Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Category: Adaptations From Great Authors Page 2 of 6

Review | The Burial At Thebes | By Seamus Heaney | From Sophocles’ Antigone | Directed by Charlotte Moore | Irish Repertory Theatre

… don’t bother …

Sophocles’ Antigone is among the greatest plays ever written, Seamus Heaney is a Nobel Prize winning poet, and Irish Repertory Theatre produces wonderful shows with outstanding actors.  How then did The Burial At Thebes turn out to be a  poor derivative of Antigone, with amateurish acting?

Since their usual theater is under renovation, Irish Rep produced this elsewhere but I don’t see that would explain this disappointing production.

The basic story line is here:  After the death of Oedipus, Creon has become King in ancient Thebes and Oedipus’ daughters, Antigone and Ismene, are living there. Oedipus’ son, Polynices, leads a futile attempt to overthrow King Creon and take over the city but Oedipus’ other son, Eteocles, fights to defend Creon and Thebes. The two brothers meet in battle and slay one another.   Eteocles, receives a hero’s burial but Creon decrees that the traitor, Polynices, shall receive no burial but be left exposed, carrion for the birds and dogs.  As when Achilles refused Hector burial in the Iliad, this is an ultimate indignity, a violation of Greek burial practices and a religious desecration.

Oedipus’ daughter Antigone, inspired by love for her brother and profound religious principle buries Polynices.  In Sophocles, she covers him with “handfuls of dry dust” and pours libations which suffice symbolically, but Heaney has the poor girl do some serious — though hard to visualize — digging.   Creon vows to execute Antigone for her insubordination.

In a breathtaking confrontation, Sophocles shows Creon arguing for the primacy of laws made by men – here his own arbitrary decrees – and the virtue of obedience for the valuable purpose of keeping order in cities.  Antigone, admitting she disobeyed his laws, claims she acted rightly according to higher, divine, eternal laws.  It’s a great dramatic argument but no one is persuaded, and the play marches on toward its excess-driven tragic conclusion.

Although the characters and their motivations are filled with ambiguities, the argument between Antigone and Creon has been interpreted as a confrontation between freedom and tyranny.  Antigone is often seen as a principled, inspirational beacon of liberation facing down a dictator.  This was understood tacitly, for example, when Jean Anouilh produced his adaptation of Antigone in Paris during World War, during the Nazi occupation of France (George Steiner takes up Anouilh’s play and other variations on the theme in his book, Antigones).  Heaney, here, relates the Antigone-Creon conflict to America’s entry into the Iraq war.  This is so forced it makes one impatient:  whatever one’s opinion of George Bush or the war in Iraq, there’s no analogy.

While several of the actors have impressive resumes, the overall sense of the acting is amateurish.  Actors whom I’ve seen do outstanding work in other plays, including at Irish Rep, are insufficient here, and the accents are all over the place.  Rod Brogan rises above the general level and is exciting as the Messenger who has the sorry task of bearing bad news.

The poetry is strongest in some lyrical passages where Heaney draws directly on Sophocles’ imagery but elsewhere it seems to lack imagination.  I heard the cliché “beyond the pale” used three times in referring to arrogant action, which felt like poetic fatigue.  Heaney truncates important aspects of Antigone, including the famous choral “ode to man,” as it’s often called, and draws others out too long.

The best thing that Heaney did here was to not call this play Antigone.   Still, I worry that people will see this and think they’ve seen Antigone.  They haven’t.

The Burial At Thebes plays at the DR2 Theatre near Manhattan’s Union Square through March 6, 2016.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Jean Lichty at the early feminist NORA, and Todd Gearhart as her husband, Torvald in Bergman's NORA after Ibsen's A Doll's House

Review | Nora | by Ingmar Bergman | After Ibsen’s A Doll’s House | Directed by Austin Pendleton

… a doll’s household … 

Jean Lichty at the early feminist NORA, and Todd Gearhart as her husband, Torvald in Bergman's NORA after Ibsen's A Doll's House

Todd Gearhart as Torvald and Jean Lichty as Nora. Photo Carol Rosegg

In the name of “crystallization,” Bergman’s paring down of Ibsen’s compelling play with its early feminist theme sticks to the plot but gives us fewer ways to know the characters.  It puts major, inner change on fast forward — making for an unconvincing drama.

In trimming down the play, Bergman omits the servants and the three children.  We’re told once that the children are with the nanny but never see Nora with her children, so when, in leaving Thorwald, she abandons her children, any conflict she may have is totally distant.  And how do these people eat?  She doesn’t cook or clean, a small mending job seems beyond her, and no servants appear either:  there’s no sense of a functioning household, although the nature of this doll’s house – and doll’s household — is of central importance.

In eliminating the nanny, Anne-Marie, Bergman has omitted a character with thematic importance in Ibsen’s play.  Anne-Marie had cared for Nora as a child and now tends Nora’s children and, for this employment, had given up her own, illegitimate  daughter to the care of others. Ann-Marie’s story is important enough for Nora to call it a “tragedy.”

