Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Enchantment

Victoria Benedictsson was a Swedish writer writing at the end of the 19th century. She’s noted for her novels and, to a lesser extent, for a play called The Enchantment. She had a passion for the famous critic Georg Brandes, and it’s conjectured that he seduced her. At any rate, she committed suicide in 1888, just after writing The Enchantment.

Her life was well known, and she is said to have been a model for Strindberg’s Miss Julie and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. However, Germaine Greer has pointed out that she has little in common with those dramatic characters besides suicide. At any rate, Louise, the central character of The Enchantment, certainly anticipates those two characters. After indulging in a prolonged love affair in Belle Époque Paris, Louise commits suicide.

At the play’s opening, we meet Louise as she’s recovering from an illness. In the first scene she meets Alland, a sculptor. Louise is a timid innocent, of course, and Alland a libertine, but as the relationship develops we can hardly say that he takes advantage of her. He never pretends that he’ll stay with her. “Show me you are a free woman,” he tells her. She leaves him and returns home, presumably to Sweden, although she refers to the land simply as “this cold place”. But after receiving a note, presumably from Alland (there’s a nice mystery here), she returns to Paris – “for a few days,” she says.

The second act finds them living in Paris nine months later, although not living together. Louise is enjoying the bohemian life with her artist friends, although she herself seems to have no occupation.

Alland tells Louise that he’s leaving for New York. Just as bad, Louise is running out of money, as Emma Bovary did before her in Flaubert’s novel. So she jumps in the river.

Benedictsson shows us that Louise is responsible for her behavior. In the second act, during one of their interminable discussions about romance, Alland tells her “You are teaching me what I have taught you.” Moreover, she’s 32 years old, not a child. And she’s not without wisdom: she tells her brother upon his marriage “Free love isn’t for everyone.”

Louise may be in line with the great tragic female characters of the late 19th century, but this isn’t a very good play. Louise and Alland spend their time talking about free love, and about their relationship specifically. There’s no plot to speak of. The characters are insufficiently particularized. They’re ill-defined because there’s not enough dramatic action.

There is, however, a lot of platitudinous talk about love, with lines like “A lonely woman will age before her time,” and “Love is a fragile flower that needs to be nurtured.”

Ducdame Ensemble (in association with Breukelen stage + Film) has just produced the play at HERE, Off-off-Broadway. The production is nice enough, given the quality of the script. The director and her ensemble present the script well enough, but they don’t compensate for its weaknesses.

The show is directed by Lucy Jane Atkinson in a straightforward style. She shows us that Louise decides her own fate: two or three times during the show, Louise kisses Alland – as opposed to him kissing her. Ms. Atkinson eschews melodrama and has her actors underplay their roles – at the cost of sacrificing some conflict she might have mined from the text.

Louise is played by Fiona Mongillo. She’s serviceable and expressive, but she never really makes us care much about Louise. Neither she nor her director show express Louise’ transformation from innocent to a woman of the world.

The role of Alland isn’t very interesting – the character never changes. Matthew DeCapua is solid enough in the part, but, like Ms. Mongillo, never captures our imagination. 

The best performance of the production is given by Jane May in the role of Erna, a sculptress who has a history with Alland and who is suited to the bohemian life. She warns Louise about Alland, and scolds her about her financial habits. She also cares for her own sister. Ms. May gives us a mature, layered performance. Erna is harsh and controlling because of her sense of responsibility for those she loves. At heart, she’s caring.

The translation is faulty. The characters speak generally without contractions. But they’re inconsistent: sometimes they do use contractions. And at one point Alland, for all this formal speech, says “You and me will never be as before.”

And so The Enchantment is an interesting production, but interesting only to academics. Ducdame Ensemble is an able company who need to be more selective about their material.

Steve Capra
July 2017

Friday, July 7, 2017

Bastard Jones

Bastard Jones, produced off-Broadway by the cell, is a musical adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. Fielding’s title character, of course, is a good-natured libertine, the sex addict who falls in love with the nice girl, Sophia. The plot, which is convoluted even in this pared-down adaptation, is of no particular importance. It just concerns Tom’s sexual adventures. He’s banished and nearly executed for his ill-considered lifestyle. At the end, of course, he wins the virtuous Sophia. The novel was such a scandal that the Bishop of London claimed that its publication caused the Great earthquake of 1850.

The lengthy novel has been trimmed to accommodate a cast of nine, with most actors playing multiple roles. The title role is played by Evan Ruggiero, who is an amputee. He performs wearing a wooden prosthetic leg which he puts on during the first scene. The show is in no way apologetic about the prosthetic. At one point a character makes a joke of it, using it as a mike. It’s great to see disability treated with such unabashed frankness.

