This is a mind-expanding production of Vanity Fair. It’s also funny, extravagant and visually fascinating.
The play, like the novel, focuses on a clearly motivated creature of her time, place and situation, Becky Sharp – a poor girl armed with smarts and wiles she’s determined to use to rise to the top in the affluent (sometimes) world of the British aristocracy. Played by author Kate Hamill, you can’t take your eyes off Becky because her face fluidly – and humorously — reflects her moment to-moment assessment of precisely where her self-interest lies.
The play begins as the Manager (a vibrant and insinuating Zachary Fine) plunges through a red satin curtain and, like a barker at a fair, introduces us to this stylized, mordant satire of society – high and low. Here it’s British society during the Napoleonic wars but it could be any time any place in “Vanity Fair” – a parable of the world, where innocence is adrift and most people will stoop to anything to get what they want – money, sex and high status – I think in that order.
Becky and her friend Amelia (Joey Parsons) are graduating finishing school where Becky’s been a charity case and thus exploited and badgered by a nasty school mistress — and readily giving it back in spades. Becky, slated to become a governess, a mighty humiliation for a finishing school girl, is invited to stay at Amelia’s fine house where she encounters her first rich man, Amelia’s absurdly dull brother (Brad Heberlee). In no time she focuses her allure on him, and there’s the first of her seductions which make the play go round!
But oh fortune-hunters: beware of second sons. After many goings-on, Becky and her husband – she married Rawdon Crawley (Tom O’Keefe), second son of a family that employed her – are living a fashionable life but on what funds, since Rawdon was disinherited by his rich aunt (Zachary Fine, again), when she learned he married Becky. The couple is living the high life — on credit. As the bills pile up, Becky’s solution is a liaison — “unconsummated” — with a rich marquis but her plan backfires. Rawdon, believing her unfaithful and unwilling to get him out of debtor’s prison, leaves her, and so begins her downward fall into degradation. She redeems herself in a way, and that involves the parallel story of the good girl, Amelia, her losses, and her gains.
Thackeray framed the novel as a puppet play, a device that the playwright, like the novelist, exploits for its all-the-world’s-a-stage philosophical impact. Becky is a complex character of mixed motives and a subtle mind. The rest are exaggerated types, the domineering aristocratic father-of-the-family, the disappointing sad-sack son, the nasty rich aunt, the lecherous marquis, and so on.
The pace is hectic and parts are played broadly – recalling Thackeray’s conceit of the puppet show. A lot’s always going on: the first act is somewhat disjointed and the second act has clearer dramatic force. The actors play their type roles true-to-form, driving home with humor the ritual-like inevitabilities of the lust for wealth, sex and status. Debargo Sanyal, playing several roles as most of the actors do, wittily works his jaw as if its attached to his face with a wooden hinge, exactly like a puppet! It’s quite a feat, and heightens the stylistic strength of the production.
Miss Hamill has discovered the Berthold Brecht in Thackeray — in Vanity Fair’s frank display of social inequity, individual self-interest, hypocrisy, degradation and stubborn belief in innocence, colored by hyper-theatricality and ironic sense of inevitability.
Vanity Fair, directed by Eric Tucker, plays at the Pearl Theatre Co. on West 42nd Street in Manhattan through May 27, 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.
L-R Hugh Sachs as Churton Saunders and Emily Laing as Pamela. Photo Carol Rosegg.
Lord Kettlewell, at his home in the English countryside, is on edge because his financial investments have turned sour. Kettlewell is not alone: lots of investments had turned sour at the time the play was written, in 1931, early in the Great Depression. Still, as his friend Churton responds to Kettlewell’s sputters with laid back wit, it comes across as all very funny. And the more Kettlewell sputters – he’s also upset his paramour, Hilda, has announced she’s arriving, uninvited, that afternoon – the funnier it gets.
