Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Panorama



In Panorama (presented by La MaMa) characters morph into one another in defiance of actuality or stage convention. The show begins with 17 video clips of actors introducing themselves, and as the play proceeds we meet seven of them on stage. That upstage video projection is always active, and sometimes it’s the actor on stage whose image is projected - they're always being videoed onstage, and sometimes they take video selfies. They’re always talking directly to us, usually one at a time. There are smaller video screens on the sides of the wide, empty stage that sometimes echo the large, upstage screen and sometimes don’t.

The performers don’t act in the strict sense; they present their real selves to us. One met Charles Manson; one is from Turkey; one used to be on drugs. The script is made up fragments of narrative from their actual lives - that’s why it’s so extraordinary that they morph into one another. A black woman talks about the first time she was called a “chink”. Later she tells us she was tortured in Turkey, although it’s another actress who’s Turkish. We are all one another, the play tells us.

The play makes its points about minority identification very well. One actress explains that she was told “Do not dress like a refugee.” Then she takes off her clothes and says, without a trace of resentment, “I’m not dressed like a refugee any more.” It’s very nice.

At its best, this show is delicate and suggestive in the best sense. Unfortunately, it’s not always at it’s best. More often it’s unsubstantial. There’s a strong, interesting concept, but no overall structure. It lacks irony. The actors merely say what they mean; the script lacks  complexity. Only one young man confesses to any failings, and it’s the show’s best moment.

At some moments it’s pointless, as when an actor who’s naked for no reason at all enters, playing a guitar and singing - sort of - “Heartbreak Hotel”.

Panorama was devised and directed by Enrico Casagrande and Daniela Nicola with the talented actors of The Great Jones Repertory Company. Let’s hope that they develop their intriguing concept further.

Steve Capra
January 2018

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Shadowlands



Fellowship for Performing Arts produces theater from a Christian perspective. It’s currently touring with a solo show about C.S. Lewis, C.S. Lewis on Stage: The Most Reluctant Convert. Here in New York they’re presenting another play about Lewis, Shadowlands, Off-Broadway. It’s a larger production, with a cast of ten. Like The Reluctant Convert, it explores theology through the prism of Lewis’ life.

Shadowlands begins Lewis’ story from just before he meets the poet Joy Davidman - that is, Mrs. Gresham, as she is more often called in the script. Later she becomes Mrs. C.S. Lewis, but only after she breaks down the barriers that Lewis has created to shield himself from the female other.

We meet Lewis among his hyper-intellectual mates in the male sanctuary of Oxford. Mrs. Gresham, an American with whom he has been corresponding, visits, returns to America, and then shows up again, now divorced, announcing that she’s moved to - of all places! - Oxford. Lewis finds in her a platonic friend, and much of the delight of the play comes from the entrees to romance that she offers him. But this highly repressed middle-aged man - who wears a suit and tie even under his dressing gown - is in strict denial. 

Danger! Spoiler here. 

It’s astonishingly fitting that Lewis and Mrs. Gresham have at first a marriage of convenience. He marries her so she’ll have UK residency, and they live for a while separately and chastely. Only after she’s diagnosed with terminal cancer does he come to his emotional senses, and they marry in earnest.

Playwright William Nicholson succeeds in weaving philosophy with romance. The play opens with Lewis addressing us: “Good evening. The subject of my talk tonight is love, pain and suffering…. If God loves us, why why does he allow us to suffer so much?”

The issue seems resolved late in the play when he says “The blows of His chisel which hurt us so much are what make us perfect.” But he later says of his wife’s dying “This is a mess and that’s all there is to it.” Only when he cries embracing her son, after her death, does he seem to begin the healing process of grief.

The first act is lively and dramatic. Unfortunately, there’s a second act, in which there’s hardly any conflict. The husband and wife have little to do except to talk about love and death. There’s not much Mr. Nicholson can do about this, as he can’t invent the story.

Christa Scott-Reed directs the show with surety and precision, never dwelling, never rushing. Shadowlands is essentially very Shavian, rich with philosophy and lustless romance, and she’s totally at home with the style.

The cast is uniformly fine. Daniel Gerroll succeeds in letting us know more about Jack Lewis (he called himself Jack) than the character knows about himself. He never tries to amuse us but succeeds in making us laugh, never tries to manipulate us but succeeds in making us care.

Robin Abramson is terrific as Joy, vivacious and smiling. She crashes the male bastion of upper-crust English dialect with a brash New Yorkese - “So many people must write ya,” she says to him.

Joy Davidman is the Shavian woman, the life force pursuing the intellectual man. But Mr. Nicholson and Ms. Abramson make it clear that she’s also a first-class intellectual in her own right. When she calls Lewis an intellectual bully, he replies “That makes two of us.” And the couple enjoy an lovely, educated moment in Greece when they quote Lord Byron in duet - “the isles of Greece / Where burning Sappho loved and sung”.

Kelly James Tighe’s set is very handsome, with lots of dark wooden walls. There’s a large wardrobe up-center in some scenes, and Joy’s young son opens it to reveal visions of Narnia. It’s great fun, if bewildering to an audience not familiar with Lewis’ series of books The Chronicles of Narnia.  

Mrs. Gresham was intensely disliked by Lewis’ peers. The playwright doesn’t make much of this circumstance, with just a moment of conversational skirmish between her and a don. And that’s too bad. A clash with Lewis’ circle might have livened up the second act.

But let’s not ask the show to be something it isn’t trying to be. Shadowlands is very good, another success for Fellowship for Performing Arts.


Steve Capra
December 2017

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Hold These Truths

photo by Lia Chang

In 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which mandated the detention of Japanese-Americans in prison camps. A University of Washington student named Gordon Hirabayashi chose not to obey either the “order for evacuation” to a camp or the curfew that Japanese-Americans were subject to. With the help of the ACLU he fought his case as far as the Supreme Court, where the judges decided unanimously against him. Later, he declined to return an oath of allegiance that Japanese-Americans alone were required to return, and he was again convicted.

40 years later a college professor notified Hirabayashi that he had discovered evidence that the government had suppressed evidence in Hirabayashi’s case. Ultimately, a federal court reversed both convictions.

The Hang a Tale company has produced Hold These Truths, a solo show by Jeanne Sakata presenting these events in Hirabayashi’s life. The bulk of the extended (90 minutes) monologue is spoken by the character of Hirabayashi himself. We meet him as a student and get to know him as he relates his story. Along the way we meet his parents and a few other characters.

Hirabayashi found a spiritual home with the Quakers, and he talks to us about “Quaker mysticism and Quaker optimism”, and “our Quaker philosophy of life.” He was, indeed, one of the century’s great American Quakers. He insisted on being imprisoned, and requested a longer sentence then he received. Indeed, he hitch-hiked to prison when the government couldn’t afford his transportation, preferring to work outdoors in Arizona than to be held indoors up north.

Hold These Truths does a great job of relating most of these these events, although it’s unclear about the specifics around Hirabayashi’s sentencings. It takes us from the experiences of the young man who is turned away from shops because of his ethnicity to his refusal of the order for evacuation, and then from his detainment at an assembly center (where the watchtowers held “guards with guns facing in”) to his brutal experience in the heat of the Arizona prison.

The actor, Joel de la Fuente, is directed by Lisa Rothe, and the team work with exquisite precision. With detailed analysis, every moment of Mr. de la Fuente’s performance is exact and focused. Whether he’s assuming a physicalization or a dialect, he’s utterly meticulous. Not a word of the script is superfluous, and likewise not a moment of the acting is heavy-handed or excessive.

However, the play is as cerebral and dispassionate as a newspaper article. Ms Rothe has allowed Mr. de la Fuente not a moment of irony. He relates the various events without ever commenting on them. He never shows what he feels at the moment, aside from the moment when he realizes that to America “I am nothing but a Jap”. And so there’s no tension between the words and the actor’s intention. 

There’s no moral tension either, since it goes without saying that we’re on Hirabayashi’s side. Perhaps if Ms. Sakata had made more of the moment when the government offers to release his family if he recants, or when he visits his girlfriend on the way to prison, the character and we might experience some conflict.

At any rate, there are some nice moments of poetry in the script - “birds trilling as if celebrating the state of being free” and “I seek to live as if the ought to be is.”
Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams’ set - no more than three wooden chairs and a window floating above - and Cat Tate Starmer’s evocative lighting work very well. It’s a highly minimalist stage with an impassioned red floor.

And so Hold These Truths engages us intellectually but not emotionally. We learn a lot from this play. Ms. Sakata has done well to praise an obscure dissident. It’s the proper function of theater to celebrate noble people and - as the Quakers say - “to answer to that of God in every man.”

Steve Capra
December 2017

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Frankenstein

photo by Adam Smith Jr.

How many works have been based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? Wikipedia (for what it’s worth) lists 39 pages in its Works based on Frankenstein category - novels, films, comics, video games. Mary Shelley accessed an archetype in our collective unconscious like few other writers.

Needless to say, not all of these adaptations are masterpieces. But stage adaptations of the novel promise, at least, to be rewarding; there’s a real dramatic conflict between Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature. And the musical is particularly right for this epic, operatic story.   

Eric B. Sirota has written the book, music and lyrics to a musical based on the novel. It’s called, appropriately enough, Frankenstein, and it’s been playing at St. Luke’s Theatre, Off-Broadway. It’s really good, a lively and entertaining stage response to Ms. Shelley, produced by John Lant, Tamra Pica and Write Act Repertory.

Clint Hromsco has directed the show with a great, refined sense of fun. The show parodies the source material - it parodies itself - gently and intelligently. The scene in which the Creature comes to life is played to great effect. Lightning flashes and then Dr. Frankenstien laughs, just as we expect - just as we want - but we never feel like we’ve seen it before, and it’s never heavy-handed. 

And there are serious dramatic issues going on in this play between the Doctor and the Creature. “Obey me! Obey me!” the Creature orders the Doctor, expressing some father issues.

From the moment he enters at the opening of the show, it’s clear that Jonathan Cobrda is going to give us a great performance as Dr. Victor Frankenstein. He’s called upon to stagger on to the stage and collapse. That’s pretty tricky for any actor, but Mr. Cobrda makes his entrance with surety, without a trace of falseness. He’s a gifted singer and actor. He sings with a really cool vibrato that he can turn off when he wants. He’s singing even when he’s speaking, and he never falters in this role until the end of the show when his voice gets a bit tired.

Danny Bristoll works very well as the Creature, solid in his acting and singing. He makes us empathize with this home-made monster. In fact, he’s rather too endearing and graceful. He could at least affect a limp or something. And he isn’t made up to be ugly enough to motivate Dr. Frankenstein's fleeing the room when he first sees his creation.

Writer, actor and director do great work dealing with the story’s big problem, a long speech the Creature has when he returns to meet the Doctor for the first time. It’s an unlikely narration (you’ll recall that the Creature has been living with the family of a blind man), but the team make it believable.  

The rest of the cast does a good job, as well. Amy London is fine as Elizabeth, the Doctor’s bride whom the Creature does in. She has a lovely church choir voice, but it’s not commanding in her lower registers. 

And the script is smart. “What if I create a race of demons?” Dr. Frankenstein asks, suggesting our concern with GMO’s. And “Why have you created me?” the Creature asks the Doctor, with theological overtones. “I wouldn’t suffer if I had no soul,” he cries.

Mr. Sirota does some weird stuff making the lyrics rhyme, using “I” for “me”. “All I ask of you is this - that you make her as I” the Creature says to Dr. Frankenstein when he asks for a wife. And he calls God “Creator if everyone but I”. Very strange. But then it’s a strange story.

The music is suitably varied, with some handy duets, if not particularly memorable. It relishes melodrama but it’s not cathected to it. However, the orchestra, which consists of only a piano, needs to be expanded.

And so Frankenstein continues to maintain residence on Monday evenings at St. Luke’s, one of New York’s Off-Broadway jewels, macabre and delightful.

Steve Capra
December 2017

The Mushroom Cure

photo by David Allen

The Mushroom Cure is an extended autobiographical monologue - 90 minutes - written and performed by Adam Strauss and directed by Jonathan Libman, currently playing at Theatre 80 St. Mark’s, Off-off-Broadway. It centers on Strauss’ attempts to treat his OCD through psychedelics, and his concurrent romance with a woman named Grace. The two stories are intertwined as Strauss explores psychedelics and the personal relationship. He meets Grace when he’s researching drugs, and she accompanies him to Martha’s Vineyard to take the magic mushrooms.

Libman understands the particular challenges of a solo show, and he deals with them with intelligence and precision. The performance has a nice variety, with clear differentiation between intimacy and humor, and there’s a living rhythm to the whole thing.

Strauss, who’s very talented, is at his best when expressing - and reliving - the experience of making a decision in the presence of OCD. He bounces violently between the one choice and the other. His work overall is meticulous and polished. He has varied and expressive vocal and physical lives, a committed moment-to-moment stage life and a commanding presence.

But there are a few problems here. The first concerns the script. It spends far too much time on a routine love story and not enough on Strauss’ hallucinogenic experiments.

The other problems concern the performance. The first is conceptual. Strauss usually relates the story without irony, without commenting on it in his acting. A script is animated by the tension between the words and the acting, and this show often lacks that tension.

And Strauss has technical problems with delivery. He doesn’t place characters in conversation - that is, he doesn’t look to his right when he’s speaking the words of one character and to his left when he’s speaking the words of the other. Worse, he almost ever makes eye contact with us when he’s talking to us; he looks over our heads.

The Mushroom Cure is appreciated, and it’s been well received. Still, the solo show is a challenging form that the production hasn’t entirely mastered.

Steve Capra
December 2017

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Black Glove

photo: Jonathan Slaff

August Strindberg wrote a children’s play? Strindberg? That great melancholic? So it would seem. August Strindberg Rep (Off-off-Broadway) has produced his final play, The Black Glove. It was written in 1909 and first produced in 1910. It was the fifth of his chamber plays, but not usually included in collections of those plays. It’s rarely produced and was indeed written, purportedly, for children.

Strindberg’s best known for his expressionism, but this play is set in an apartment building - seven floors and 21 units with heat, electricity and telephones. The Professor lives in the attic and The Caretaker lives in the basement. Among the tenants living between them is a bad-natured young Wife, who calls the building a “strange house where human destinies are piled one on the other side by side”. Also present are The Christmas Angel (the play is set on December 23rd and 24th) and an Elf.

The Wife, it seems, has lost a ring and a glove, and she blames one of the maids for the theft of the ring. To set the plot, such as it is, going, the Elf kidnaps the Wife’s baby - just for a day, and just because the Wife is so mean - at the request of The Christmas Angel.

Of course, all ends happily, and with nearly no plot twists. The glove is returned with the ring in it. The Wife asks for forgiveness, and her baby is returned to her.

Every Strindberg fan should see this play. It’s written in verse, and it shows a delicate side of the playwright that we might otherwise overlook.  It makes us realize that the despair in his plays was put there by design, not because he didn’t know any other way to write.

The various lines of the play reveal some interesting Strindbergian ideas. There’s a distrust of technology: “You might as well call it a ghost house…. I think these machines brought something with them.” And, more metaphysically, a surprising faith, “This is no human-handed work and therefore there is hope.” And there’s something genuinely profound being expressed when the Elf tells the Professor: “Do not get too close, for if you do you cease to see me.” The Professor echoes, of all people, Emily Dickinson when he says he’ll be happy “If I can make just one human heart glad.” 

August Strindberg Rep does a terrific job with this play in its production at The Gene Frankel Theatre, Off-off-Broadway. Director Robert Greer has mounted the show expertly, on a stage nearly bare, as the playwright would like. It’s all clear and precise. He’s limited the casting to women, and they give the show a gentle quality. The translation by Anne-Charlotte Harvey is nice and delicate, but she mixes contractions with non-contractions. Jo Vetter as the Professor and Diane Perell as The Caretaker give us very good work, but the show owes its success largely to Pilar Garcia as the Elf. She’s terrific in the role in her pointed red cap, with a fake beard and with bushy eyebrows that she raises delightfully.

Unfortunately, the cast, for the most part, speak the verse too slowly, word-by-word instead of phrase-by-phrase. And in the play’s pivotal scene, between The Professor and The Elf, Ms. Vetter lets her emotional life get the best of her delivery and we lose some of the words when The Professor has a vision. What’s more, Strindberg specified that the child must not be seen, and Mr. Greer has represented him with a doll.

That pivotal scene, by the way, is pretty darn heavy with philosophy. Strindberg rather leaves us behind sometimes, even in this play.

Is this show suited for children? I doubt it. It’s more of children’s theater as a form than theater for children. It’s symbolism, actually, faux-naif. But Congratulations to the August Strindberg Rep. The Black Glove is welcome.

Steve Capra
December 2017


Monday, December 11, 2017

The Mad Ones

Photo by Richard Termine


The Mad Ones, a musical by Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk appearing at 59E59 Theaters, takes its title from a line from Jack Kerouac’s book On The Road: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live…”. In fact, its central character, a young woman named Sam, carries a copy of the book around with her. She’s just graduated from high school. Her mother, Beverly, expects her to go to Harvard; her best friend, Kelly, expects her to go to a state college with her. What Sam wants to do - sort of - is to take to the road, although she only has a learner’s permit. And Kelly encourages her. Kelly “believes in listening to the road” - that is, wandering. 

We meet Sam at the show’s opening trying to make the decision of what to with with her life - with her next year, actually - and her decision-making provides the substance of the play, such as it is. The script proceeds with flashbacks until the final scene. In the process we meet, in addition to Beverly and Kelly, Adam, her dimwit boyfriend who genuinely seems to want her to do whatever’s best for her. 

There’s not much dramatic tension in this slim story line. What’s more, the theme, as well as the character types, has been well covered. The writers’ only point seems to be that a young woman has the same wanderlust as a young man. Young men, Beverly tells her daughter, are free to take to the road, but “You were born a woman and you’ll never be that free”. This is hardly a new thought. 

There may be a bit of a spoiler to follow, but not much. We’re told early in the play that Kelly dies. She’s so associated with road trips that we wonder “Does Sam kill her while driving? Does she die from driving recklessly herself?” But no, she dies accidentally, with no relationship to character or dramatic action.

The show has some nice moments, certainly. Adam, of course, has been wanting sex, but when Sam offers herself to him he initially declines. And Kelly has some sardonic lines. But the lyrics - the play is nearly through-sung - are written without irony, and they’re undistinguished. Worse, most of the songs - they’re pop style - sound alike. 

The cast of four does a good job singing this limited material. They’re fine, technically. But Jay Armstrong Johnson is given very little to do as Adam and so the play’s conceptual structure lacks balance. Krystina Alabado is competent as Sam, but she never really makes us care about her. Leah Hocking works well as Beverly, and Emma Hunting is outstanding as Kelly, giving the character more depth than the others.

Stephen Brackett directs with precision, but he works with a brutally sterile set, minimalist and unattractive, that oppresses the show. The orchestra consists of piano, guitar, harp and violin, creative but too heavy on the strings.

And so we are reminded that the musical is a form that demands a lot from its creators. The Mad Ones is not without talent, but it has little to say. The script could well be expanded and developed to create some complexity.

Steve Capra

December 2017