Indeed, the premise of the production is difference. The cast is racially inclusive and one actress is legally blind (although we’d never know that by watching her performance).

The show is delightful, thanks mostly to the talents of its director and cast. The book is merely solid and the songs – mostly in the pop vein – are pleasant if unmemorable. Director Marc Acito keeps it all zipping along allegro. He works on a small stage with a balcony, but he keeps the tone of a full-bodied musical, with meticulous joyousness.

This is an honest sex farce that makes its point through its flippancy. To quote from the script: “The world would be a better place if the keepers of morality kept it to themselves.”

In the title role, Mr. Ruggiero’s performance is very good, standard musical theater; he’s limited by a role that’s not well developed for a lead. Elena Wang is absolutely terrific as the virtuous Sophia. She gives the character complexity, and when she sings she raises her arms up to her shoulders without looking ridiculous. Rene Ruiz plays Tom’s companion as well as the show’s narrator, and his work is great from the moment he opens with “Greetings!” Crystal Lucas-Perry is marvelous as the aristocrat who keeps Tom as her concubine. The other cast members are no less pleasing.

Bastard Jones is obscene without being vulgar, two-and-a-half hours of great fun. The book is by Marc Acito, the music is by Amy Engelhardt, and they collaborated on the lyrics. Their characters need to be further developed, given contradictions and complexity, without lengthening the show. But the production is nonetheless a success. What’s more, its proceeds benefit Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors Fund, which serves homeless LGBT youth. Good for the cell!

Steve Capra
July 2017

Thursday, July 6, 2017

(Not) Water

For the first hour or so of (Not) Water, the audience sits in a large circle in a very large room. The actors present, in a disjointed flow, vignettes representing the process that led to the production. We meet the artists and watch some fictitious scenes and hear some stories, even some stand-up. The show, we learn, was conceived in 2006, and following years are marked by climate events – a 2007 flood in India, a 2008 snowfall in Baghdad, Hurricane Sandy. There’s a song about a mop – “The mop cleans everything, but no one cleans the mop” – that’s clever if rather off the point.

So far, the show is intriguing but uneven. Then the lights go out, and we’re told to evacuate the theater. Hurricane Gwyneth (a fictitious hurricane) has caused a power outage. We leave the theater, staying in the building, and we’re ushered into a small space with a single actor, and for about a half-hour he delivers a monologue. The actor – a terrific actor – is Mike Shapiro. He’s playing a man who’s been hunkered down since the disaster – the hurricane – hit the city. The rats have drowned.

The character – listed in the program as Crafty Cook – tells us about his mental health (or illness), his taking drugs, and his setting up a food business, and he feeds some of us a bit. It’s well written and interesting, but what’s important is Mr. Shapiro’s performance. His emotional flow is subtle, his relationship to us is clear, he never falls into cliché. It’s great work!

A few audience members are ushered into another room – a bathroom, actually – to hear another monologue. Originally, the audience was meant to be divided in half, but the logistics of the space prevented this.

At the end of the monologue we’re led back into the large space, which has been redesigned. We spend quite a while under the sort of canopy that’s suspended from the ceiling representing water. Most people are lying down on small air rafts. There are ambient music and sound effects, and it’s all a lovely, peaceful tribute to H2O, although it goes on rather too long.

Before the show we wrote notes about our experiences with water and gave the papers to the staff. Now, at the end of the show, these notes are distributed and some members of the audience read them aloud. It’s clever.

Early in the show, one of the performers says “We’re not just making pretty things here. We want to motivate people to act.” We don’t really feel motivated to act when we leave. The show was too fragmented to do that, and the final segment was too pleasant. Disunity, in fact, is the production’s strength. The various moments we’ve enjoyed contrast in a way that sharpens the experiences. We’ve seen some very creative work.

(Not) Water – a cryptic name – is part of a month-long inter-disciplinary event focused on water called Works on Water, at 3D Technology Center. The stage show is presented by New Georges with 3D Technology Center in collaboration with Guerilla Science. It was written by Sheila Callaghan and directed by Daniella Topol. The large space is turned from a gallery into a performance space just before the show, and we enjoy seeing what remains of the installation outside the circle of audience – videos on the walls, and canoes hanging from the ceiling. A marvelous use of space.