We don’t have to wait until afternoon though, for the unexpected arrival of his daughter, Pamela, whom he hasn’t seen for so long he can barely recognize, and who falls upon him dressed in unisex scruffy. He has no interest in her – since their separation ten years ago, his wife has taken care of Pamela. That this Oxford educated young woman has just returned from Russia where she joined the proletariat in doing factory work does nothing to lift Lord Kettlewell’s mood. Even worse, she has in tow a skinny young man, Staggles, who insists on being called “Comrade.” Thus, the young British idealistic Communists meet the British capitalist nobility – at a bad moment for that nobility.
L-R Steven Blakeley as Comrade Straggles and Emily Laing as Pamela. Photo Carol Rosegg.
At any rate, Pamela announces that she’s moving in with Daddy. Why? We really don’t know but luckily there’s plenty of time before we find out for amusing confrontations among political opposites – funny but with underlying meaning — as well as Malvolio-like romantic misunderstandings involving the self-described “austere” but randy Staggles.
But most of all there’s Pamela, a feisty, self-confident, manipulative and generally amused young woman played with compelling wit, charm and bounce by Emily Laing. She – both as character and actress – is half the show and worth every minute.
L-R Derek Hutchinson as Parsons and Richenda Carey as Lady Knightsbridge. Photo Carol Rosegg.
Well, maybe not quite half because there are some other wonderful characters, all humorous but connected, with the lightest of touches, to the sense that Capitalism is in trouble at this moment while Russia’s factories are humming along. The dream of Parsons the Butler is to purchase the big house from the financially pressed Lord Kettlewell, and run it as an inn for weekend visitors. Lady Knightsbridge drops by (peace and quiet are not in Kettlewell’s karma today): she disapproves of Pamela’s breezy breaches of protocol with aristocratic hauteur – while trying any way she can to make a pence or a pound. Hilda, the Lord’s paramour, arrives – you’ll like the way Pamela makes short shrift of her. And (oh the machinations of Pamela) the long-separated Lady Kettlewell arrives.
The direction is tone-perfect and the cast without exception excellent. To mention only some, Brian Pretheroe as Lord Kettlewell maintains a fine line between a lordly charismatic presence and current befuddlement. As the cool-in-the-midst-of-the-storm friend, Churton, Hugh Sachs delivers some of the funniest lines in the play with perfect timing. Derek Hutchinson is touching as he threads the needle between a butler’s proper behavior and down-to-earth readiness to take advantage of Kettlewell’s difficulties. Richenda Carey is particularly wonderful as Lady Knightsbridge – that grim, tough mouth: you need to see the way her face alternates between high class superiority and practical profit motive! Steven Blakeley plays Comrade Staggles as a Cassius with a lean and hungry look you have to love. And making the plot go round is Emily Laing as Pamela – star power in action.
L-R Carol Starks as Hilda Lancicourt, Derek Hutchinson as Parsons, Annie Jackson as Alice, Brian Protheroe as Lord Kettlewell and Richenda Carey as Lady Knightsbridge. Photo Carol Rosegg.
J. B. Priestly called The Roundabout “a very light comedy … a little less intellectually negligible than most very light comedies.”* That’s exactly right: it’s very funny but its underpinning of the effects of the great recession as played out among a capitalist English aristocracy and idealistic young left-wingers gives it a particular strength and historical interest. The play ends a little too quickly: we’re left with a sense that some explanations are needed about why things resolve as they do. But that’s only after a thoroughly delightful time spent at Lord Kettlewell’s country home.
The Roundabout is produced by Cahoots Theatre Company, The Other Cheek & Park Theatre for Brits Off Broadway. It plays at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan through May 28, 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.
* Quoted byJ. B. Priestley’s son Tom Priestley, in the program note.
Set in a well-to-do English environment of the early twentieth century, The Lucky One is a story of two brothers: Gerald (Robert David Grant), the younger, the parents’ favorite, is blithely successful at everything, from sports, to girl friends, to his big job in the foreign office. Bob (Ari Brand), farmed out to a barrister’s office where he never should have been (but then, where should he be?), seethes with jealousy and bitterness.
And now the primal insult: Gerald has stolen Bob’s girl, Pamela (Paton Ashbrook).
That’s a good set-up for a play, and the dialogue is crisp and often amusing, but there are many loose character ends. Ultimately we don’t understand who the characters really are or why they act as they do.
