Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Hysteria of Dr. Faustus

photo by Russ Rowland

The Hysteria of Dr. Faustus, produced by The Seeing Place Theater at The Paradise Factory, is yet another turn on the Faustus myth. It’s written by Brandon Walker, who also plays the title role, and it’s directed by Erin Cronican, who also plays Wagner and Mephistopheles.

The play opens with the 80-year-old Heinrich Faustus addressing his Wittenberg class (us). He storms off after some inexplicable student heckling. When he’s at his home desk we meet his assistant, Wagner. Wagner is transformed into Mephistopheles and the good doctor makes his famous pact (he chooses the “highlight package”, for impatient people). After a quick trip to the bathroom to appreciate himself (and to let Mr. Walker remove his make-up), he’s transformed to age 30, which he will remain for 24 years. Heinrich Faustus becomes Henry Faust, English writer (although the actual, unfortunate progenitor of the myth was named Johann Faust).

The plot centers on Faust’s ruining a young girl, (Gretchen, of course). Her sister-in-law, oddly, is the fourth character.

There are real sparks of creativity in the script, as when Mephistopheles says “People are evil. I am only damned,” and when addressing God Himself, she says: “Humans are weak. So are you. So am I.” But the dialogue has several problems. Some of it is clichéd, as in the seduction, getting-to-know-you scene, and some of it, predictably, merely trivializes the myth, as when Faust calls Mephistopheles a “second-rate ghoul”. Cute but merely diminutive.

And the script is structurally amorphous. It dwells on the long seduction scene (Henry Faust succeeds with Mephistopheles’ help). And it skips some dramatic action altogether: we hear about an uncle and a niece who’ve died as a result of Faust’s actions, but we’ve never heard of them before. This technique is an interesting attempt at mystery, but it fails because we don’t believe the play. 

What’s more, Gretchen’s sister-in-law finds herself in purgatory, and that’s just silly. And yet the script’s most thoughtful and original moment occurs when she’s freed because Faust apologizes to her.

For the most part, we don’t believe the acting either. Mr. Walker has some nice moments as the bashful suitor (Mephistopheles calls him “an 80-year-old virgin”). And there are moments of truth when he repents. But he hasn’t found the spine of the character, and when he tries to play an 80-year-old academic, he’s beyond his means, too loud and heavy-handed.

Erin Cronican is competent throughout, but she never makes much of the opportunity to play two characters in the same body.

We applaud The Seeing Place Theater at least for attempting to translate the myth into the terms of the 21st-century. Playwrights from Christopher Marlow to Václav Havel have adapted it, and we’re glad to see the tradition carried on.

Steve Capra
October 2018

Saturday, October 13, 2018


credit: Eileen Meny Photography

What a wonder Salome is! Oscar Wilde wrote it in French in 1891. His infamous crush, Lord Alfred Douglas, translated it into English, but Wilde was so dissatisfied with his work that, some critics tell us, he essentially translated it again. At any rate, the Lord Chamberlin suppressed the London production (which would have starred Sarah Bernhardt) and the play premiered in France.

It’s unabashedly hyperbolic, deliberately overwritten, as extravagant and overblown as dramatic prose can be. Wilde tells us everything six times. What style is this? It’s aestheticism - aka decadence. It represents the intersect of melodrama and exoticism. The script is as heavy as a fruitcake and great fun as well, and I don’t believe Wilde was entirely serious.

The reader will be familiar with the Biblical story: Herod tells his step-daughter, Salome, that if she’ll dance for him, he’ll give her anything she asks for. She dances the Dance of the Seven Veils, and asks for the head of Jokanaan - John the Baptist - whom Herod has imprisoned and who’s rebuffed her advances. After a prolonged, futile attempt at dissuading her, he grants her request - and orders the poor love-struck girl executed. Delicious!

M-34 Productions and FringeNYC, in association with The Irondale Center, are presenting the play at Irondale, in Brooklyn, with a cast of about 20. The bare stage has a circle about 20 feet across on the floor, and a half-circle, diameter down, on the back wall, which is draped with white plastic. We discover four actors lying languidly on the floor. Then The Young Syrian says “How beautiful is the Princess Salome!” and the first scene has a slow, ominous pace until the young princess enters.

This production is terrific, brilliant! James Rutherford directs with surety and conviction. He knows why Wilde wrote that way and he relishes every lavish image, while keeping his actors moving to counter the verbiage. His characters are in apotheoses of emotion. They’re not insane - they’re possessed.

The cast does justice to Wilde’s hysterical fantasy. Under Mr Rutherford’s direction they’ve mastered Wilde’s florid, impossible speeches. Laura Butler Rivera presents a Salome who appears normal at first, but who begins to show the unmistakable symptoms of demonic indwelling when Jokanaan rejects her. Her distraction propels her right through her infatuation - “I am in love with your mouth, Jokanaan” - to the ending of the show when she kisses the severed head (as in Beardsley’s famous drawing). As Herodias, wife of the Tetrarch Herod, Lisa Tharps is perfectly cast (good actors always seem perfectly cast), imposing and imperial.

Marty Keiser’s performance as Herod is bravura. This Herod is not quite sane to begin with, nervous and bipolar, almost comic. In his great speeches to Salome, when he offers her every splendor he possesses, itemizing them in tempting, breath-taking detail, Mr Keiser is faultless. When he tells Salome “I will give you anything I have” he pounds his chest, histrionic and believable.

Salome says to (the offstage) Jokanaan “All other men disgust me but you are beautiful.” And it was very clever of Mr. Rutherford to cast the androgynous Feathers Wise as John the Baptist (she is a trangender woman). Her androgyny gives us an entrée not to Jokanaan's psychology, but to Salome's. Unfortunately, Ms. Wise never succeeds in commanding her, as Jokanaan must. When the prophet tells Salome “Back!” he rejects her, but he doesn’t scorn her. Moreover, Mr. Rutherford errs in giving Ms. Wise' offstage voice distortion in amplification.

Most impressive is the ensemble work, all the actors in non-leading roles - particularly Alexander Reed, who welcomes us with the first line - giving fine, stylized performances.

The Dance of the Seven Veils is marvelous. The music, pre-recorded, begins in a sort of New Age vein, without a lead, and Ms. Rivera is as graceful as we could ask. But when the music takes on a beat she becomes wild, and she growls as she crawls. Mr. Rutherford projects her face on her large veil as she dances, and on the back wall, and we share Herod’s hallucination. Projections are used again later, less successfully, with a camera imbedded in the severed head of John the Baptist as Salome gazes at it.

Several minutes into the performance a sofa appears. The actors - slaves, of course - move it around, and the choice is totally organic to the concept. There’s no other set, but Lara de Brujin’s costumes are delightful - men wearing earrings and nail-polish - and they project their elegance on to the unseen palace.

One extraordinary element of the production is that Mr. Rutherford has written a new translation. Is this really necessary? I’m not a master of French idiom, but there are some interesting questions here. For example, Wilde wrote “Il ne faut pas trouver des symboles dans chaque chose qu’on voit.  Cela rend la vie impossible.” The line is elemental to the play, and Wilde translates it almost literally as “You must not find symbols in everything you see. It makes life impossible.” Mr. Rutherford translates it as “A life full of symbolism is unlivable,” which sentence lacks the poetry and the punch.

Likewise, Wilde’s Herod calls Caesar “lord,” while Mr. Rutherford’s Herod calls him “the boss.”

On the other hand, Wilde has Herod yell “Taisez-vous” several times, and translates it as “Be silent!” That English phrase reflects the grandeur of the play’s tone, but Mr. Rutherford’s translation - “Shut up!” - may be more true to the original. (At any rate, Mr. Keiser’s delivery is sumptuous. He’s in a frenzy.)

The tension mounts in this dizzying show as we see the inevitability of Herod’s and Salome’s fate. We experience, if not pity - the characters are too weird for that - certainly terror. Even the heat in the theater seemed to contribute to this Wildean hallucination. Congratulations to Mr. Rutherford and his company.

One more comment about the production: as my instructor in grad school used to say, “It’s enough to drive Oscar wild!”

Steve Capra

October 2018

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Feathers of Fire

photo by Frictionville Studio

Shadow puppetry holds flat, almost two-dimensional puppets behind a screen. A lamp behind them projects their moving shadows on to the screen, and we, the happy audience, see the shadows form the other side. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre tells us that shadow puppetry in the Middle East was used to avoid the censors:
“Shadow puppet theatre similar to that found today throughout the East and South-East Asia was probably introduced to the Middle East at the time of the Mongol invasion of the 13th century. … Their [shadow puppets’] method of manufacture helped them deal with basic orthodox Islamic objections to their existence. Shadow puppet makers were able to circumvent these objections by pointing out that since the figures were perforated with holes, they no longer represent animate beings.”

Mercifully, Hamid Rahmanian doesn’t have to contend with censors. An Iranian-born artist, he’s conceived, designed and directed an elaborate shadow puppet theater piece, Feathers of Fire (in collaboration with Larry Reed and ShadowLight Productions), produced by Fictionville Studio and Banu Productions. It’s inspired by Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), the Persian epic written in the tenth century by the poet Ferdowsi. It’s the longest work we know by a single poet, and Mr. Rahmanian has used only an excerpt.

The story of Feathers of Fire concerns a boy disowned by his father - a great warrior - at birth because he has white hair. He’s raised by eagles - okay, probably by birds like eagles - and the story proceeds through his forbidden romance with the daughter of the Governor of Kabul. As in so many great myths, the young hero needs to answer riddles as part of the courtship. Of course, love conquers all.

The shadow puppetry in Feathers of Fire is marvelous, absolutely terrific. It’s finely wrought, so delicate that we don’t understand how the puppeteers do it. There are wonderful stylized details - fractal clouds, a classically curled beard on the Father - even the fur on the Father’s collar is clear, even the lace on the Queen’s shawl.

The characters are voiced. The shadows - 160 puppets are used - are mostly black, but they have color in them, beautifully blended, as in the women’s hair and dress. There’s a soothsayer, an astrologer, and a couple of vizirs. There’s a winged lion and a terrifying sea monster. The backgrounds (video projections) are in color, with the detailed anarchy of vegetation - beautiful flowers - contrasting with the regular symmetry of buildings. Pillars pass across the screen evenly paced, and minarets define space. It’s as if mankind imposes beautiful order on the beautiful chaos of nature. Unfortunately, the buildings in the background sometimes - only sometimes - take on the flat quality of the computer screen.

Unfortunately, the script doesn’t match the excellence of the graphics. This super-stylized form, shadow puppetry, demands an equally stylized language - singing perhaps (some early shadow puppetry was accompanied by chant), or iambic pentameter. The Shahnameh itself has been translated into impressive iambic pentameter, beginning:
His reign was thirty years, and o'er the earth
He spread the blessings of paternal sway;
Wild animals, obsequious to his will,
Assembled round his throne, and did him homage. 

However, in Feathers of Fire we get the patterns of day-to-day speech, simultaneously prosaic and awkward. We hear awful lines like “I’m in love. Is that a sin?” and “It is clear as day.” The word “guru” is used, an anachorism. Moreover, the voice of the young hero is too old for the character.

Mr. Rahmanian has co-written the play with Vikas Menon. The marvelous puppets are handcrafted by Neda Kazemifar and Spica Wobbe, and the costumes are designed by Dina Zarif. There’s some lovely music by Loga Ramin Torkian and Azam Ali. 

Feathers of Fire is wonderful to watch, a sort of live animation, and we’d like to see more of this shadow puppetry, perhaps coupled with verse.

Steve Capra
September 2018

Tuesday, August 14, 2018


photo by Kait Ebinger

The Scandinavian American Theater Company is presenting a solo play by Lisa Langseth called Beloved at The Lion Theatre at Theatre Row. The actress, Elinor DiLorenzo, presents us with Katerina, a rather common young woman who gets scooped up by a high-class orchestra conductor named Adam after she takes a job as a receptionist at the concert hall. She tells us about Mathias, the guy she used to live with, and the step-by-step development of her relationship with Adam that makes her leave him. 

Katerina’s not well-educated to the arts, but she falls in love with classical music, particularly Mahler, and her seduction by Adam is just one element of this larger life transition she’s telling us about. Playwright and actress do a great job of showing us more of Katerina than she can see herself. She tells us repeatedly that she’s not stupid. Her monologue is not sprinkled but rather iced with obscenities (rather overly so). When she tells us the ultra-sophisticated artist has fallen for her, we see that she’s deluded. The technique is s a type of irony.

The play is very nicely directed by Charlotte Barslund, whose main accomplishment is to cast Ms. DiLorenzo and to get a strong performance out of an actress whose chief experience has been in stand-up. The show is well blocked and well paced. Katerina doesn’t reveal too much too soon. Indeed, it takes 45 minutes for us to learn her name. Unfortunately, Ms. Barslund inexplicably mixes classical and rock music in the sound overlay.

Katerina is a nervous young woman, to say the least. Ms. DiLorenzo speaks so quickly that we can scarcely keep up with her. What’s more, her voice, although soft, is harsh. Her speech is a dead giveaway that she’ll never achieve the sophistication she strives for. I was reminded of that passage in Madame Bovary in which Flaubert tells us that Emma has a peasant’s hands.

Katerina is in that class of fascinating characters who nearly achieve self-awareness - but not quite. Speaking of women, she dismissively says “They don’t want equality. They just want to be taken.”

The actress’ moment-to-moment life is emotionally grounded, with a smooth flow. We don’t like her much as pity her - and here, along with terror, is the Aristotelean catharsis in this modest play.

And then there’s the unexplained. Katerina’s packing. To go where? We never find out. Very nice. 

The cluttered set has books, a awful white chair, a very nice sofa, a table with a chair, a floor mirror and a balcony above. Oddly, there’s an anomalous chandelier, although Katerina is living in her grandmother’s cottage.

The script is perceptive and articulate, critical of Katerina while letting us identify with her. But the playwright makes two serious errors. A critical plot event is so ridiculous as to be unbelievable. Moreover, there’s an intensely graphic description of the sex act. Pornography is not art.

Nonetheless. Beloved is well done and well received. A solo piece is difficult, and The Scandinavian American Theater Company’s portrait of a victim has mystery and depth.

Steve Capra

August 2018

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Blue Room

Arthur Schnitzler (Austrian) wrote La Ronde (German title Reigen) in 1897, but it was so scandalous that it wasn’t formally produced until 1920, in Berlin. Schnitzler was charged with obscenity - it was too much even for the Weimar Republic - and he withdrew it from production. 

La Ronde - need I say? - focuses on sex. It’s the rare example of a play without structure that works perfectly, and this is so because of its concept. There are ten scenes, each centering round the act of sex. One character in the first scene shows up in the second with a new partner; the character we just met in the second scene shows up in the third with a new partner, and so on. The girl in the first scene, whom we did not see again in the second scene, we meet again in the tenth, to complete the ring.

David Hare adapted La Ronde into a play called The Blue Room, first produced in London in 1998. It’s designed to be performed by one actor and one actress, each playing five roles. I’ve never understood how this choice was supposed to improve on the source material. Part of the point of La Ronde is that these characters are all different from another, sex being the equalizer, the common denominator. The biggest problem is that all the characters become, of course, more or less the same age. Still, it’s a very good play in concept, characters and dialogue. Schnitzler’s play has been updated, but without conceptual change.

The Bridge Production Group is presenting a very nice production of The Blue Room in a tiny space, The Whitebox Art Gallery. Max Hunter directs himself and Christina Toth, and they work well together. She is gorgeous and effortlessly sexy; he has a profile that we might find on an Assyrian coin.

The show is sexy without ever being vulgar. Ms. Toth could seduce an iceberg, but even as a prostitute she never falls into cheap cliche. Indeed, she has her best moment as a young hooker almost too shy too ask for her pay.

There’s a marvelous moment when Mr. Hunter, after his new mistress has left, says “I’m fucking a married woman!” It reminded me of Emma Bovary’s self-congratulatory line, “I have a lover!”

As is so often the case, the play’s best moment occurs when we know more than the characters. When the politician admits that he’s cheating on his wife, the model says “I’m sure she cheats on you”. He rejects the remark, but we know better.

The cast is not without faults. Ms.Toth overdoes the breathless mumbling so that we lose some of the lines and Mr. Hunter falls into cliche at moments (how does an actor portray a character named simply “The Aristocrat” in the 21st century?). But they eschew affectation or heavy-handed characterization. They create privacy - no, intimacy - only a few feet from the audience, with a marvelous moment-to-moment life. Mr. Hunter’s direction is sharp and dignified (Ms. Toth bares her breasts only briefly). He presents some scenes in semi-darkness, and Mr. Hare’s dialogue is handled subtly.

Congratulations to The Bridge Production Group - not least for putting up with the  paintings that Whitebox has hanging on the walls. The sexy movie footage from old movies that Bridge projects before the show helps a lot.

Steve Capra
July 2018

Friday, July 6, 2018

The Property

Photo by Hunter Canning

Ben Josephson ’s play The Property, presented by New Light Theater Project at The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, centers around a weak-willed woman, Irene, whose tenant - he’s renting the cottage - offers an enticing alternative to her nerdy husband, Eddie. Her self-absorbed high-school son, Todd, is no comfort to her, and her overbearing ex-husband, Vernon - he’s returned after 16 years - is a liability.
The play is essentially plotless. The relationships and the lack of overt action suggest Uncle Vanya, but Chekhov’s characters are actually doing things beneath the stasis, and they’re steeped in the activities of daily life. Mr. Josephson’s characters do nothing but talk, mostly about themselves. The play’s divided into three acts, each of about a half-hour. Greg and Vernon show up in Act One, and it’s a long stretch until the next piece of action, in Act II.
There is, at least, some interesting characterization in the dialogue. “You, mother, are a mess and you’re making a mess of me,” Todd says, revealing a self-awareness we don’t expect from him. And when he calls his step-dad “a lunky-headed, tiresome fool,” he himself seems shocked at what he’s said, and we see him mature in an instant.
The production is saved by its excellent cast. Rachel Botchan is so endearing as the unassuming Irene that we like her immediately, and Phil Gallen gives an insightful performance as Todd. The actor playing Vernon, however, is all bluster, and his long, unstructured speech is tiresome. The role is written without contractions, at odds with the buffoonery of the character.
A skin-head young man named J.J. appears in the last act, and Matthew ZanFanga is terrific in the role, which is essentially a monologue (Eddie is too drunk to talk to the young man). He exits without leaving a trace of himself on the play, and we’re disappointed that Mr. ZanFanga hasn’t been given more to do.
Robert Kalfin, likewise helps us through the play’s inertia with sensitive direction. He does something strange and intriguing at the opening of the third act. Several months have passed, and Irene and Eddie seem to have adjusted to the disappointments of life with a sort of strained, forced happiness. This explains the insipid fantasy of happiness that is Caitlynn Barrett’s set. It’s simultaneously indoors and outdoors: the parlor furniture is backed by a suspiciously blue sky, with a gable floating gayly over it. A white tree adds surreal mystery.
The program tells us the playwright is a family physician, as if this odd note, suggesting Chekhov, were some sort of defense. The Property succeeds in spite of the script, and New Light has done a nice job with it.
Steve Capra
June 2018

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Cyprus Avenue

photo by Roa Kavanagh

The Public Theater has brought across the Atlantic Cyprus Avenue from The Abbey Theatre, Dublin, and The Royal Court Theatre, London. David Ireland has written a 100-minute piece that starts as a black comedy and morphs into serious tragedy.

In late middle age, poor Eric, a Protestant in Belfast, has been having trouble sleeping. The insomnia triggers a psychotic episode, and we watch as his delusion develops. He has a new granddaughter, Mary Mae, who looks like Gerry Adams, the Catholic political leader (and, some would say, terrorist sympathizer). No! He decides Mary Mae is Gerry Adams! Worse, he’s always considered himself British, but now he worries that he himself might be - gasp! - Irish.

From then on, it’s an unswerving downward trajectory. Eric befriends Slim, a Protestant paramilitarist out on his first job, which is to kill Eric because he’s been raving on the park. Eric talks him out of this, and, by way of compensation, invites him to kill Mary Mae.

The play starts with a scene in a psychiatric hospital. “Why are you a nigger?” he asks his black therapist, Bridget, with no intent to be offensive. Most of the rest is flashback, although Mr. Ireland returns to the hospital a few times, including in the last scene, when Eric explains “Without prejudice we’re nothing. If we don’t discriminate, we don’t survive.” 

When he’s not there or in the park, Eric is at home with his wife, his daughter and Mary Mae, and it’s there that most of the delusion is revealed. It starts innocently as obsession. The Catholics have all the good songs, he reflects on When Irish Eyes are Smiling; “A Protestant’s eyes never smile unless it’s absolutely necessary.” Bill O’Reilly, Barak Obama, The Pope - all of them Catholic. Then it all deteriorates into a meltdown.

Mr. Ireland is a skillful playwright, cleansing our emotions with comedy before exposing them to pity and terror. He enjoys Irish phrasing - “I’m ready for murderin’ this man” Eric’s wife says. And he suspends a sense of mystery over Eric by having no one call him by his name until a half-hour into the play. Indeed, I think that no one calls his wife by her name as listed in the program at all.

The problem is that nothing precipitates the psychosis. All we know of is the insomnia that Eric complains of early in the play. The plot needs more of a trigger.

All the work on stage is terrific, polished to the glossy patina we expect from that side of theAtlantic. The leading man, Stephen Rea, has impeccable technique. His speech ranges from subtlety to fireworks; his physical life is emotionally grounded, never false. But he’s been directed to yell too much. A scene can only afford to reach a mad pitch for a few moments, and Mr. Rea remains there too long. There’s more to psychosis than shouting.

The rest of the cast is superb as well - Ronke Adekoluejo as the patient, professional Bridget, Andrea Irvine as Eric’s wife who orders him out, Amy Molloy as his distraught daughter. As Slim, Chris Corrigan plays a complex character, a common hitman who quotes Plato and refers to Catholics as “latter-day Machiavell’s”. And they all sound delicious in their Irish dialect.

Director Vicky Featherstone keeps everything moving along quickly. At first, it’s the pace of comedy, and then we experience the same rate of words-per-minute as the out-of-control thrust of fate. It’s unfortunate that she depends on volume to make the point about Eric’s insanity, but she modulates everything well otherwise. He sits on the park bench for a long time before he gets up and starts darting around, and his scenes with his daughter are subtle and well structured.

The stage area cuts the audience in two. The simple set might be reconsidered. It’s violent white and limits the emotional tones on stage.

But Cyprus Avenue is a great import. It’s not hard to extend its points to certain personalities in this country - God knows! Mr. Ireland is writing new plays for The Abbey and The Royal Court. Let’s hope the productions make their way across the pond as well.

Steve Capra

June 2018