Anne-Marie’s story is a thought provoking counterpoint to Nora’s. own story  As a woman of the lower class, under duress of poverty and the stigma of an illegitimate child, Anne-Marie gave up her daughter in order to take on the position of caring for children better placed in society.  Nora gives hers up in order to fulfill her thrust toward freedom and self actualization.  Is one kind of duress more powerful than the other?  More worthy?  More easy to accept?

In another inflection of the theme of motherhood, Nora’s childless friend Christine joins the widowed Nils Krogstad so that his children will have a mother and she will have a purpose in caring for others:  elimination of the character of Anne-Marie severs one leg from this tripod of meanings.

Torvald looses much of his sexist pomposity in Bergman’s version, making him less obnoxious, and more attractive, and more like a man who could pay attention.  Yes, he let Nora down but, as Christine knows, nobody’s perfect including her marginally criminal Krogstad.  But that has no effect on Nora.

Bergman sets the final confrontation between Torvald and Nora in the marital bedroom , a good idea but it’s here awkwardly staged.  Under the onslaught of Nora’s defiant speech – she’s dressed to leave, he’s nude in a super obvious  visualization of his new vulnerability —  this mature man  “covers up his nakedness” like a sinful Adam, wrapping himself in a blanket.  And since he seems like a man who could perhaps learn, Nora’s adamant decision harder than ever to accept.

The upshot is, he looks like a jerk and she seems cuckoo.

Events unfold so fast  in this trimmed version that Nora’s lengthy speech to Torvald at the end, in which she explains that how she must free herself in order to come to know herself, seems ideological — she sounds like she just completed a course on feminism —  rather than being an emanation of her developing character.

Nora, Torvald, Christine and Krogstad are almost always on stage, moving back and to the fore as their scenes are foreground, giving a good sense of the tight link between past and present.  Jean Lichty brings out the flighty responsiveness and also the womanly strength of Nora – she reminded me of Jennifer Jones as Madame Bovary.  Todd Gearhart manages to convey Torvald’s sense of male entitlement with humor and wit.

Jean Lichty as the early feminist Nora and George Morfogen as Dr. Rank, whose in love with her.

Jean Lichty as Nora and George Morfogen as Dr. Rank. Photo Carol Rosegg

Larry Bull is appropriately menacing as Nils Krogstad, who turns gently tender when he recognizes another possibility with Christine Linde, played by Andrea Cirie.  The role of the mortally ill Dr. Rank is shortened in Bergman’s version but George Morfogen provides so rich and touching and totally believable a characterization of the smitten but dignified old man he fascinates and looms large.  I’ve seen him in many roles and never better.   Federick L. and Lise-Lone Marker’s translation  from Swedish finds the fine theatrical balance between generalized modern English and the special way people who know each other well, as all of these characters do, use language to express their connectedness.

NORA plays at the Cherry Lane Studio Theatre in Manhattan’s East Village through December 12, 2015.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Review | Songbird | Based on Chekhov’s The Seagull | Written by Michael Kimmel | Songs by Lauren Pritchard | Directed by JV Mercanti

… a terrific new musical is born …

Here is a really amazing idea – Songbird  is a country music musical based in Chekhov’s The Seagull.  While it stays quite close to the plot of the symbolist and heavily psychological end-of-the-19th century Russian drama, it soars on its own life-affirming wings. This exciting production with its all star-quality cast of singer-musician-actors, is set in Jason Sherwood’s stunningly beautiful interpretation of a honky-tonk bar, topped by gorgeously illuminated whiskey bottles in multi colors.

After a meteoric rise to fame, country music singer Tammy Trip, marvelously played, sung and danced by Kate Baldwin, returns to her roots near Nashville and the son she left behind who has been cared for by her best friend, Pauline.  Tammy brings in tow her lover, the famous commercial songwriter Beck (Eric William Morris).  Although she’s only a local, doing her singing in church, Pauline, played by Erin Dilly, is as terrific a country music singer as Tammy.  This show is absolutely filled with music!

When her aspiring and clearly nervous song-writer son, Dean (Adam Cochran) and his girlfriend, Mia (Ephie Aardema), sing his new song, a mournful melody without pep, bulldozer Tammy is openly amused, bored and disruptive, humiliating him in front of everyone, a hard scene to watch, though beautifully played.

In despair, Dean goes off alone while most everyone else including Beck, Tammy’s brother Soren (Bob Stillman), Pauline and her husband Samuel Andy Taylor) , Pauline’s lover Doc (Drew McVety) and her daughter, Missy (Kacie Sheik) who loves Dean but eventually — in contrast to those characters in the play who, with varying results, refuse to settle — “settles” in her marriage with Rip (Don Guillory). Everybody’s family here, and everybody is completely musical, picking up guitars off the wall to accompany the singing – or the violin, tambourine, ukulele, mandolin and cello.

And where’s the seagull?  A bluebird (of happiness) Dean hits with his truck stands in for the seagull but Mia – standing in for Chekhov’s ingénue Nina — has no patience with his grief, caught up with the glamour of the big-time visitors, envisioning a country music singing career for herself, and infatuated with the famous songwriter, Beck, with results that parallel those in Chekhov.

