Saturday, December 3, 2016

Man in Snow




Israel Horovitz’ play Man in Snow began its life as a radio play, and the playwright adapted it for the stage. The set consists of a single chair and a significant amount of the dialogue consists of phone conversations. It still feels like a radio play.

Man in Snow is a portrait of a man, David, haunted by the memory of a lost son, Joey. The play begins with his wife, Franny, screaming “No”, as the family has just been told of Joey’s death in a motorcycle accident. The remainder of the play jumps around in later time, and mostly takes place six years later,

David speaks to his lost son and Joey generally appears onstage when he does. But David talks to Joey even during conversations with living characters. This would be effective expression of inner life, but some of the things David says to Joey are so obvious that they lack specificity and dramatic pith – “Why am I alive, Joey” and “Why did you die, Joey?”

David guides a group of tourists up Mt. McKinley, and he calls his wife on the phone a few times. David and Franny make small talk during these conversations. They say “I love you” so often it’s suspicious. And indeed, we find out that there are issues of fidelity that complicate their marriage. It’s during these conversations that the play is most effective, as we hear people trying to force warmth through resentment.

There are three other characters – David’s daughter, a tour guide and the tour company manager. Emily, the daughter, is small comfort to David; she heartlessly demands attention after Joey’s death. The guide and the manager offer companionship and conversation, but none of the roles ever network to form plot.

We welcome the moments when David recites the poetry he’s been writing. “This is snow in August,” he says.

Mr. Horovitz directs the show himself, and he stresses the emotional cold – the snow – surrounding the character. His dialogue has moments of lovely lyricism. “Is every light another person?” David says to Joey, speaking of the stars. The actors are undeniably skilled – Will Lyman as David and Sandra Shipley as Franny – with their focus and high definition.

But their talents are misapplied. The cast deliver the lines so deliberately and artificially that they seem to be reading from a script. They’re expressing the distance between David and the others, but the result is acting that lacks privacy even when the dialogue expresses intimacy. Because it doesn’t engage us, this meditation on death – there are two deaths in the play – is maudlin.

Man in Snow is a Gloucester Stage Company Production presented by La MaMa in association with Barefoot Theatre Company & Compagnia Horovitz-Paciotto.

Steve Capra
November 2016

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Screwtape Letters


C.S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters was first published in serial form, and was published as a book in 1942. It’s a brief, apologetic novel exploring Christianity. It takes the form of 31 letters written from an administrative demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, a minor demon, Wormwood. Screwtape is guiding Wormwood in the corruption of a human soul, a man known simply as “The Patient”. It’s heavily ironic satire, taking the perspective of evil in exploring the nature of the Christian life and salvation.

Max Mclean and Jeffrey Fiske have adapted Screwtape for the stage, and the production is presented by Fellowship for Performing Arts. This intellectual source material could make for a ponderous stage production, but the show, C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, is terrific – animated and engaging. In place of dramatic tension it serves up a thick irony.

In order to externalize the material, Mr. McLean and Mr. Fiske have Screwtape dictate his letters to his secretary. There are two performers: Mr. McLean himself playing Screwtape, who has all the lines, and Karen Eleanor Wight as his secretary, who vocalizes but never speaks.

Mr. McLean gives a brilliant performance as “His Abysmal Sublimity” Screwtape. In lesser hands the role would be deadly, but Mr. McLean, who also directs the show, keeps us absorbed throughout the show’s 90 minutes and 15 scenes. He’s always commenting on the character, never letting us forget that Screwtape is a personification of evil. He speaks every line with a specific, delicious relish. His imitation of the simpering of a damned soul transforms into a sadistic laugh. He’s a lexicon of animated facial and vocal gestures. “We want catt-le who can finally become foo-oo-oo-ood,” he says, speaking of us humans.

The character is complex, and he progresses through a series of emotions as he reveals himself to us. He’s delirious with joy when war starts. He’s terrified when his nephew reports him to hell’s Secret Police. Best of all, he goes into a frenzied panic when it’s clear that Wormwood is going to lose the soul of The Patient to God, ripping off his smoking jacket and throwing it on the floor.

As Screwtape’s secretary, Ms. Wight is gives a marvelous performance without delivering any lines. She chuckles or screeches as the occasion demands, occasionally gnawing on a bone, and her physicalizations are masterful.

Cameron Anderson’s simple set, with its skulls-and-bones back wall, and Jesse Klug’s spooky lighting are exquisitely hellish. Michael Bevin’s very nice costume designs give Screwtape a military jacket as well as that red smoking jacket, and gives his secretary a body of scales.

