Off-Broadway Review: Primary Stages “Little Women”

Off-Broadway Review: Primary Stages “Little Women”

Kate Hamill’s retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” plays at Primary Stages at an auspicious time. Amid unprecedented national and political division, issues of gender identity, gender equality, and gender protection continue to be critically important.

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Review: 'Informed Consent' at Primary Stages

David Roberts

“A comprehensive movement toward informed consent began after World War II with the 1947 Nuremberg trials. In these war trials, it was revealed that physicians conducted abhorrent medical research experiments on concentration camp prisoners. The research included human experimentation with germ warfare, freezing individuals to learn what temperature kills individuals most effectively, and many more horrifying research trials.” (Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, Advameg Inc.)

The real power in Deborah Zoe Laufer’s play “Informed Consent” is not what it first appears to be. The play is not about mythos versus logos – storytelling versus science. The play is not about early onset Alzheimer’s or one’s awareness that “something is different” and one’s short-term memory is slowly deteriorating. It is about decision-making and how that process might be affected by cultural norms and scientific information. It is also about motivation and transparency. However, it is difficult to sort all of that out in Ms. Laufer’s play.

And one would want to assume that all of this obfuscation of intent was somehow purposeful on the part of the playwright. The writing is good enough to assume Ms. Laufer might have been intentional in the execution of her script; however, the cop-out ending belies that and what is more likely is that the playwright set in motion too many “stories” and did not know quite how to resolve her own dramatic arc. Is “Informed Consent” about protagonist Jillian’s concern that her daughter will have the same chance of early onset Alzheimer’s as she did or is it about helping others whose Nation is slowly dying off?

The play becomes powerful when it is allowed to serve as a trope for the many crimes against Original Peoples by settlers from Europe who as Arella (played with a determined commitment by Delanna Studi) affirms took everything away from all Indigenous Peoples and left them with nothing except their stories of beginnings. “Informed Consent” follows closely the case of The Havasupai People and Arizona State University in 1989 when ASU genetic anthropologist Teri Markow solicited members of the Havasupai Nation to provide blood samples to test for a specific genetic link to Type II Diabetes. Dr. Markow tested for additional markers not agreed to by the Nation and they eventually sued ASU in 2004 and won an out of court settlement and were able to retrieve their blood samples. The retrieval of those samples is a powerful moment in “Informed Consent.”

In Ms. Laufer’s play, the genetic anthropologist is given the fictitious name of Jillian (played with a compelling urgency by Tina Benko) but the events are strikingly similar to the ASU/Havasupai People dispute. The story is complicated and raises a series of rich and enduring questions. Do horrific events in the past exclude the possibility for healing in the present? In her conversations with Nation Leader Arella, Jillian admits many grievous wrongs were committed against the Indigenous Peoples of North America. But does that preclude Arella’s Tribe from accepting knowledge that might help the Nation survive? Is Jillian’s lack of securing informed consent the same type of betrayal experienced by Indigenous Peoples since the arrival of Europeans in the Americas? If Tribe members undergo amputation and dialysis at an off-Reservation hospital, why is having a blood sample taken not allowed? Where does the Sacred-Non-Sacred boundary lie?

Nearly half of Native American people (42 percent) are under the age of 24; more than one-third of Native children live in poverty; and Native youth have the lowest high school graduation rate of students across all schools (Fact Sheet: The White House Tribal Nations Conference). Nevertheless, many Native Americans have found entrepreneurship to be a way out of poverty. And more are likely to take that path in the future. (Foundation for Economic Education). Why is entrepreneurship permitted but not the benefits of science? And why would science be able to damage the strong faith of a community of believers?

Under Liesl Tommy’s exquisite direction, the ensemble cast moves through time and space changes with ease and both narrate and perform this important story. In addition to Ms. Benko and Ms. Studi, Jesse J. Perez delivers a compelling performance as Ken the anthropologist who trusted Jillian to be his successor; Myra Lucretia Taylor portrays the Dean of the College with grace and honesty; Pun Bandhu gives Graham - Jillian’s husband – a suffering forbearance. Each actor – except Ms. Benko – portrays other characters including Graham and Jillian’s daughter Natalie portrayed convincingly by Delanna Studi.

"Informed Consent" raises significant questions about what informs decision-making and what motivates individuals in their actions and encounters with other people. There is no right or no wrong here, just enduring and rich questions some of which are morally ambiguous. The play provides no answers but gives the audience the opportunity to re-examine an important historical event under a new dramatic microscope.

For a detailed account of the ASU/ Havasupai People events, please visit http://genetics.ncai.org/case-study/havasupai-Tribe.cfm.

INFORMED CONSENT

“Informed Consent” is presented by Primary Stages and Ensemble Studio Theatre and features scenic design by Wilson Chin, costume design by Jacob A. Climer, lighting design by Matthew Richards, original music and sound design by Broken Chord, projection design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, and casting by Stephanie Klapper Casting. Production photos are by James Leynse.

“Informed Consent” plays a limited engagement through Sunday September 13, 2015 at Primary Stages at The Duke on 42nd. Performances are Tuesday-Thursday 7:00 p.m., Friday 8:00 p.m., Saturday 2:00 and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday 3:00 p.m. There is an added 2:00 p.m. performance on Wednesday, September 2. Tickets for Informed Consent are $70.00 and can be purchased online at PrimaryStages.org or at Dukeon42.org, by phone at 646-223-3010, or at the box office. Running time is 95 minutes without intermission.

WITH: Pun Bandhu, Tina Benko, Jesse J. Perez, DeLanna Studi, and Myra Lucretia Taylor

Review ~ “Lives of the Saints” at Primary Stages at the Duke on 42nd Street

David Roberts / Critic “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Attributed to Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud’s iconic phrase might be an apt descriptor for David Ives’ “Lives of the Saints” currently running at Primary Stages at the Duke on 42nd Street. When Mr. Ives tackles the vicissitudes of the human condition (tackles the lives of the saints) as he does in the satisfying “It’s All Good,” he is at his best. Unfortunately this new collection of Ives’ tales contains mostly physical comedy, repetitious word play (double entendre, innuendo, etc.), and enough sight gags to challenge a “Three Stooges” gig. And that is fine if that is all the audience expects and desires – which seemed to be the case at a recent showing of these six shorts.

The ensemble cast gives its all in each of the six vignettes; however, often the material does not challenge their considered cumulative craft. While one might argue that “The Goodness of Your Heart” raises enduring questions about the meaning of friendship and the title piece “Lives of the Saints” hints at the richness and durability of faith and the faithful, “Soap Opera” is just all fluff and silliness and like “Babel’s in Arms” could have been eliminated from the program.

In “The Goodness of Your Heart,” separated by only six houses neighbors Del (Arnie Burton) and Marsh (Rick Holmes) get bogged down in a discussion of what friendship is and what friends should be able to expect of one another. These are two enduring questions worth exploring; however, Mr. Ives seems not to know when to cease and desist and just let the piece settle into the hearts of the audience. The best line of this vignette might be Marsh’s “Intrapersonal problems can obliterate you.” The second offering in Act I “Soap Opera” is jam packed full of laundry-related double entendre and chronicles the life of the Maypole repairman (Carson Elrod) and his lifelong infatuation with the washing machine (Liv Rooth) that has haunted him from childhood. Although a lightweight trope for issues of transference and projection, this piece leaves the audience wanting more. The final short of Act I is “Enigma Variations” which seems to be a doppelganger for Ives’ earlier “All in the Timing” just not as satisfying. Here two Bills (Arnie Burton and Rick Holmes) and two Bebes (Liv Rooth and Kelly Hutchinson) play and replay (and reply) a scene in a therapist’s office. Carson Elrod as nurse Fifi rescues the piece from attempting to have some hidden meaning.

The collection’s best vignette is Act II’s “It’s All Good.” Here ex-seminarian Stephen (Rick Holmes) has the opportunity to travel “back in time” to explore what he and wife Leah (Kelly Hutchinson) “might have become” if things had turned out differently. On a trip back to his Chicago roots, Stephen meets his “past self” Steve (Carson Elrod) and the “past self” of his wife Amy (Liv Rooth). It is clear that this brilliant band of actors has waited all afternoon for something they could dig into and create a quartet of authentic and honest performances. If only Mr. Ives had provided this level of writing throughout the six shorts that make up “Lives of the Saints” and particularly in the drawing room comedy “Life Signs” and the title short “Lives of the Saints” which round out the second act.

That said, “Lives of the Saints” is an entertaining two hours of exploring the human condition and worth the visit.

LIVES OF THE SAINTS

By David Ives. Directed by John Rando. Set design by Beowulf Boritt; costume design by Anita Yavich; lighting design by Jason Lyons; sound design and original music by John Gromada; wig design by Tom Watson; props supervision by Christine Goldman; production stage manager, Robbie Kyle Peters; casting by Calleri Casting; press representative, Keith Sherman & Associates; production management by Mind the Gap. Presented by Primary Stages (Executive Producer, Casey Childs, Artistic Director, Andrew Leynse, Managing Director, Elliot Fox) in association with Jamie deRoy and Barry Feirstein. Production photos by James Leynse. At Primary Stages at the Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street (between 7th and 8th Avenues). “Lives of the Saints” runs for a limited engagement through Friday March 27, 2015. For performance schedule and ticketing information, please visit http://primarystages.org/ The running time is 2 hours with one 15 minute intermission.