Thursday, January 12, 2017

Holden


When Mark Chapman murdered John Lennon in 1980, he was carrying a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. When John Hinckley shot President Reagan a year later, he had a copy of that book in his hotel room.

Playwright Anisa George has taken this strange confluence and used it as the basis for her play Holden, presented by George & Co. and The New Ohio Theatre. Her play takes place in J.D. Salinger’s writing retreat. Salinger himself is there, of course. We also find Chapman and Hinckley living there, acting as a sort of pair of muses.

Into this secluded haven arrives a fourth, Zev. It isn’t clear if he’s murdered anyone. It isn’t even clear if he’s read Catcher. He himself doesn’t know what he’s doing there. What is clear is that he has a murderous temperament. When Chapman and Hinckley explain the situation to him, he responds with a list of people that he’d like to kill: Bob Dylan; Bill Gates; Arnold Schwarzenegger; Alex Trebek. He’d like to break the record of 69 killed in the 2011 shooting in Norway. Even Chapman and Hinckley are disgusted.

It’s through the two assassins’ explanations to Zev that we learn about the world of the play.  “If you’re gonna be a catcher, Zev, there are rules,” Chapman says.

This is a brilliant concept, and it’s a great play and a great production. At its heart is the mysterious stage reality of Chapman, Hinckley and Zev. They don’t exist in Salinger’s mind, exactly. Indeed, he barely pays attention to them. They cajole him to write, but he never addresses them.

Instead, we’re in a unique world of dramatic truth. This is Chapman’s and Hinckley’s fantasy, not Salinger’s. He presumably hasn’t invited them in. Still, Ms. George is exposing the amorality of art. The assassins didn’t inspire Salinger, but they admired him. And Chapman and Hinckley aren’t evil here so much as they are insane. They think of themselves as, as Chapman says, catchers.

The show is directed by the playwright, and she keeps us absorbed without much aid from plot. She does it by keeping the play full of action within the fluid relationship between Chapman, Hinckley and Zev. Even during moments without dialogue we’re engrossed in the fiction. She gives the production a strong, animated rhythm.

The cast, as well, gives us terrific work – Jaime Maseda as Chapman, Scott R. Sheppard as Hinckley, Matteo Scammell as Zev, Bill George as Salinger (who has little to say). Their internal life keeps us involved when we might otherwise be lost due to the lack of a strong through line.

Nick Benacerraf’s set is beautiful – chopped wood on all sides, a clothesline with papers pinned to it, a cot, a stove. Seth Reiser’s lighting and Rebecca Kanach’s costumes work wonderfully. In all, they reflect our common fantasy of the reclusive writer Salinger.

Indeed, the dialogue as well is peppered with recognition of the fabled recluse. “He’s all wrapped up in practicing detachment from public opinion,” Chapman says of him.

The problem with the script is its unsatisfying ending; it calls into question Zev’s stage reality, that idiosyncratic dramatic construction that the playwright has heretofore defined so carefully. It’s particularly odd in light of Zev’s evil nature, and we wonder what sort of point Ms. George might be making.

But Holden is a terrific production, both commanding and subtle, making for a thrilling 90 minutes of theatre.

Steve Capra
January 2017

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Martin Luther on Trial


The Fellowship for Performing Arts has just produced a play called Martin Luther on Trial, by Chris Cragin-Day and Max McLean, at The Pearl Theatre. It puts Martin Luther in historical, personal and, most importantly, ideological context. It’s a sort of courtroom drama. The Devil himself is prosecuting Luther for “the unforgivable sin”. Luther’s wife, Katie Von Bora (“a runaway nun”), is his defender. “The unforgivable sin” is defined variously, but essentially as “telling God I don’t need you.” The script presents Luther in a non-linear way, into his later life, when he states “I am orthodox.”

The witnesses in this strange case come from a range of personalities and periods: Hitler; Freud; Martin Luther King; Pope Francis. And there are others, like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and even The Brothers Grimm, whom we never see. The officiating judge is St. Peter.

The trial takes place in the Afterlife – neither heaven nor hell nor Earth. But from time to time the lights isolate a downstage area and we meet Luther in his life. The most extended of these scenes is a discussion with a Rabbi, rather too prolonged. What’s clear is that Luther loves to debate.

We also see a courtship scene with Katie Von Bora. And there’s an interesting scene between Luther and the Devil. Luther’s hand trembles when they play chess. And of course, they debate.