Steve Capra
June 2017

Tuesday, June 27, 2017


In Torben Betts’ play Invincible, presented by The Original Theatre Company and Ghost Light Theatre Productions at 59E59 Theaters, a London couple named Oliver and Emily move to Northern England and experience culture shock. Specifically, they invite their neighbors, Alan and Dawn, over for a visit one evening and find that they have no mutual ground. Oliver and Emily are quintessential sophisticates, unmarried, progressive, slender, refined. Alan and Dawn are boors. She dresses like a streetwalker and speaks a dialect using “were” for “was”. He’s an overgrown baby. His beer belly shows under his T-shirt and he has a loud, stupid laugh.

Emily paints abstracts. Alan paints childish pictures of his cat, Invincible, brutally bad. The four neighbors manage to slug their way through conversation until Alan produces his paintings and Emily gives her candid opinion. This somehow gets tied into the couples’ contrasting attitudes toward the military, and the evening is a disaster.

The main dissonance lies between Emily and Alan. They’re both obnoxious. Emily spouts clichés about big business and socialized housing and Alan laughs like an idiot. Neither has interpersonal skills, and they don’t process what people say to them.

At its best, the script has the disingenuous veneer of a play by Alan Ayckbourn. The flaw in the first act is that the friction between the two couples doesn’t proceed by degrees. They tolerate each other until Emily tells Alan he’s untalented, and then, nearly at the end of the act, the social disaster occurs.

The second act takes place some time later – it’s not clear how much later, but Alan and Dawn’s cat has been missing “almost a week”. The writing is more sophisticated in this act. There’s been some dramatic action between acts and there are some revelations about the past. The characters gain some complexity. We feel some sympathy for Emily when she says “I don’t care about being happy any more. I just want to be at peace.” And at the end of the play we learn that there’s more to Alan than a suburban slug. Indeed, we end up liking him more than we like Oliver, who’s easier for us to relate to. Mr. Betts succeeds to some extent in making a point about our own class prejudice.

Stephen Darcy directs the play, although the program tells us that the “original direction” is from Christopher Harper. He directs it for its comedy, keeps it moving and keeps us entertained. But he directs unevenly. At opening, Oliver and Emily are having a bit of a tiff, and she’s in a frenzy, nearly out of control (we dislike her a lot). However, she inexplicably calms down when her guests arrive. And the characters almost never sit down while they’re socializing in a living room. People don’t behave like this.

Alan is played as a cartoon in the first act. The entire first act, in fact, is heavy-handed. Alan and Dawn make entrances bombastically, to cheap music. It’s deliberately non-realistic, in the stylistic sense, and it’s a mistake.

There’s a conversation in the second act that conflates sex with Invincible, the cat. Mr. Darcy actually has Emily, who has no idea of the salacious overtones of the conversation, fall on her knees in a suggestive position before Alan, who grabs his groin and retreats upstage. Emily, apparently, is quite thick, but nobody’s that thick.

Mr. Darcy sometimes has Oliver and Emily talk over one another, not listening to each other. This is apparently what the playwright intended, since the lines don’t reflect any development in the conversation. It goes on too long.

All four of the actors are obviously of the highest skill set, but they find themselves constrained. The role of Emily is played by Emily Bowker, and role of Alan is played by Graeme Brookes. Both lay it on rather too thick because, I suspect, they’ve been directed to do so. Elizabeth Boag plays the low-class Dawn with a bit more dimension.

Only Alastair Whatley, as Oliver, the London editor who’s out of a job, has the opportunity to act with subtlety. It’s the most interesting role. Oliver is silent at crucial moments when we expect him to speak.

Victoria Spearing’s set, Oliver and Emily’s living room, has dark walls and white doors and furniture. It’s tasteless, out of keeping with the refinement of the house’s occupants.

Invincible is presented as part of 5E59’s Brits on Broadway series.

