Tuesday, June 12, 2018

A Blanket of Dust

Photo by Sharon Kinsella

In Richard Squires’ play A Blanket of Dust, presented at The Flea Theater by Delphi Film in association with Alfonso Ramos and Eve Pomerance, a woman, Diane, looses her husband in the 9-11 disaster. She’s convinced that the government is responsible for the catastrophe, and campaigns to uncover the conspiracy. She’s a Senator’s daughter, so the issue becomes a family affair. Years later, she becomes involved with Andrew, a book store owner active in the dissident movement. Andrew is also at odds with his parents on political issues (his father is in government but it’s not clear what his position is.) In frustration, Andrew commits suicide - he sets fire to himself - in protest. This is all pretty grim, but, well, it’s a grim world, and it’s good to see issue- committed theater. 

Mr. Squires’ keeps his script as lean as the WTC towers. The characters have no identity aside from their attitudes toward the issue, aside from the sketchy romance. There’s no particularization. We never learn things about them like what color wallpaper they like or where they went to school. Unfortunately, this style makes the play less a drama than a mere argument. When Andrew takes Diane to meet his folks, they start arguing immediately. Mr. Squires doesn’t even give a nod to conventional social interaction. I don’t believe this quality is an error; Mr. Squires is too good a playwright to make that sort of error. It’s a choice.

The director, Christopher Murrah, has picked up on the polemic and directed his actors to YELL in nearly every scene, although the lines could well be delivered otherwise. And throughout the scene as well, so that it has no structure. We soon grow tired of this - worse, annoyed. The effective moments in the play are quiet, such as when Diane addresses her father quietly, for once: “If you weren’t such cowards it would never have come to this,” she says. And there’s moving silent moment just before Andrew kills himself when it’s snowing gently.

Of course, George Bernard Shaw’s characters also represent attitudes toward the issues in his plays, but his characters discuss the issues before the playwright forms a conclusion for us. Mr. Squires’ characters do not discuss. There’s never any question what side the play is on: 9-11 was masterminded by the American officials. As Noam Chomsky has said “A large part of the population is willing to accept the possibility we’re run by a bunch of homicidal maniacs who are trying to murder us all.” Now, that may be true - I don’t know - but the production isn’t going to convince us by yelling. Theater can do better than that.

It’s unfortunate that Mr. Squires has let his political position distort his playwrighting, because he can be insightful and articulate. When Andrew says to his mother “They care about the truth,” she replies “Not when it affects their feelings.” This exchange is worthy of Shaw.

Brendan Boston’s set, as well, is stripped to the minimum: six white chairs. At least the production is all of a piece, spare and harsh.

Angela Pierce does the best she can as Diana, given the heavy-handed direction. Tommy Schrider is more fleshed out as Andrew, whose own father calls him a faggot (the theme is never developed). The most interesting performance comes from Alison Fraser as Diane’s mother, the Senator’s wife. She’s utterly affected, with a false, overly flowery melody to her voice, but Ms. Fraser makes it clear that it’s the character who’s affected, not the actress.

One of the functions of theater is to explore issues. But we need political theater that presents all sides of these issues and lets us form our own conclusions. That’s the only way it’ll persuade us of anything. In A Blanket of Dust, Mr. Squires wants to lead us. But if we let a playwright lead us to a position, another playwright will lead us back a week later.

Steve Capra

June 2018

Manufacturing Mischief

photo by Sham Sthakiya

Manufacturing Mischief is a puppet play “by Pedro Reyes, written by Paul Hufker.” It’s not clear what those credits mean, but Mr Reyes is apparently the progenitor. It presents us with a discussion of artificial intelligence and other topics, and it’s really smart. We meet Steve Jobs, Noam Chomsky, Elon Musk, Ayn Rand and other luminaries. They’re woven together in a plot that’s just as complex and silly as it should be. It has something to do with a machine that materializes the author of whatever book is put into it - thus Marx, Rand and some of the others.

The script trivializes the characters as only puppetry can. When Chomsky is confronted by Rand, his student tells him “Use complicated logic to confuse her.” But it’s educated as well. When Musk tells Chomsky that someday “We’ll have AI who understand the world,” Chomsky replies “But not their place in it or the value of it.”

Donald Trump appears in the play as a small puppet, out of place, certainly, with his betters. Rand says that she knew him in the 80’s. When told that he’s the President now, she says “The laughing stock usually outlives the joke.” Great! 

The puppets are very handsome, particularly the unmistakable Karl Marx and Ayn Rand.

The script, then, is really smart and clever. Unfortunately, it’s poorly executed. The lines are nicely animated, but the puppeteers’ diction, the foreign accents and the poor sound system, make them sometimes difficult to understand, so that the story is difficult to follow and we have to content ourselves with disconnected moments of clarity.