Lewis’ religious point is not lost in this adaptation. He’s warning us against complacency in Christianity. “The safest road to hell is the gradual one,” Screwtape tells Wormwood. One of the tempters’ best weapons is “contented worldliness.”

C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters is quite an accomplishment, intellectually and emotionally absorbing. Congratulations to Fellowship for Performing Arts on this great show! The company produces theater from a Christian worldview, and it’s good to see this muscular work.

Steve Capra
November 2016

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui


The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui isn’t usually considered Bertolt Brecht’s best play. It’s the complex story of a Chicago gangster who rises to power through control of the vegetable trade. The plot is overly complicated. There’s no hero appearing throughout the play with whom we can identify, as there is in The Good Woman of Setzuan or Saint Joan of the Stockyards. Brecht fails to involve us either intellectually or emotionally in this play.

In its current production of the play, The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble has gone to great lengths – very successfully – to be true to both Brecht’s theory of verfremdungseffekt and the play’s specific historical application. They’ve put the script in the context of a radio play. There are three old-fashioned microphones on stage, and the performers read into them at first. Then they’re freed to live in the fiction, but the shell of the radio broadcast materializes from time to time. Sometimes we see them rattle a metal sheet for thunder.

Arturo Ui is an extended metaphor for the rise of Hitler. At the play’s opening, characters are announced, with a picture of the specific Nazi leader associated with each projected on the upstage wall as the character is introduced. Projections, in fact, are present intermittently throughout the play – mostly headlines and pictures of Hitler.

There’s a page in the program, as well, that explicates the correspondence between elements of the play and the rise of Hitler. Arturo Ui himself corresponds to Hitler, Dogsborough (Chicago businessman and politician) to Hindenburg, vegetable sellers to the bourgeoisie, even a fire that takes place in the play to the Reichstag fire. It’s great that The Phoenix gives us help here.

The company uses ten performers to play more than 30 characters. Their work is very good, but more actors would have been helpful in keeping the minor characters separate. Craig Smith is terrific as Arturo Ui. He stutters and rasps. His fingers fidget and his body at times is nearly in a spasm.

As Dogsborough, John Lenartz is very fine as well. He also has a comic role in a great scene as an actor hired to give Ui a lesson in public speaking. Ui learns well, and Mr. Smith’s physicalization at the play’s closing, when he gives a public speech, is an eloquent comment on crowd-pleasing. He’s a master of representational acting.

Ui gives a great reason for learning proper comportment to impress a crowd. He says “They’re all snobs, the great unwashed, the huddled masses.”

We get another first-rate performance from Elise Stone as Betty Dullfleet, wife of a rival snuffed out by Ui. She’s excellent in smaller roles as well.

Kevin Confoy directs Stephen Sharkey’s translation masterfully. His adaptation is felicitous. His actors are Brechtian puppets, as they need to be. He gives great attention to detail and gesture and is totally in control of each eloquent stage picture.

The talents of the company are undeniably formidable, but in the final analysis nothing could make this script really work. The parallels to Nazism would have been more interesting when it was written, in 1941. The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble would have had no way of knowing when they planned their season what application an American production of this “gangster parable” would have in November of 2016.