For all the connections with Chekhov, and all the story’s rich complexities of pure art and commerce, new forms and convention, love and jealousy, betrayal and death, the tone of SONGBIRD lifts off from the moody symbolism of Chekhov’s play into its own joy, rising on the wings of songs wonderful at the time they’re heard, though hard to remember after, and a clever, witty book.  I have to think that – once he caught on to the idea — Chekhov would have loved SONGBIRD.

SONGBIRD plays at 59E59 Theaters through November 29, 2015, extended to December 6th, 2015, and I’m sure that’s just the beginning for this terrific show — it doesn’t seem like a work in progress – it’s already all there.   For more information and tickets, click here.

Review | Travels With My Aunt | Based on Graham Greene’s Novel | Adapted by Giles Havergal | Directed by Jonathan Silverstein | Clurman Theatre

… the numinous fluidity of paintings in WW II … 

A stuffy, inhibited 50-year old British banker, Henry, meets up with his mother’s sister, 75-year old Aunt Augusta, at his mother’s funeral and is drawn by her into traveling to far away places and a new view of life with this free-wheeling, libertine, and slightly criminal Aunt.

The first surprise Augusta has up her sleeve is that Henry’s mother, whose ash urn he is clutching, was not really his mother.

Who is his mother?  We know right off the bat.  But it takes Henry the full play to find out.

After that, every venue holds a new surprise.  At Augusta’s home, Henry meets Wordsworth, her Black lover from Sierra Leone.  In a mini-trip to Brighton, he encounters aspects of Augusta’s colorful early life, and on to Paris, and Istanbul via the Orient Express where Augusta’s full love life and involvement with shady characters continues to unfold.  For awhile, it seems too much for Henry who returns home to care for his garden, shades of Voltaire, but eventually Augusta’s siren’s call draws him to South America, and to new revelations and a new life.

The four outstanding actors — Thomas Jay Ryan, Jay Russell, Dan Jenkins and Rory Kulz —  play multiple roles, morphing at the drop of a hat into other characters, often in mid sentence.   It’s particularly fascinating to watch Thomas Jay Ryan “turn into” Henry and Aunt Augusta, again often in mid sentence, switching genders but maintaining an ironic amusement.  In this he provides the key to the play — ironic amusement is needed from the audience as well.

The play is saturated with an intriguing numinous fluidity of gender, race, age and nationality as the four male, White actors spread out among the many characters.  Mostly, though, what keeps one sometimes laughing, other times somewhat interested, is that what’s far-fetched, unlooked for and just plain wild keeps bumping up against straight-faced and placid responses, as in a comedy routine.

Of the main characters, only Wordsworth, Aunt Augusta’s Black lover from Sierra Leone, is played by one actor, Dan Jenkins who, to give you an idea, plays eight other parts as well.  That the actors succeed is the tour-de-force that makes this play worth seeing.

The characters are types, not fully realized individuals:  instead of caring about them, we wait for them to amuse us.  Only the African, Wordsworth comes across as genuine, a reflection of the novel’s point of view about “civilized” artificialities.  Perhaps that’s why he’s the only character played by a single actor and the only one you feel for.

In this and in other ways we can find fragments of thought that propelled the novel, but generally the novel’s ideas are submerged.  This production is all about style, and about four actors who play a multitude of parts with arch humor and perfect timing.

… And, p.s.  I don’t find that criminals profiting from paintings purloined by the Nazi’s during World War II good stuff for amusement.

Travels With My Aunt, produced by the Keen Company, plays at The Clurman at Theater Row on West 42nd Street in Manhattan through November 14, 2015.

Review | Iphigenia in Aulis from Euripides | Transadaptation by Anne Washburn | Classic Stage Company

… Lucidity …

Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis is a very great play and its force comes across in this production.  It leaves you shaken by the tragic, and elated.

The play’s force lies in the extraordinary power of Euripides’ mind, and the experience of seeing the play in this production by Classic Stage is mind-to-mind, his and yours.  What a privilege!

The Greek army is on its way to Troy when its ships are becalmed at Aulis.  For days on end no winds arise to fill the sails.  The army is frustrated, morale is low.  A seer reveals to Agamemnon, the Greek leader, that there will be no wind until Agamemnon sacrifices his own virginal daughter, Iphigenia – sacrifice as in slit her throat on altar — to appease the gods who are angry for their own reasons.  Goaded to fulfill the gods’ demand by his brother Menelaus (some nerve, it’s to bring Menelaus’ wife, Helen, back from Troy that Greeks have raised this army) Agamemnon sends for Iphigenia, using the ruse that he’s arranged her marriage with Achilles.

Agamemnon is agonized.  He has second thoughts and even seems near to changing his mind about the sacrifice until Fate moves his hand.  Faster than he expected, Iphigenia arrives in Aulis, and not alone but with her mother and his wife, Clytemnestra – of course they came quickly, they’re excited about the brilliant marriage.

The Greek army is excited too, but for the opposite, deadly reason:  the sacrificial virgin that will get them out of this desolate place has arrived — kill her and let’s get on to Troy!  Agamemnon, under pressure from his brother, the army, and his need to save face – his reasons are never totally clear — decides he must move forward with the sacrifice.  The ambiguities of Agamemnon’s motivation are part of the power of the play.