Worse, most of the puppeteers are woman, and they often voice the male puppets. Puppetry distances the drama - that’s part of the point. But a woman voicing a male puppet distances it beyond retrieval. What’s more, it makes it difficult to know which puppet is speaking. 

The puppet show’s rhythm fails to engage us. Moreover, Marx has a German accent and Rand has a Russian accent, but the puppeteer voicing Trump doesn’t even attempt the stupid, condescending speech pattern we know so well.

The puppet theater on the stage is designed so that the people in the front row can hardly see the puppets, who are above them. The evening I attended, the house manager didn’t open most of the good seats, at the back of the raked theater, until the poor seats had been taken. The audience that evening was largely quiet - which was a good sign - but the Tank’s staff person sat up back laughing and whooping.

Manufacturing Mischief, then, points the way for educated adult puppetry. It’s been in the works, we were told, for ten years and has been produced elsewhere. It’s hard to understand why The Flea’s production isn’t more successful.

Steve Capra

June 2018

Sunday, June 3, 2018

There's Blood at the Wedding

photo by Richard Termine

There’s Blood at the Wedding uses puppets and “performing objects” to relate the deaths of six innocent Americans killed by police: Philando Castile, Amadou Diallo, Sandra Bland, Sean Bell, Justine Damond and Eric Garner. (To be fair, Sandra Bland’s inexplicable death may have been a suicide after she was jailed for not using her directional when she changed lanes.) It’s created, designed and directed by Theodora Skipitares and presented by La MaMa and Skysaver Productions. The conceit is that there is a book for each victim, and we’re presented with large books that open up to present the stories.

There’s a loose frame to the play presenting Federico Garcia Lorca. He opens with the line “Good evening and welcome to the humble theater we call home.” Then he disappears until the end, and this framing device should be developed.

Ms. Skipitares’ mission is simply to bear witness, and to her great credit she rarely accuses, and she never conflates the problem of police killings with other issues. She knows that the problem affects all of us and that the issue is above debate. What’s more, she doesn’t proselytize or agitate. She even tells us that one policeman cried after the shooting.

The play personalized the victims. One passage list the contents of Philando Castile’s car when he was killed: a tourist map of South Dakota, three bags of groceries, tic tacs. And then: “Two bullet shells - That’s all that’s left of a man”. The recitation about Sean Bell repeats “Three cops indicted - Three cops acquitted” as a sort of chant.

Sometimes puppets present the stories, and they’re intriguing. There are large masks that hang from the two actors necks that aren't very nice, but there are full-body puppets that are very graceful. And one has a white mask that’s lit from behind and it’s great. The use of the over-sized books isn’t as interesting, and the puppetry is uneven.  

There are songs in the play, with some delicate music by Sxip Shirey. Some are specific to a shooting, but two are free-standing. One is a marvelous spiritual, All Babies Must Cry, that’s sung by full-body puppets. The second is a rap song with obscenities that’s not good at all. Why does Ms. Skipitares include obscenities when up until that point one of the show’s great strengths is its dignity?

Faces are eerily projected on gauze on the back wall, very effectively. One mother of a victim thus seen tells us, in the play’s most profound moment, “I can only forgive when I am asked to forgive.”

Ms. Skipitares is disingenuous in the best sense, and the play’s simplicity is deceptive. She doesn’t generalize about the killings, but at the end of the play Lorca tells us “These stories seem so random, but they follow a pattern.” Then he tells us, cryptically, that when he was executed he was shot in the butt because he was gay.

There’s Blood at the Wedding is a slight play, running only an hour. It’s the rare theater piece that should be expanded. There’s more that the audience would benefit from knowing, that would show the depth and complexity of the problem. Why does Ms. Skipitares keep the police anonymous? For example: Officer Mohamed Noor, the Somali-born policeman who killed Justine Damond, has been charged with murder. He had three complaints against him before the shooting and the prosecutor has said that Minneapolis police were uncooperative in the investigation.

Steve Capra
June 2018

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Diana Tapes

photo by Pablo-Calderon Santiago

Princess Diana was certainly a phenomenon. Wikipedia reports that 750 million people watched her televised marriage to Prince Charles in 1981. She was, of course, a media sensation until her death in a car crash in 1997.

I’ve always failed to see what there was to admire in this woman. She was not a Cinderella, and if she was exploited for her pedigree, she apparently did not object. After all, she was Lady Diana before she was Princess Diana. She was killed returning from an evening of clubbing in Paris - at the age of 36 - with a man not her husband. And this from a member of the British royal family! I grant that she worked for charity, but that was her job. As far as I can see, her only real contribution was to refuse to include in her wedding vows that she would “obey” her husband.