Steve Capra
November 2016

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Roads to Home

What terrific work we see on stage in Primary Stage’s production of Horton Foote’s The Road to Home, presented at the Cherry Lane Theatre!
The play is a comprised of three scenes centering on three Houston matrons. The first two scenes are set in 1924. In the first, A Nightingale, we meet Mabel, Vonnie and Annie in Mabel’s kitchen. Early in the play is a long speech in which Mabel describes Annie to Vonnie. We need to pay rapt attention to it, and Hallie Foote, as Mabel, is remarkable in her delivery, as she is throughout the play. Annie enters to visit, and we see that she is indeed as emotionally fragile as she’s been described. The second scene, The Dearest of Friends, takes place six months later and focuses on Vonnie’s marital problems.
In the third scene, set four years later, Spring Dance, we find Annie committed to a very nice state psychiatric hospital in Austin. Mabel and Vonnie do not appear and we meet instead some male patients.
The entire cast is superb as well. As Vonnie, Harriet Harris shows us many dimensions of a long-suffering woman. When she remembers something suddenly (she remembers a movie she saw), she seems genuinely surprised at her own thoughts. As the benighted Annie, Rebecca Brooksher is graceful and vulnerable without falling into a stereotype.
Michael Wilson’s direction is meticulous, subtle, masterful. The train whistles and the church bells are unobtrusive. His great accomplishment is to infuse the play with humor without trivializing the lives of these women. This is graceful, delicate naturalism.
Jeff Cowie’s sets are marvelous, indicating period and suggesting space. David C. Woolard’s costumes are great, from the ordinary dresses of the kitchen to Annie’s lovely dress at the institution’s dance.
Through all the dramatic elements, we find ourselves immersed in the setting and period. The character’s dialect is unmistakable American, with a lilting melody, using “see-gar” for “cigar” and “pick-chuhs” for “pictures”.
This isn’t the exoticized American South of Tennessee Williams, with its dueling archetypes. This South is the middle class milieu of ordinary people, and Foote makes the ordinary important. His characters are universal through their specificity.
The company, of course, has taken its tone from Foote’s script. The playwright presents the entire culture these women live in. Mabel is nearly obsessive about the details of Annie’s life. In her first scene speech and throughout the play Foote paints a complete picture of this Texas society. The fictional town of Harrison, Texas, is prominent in the characters’ stories, which Foote has based on his home town of Wharton.
But the script poses a challenge. There’s nearly no dramatic action in these scenes; situation is dominant, not plot. What action there is takes place off stage between scenes and the story is discontinuous. This is not the mechanism we’re accustomed to in receiving theater. It’s the great accomplishment of this company to keep us absorbed through emotionally grounded, fluid acting and sensitive direction.
We meet these ladies’ husbands in the first two scenes, and Mr. Wilson has cast the same actors as Annie’s fellow patients in the psychiatric hospital, in the third. This is an odd choice for a play that is so concerned with the larger society, and we’d prefer to see new faces. But Primary Stage’s Roads to Home is a great success.  
Steve Capra
November 2016

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Daddy Issues


In Marshall Goldberg’s play Daddy Issues a gay man, an actor named Donald, hires a ten-year-old boy to pretend to be his son for the benefit of his family. He’s aided in this deception by two friends, a woman named Henrietta and a male buddy named Levi who has a drag act. In the play’s climactic scene Mom and Dad and Grandma come to Donald’s apartment to meet the young boy. As in all farce, the characters are no match for the situation, and we watch as comic bit by comic bit Donald is undone.

Daddy Issues has been presented by David Goldyn Productions at Theatre at St. Clement’s, off-Broadway.

Farce is a difficult and delicate form, but the show’s director, David Goldyn, masters it by keeping everything crisp and snappy. It all moves along allegretto and the pacing never flags. Everything is sharply analyzed and carefully executed.

As Donald, Matt Koplik is animated and well-defined, shouldering the bulk of the comedy. Of all the cast, he alone has that particular nervous energy that enlivens farce. The rest of the cast is serviceable, for the most part executing the broad comedy with the right amount of belief, neither too broad nor too reserved.

Kate Katcher plays Donald’s mother with a grating New York accent, but otherwise fares well. Tony Rossi and Deb Armelino, as Donald’s father and grandmother respectively, are convincing, and Shua Potter as the drag artist is entertaining. Alex Ammerman works well as the ten-year-old, concentrated and, happily, not overly cute. But Elizabeth Klein is colorless as Henrietta, and Allyson Haley flails out of control as the child’s real mother.

Whatever the talents of the cast, the vehicle the Mr. Goldyn has chosen is disappointing. The actors simply do the best they can with a mediocre script. Daddy Issues isn’t a particularly funny play; it’s merely clever. And it centers too much on its only joke, Donald’s presentation of his “son”. The other characters have no comedic problems to solve. Farce needs problems that interact with each other. Without them, the play relies on stereotypes.

Whatever its weaknesses, Daddy Issues is entertaining, and it contributes to Off-Broadway by giving us something unexpected. We’d like to see Mr. Goldyn’s farcical talents applied to a modern-day Feydeau. We’d like, in fact, to see a modern-day Feydeau on any stage. Perhaps Daddy Issues will precipitate a resurgence of farce!

Steve Capra
October 2016

Friday, October 21, 2016

Frankenstein


Mary Shelley published Frankenstein in 1818. The book is one of the inspirations of the steampunk aesthetic that was first named in the 1980’s. Be Bold! Productions has created a musical stage adaptation of Shelley’s book and combined it with steampunk and expressionism. The result is an interesting if disappointing show. 

