blossom into Lili Elbe. The play is complex, intriguing, sensitive and emotional but never falls prey to convention, stereotype or social norm. The characters are real, honest, complicated and stripped of any false façade enabling them to capture and expose their heart and soul. The script by playwright Bixby Elliot is economical, intelligent, straight forward and candid, avoiding any external confusion, allowing an easy flow and keen dramatic arc. The direction by Stephen Brackett is precise and provides actors the luxury of discovery. The set by Jason Sherwood is minimal, clean and comfortable allowing the lighting by Zach Blane to create and transport the actors and audience to where they need to be. Costumes by Tilly Grimes provide existence and period for the characters with a harmonic color palette that is calm and pleasing to the eye.

Now to what breathes life into and provides the heartbeat of this production: the actors. Wayne Wilcox inhabits Einar with every fiber of his being Mr. Wilcox is intellectually, physically and emotionally invested in the transformation process to show the world the hidden Lili Elbe. He is strong, subtle, sensitive and inquisitive, never letting his vulnerability sway to simple melancholy. Aubyn Philabaum as Grete is devoted, determined, distinct and just purely delicious as she carefully maneuvers through an emotional minefield. Bernardo Cubria is remarkable as Claude providing a sincere warmth and incredible depth to an underwritten character. He morphs into other roles with ease and precision demonstrating his finely honed craft. Michelle David is delightful as Anna and more than competent in the role of the nurse.

There are times when these actors speak volumes with a stare or glance, no words uttered, just a silent communication as their eyes are flooded with pools of intelligence and emotion. Enhanced by beautiful moods of light, they appear as stars of a silent movie or held in a thought or pose to transform into a period painting. They are a joy to observe and touch your heart with their sense of understanding. This is a production that needs to be seen for more than one reason.

Constructive criticism comes with noting there might be room for more development in story and character. Claude needs more attention as does the evolution of his relationship with Lili. Also Dr. Steuben who pioneered the gender confirming surgery could be fleshed out and his understanding and compassionate character revealed on another human level. It would be easy to find another relevant 15 minutes of interest and very welcomed, but for now, kudos to the entire creative team who make this gem shine. 


Written by Bixby Elliot and directed by Stephen Brackett. The creative team for “Sommerfugl” includes Jason Sherwood (scenic design), Tilly Grimes (costume design), Zach Blane (lighting design), Stowe Nelson (sound design), Dylan Luke (production manager/technical director), Melanie Aponte (production stage manager), Natalie Loveland (wig design), and Jennifer Bowen (props design). Production photos by Skipper Chong Warson.

Presented by InViolet Theater at NYTW’s 4th Street Theatre, 83 East 4th Street, New York, NY on the following performance schedule: Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. through Saturday October 10. General admission tickets are $18.00 and can be purchased by calling 866-811-4111 or by visiting Running time is 80 minutes without intermission.

WITH: Bernardo Cubria, Michelle David, Aubyn Philabaum, and Wayne Alan Wilcox.

Review: “Fondly, Collette Richland” at the New York Theatre Workshop

David Roberts

The Revelation of the Undertow of Wonder

“I can’t help but wish and feel as if there’s more to our lives, somewhere, in this moment. Than this concern for the whereabouts and well-adjustment of a devil. I’m bored to exhaustion. Devil, devil. Devil. Bringer of evil. Filler of vacuums, blah blah blah.”  Dora

In a recent New York Times interview (September 4, 2015), playwright Sibyl Kempson affirms that “you don’t have to struggle to understand” her new play “Fondly, Collette Richland” currently playing at the New York Theatre Workshop. That affirmation is true, but that understanding comes only after one exits the theater and realizes that what transpires on the street is even more confusing than what plays out on the stage inside. Ms. Kempson’s text is dense and to claim it is not would be to discredit the sophistication of the script. There are “big impossible problems to contend with” in this world premiere and all of them are hauntingly delightful.