And Iphigenia is, yes, actually sacrificed by having her throat cut … Miracle of miracles! — the messenger reports that at the least moment an animal appeared for the sacrifice on the altar, and, as a vision, Iphigenia’s moved on to a better place!  (Or did she?  To know the answer to that, you have to read Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris.)  And the winds rise, the Greeks can sail.  Although Euripides died before completing the play, the ironies near the end are so powerful one feels he must have sketched them out.  It just takes a genius.

Rob Campbell, playing both Agamemnon and Achilles, is effective at creating the two distinct characters.  His Agamemnon is a centrist powerful male, affecting in conveying the intensity of his conflict.  His Achilles is a youthful tough guy with something of a “Brooklyn” accent that’s amusing, but fills out the character and is not distracting.  I really got a kick out of the way he did it.

Amber Gray is powerful as Clytemnestra whose emotional journey takes her from keen anticipation of the great marriage, to betrayal by her husband and terror and grief at the loss of her daughter.

Kristen Sieh is touching in her main role of Iphigenia, the tender girl just emerging from childhood who shows, in the course of the play, strength and purpose beyond that of any of the male “heroes,” though (reluctantly because she’s a fine performer) I found her visually unconvincing in looking too old for the part.

There is one disappointing aspect of this production — the Mardigras conception of the Chorus, supposed to represent the women of the region, played here by men and women.  They come on as if the play needs more energy, which it doesn’t, and they’re there to provide it – in colorful no-two-the-same everything-goes costumes and exaggerated flowery crowns, singing and dancing to a folk rock score with a lot of repetitive chant beat, composed by The Bengsons.

The chorus includes some fine singers and performers but their choreography by Sonya Taheh involves much circling the central stage with thumping feet and jagged, staccato motions and is repetitive.  The big loss is this:  Euripides’ poetry is largely unheard or turned fragmentary, re-arranged in jazzed up singing.

But Eurpides has weathered more through time than a mis-conceived Chorus.  The play leaves one stunned, breathless, and full of thought.  In spite of all the misadventures that this play has experienced – at Euripides’ death his son or nephew wrote the ending, and since then it’s undergone copying errors and emendations —  Euripides’ voice speaks to us.

No one else could tell us these things, things we must know.  As Anne Washburn, the transadapter writes, “… the mind which shines through it, in all of its terrible and heartbreaking lucidity, is Euripides.”  This is absolutely true.

This production is directed by Rachel Chavkin

Iphigenia in Aulis, a part of Classic Stage’s Greek Festival, plays at Classic Stage in Manhattan’s East Village through October 4, 2015.

Review | Desire | Six Plays Based on Tennessee Williams Short Stories | The Acting Company | 59E59 Theaters

Echoes of Tennessee Williams

Most of these six plays are sketches, some are better than others, and some bring you closer to Williams than others – which isn’t always the same thing.

The Resemblance Between A Violin Case And A Coffin by Beth Henley is about an over-close brother and sister, Tom and Roe, whose hot-house relationship with its submerged sexuality is upended when Roe, who gets her first period on stage complete with blood running down her leg (i.e., she’s reaching sexual maturity), develops an intense crush on a new boy in town, a violinist with whom she’s slated to play a recital.  It’s fun to recognize Williams’ dramatic themes – frail people living in dream worlds and thwarted, immature love. The playwright seems uncertain about what’s really causing his character’s, particularly Roe’s, troubles, and the role imagination plays in his character’s lives.

Tent Worms by Elizabeth Egloff is a distasteful play that didn’t need to exist about failed, nutty people on their annual vacation in Cape Cod – a writer who’s not writing but is going to dangerous excess to kill off tent worms and his editor wife who’s falling apart from the strain.

Mickey Theis and Megan Bartle in You Lied To Me About Centralia. Photo Carol Rosegg

Mickey Theis and Megan Bartle in You Lied To Me About Centralia. Photo Carol Rosegg

In the most arresting play, John Guare’s You Lied To Me About Centralia, a woman, Betty, recounts to her fiancé, Jim, her fruitless attempt to get some money from her wealthy relative so as to buy a house she wants for their married life, the house representing the conventional aspects of marriage. Jim in turn describes his experience while she was out-of-town — a visit to the home of an odd, unpopular (probably gay) co-worker and the co-worker’s fantasy-ridden sister who gave Jim as he left a fragment of a glass animal (the original story’s title is Portrait of a Girl in Glass).  Betty barely understands what he’s trying to express about the encounter, and once she makes sure that the sister isn’t a rival and their marriage is still on, she doesn’t much care.  Jim, inevitably absorbed back into the conventional world, will carry a melancholy memory he’ll never fully understand.  The evocative theme, the sense of nostalgia, the writing (mostly monolog) and the acting, particularly that of Megan Bartle as Betty, the practical woman whose common sense feels burdensome to Jim, brings us closest to Williams, though this play is narrated rather than dramatized – think, in contrast, of The Glass Menagerie.

