Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Feathers of Fire

photo by Frictionville Studio

Shadow puppetry holds flat, almost two-dimensional puppets behind a screen. A lamp behind them projects their moving shadows on to the screen, and we, the happy audience, see the shadows form the other side. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre tells us that shadow puppetry in the Middle East was used to avoid the censors:
“Shadow puppet theatre similar to that found today throughout the East and South-East Asia was probably introduced to the Middle East at the time of the Mongol invasion of the 13th century. … Their [shadow puppets’] method of manufacture helped them deal with basic orthodox Islamic objections to their existence. Shadow puppet makers were able to circumvent these objections by pointing out that since the figures were perforated with holes, they no longer represent animate beings.”

Mercifully, Hamid Rahmanian doesn’t have to contend with censors. An Iranian-born artist, he’s conceived, designed and directed an elaborate shadow puppet theater piece, Feathers of Fire (in collaboration with Larry Reed and ShadowLight Productions), produced by Fictionville Studio and Banu Productions. It’s inspired by Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), the Persian epic written in the tenth century by the poet Ferdowsi. It’s the longest work we know by a single poet, and Mr. Rahmanian has used only an excerpt.

The story of Feathers of Fire concerns a boy disowned by his father - a great warrior - at birth because he has white hair. He’s raised by eagles - okay, probably by birds like eagles - and the story proceeds through his forbidden romance with the daughter of the Governor of Kabul. As in so many great myths, the young hero needs to answer riddles as part of the courtship. Of course, love conquers all.

The shadow puppetry in Feathers of Fire is marvelous, absolutely terrific. It’s finely wrought, so delicate that we don’t understand how the puppeteers do it. There are wonderful stylized details - fractal clouds, a classically curled beard on the Father - even the fur on the Father’s collar is clear, even the lace on the Queen’s shawl.

The characters are voiced. The shadows - 160 puppets are used - are mostly black, but they have color in them, beautifully blended, as in the women’s hair and dress. There’s a soothsayer, an astrologer, and a couple of vizirs. There’s a winged lion and a terrifying sea monster. The backgrounds (video projections) are in color, with the detailed anarchy of vegetation - beautiful flowers - contrasting with the regular symmetry of buildings. Pillars pass across the screen evenly paced, and minarets define space. It’s as if mankind imposes beautiful order on the beautiful chaos of nature. Unfortunately, the buildings in the background sometimes - only sometimes - take on the flat quality of the computer screen.

Unfortunately, the script doesn’t match the excellence of the graphics. This super-stylized form, shadow puppetry, demands an equally stylized language - singing perhaps (some early shadow puppetry was accompanied by chant), or iambic pentameter. The Shahnameh itself has been translated into impressive iambic pentameter, beginning:
His reign was thirty years, and o'er the earth
He spread the blessings of paternal sway;
Wild animals, obsequious to his will,
Assembled round his throne, and did him homage. 

However, in Feathers of Fire we get the patterns of day-to-day speech, simultaneously prosaic and awkward. We hear awful lines like “I’m in love. Is that a sin?” and “It is clear as day.” The word “guru” is used, an anachorism. Moreover, the voice of the young hero is too old for the character.

Mr. Rahmanian has co-written the play with Vikas Menon. The marvelous puppets are handcrafted by Neda Kazemifar and Spica Wobbe, and the costumes are designed by Dina Zarif. There’s some lovely music by Loga Ramin Torkian and Azam Ali. 

Feathers of Fire is wonderful to watch, a sort of live animation, and we’d like to see more of this shadow puppetry, perhaps coupled with verse.

Steve Capra
September 2018

Tuesday, August 14, 2018


photo by Kait Ebinger

The Scandinavian American Theater Company is presenting a solo play by Lisa Langseth called Beloved at The Lion Theatre at Theatre Row. The actress, Elinor DiLorenzo, presents us with Katerina, a rather common young woman who gets scooped up by a high-class orchestra conductor named Adam after she takes a job as a receptionist at the concert hall. She tells us about Mathias, the guy she used to live with, and the step-by-step development of her relationship with Adam that makes her leave him. 

