Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Room Sings

Sitting in the audience of The Room Sings, I thought of Caliban’s marvelous speech in The Tempest:
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

And so is this play full of noises that give delight. The Room Sings, which is presented by La MaMa in association with Talking Band, blends dialogue with background sound and music so beautifully that they together form one sublime soundscape. There are chirping and banging, vibes and a sort of pinging, and a voice that’s doing something like scatting. There are water sounds and a sound that’s a cross between a whistle and a soft scream. And when the coyote cries, one of the characters says “It sounds like it’s in pain.”

The aural delights aren’t beneath the dialogue in the way we might expect. Sound and dialogue are carefully woven together in this production. Indeed, the cast deliver their lines as if those lines were music. As directed by Talking Band’s Artistic Director Paul Zimet, who also wrote the script, their voices are instruments for the melody of speech. There’s a gentle artifice to their acting that’s most clear in the murder scene: there are a couple of stylized slaps and a clean, endearing killing.

There’s no real story here, just a few events. The play concerns a house and its series of occupants. Its short scenes jump around between 2015, 1987, 1958 and, finally, 1943, which year hosts the notorious murder of a nasty old man by his nasty old sister. We like all these people, and although a couple of sad things happen, they manage well enough.

The entire cast are meticulous and eloquent. Chief among them is Henry Yuk as an older man who talks to his deceased mother and offers her “ghost food” in the Chinese tradition. When he delivers a barrage of obscenities he’s entertaining, not offensive. When he tells a young fellow about the murder in the house, his tale is suitably eerie.

But there’s more to the play than the house and its inhabitants. There’s a sort of host, played by an actress, who sings and sort of dances and distances the action for us. And the show wraps up with an opera that one of the characters has written. Its characters are beavers, and the terrific beaver puppets are by Ralph Lee.

Paul Zimet’s direction never falters. He gives the show a uniform tone when the house’s residents are speaking, and he keeps the host and the puppet opera whimsical.

The attractive set, which consists of smallish platforms on wheels, is by Nic Ularu. The wallpaper in the house is described as “faux Chinese landscape”. The very nice costumes are by Kiki Smith. When the host wants to indicate that he’s not an on-stage presence, he hides his face with his boater. And on the top of the boater is painted the same design as the faux Chinese landscape wallpaper. It’s really kool.

The problem with The Room Sings is that there’s no depth to the characters or their situations. For all Mr. Zimet’s formidable talents as a director and sound designer, his script offers no discussion. We’d like to hear the lyricism of this production coupled with characters who change and grow. As it is, we're satisfied with the show’s marvelous flavor.

Steve Capra
April 2017

Friday, April 14, 2017

Rare Birds

Adam Szymkowicz’ play Rare Birds, which has just been produced by The Red Fern Theatre Company at the 14th Street Y (off-off-Broadway), is a study of high school bullying. I’m going to tell you the plot, so beware – I include a spoiler! I’m doing it because it needs to be discussed in detail.

Dylan and Mike bully Evan mercilessly. They beat him up at school and execute a cyberbullying scam that leads him to make a video that he thinks is going to Jenny, the girl he’s after. Actually, of course, it’s going to Dylan, who shows it to the school student body. Worse, Dylan, who’s the lead bully, shows up at Evan’s bedroom window and gives him a gun, telling him to shoot himself. Evan makes a suicide video and is about to blow his brains out when Jenny shows up at his window. Mike has sent her, after Dylan told him about giving Evan the gun. Jenny saves Evan by validating his worth.

There’s also a subplot concerning Evan’s mother and her boyfriend, Ralph. Ralph tries to teach Evan to fight. “Sometimes the big kids pick on the smaller kids” Ralph reminds him. But Evan trusts no one, and, besides, he’s in denial: “I don’t need to know how to defend myself.”

Mr. Szymkowicz’ portrait of the young man is complex. He shows Evan to be hostile to his mother and Ralph, and we can see in his scenes with Ralph how intense his Oedipal complex is. We can see what a dork he is when he approaches Jenny. “How has your day been thus far?” he asks her (she rebuffs him). And in his suicide video, in the play’s most truthful moment, he says “This is all your fault. I want the guilt to eat you up.”