Steve Capra
June 2017

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Tychyna, Zhadan & The Dogs

Tychyna, Zhadan & The Dogs is a production conceived and directed by Virlana Tkacz and presented by La MaMa and Yara Arts Group. It combines Ukrainian poetry with Ukrainian rock music. The poetry was written by Pavlo Tychyna just after World War One, and by contemporary poet Serhiy Zhadan (with additional verse by Bob Holman of the Yara Arts Group). Mr. Zhadan is the lead singer for the rock group, Zhadan and the Dogs.
The opening of the show takes place in the lobby of the theater, creating a nice transition from life to art. An actor (he neglects to introduce himself) announces that he’s Czar Nicholas II. He then abdicates by removing his epaulettes, sash, medals, and he stops being the character. The actor has with him 12 hats. He explains that Kiev saw 12 regime changes in 3 years, one of them lasting only a day, and he dons a hat for each regime. “History is written, of course, above, but it’s lived below,” he tells us. A couple of actors (one of them Serhiy Zhadan) recite poetry in Ukrainian, and then we’re ushered into the theater.
The remainder of the performance consists of spoken poetry alternating with rock music. It’s not clear which of the poets wrote the verse we’re hearing, but at any rate much of it is marvelous:
I wash myself – water, chimes, curtain.
Anything can be justified by lofty ideals except a hollow soul.
Take the vegetables from the garden and leave.
We will never see our city again.
We are refugees.
The recitation of the verse is terrific, animated without being heavy-handed. The speakers, of course, recite in English, but they intersperse the verse with Ukrainian words, and the technique creates a lovely, ghostly suggestion of translation.
Zhadan and the Dogs is comprised of eight male musicians: drums; two guitars; trumpet; trombone; keys; two singers. They play about six songs during the show, singing in Ukrainian, sometimes in a pounding monotone. In the show’s best moment, the actors lie on the floor, looking limp, while the band plays behind them.
There’s also a man on stage playing the bandura, a stringed instrument, between the rock songs, offering us more delicate music. We met him earlier in the lobby, where he played a piano block. He wears a strange black hood. Contrasting him to the rock band is a great way to transition us between our own period and a hundred years ago.
Yara Arts Group is a resident company at La MaMa. They present work referencing Eastern Europe and Asia, and we’re always glad to see it.
Steve Capra
June 2017

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Death Comes for the War Poets

At The Sheen Center for Thought and Culture, Off-off-Broadway, Blackfriars Repertory Theatre and Storm Theatre Company are presenting a show called Death Comes for the War Poets. It calls itself “a dramatic verse tapestry”, and the phrase describes the piece well. It’s comprised of the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, with additional verse by Joseph Pearce. It’s wonderful to see a show almost entirely in verse.

There are three characters in this play. Sassoon and Owen, of course, and the third character is Death herself. I use the feminine pronoun because Director Peter Dobbins has cast as Death a young, pretty actress. It’s a great choice.

Indeed, for Sassoon and Owen, death – their own deaths – must have been a seductive alternative to the hideous life they led and witnessed in World War One. It’s a creative miracle that they transformed the horror they saw in the trenches into art. It’s a matter of opinion which was the better poet, but they both wrote poems that are brutal in their genesis and beautiful in their truthfulness.

Nicholas Carriere plays the role of Sassoon and Michael Raver plays Owen. They’re both absolutely terrific. Much of the stage time is spent with one or the other reciting verse, and their readings of the poems are marvelous. They recite with great intensity, involvement and animation, giving the words much color. This isn’t the only way – or even the best way – to recite poetry, but Messrs. Carriere and Raver are so talented, and they work with such meticulous discipline, that their work is inarguably very fine. Mr. Raver even manages to be eloquent reciting the poems with Owen’s stammer.

Mr. Carriere and Mr. Raver aren’t given much opportunity to act, technically, but there’s a brief prose dialogue between the two that they handle with great skill.

As Death, Sarah Naughton is as skillful as the two men on stage, but she has less interesting material to work with. Her reading of the verse she’s been given is excellent, more reserved than the readings of the men but no less expressive. When she kisses them, it’s as if death is a sensuous coupling.

Mr. Dobbins has directed this highly formal piece very well, delicately, expressively but without showiness. He’s directed the verse in a very dramatic way, and he’s cast actors who are up to the challenge. He’s even managed to cast actors who look like the actual people they’re playing.

Unfortunately, he’s built a platform in the shape of a cross for the stage, so that we look up, with an artificial perspective. He would have done well to define the space on the floor. The audience, after all, is only a few rows deep.

Joseph Pearce’s script concentrates on Sassoon considerably more than on Owen. There’s a terrific scene between the two – the only scene in the play that assuredly contains a specific time and place – that takes place in the War Hospital where the two poets met.  This is where they have that prose dialogue. Following that, the actors alternate speaking in a celebration of the poems.

Mr. Pearce also makes much of Sassoon’s prose piece Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration, his renunciation of war that was read out in Parliament and got him confined to the war hospital as a victim of “shell shock”. "I believe that this War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it." An insightful observation – and familiar. Mr. Pearce is very clever to include it.

Mr. Pearce’s own verse, given largely or exclusively to Death, weaves together the older poems from Sassoon and Owen. It’s nice enough, but unremarkable. I suppose Death has to say “So soon, Sassoon,” but the playwright has her say it twice.

Death also has some lines from other poets – T.S. Eliot (the opening of The Waste Land) and Rupert Brooke (The Soldier), and others. The playwright is throwing rather too much at us, here, but we enjoy listening to them in Ms. Naughton’s lovely voice.

Mr. Pearce would also do well to cut a short digression into Sassoon’s admission of a minor plagiarism. The same applies to the passage from Lenten Illuminations, which Sassoon wrote after he converted to Catholicism, a letter to his former, unconverted self.

Mr. Pearce doesn’t really give enough shape to the raw material he’s chosen. It’s the Sassoon and Owen poems themselves that keep us engaged – such as Sassoon’s Arcady Unheeding and Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth.

Death does indeed come for Sassoon at the end, but Owen disappears from the stage too soon, and we’d like to see the play more balanced between the two.

The Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center is a project of The Archdiocese of New York, and the play has Catholic concerns. According to the program, Death Comes for the War Poets is concerned with Sassoon’s conversion, although the script doesn’t speak for itself on this point.

Siegfried Sassoon outlived World War II. Wilfred Owen returned to the front after leaving the war hospital, and was killed during the last week of the war.

Steve Capra
June 2017

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

A Hunger Artist

A Hunger Artist is one of Franz Kafka’s most difficult stories. The writer’s concern in this story is the nature of the artist, his relationship to his public, his motivations. Kafka’s not concerned here with the ordinary guy, the Everyman that he writes about in so many of his other stories.

The title character is a performer whose art is simply to fast. He would fast for up to 40 days, sitting in a cage in public, but that’s the maximum length of time that his impresario would allow. More recently however, he’s separated from his impresario and he’s been forced to join a circus. He’s made to wear a silly collar and a party hat. It’s demeaning, but at least he can fast without limit.

Like all of Kafka’s stories, this is an extended metaphor, without a suggestion about what stands on the other side of the metaphor. Kafka’s mysterious, suggestive, dream-like prose is at its best, heavy with connotation.

And there really were hunger artists, in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s been conjectured that Kafka saw one. One of the oddest manifestations of the performing arts, certainly.

The Tank and Sinking Ship Productions have presented a stage adaptation of the story at The Connelley Theater. Josh Luxenberg is named as “Writer”. His script stays close to the original story, and the play is engrossing throughout its 90 minutes. It’s been designed so that all the roles are played by one actor, in this production Jon Levin.

The play opens with Mr. Levin in a fat suit as the impresario, addressing us. He introduces the hunger artist as a tiny puppet on a little puppet stage with tiny puppet observers. It’s toy theater. Then, after realizing that the audience can hardly see the puppets, he leaves the stage, and reappears as the emaciated hunger artist himself, in a cage on the bare stage. For much of the remainder of the play we’re aware of the impresario as a disembodied voice. The fasting man never speaks.

Five audience members are recruited briefly to play observers, doctors and the impresario himself. So far, it’s funny, and it’s very smart of Mr. Luxenberg to open the show with some laughs. He’s clearing our minds for the weighty theater that’s coming.

The remainder of the show explores Kafka’s complex vision, and we follow the hunger artist as his lot deteriorates, he joins the carnival, and is finally found neglected and emaciated by circus staff. After fasting for God-knows-how-long, he dies, represented by a feeble puppet manipulated by Mr. Levin playing the staff man.

It’s a wonderful production! After the opening sequences, lasting about a half hour, it retains the tone of the story. It lifts much directly from the story, such as an early line that Kafka opened with: “In the past two decades interest in public starvation has declined enormously.”

Jon Levin gives us marvelous work. He speaks with a heavy Eastern European accent as the benign, plodding impresario and speaks American as the kinetic carnival barker and as the (briefly-appearing) staff man. The impresario has humor and a personal history. He’s a marked contrast to the silent hunger artist, who has a mournful, forlorn gaze. But the fasting man is not monochromatic, and Mr. Levin expresses his desperation, anger and disappointment silently. He also does a neat trick of indicating other characters by putting his arms through the sleeves of overcoats on a coat rack.

The show is directed by Joshua William Gelb. He’s done a masterful job of purveying the script delicately. He expresses its humor and its gravity with great skill. Even during its most adagio passages, the show is absorbing.

There are a few incongruous sequences during which the hunger artist travels between cities, and, inexplicably, he’s physically robust during the trip, even doing a cartwheel. And as is nearly always the case, casting a single actor in multiple roles really serves no dramatic purpose. But no matter. A Hunger Artist is a terrific, moody production, like Kafka at once emotive and intellectual. A Hunger Artist is great work!

Steve Capra
June 2017