DESIRE "Desire Quenched by Touch" by Marcus Gardley, after Tennessee Williams

Yaegel T. Welch (top) and John Skelley in Desire Quenched by Touch. Photo Carol Rosegg

In Desire Quenched By Touch (adapted from the story Desire and the Black Masseur), Marcus Gardley tells a story that seems too weird, not that it couldn’t happen – anything can happen in the real world — but theatrically it comes across as forced and implausible.  In New Orleans, a Black masseur, Grand, a gentlemanly, polite man, is being questioned by a detective, Bacon, about a missing person, a young white man who, it’s known, frequented Grand’s massage parlor.  As the story advances, we learn more and more about the young man’s masochistic sexuality and the way he forces (or to does he have to force?) Grand to comply, until … well, I could have done without the ending, and so could the play.  It was well resolved before its gruesome tag end.

Oriflamme by David Grimm, in DESIRE, Six Plays Adapted from Tennessee Williams

Derek Smith and Liv Rooth in David Grimm’s Oriflamme. Photo Heidi Bohnenkamp.

In David Grimm’s  Oriflamme, a sales girl, Anna, has bought herself a clinging, red evening gown and, after walking out of the store wearing it, in daytime, climbs to an isolated high point in the park where she enters a dangerous flirtation with a tough guy, Rodney.  He’s checking out the racing form but is alert for sexual adventure when Anna appears in the slinky red dress.  Amused by Anna’s high-falutin talk, disbelieving her talk of being “pure,” he’s ready to take advantage of her obvious emotional fragility.  You watch Oriflamme thinking of Streetcar Named Desire so it’s worth saying that Liv Rooth could do a good job as Blanche in Streetcar.

The final play, The Field Of Blue Children by Rebecca Gilman, has the audience leaving happy.  A young poet, Dylan, and a sorority girl, Layley, meet in a poetry class she signed up for because she had a sense of not having the words to express things she feels inside.  Their mutual attraction leads to a scene of hilarious sexual farce, marvelously played by Liv Rooth as Layley and John Skelley as Dylan:  tucked in under her gown, he performs oral sex on her while she’s standing up in the park, with her rattling off a patter of every day thoughts punctuated with exclamations as things heat up, using commonplace words and sentences to manage, and ultimately express (with a Joycean “yes”) the intensity of her pleasure. It’s plenty to make Dylan fall in love with her, but will she yield to the call of the poet?  Or end up with her conventional boyfriend?  If you look for it, you’ll find, as in Oriflamme, the unconventional (male) in an underdog battle with convention (female), but the Williams theme was drowned out by the titillating hilarity – and everybody loved it!

So one leaves laughing … but with a question:   Why adapt short stories of a great, prolific playwright into plays?  Tennessee Williams’ many one-act plays , reflecting themes in his major works, are often produced, for example, the three wonderful one-act plays — 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, Hello From Bertha, and This Property is Condemned — played together under the title Something Wild recently reviewed here. Echoes of Williams’ rich characters and fascinating conflicts draw you in to some of the plays in DESIRE, but at times the evening flagged.  And none of these plays matches the quality and force of Williams’ own short plays.  For gosh sakes, if Williams wanted these stories as plays, he would have written the plays – and he did.

DESIRE is directed by Michael Wilson, and produced by The Acting Company.  It plays at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan through October 10, 2015.

DESIRE Six plays adapted from Short Stories by Tennessee Williams

John Skelley and Megan Bartle in Rebecca Gilman’s The Field of Blue Children. Photo Carol Rosegg

Review | A Month In the Country by Ivan Turgenev | Translated by John Christopher Jones | Directed by Erica Schmidt | Classic Stage Company

This is a stunning, constantly amusing, and deeply intelligent production of Turgenev’s iconic play about realism, romanticism and love.

Set at a country estate in Russia in the 1840’s, it features a grand group of characters, young and old, male and female, aristocrat and peasant enmeshed, each in his or her own way, in love.  I’ve read that Turgenev, best known as a novelist, didn’t like this play of his but I think he must have enjoyed working out this witty and thorough set of variations on his theme.  True, the family’s little boy, Kolya, isn’t in love — but the playwright saw to it he had a bow and arrow to play with, Cupid personified.

Natalya, the lovely wife of the wealthy owner of the estate, is the central presence and a stunning characterization of a woman on the verge of hysteria.  Taylor Schilling is fascinating in the role of Natalya.  Her laugh comes fast, loud and shrill — thinning out to strained control.  Her voice careens. She flirts with, and insults, Mikhail, the family friend who’s hopelessly in love with her.

And now she is herself absurdly and shamefully in love.  A woman with everything including beauty, wealth, a nicely growing child and a devoted husband, she’s driven to give it all up for Aleksei, her son’s summer-time tutor played by Mike Faist, a pleasant but ordinary and much younger man.  As Aleksei fashioned a bow and arrow to keep his charge amused, love fashions for Natalya those ecstatic certainties that ignore danger.

In A Month In The Country there’s first love, young love, lustful and fulfilled love — as well as lustful and unfulfilled love.  There’s calculating love, skillful love, clumsy love, even (I’m so relieved!) mature and dedicated love.