The core of the bullying problem, we learn, is that Dylan is gay, and attracted to the straight Evan. We know Dylan’s gay because he tries to give Mike a feel while they’re wrestling. What’s more, Jenny says that she saw Dylan naked, apparently lewdly so, with her last boyfriend.

Certainly, repressed homosexual urges account for a lot of bullying among boys. But Dylan’s sexuality isn’t repressed; he’s sexually active. Rare Birds is a regression to the homophobic depiction of the gay as predator. The bullies call Evan a faggot; Dylan is the gay as gay-basher. Even Dylan’s name is derogatory – it suggests one of the Columbine killers, who were called gay by certain parties.

Evan is redeemed when he kisses a girl – that is, because he’s straight. When Ralph tries to teach Evan to fight, Evan accuses him of molesting him, for no reason. Within the context of the play there’s no positive gay perspective.

The script is well crafted, never flagging, with carefully wrought dialogue. But Mr. Szymkowicz resorts to contrivance when Jenny shows up just in time to save Evan’s life. More importantly, he doesn’t discuss the problem of bullying thoroughly. After nearly killing himself, Evan is saved miraculously. Mr. Szymkowicz never suggests how to deal directly with being victimized.   

Scott Ebersold has directed masterfully. He keeps the stage fluid and dynamic, and he allows his actors to shine. The entire cast performs well, although the two bullies aren’t given much to do except to be mean. Tracey Gilbert smiles impotently as Evan’s mother, knowing she can’t discipline him. Robert Buckwalter is suitably patient as Ralph. Jake Glassman gives us terrific work as Evan, truthfully revealing various contradictory aspects of the character as the script demands.

And so Rare Birds is a well-executed production of a script that lacks cultural truth. In this topsy-turvy dramatic world, the gays bully the straights. Mr. Szymkowicz needs to rethink his concept.

Steve Capra
April 2017

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Tao Marayao (The Good Person)

Tao Marayao (The Good Person) is a dance/movement piece about the Samal Balangingi, a maritime tribe from an island in the Southern Philippines. It’s part myth, part cultural history, presented through traditional Samal dance and narrative movement. Its story concerns the Spanish Conquest, from the arrival of the conquistadors to a sort of Samal diaspora in America.

Tao Marayao is presented by La MaMa, in association with Kinding Sindaw, an organization with the mission of preserving indigenous Philippine culture. The show’s concept comes from Potri Ranka Manis Queano Nur (of Kinding Sindaw), who also directed and choreographed the show. The choreography ranges from stylization of real-life movement, as when the oarsmen row ships, to pure dance, as when the Samal women dance for visitors. The dance/movement is wonderful, graceful, a delight to watch. The barefoot dancers’ toe-out walk, their eloquent hand and finger gestures, their high-kneed walk are absolutely delicious. They generally move with calm, impassive faces, and at one point the performers sing in the Samal language. There are 18 dancers, including, happily, some children.

The dancers’ work is complemented by gorgeous, traditional costumes (Flor Dechavez is credited as the costume seamstress). There are rich, sumptuous colors in the solids and prints, in the sashes, dresses, pants and headscarves. Some of the men wear painted bamboo hats. Sometimes the women’s hair is elaborated with strings of pearls (the Samal were expert pearl divers). There are pearls on their earrings and some wear exotic janggay, finger extensions.

There are four musicians in the show, forming a kulintang ensemble, playing percussion instruments. The gandingan and the agung are types of gongs. The klutang is a wooden beam, and the kubing is a sort of jaw harp. Anklong are bamboo instruments that are shaken. The ensemble also play drums and a flute. The music is marvelous, haunting and commanding by turns.

We can follow the frame of the story through the performance alone. The Spanish arrive, with their armor and black beards, and are driven away. They return and kidnap the children. The Samal fight and overcome the Spanish, but the Spanish then overpower them. Finally, the Samal men end up in America, utterly degraded, as something like gladiators. “Savages” they’re called, who “fight to the death” for an audience.

