Posted by: strugglesome | June 6, 2016

Funny or Die: Rajat Kapoor’s What’s Done Is Done

(Full disclosure this writer had a chance to sit in on a few weeks of rehearsal for this piece, so insights into process, usually speculation, are here more firmly rooted in observation)

Despite the current global trend towards secularization, there is just no getting around our obsession with evil. Without it, what would horror movies market themselves? A concept of good and bad as derived from a Judeo-Christian morality has caught the world’s attention and held it, regardless of native religious practices, fueled purely by human desire. Simply put, we want to believe that evil exists, and that it comes from some place outside of ourselves, that it sneaks into is, inhabits us, but we can get rid of it if we really really try, we can be delivered, we can excorcise ourselves and return to a state that is pure, devoid of the evil that stained our souls. This is our fantasy, as humans, that clashes constantly with the other understanding of evil we possess, that is, that it comes from inside of us, that it isn’t some serpent in a tree tempting us with an apple, it’s us, we tempt ourselves, we damn ourselves, and there is no escape from our own evil because it IS us. So which is correct? Which one is right? If we knew, there would probably be no art.

There would definitely be no Macbeth, the play that asks the question: where does evil lie, outside of us, in the hearts of witches, devils, and other things that go bump in the night, or inside of us, in the ambitions of a man who hears a suggestion and sets his own life on fire to make it true? Where does evil come from? And what will it make us do?

It’s the reason Macbeth holds directors the world over in such a thrall, promising them epic moral struggles, a love story for the ages, a protagonist who is as exciting as he is insane, ghosts, knife fights, one horrifically long scene in England, everything you want and expect from a Shakespeare drama, really. It’s worth the curses, it’s worth the many consequences, real or imagined, of performing The Scottish Play, because you have two magnificent characters, a sea of random people, and a story that digs into the hearts of man and comes out on the other side, brilliant and bleeding. Besides, you get to say some great lines. The play has a power that tends to overwhelm attempts to adapt it, to change it, to bend it to your will. It also has some problems, which just goes to show that everyone, even Shakespeare, could use a decent editor. It’s a challenge, not just to do well, but to do your own way, although that’s just what Rajat Kapoor has attempted in his recent production of a greasepaint-coated adaptation of MacbethWhat’s Done Is Done!, which had it’s Mumbai premiere (and self-same closing night) this past Sunday at the National Center for the Performing Arts.

Kapoor has a habit of taking Shakespeare’s plays and turning them sideways, painting them with clown make up, and sending them back out again for the crowd to laugh and (hopefully) thrown only the softest of tomatoes. His irreverence for Shakespeare is refreshing, energizing, revitalizing. There are so many productions that take Shakespeare deeply seriously, and that’s wonderful, good for them, but why add to the pile? Why not come at it sideways, Kapoor’s productions ask, why not comment on the strangeness, the silliness, the nonsense, the pretense, all of the amalgamation of THINGS that we are just supposed to ignore because we’ve decided, collectively, that Shakespeare is perfect, the platonic form of theater, and it brooks no criticism. But everything brooks criticism, everything deserves to be evaluated, to be judged, to be continuously sharply scrutinized both for its values and it’s flaws, and we can’t put Shakespeare in some unassailable space just because we learned about it in high school and were told it was the end all and be all (that being said this phrase, of course, comes from Macbeth…).

So there is nothing wrong with bending Macbeth around to make a point. But Macbeth, as discussed, is a hard nut to crack, and the point you want to make about the play has to compete with a lot of points within the play itself, and that’s not an easy competition to win. Kapoor’s style for this and his other work involves a play-within-a-play, big shoes, wise cracks and a pseudo-gibberish style in strangely non-specific but vaguely Romance language oriented accents. He calls this a clown play, so let’s talk a little bit about clowning, and what it is. Contrary to popular belief, being a clown is fairly serious business.

The concept of clown as we now know it evolves from Commedia dell’Arte, the improvisational theater form that came out of Italy in the Renaissance. Shorted from the full title which translates to “comedy of the art of improvisation”, the form loosely based itself on the Roman and Greek comedies uncovered by Renaissance scholars, and used loose scenarios, or stories, actors in masks or make up, and a broad multi-lingual comedic style which evolved as a result of actors traveling and performing their work from country to country in Europe. The stock characters of the Commedia form included several servant characters like the zanni, whose buffoonery and rustic comedy coupled with the white make up popularized by the Harlequin character, a silent stock type, eventually gave way to an individual character living outside of the commedia troupe. Shakespeare himself used the term “clown” to mean a rustic fool, typical city snobbery, of course.

The development of circuses in the 19th century gave the clown a new place to live, and the character type grew new attributes, a red nose because of his excessive drinking, oversized clothing because he was associated with being a hobo, or homeless person, and so on, and so forth, until you see the clown of our nightmares, or dreams, depending on your childhood. But beyond their history, clowning has, in the last century, also taken on a training element, a methodology, a scholarship. Being a clown is often no laughing matter, as the process of creating a clown persona involves digging into the bedrock of what you as the actor hate most about yourself, and expanding it until the point where it is absurd, laughable, almost insane.

As Bertil Sylvander describes it in his 1984 article on the subject:

Clowns are primarily and fundamentally fragile and vulnerable (it is through this that clowns will draw their strength). While society expects us to be beautiful, intelligent, in control of our emotions and successful in our projects, clowns are not ashamed to show their physical disabilities, their simple-minded nature (not to mention a charming foolishness), their uncontrolled and overwhelming emotions. Naturally such a constitution drives clowns from one failure to another (up to the final success, of course). Clowns are not like the unruffled heroes of some Hollywood cowboy movies but more like eternally awkward and hopeless cases of failure.

Many famous clowns spent their lives in and out of mental institutions, and frankly, can you blame them? Imagine having to perform your worst self over and over again while people laugh at you? It sounds like the stuff of nightmares. And yet comedians do it the world over, which just goes to show that comedy is tragedy plus time.

Speaking of tragedy, let’s return to Kapoor’s play. Although there is a conceit of clowning, the veneer of clowning in Isha Ahluwalia’s excellent costumes (which don’t play well in the cavernous NCPA space but up close are a demented expressionistic dream) and the physical attempts at clowning from actors Vinay Pathak, Jim Sarbh, Sujay Saple and Sheena Khalid, it’s not really clear where the clown lives in this Macbeth adaptation.  What is, in fact, the clown within the character of Macbeth? Where is his absurdity, his internal logic of buffoonery, his capacity for failure made funny? There are, of course, many options for this. As Sarbh’s Julio, a janitor-turned-play producer who, along with Pathak’s Pedro, narrate the play, points out, Macbeth is described as a kind-hearted just man, but the second a random group of women tells him their vision of the future he throws goodness out the window and goes all murder all the time. If this play were set in a high school the witches would be the mean girls and no one would make it to homecoming, let alone prom. And it’s a great point that Julio makes, but the serious frame of it doesn’t allow it to be a clown moment. Instead, in an effort to prove that everyone has the capacity for violence, Pedro attacks Julio, making the scene more Punch and Judy than pie in the face.

Kapoor’s cast has created a clever, quippy version of Macbeth, but where the clown lives inside of it, I’m just not always sure. Khalid, along with Kalki Koechlin and Tillotama Shome, start valiantly as cackling binge-eating witches, crunching away on snacks as they excitedly watch the battlefield like it’s a cricket match, cheering indiscriminately for all sides as long as they result in death. Confronting Banquo (Saple) and MackieB (Ranvir Shorey), they tantalize them with visions of their futures as the hapless guys just try to find a cell signal to get out of there. But of course, the men can’t help but listen to these temptations of the weird sisters, and soon a text message “herald” proclaiming one part of the prophecy true makes MackieB anxious to become the promised King of Scotland. Returning him, he is confronted by a trio of Lady Macbeths, (also Khalid, Koechlin and Shome) who overwhelm and surround him, leaving him a lone vessel in a sea of ambition. This division of Lady Macbeths works beautifully in that first scene, but it doesn’t have the backbone of the relationship to maintain an internal logic as the piece goes on, instead, it stops the relationship between Lady M and her MackieB from achieving any kind of arc or progression. Which shouldn’t matter that much, but it does, because the play begins to assert itself more and more as the piece goes on, discarding the clown references for a stripped down Macbeth  in funny outfits. Shorey’s Macbeth is too powerful not to be absorbing and emotionally resonant, and his tragedy never becomes a comic one. Meanwhile, Saple works overtime to maintain the physical comedy and heightened reality with which the production starts, and Pathak and Sarbh’s increasingly irrelevant banter becomes darker and less commentative, robbing the piece of the outside perspective it had initially promised its audience.

This is a capable and well-balanced cast, and their work is great to watch, but on the clown side, it’s Saple, Pathak, Sarbh and Khalid that bounce around like rubber balls, letting their own internal logic guide them through an altered reality. On the serious side, it’s Shorey’s play, and his brooding dark performance is somehow all the more menacing with his clown make up intact. Although his Lady Macbeths are all fine, it’s Shome’s compact rage that feels the best match to Shorey’s paranoia turned viciousness, and watching him bat her around the stage creates one of the truly frightening moments of the play.

Asmit Pathare’s stellar lighting and the excellent and evocative sound design by Aditya Kelgaonkar all sit under Kapoor’s capable direction, and the production itself is well crafted and beautifully presented. It is funny, filled with one liners and pop culture references, silly sections and gorgeous visuals, and it’s a strong and solvent piece. It just doesn’t entirely feel like it knows what it is yet. Is it a stripped down Macbeth? Is it a clown piece? Is it a commentary? If so, what is it saying? Macbeth is a great story that always deserves to be told and re-told, but it’s relevance comes from how we see it today, how we understand it, how we separate our modern lens from its historic origins. What we are saying about Macbeth is as important as what Macbeth is saying itself. But it’s hard to fight such a strong narrative, you’re a Scottish salmon, swimming upstream against the current. I don’t blame anyone for giving up and going with the flow of the story, and doing it well, and effectively, in a way that connects with its audience and puts something fun and funny and visually interesting on stage. But I would say that if this production is aiming to be something different, to understand Macbeth as a clown play, then there is room to find that, and a rich ground for it to grow.

Those interested in catching this play will be able to see it state-side this July, and you can see dates and locations here. Hopefully when it’s had it’s fill of the United States it will be playing back in Mumbai again soon. After all, what’s done might be done, but it can also be re-done, right?

(Apologies for anyone I missed in the cast and crew! There was no program for this production, but if you send me your name I will work it in there somehow!)

Posted by: strugglesome | April 18, 2016

Man, I Feel Like a Woman: Anuja Ghosalkar’s Lady Anandi

The invention of the photograph did more than spur the impressionist movement and, later, pave the way for the selfie.It changed the way we understand reality. The idea of a photograph, and later, a moving picture, gives us a sense of reality, an immediate recognition of life as we know it to be. But the truth is the idea that nurtures our believe in photography, film and documentation, that is, the concept that seeing is believing, is older than the invention of the camera. The first record of this phrase dates back to a book of idioms, from 1639, but the history of the idea of evidence and the importance of first hand visual experience has haunted philosophers and thinkers from Aristotle to Kant.

Much like a photograph, a documentary presents a false construct to which few can help but respond. We believe in the veracity of a photograph, despite the fact that we know it can be staged, and we have no context for the image. So too do we have a sense of documentary as “real”, contrasted with the way that a narrative film is “fake”. But a documentary filmmaker is still deciding what world fits into a camera lens and what needs to be chopped away, neatly ignored in favor of their vision.

So too does documentary theater contrast itself against dramatic fiction. In the case of a piece like Techtonic Theater’s The Laramie Project, the company’s choice to put themselves into the piece itself lends an even greater sense of veracity to the story, that is, we trust it even more deeply because we understand the group as separate from the story, or at least, that is what we believe to be the case. We appreciate the insights and commentary that the theater makers construct against the “first hand narrative” of the townspeople of Laramie; we judge this as more true, more real, than the fictions of non-documentary theater. But how do we know that any of it is really real? We are, once again, like a photograph, viewing the world only through the lens of the “camera” of the director or theater group’s design. We are choosing to see one thing and let the rest be cut off, and it is in the choice of that one thing that the significance and impact of a documentary piece lives. The resonance between enactor and subject, performance and focus, is in and of itself a primary part of the performance, and it is in this interaction, the murky space between performer and performance, that documentary theater finds fertile ground to grow.

This certainly seems to be the case with Lady Anandi, a piece in progress by Bangalore based theater maker Anuja Ghosalkar. I caught this piece thanks to a far more Mumbai-theater-literate friend on Sunday evening, as it is, like so many performances here in India, I’m learning, an extremely limited run of one night only.

Stemming from her research, Lady Anandi was inspired by Ghosalkar’s own relative, her great grandfather who acted in Marathi theater, playing women’s roles. While virtually every culture on earth has, at some point in its theaterical history, barred women from the stage, it seems that parts of  India adopted that practice later and discarded it later than its Western counterparts, with female actresses scorned and ostracized well into the early 20th century. While the subject of women in public spaces in India could fill up many a master’s thesis, I would invite you to check out this organization if you are interested in the subject.

Indian theater traditions date back to Sanskrit theater, which emerged as a form sometime at the beginning of the first century of the common era, and enjoyed a heyday of productivity and huge outputs of written plays before the first Islamic invasions of the 10th century. The most complete dramaturgical text in the world comes from India, a work called Natyashastra, or A Treatise on Theater, attributed to Bharata Muni, an ancient Indian scholar. Performing plays based on the mythic traditions of the Indian epics, theater groups underwent rigorous training, were mixed gender, and often were performed for the Ancient Indian royal courts.

After centuries of scholarship and theater making, the Indian theater scene suffered quite a blow when Northern raiders came, bringing the tandoor but banning performance. The Turkic rulers of Northern India discouraged theater, and while local performances began to creep back onto the scene, it wasn’t until the British toppled the crumbling remains of the Mughal empire that a theater tradition was revived in India, although this time it would have to fit into European sensibilities and be influenced by Western forms of what a play is and should be. Nevertheless, regional forms did manage to find a balance and use their own traditions to create traveling pieces, like Marathi Theater groups which began performing Marathi pieces incorporating music and folk dances for public consumption in Maharastra around the early 19th century. Women were, however, barred from performing in these plays, the most famous of which was Shakuntal, a play based on the Sanskrit play Abhijñānashākuntala, or The Recognition of Shakuntala I could go on and on about Indian theater, and in fact, would love to, but instead I might just encourage you to read this text, as I myself plan on doing soon.

But instead, let’s get back to the rather modern piece of theater that Ghosalkar has presented, an unfinished work that perhaps is completed in its incompleteness, that trades on its roughness to aim for something more interesting than a conventional realistic stage play, and instead tries to explore the lines of performance and gender, the boundaries between past and present, and the way family histories often must be imagined to be understood. While there are many Indians who can recite their ancestors names back into centuries past, those whose ancestral villages remain yearly pilgrimage points and whose lineages are drilled into babies at birth, there are also many Indians whose diasporadic family histories have caused gaps in the narratives of family, those for whom the tumultuous political events of the last century have erased large portions of family trees. And then there is Ghosalkar’s family. While she has a lot of ties to her past, finding information about her great grandfather proved a difficult task, with just a handful of photographs and a literal footnote in a history book as her only guides. What she was able to find was that her great grandfather once played Lady Anandi, a Lady-Macbeth like character who pushes her husband into murdering someone, and a treasure trove of information on the men who played women in Marathi theater, the way they trained themselves to walk, talk, and act like women.

Using that as the basis for her research and exploration, Ghosalkar has created a play in which she reads all of the roles. from her distant relative to his admiring fans to herself, an actress struggling to find a place for herself in the contemporary Indian theater scene. Using snippets, real and imagined, from her great grandfather’s life, she moves from moment to moment in a non-linear way, standing in the frames of projected old photographs in a stunning visual showing the artist trying to find a place for herself in a past to which she has little access. We’ve all had those moments with old photographs of family members, one’s we’ve never met, or maybe photographs of strangers, when we wonder what their lives were like, who they were, if they were ever like us. Ghosalkar embodies those haunting questions in the final moments of her short piece, letting her shadow block the majority of each image as the digital projection flickers across her face, both inside and outside of the image, imposing herself on history.

Because the work is unfinished, Ghosalkar holds a talk-back afterwards, asking the audience for questions and feedback.As Ghosalkar described her frustrations with theater as it exists, with the roles she was given, with feeling like a prop in other people’s productions, and how this piece has made her feel a part of something, giving her roots in performative traditions, I wished I had seen that in the performance itself. As she spoke about trying to find herself in the piece, all I could think was, yes, that is what this piece needs, it needs you. The character she wants to explore, the great grandfather, the mysterious Lady Anandi, is inaccessible to us, and to Ghosalkar herself. It is only through the lens of her that his story becomes meaningful, interesting, tragic, triumphant, real. It is only through Ghosalkar and her own story that her research, her explorations, her performance feels relevant and real. This feels now like half of a piece, a blueprint that needs to be constructed with Ghosalkar’s own stories, her own understanding of what it is to be a woman on stage, to act the lady.

One of the things this piece does suffer from in its current form is the over-explanation effect. Between the one-page program which describes in painstaking detail what we are about to see, to the introduction by the actress who reiterates the program’s through line, we are so prepared for what the piece intends that we don’t always get a chance to react to it organically, so busy are we looking for what we are supposed to being seeing in it. If you put a jug on stage and tell the audience that jug is a symbol of labor exploitation, we can’t help but try to find that, somehow, in the jug. Our understanding of the jug will come down to how much we read exploration and labor into the jug, whether we “see it” or not. But who knows what we might have seen, had we not been told what there was to be looking for? Ghosalkar’s piece hangs heavy with expectations, but as much as it includes the audience and as hard as it tries to avoid being a “play”, it still works overtime to dictate the experience of the spectator in a way that robs it of being a living breathing thing.

It is, however, deeply exciting to see a piece in progress, to watch its seams and see the thread slowly stitching moments together, to watch the actor in the process of discovery. It’s a brave act, and a vulnerable one, and it does what performance should do, it invites the audience in to sit down, relax, and watch something in the very moment of its creation. Wherever this piece goes, it’s bound to have a crowd following behind it, and not just because it looks good in a blood-red sari, either.

For those who have everything, time becomes their most precious commodity. But to be fair, for those who have less than everything, time is still their most precious commodity, they simply might not realize this. Time is relative, time waits for no man, time is cruel, time is kind, time is wasted, time is spent, time is saved, time is used.We speak of time as thought it is a finite quantity, rather than an infinite concept we have chopped into human shaped-units which help us understand our lives in manageable ways, like something we can keep in our pockets and take out for a rainy day. It is only when the boundaries of our lives are clearly and inexorably defined that time become a finite quality to us, that it loses its elasticity and becomes something rigid, that we know it as a true clock, winding down to one stopping point.

For almost  half of his life, Anton Chekhov was aware that he was dying. He suffered his first lung hemorrhage at the age of 24 and by the time The Seagull was produced in 1896 he could no longer ignore the implications of his disease. He was a doctor, after all, and he had treated countless cases similar to his own. Before the discovery of penicillin there was no cure for consumption, which we now know as tuberculosis, and Chekhov’s lungs slowly deteriorated until the weak tissue could stand no more dilapidation and simple gave out. Tuberculosis is a painful way to die, and an equally painful way to live, but Chekhov spent twenty years with his disease as his constant companion, a friend who enjoyed hounding his steps and reminding him of his inevitable future with frequent coughing spells and lung hemorrhages. He wrote his four major plays while living under the shadow of death, and none more so than The Cherry Orchard, which was completed the year he died.

And if you consider the state of mind of the author when he wrote it, many things about this play become blindingly clear. In the second act of the play a character declares, quite offhandedly, that the sun, ladies and gentleman, has set. This could be, of course, a simple observation, but like so many moments in this drama, it is also a statement that drops through the fragile facade of the story like a stone, plummeting into depths that none of the characters onstage are interested in exploring. It’s what makes this play so real, so vital as a drama, that underneath its surface lay the anxieties and fears of life, of mortality, of time itself, which, dulled as they are by the human condition, bubble up at the strangest and most wonderful of moments, painting a landscape of desperate people whose oddest quality is that they neither acknowledge nor accept that desperation. It is this quality that most reflects life as we know it, that people fight against reality with every drop of strength that they have, or that when they do see what is happening within their lives they turn out to be the people we like least, even if we understand them the most.

But its difficult to do a play like The Cherry Orchard, with its dual weight and lightness, with its characters who live both in the same and wildly different worlds. It is a play on the precipice of things, a play that marks the threshold of things in Russia, and within Chekhov’s own life. It is a play of many characters, each of whom revolves around their own personal orbit, with a surreal sound scape reminding the audience just how surreal the reality of Chekhov really is (as of course Beckett called Chekhov the first surrealist and he, of all people, should know). It’s easy to neglect some part of this world, or to find that the play really feels like many worlds, unconnected and blind to each other. And that’s the real problem facing People’s Light and Theatre Company’s ambitious and often impressive production of The Cherry Orchard which, as engaging as it can be moment to moment, fails to feel like one play, one world, and everyone’s story.

The plot of the play is perilously simple, in fact, its the kind of plot that gives Russian theater a bad name in that very little happens. An estate is in trouble (the freeing of the serfs in 1861 wasn’t all that helpful for Russian aristocrats and their massive feudal manors; you really never hear about the real victims of serfdom, do you?) and it’s owner, Lyubov Andreyenva Ranevskaya (played by the luminously magnificent Mary McDonnell) has neglected it through self-absorption and a delicate constitution ill-bred for the practicalities of life. While her family, including brother Leonid (a stellar and affecting David Strathairn), daughters Varya (the excellent Teri Lamm) and Anya (a charming Olivia Mell), struggle to make ends meet and cope with their plummeting finances, Madame Ranevskaya has been living in Paris, lost in her torrid love affair with a man never seen on stage. She is begged to return by her family before the play begins, and the first act starts with the servants (personified by Dunyasha, who is played by Claire Inie-Richards with a violently shrill deadpan that seems to belong more in a French farce than a Russian drama) eagerly anticipating the return of the mistress, who must finally confront the realities of their financial distress, as articulated by rags-to-riches businessman Lopakhin (Pete Pryor) whose serfdom-roots make him both eager for aristocratic approval and desperate to prove himself beyond it . Or must she? Because the rest of the play has Madame Ranevskya doing everything but dealing with the problem at hand.

Simply put, the family and the estate are out of money. There is zero, zlitch, nada left. It doesn’t matter what language is used, the old fortunes have all been spent and Ranevskaya’s mind is not built for such petty matters such as the loss of her family home. Or rather, she can understand the loss but not the mechanisms in place that would allow her to keep it. Lopakhin, who loves her with a kind of childlike-devotion and a rather adult obsession, offers her a solution to her problems, cut down the cherry orchard and sell the land for summer cottages, homes for pleasure seekers who need a place for a few months, for the new Russians, made mobile by money, by industry, by change. He is speaking the wrong language, however, as she does not understand change, change is not her way. Instead, she keeps insisting with joy that the people around her “haven’t changed at all”, although it is never sure who she is reassuring more, the listener or herself. Lopakhin is eager to usher her into the future, but for Ranevskya the future needs only to continue in the same manner as the past. She will love a man who hurts her, she will treat her children like dolls, she will charm the world around her, she will throw money around like a child throws leaves in the air and she will treasure her memories of the cherry orchard regardless of its actual existence. It will all remain the same for her, solid in her mind like an insect caught in amber, and no amount of reality can interfere with her own version of the world.

And so she lets the estate go, because she already has, years ago, for her, this is a funeral, not a fight. And Lopakhin buys it, triumphant but ultimately unfulfilled, and the family moves on, leaving their home for their various destinations and leaving behind nothing that they care about. And Lopakhin doesn’t marry Varya despite everyone’s urging because as it turns out not all women are completely interchangeable, and Anya strolls into the sunset with her brother’s old tutor/newly reborn revolutionary, Trofimov, (played by Sanjit De Silva with such apathy and listlessness that you almost wish it was 1917 already). There are casualties, of course, like the aforementioned Dunyasha, who may, horror of horrors, have to end up married to the boring and pedantic Yepikhodov (Andrew Kane, who apparently thought this was a madcap comedy) as her crush Yasha (a delightfully superior Luigi Sottile) leaves with Ranevskaya. Or the governess, Charlotta (played gamely by Mary Elizabeth Scallen who seems cheerfully oblivious to how oddly directed she has been) who now has no charge, no country and no one to talk to. But willingly or not, they all move on in the end except, of course, Firs, the butler, magnificently played by Graham Smith, who dies with the house as all truly loyal Russian servants do. (I’m not giving anything away here, this play is over one hundred years old.)

Whatever you think of the play itself, it’s message is clear only in the fact that it has no distinct message. It’s only people, living their lives, making the same mistakes over and over again until the tension of life snaps their strings and they float on, unencumbered by anything but memories. Chekhov includes that very stage direction in the play, which is a noisy one both in its characters and in its world. Orchestras play, beggars beg, trees are chopped down with abandon, pipers play in the distance and strings snap. Most of these stage directors occur without feeling directly related to any one thing in the play itself, as if the story lives in a kind of randomized wonderland. It works the way a dream works, or the way a child sees the world, large and loud and bright and bitter. Or at least, it has the potential to do so. And at times, this production does, feeling full to bursting with humanity. But more often than not this production feels like a deflating balloon, unsure whether it’s going to float or sink, full of air that is fast escaping and not all that exciting to watch.

One of the issues could of course, be, the world of the play as established by director Abigail Adams and her design team. For a play about a house, it seems rather strange that set designer Tony Straiges has failed to  provide the audience with one. Instead we get a confusing collection of columns and cornices with bare branches dipping into the room from above. Just in case you weren’t aware that an orchard is a place that trees live, one supposes. The first act opens with a jumble of toys that clearly no child has ever played with, in a room that no one seems to feel comfortable in. For all of the discussion of how wonderful it is to be home, the sheer lack of home-ness in the set belies those statements, giving the first act an air of artificiality that extends into the work of the actors. It almost feels like the production decided to favor bold archetypes rather than reality, so this means house, this means moon (a wooden moon hanging from strings, if you must know), this means orchard, this means luggage. More successful are the transitions in the second and third acts, outside the house and inside to a backroom of the party, but still, its little wonder these people let their ancestral home go so easily if it’s going to be this bare and bald and adored solely with cheap lace curtains.

Dennis Parichy’s lighting design isn’t all that much better, with effects galore but little focus, leaving the eyes of the audience exhausted with straining to see the actors through all of the manipulated light. Melissa Dunphy’s sound design is downright strange, with unintelligible sounds twanging through the production, culminating in a groaning car-dying sound instead of Chekhov’s suggested string snap and tree’s being chopped down. Obviously there is nothing wrong with deviating from stage directions, but it would be nice to know what that deviation was meant to be. And as for Marla J. Jurglanis’ costumes, well, they seem to have drawn deeply from mid to late Edwardian images which feels deeply inappropriate to  the year of the play, 1904, a time of transition from late Victorian to early Edwardian fashion which was still, in Paris particularly, under the thrall of Charles Worth, the designer who dominated the scene and ensured that the Victorian silhouette held on for years after the Queen’s death. It also feels inappropriate to the world of these people, and the country in which the play takes place. Yes, Madame Ranevskaya might have just returned from Paris with the latest fashions, which still pre-date those of the production by at least a decade, but clothing doesn’t change all at once, it’s generational, it’s cultural, it’s dependent on materials available and social mores. Russia had its own fashion culture, heavily copied from Paris, yes, but also based on it’s own standards of modesty and class. No servant should be dressing in the same manner of their master, as is the case with Dunyasha’s  blouse and skirt ensemble which not only mirror Anya’s to an alarming degree but look like something out of the second season of Downtown Abby. One may say that this matters little, but in a world that lives on the foundations of status and hierarchy it would matter to the people within it to differentiate themselves, and the actors should be allowed that for themselves, and for the sake of the audience. From the men’s suits to the women’s winter coats there are so many anachronisms in this costume palette, some of which are a few years off, some of which are over a century off, that they almost seem deliberate, except that nothing else about the production supports this idea. It is absolutely in the world of the play to insert subtle modernization and the anxiety change represents, but seeing Lopakhin in a three-piece suit seems more jarring than meaningful.

Of course, the unevenness of the production also lies in Adams’ direction, which seems to have placed most of these characters in several different plays. Kane’s Yepikhodov and Inie-Richard’s Dunyasha are in some kind of slapstick comedy without a much-needed laugh track, witnessed only by Sotille’s Yasha who endevors to be a real person in a room full of caricatures, while Mell’s Anya and De Silva’s Trofimov are in a romantic comedy you wouldn’t see in theaters but might watch if it was playing on USA at the gym. Scallen’s Charlotta is trapped in a horrifying fun house with no one having much fun at all (the choices made with this character are, one assumes, deeply well-intentioned, but have resulted in something completely unintelligible and while Scallen attacks it bravely, one must hope that she is having a good time, as she is the only one) , while Lamm’s Varya suffers alone in a serious mortgage melodrama with no hero and many villains, with occasional visits from Peter DeLaurier’s harmlessly comic Boris Simeonov-Pishchik who adds little but detracts nothing.

Perhaps, to be fair, all of these actors suffer in comparison to the astounding and mesmerizing trio of McDonnell’s Ranevskaya, Strathairn’s Leonid and Smith’s Firs. These three actors make this production worth watching if for nothing more than the moments of sheer life that they carve out of everything else happening on stage. McDonnell is magnificent, charming even as she says terrible things, sympathetic even as she makes the worst of all decisions or none at all, and heartbreaking when she recounts her life, her loves, and her pain. She plays a character that is so easy to hate with so much love that the audience cannot help but love her too, and it is clear why Strathairn’s bumbling and sweet Leonid is devoted to her despite the fact that she has lost their birthright and their home. The bond the two of them have onstage makes the empty set seem like a real house for a few minutes, with real people living in it. And when Smith’s Firs enters the mix it is simply a wonderful play, with past and present seamlessly bending, with humor, with heart and with tragedy woven into even the most banal of lines. Initially, Pryor’s Lopakhin can’t keep up, and he rushes through the first act in an artificial bray with a glaze in his eyes and an emptiness in his offers to help. But once he enters in the second act, Pryor’s early transgressions can be forgiven, for he is brawny, victorious, drunk and powerful. He does far better as the villain of this piece, and it’s a shame that he can’t quite master the other side of Lopakhin, causing the character’s  need to be loved and to be approved of to be muted and diminished by his need to vindicate. Still, the quartet end the play beautifully, and if this were a story featuring only those four actors, with Pryor used sparingly, it would be a completely absorbing drama. But it’s not that kind of play, and it’s a shame that the totality of the production is not nearly as moving as some of the actors within it.

It isn’t easy to produce Chekhov well; indeed, to produce any ensemble drama well, let alone one of this scale, and People’s Light and Theater company is to be saluted for its ambition and it’s commitment to working on shows like this, it’s attempts to build these worlds and see what comes of them.  Sometimes one wonders why people try at all, when it’s so difficult to make these stories work, to juggle all of the story lines and characters and make sure each of them lives in their own story and contributes to the larger world. Perhaps they try because these plays are Ahab’s white whale, impossible not to attempt to capture despite their danger, because their allure, their mysteries and their layers are intoxicating and never-ending. You could talk about a play like this one for hours and still not understand all of the things that it is saying. You could see a thousand productions of it and never see the same moment the same way twice. So whatever else this production is, the mere fact that it exists means that it’s worth seeing, because it’s never a waste of time to see people wrestle with this story, no matter how much time the characters onstage feel like they have wasted.

People’s Light and Theatre Company’s production of The Cherry Orchard is now running until the 8th of March. Tickets are available here.

Posted by: strugglesome | March 24, 2013

The Best and the Brightest: MCC Theater’s Really Really

Here’s the thing about sexual assault, it’s a really hard thing for male writers to write about without seeming like the worst human beings on the planet. Because, and of course this is a generalization and we all know about the exceptions, but, for the most part, outside of the prison system, heterosexual men are rarely the victims of sexual assault. Women don’t rape each other. Women don’t rape men. Moreover, women feel obligated by the constraints of the patriarchy, by everything we are every taught, by every rule dictating female behavior, to acquiesce. To take the blame. To consider how we may have “tempted” or “provoked” or simply existed in the direction of a man. Sex has long been something that is considered an activity that men want and women tolerate, and that attitude, as antiquated as it is, still dictates much of contemporary behavior  And if you can’t be raped, how can you understand rape? If sexual assault isn’t literal for you as a fear and concern in your life, how can it really seem significant? And that’s the underlying issue in Paul Downs Colaizzo’s funny but flawed Really Really, directed by David Cromer, now playing at MCC Theater.

When Grace (Lauren Culpepper) and Leigh (Zosia Mamet) return home one night from a party, they stumble drunkenly into their apartment, laughing hysterically at the sheer act of intoxication. But it quickly becomes clear to the audience that this is no mere homecoming. For one thing, Grace’s hand is covering in blood and it still has glass embedded in it. For another thing, these girls seem beyond wasted, they are in the land of incomprehension. Still, we’ve all had nights like that in college, and so when it turns out that there was a rager the evening before, thrown by some jocky frat boys, whose sport and greek letters are never really dealt with, it all makes sense. But what really happened at that party? That question is the subject of the entire play, and it becomes more important than any drunken attendee ever thought possible.

In the wake of this wild soiree of questionable decisions, frat boy Davis (a decent Matt Lauria) wakes up to a destroyed house and a lot of fuzzy memories. His buddies, the straight-laced Johnson (an excellent and wonderfully timed Kobi Libii) and the raunchy Cooper ( the talented David Hull, who stays shirtless a lot of the show, much to the delight of most of the female population of the audience), are dying to know what happened the night before, but Davis seems reticent to share his tales from between the sheets. And with good reason, too. It seems that Davis and Leigh have made the beast with two backs, and the assumption is that this isn’t going to go over all that well with Jimmy (a perfectly pitched Evan Jonigkeit)  Leigh’s boyfriend and Davis’ teammate. But what really happened that night? Did Leigh want to have sex with Davis? Did Davis want to have sex with Leigh? Who can trust in this world of intoxicated emotions and juvenile deceptions? And, more to the point, does anyone really care?

As information is revealed and clouds the information previously received, these hung over young people try to find a way to construct their futures. With the arrival of Leigh’s ambitious and back-woodsy sister Haley ( Aleque Reid), Leigh finds herself in the position of defending her assertion that Davis’ raped her and caused her to lose a (faked) pregnancy against her friends, her family, and the world at large. As Grace delivers clever if clunky speeches about “generation me” at a Future Leaders of America conference, rumors swirls around this unnamed college campus and accusations are hurled at the speed of a tweet, reaching everyone before they’ve had a change to really be thought out, or heard. Leigh, a compelling and subdued Mamet who walks through the play with a numbness that is appropriate but hard to connect with,  seems to be playing the long game. Because there is so much information, or misinformation, being bandied about, one never knows if one can trust anyone, especially Leigh. But when you make a story about sexual violence and call into question the veracity of the victim, that is a bit, um, what is the word, vomit-inducing? Because as a rule, women don’t tend to lie about rape. Or pregnancy, for that matter. So if you want to put the victim of a rape situation in the position of the aggressor, you better have a damn good reason. And Colaizzo, well, just doesn’t seem to have one at all.

The whole key to this story seems to rest on an unseen character, Natalie, Davis’ former girlfriend, whose fragile ghost seems to haunt this piece as a tenuous explanation for a lot of bad behavior  For example, Davis is willing to have sex with Leigh, despite their mutual commitment to Jimmy, because he’s desperate to exorcise his ex, Natalie, from his system. And Leigh is willing to let Davis rape her (which is a plot point that can’t help but raise the hackles of even the least feminist audience member) because she knows, from Natalie, that Davis gets violent during sex, and she knows she can use this to secure her financial future. Which, you know, is totally something women do, provoke men into raping them for some cash. That’s a real thing that happens. All the time. But the problem then is, if Natalie is so important, so vital to this story, why don’t we ever meet her? And if we don’t meet her, why don’t we know that she is significant until the final moments of the play? Why do we spend so much time with characters who don’t seem to matter, really, if this unseen Natalie is actually the hinge upon which all this rests?

Part of the issue with this may be that despite the plethora of people who Colaizzo has put on the stage, all neatly directed by Cromer, most of these characters all speak with what is basically the same voice. They all have the same snappy quippy sense of humor, they all seem equally intelligent, they all seem, well, exactly the same. The vocal homogeny of the play is almost overwhelming. Everyone’s humor is the same, with Culpepper’s supremely well handled Grace as the forerunner in pop-culture meets academia style speak, with her pumps and clashing prints (courtesy of Sarah Laux’s spot on costume design) and snippy sharp one liners all delivered with a breathless mania. But because everyone is just like everyone else, even the “outsider”, Haley ( Reid’s annoying performance adds little to this already acerbic character) seems to be just as well off as all these other privileged people, and I couldn’t tell you for the life of me where the hell this is supposed to be happening. Vague references to “Christian Therapy” come and go, leaving on the impression that this is somewhere conservative, somewhere in the south or middle of this huge country of ours, but honestly, nothing else exists in the world of the play to clue its audience in on where this is all going on.

So when the play ends, amid ambiguous rape accusations and an anvil-sized point about getting what you really want at any cost and then realizing it wasn’t worth it (which…welcome to adulthood) one must wonder what the take-home message is in such a story. In a play obsessed with T.V. style buttons (each scene ends with a “scene ending line”, punctuated by a lengthy set change, courtesy of David Korins clever-but-tedious-to-watch set design, David Weiner’s neat lighting and Daniel Kluger’s excellent sound) at the end of the piece, the audience is left blinking in the wake of this ambiguous and odd story. But as Colaizzo writes, “You can’t get what you want until you know what you want”. So what I personally would like is a play that values human emotion over banter and sensation. Because what Really Really leaves its audience with is the feeling that of course what you want at the age of 21 isn’t worth what you do to get it. But if you didn’t know that already, you’ve really really got some deeper issues at work there.

MCC Theater’s Really Really runs until March 30th. Tickets are available here.

Posted by: strugglesome | March 15, 2013

Do The Right Thing: Playwrights Horizon’s The Flick

Though it might have begun as a visual medium, the art of moving film quickly became the art of the escape. A 35 millimeter flip strip, projected onto a screen larger than many New York apartments, can and does completely overwhelm its viewer. Like stepping up close to a Rothko painting, the act of watching a movie inundates its audience with sensation and sound and light and shadow and experience to the point that there is no world beyond the world of the cinema. This is film’s virtue and it’s curse, it’s danger and it’s delight. Movies erase our sense of external reality while still pretending to be reality. Here in the United States, a movie-rich country with the largest film industry in the world, we believe in movies more than we believe in almost anything.We expect a reality from film that is impossible, and we expect a cinematic quality to reality that is insane. Hooray for Hollywood, indeed.

And yet, for many of us, it’s hard not to fall more in love with movies then with life. After all, movies are scripted, life is not. Movies have plots and protagonists and craft and arc and endings. Life just goes on and on. Movies have swelling soundtracks. Life just has noise. But life is what we’ve got, and movies are what we’ve made. There is a difference there, for those who choose to see it.

And the three people who live and breathe in Annie Baker’s The Flick, directed by Sam Gold, now playing at Playwrights Horizons, live and die by movies, but not all in the same fashion. (There is also a fourth actor, the lovely Alex Hanna, playing two roles, but let’s discuss the principles before the subplots, shall we?) After all, there are people who fall more in love with movies then with real life, and there are people who fall out of love with movies because they understand that real life, in all it’s complicated messy realness, can be so much better than the best movie. And in The Flick we have the person who loves movies more than life itself, Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten), and the people who, while they may not love life, at the very least, they know it when they see it, Sam (Matthew Maher) and Rose (Louisa Krause).

All three characters are employees at a run-down movie theater in Worcester County, Massachusetts. It’s a rather small shabby affair, with faded stained maroon seats and mustard walls (fantastic set design by David Zinn, who also did the costumes), but it boasts one of the only 35 millimeter film projectors in the county, and that alone makes it a diamond in the rough. In a world  colored by fluorescent (solid lighting by Jane Cox) in love with the pointillism of digital pixels, The Flick, the theater itself, still airs films, in all their full orchestral glory (lovely sound by Bray Poor). And that’s what attracts the awkward and unhappy Avery (who Moten plays with impeccable timing and excellent subtlety and depth) to his job as a movie theater attendant. Well, that, and the fact that he has nothing else to do, he’s taking a semester off from college, he’s uncomfortable within the context of his own life, what better place to escape to then a movie theater, the site of all he holds dear? For Avery loves movies, moreover, he believes in movies. They mean more to him then life itself, which isn’t surprising, given how unhappy he is in his own life. But even though Avery would rather watch a filmstrip then deal with his life, life has a way of going on even while the movie is running, and so Avery must interact with other humans, his fellow employees, Sam and Rose.

Sam (a stellar and sweetly sad Maher who breaks your heart and forces you to smile), is a guy in his mid-thirties working at a crappy movie theater. So that’s probably all anyone needs to know about him. But in case you were wondering, to complete the picture, he lives with his parents and he is desperately in love with his fellow worker, Rose. Rose (a fantastic Krause, whose sense of delivery and pace couldn’t be better, and whose defiant charm is bizarrely attractive) is a quirky, darkly sardonic woman who is as unconscious of the people around her as she is sensitive to them. Sam’s adoration for Rose makes him pathetic, but infinitely relatable. And Avery, with his shy stuttering presence, is the unaware catalyst that will force Sam to finally confess his love to Rose. And does she rush into his arms and kiss him with the pent-up emotions of a thousand lonely nights? Of course not. This isn’t a movie.

Watching these three strangers stumble towards each other, collide with each other, offend each other, betray each other, survive contact with each other, is like seeing an underwater ballet. It moves slowly, but beautifully, and as each moment settles on the audience the accumulation of images and moments add up to something far greater than the sum of its parts. The settling of each moment as it comes, the sheer awkward realness of every beat, which Baker’s prose electrifies and Gold’s direction stretches to its terrifically torturous limit, gives the audience the literal or at least semi-literal life and death of these relationships. There are those who would and will say that this play is overly long, but it is my personal opinion that the length of the play is as deliberate as everything else about this fantastic production. The beginning is slow and uncomfortable because it mimics the way Avery and Sam and Rose get to know each other, it traces Avery’s journey for the audience from desperate new guy to desperate film nerd to desperate closet case to desperate idealist to desperate angry young man. It moves ponderously but deliberately and in its pace it delivers to its audience a real understanding of these people and their progression, or regression, or maybe evolution. Nothing in Baker’s text is random, or extraneous, but neither is everything explained. Instead, it holds all the mysteries of reality, and all the craft of impeccable playwriting.

These relationships, with their petty battles and deeply felt heartbreak, resonate with their audience on an inherent level because they could not be more real. For example, a moment in the burgeoning friendship between Avery and Sam in which Avery has betrayed Sam is punctuated with Sam, who shares his cleaning duties with Avery between each movie showing, suddenly scattering popcorn all over Avery’s section with a deeply satisfying and fantastic pop of a bag. It could not be a better expression of the pain and frustration that Sam feels at this moment, perfectly calibrated to live within the world of the play as a gesture that only makes sense within its own context.

Our obsession with film leads us to believe that life works a certain way, and yet our reality continually reminds us otherwise. That tension weaves its way into this play, dipping into the lives of these phenomenally unhappy people and framing their denial in celluloid and sadness. Avery specifically is a fascinating mess of a person, so eager to define his life by the movies he likes, rather than the events that are actually shaping it. As Avery says, when Rose tries to touch him sexually, ” I always just think, I’d rather be watching a movie”. The fact that Avery doesn’t see how pathetic and sad this is, only highlights to the audience the impact of this statement. There is a way in which to be in love with movies is to be ignorant of the world, and this is unique in the way that no other medium denies reality so deeply. But if you had a life like Avery’s, so filled with unavoidable unacceptable realities, you too might wish to disappear into a Quintin Tarantino film.

However, this is not how the world works, is it. And those who chose real life over movies know this, we know that “sometimes the people you fall in love with fall in love with you back.Sometimes they don’t. But sometimes they do. And it’s awesome”. And all the movies in the world wont stop your parents from letting you down, or you friends from betraying you, or the world from hurting you. And rewarding you, and giving you wonderful things, real things, things that have nothing to do with a projector, digital or otherwise. The fact that Baker can say all of this without saying any of it, that her play can settle slowly upon its audience with gorgeous depth and deftness, that every moment of it can feel essential and important and also, somehow, truly real, makes this piece so magnificent, and so very real. And while some would argue otherwise, what is theater for, if not the most real of real things? If you want fake, go to a movie.

The Flick is playing now through April 7th. Tickets are available here.

Posted by: strugglesome | March 11, 2013

The Beast In Me: Kneehigh’s The Wild Bride

“Not many people survive the wilderness twice”, says the Devil, a smirk on his face. And he’s not wrong, neither. It takes a survivor to take on the wild, the wild without, and the wild within. But what are fairy tales about if not an explanation of our impulses, our fears and our desires, in a way that makes them both acceptable and a cautionary tale for young people? Beware of the world, these stories say, it will swallow you whole, it will take all that is pure and good in you and feed it to the Devil, for lunch. Stay on the right path, don’t trust the wolves of the world, the strangers in the crossroads, the people who offer you anything too good to be true. It probably is.

And yet, in Kneehigh Theatre’s astounding and exuberant production of The Wild Bride, now playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse, that is exactly what one foolish father does. Poor and stupid, drunk off homemade moonshine and childish optimism, a gloriously oblivious single father, played magnificently by Stuart Goodwin, who, in a charmingly Elektra-themed turn, also plays the Prince, makes a deal with a charming stranger (Andrew Durand), selling him the contents of his backyard in exchange for wealth and success. But when this devilish rouge informed the man that he has accidentally thrown the baby out with the bath water, the man understands that he has sold his young daughter (the lithe and luscious voiced Audrey Brisson), to the devil, for a new suit. But because the girl is too sweet and pure, the devil finds himself unable to touch his new prize, and no amount of mud or dirt smeared over her body can soil her soul. As she cries her sacred tears over her hands, washing away the mud and filth, her purity makes her hands glow, so of course the devil orders her father to cut those hands off, like you do. (At this point it might be helpful to note that this is a Hungarian folk tale, which makes sense, after all, that’s life in the Balkans).

And so, handless, hopeless, sold to the devil and betrayed by her father, the girl (played later by Patrycia Kujawska and Etta Murfitt)leaves her home and the only family she knows, finding safely in the wild. Of course there is a prince, a marriage, a war, a baby, a horrible misunderstanding, seven additional years in exile,the re-growth of her hands, and a final reuniting of lost loves and lost children that makes all the hardship worthwhile. It’s a fairy-tale, what do you expect? We don’t watch these stories for the twist ending, we watch them to understand how happiness can be achieved after misery and suffering. These stories teach us how to live, if you are good and pure and faithful to yourself, if you can move past the trauma of your childhood and go on living, you will heal, you will succeed, you will be rewarded. It’s a simple enough message, but it’s one that is oft-repeated through this story. As director/adapter Emma Rice quotes from the show in her program note, “Now I know why no one notices a tree as it grows/ Because their deep roots creep down oh so slow/ And their clever branches quickly learn/ To blossom only when your back is turned”.

The story itself, originally called The Handless Maiden, is in many ways a metaphor for the process of becoming an adult. Certainly in its original form it was probably a metaphor for marriage, that is, a man gives his daughter away to another man and knows not his true nature. The greatest fear for many fathers for their daughters is that they marry a man who turns out to be a devil. But it’s also a feminist tale, one of a woman who escapes her unhappy life and the men who make bad choices for her, and finds her own destiny in the face of hardship. Moreover, it’s a human story; this is the process of life, you leave the home of your parents, you feel yourself cast adrift somewhere in the wilds of the world, you are bruised and battered by the very act of existing and trying to lead a virtuous life, and yet if you preserver you can, perhaps, if you are lucky and good, survive, and thrive, even in the face of abuse and pain. You can go on, even without your hands. Who knows? Maybe you will get them back someday.

Set to rollicking bluegrass tunes composed by Stu Barker with lyrics by Carl Grouse (who also wrote the text of the entire piece, which is fantastic, just spare enough to be mysterious, hilarious, sly, clever and sweet), and played by two musicians, Ian Ross and Damon Daunno.  With amazing vocals by the entire cast, but specifically  Brisson, whose pipes were clearly crafted for bluegrass soul, the music carries the piece along, setting it to a toe-tapping beat and letting it buzz. With gorgeous and inventive puppetry by Sarah Wright and a playground of a set created by Bill Mitchell, the piece has vaguely depression- era tones, and though Kneehigh is a British company, they’ve chosen to place this Eastern European tale in the context of the American South, which, somehow, really works. One part dust bowl, one part fairy tale, Myriddin Wannell’s costume design and Malcom Rippeth’s sound disconnects the audience from historical accuracy, and allows it to exist somewhere beyond the world of real time and space. Sparking with dance and fluid movement (choreography by Murfitt), this piece is inherently theatrical, involving its audience in the wonder and splendor of the story while dazzling them with the way it’s told.

It would be, I think, impossible to leave this production without feeling elated. The sense of joy and love inherent in this piece, the adoration the performers, who are all universally excellent, from the devil to the boys in the band, but especially the irrepressible Goodwin, bring to the work; it’s almost palpable, it’s so evident. This is a story that can only be told in a theater. And that is a rare and precious and gorgeous thing. Set to a bluegrass tune, with a Hungarian flare and a Southern-fried flavor. How could anyone refuse such a thing? Fusion is so in.

Kneehigh’s production of The Wild Bride runs until March 17th. Tickets are available here.

American theater of the 1940’s and 1950’s is not for the faint of heart. It’s just so genuine, so earnest in its emotional bluntness that it makes you almost embarrassed for it, like a dear relative who gets drunk at a family event and starts sobbing all over everyone and telling them how lovely they were as children. From the Puritanical restraint of the past burst forth a theater that insisted on discussing things, uncovering secrets, dealing opening and honestly with feelings, especially in the face of post-war return-to-normalcy-everything-is-fine-now America. These plays, these writers, were necessary, significant and vital to our communal understanding of the emotional journey of American theater. But the reality is, we are so inundated with these writers, so desperately proud of our mild and minimal contribution to global theater, that we idolize them to the point of deification, without actually evaluating what about these plays is continually relevant or useful to us.

Of course we all know these names, Miller, Williams, O’Neill, a club of white men with axes to grind against their fathers and odd notions of motherhood and femininity. These men have defined our standards for Realism in American theater, in fact, they have dictated the majority of the so-called rules of American theater for the last half a century. So what does a company curious about these conventions but also desperate to deconstruct them do? Do they create a fascinating piece of theater based on but not bound by these story tropes and characters? Well, maybe not all of them, but certainly that seems to have been Theatre Reconstruction Ensemble’s solution.

With Set in the Living Room of an American Play, this company, headed by artistic director John Kurzynowski, seeks to excavate the tropes and tribulations that recur in so many realistic dramas of 40’s American stagecraft, and rearrange these fractured ideas and identities into a new piece of theater. When the company was denied the rights to an unnamed play from this period, Kurzynowski and the company decided that the solution to this inexplicable rejection was to make their own brand new vintage work. With resident playwright Jaclyn Backhaus, members of the company and invited actors have created a rumination on the act of making theater, the act of making this kind of the theater, and the way this form both invites us into its home and alienates us as modern audience members.

Dancing around the many threads and through lines of the existing stories, the failed salesman, the business partners lying to each other, the football hero brother who has burnt out and seems to be fading away, the next door neighbors, the adulterous husband, the drunk wife, the neglected younger sister, the Italian immigrants threatening good old American values, this living room is filled to bursting with characters and caricatures. One would say it’s a kind of cocktail, but they didn’t become popular until the following decade. This is a piece that unpacks that desperate post-war anxiety that pervades all of the original source material, the concern about the second world war and the way the trauma of that event had fundamentally destroyed that sense of suburban safety, no matter how much society tried to pretend otherwise. And so on one hand you have the older generation, represented by the central parent characters, Marla (Anastasia Olowin) and Frank Lorimer (Nick Fesette), and their peers, Frank’s business partner Bernard Marshall (Harlan Alford) and their Catholic neighbor Florence del Franzia (Backhaus in a hilariously ominously melodramatic turn), each one consumed with concern and regret about their past choices. Then there are the bright young things, the Lorimer children Penny (Lauren Swan-Potras) and Patrick (Michael Barringer), the Gershwin kids (no relation) Ned (Nick Lehane) and Dotty (Sydney Matthews), Emily Vicks (Emily Marro), Patrick’s former sweetheart, and Florence’s nephew, Carlo (Patrick Scheid), all of whom express concern for the future and exhibit the growing pains of this liminal time in their lives. Rounding things out are the requisite outsider radicals, the college classmate of Patrick’s, Ollie O’Shannon (Andrew Butler) and Marla’s spitfire Aunt, Edna (Tina Shepard).

So there you have all the elements of an old-school American drama. Middle class morality? Check. Fathers and sons in conflict? Check. Elicit love affair and possible pregnancy, or to put it more authentically, a young girl “in trouble”? Check. Money issues? Check. A young woman besotted with a foreign stranger? Check (and as a side note, one does grow nostalgic for the days when an Italian immigrant was enough to add diversity to a play). But as familiar as all these elements are, placed together in a black box theater and played almost casually by the large and talented cast, they take on a more troubling aspect, peering into the aching anxiety at the heart of these plays and our current concern and dislocation from these dramas. Beginning in the format of a table reading, the actors take up their places next to sound designer Kate Marvin, who operates her delicate and evocative design from behind a macbook, and stage manager Nick Smerkanich, who reads all of the stage directions from his binder. Jonathan Cottle’s set is a simple one which accumulates a sofa, a rug and a chair over the course of the play, and Some actors drift around, sitting in the front row of the audience, while others sip their water and giggle over the out-fashioned names from their places at the table. Lehane tensely paces, correcting Fesette and acting as a sort of reading director, while everyone turns to Backhaus when she cuts a line.

It’s a rehearsal, a ghost of a performance for a ghostly play. But as the actors read they start to stand, half in and half out of this deliberately overwrought story, going through the motions, entering it here, mocking it there, a real-life metaphor illustrating how we now view plays like A View From The Bridge and All My Sons, with equal parts reverence, confusion and disdain. The dangers of the story are muted by the carefully crafted distance Kurynowski has created in this performance, and Backhaus’ text marries with the direction to give the audience a story that is gorgeously complex and deftly told. The actors move through the story like spectators themselves, moving somewhere in the land between stock characters and real people. In playing with the rituals of this fictive world, the things that are always done and the things that are just “not done”, and pointing out how absurd these habits look to our modern eyes, this piece is its most successful when it is its most consciously theatrical. When an actor can’t or refuses to do something described in a stage direction, for example, when Marro tries and fails to cry onstage, or when someone uses the actor’s name instead of the character’s name, these moments cut across the intentional schmaltz of Backhaus’ writing to unify the characters and the actors, to show us a world in which real people can relate to imaginary stock roles.

Though at times confusing, at times just a hair too long and passing from profound silence into static air, this piece is, nevertheless, a sharp, complex, funny and surprisingly profound look at theater, realism, and how we approach and communicate with these plays in 2013. As a writer Backhaus is witty and wise, and as an actress she is macabrely comic and neatly timed. With lines like “Emily was misunderstood in her circumstances” and “We are such a good family when we’re good”, she walks the line between satire and homage while paying tribute to both. In an over-all talented young cast, Fesette and Barringer are both excellent as a mutually disillusioned pair each furious and saddened by the death of their respective images of each other. Olowin’s Marla is fantastic, affected and physically fluttering but with an emotional center that is clear in the final tranquil moments of the piece. Matthews’ consistently campy Dotty is hilarious and a nice complement to Swan-Potras’ sweetly fawning Dotty. And in his role as Ned Gershwin Lehane is stellar, though it is less clear why he spends so much time onstage observing and not a part of the action.

At the top of the show a line strikes the cast as a bit odd, and they interrupt the reading to ask if the cost of a cab in the 40’s can be googled. In that moment lies the heart of this piece, that in confronting the source material, the real plays of that period, we are disconnected from it in the most practical of ways, and while we might relate to the emotional heart of a play like Moon for the Misbegotten, it’s world is lost to us. It’s like looking at an old photograph, our eyes go straight to the person, disregarding their unfamiliar clothing and outdated settings, trying to connect with the one thing we can be sure of, that no matter what living room they grew up in, they were a human, just like us. These characters, so familiar to us and also so fragmented, so far away from the circumstances of our own lives, so dislocated from the way we are now, something about them still fascinates us, still reaches through time to capture our interest. Theatre Reconstruction Ensemble is to be thanked for trying to figure out why.

Set in the Living Room of a Small Town American Play runs until the 9th of March. Tickets can be found here.

Posted by: strugglesome | October 8, 2012

Eat Me: Back to Back Theatre Company’s Food Court

In the darkest recesses of our souls lie monsters. They are frightening not because then are from without, but because they come from within. They live in us, they feed off our fear, our hatred and our worst desires, they sip deep from bitter cups of our most wretched selves. And the scariest part of all? We don’t know what these monsters look like, until we see them. Often we only see them reflected in the eyes of other people.

Back to Back Theatre is a company made entirely of outsiders, people with perceived disabilities, people who aren’t like the rest of us. Their outlier stories are, in their own words, the tales of “a group of people who, in a culture obsessed with perfection and surgically enhanced ‘beauty’, are the real outsiders” (Source) In their piece, Food Court, recently presented at the Live Arts/Fringe Festival, six company members/devisors (Mark Deans, Bruce Gladwin, Rita Halabarec, Nicki Holland, Sarah Mainwaring and Scott Price, directed by Bruce Gladwin) and five performers (Deans, Holland, Mainwaring, Price and Sonia Teuben) tell a very simple story, and the term simple is used in the Aristotelian sense of a “simple plot”.

Aristotle, in his contribution to/noose around the neck of theater, described complex and simple plots. Complex plots are ones that involve rising action, reversal, revelation and climax. Simple plots are ones in which nothing every changes, it just becomes more and more intense. As humans we tend to prefer the complex to the simple, as the illusion of problems solved and secrets revealed is somehow comforting and exciting to us at the same time. But simple plots, in their bewildering sameness and deafening eventual intensity, can hold the power to surprise us by how deeply we react to them.

Food Court begins, as one might guess, in a food court, probably of a mall (where else have you ever seen a food court). Already the stage is set as a public space, one soaked with the commodification of social interaction in its most blatant and mundane form. Two women in gold leotards and tights enter from behind the curtains, giving us their front and side views like convicts or dogs at a show. The women sit on two chairs, and survey a third woman from across the stage. They begin to comment on her, her appearance, how grotesquely fat she is, wondering why she doesn’t talk. Their commentary is amplified by a microphone being helpfully stuck underneath their faces. Unresponsive, the third woman simply remains in her seat. The two commentators cross to the seated silent woman and confront her directly, with the same ugly words as before. She continues to be unresponsive. The world of the play fades then, from plastic tables and canned smells, to a forest (set by Gladwin and Mark Cuthbertson). Our tortured silent figure is, from behind a sight-blurring plastic sheet, tortured by her tormentors, who grow in number, and force her to strip and submit to a severe beating. More and more spectators gather to watch her pain, and then she is left, trembling on the ground. Because of the plastic sheet which completely curtains the action, this is all seen from a featureless distance, and as we watch the systematic destruction of this abused figure, we thank God for it.

Finally, when the stage is bare but for the woman, she restores her clothing and stands, walking up to the edge of the curtain and, from behind the plastic, giving the speech from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, declaimed by that most pitiful of outsiders, Caliban:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again. And then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.
And all this to a score improved at every performance by The Necks (Chris Abrahams, Lloyd Swanton, Tony Buck).
Simple as this plot is it forces us to consider our role in the performance. How complicit are we in this abuse? How complicit are we in depriving those we consider to be different any choices? If we define people by our commentary upon them, we are effectively robbing them of the opportunity to self-define, to explain their own lives, to make choices about who they are. By watching people who we perceive to be different perform themselves, perform their own disabilities onstage for us to purposefully consider, we are placed in a position to truly examine our own attitudes and assumptions about people, how our commentary, internal and external, abuses and oppresses those around us. Caliban, the character whose voice our silent figure finally adopts, is at once monstrous and magnificent, capable of grotesque cruelty and divine poetry. Just like us.
The story takes its actions from the realm of nightmare, of the monsters lurking ready and willing to do grave harm, to strip and beat and ridicule and mock anything that is different, beyond us, other. With thumping vibration echoing through the piece, courtesy of the Necks, and calmly plain performances by all members of the piece, we are presented with a piece that increases in intensity from start to finish, showing us the same thing, really, the abuse of one person by another person, over and over and over again until we see that its ultimate end is violence, humiliation, alienation and pain. Oh, that we could dream again.
The impact of this piece, like the build of it, is slow-spreading but resonant on every level. Who are we, that we can oppress those around us with such systematic violence and determination? Are we Prospero, manipulating the world around us to our own ends? And how do we stop? Food Court doesn’t offer us any answers. It just shows us people we normally train ourselves not to look at, walking, talking, performing, hurting each other, and, in its final moments, giving their desires a voice. Maybe, for now, that’s enough.
Food Court has finished its run.
Posted by: strugglesome | September 29, 2012

Forty Acres and a Mule: Pig Iron Theatre Company’s Zero Cost House

I should preface this by saying that unlike many Americans, I actually have read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. I don’t say that to be arrogant, or impress you with my widespread knowledge. I simply say that because I know that most of us don’t read this book, it’s not exactly a part of our current collective consciousness. I read this book as a part of a program I did as a 16 year old and it has stayed with me ever since. Not because it was so revolutionary and significant to me, though I have never forgotten the advice to “live deliberately” (which…you can get from the very first line, so you don’t really need to go further if you don’t have a lot of time…), but because it was at both so sincere and so pretentious that it struck me as rather amazing. I remember distinctly that there is a passage where he, Thoreau, has been a wandering as he is wont to do, and discovers a pine tree, in bloom! Which is amazing. Because pine trees don’t bloom. They don’t have blossoms. That’s just science.