The concept is enormously creative, a hyper-intellectual fantasy in the genre of Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell (from Man and Superman). And it’s very well executed. It’s directed by Michael Parva, who keeps an eloquent tone to the whole thing, a sort of realism within a surreal moment.

In a moment repeated intermittently, Luther drives a nail, affixing the famous 95 theses into that church door in 1517. The hammer stroke’s thud resonates as if echoing across the centuries. And Parva gives great attention to detail, as when the prosecuting devil and defending wife take notes throughout the trial.

Fletcher McTaggart’s performance as Martin Luther is terrific, with a strong and precise internal life. He registers thoughts as if they were physical sensations. He has a squinting, quizzical expression, and he leans into his debate partners. Paul Schoeffler, as The Devil, gives a great performance as well, more theatrical and externalized. His final speech is a powerful display of acting technique. It’s interrupted by Luther, who resumes his chess game with the Devil, and in the final action of the play the Devil himself experiences a revelation.

Kersti Bryan is successful as Katie Von Bora, but rather tense throughout. Von Bora is an active ally of Luther in their movement. “What in God’s name are we doing? This is not our Reformation!” she says late in the play.

John Michalski is suitably judicial as St. Peter. Mark Boyett and Jamil A.C. Mangan, in multiple roles, also give us some very nice work.

The set, by Kelly James Tighe, and the costumes, by Nicole Wee, are all handsome. The effective lighting if by Geoffrey D. Fishburn.

The ideological point of the whole thing is obscured by some over-writing. Pope Francis, unfortunately, is made to look like a fool – perhaps because he’s the only living witness. But Martin Luther on Trial is a unique accomplishment. Fellowship for Performing Arts creates theater with a Christian perspective, and it’s good to see that its work is so robust.

Steve Capra
December 2016

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Big Uncut Flick

Sometimes we don’t want a massive production, especially when we want a comedy. And so Gracye Productions’ mounting of Todd Michael’s play The Big Uncut Flick (at The Studio Theatre at Theatre Row) fits the bill for a slight 75 minutes of fun. The show presents an afternoon TV movie program (the titular Big Uncut Flick) in 1953. There are two hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Matinee, aka Jack Sheldon and Arlene Lewis, who epitomize the bland complacency of the fifties. The script puts them squarely in the period. “As Senator Joe McCarthy would say,” says Jack, “Point of order, Mr. Chairman.” And “You think our commercials are annoying, you should see the ones they show on Russian TV.”

The rest of the cast perform on stage the day’s movie, a 1934 crime drama called Say Ya Prayers, Ya Mug. It’s about an ex-convict, a police sergeant, the ex-convict’s sister (who’s a nun), a singer, a nice girl from the mid-West just arrived in the city – in short, the whole crew of stock movie characters. We soon stop trying to follow the plot and just enjoy the writing. “Put a muzzle on the holy book lingo,” Michael writes. And “People who live in tin houses shouldn’t throw can openers.”

Michael gives some variation on the theme when the movie loses sound and the actors speak soundlessly, and when the film breaks and the actors slump forward like marionettes without strings.

Director Synge Maher keeps everything moving lickety-split during the movie; the pace is more laid back for the hosts. He creates a terrific tension between the tones of the two stage realities, juxtaposing 1953’s reflection of 1953 with 1934’s reflection of 1934. He’s captured the unique, unmistakable flavor of each.

Maher has cast actors as Arlene Lewis (Todd Geringswald) and the nun (David L. Zwiers), and he’s cast an actress (Melissa Firlit) as the police sergeant. The gender-jumping is successful in the first two instances, less so in the third. Craig MacArthur is right for Red, the ex-convict.

But all the cast have comic skill. The actors in the movie keep a consistent parodic tone; they’re cartoons.

Comedy doesn’t get broader than Say Ya Prayers, Ya Mug, and it’s well done. They’ve been directed to get all the comic mileage they can out of the cheap, urban diction of most of these characters – “It’s a good day for a double moydah,” for example.

But the show is at its best during the movie’s breaks, when we’re presented with a more subtle comedy from Mr. and Mrs. Matinee. Michael has given them stereotypically 50’s TV business, as when they call a woman at home for the game Prizes on the Line.

J. Richey Nash is terrific as Mr. Matinee. He flashes his teeth in a stage smile and clips his diction in a stage voice. He gets drunk without overdoing the comic shtick and nods off matter-of-factly. It’s great!

We grow a little tired of the heavy comic diction, but The Big Uncut Flick is great fun. We always want to have a parody like this included in our Off-Off-Broadway buffet.

Steve Capra
December 2016

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