Andrew Morton published a biography of the great lady, Diana: Her True Story, based on audiotapes of interviews that her friend James Colthurst conducted with her using questions that Morton had written. It was published in 1992 by Michael O’Mara. 

James Clements’ play The Diana Tapes explores the writing of this book. He presents us with Morton, Colthurst, O’Mara (who was American) and the Princess. It’s produced by What Will the Neighbors Say? at HERE, Off-Broadway

The question of whether Diana was worthy of admiration, pity or scorn is at the core of the play, and it presents itself largely in the dialogue between the three men. “She’s suffered,” Morton says of her. But later he has an awakening and says cynically, in the play’s best line, “She’s part Virgin Mary, part Florence Nightingale, part Liz Taylor.” He finally realizes “She’s absolutely the most accomplished media operator of our time.”

The play did nothing to improve my opinion of Diana Mountbatten-Windsor. And it’s not just because of the dialogue between the writer, the go-between and the publisher. Diana herself is made out to be a ditzy airhead. She enters singing Michael Jackson’s song Billy Jean. She uses obscenities, calling Colthurst a “prick”, and other things. She talks about bulimia, Camilla Parker Bowles and cutting herself, but we nonetheless never feel any real sympathy for her. Indeed, it’s what she says that alienates us most from her: “People will weep and know that I’ve suffered for them,” and “I just want to be happy.” It’s not clear if the lines are from the tapes.

Even Colthurst, her friend and doctor, becomes exasperated with her during an interview and says “You’re painting yourself to be some sort of a saint. Do you really not know when you’re doing it any more?”

And even speaking as one who didn’t admire her, I think that the production might be a bit fairer to her. The actress in the role does nothing to enlist our sympathy.

The three gentlemen on stage give precise, focused performances. But they’ve been directed by Wednesday Sue Derrico to be in a frenzy in nearly every scene, and that makes it impossible for them to deliver believably those lines that, unfortunately, explain the play - like “Here is the biggest scandal to strike the monarchy since abdication!”

The Diana Tapes is a slight script - it runs 70 minutes - and it’s satisfying as far as it goes, but it never develops anything. Mr. Clements presents the story, but he doesn’t really dramatize it with a through line and a central climax. We have to content ourselves with an interesting discussion.  

At the end of the play, the actors dress Diana in black while we hear a tape of her talking about Paris, and it’s chilling. Diana looks at us silently, and for several moments she has real mystery.

Steve Capra
May 2018

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Falling Forward: An evening of ten-minute plays

photo: BittenByAZebra

Ten-minute plays are very difficult to write well. Actually, all plays are difficult to write well, but ten-minute plays give playwrights a particular challenge. They need to create a reality quickly. Nonetheless, a ten-minute play can be great. After all, drama needs compression.

Falling Forward: An evening of ten-minute plays, from Athena Theatre at Symphony Space, gives us 11 plays that succeed to various degrees. The scripts, which are mostly mediocre, are well served by some good acting. Of the 11 plays, seven use non-realistic techniques to deal with the challenges of this form. Of the remaining four, only one has a through line. 

Only two of the 11 plays are really successful; they present the best scripts and they enjoy the best acting. boys don’t look at boys [no capitals in the title], by Jeremy O’Brian, presents a high school student who earns the attention of his teacher through a monologue. The speech in question is delivered by a terrific actor, Freddie Jay Fulton. He has a fluid emotional life and an expressive physical life. He creates a complex and subtle character in this one monologue and gives it a structure. It’s a really good performance, but Mr. Fulton’s work is devitalized by his director, who’s directed him to face the audience although he clearly wants something from the other character.

The other successful script is A Departure by Grant MacDermott. In this play a woman is about to leave town for a week and she exhorts her husband to keep busy while she’s gone. Straightforward so far, and without development. But then the woman addresses the audience in a monologue about her closeted husband’s gay life. She talks to us as if she were talking to him. “If you told me the truth I would leave you,” she says. The wonderful actress is Anna Holbrook; she gives a reserved and expressive performance, passionate without being demonstrative.

The surrealistic techniques that most of the playwrights are simply facile. However, some are intriguing. Help Who’s Next, by Kathryn Funkhauser, repeats its core scene with minor variations. Finally Ms. Funkhauser deconstructs her own script and reassigns lines to actors other than the first to speak them. They do this while addressing us. Interesting ideas that we’d like to see developed. 

Otherwise, the scripts unsuccessfully employ a ghost, an object personification, deus ex machina, vulgarity, et al. The director of for all the plays, Veronica Dang, robs them of intimacy by telling actors to face front, as I’ve said, but otherwise keeps us engrossed by keeping things moving neither too quickly nor too slowly. Someone is credited with scenic design, but she doesn’t seem to have put much effort into it.