However, there’s more to the dance than the story, and we miss much of it because there’s no surtitles and no onstage narrator. It’s not clear what’s represented by what we’re watching. There are scenes from everyday life interspersed in the story, with the Samal working the fields and winnowing. And there are traditional tales as well, such as a tale of mermaids stealing pearls from a monkey. It’s lovely to watch, but inscrutable. Of course, it’s all explained in the program notes, but with 13 scenes in a 90-minute show, we can’t remember while we watch the performance what we read earlier.

Nonetheless, Tao Marayao is marvelous. Its movement is the very picture of grace and elegance, and it’s danced superbly. We’re thankful that Kinding Sindaw is preserving this form of storytelling.
Steve Capra
April 2017

Friday, April 7, 2017

Vanity Fair

William Thackeray wrote Vanity Fair as a monthly serial between 1847 and 1848. It was well received and set the foundation for later novels to come, in the Victorian era. Its story, set during the Napoleonic Wars, centers around two young women, friends, Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley. We meet them as they leave Miss Pinkerton’s Academy and we follow them as their and their husbands’ fortunes rise and fall. Thackeray’s moral points are clear throughout. His concerns are with money and status, and their corruption of society and our personal relations.

Thackeray contrasts Becky, the sharp-witted adventuress, with the conventional and virtuous Amelia. Amelia comes from a prosperous family and marries George Osborne for love. However, since her father has been ruined and she is now poor, George’s father disinherits him. Becky, on the other hand, is a penniless orphan who marries a man, Rawdon Crawley, who has at least the hope of an inheritance. She climbs the social ladder through shrewd manipulation of those around her and improves her lot by accepting gifts from admirers.

Kate Hamill has adapted the lengthy novel into a lengthy play, with great success. Vanity Fair has been produced by The Pearl Theatre Company. As directed by Eric Tucker, it’s a terrific production, altogether satisfying. Running two-and-a-quarter hours, it doesn’t seem a moment too long. Ms. Hamill has, of course, simplified the expansive novel, but the texture of the script is still full and rich.

Most in the cast of seven play multiple roles. The exceptions are the two actresses. Kate Hamill herself plays the central role of Becky. It’s a marvelous, bravura performance. Ms. Hamill plays this smart, resentful hustler with a constant sneer. She manages to make us relate to Becky, if not to admire her.

Becky, of course, has to make her own way in life. “I shall win this game or die trying,” she says of life. She and Rawdon live off loans that they have no intention of paying back, and in the show’s most topical moment she reminds us “Debt makes the world go round.”

As Amelia, the victim personality, Joey Parsons has a less sensational role, but she is nonetheless vivid and engaging. The five actors in multiple roles give us great work, showing themselves to be versatile and skillful. They’re masterfully led by Zachary Fine, whose chief role is The Manager, who addresses us opening and closing the show and from time to time throughout, with a cynical and knowing tone. At the show’s opening he tosses a hat halfway across stage squarely on to a hat rack. His first line is “There are no morals here – in our play, I mean,” and he establishes his relationship with us immediately.

Eric Tucker directs with enormous precision and humor. The stage is constantly animated. The pace never flags and we never weary of these 19th-century characters who behave so badly and are so like us. Through the humor and the staging, Mr. Tucker keeps us aware that we’re watching a play, never letting us get so involved that we miss the point. This is fine Brechtianism.

The words “good” and “bad” keep appearing in Ms. Hammill’s script. Becky tells Amelia “Try not to be too good.” The wealthy matriarch, Rawdon’s aunt, tells Becky “Never be too good or too bad,” and “With enough money you can be bad indeed and still be respectable.”  But the irony is never oppressive; the director keeps it within the drama. And when The Manager addresses us, he speaks with such entertaining irony that we’re eager to hear him.

In my favorite exchange in the script, Rawdon warns Becky against one of her admirers. “He has a bad reputation,” he tells her. “So do we,” she replies. 