Katerina’s not well-educated to the arts, but she falls in love with classical music, particularly Mahler, and her seduction by Adam is just one element of this larger life transition she’s telling us about. Playwright and actress do a great job of showing us more of Katerina than she can see herself. She tells us repeatedly that she’s not stupid. Her monologue is not sprinkled but rather iced with obscenities (rather overly so). When she tells us the ultra-sophisticated artist has fallen for her, we see that she’s deluded. The technique is s a type of irony.

The play is very nicely directed by Charlotte Barslund, whose main accomplishment is to cast Ms. DiLorenzo and to get a strong performance out of an actress whose chief experience has been in stand-up. The show is well blocked and well paced. Katerina doesn’t reveal too much too soon. Indeed, it takes 45 minutes for us to learn her name. Unfortunately, Ms. Barslund inexplicably mixes classical and rock music in the sound overlay.

Katerina is a nervous young woman, to say the least. Ms. DiLorenzo speaks so quickly that we can scarcely keep up with her. What’s more, her voice, although soft, is harsh. Her speech is a dead giveaway that she’ll never achieve the sophistication she strives for. I was reminded of that passage in Madame Bovary in which Flaubert tells us that Emma has a peasant’s hands.

Katerina is in that class of fascinating characters who nearly achieve self-awareness - but not quite. Speaking of women, she dismissively says “They don’t want equality. They just want to be taken.”

The actress’ moment-to-moment life is emotionally grounded, with a smooth flow. We don’t like her much as pity her - and here, along with terror, is the Aristotelean catharsis in this modest play.

And then there’s the unexplained. Katerina’s packing. To go where? We never find out. Very nice. 

The cluttered set has books, a awful white chair, a very nice sofa, a table with a chair, a floor mirror and a balcony above. Oddly, there’s an anomalous chandelier, although Katerina is living in her grandmother’s cottage.

The script is perceptive and articulate, critical of Katerina while letting us identify with her. But the playwright makes two serious errors. A critical plot event is so ridiculous as to be unbelievable. Moreover, there’s an intensely graphic description of the sex act. Pornography is not art.

Nonetheless. Beloved is well done and well received. A solo piece is difficult, and The Scandinavian American Theater Company’s portrait of a victim has mystery and depth.

Steve Capra

August 2018

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Blue Room

Arthur Schnitzler (Austrian) wrote La Ronde (German title Reigen) in 1897, but it was so scandalous that it wasn’t formally produced until 1920, in Berlin. Schnitzler was charged with obscenity - it was too much even for the Weimar Republic - and he withdrew it from production. 

La Ronde - need I say? - focuses on sex. It’s the rare example of a play without structure that works perfectly, and this is so because of its concept. There are ten scenes, each centering round the act of sex. One character in the first scene shows up in the second with a new partner; the character we just met in the second scene shows up in the third with a new partner, and so on. The girl in the first scene, whom we did not see again in the second scene, we meet again in the tenth, to complete the ring.

David Hare adapted La Ronde into a play called The Blue Room, first produced in London in 1998. It’s designed to be performed by one actor and one actress, each playing five roles. I’ve never understood how this choice was supposed to improve on the source material. Part of the point of La Ronde is that these characters are all different from another, sex being the equalizer, the common denominator. The biggest problem is that all the characters become, of course, more or less the same age. Still, it’s a very good play in concept, characters and dialogue. Schnitzler’s play has been updated, but without conceptual change.

The Bridge Production Group is presenting a very nice production of The Blue Room in a tiny space, The Whitebox Art Gallery. Max Hunter directs himself and Christina Toth, and they work well together. She is gorgeous and effortlessly sexy; he has a profile that we might find on an Assyrian coin.