The script is faithful to Mrs. Shelley’s book, which varies in several points from the famous Boris Karloff movie of 1931. We meet Victor Frankenstein (Frankenstein, remember, is the name of the scientist) in the Arctic chasing the monster he’s created. He relates his story to a sea captain who’s saved him from the ice. The play opens and ends with the captain addressing us, telling us about discovering both Frankenstein and the monster. The story of creating the creature, then, is a story within a story.

The nameless monster educates himself by hiding for years in the home of a blind man and his family. By the time he returns to plague his creator, he not only can talk, but he’s quite articulate.

Brenda Bell’s dialogue is written in formal English, largely without contractions (“I do not believe you.”) and suitably artificial: “The accelerated speed of your evolution is astounding,” Frankenstein says to his monster. Ms. Bell also directs, and she keeps a nice expressionist tone throughout, with evocative lighting. However, there are moments that fall short of dramatic truth, when we feel that we’ve been here before.

The cast is serviceable. As Victor Frankenstein, Eric Fletcher is entertaining and technically deft, but he tries too hard at times to look insane. The script dwells on his madness as well: “In the eyes of a madman everything is sane,” he tells us three times at the show’s opening. Jonathan Rion Bethea plays the nameless monster well, furious, scarcely in control of himself when he addresses Frankenstein. “I will kill everyone you ever loved,” he tells him. As Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s childhood-playmate-turned-wife, Kyle Hughes serves well in a thankless role.

Brenda Bell’s lyrics are interesting set to Michael Sgouros’ music. Sometimes there’s a strict simple rhythm forcing the words to the notes:  Learn from my past – Sort out the truth. The effect suggests the mechanization that is one of the themes of steampunk.

The production’s outstanding element is Mr. Sgouros’ musical direction, his creative instrumentation. He uses vibes, a marimba, drums and the strings of a piano’s soundboard for sound effects as well as for music. He doesn’t play a piano, but works directly with the strings of the soundboard, sometimes striking them with drumsticks. 

In the play’s most interesting musical number, the monster dances with the mate that Frankenstein has created for him and sings a song called My Eve. It’s the monster’s fantasy; the female creature hasn’t come to life, and the mad scientist destroys her, screaming and laughing.


For all its promising elements, Be Bold’s Frankenstein ultimately fails. Its rhythm is awkward and its actors don’t have the emotional grounding to make all that Gothic melodrama believable. But Be Bold! Productions has certainly been bold, and given us some moments of macabre fun.
Steve Capra
October 2016

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Mechanics of Love

Mechanics of Love is a comedy by Dipika Guha, produced by To-By-For Productions. It’s about Glen, husband to Faizi and buddy to Georg, who marries Francesca. It seems that Glen has a condition – he forgets things. And he’s forgotten that he’s married to Faizi. We learn later that this isn’t his first bigamous blunder. “After the fourth wife, I got used to it,” Faizi tells Georg.
But a poor memory doesn’t account for all the play’s romance. Faizi and Francesca fall in love, Georg and Francesca fall in love, Georg and Faizi fall in love… Okay, maybe it’s just lust sometimes, but in short, everyone falls for nearly everyone else, for no reason whatsoever. The mechanics of love, Ms. Guha is telling us, are the mechanics of anarchy. “What if this is all there is?” Francesca says, “No present. No past. No future.” And, for this playwright, no reasons.
Everything in a drama happens for a reason, and that’s why this idea makes a promising premise. It suggests a type of absurdism. But a writer would have to do some pretty handsome playwrighting to make the idea work. Ms. Guha never manages to dramatize her concept. The action of the play is arbitrary and superficial. The characters are never developed and we never grow to care about them.
Glen doesn’t forget about Francesca; she’s cured him of his condition, while contracting it herself. Like the four characters’ emotional forays, there’s no reason for this. And Francesca’s forgetfulness isn’t necessary to explain the fact that she falls for each of the others. Faizi does the same thing, and she’s immune to the disorder.
Sathya Sridharan gives the show’s best performance, as Glen. He analyzes well and expresses a breadth of personality. Eric T. Miller, as Georg, and Victoria Frings, as Faizi, are believable. As Francesca, Anastasia Olowin is limited. All four try hard to be funny and their delivery of their lines is sometimes brainless.
Elena Araoz keeps the show moving allegretto. It speeds by in 90 minutes. She’s keeps her actors in the eternal present, like clowns, just as the playwright indicates. And she keeps the play clear and focused.
But there’s not much a company can do with this script. Ms. Guha has put an interesting conceit on stage, but she hasn’t honed it to suit a drama, even a comedy. Mechanics of Love is a concept thwarted in dramatic execution.
Steve Capra
September 2016