Mikhail, a close friend of Natalya’s  husband, is eternally in love with Natalya.  He’s given to poetic metaphors, and, most interesting in terms of 19th century thinking, to attributing human feelings to nature — the very essence of “the pathetic fallacy” of romantic literature and art.  Natalya ridicules Mikhail’s flights of fancy: intellectually she’s a hard bitten realist, though totally betrayed by her anarchic psychology.  Mikhail is played by the fine actor, Peter Dinklage, an achondroplastic dwarf: his manly presence and deep voice frame his love for the tall, gorgeous Natalya but — a cat can look at a king — his small stature and dwarf proportions intensify his passion’s poignant futility.

J. Jered Janas’ hair designs are unusually expressive, witty and fun to watch.  Mikhail’s overgrown tangle of dark hair conveys his romantic, vitalistic sense of nature, like thick, impenetrable woods in a romantic painting.  Watch how when Natalya is struggling to hold herself together, her upswept hair is awry — those stray strands just won’t stay pinned — but when her mood turns joyous, the change in her hair style is so effective it elicits a collective gasp from the audience.  As Natalya’s young ward, Vera, emerges from youth to womanhood, her unbound hair is swept upward into into modish, pinned swirls — Natalya’s style, but for this determined young woman, every hair stays in place.

The ensemble acting, the set, the lighting, and the costumes are subtle and thought out with wondrous focus in this perfect production.  The backdrop is of particular interest:  it’s an all-over image of a thick forest, creating the venue of a landed estate.  It also reflects the play’s thematic exploration of the conflict between realism and romanticism  the tangled growth of birch trees suggests a wild romanticism but, let’s be real, the pattern is repeated — it’s wallpaper.

Oh yes … outside of Kolya, there’s one other character unaffected by love, the old Mother:  she’s past it, and content playing — an ultimate variation on the theme of love —  solitaire!

A Month In The Country plays at Classic Stage in Manhattan’s East Village through February 22, 2015.

Review | The Woodsman by James Ortiz | Directed by James Ortiz and Claire Karpen | Music Composed by Edward W. Hardy | Strangeman and Co | In Association with Robb Nanus and Rachel Sussman | 59E59 Theaters

The Woodsman, using actors, puppets, mime and music, gives us back story, based on not well-known writings of Frank Baum, on how the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz came to be:  it’s a rich multi-media hour-long spectacle, but the story ends up pointless.

We’re in eastern Munchkinland where one tiny nuclear family finds a bit of freedom from the domination of the oppressive Witch by living self-sufficiently in a remote section of the woods, making a living by cutting trees.  As the Mother and Father mature and eventually die, young Nick is left on his own, following in his father’s footsteps as a woodsman.

Setting out to find a wife, Nick comes upon — and fast falls in love with -– Nimmee, who turns out to be the evil Witch’s slave. Nick and Nimmee defy the Witch in order to fulfill their love but the Witch retaliates by turning his woodsman’s ax into a magically malevolent weapon that destroys him piece by piece and with stylized but graphic vividness (that some, like me, may find hard to take).  Nick, you could say, gets lots more than a nick.

The talented actors shift roles and move in and out of working with the puppets in fluid fantasy.  Author/director/set and puppet designer James Ortiz as the woodsman Nick meets various challenges effectively and realistically — and he sure can convey physical agony!  In this play that is mostly wordless, Eliza Simpson expresses Nimmee’s range of emotions with exceptional subtlety.  Crow puppets, darkly rising abruptly and rustling with foreboding, a woodland monster, and the wicked old-lady Witch are vivid and wittily designed and worked.

Edward Hardy’s evocative violin music, which he plays throughout, is a real strength of this production.  Clicking fingers, grunts and clucks of the actors create a sometimes distracting (grunts) and often pleasing counterpoint to the violin.

There’s a lot here for puppet lovers, Oz lovers, and those interested in the narrative possibilities of live multi-media.

The Woodsman plays at 59E59 Street theaters in midtown Manhattan through February 22, 2015.

Bray Wilkins and Sarah Beckham Turner in SLOW DUSK. Photo Buckman

Opera Review | Slow Dusk and Markheim by Carlisle Floyd | New Chamber Arrangements by Inessa Zaretsky and Raymond J. Lustig | Little Opera Theatre of NY | 59E59 Theaters

What a wonderful evening of theater.  Two short American operas, narratives set to dramatic music, superbly performed.  One leaves thrilled and elated.

L-R Jennifer Roderer, Sarah Beckham-Turner, Alexander Charles Boyd in SLOW DUSK. Photo Buckman

L-R Jennifer Roderer, Sarah Beckham-Turner, Alexander Charles Boyd in SLOW DUSK. Photo Buckman

Slow Dusk takes us from commonplace to ecstatic, to tragedy, from afternoon to dusk.  Aunt Sue is shelling peas on the porch of a farmhouse in the Carolinas when Jess comes in from the fields, we learn of their concern about their niece, Sadie, who’s seeing to much of Micah — his family belong to the Truelights and they belong to the Disciples, and anyhow she’s smart and he never finished eighth grade.  They’re wild for one another and agree to marry but — not family as in Romeo and Juliet — accident intervenes, as fast as it can in life.