Perhaps future playwrights will look at our microdrama as a bold experiment. At any rate, they contribute to the diversity of our theater.

Steve Capra
May 2018

Sunday, May 6, 2018

randy writes a novel

photo by Alex Papps

Randy is a purple hand puppet who gives an 80-minute monologue from behind a table on stage, speaking educated strine. It’s a stand-up comedy act called randy writes a novel. The premise is that he’s going to read to us from the first draft of his novel. He’s reluctant to read, and by way of diversion he flies off on comic tangents.

The program credits the actor playing Randy as Randy, but between us the comedian’s name is Heath McIvor. Presenting himself through a felt puppet puts a whole new complexion on his comedy. We feel superior to a bug-eyed puppet, but through great puppetry we accept Randy as a character. He leans over the table, throws his head back on his scrawny neck, and throws his arms around (on control sticks). Through a varied vocal life, Mr. McIvor creates a complex personality, frustrated, angry, sly. He insults his audience without being offensive, and he’s common without being cheap. We allow ourselves to laugh at a puppet when he tries to turn a page with his clumsy puppet hand.

This is really smart stand-up. Randy references Ernest Hemingway (did you know he was a KGB spy?), Harper Lee (and the controversial publication of Go Set a Watchman) and greenhouse gasses (as they relate to veganism).

At his best, he’s inspired. We’re all “bubbling away in an evolutionary cul-de-sac,” he tells us in a mixed metaphor. And after a run of jokes only mildly successful (all stand-ups have unsuccessful runs), Randy says “I’m having a wonderful time. Feel free to join me.” Like all monologists, he’s at his best when he’s present in the room.

The script needs to stay closer too its premise, and, as with all stand-up, some of the vulgarity goes too far (I don’t know why stand-ups feel compelled to do this). But randy writes a novel is really funny, an Aussie import much appreciated.

Steve Capra
May, 2018

Friday, April 27, 2018

Miss You Like Hell

photo by Joan Marcus

Miss You Like Hell, at The Public Theater, is topical and timely, a musical about a Mexican resident of the US who’s requesting a stay of deportation (it’s also called a “cancellation of removal”, as if the individual were an object). But the play presents in its foreground not a political issue but a genuine personal drama. If it’s uneven, its concept is solid.

The character with the looming deportation hearing in Los Angeles is Beatriz. She surprises her daughter in Philadelphia, Olivia, whom she hasn’t seen in years, with a visit and an invitation to accompany her on a westward road trip for a week. The substance of the play is the mother/daughter bonding on this geographical and spiritual trip, accusation and forgiveness.

There are events on this road trip, but they’re episodes; one doesn’t lead to another. Early on the trip, they meet a pair of older gay men who travel the country getting married in each state (they’re on their 24th state). The men are unexpected and appealing for us. After they’ve been introduced to us, however, they only show up once again. They’re never assimilated into the plot, and we miss them. 

And there’s some confusion when Beatriz is stopped for a traffic violation. She has no license so she displays someone else’s, and for some reason she gets away with it. At any rate, the incident has no impact on the story. It just passes, like a thunderstorm.  

Mother and daughter also meet a tamales vendor and, happily, he remains in the story, a romantic object for Beatriz. But even he is not woven into the action. The script exhibits the problem that even our good playwrights have with structure.

The songs are undistinguished pop melodies with some cool lyrics: “My bones hurt because you’re not at my side.” and “When you’re home, sad conquistador, you will be received.” More interesting are the arrangements, with an ensemble of keyboards, percussion, accordion, viola, guitar, bass and cello. The chorus claps sometimes - and snaps their fingers! Neat!

The production is very well executed. Lear Debessonet’s direction is clear and crisp. The pacing never dwells and never rushes. The actors are handsome on their revolving stage with the ensemble and musicians behind them. The set is indifferently pleasing with its blue back wall and floor.

Daphne Rubin-Vega carries the play with a nimble performance as the worldly Beatriz. She sings well and acts with subtlety and assurance. We grow to care about her quickly. Gizel Jimenez, in the role of Olivia, is an absolutely terrific singer. However, as an actress she is too often on a single emotion, usually anger. When she tells her mother “You’re garbage,” we see no conflict in her. Danny Bolero gives a sensitive, effective performance as the tamales vendor. He’s a very fine singer, and in fact the show’s best moment occurs when he sings with a delicate guitar accompaniment.

“I will speak! I will be as loud as necessary! I will fight,” Beatrice says at her hearing, having found her surety through her daughter. The ending that follows is brilliant - striking, mature playwrighting - but the trip to get there, like all road trips, sometimes feels long. And so we enjoy Miss You Like Hell as we can, by the moment.

Steve Capra

April 2018