The show is sexy without ever being vulgar. Ms. Toth could seduce an iceberg, but even as a prostitute she never falls into cheap cliche. Indeed, she has her best moment as a young hooker almost too shy too ask for her pay.

There’s a marvelous moment when Mr. Hunter, after his new mistress has left, says “I’m fucking a married woman!” It reminded me of Emma Bovary’s self-congratulatory line, “I have a lover!”

As is so often the case, the play’s best moment occurs when we know more than the characters. When the politician admits that he’s cheating on his wife, the model says “I’m sure she cheats on you”. He rejects the remark, but we know better.

The cast is not without faults. Ms.Toth overdoes the breathless mumbling so that we lose some of the lines and Mr. Hunter falls into cliche at moments (how does an actor portray a character named simply “The Aristocrat” in the 21st century?). But they eschew affectation or heavy-handed characterization. They create privacy - no, intimacy - only a few feet from the audience, with a marvelous moment-to-moment life. Mr. Hunter’s direction is sharp and dignified (Ms. Toth bares her breasts only briefly). He presents some scenes in semi-darkness, and Mr. Hare’s dialogue is handled subtly.

Congratulations to The Bridge Production Group - not least for putting up with the  paintings that Whitebox has hanging on the walls. The sexy movie footage from old movies that Bridge projects before the show helps a lot.

Steve Capra
July 2018

Friday, July 6, 2018

The Property

Photo by Hunter Canning

Ben Josephson ’s play The Property, presented by New Light Theater Project at The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, centers around a weak-willed woman, Irene, whose tenant - he’s renting the cottage - offers an enticing alternative to her nerdy husband, Eddie. Her self-absorbed high-school son, Todd, is no comfort to her, and her overbearing ex-husband, Vernon - he’s returned after 16 years - is a liability.
The play is essentially plotless. The relationships and the lack of overt action suggest Uncle Vanya, but Chekhov’s characters are actually doing things beneath the stasis, and they’re steeped in the activities of daily life. Mr. Josephson’s characters do nothing but talk, mostly about themselves. The play’s divided into three acts, each of about a half-hour. Greg and Vernon show up in Act One, and it’s a long stretch until the next piece of action, in Act II.
There is, at least, some interesting characterization in the dialogue. “You, mother, are a mess and you’re making a mess of me,” Todd says, revealing a self-awareness we don’t expect from him. And when he calls his step-dad “a lunky-headed, tiresome fool,” he himself seems shocked at what he’s said, and we see him mature in an instant.
The production is saved by its excellent cast. Rachel Botchan is so endearing as the unassuming Irene that we like her immediately, and Phil Gallen gives an insightful performance as Todd. The actor playing Vernon, however, is all bluster, and his long, unstructured speech is tiresome. The role is written without contractions, at odds with the buffoonery of the character.
A skin-head young man named J.J. appears in the last act, and Matthew ZanFanga is terrific in the role, which is essentially a monologue (Eddie is too drunk to talk to the young man). He exits without leaving a trace of himself on the play, and we’re disappointed that Mr. ZanFanga hasn’t been given more to do.
Robert Kalfin, likewise helps us through the play’s inertia with sensitive direction. He does something strange and intriguing at the opening of the third act. Several months have passed, and Irene and Eddie seem to have adjusted to the disappointments of life with a sort of strained, forced happiness. This explains the insipid fantasy of happiness that is Caitlynn Barrett’s set. It’s simultaneously indoors and outdoors: the parlor furniture is backed by a suspiciously blue sky, with a gable floating gayly over it. A white tree adds surreal mystery.
The program tells us the playwright is a family physician, as if this odd note, suggesting Chekhov, were some sort of defense. The Property succeeds in spite of the script, and New Light has done a nice job with it.
Steve Capra
June 2018

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Cyprus Avenue

photo by Roa Kavanagh

The Public Theater has brought across the Atlantic Cyprus Avenue from The Abbey Theatre, Dublin, and The Royal Court Theatre, London. David Ireland has written a 100-minute piece that starts as a black comedy and morphs into serious tragedy.

In late middle age, poor Eric, a Protestant in Belfast, has been having trouble sleeping. The insomnia triggers a psychotic episode, and we watch as his delusion develops. He has a new granddaughter, Mary Mae, who looks like Gerry Adams, the Catholic political leader (and, some would say, terrorist sympathizer). No! He decides Mary Mae is Gerry Adams! Worse, he’s always considered himself British, but now he worries that he himself might be - gasp! - Irish.

From then on, it’s an unswerving downward trajectory. Eric befriends Slim, a Protestant paramilitarist out on his first job, which is to kill Eric because he’s been raving on the park. Eric talks him out of this, and, by way of compensation, invites him to kill Mary Mae.

The play starts with a scene in a psychiatric hospital. “Why are you a nigger?” he asks his black therapist, Bridget, with no intent to be offensive. Most of the rest is flashback, although Mr. Ireland returns to the hospital a few times, including in the last scene, when Eric explains “Without prejudice we’re nothing. If we don’t discriminate, we don’t survive.” 

When he’s not there or in the park, Eric is at home with his wife, his daughter and Mary Mae, and it’s there that most of the delusion is revealed. It starts innocently as obsession. The Catholics have all the good songs, he reflects on When Irish Eyes are Smiling; “A Protestant’s eyes never smile unless it’s absolutely necessary.” Bill O’Reilly, Barak Obama, The Pope - all of them Catholic. Then it all deteriorates into a meltdown.

Mr. Ireland is a skillful playwright, cleansing our emotions with comedy before exposing them to pity and terror. He enjoys Irish phrasing - “I’m ready for murderin’ this man” Eric’s wife says. And he suspends a sense of mystery over Eric by having no one call him by his name until a half-hour into the play. Indeed, I think that no one calls his wife by her name as listed in the program at all.

The problem is that nothing precipitates the psychosis. All we know of is the insomnia that Eric complains of early in the play. The plot needs more of a trigger.

All the work on stage is terrific, polished to the glossy patina we expect from that side of theAtlantic. The leading man, Stephen Rea, has impeccable technique. His speech ranges from subtlety to fireworks; his physical life is emotionally grounded, never false. But he’s been directed to yell too much. A scene can only afford to reach a mad pitch for a few moments, and Mr. Rea remains there too long. There’s more to psychosis than shouting.

The rest of the cast is superb as well - Ronke Adekoluejo as the patient, professional Bridget, Andrea Irvine as Eric’s wife who orders him out, Amy Molloy as his distraught daughter. As Slim, Chris Corrigan plays a complex character, a common hitman who quotes Plato and refers to Catholics as “latter-day Machiavell’s”. And they all sound delicious in their Irish dialect.

Director Vicky Featherstone keeps everything moving along quickly. At first, it’s the pace of comedy, and then we experience the same rate of words-per-minute as the out-of-control thrust of fate. It’s unfortunate that she depends on volume to make the point about Eric’s insanity, but she modulates everything well otherwise. He sits on the park bench for a long time before he gets up and starts darting around, and his scenes with his daughter are subtle and well structured.

The stage area cuts the audience in two. The simple set might be reconsidered. It’s violent white and limits the emotional tones on stage.

But Cyprus Avenue is a great import. It’s not hard to extend its points to certain personalities in this country - God knows! Mr. Ireland is writing new plays for The Abbey and The Royal Court. Let’s hope the productions make their way across the pond as well.

Steve Capra

June 2018

Friday, June 22, 2018


photo by Joan Marcus

What a strange set of inexplicable choices director Ruben Santiago-Hudson has made in The Public Theater’s production of Othello at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park! He has, first of all, cast a black actor in the role of Roderigo. There’s no point in Othello’s being a black man if he’s not the only black man in the story. The entire subtext of racism that runs through the play is lost, and Brabantio’s outrage at his daughter’s marriage is ill-explained. The beating of the play’s heart has been stopped. This is Shakespeare victimized by political correctness.

Secondly, Mr. Santiago-Hudson has cut Othello’s epileptic seizure, although he’s retained most of the scene in which it occurs. We never  see the intensity of The Moor’s emotions, particularly not his state of mind before he commits the murder.

In fact, Mr. Santiago-Hudson has cut considerably, both through fine pruning and large hacking. A couple of the shortest scenes disappear completely, such as II, 2. Now, he can make a good case for this cutting. With a 20-minute intermission, the production still runs three hours. But what misconceived aesthetic has led him to cut one line from rhymed couplets that end a scene? For example, the suggestive couplet ending I, 3 reads The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue - That profit's yet to come 'tweene me, and you. In this production, however, Othello says simply The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue. 

It’s as if Mr. Santiago-Hudson wants to undercut decorum and move toward realism. But he ends the play with Othello’s line No way but this - Killing myself, to die upon a kiss, although the scene as written continues for a dozen lines. On this stage, the ending is formal, not real. On the other hand, at one point Cassio and Bianca talk at the same time in one scene. 

All of this cutting is one reason that Othello’s convincement is unbelievable. He succumbs to suspicion too easily - and goodness knows he succumbs to suspicion easily enough even with the entire script.

What’s more, Mr. Santiago-Hudson has cast Chukwudi Iwuji in the title role, and he plays Othello like a petulant brat. Having brought Othello before the Duke, Brabantio says of Desdemona And she … To fall in love with what she feared to look on! At this line, Othello gives a smirking smile to the assembly. We have no respect for this character. He doesn’t fall from higher state to a lower state during the course of the tragedy. He starts low and stays there. Even at the end of the play, after he’s learned what Iago has done, he seems to have learned nothing and his line Then must you speak - Of one that loved not wisely, but too well, falls flat.

Mr. Iwuji aside, the acting in the production is first-rate. Heather Lind makes a great Desdemona, young, smart and pushy. As Brabantio, Miguel Perez manages to say lines like O heaven! How got she out? O treason of the blood! believably, with commitment but without histrionics. And Babak Tafti gives a strong performance as a weak character, Cassio.

Iago, as played by Corey Stoll, is a Boy Scout, and it’s a great performance. He could easily deceive you or me. It’s so tempting to play Iago as oily and villainous that it’s grand to see him played as a Nice Boy. He doesn’t change when addressing the audience; there’s no intimacy. The key to his performance is found in one short line. When Iago kills Roderigo, Shakespeare gives him a cryptic line: Kill men i’ th’ dark? Mr. Stoll delivers the line, plunging the knife, with such sadistic pleasure that we see for a fleeting instant the congenital evil in the character. It’s beneath motivation, reptilian.

But the audience titters with - though not at - this Iago, and otherwise vocalize as much as to say “Ooh, what a villain”? They titter, for example, at his line to Othello To be direct and Honest is not safe. American audiences love to laugh, and they know the Othello story, so they distance themselves from the play.

The pace is clean, and every moment is focussed. The design is traditional: Desdemona’s wearing a lovely Elizabethan dress and the actors to a man are in leather pants. The set is marvelous, visually - seven arches behind six arches - and it moves for the Council Chamber. Unfortunately, it doesn’t change to indicate Cyprus, which, paradoxically, looks just like Venice. The least a set could do is to indicate setting.

And so the production is enjoyable - but, then, so is Neil Simon. There’s no tragedy here, only a well-played melodrama. But Free Shakespeare in the Park is always wonderful, with that one bright star - or maybe it’s Venus - over the stage, and the stage itself glowing - Wonderful!

Steve Capra

June, 2018

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