This is Carlisle Floyd’s first opera based on his own short story:  the language is at times over simple but the

Bray Wilkins and Sarah Beckham Turner in SLOW DUSK. Photo Buckman

Bray Wilkins and Sarah Beckham Turner in SLOW DUSK. Photo Buckman

music is bold, strong, apt, and intensifies the drama, and the characterizations are both archetypal and realistic.  (I thought, Eugene O’Neil’s Desire Under the Elms could use Carlisle Floyd’s music.)

The voices might not have carried to the last rows of the Metropolitan Opera house but in this medium sized theater they were overwhelming and very moving.  The acting, direction, costuming and setting are superb.  The impact is powerful.

Wow, am I glad I’m here!  I thought, almost dazed — what’s next?

Next came one of the most impactful performances I’ve ever seen.  Again it’s short, a lot happens , and you’re left breathless and elated.  Markheim, based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, takes you to London 1880, and

L-R Scott Six and Jeremy Milner in MARKHEIM. Photo Buckman

L-R Scott Six and Jeremy Milner in MARKHEIM. Photo Buckman

Christmas Eve, when an elegant man, Markheim,  who has squandered his family fortune enters a pawn shop to raise cash — drug dealers will kill him if he doesn’t pay up.

Here, again, characterizations, narrative and music form a gripping whole.  A confrontation between the pawn dealer and Markheim doesn’t end well as Markheim, who’s spent his life digging himself into a hole goes in deeper.  A mysterious Stranger in evening clothes enters.  Now, I’ve seen some wonderful Devils in theater, from Don Juan in Hell to Faust:  this

L-R Jeremy Milner and Marc Schreiner in MARKHEIM. Photo Buckman

L-R Jeremy Milner and Marc Schreiner in MARKHEIM. Photo Buckman

is the Devil whose Hell I’d really consider.  He’s sly, smart, sophisticated, articulate and choreographically active.  With a Devil likethis, redemption’s a tough sell, though there is a kind of redemption …. with an awful lot of collateral damage.

The night I attended Marc Schreiner played the Stranger and he was so seductively charismatic I’d be reluctant to see anybody else in the part — what sheer fun! — and that goes for all the cast of both operas.   Yet, at the same time I’d like to see the other cast since every aspect of this production is so completely fulfilled I imagine they are equally outstanding.

Because there are two casts, I’m listing here the cast the night I attended:  Slow Dusk:  Aunt Sadie was mezzo-soprana Jennifer Roderer, Jess was baritone Alexander Charles Boyd, Sadie was soprana Sarah Beckham-Turner and Micah was tenor Bray Wilkins.  Markheim:  Josiah Creach (the pawnbroker) was tenor Scott Six, Markheim was bass-baritone Jeremy Milner, Tess (the shop girl) was soprano Marie Masters and A Stranger was tenor Marc Schreiner.  There are ensemble Christmas carolers.

Richard Cordova conducted the lavish fifteen-piece orchestra:  the richly inventive and dramatic music heightened the emotional content and filled the theater with beauty.

The human scale, the authenticity in the costumes and ambiance as well as in the acting, the set and lighting create an extraordinary “you can’t get enough of it” visual appeal.

Just listing the performers brings back their vivid characterizations and the joy of the entire production – the joy of excellence.  These operas and others of this Carlisle Floyd’s works are available on audio media but I haven’t located any videos of them.  I’d sure like to see as well as hear his two-act opera Susannah.

Slow Dusk and Markheim play at 59E59 Theater, in midtown Manhattan (yes, that’s the address) in a limited run through December 14, 2014.

Colin Waitt as Jesus and the cast. Photo Jonathan Hollingsworth

Review | The Mysteries, 52 Episodes From the Bible Written by 48 Playwrights | World Premier | Conceived and Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar | Dramaturg Jill Rafson | Featuring The Bats | Flea Theater

The Mysteries is one whopper of a project!

It’s an epic telling of the Old and New Testaments, referring to Medieval and later “mystery plays” of the life of Christ, 52 episodes more or less in sequence divided into three parts:  The Fall, The Sacrifice, The Kingdom.  Written by 48 playwrights, it’s performed by 54 actors who act, sing and

Sarah Keyes of the Angel Chorus. Photo Hunter Canning

Sarah Keyes of the Angel Chorus. Photo Hunter Canning

dance 78 parts or so in 5 ½ hours, all taking place on the relatively small performance space of the Flea, with the audience in touching distance of the actors, and not only that, it includes dinner! .

This is the third immersive play directed by Iskander at The Flea: first was These Seven Sicknesses  by Sean Graney, an interweaving of all seven extant plays of Sophocles (!) and next was Restoration Comedy by Amy Freed.  They feel like a trilogy though the subject matter isn’t continuous, but they all bear Iskander’s mark. The Mysteries is the least coherent of the three and not my favorite, but it’s remarkable for its ambition, it’s engagement with ideas, its remarkable degree of success, and the open arms it gives to the flow of highs and lows of the human condition — all with a focus on joy that comes through somehow even when things are not going well in the human epic.