But never mind the facts, Walden is in many ways an inspirational handbook for living outside the oppression and dictates of polite society. And it was, at one point, a very influential book for Toshiki Okada, a Japanese artist who is one in a long line of collaborators to create a piece, Zero Cost House, with Philadelphia’s own Pig Iron Theatre Company. But for a company with such a strong performance history, it’s amazing how malleable Pig Iron can be. This collaboration is more Okada, one assumes, then Pig Iron, it’s a wordy yet quiet behemoth awash with pauses, direct audience address and lengthy self-contemplation. Which can be useful for an artist, but isn’t always fascinating for its audience.

The seeds of this story are affecting, interesting and true. As an adult, Okada, who is played by a variety of actors over the course of the show and who wrote this play, considers his younger self, first inhabited by Shavon Norris, a shlubby kid in a nothing job that gives him just enough money to eat and sleep. And yet he’s happy, and he’s obsessed with Walden. 15 years later he finds that this book, which he read and re-read as a bright young thing, is no longer so relevant to him, in fact, quite a bit of it rings false to him, or self-indulgent, or just irrelevant. What happened between then and now to defeat this powerful influence in his life? Okada doesn’t consider this in a literal sense, but ponders it in an abstract way, considering elements of the book itself (inhabited at certain points by Mary McCool and James Sugg as rabbit-people, I don’t know, maybe it makes sense in Japanese), the reved-up rambling sermons of fellow artist Kyohei Sakaguchi (played with Mick Jagger like abandon and manic funny energy) and the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

In theory this piece is a meditation on the things that mark our lives, the sense of loss we feel when they become unimportant to us as time goes by, and the shock of recognition but also alienation when a new circumstance in our lives makes us confront those things again, in new and startling ways.The tragedy of this lies in the circumstance of the renewed acquaintance, i.e. Okada returns to Walden, fleeing Tokyo itself, because he has been forced to, or because he feels that Tokyo is no longer a viable option and so perhaps Thoreau was right all along. How frustrating it is to grow out of something, a philosophy or a pair of shoes, and then turn back to it and find it fits you once again. Are we cyclical?

Certainly this play is. Which isn’t a bad things, necessarily, as it’s wandering content dictates its meandering form. And the content itself, at its roots, is a fascinating one. With Alex Torra and Dito Van Reigersberg (who is, on a personal level, my favorite Okada impersonator; Van Reigersberg is so warm and trustworthy that even when we don’t know what’s happening we lean forward to listen to him) rounding out the cast, the actors are all able and willing to discharging this rumination on youth and experience, change and influence, loss of manifesto and regaining of manifesto. But the snail’s pace at which it progresses, along with Okada’s plodding and self-aggrandizing prose, gives us a long conversation with no sense of an ending and no real event. Because the nature of the story is one of remembering rather than real-time, we are automatically distanced from the work by time and space, layering the remove of the form upon the remove of the content upon the remove of the convention of theater itself. That’s too many steps. Because we feel so far away from this piece we don’t desire a connection with it, even though avenues of connection exist. There are many ways we could enter this work, but it’s nature is such that we observe it, briefly, from a distance, before moving on to other pursuits. Much like Okada himself, as it happens.

Mimi Lien’s set design is as functional and effective as a Muji Story, efficient and compact without extraneous elements or any real character. Coupled with Kimitha Cashin’s props and Peter West’s lighting design, and Katie Down’s minimal sound, the air is one of restraint and elegance, it’s a modern and useful structure, much like the “zero cost house” that serves as this plays title and an important moment in Sakaguchi’s life. And Dan Rothenberg’s direction, well, it might as well be non-existent for all we feel his influence on this project.

It’s so dominated by another consciousness, another goal and another sensibility that its almost devoid of physical action. Playwrights are, by their nature, controlling. They create the world of the play, everyone else just tries to find a way to live in it. But when that control is destructive, well, it’s a train off it’s rails. And as slow-moving as this particular train is, it’s still going, still moving, still plugging along at its weak goals.

Zero Cost House has ceased it’s run in Philadelphia, but it will be running in New York in January.


Posted by: strugglesome | September 12, 2012

Funny Lady: Charlotte Ford’s Bang

It’s clear that women just can’t really be funny. Despite the generations of female comedians, comic actresses, wry authoresses and just and social indications that women can both tell and understand jokes, it’s clear that women can’t be funny. Despite the recent extreme popularity of female writers/performers like Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig, to name four among thousands, it’s clear women can’t be funny. Or if they CAN by some aberration, they sure as hell can’t be attractive doing so. I mean, that’s just crazy talk, right?

But if women could be funny, and sexy, or funny and talking about sex, or sexy and talking about being funny, what would be the appropriate forum to explore that? A courtroom? A classroom? A sex show? Well, what would be the most fun? Because its girls and laughs and sex all in a room together, someone should be having fun. And Charlotte Ford, along with Lee Etzold and Sarah Sanford, must be having fun. At least, I hope they’re having fun, because they bring the audience so much fun that it would be a shame if it was one-sided. (That’s what she said).

In Bang, conceived by Ford,  co-created by Etzold and Sanford and directed by Emmanuelle Delpech, three women, Gail, Barb and Cheyenne, find themselves alone, together, in a half circle of long red curtains, standing in front of an audience who eagerly anticipates a performance. Of what, the women ask, one indignant, two eager to please? A sex show, of course! While Gail is ready to explode, Flustered Barb and hippie-dippy Cheyenne are intrigued and excited, ready to give us a show, or what they think a sex show ought to be. What it actually turns out to be is a hilarious side-splitting series of moments and comedic, well, vignettes isn’t the right word, but neither is scenes, really. Moments, perhaps, or miniature events, or maybe just a series of individual comedy shows, each circling back to the same subject, and that is, sex can be funny. Women can be funny. Both SHOULD be funny, and fun. And owning that, as a woman, is the best thing you can do to MAKE those things fun. Oh, and sometimes, it just makes sense to get naked.

Each woman has her own persona, and her own goals on the stage. Sanford’s is repressed, buttoned up, intellectualized to the extreme. She wears her clothing like an armor, until a fit of anger strips her down to her turtleneck (and nothing else) daring us to sexualize her. Her task will be one of liberation. Etzold’s is eager to please but rather unbalanced, happy to dance and show off her booty but unsure how to really please a man. Her task will be one of confidence. And Ford’s fairy-child-earth-mother-sandlewood scented nymph is, well, she’s all in, she dares men to just come up on stage and fuck her. And it is she who leads her compatriots through the wilds of insecurity and modesty, and through to a marvelous nude walk through the streets of Philadelphia and into our hearts and minds. All three of these performers are magnificent, there is no other word for it. Their performances are all different, but their skill, adeptness and willingness to go further than anyone expects is simply admirable.

This is, quite simply, one of the funniest shows I’ve seen in a long time. It uses the audience brilliantly and simply, involving us both literally, drawing men out and forcing them into uncomfortable situations in a warm and welcoming way, and figuratively, forcing us to consider our expectations in the theater, and our expectations and guilt at enjoying a sex show. And it also forces us to think about the voyeuristic experience, how most sex shows are only enjoyable for the largely male audience who witnesses them, certainly not for the performers who writhe and dance for dollars.  As Ford says, “Self care is the Sex Show”. Why shouldn’t everyone enjoy themselves talking about and laughing about sex? Of course, Ford, Etzold and Sanford could be having a horrible time up there, coaxing guffaws out of everyone in the room, but I hope that’s not the case. Because I don’t like to receive without giving.

The design is excellent as well. Katherine Fritz’s costumes are spot on, describing and illustrating these people so completely and with such accurate detail that they give us an instant understanding of these people before they speak a word. Dan Soule’s set is minimal but well created, and Oona Curley’s lights marry with Dan Perelstein’s excellent sound work to create an excellent stage upon which these three ladies can get freaky.

Comedy can be theater’s most powerful critical weapon. So why have women been excluded from its creation for so long? To be fair, women have been excluded from all artistic expression for centuries, but somewhere along the way someone decided that it’s unattractive for a woman to have a sense of humor. Women are some of the funniest people I know. We go through immense pain bringing new people into the world and then, afterwards, somehow we can smile, we can laugh, we can even make fun of ourselves during the experience. We can detach. And comedy is all about distance. So do we laugh at Bang because it’s so far from sex, or because it’s so close? I couldn’t tell you, honestly. I just know that it’s gloriously funny without ever making light of female sexuality, it’s liberating on some level, for the audience, certainly and hopefully for the performers as well.

Bang has ended its short run at the Philadelphia Live Arts/Fringe Festival, but I sincerely hope it is performed again. It’s just too much fun not to live on. I do hope they don’t make us beg….

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