Photo: Joan Marcus

Photo: Joan Marcus

The structure of Sibyl Kempson’s new play is complex and innovative and quite different from any conventional dramatic arc. Stage directions, for example, are sometimes provided in song by Father Mumbles (what a great juxtaposition) played with a frightening religiosity by Mike Iveson. And the storyline – such as it is – is not linear. Watching “Fondly, Collette Richland” is quite like seeing all of Salvador Dali’s paintings at once through a kaleidoscope. With music and choreography. The fourth wall is broken and repaired and broken again and what is play and what is not comes under rigorous scrutiny throughout.

After a prologue offered by Collette Richland (April Matthis) herself, the action of the play begins in the modest kitchen of Mabrel Fitzhubert (Laurena Allan) and her hardworking husband Colonel “Fritz” Fitzhubert (Vin Knight). Think Willy and Linda Loman. To get a sense of the surreal nature of Ms. Kempson’s remarkable play, the Fitzhuberts have a Cat Butler (Susie Sokol) that is as adept at coughing up a fur ball as dragging the beverage cart to the table for serving after-dinner coffee. This Cat Butler wears red high heels and a bomber trooper aviator hat with flaps. After the unexpected arrival of Local Representative Wheatsun (Greig Sargeant), the action moves (through a small secret door) to the Grand Hotel Conclae Vista in the Alpen highlands. Seat belts fastened tightly yet?

It is here that the Fitzhuberts and the Local Representative are joined by an Alice in Wonderland cast of characters that include Mabel’s sister Winnifr’d Bexell (Kate Benson), her sister-in-law Dora Fitzhubert (April Matthis), Queen Patrice (Lucy Taylor), hotel concierge Hans Pierre (Mike Iveson), and others – notable among these are Sailor Boy (Ben Jalosa Williams) slayer of the pigdog whose milk is “A regional specialty. But it’s potent shtuff. It is said that it contains the gos-ship of the village. And prophecy, if there is any this year … they ushed to bring a cup of it to the ancient prieshtesh to find out all the portent.” “Through the Looking Glass” meets “Death of a Salesman” with fireworks. It is difficult to say more about the action of this quirky and challenging play except to say it must be seen.

“Fondly, Collette Richland’s” journey began with a reading of author Jane Bowles, probably “Two Serious Ladies” which contains the kind of “peculiar psychic arrangements” found in Ms. Kempson’s play. Ms. Bowles once said, “In order to work out my own little idea of salvation I really believe that it is necessary for me to live in some more tawdry place.” The setting of Ms. Kempson’s play is exactly that tawdry place where her delightful characters attempt to work out their own “little idea[s] of salvation” outwith the trappings of traditional religious constructs (Roman or otherwise). Sex-role stereotypes, sexual identity, even reality itself are explored in the Grande Hotel. Things are topsy-turvy at the Hotel and nothing is one-sided. The Krampus (Ben Jalosa Williams) represents this duality, the two sides of everything. Nothing is really what it seems to be. If you know about Santa, you should know about Kramps. What Santa giveth, the Kramps taketh away including the children. Better to allow the audience member to experience the Kramps without further comment.

More of life than we care to admit is simply scary and unbearable and there are “exquisite crises of consciousness” (Act Three) that require attention throughout life – and probably thereafter. “Fondly, Collette Richland,” bravely explores these crises with honesty and miraculous artistry. The play affirms that “Heaven and earth, and hell, united in the deepest part of the dark night, must once again split, and consciousness again be born.” Ultimately, Ms. Kempson’s striking new play is about the rebirth of consciousness. The ensemble cast under John Collins’ resplendent direction is equally skilled in giving their characters a densely dark authenticity that – at the same time – send chills up the spine and brings smiles to the observant.

But it is ultimately best not to overthink the piece or wonder about issues of provenance of thoughts or images or ideas. The audience member – as much a part of the ensemble as the members of the Elevator Repair Service – simply needs to allow the piece to flow over mind, body, and spirit and rejoice at the resurgence of wonder, the revelation of the undertow of wonder.


“Fondly, Collette Richland” is a New York Theatre workshop co-production with Elevator Repair Service and runs at the New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street in Manhattan through Sunday October 18, 2015.

The ensemble cast features Laurena Allan, Kate Benson, Lindsay Hockaday, Maggie Hoffman, Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, April Matthis, Greig Sargeant, Kaneza Schaal, Susie Sokol, Lucy Taylor, and Ben Jalosa Williams.
The production features scenic design by David Zinn; costume design by Jacob A. Climer; additional costumes by David Zinn; lighting design by Mark Barton; sound design by Ben Williams; and original compositions by Mike Iveson. Production photos are by Joan Marcus.

For further information about “Fondly, Collette Richland, including performance schedule and ticketing, please visit or Running time is 2 hours and 40 minutes including on 15 minute intermission.

Review - “Forever” at the New York Theatre Workshop

David Roberts

“I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all.”  Richard Wright, “Black Boy” (1945)

With rhythms more reminiscent of song than spoken word, Dael Orlandersmith’s “Forever” is a requiem with three movements with a choir of Ms. Orlandersmith’s relatives looking on and an orchestra of audience members in awe of Ms. Orlandersmith’s remarkable artistry. The playwright’s long-awaited trip to Paris and her spiritual encounters with the “ghosts” of Jim Morrison, Richard Wright, Balzac, Modigliani, Piaf, and Oscar Wilde in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery comprise the first movement (the Introitus). These encounters lead her to reflect upon another “ghost” – that of her abusive and alcoholic mother Beula. This ghost “pulls her back” to her birth in October of 1959, through her childhood and adolescence, and to her eventual escape from her mother’s powerful hold.

Dael Orlandersmith in Forever. Photo by Joan Marcus

Dael Orlandersmith in Forever. Photo by Joan Marcus

Ms. Orlandersmith’s haunting recollections of her life with her “cut off, closed off” mother comprise the second and third movements of the “Requiem” (the Sequenz and the Offertorium) and include graphic verbal images of physical and psychological abuse by her mother and sexual abuse and rape by an intruder into her bedroom when she was fourteen. Her rage in the present reflects the depth of the pain inflicted upon her in the past and Ms. Orlandersmith’s performance here is deeply authentic and painfully believable. Ironically, this performance occurred on Mother’s Day perhaps the most saccharine-coated invented holiday in the calendar. Amidst the “hardness” in her mother, there was apparently a “softness” which came to Beula through “books/music/poetry” and often emerged in recitations of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Dreams.” The soft moments seem rare and there are more moments when Beula is “not human” and hurls insults and painful barbs at her daughter Dael. This long middle section of “Forever” is as difficult to see and hear as it must be for the playwright to share.

The only surcease for Dael was her childhood friend Tommy and the relationship was so salvific and redemptive for Dael that her mother forbade it, ended it. The second and third movements include graphic depictions of Dael’s mother’s hospitalization and death and these recollections are as powerful and engaging as the prolonged description of the rape. Under Neel Keller’s expansive direction, Ms. Orlandersmith commands the mindscape set designed by Takeshi Kata, moving in and out of the mood-filled pools of light provided by Mary Louise Geiger and re-membering her struggle for separation and individuation from her mother.

In the final movement of this requiem for her mother (the Communio), Ms. Orlandersmith seems to soften her tone and almost become forgiving of her mother’s abusive behavior. Crediting her mother for her love of books and music seems out of place and insincere. The young girl she sees at her first visit to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery morphs into her mother upon her return visit and Dael confesses that her mother is there with her in her “head/mind forever” and seems to welcome reconciliation with her mother. Obviously, this is Ms. Orlandersmith’s story and one must accept it in its entirety. However, the end of the play just seems out of place, perhaps out of time. Despite the decrescendo of the closing, “Forever” is a formidable piece of theatre full of sound and fury and a stream of consciousness that lingers with the audience long after the lights on the stage have dimmed.


Created and performed by Dael Orlandersmith and directed by Neel Keller. The creative team for “Forever” includes Takeshi Kata (scenic design), Kaye Voyce (costume design), Mary Louise Geiger (lighting design), Adam Phalen (sound design), Joy Meads (dramaturg), and Sunneva Stapleton (stage manager). Production photos by Joan Marcus. Presented the New York Theatre Workshop. At the New York Theater Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, Manhattan; Ticket Central 212-279-4200 or Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission.

Review ~ “The Events” at the New York Theatre Workshop

David Roberts / Critic “I like to imagine him in that night,/A trial berserker/An orphan in the moonlight,/Walking, singing, patrolling the bins by the coastal path,/looking for a tribe to protect.” Claire in “The Events”

Reportedly, Anders Breivik - the rightwing extremist who bombed a government building in Oslo, Norway in 2011 killing eight people then shooting sixty-nine more in a youth camp - smiled at his trial in 2012 when he was declared not to be insane. To have been declared insane would have been “the ultimate insult.” Odd concern for a mass murderer. Breivik claimed to have committed the murders in an effort to “battle multiculturalism” in Europe.

“The Events,” currently running at the New York Theatre Workshop, was inspired by playwright David Greig’s visit to Norway in the fall of 2011 to research this attack and massacre and by his meeting with a female vicar who ran a community choir. Their collaboration – along with other interviews – further inspired the character of The Boy and the overall structure of “The Events.”

In “The Events” Claire (Neve McIntosh) is a clergyperson who embraces and champions multiculturalism. “We’re all a big crazy tribe here,” Claire tells The Boy (Clifford Samuel) when he visits her choir rehearsal. The Boy is both the perpetrator of the shooting of the members of Claire’s choir, including her murdered partner Catriona, and the visitor to whom Claire tells her story. Mr. Samuel also plays Claire’s psychologist, the father, the friend, the journalist, and the politician. These assorted characters all attempt to make sense of the mass shooting that took Catriona’s life and the lives of other members of Claire’s choir.

Under Ramin Gray’s inventive direction, the cast and visiting choir rehearse the events that led up to the shooting and the attempts to understand the motives of the killer, including Claire’s visit to the perpetrator at Peterhead Prison. These events are not examined ad seriatim or on any recognizable timeline which makes “The Events” a thrilling roller-coaster ride into and through the recesses of the human minds of the victim and the victimized.

Ms. McIntosh and Mr. Samuel deliver powerful performances with honesty and authenticity. There are times one wishes for more modulation in tone and volume in their deliveries although Mr. Samuel succeeds in differentiating his characters. Chloe Lamford’s design is sparse and stark and provides the perfect playing space for Mr. Greig’s visually expansive play. Charles Balfour’s lighting design – also minimal – skillfully counterpoints the action of the play. Magnus Gilljam excels as pianist and is the ultimate “church choir director.” The Westchester Choral Society – the visiting choir on Saturday February 28 – fulfilled the role of Greek Chorus with ease and expertise.

At one point, The Boy responds to Claire’s question, “What are you” with the following: “I am a Europe-wide malaise/I am a point on the continuum of contemporary masculinity/I am an expression of failure in eroded working class communities/I am unique/I am typical/I am the way things are going/I am the past./I am the product of the welfare state/I am the end point of capitalism,/I am an orphan/I am a narcissist/I am a psychopath/I am a void into which we are drawn./I am sick, dead, lost and alone./I am a blankness out of which emerges only darkness and a question./The only question it is possible to ask./What is to be done with me?” The Boy rehearses all the possibilities of why he went “berserk” and challenges the audience to contemplate how many other “Boys” are “out there” on the brink of “berserking.”

Director Ramin Gray affirms, “Going to the theatre in ancient Athens was a civic duty. It was here that important issues were collectively considered by the community.” The playwright’s “The Events” is a dramatic model for a contemporary spin on the ancient practice. Perhaps this model should be utilized after every horrific event in the life of a community. Seeing this important play before it closes should be a priority for all serious theatre-goers. THE EVENTS

“The Events” features music by John Browne, design by Chloe Lamford, lighting design by Charles Balfour, sound design by Alex Caplen, music direction by Magnus Gilljam and music supervision by David Dabbon. Production photos by Matthew Murphy.

All performances of “The Events” run at the New York Theatre Workshop (79 E. 4th Street New York, NY 10003) on the following performance schedule: Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with matinee performances on Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $75.00 and can be purchased by visiting Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Through Sunday March 22, 2015.

This piece also appears at