Sandra Goldmark’s scenic design does a fine job of supporting the production’s concept. She’s lit the stage with bare bulbs on the walls in a design suggesting a carnival, and they’re a constant comment on the characters’ behavior. Her choice of flooring, however – it looks like tattered linoleum – is puzzling.

Ms. Hamill or Mr. Tucker inserts a few moments of Michael Jackson-style dance, and it’s intrusive. And there are moments when the playwright throws rather too much at us at once, and we’re confused. But The Pearl Theatre Company has mounted a great success.

Steve Capra
April 2017

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Chess Match No. 5

The composer John Cage died in 1992. His music was so enormously creative as to be revolutionary. Aside from his music, he left behind the texts of many public conversations that reveal his musical and philosophical ideas. Anne Bogart, one of the Co-Artistic Directors of SITI Company, has used this material in conceiving a production called Chess Match No. 5, which she’s created with SITI Company and which has been presented by Abingdon Theatre Company.

Jocelyn Clarke has arranged the texts of Mr. Cage’s conversations as dialogue for two characters, named in the program simply as He and She. He clearly represents Mr. Cage. He’s the master, the teacher, and most of the dialogue consists of her questions and his answers. To be sure, He occasionally asks her a question, but he is clearly the maestro. The conversation turns on music and philosophy.

At the top of the show Mr. Bond enters and, after several moments, says “What am I doing?” The question echoes for the rest of the cryptic play.

The setting is the home of He, and She comes to play chess. They also drink coffee and, later, whiskey. They dance a couple of times, and they play the radio, but mostly they play chess. Oddly, she wins the two games. Some moves occur after considerable silence while they players cogitate, and some occur quickly. Sometimes the game gets stylized, and the players hit the button of the timer alternately in rapid succession without moving the chess pieces.

The telephone rings, but no one answers it, although She tells us “Many people ask me How do I reach John Cage? and I say Just pick up the telephone.

Whatever the ornamentation to the text, the substance of the play is its dialogue. Its significance is not that it reveals the relationship between the characters but that it expresses Mr. Cage’s ideas. The play isn’t a drama at all. It’s a Socratic dialogue, a lesson on the nature of music. The characters never refer to themselves or to what they’re doing, with the exception of the words “check” and “check mate”.

Repeatedly He expresses Mr. Cage’s philosophy. “I am trying to keep it mysterious” He says, referring to nothing in particular. And later She says “I like art to remain mysterious.” When She asks “What is this about?” He responds: “It is my intention to let things be themselves.” Silence, He tells us, is “a state of affairs free of intentions.” The influence of Buddhism on Mr. Cage is evident throughout.

She also reflects his Zen ideas. She tells us a few short stories during the play. One of them is about people trying to guess why a man is standing on a hill. When they ask him, he replies “I just stand.”

Interesting as these ideas are, the dialogue alone wouldn’t absorb us in the play. What’s more, there’s no plot or specific characterization. What involves us is the astonishing moment-to-moment life of the two actors, Will Bond and Ellen Lauren. Even without dramatic action, they act with certitude and conviction. He wipes dust off table with his finger; She brushes lint from her dress. These simple gestures are illuminated with stage truth. Ms. Bogart’s direction is impeccable.

There are many exposed light bulbs overhead in this room, and the lights change from time to time, as when the phone rings or when He turns off the radio, but often for no reason. And from time to time He speaks a number, regarding nothing. “35” he says, or “133”. The production, like Mr. Cage, is keeping it mysterious.

This is a play with a complete lack of conflict. The characters in Chess Match No. 5 are entirely agreeable, to each other and to us. What’s more, they enjoy this hyper-intellectual conversation, and so we do as well. Art theory has never been so delicious.

Their only bit of offstage life they exhibit comes as they exit. She says “It’s never gone on this long before,” and we have some slight context for She’s visit.

It’s possible to imagine the dialogue as an argument rather than a conversation, or that the characters’ relationship might change during their 90 minutes of stage life. But that would be to do the show an injustice, to imagine it as something other than it wants to be. Chess Match No. 5 is a terrific explication of musical and philosophical ideas, a marvelous tribute to Mr. Cage.

Steve Capra
March 2017

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