It begins with a scene in heaven where we meet the lavish Angel Chorus that will be with us for the duration of the play, and witness Lucifer’s expulsion from heaven, something like in Milton’s Paradise Lost.  We encounter right off God, played by Matthew Jeffers:  he’s a fine actor — making expressive use of his face and voice and his whole body like a dancer, helping us see the way he takes things in and how he comes to his decisions.  Beyond that, he represents an original and powerful casting decision since he’s a dwarf — different from most everybody else but not in the way one expects, and raising interesting questions about the view that humans are made in God’s image.  He’s there at the beginning and there at the end — rarely in between, no surprise there:  the play would be less powerful and less coherent without this uniquely envisioned God.

We also meet the rebellious Lucifer in that first scene in heaven, played with dazzling cynicism by Asia Kate Dillon, and at the same time the angel Gabriel, played by Alice Allemano, who, obedient to God, in contrast to Lucifer, struggles valiantly trying to make sense out of God’s commands and following through on them.  These two, Lucifer and Gabriel, played by tall, striking women, fine actresses who resemble one another, hold the vast array together like bookends.

The scenes in the Garden of Eden are delightful, played, appropriately in the nude, by Jaspal Binning as Adam and Alesandra Nahodil as Eve.  Throughout the play, Biblical episodes are interpreted by the many playwrights in non-canonical ways and the first of these is brilliant:  the knowledge the first couple gain through their disobedient eating of the apple is — how to tell a good joke and how to enjoy one!

After a quick flip through a couple of other Old Testament episodes, including a moving dramatization of The Flood with the multitudes choreographed as drowning (I thought of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Flood), it turns out that only a small portion of the play is devoted to the Old Testament, with the emphasis, timewise and in numbers, on episodes from the life of Christ.

Allison Buck as Mary. Photo Hunter Canning

Allison Buck as Mary. Photo Hunter Canning

So, with intermissions that included, first a delicious vegan Mediterranean dinner handed to the audience by charming, talkative cast members, and, after Part II, desert (excellent baklava and tangerines!), the play wends its way through major moments of Christ’s life, from his birth to  the Virgin Mary (multiple and inconsistent unorthodox interpretations provided by several authors) onward.

The miracle of Christ’s resurrection of the dead Lazarus is vivid, scary and funny — the shrouds and semi-corrupted skin of those interred are  represented by wrappings of what appears to be toilet paper, referencing the repellent in a fascinating, appealing and hilarious way.  I felt sorry, though, for those whom Jesus didn’t resurrect, and they didn’t seem happy about it either.

On to the Passion of Christ, from the Entry into Jerusalem through the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, at times with relatively standard action — Peter actually denies Christ — and other times with less familiar takes — Judas betrays Christ because Jesus asked him to do it, Judas being unwilling (though he ends up badly anyway).   The play goes through conniptions assigning blame for Jesus’ death, not wanting to hurt anybody’s feelings, and that matter is left to confusion.

Karsten Otto as Joseph and Colin Waitt as Jesus.  Photo Hunter Canning

Karsten Otto as Joseph and Colin Waitt as Jesus.  Photo Hunter Canning

The Crucifixion is relatively straightforward, with Colin Waitt, who plays Jesus, conveying the human nature of Christ experiencing terror and pain.  And after that on to — according to what is said — Salvation, but it’s hard to see Salvation in what we’ve been witnessing except that the Angel Chorus proclaims it.  Based on what we’d seen, I thought that the play was about to end shortly before when God, absorbed with the problems of his Creation, wonders aloud who is He anyhow to be telling others what to do.

There are repetitions and generally one feels the play needs the kind of overall editorial vision for dramatic unity and intellectual coherence that it would get if it were single-authored.  The discrepancies in religious and philosophical points of view can be seen as expressive of the many ways of looking at the Biblical account of human history, but the narrative line meanders, so that The Mysteries is less compelling than, for instance, the seven plays by Sophocles treated by a single playwright in the equally ambitious These Seven Sicknesses.

In the category of “buyer beware”:  The Bible is run through the hoops of unorthodox and blasphemous interpretations.  Also there’s a lot of complete nudity.  My hunch is that many of the authors scripted nudity in their episodes so nudity loses the weight of meaning it can carry in theater.  It gets a little ho-hum.

In a time of many “90 Minutes And No Intermission” plays, and thanks to the idealism, ambition, talent, volunteerism and boundless youthful energy of The Bats, here’s one that’s big enough and long enough to provides a near total experience — talent, ideas, and joie de vivre. It’s somewhat unruly, and out of kilter in its consideration of the Old and New Testaments, but it’s spectacular, always visually fascinating, often exciting, and often powerful.

 Colin Waitt as Jesus and the cast. Photo Jonathan Hollingsworth

Colin Waitt as Jesus and the cast. Photo Jonathan Hollingsworth

The Mysteries  plays at The Flea Theater in Manhattan’s Tribeca district through May 25th, 2014.  EXTENDED with performances through July 14th, 2014.

Related articles

Page 2 of 6

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén