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

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Anouilh's Antigone

There is a moment in Fusion Theatre’s production of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone (at Theatre Row’s Studio Theatre) when Creon says to Antigone “Don’t annihilate me with those eyes.” And indeed, Antigone’s unrelenting stare does seem to be annihilating him, as it’s been annihilating everyone. As Antigone, Eilin O’Dea motivates Creon’s line so well that it seems Anouilh has written it in response to the actress.

Anouilh’s play, as this production makes clear, is an important drama. Anouilh reworked Sophocles’ play keeping the ancient Greek names and keeping the action in Thebes. The characters, however, mention tobacco, blood tests, film and cars. The dissonance reminds us that Anouilh’s message of courage and moral responsibility is ageless.

Anouilh has created a raisonneur in a character called simply The Chorus. Tragedy, he tells us, “has nothing to do with melodrama”. “In tragedy, argument is gratuitous,” he says, but this is a very strange line; Antigone and Creon will soon have a discussion worthy of George Bernard Shaw. Shaw, however, might not agree with Anouilh’s high-mindedness. When Creon points out that there’s no point in burying her brother Polyneices (the crime she’s been arrested for), since the earth will only be removed, Antigone replies “What a person can do, a person ought to do.”

Indeed, Creon is more reasonable than Antigone, and while he makes some cogent points, Antigone’s steel gets the best of the argument. “Stop feeling sorry for me and do your job,” she says. She tells him she’s “speaking to you from a kingdom you cannot enter.”

But Anouilh creates a real person in Antigone, not merely a personification of morality. Indeed, at the end of the play she seems to recant, telling a guard to write a letter for her saying “It is terrible to die and I don’t even know what I’m dying for.” She changes her mind, though, and strikes the sentence from the letter.

And the script is poetic as well. Antigone speaks of “the nightbird that frightened me even when I couldn’t hear it.”

Fusion Theatre’s mission is to merge classical theatre with opera, and this production punctuates the play with five classical arias, mostly by Verdi, sung by four of the actors. The technique works very well. The songs create space in this dense hyper-intellectual play, giving us a respite from all the demands it puts on our reasoning brain.

Eilin O’Dea gives a superb performance as Antigone. Thin and nervous, she scratches her head desperately, as if doing so might relieve her of her burden. Paul Goodwin Groen, as well, gives a marvelous, complex performance as Creon. In fact, the entire cast is first-rate.

Ms. O’Dea directs the show, and she keeps it sharp and focused throughout. On her bare stage – there are only two stools on the stage – she seems to be showing us an existentialist minimalism. The staging strips drama to bare truth. She eschews theatricality and gives us a direct honesty.

Ms. O’Dea and Mr. Groen sing as well as they act. The other singers are Byron Singleto, who plays a guard, and Paulina Yeung, who plays a messenger, both very fine.

It’s jarring to hear the guards speak in cockney accents; they intrude on the play in a way the other actors’ British accents don’t.  Nonetheless, this production is excellent, exquisite, a great success – and Congratulation to Fusion Theatre!

Steve Capra
May 2017

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Roundabout

In J. B. Priestley’s 1932 play The Roundabout, Lord Kettlewell is having a trying day. He plays host to his mistress, to a dowager aristocrat, and to a chubby old buddy named Chuffy. What’s more, his daughter, a young woman he hardly knows and a communist to boot, drops by, maybe to stay. She’s brought a male comrade (they’ve just returned from Russia). And finally his estranged wife drops in.

This isn’t a great drama. In fact, there’s hardly any plot. People come and go, but the activities aren’t connected in any meaningful way and the story, such as it is, is highly predictable. In fact, the play would probably never receive any attention if it weren’t written by the playwright who wrote An Inspector Calls.

Cahoot Theatre Company, in association with The Other Cheek and Park Theatre, has just presented the play at 59E59 Theaters. And, stressful as it all may be for our long-suffering central character, this drawing room comedy is terrific fun for us. What makes the production so delightful is Priestley’s well of wit and the talents of the company.

The epigrams hardly ever stop in this play. Many of them come from the mouth of Chuffy, who has nothing to do with the story but whom Priestley includes for the dialogue opportunity he presents. When Lord Kettlewell tells him he’s jumping to conclusions, he replies “I know I am. It’s the only exercise I get.” When he’s accused of being a member of the effete governing class, he has a monumental line: “The class I belong to doesn’t govern. It’s just effete.”

Hugh Ross’ direction is marvelous. The pace never flags, so we never have time to wish that Priestley had written more fully developed characters. It’s all as swift and light as a stone skipping across water. Mr. Ross knows that we mustn’t take the script too seriously. And the strings of his stage are meticulously tuned in terms of blocking and musicality.

The cast have obviously mastered this form. It’s great to hear them deliver their clever lines in their British accents. They play light caricatures, generally very well. As Lord Kettlewell, the financier who’s lost a great deal of money and the hub of this dramatic wheel, Brian Protheroe is the picture of aristocracy. As Chuffy, Hugh Sachs is always witty, never insolent.

The protagonist of the play is Lord Kettlewell’s daughter, Pamela, meticulously played by Emily Laing in a highly animated, frenetic tone. I was delighted with her performance for most of the play, but after intermission I realized she never changed. Even when she describes a moment, late in the play, as “just when I’m being really reasonable,” she never calms down.

Priestley makes Pamela, as well as her platonic companion, Comrade Staggles, “Bolshy agitators”. He contrasts them with the decaying aristocrats. But he never discusses communism; he merely uses it as ornament, an opportunity for repartee. When Staggles tells the butler not to call him “Sir”, the latter replies “If we’re equal, I can call you what I like, Sir.” The dowager aristocrat, as well, who, like Chuffy, has nothing to do with the story, is there for her dialogue, not her ideas. She wonders if there’s any money in communism.

The drag on the production is the set, which is unimaginative. But The Roundabout is a great success for 59E59 Theater’s Brits of Broadway series. It’s easy to see what charm drawing room comedy had for our grandparents. Let’s hope that this production precipitates a revival of the form!

Steve Capra
May 2017

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Kidnap Road

Ingrid Betancourt was a Colombian Senator who was kidnapped by FARC rebels while she was running for President in 2002. She was held hostage in the jungle for six-and-a-half years. Catherine Filloux has written a play based on Ms. Betancourt’s experience, Kidnap Road, which was recently presented by La MaMa.

The handsome set, by Justin Townsend, consists of a cube of violent white representing Ms. Betancourt’s prison. It has perforations in it, and it’s surrounded by long sticks representing the forest. There’s a swing downstage, suspended from the ceiling.

There are two performers in this production. Ms. Betancourt is played by Kimber Riddle. Marco Antonio Rodriguez plays a number of characters, including another hostage, a FARC guard, Ms. Betancourt’s father, and God.

Ms. Betancourt speaks with the other characters as the play moves around in time and location. In the most interesting dialogue, she talks with God, Whom Mr. Rodriguez sometimes plays while swinging on the swing. He’s as real to her – and to us – as is her fellow hostage or the FARC guard, as if her imprisonment has led her to hallucinate.

Some scenes take place prior to her kidnapping. The opening line is “Here is a condom! If you vote for me, you are wearing a condom against corruption!” It’s spoken when she addressing a crowd as Presidential candidate. And there are scenes when she talks with her father. “There is nothing more dangerous than a feminine feminist,” he tells her, although his reasoning on this point is not clear.

Sometimes she talks to herself, sometimes speaking poetry. And there are intriguing lines like “God is an existentialist,” and “The problem is there are no secrets from God and God says different things on different days.”

In one of the show’s best moments, the guerillas film her. She sits silently and eloquently, with her head down. Then she says “Here, now, God, in front of the commander’s camera, I call on you.”

In other scenes, she speaks with a fellow hostage who was also a Colombian Senator. She speaks in English; he speaks in Spanish. The device isn’t jarring, oddly, and it works well.

Under the direction of Elena Araoz, the play moves along without ever dwelling too heavily on the moment. Her direction is skillful, but most scenes lack dramatic tension because there’s so little in the script.

Ms. Riddle’s performance is technically focused and well analyzed. But she never expresses the experience of imprisonment. Indeed, she looks absurdly pretty and fresh throughout her horrendous experience. She registers desperation three times, when she hears helicopters. Mr. Rodriguez, likewise, gives a solid performance, but he doesn’t differentiate his characters adequately.

The dialogue is compelling, but Catherine Filloux hasn’t dramatized the incidents of Ms. Betancourt’s story; she only relates the events. And she doesn’t convey the horror of imprisonment. Instead, she focuses on the hostage’s internal life.

Making God a character in Ms. Betancourt’s life is an inspired idea on the part of Ms. Filloux. Indeed, the ex-Senator is currently pursuing a PhD in Theology. However, Ms. Filloux seems to tell us that Ms. Betancourt attended Oxford before being kidnapped. This is unclear. But Kidnap Road is absorbing, even if it doesn’t have a great deal to say.

Steve Capra
May 2017

Karen Finley: The Expanded Unicorn Gratitude Mystery

Karen Finley’s latest work is The Expanded Unicorn Gratitude Mystery. It’s recently been presented by La MaMa as part of its Downtown Icons Series. And that’s suitable: Ms. Finley has been the very picture of downtown theater for decades.

In the 1990’s she was one of the NEA Four, performers whose NEA grants were canceled for violating “general standards of decency”. Ms. Finley took the government to court. The case finally ended up before the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the government.

The set for this production is really cool, cluttered, with music stands and a small table, all draped with fabric, and fabric hung like laundry, fabric hanging on the wall. There are two versions of The Unicorn in Captivity, and unicorn bric-a-brac.

As she has so often in the past, Ms. Finley performs solo, reading from a script, generally unbridled, sometimes in a harsh whisper, sometimes hysterical. She makes no attempt to impersonate people. The writing is inconsistent, self-contradictory, consistently surprising, its point of view constantly shifting.

She opens with a long prose poem about unicorns, and the mythical beast is an ambiguous, not to say slippery, symbol: “The unicorn is here. The unicorn is there.”… “There is no job too small for the unicorn because even without hands the unicorn will get the job done.”… “The unicorn attended Montesorri.”… “Shut the fuck up, unicorn!”

She moves on to present Hillary Clinton: “After I was beaten, I do not remember any of it.”… “I am the best at forgiving because nobody can forgive like I forgive.”… “I don’t like Hillary but I am Hillary and I just don’t like the way she talks.”

In the show’s best moment, she talks about Monica Lewinsky’s famous “cobalt blue” dress. Then she takes a huge piece of blue fabric and, with the help of stage hands, spreads it over the heads of the entire audience. It’s a brilliant stage metaphor for the public’s obsession with the Clinton-Lewinsky affair.

Next, she morphs into no less a personage than Donald Trump: “Don’t touch my hair. Don’t touch my junk.”… “It was about running against Hillary.”… “I took up where Bill let go.” The scene ends with the line “Who’s wearing the blue dress now?”

The final segment of the performance is quite brief, and so different from the earlier ones that it seems to be from another show. The unrestrained messiness of the earlier segments, so typical of Ms. Finley’s work, is gone, and she reads in a refined voice, not even suggesting a character. The material concerns a woman who picks up veterans. Here is a man who would die for her, she writes. “They will die yet they walk around as if they own the whole god damn world!”

When I interviewed her in 1999, Ms. Finley said “If you're just eaten a hot dog, you just want to keep that bun white. You don't want some seven-grain bun hand-made from sprouted wheat - you want to have the bun.” She’s remained true to that minimalist vision with her one-performer show. She’s still a unique, brash, enormously creative stage presence.

Steve Capra
May 2017

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Conspiracists

“Every time they fire up The Large Hadron Collider, they open up a portal to a parallel universe,” a character in The Conspiracists points out. What’s more, “the collider was fired up 12 hours ago.” Quite promising for the first scene of a play. Or the second or third, for that matter. And indeed, we hear these lines in all three scenes of The Conspiracists, a clever play by Max Baker. The three scenes all take place at 8:47 pm on November 1, 2016, in the same church basement. The Under-35 Conspiracy Theorists Addict Support Group is holding their weekly meeting in each scene. “My name is Win and I’m addicted to conspiracy theories,” its leader announces.

The three scenes are alike in many of their particulars. The four regular attendees of the group are the same. We find Jo sitting alone when the lights come up; Win enters and says “Oh, hey Jo.” Then the other two regulars and a newcomer join them. The newcomer has a different name in each scene, although she’s played by the same actress.

The group discusses issues from CERN and computationalism to reptilians and Santa Claus. Nibiru Planet X, we learn, will cause the end of humanity. And the person who designed the pattern on Oreos was a member of the Illuminati.

While the simultaneous evenings these truthers spend together are much the same, each is an individual. Mr. Baker has written variations on a template. And he gives us a fascinating sensation of déjà vu.

There’s no plot here, only a few events. Mr. Baker directs the show for Stable Cable Lab Co. at the IRT Theater. He keeps us involved through the physical details and subtle personal interactions of ordinary life. They’re presented with terrific dramatic truth. A trivial incident like folding a chair because there’s a smudge on its seat becomes significant when we’re in a parallel universe.

The pivot of the events is the newcomer to the group, named Madonna, Steve or Hilda, depending on which reality we’re in. Each has a different effect on the group. They’re meant to be distinct characters, but the single actress in the roles fails to distinguish between them adequately. Worse, she’s given some silly things to do.

The cast, however, display an honest, eloquent moment-to-moment stage life, always sure of themselves. Chief among them is Sofiya Cheyenne. She’s always emotionally grounded, and her array of expressions forms a complex, intriguing character.

Mr. Baker has directed with meticulous care. He and his actors work with a clear, distinct analysis. The performance is a series of interlocking emotions as the characters pass the evening together.

The Conspiracists would be more satisfying if each scene had a structured story. But the show clocks in at less than 90 minutes, and we’d be happy to see more of it – that’s a lot to say for a piece of theater.

Steve Capra
April 2017