Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot

Courtroom dramas can’t be expected to have much plot. In plot, each piece of action leads to the next. In a courtroom, witnesses are called in a series without dramatic cause.

And so we can’t expect Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot to have any sort of through line. It’s a courtroom drama, presented by La MaMa, in which Judas Iscariot is on trial. It’s not really about his last days. In fact, he isn’t on stage very much.

It’s not clear why Judas is on trial after all this time. The two attorneys are, after all, our contemporaries. But Saint Monica tells us that it was her doing to bring him into court.

The trial takes place in Hope, in “downtown Purgatory”. Many witnesses take the stand in this strange courtroom, including Caiaphas the Elder, Pontius Pilate, Sigmund Freud, Mother Theresa, Mary Magdalen and a few of Apostles. It’s really an imaginative trip we’re taking. Each one reflects an aspect of the question of Judas’ guilt, and the result is a sort of quilt of issues. Each of them is interesting, but there’s no central theme. This is a multi-pronged prosecution and a multi-pronged defense.

At the play’s best moments, the witnesses turn on the attorneys during questioning and there’s some real drama in the courtroom. The star witness is Satan himself, who is called twice. The role is overwritten, but well played by Javier Molina. The show’s most intense moments occur when Satan, who is omniscient, assails the attorneys with some details of their lives. However, these passages are not relevant to the central issue of Judas’ guilt.

Some interesting ideas surface in the courtroom. Pilate tells us that Judas had no real remorse. Freud says that Judas was “psychotic”, and therefore not responsible for his actions, because he was a suicide. The defense attorney asks Satan “Why do you love God?” But these individual ideas never develop into one cohesive idea.

Judas himself only appears in a few dramatized scenes. In one, he meets Satan at a bar – a contemporary bar – the night after the betrayal. Satan testifies about it and we get to see the scene. We expect this to develop into something interesting, but it never does. The two characters just chat.

The other scene in which Judas appears is an interesting scene at the end of the play between Judas and Jesus. It takes place not on Earth but in Purgatory. Jesus says “If you hate who I love, you do not know me at all”, and we finally have something conceptual to hold on to. He tells Judas He loves him, and Judas spits in Jesus’ face.

At the end of the play, the foreman of the jury visits Judas and confesses his relatively trivial sins. It gives us the best scene of the play. Stephen Dexter plays the penitent with genuine and subtle emotion. A quiet scene is welcome after all the yelling in the courtroom.

The production is cast with about 20 members of The Actors Studio, where it was developed. Actors Studio actors have a reputation for focusing on their internal, emotional life. It isn’t true as far as this show is concerned. For the most part, their acting is highly externalized. That is, indeed, what the script calls for. Their acting is quite good.

Estelle Parsons has directed the show well, with a clear distinction between its thoughtful passages and its humorous ones. She’s animated the drama between the attorneys and the witnesses, when such drama exists, and she’s laid out the humor. However, she’s cast a man as Mother Theresa, as if old people have no gender. And she’s cast the two attorneys to have cheap New York accents. The prosecuting attorney speaks with annoying, squishy S sounds.

Whatever Stephen Adly Guirgis’s talents as a playwright, his self-indulgent use of obscenities is cheap and vulgar. Several of the trial’s witnesses have dialogue packed with obscenities. This type of dialogue is designed to trivialize the characters, to make us feel superior to them. St. Monica has a monologue early in the play that’s a string of obscenities. There’s no reason to think that Mr. Guirgis is commenting on the historic St. Monica. He’s just trying to shock us, like a punk who yells obscenities into the microphone when he sees a reporter on the sidewalk.

Mr. Guirgis is so dependent on obscenity that the language doesn’t even make sense. It’s believable that Satan would use would use foul language when called into court, but why do the saints and apostles spew obscenities? We would expect them to have a sense of respect and decorum. After all, God himself has signed the writ that leads to the trial.

Even the costume design trivializes the characters. With her low-cut blouse and jeans, the defense attorney looks as if she’s going on a low-class date at the corner bar.

And so The Last Days of Judas Iscariot presents us with a promising concept that’s not mined for its potential. Most of its characters are no more than cartoons. Its various ideas aren’t imbedded into its concept and, with its obscenity and its insult to seniors, it’s offensive.

Steve Capra
March 2017

Friday, March 17, 2017

C.S. Lewis on Stage: The Most Reluctant Convert

C.S. Lewis lived between 1898 and 1963. He’s best known for his works of fiction such as The Screwtape Letters and The Chronicles of Narnia, although his non-fiction work is arguably more important. He ranks among the foremost 20th-century Christian apologists and theologians.

Max McLean has written a terrific solo show in which he presents Lewis in his study at Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1950, C.S. Lewis on Stage: The Most Reluctant Convert. Mr. MacLean is the show’s actor, and he’s co-directed it with Ken Denison.

The script details Lewis’ conversion from atheism to Christianity, delineating the transformation in discrete steps. Lewis begins with his childhood in Belfast: “Mother’s death produced in me a deeply engrained pessimism,” he tells us. And “At 13 I ceased to be a Christian. At that age one scarcely notices.” He was confirmed in The Church of Ireland “in total disbelief.”

The script presents us with the structure of Lewis’ life – his time at Oxford, his enlisting in the army during World War I – but the substance of the narrative is his internal life. He refers to one spiritual epiphany as an event compared to which “everything else that ever happened to me was insignificant by comparison.” He stresses that he experienced joy then, not happiness or pleasure.

The script offers us insights to his education – he mentions people like G. K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien. However, he refers to none of his writings. We learn the unexpected when he tells us that at one point in his life he developed “a ravenous desire for the supernatural”, and speaks of séances and ouijas.

The passage from non-believer to theologian was gradual. He was first converted to theism, not Christianity, in 1921, when he “admitted that God is God.” “All my books were turning against me,” he tells us.

Later he tells us “I remember when but hardly how the final step was taken.” It was during an excursion to a zoo in 1931. “Rock bottom reality had to be intelligent” he realizes. So complete was his conversion that he tells us “I’ve never met a mere mortal.”

Mr. McLean is a very fine actor.  His work is precise and meticulous. He gives us all the variety he can find in his stage life, smoking, drinking, leaning against a table, holding his hands at shoulder-level, palms outward. He has a great time with diction in his British dialect, from time to time stressing sounds like the opening of “mmillions of years” and the plosive in “Nature is a sinking ship-ah.”

Along with Mr. Denison, Mr. McLean has directed a rigorous philosophical exercise. The Most Reluctant Convert is an inspired script, and the intellectual workout is masterfully executed. But although the show engages us intellectually, it fails to capture our emotions. Mr. McLean is adept at indicating a new thought, but he too seldom indicates a new emotion. His work in another solo show, The Screwtape Letters (based on Lewis' book), earlier this season, had an emotional range that this script doesn’t give him the opportunity to realize.

And so in the course of 90 minutes we move from “I was angry at God for not existing,” to “Unlike my first Communion 17 years earlier, I now believed.” How many stage shows take us on such a journey?
Steve Capra
March 2017

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Mountain Bird

In 1859 Henrik Ibsen wrote an opera libretto – more precisely, the beginning of an opera libretto. He never finished it. It’s titled The Mountain Bird (in Norwegian, Fjeldfuglen), and it was produced for the first time in 2009 by a Norwegian company, Grusomhetens Teater, with contemporary music by Filip Sande.

The company presented the production at La MaMa recently, in Norwegian with English surtitles. What a brilliant production! The work is based on Artaud and Grotowski, with minimalist set and elegant, stylized acting. Its actors are masters of expressive and repeated gesture.

There are eight actors in this opera, and only two musicians. The musicians play traditional Scandinavian instruments: the fiddle, the langeleik (which is like a zither or dulcimer), a drum, the glockenspiel and the flute. It’s a great delight to hear singers singing with next to no instrumentation, and there are choral pieces sung a capella.

Ibsen’s libretto is strictly in the vein of 19th-cventury romanticism:
The song that echoes
In rushing waters
The tune that rustles
Through mountain birches

There’s more to Ibsen, we see, than the social realism he’s famous for. The Mountain Bird and his verse works were written before the prose dramas. This piece of writing may be only of interest to Ibsen scholars, but Grusomhetens Teater has made it 90 minutes of excellent theater.

The story is based on a medieval myth. A young girl survives the plague while everyone else in her village succumbs to it. Isolated, she becomes a child of nature, feral. Into the valley comes a party from a neighboring village. She meets one of the men and of course they fall in love immediately.

The conflict is that our man is betrothed, and the marriage is imminent. In fact, his bride-to-be, who is in the exploration party, is already wearing her golden bridal crown. When the members of the party find that their man has fallen for the young woman, they insist that he return home with them, but, inexplicably, invite the young woman to join them. And so she does.

Act Two takes place in the village of the party. It’s quite brief. The scene is a wedding celebration, and ends with the bride and groom on a sleigh, on their way to the church. At this point, the manuscript breaks off.

The production is directed by Lars Øyno, very meticulously, very eloquently. Sometimes is actors move so slowly that the stage is almost a tableau vivant. “Elfin folk gladly will a-dancing go,” Ibsen tells us, and there are three graceful dancers on stage.

The woman from the mountains never appears in Ibsen’s second act, but Mr. Øyno has added a song at the very end of the show from another source. Unfortunately, he’s failed to give us translation for guidance.

Filip Sande’s music, in a contemporary voice, is marvelous, by turns commanding, urgent and delicate. Sande wrote it for an orchestra, but it sounds marvelous adapted for these few traditional instruments. One of the musicians plays the fiddle during the love duet, standing next to the couple as if bewitching them.

The costumes are based on traditional designs as well. They’re lovely, although not particularly colorful. The set consists of a single, small, bare tree. The splotched backdrop suggests a landscape.

The production, then, has combination of aesthetics: 19th-century poetry, contemporary music, and traditional instruments and design. The result is a mesmerizing timelessness.

Thanks to La MaMa for presenting this Norwegian work! It’s terrific!

Steve Capra
March 2017

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Schreiber Shorts 2017

Drama should be compressed. That’s why short plays – 10-minute or 15-minute plays – have such potential. But it’s a very challenging form, and most short plays fail. The playwright needs to make us care quickly, and a lot depends on the characterization being specific.

T. Schreiber Theatre, Off-off-Broadway, has presented ten short plays in its program Schreiber Shorts 2017. The evening is a success. Most of the scripts are quite good. The directions is uniformly adroit, and the acting throughout is first-rate.

The best play of the evening, a great example of a successful short play, is Nathan Yungerberg’s Golden Gate.  A young man has arrived in town and is befriended by an older man. Seems simple enough, but it’s successful because it’s written with mystery. It also gives us the evening’s best performance, from Gus Solomons Jr, as the elder man. The character’s behavior is inexplicable, but it has a dramatic truth that the actor illuminates.

Prize Fight, by Michael Weems, presents us with a female boxer, her trainer, and a rival boxer. What makes the play work is the complexity of the relationship between the trainer and the boxer, which is skillfully revealed. When we think we understand it, we learn more. It contains truthful surprise, a dramatic device well used.

Cowboy Cut, by Nelson Clark, presents us with Arizona Slim, a contractor who’s bribing someone named Shelby for a contract to build prisons. It isn’t clear if Shelby is a politician or just representing a politician. The play is absorbing, with a set of reversals. It’s another example of truthful surprise.

Jim Gordon attempts to portray an intensely dramatic situation in The First Bridge. A young actress has committed suicide after making a pornographic movie, and her mother confronts the porn producer. This set-up is almost too fierce for a short play; we don’t have the time to absorb the magnitude of the emotions. Raquel Almazan has directed non-realistically, although the script is realistic. Her actors use 12 boxes, with an overlay of new age (no lead) music. It’s interesting, an admirable attempt.

The Sleeping Beauty of Brooklyn, by Rosemary Frisino Toohey, is light piece about a couple who discover their cleaning lady dead in their apartment - an unfortunate circumstance, since the realtor is showing it in a few minutes. We mustn’t take it seriously, but it’s fun. It doesn’t finish; it merely stops.

A much darker piece is A Sudden Loss of Altitude, by Peter Kennedy. It concerns a couple of gay men, an air pilot and a politician, who’ve just spent the night in a hotel room. The pilot is about to handle a flight even though he’s probably inebriated. It’s a first-rate example of short drama, well served by Anthony Inneo as the senator. Jake Turner directs with great skill.

Shelley Berman’s No Soap is a comedy credited to Bob Canning; it’s based on a Shelley Berman sketch. It’s an epistulatory play. The characters read aloud to us the letters they’re writing. On one side of this exchange is a frustrated hotel guest. The hotel maids insist on leaving him small bars of Camay, Cashmere Bouquet, Ivory and “one rogue bar of Palmolive” soap when he prefers his own Irish Spring bath soap. On the other side are the maids and other hotel staff. It’s amusing, and there’s a sweet ending.

Two by Eugenie Carabatsos, presents us with two dolls, Benjamin and Bernadette, in a box. They’re in an attic – “I’ve deduced it,” Bernadette announces. She keeps trying to rip off her own head out of frustration. Benjamin has better sense, and there’s some lovely interaction between them, and a nice, warm ending.

Speed Play, by Alex Dremann, and A Long Trip, by Dan McGeehan, fail because of their standard situations. The first is about a park bench date, the second about an older couple trying to recall their first kiss. The good actors can’t compensate for the generalized characters.

Schreiber Shorts 2017, then, makes for a satisfying evening of theater. T. Schreiber Theatre has done a fine job.

Steve Capra
February 2017

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Made in China

Made in China opens with 56-year-old Mary Harrison sitting naked on her sofa with her dog Lily. Mary sings:
This is me
Talking to my dog
Sitting in a fog
Eating macaroni
But in my head, I’m far away.

We soon meet Mary’s neighbor, a Chinese ex-pat named Eddie Wang (we will learn that the name is pronounced Wong) and his dog Yo Yo. Eddie sings:
I really like this place
I’m glad that I have come here
Neighbors say “Hello”
Treat me like I’m from here
Except for the woman next door
Who strangely is hiding and sneaking
But always those blue eyes are peeking
Why is she always watching me?
She’s a crazy person watching me – yet she’s
A woman watching me.

Such is the set-up for the musical, promising, as musicals do, romance. But there are many exceptional things about this musical – not least that Mary and Eddie are puppets. The whole show is whimsical and fantastic. It’s written by Gwendolyn Warnock and Kirjan Waage with help from the Made in China Ensemble, and presented by Wakka Wakka, a co-production with Nordland Visual Theatre, MiNensemblet and the Hopkins Center, Dartmouth College, at 59E59Theaters.

As the plot unfolds, Mary drowns her sorrows in a shopping spree, singing:
More! More! More! More! More!
I gotta get more! You gotta get more!
I gotta get more!

In fact, she gets more than she bargained for. In a box of Christmas decorations she finds a note written in Chinese and English that reads: “Help us! Good person please kindly take this letter to a human rights organization. I am a prisoner and work in unit 5 at the Masanjia labor camp.” It proceeds to describe beatings and torture.

Of course, she brings the letter to Eddie, and together the two of them have an exciting, silly, terrific adventure. They get sucked into her toilet, all the way to China. She finds that she can fly for a while, Eddie on her back, but they end up in a Chinese labor camp anyway. Then they enter a lovely bamboo forest where there’s a fabulous red dragon with glowing eyes.

One of the terrific things about the puppetry is that the puppets do things actors could never do, like getting sucked into the porcelain bowl, or getting eaten by that dragon. Moreover, there’s a singing plunger: “I come all the way from China,” it sings to Mary, “The land of ten thousand factories!” The plunger is soon joined by a lamp and a gun. “Help! My house is coming to life,” Mary screams into the phone.

And so the script introduces human rights and consumerism into its unlikely concept. In one of the best songs, Uncle Sam and Chairman Mao sing a duet:

Welcome to the Factory of Voluntary Joy!
We’re so happy you’ve arrived to help us make a toy! …
Labor is its own reward
What the Chairman most adored
We won’t give you room and board, you buy that on your dime.

The music is appealing, and it’s at its best when we hear the occasional sound of classical Chinese music. It’s performed by MiNensemblet with Yan Li and Max Mamon. Music and lyrics are written by Yan Li.

Finally, of course, the couple find themselves at home, where they have puppet sex on Mary’s sofa. The final song is a march, Mary and Eddie determine to take the letter she found to The New York Times, singing (with the help of the plunger):
All I need to change the world is you
Maybe like America, the dream can come true.

The clever puppets were created by Kirjan Waage. There are 30 of them in the show, but Mary and Eddie take nearly all the focus. They’re two or three feet tall, presented in the style of the Japanese bunraku puppetry tradition. There are seven puppeteers, dressed in black against the black back wall. Alex Goldberg’s lighting is so well done that we forget the puppeteers are there. The directors are the writers, Gwendolyn Warnock and Kirjan Waage, and they’ve gone to great lengths to place the puppets precisely on the stage. Their direction keeps surprising us.

Puppeteer Peter Russo voices Mary, and Ariel Estrada handles Eddie, both very well. Andy Manjuck and Dorothy James voice YoY o and Lily, the dogs, respectively, giving us terrific barking with great whimsy.

It would be a mistake to take the show too seriously. The plot elements are disjointed and the final political awakening is unconvincing. What’s more, some of the show is vulgar – after all, there’s a toilet involved. But the creative company manage to earn our belief in their puppet characters and, what’s more, to make us care about them. It’s all great fun!

Steve Capra
January 2017

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Fringe of Humanity

Paul Calderon packs so many obscenities into his play Fringe of Humanity that they nearly form a barrier between the audience and the characters. The scatology can’t be defended by claims to verisimilitude or naturalism; it’s just vulgar writing. Mr. Calderon doesn’t seem to be able to write a line without obscenity.

And this is a shame since Fringe of Humanity, presented by Primitive Grace and Access Theater at The Access Theatre off-off-Broadway, is otherwise a nice production. It concerns an L.A. film crew making a movie in a Latin American country. They’re in pre-production, still casting, about to scout for locations. The characters argue and jockey for alpha position, working through greed and vanity and jealousy. “You wanna make movies, you gotta deal with assholes,” says the producer, and the foul-mouthed characters confirm the postulate.

The immediate business for these movie-makers is to audition a couple of young actresses in the hotel room. But the audition doesn’t take up all that much time, actually. More time is spent with the men arguing among themselves. One hothead pulls out a knife a couple of times, but it doesn’t amount to anything. These characters are just volatile and infantile. Mr. Calderon makes us believe in them, but he never makes us care about them.

There’s not much plot here, but Mr. Calderon, who also directs, keeps the play full of dramatic action. He keeps the dialogue moving allegro, and he makes each beat clear and crisp. He often has salsa music playing under the dialogue, and it gives the play a frenetic tone. From time to time the rhythm climaxes in an exciting moment, very well done. Unfortunately, Mr. Calderon doesn’t leave his actors time to think between beats, and he directs them to yell.

Mr. Calderon himself plays the central role of the director, expressively, if not with subtlety. David Zayas plays the producer; he’s servicable but he shouts too much, all bluster. We get a first-rate performance from Jakob Von Eichel as an assistant director. He has opposites in his character that make for a depth the other characters lack. Rebecca Nyahay also works very well as the producer’s wife, succeeding when she’s called upon to be hysterical. We miss a structured plot in this production, but the cast keep us absorbed.

Mr. Calderon, then, is a better actor than playwright and a better director than actor. His vision isn’t totally bleak. Some of the characters indicate a real moral fiber after the play’s crisis; it’s the producer who’s an affront to decency. He shows an interesting facet of his character when he calls himself an artist, and he calls his work “commercial art, but art nevertheless.” There’s an insecurity in him that’s only suggested.

All in all, Fringe of Humanity is an interesting study of characters. It seems to be a cautionary tale warning New York actors to keep away from the L.A. film industry. And it’s a vehicle for some work that’s engaging – obscenities aside – if unremarkable.

Steve Capra
January 2017

Thursday, January 12, 2017


When Mark Chapman murdered John Lennon in 1980, he was carrying a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. When John Hinckley shot President Reagan a year later, he had a copy of that book in his hotel room.

Playwright Anisa George has taken this strange confluence and used it as the basis for her play Holden, presented by George & Co. and The New Ohio Theatre. Her play takes place in J.D. Salinger’s writing retreat. Salinger himself is there, of course. We also find Chapman and Hinckley living there, acting as a sort of pair of muses.

Into this secluded haven arrives a fourth, Zev. It isn’t clear if he’s murdered anyone. It isn’t even clear if he’s read Catcher. He himself doesn’t know what he’s doing there. What is clear is that he has a murderous temperament. When Chapman and Hinckley explain the situation to him, he responds with a list of people that he’d like to kill: Bob Dylan; Bill Gates; Arnold Schwarzenegger; Alex Trebek. He’d like to break the record of 69 killed in the 2011 shooting in Norway. Even Chapman and Hinckley are disgusted.

It’s through the two assassins’ explanations to Zev that we learn about the world of the play.  “If you’re gonna be a catcher, Zev, there are rules,” Chapman says.

This is a brilliant concept, and it’s a great play and a great production. At its heart is the mysterious stage reality of Chapman, Hinckley and Zev. They don’t exist in Salinger’s mind, exactly. Indeed, he barely pays attention to them. They cajole him to write, but he never addresses them.

Instead, we’re in a unique world of dramatic truth. This is Chapman’s and Hinckley’s fantasy, not Salinger’s. He presumably hasn’t invited them in. Still, Ms. George is exposing the amorality of art. The assassins didn’t inspire Salinger, but they admired him. And Chapman and Hinckley aren’t evil here so much as they are insane. They think of themselves as, as Chapman says, catchers.

The show is directed by the playwright, and she keeps us absorbed without much aid from plot. She does it by keeping the play full of action within the fluid relationship between Chapman, Hinckley and Zev. Even during moments without dialogue we’re engrossed in the fiction. She gives the production a strong, animated rhythm.

The cast, as well, gives us terrific work – Jaime Maseda as Chapman, Scott R. Sheppard as Hinckley, Matteo Scammell as Zev, Bill George as Salinger (who has little to say). Their internal life keeps us involved when we might otherwise be lost due to the lack of a strong through line.

Nick Benacerraf’s set is beautiful – chopped wood on all sides, a clothesline with papers pinned to it, a cot, a stove. Seth Reiser’s lighting and Rebecca Kanach’s costumes work wonderfully. In all, they reflect our common fantasy of the reclusive writer Salinger.

Indeed, the dialogue as well is peppered with recognition of the fabled recluse. “He’s all wrapped up in practicing detachment from public opinion,” Chapman says of him.

The problem with the script is its unsatisfying ending; it calls into question Zev’s stage reality, that idiosyncratic dramatic construction that the playwright has heretofore defined so carefully. It’s particularly odd in light of Zev’s evil nature, and we wonder what sort of point Ms. George might be making.

But Holden is a terrific production, both commanding and subtle, making for a thrilling 90 minutes of theatre.

Steve Capra
January 2017