The mother, Lady Farrington (Deanne Lorette) and father, Sir James (Wynn Harmon) are cliché uptight ciphers, obtusely favoring their “best” son. A live-in great aunt descends on occasion but plays no role in the action. Why is she in the play? Her heart-to-heart talks with whoever’s around lead us to think she has the wisdom of age and understanding of the characters that they lack for themselves but it turns out she misses the point as much as everyone else. So, except for cute character color, played charmingly by Cynthia Harris, she’s superfluous.
Thomas (Andrew Fallaize) and Letty (Mia Hutchinson-Shaw) engage in peppy, youthful romance shenanigans – the playwright may have included them as a healthy contrast to the tortured threesome romance of Gerald, Bob and Pamela, but when we realize they have no effect on the action either, interest wanes.
And who is this Pamela anyhow, the object of both brothers’ attention? In this socially calculating world, we’re given no clue to her background or her parents. What does she do for a living? Or to pass the time? No idea. It’s easy to see why she’s attracted to Gerald but what on earth does she see also in that dull, untalented, incompetent Bob?
A. A. Milne and Christopher Robin Milne. Photo Howard Coster, half-plate film negative, 1926.
Maya Cantu’s fine, brief biography of Milne in the program quotes him as saying, “Every human is a mystery, and nobody knows the truth about anybody else.” But if the audience hasn’t a clue about the characters and their inconsistencies, they drift off from engagement with the play.
With all its disappointments, The Lucky One has a magnificent episode near the end. Gerald, having for once come out on the wrong side of winning, has a long speech in which he anguishes over the contrast between the rosy view people have of him and his inner insecurity and conflict. Who knew? Not Great Aunt Farrington, for sure, though she’s supposed to be an insight maven. Still, it’s a beautifully written episode, magnificently inflected and performed by Robert David Grant as Gerald. A true character change emerges before our eyes.
The Mint gives The Lucky One an appealing production in terms of set, costumes, and for the most part acting. Uncharacteristically for this brilliant theater company, the character of Bob is miscast and misdirected. Milne fell short in giving Bob no distinguishing brilliance of wit or intellect to serve as a counterweight to Gerald’s glamour. Still, the spastic movement and staring pop-eyed facial expressions Ari Brand adopts for the role make it all the harder to believe that Pamela could be possibly be attracted to him. But then, we don’t have anything to go on where she’s concerned.
Milne was a prolific author and, as the program notes, was a highly successful playwright for many years before slipping from favor. In 2004, the Mint produced what is said to be one of his best plays, Mr. Pim Passes By. The Lucky One, first produced in 1922, is quite autobiographical: sometimes that works for the author, sometimes not. In any event, the best reason to see this play is to learn that A. A Milne, so well known as the author of Winnie-the-Pooh and other children’s stories, also wrote plays.
The Lucky One plays at the Beckett Theatre in Manhattan’s Theater Row on West 42nd Street through June 25th, 2017. For more information and tickets,click here.
It looks like a party — all those banquet tables (my heart lifted as I thought we’d be served refreshments!) But don’t try to take a seat. Only one figure is seated at a table, and his plate is empty (left).
As you move through this world of white, you see the tables are cluttered with elegant but toppled empty goblets, plates and platters with ancient imagery, askew, moldy rolls, chicken bones and scavenger crabs. On others tables are recumbent figures, alive and dead, writhing humans entwined with tomb effigies. Black sculptures, with chalky white dust drifted onto them, surround and punctuate the “banquet.”
The Theater of Disappearance is saturated with paradox. The banquet tables are both tactile and ghostly, sensuous and without gratification. The interrupted meal is timeless, littered with artifacts from a conglomerate past. One thinks of tomb burials with beloved artifacts to accompany the deceased to the afterlife: like the Chinese Emperor Qin in the museum’s current exhibition three stories down in the museum.
Rolls with “faces”
Rojas has drawn on the world art collection below the roof of the Metropolitan Museum — underfoot you can say. You’ll find works of art and parts of works you may recognize., a South Sea Island house post, ancient Greek coins, goblets, fruit scraps, chicken bones and half-eaten hard rolls, heads, arms, bits and pieces of art conjured up here by the artist through computer photo digitizing and laser scanning, milled or 3-D printed, and then arranged, compressed, stuck together in a new world of shocking impact and visual fascination. Some images are drawn from living models, including the artist himself, and treated with the same techniques that create a fascinating realness. The sculptures are actually formed of urethane foam, and painted, the white ones bringing to mind the plaster casts which were the first objects in this museum’s collection.
African woman with her trophy head of Tutankhamen, straddling an ancient Egyptian scribe as she covers his eyes with her fingers.
That color theme of black and white signals that this work contains the artist’s commentary on a current political issues including racism, gender inequalities, sexual preferences, colonialism — in general, the inequalities based on a history of oppression. For example, in a black statue (left and below) an African woman holds a trophy — the head of the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen, from a sculptured head of Tutankhamen in the Metropolitan Museum (directly below). It looks like she’s just decapitated him and is holding his head up in triumph. She also seems to be displaying his head to sell — hawking her wares in the market. She’s intact and alive in the sense of created from a living model while in symbolic contrast, the pharaoh’s head is fragmented and from a “dead” sculpture.
Head of Pharaoh Tutankhamen, sculpture, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo: Museum
African Woman with the head of Pharoah Tutankhamen, detail.
The African woman sits with her legs straddling another Egyptian figure, an ancient sculptured scribe. What a humiliating image of a man of a profession so often honored — scribe, a man of learning, a preserver of history.
Detail from sculpture of African woman holding head of Tutankhamen.
To top off his humiliation, her fingers, alluringly delicate, cover his eyes. conveying through ages-old symbolism that he is blinded to truth. She owns the truth now, she owns the past.
The powdery “dust” that covers the black figures, and that links them visually with the white banquet vignettes, calls to mind Duchamp’s embrace of the dust that settled on his groundbreaking The Bride Stripped Bare of her Bachelors, Even — one of many thought-provoking touches of conversation between artists in The Theater of Disappearance. Each of these vignettes is a full sculpture in itself.
An effigy lies atop a table serving as a sarcophagus, with a sleeping figure beside him, and a mask with tongue sticking out on hischest.
Vitality marks the black figures: in contrast, walking among the white tables is like visiting Romeo and Juliette’s crypt. The “banquet” tables become sarcophagi topped with effigies. One effigy lies with a sleeping though “live” cloaked figure beside him (right). The mocking mask on his chest sticks out its tongue.
A Musical Decomposition.
A Musical Decomposition, detail.
One of these — my favorite — suggests a state of decomposition like early “transi” tomb sculptures that show the transition from intact body to a decomposed state — only instead of worms and beetles crawling in, out and over him, there are musical instruments, leading to what I take as the artist’s musical pun — I’ve tried to bring home the point and highlight the artist’s wit by captioning the photo “A Musical Decomposition.”
“Sasanian Plate” from The Theater of Disappearance, with bare animal bone.
Comparing a banquet vignette (right) with a Sasanian (ancient Persian) silver plate of the 5th century A.D. (below) shows a way the artist alters art objects to make his points, here about our exploitation of the planet and its resources — the way we’ve bled them dry. In the ancient plate, the King, dominant, central and
King Hunting Rams, silver plate, Sassanian, 5th century A.D., Metropolitan Museum of Art
Huge in scale, hunts wild rams under the auspices of the sun and moon — the gods. The scene applauds his mastery, shows his nearness to the gods and conveys his might, skill and control. Two rams are hit, and he’s about to kill the other two. It’s a celebration of mastery over the wild. Rojas incorporates that plate into The Theater of Disappearance (above) but there’s nothing left to celebrate — just a single animal bone — eaten, finished, done. We’ve exploited the wild until all that’s left are the bare bones –and the memory of it. The party’s over. and we’re left with empty plates. At least at the all-white banquet that, Rojas tells us, has lasted too long. Among the black sculptures, live appears more juicy and promising.
Couple, with masks, kissing
Which raises the question: is it possible in 2017 in the middle of New York City at the Metropolitan Museum to mount an exhibition with the color theme of black and white that doesn’t address issues of race, racial history, racial animosities as well as other concerns of social justice? The emphatic answer given by this exhibition, at least, is “no.” (And how the NY Times in its two reviews of The Theater ofDisappearance missed it is beyond me.)
This sculptural ensemble has the fascination of ancient Pompeii, a living moment captured for all time — but in reverse. Drawing upon art from many periods and places, it captures all time for the moment. Ambiguities are everywhere. The past disappears, yet we can’t escape it. Every inch of this exhibition is alive with insight and stimulates thought.
The Theater of Disappearance will be on exhibition of the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, through October 29,2017. For more information on the exhibition and on visiting the museum, click here.
Actor-author Gary McNair recounts his granddad’s excitement at winning a big bet on the 1966 World Cup, and a lifelong quest to recreate the thrill.
Having recently seen Benjamin Evett’s masterful telling of a story in a at 59E59 — Albatross, inspired by Coleridge’s long poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” — I was keen to see Gary McNair tell his story in a one-person show, A Gambler’s Guide ToDying. McNair is a writer and performer who comes to us from Glasgow.
Gary McNair in A Gambler’s Guide to Dying. Photo: Benjamin Cowie
In 1966, against the odds, England won the eighth football (“soccer”) World Cup playing against West Germany – the only time England has won the Cup to this day. In Britain, the largest number of TV viewers up to that time watched the match, over 32 million — even today that’s quite a number. At the start of A Gambler’s Guide To Dying, Gary McNair asGranddad recreates the excitement he and everyone else had of watching that win in a pub– and not only that, Granddad won big! He had bet on Britain and he made a fortune!
Granddad, we learn, had told and retold this story to the Narrator as Boy many times – it was a favorite event for both of them, and he never told it quite the same way twice. From the point of view of the grandson, Granddad could be seen in many ways: “To some he was dad, to some he was mate, to others he was liar, cheat, addict, hero, story teller.” Granddad did alter his stories with each telling, and he told tall-tales: this may have made him a “liar,” but he was certainly an addict. He never got over the thrill of that first big win – and kept looking for it the rest of his life, starting with his winnings from that 1966 World Cup, which he soon bet and lost. Not surprisingly, throughout his life, he never had much money. Nevertheless he kept betting to the very end, placing bets as a sick old man on how long he’d stay alive. Now here’s a question: Will the desire to win your bet keep you alive longer? You can see the show to find out.
Gary McNair with quite a pile of Granddad’s gambling chits. Photo Bemjamin Cowie.
McNair takes on many voices, some brief as an exclamation, others fully developed, such as the voice of Granddad, and that of his grandson as a boy and a grown man. He also brings athletic vigor to the part, leaping on boxes, climbing a step-ladder backward (I worried for his safety on that one), and generally seeking with a variety of voices and movements to animate the story and bring its characters to life.
I appreciated McNair’s range and energy, and the passion with which he wanted to tell the story and wanted us as viewers to fully appreciate the novelty and wonder he saw in the granddad. Still, Granddad did not turn out to be an interesting enough character to carry the show. Once you catch on that win or lose granddad will keep betting, and that even if he wins a bet, he’ll reinvest the winnings in another bet, there isn’t much suspense. Granddad didn’t seem endearing as the grandson finds him, more on the annoying and foolish side, so the grandson’s belief that granddad was a “great man” comes across as a strained attempt to end on a high note.
A Gambler’s Guide To Dying plays at 59E59 Theaters in mid-Manhattan through April 23, 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.
No conflicts seem more stubbornly unsolvable in modern politics and history than the hostilities between Israelis and Arabs. How fascinating that there were, in fact, secret negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, enabled by idealistic, peace-seeking Norwegians, that resulted in a signed agreement in 1993, the first of the Oslo accords. Oslo tells the that story in such a way that the audience is caught up in the suspense of high stakes history.
We learn early on about two Israeli academics whose research demonstrates that peace between the Israeli and Palestinians wouldn’t just mitigate violence but would benefit both sides economically. With these studies as a starting point, Norwegians in their country’s foreign service, convinced that giving representatives of the opposing sides the opportunity to know one another personally will enable cooperation, invite representatives of the Israeli government and the PLO to meet secretly in Oslo.
The Norwegians provide a place for talks and human comforts, good drink and food — Norwegian pancakes play a large role in drawing together these diplomatic representatives on a personal, and progressively warmer level. The diplomats become friends while not “giving in” to one another’s political demands. There’s give and take: they make some compromises but hold their ground on the non-negotiable issues.
As progress toward an agreement is made, diplomats at even higher levels arrive to hammer out the make-or-break details. The Americans become involved toward the end and – it’s history — the signing of the Oslo Accord took place in September 1993, with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signing for Israel and Yasir Arafat signing for the PLO, the “first-ever peace deal between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization,” as the playwright writes in his program Note. In a famous photograph, dramatized in this play, Rabin and Arafat shake hands in the Rose Garden of the White House, in the presence of President Bill Clinton.
Knowing the satisfactory, even thrilling ending — which tragically dissipated later, but that’s another part of history — makes all the more interesting the ins-and-outs and progress and setbacks of the negotiations, through which, ultimately, the PLO agreed to recognize Israel’s right to exist and Israel recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians.
The characters, in representing historical figures, sometime seem like mouthpieces for their points of view rather than coming to life in their own terms. Two actors, Anthony Azizi as the dominant PLO representative and Michal Aronov for the Israelis, bring charisma and an enlivening free-wheeling body language to their roles which go far to keep the play from seeming too talky-talky.
The two Norwegians most involved in the success of the negotiations are the most fully drawn as characters but, in terms of what the play’s about, they’re peripheral, so their emotional journeys don’t strengthen the sense of human drama as much as if they were more central. Oslo is occasionally engaging emotionally, but it’s always interesting as the ideas and interplay, underlined by the life and death importance of a good solution, keep our minds engaged. You have the sense throughout of learning something you really want to know, and of being glad the author has made that a stimulating event.
Oslo plays at the Vivian Beaumont theater in Manhattan’s Lincoln Center through June 18, 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.
Here is an opportunity to see some of the most remarkable objects of art and archaeology excavated in China. Because some are so lavish, and in some cases unique, a number have been featured in Western publications including newspapers and magazines, but most have never been seen outside of China.The Qin and Han dynasties together make up the classical period of Chinese art and culture, when the basic forms of political organization and intellectual and artistic paradigms were formed. The key theme of this period, and of this exhibition, is unification of the vast territory of China under the powerful Qin emperor, Qinshihuang, and its maintenance and expansion in the Han dynasty.
Kneeling Crossbow Archer, China, Qin dynasty (221-106 B.C.), terracotta with traces of pigments,H 48 in. (121.9 cm), lent by Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum. All photos Robert Ruben and Yvonne Korshak
It takes a powerful army to unify a large and disparate territory. When Qinshihuang died, he took with him to his tomb an army of life-size terracotta warriors, over 700 archers, cavalry, infantry and officers, all in full armor made of stone (representing the iron armor used by the emperor’s army), buried with him in the emperor’s mausoleum. In the first exhibition gallery, you’ll find several of the emperor’s army including the archer (right). Crossbows are difficult to draw — the archer had to shoot from a kneeling, rather than a standing, position. A modern replica of crossbow such as he would have held is near by. Through this elaborate terracotta army, we glimpse the emperor’s thoughts: he made sure he had in his mausoleum everything he needed and most enjoyed in life: the army was high priority. Images standing in for live people and animals certainly improve on human and animal sacrifice (a cultural practice replaced by including replicas in tombs here and elsewhere in the world of powerful leaders). In creating the terracotta army, molds were used, in different arrangements, to compose the bodies of the warriors but the faces were created with life-like individuality.
Chariot Model (Modern Replica, half-size of original), China, Original Qin dynasty (221-206 B.C.), Bronze with pigments, lent by Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum.
Qinshihuang also made sure to have his chariots with him in the afterlife. In the first gallery, along with the warriors, are bronze chariots complete with braces of well-matched horses – though these in the exhibit are detailed modern replicas created half the size of actual chariot groups found in the emperor’s tomb. The chariot seen replicated here (left) was probably used in battle or on the emperor’s inspection tours. The emperor probably sat and perhaps slept in the other one with a covered enclosure while touring of the territory he had unified: and at his death that chariot likely carried his body to his tomb.
Inscribed weight, 221 B.C., Qin dynasty (221-206 B.C.), Iron and bronze, H 7 1/2 in. (19 cm); Diam. 9 13/16 in. (25 cm), Wt. 69.7 lb (31.6 kg), Lent by Gansu Provincial Museum.
Since political and economic unification go hand-in-hand, the standardized iron weight, also from the emperor’s tomb is as dramatic a demonstration of the determination to enforce imperial unification as military might. This exceptionally large weight weighs “1 shi,” translated as one “stone,” nearly 70 pounds. Significantly, the inscription dates it to 221 B.C., the year Qinshihuang, having completed his vast project of unification, assumed the title of “Emperor,” and it was so important the Emperor made sure this, and other standardized measures, were in his tomb (he died in 210 B.C. and his tomb was complete by 206 B.C.).
Strongman, Qin dynasty (221-206 B.C.), Terracotta, H. 61 3/4 in. (156.8 cm), Lent by Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum.
Strongman, view from the back.
Found in a pit linked with Qin Shi Huang’s tomb is a lifelike terracotta sculpture of a “strong man,” excavated with ten other figures that evidently represent a troupe of acrobats. They would have performed for the amusement of the Emperor and his court, and through replicas were on hand for him after death. Strongman, and another like him once held steady a pole for another acrobat performing gymnastics at the top of it. The fleshy realism of his body, with the fatty rolls pushed up by the waistband (above left) , is unusual to Chinese art and the suggestion is made that it may represent some influence from Hellenistic art, notable for realistic depictions. On the other hand, it may serve to witness the careful eye of the Chinese sculptor impressed by the formidable anatomy.
The prosperous Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.)
Mirror, Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), Bronze, Diam.7 5/16 in. (18.6 cm), Lent by National Museum of China.
that succeeded the Qin expanded China’s borders, developed the archetypal Chinese bureaucracy, and consolidated and maintained the political centralization of the Qin. These themes are expressed in a portion of the inscription on the elaborately designed back bronze mirror of the Han period: “May the Central Kingdom [China] be peaceful and secure, and prosper for generations and generations to come by following the great law that governs all.”
Mirror, detail showing the once reflective face.
Although today the once-polished surface of the mirror’s face no longer reflects images, the inscription also bears this comforting thought: “When you see your face in the mirror, it dispels all harms and woes.” (I take it that was on a “good hair day.”)
Another object (not illustrated) gives a glimpse of the Chinese reverence for elders, a wood and bronze walking staff, with the image of a partridge on top, found with inscribed wood slips stating the special privileges the emperor accorded to elders. If you were over 70, this staff would enable you to enter government offices freely and not only that — you could walk on the side of the road otherwise reserved for the emperor. Great value would have been placed on keeping the emperor’s ceremonial side of the road clear so evidently there weren’t a lot of people over 70 in China 2,000 years ago – today the emperor’s side of the road would be crowded! But embedded in the wooden staff is an attitude: respect for elders, a tangible reminder of the value placed on respect for elders that to this day reverberates in China.
Hanging Lamp, figure with “Foreigner’s” features, Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 A.D.), Bronze, H 10 7/8 in. (27.6 cm), Lent by Hunan Provincial Museum. An attitude toward foreigners as inferior may be expressed in the figure in this lamp.
Works of art can surprise you by revealing attitudes you might not expect to find in them. This lamp is an example. The figure holding the bowl of the lamp has non-Chinese facial features: deep eye sockets and a notably large, high-bridged and outwardly curved nose (apologies that these features are not seen more clearly in the photo). He also has curly hair. Like these physical features, this type of lamp with a chain also points beyond China. This is a unique example of a chained lamp found in China but, on the other hand, chained lamps were common in the Greco-Roman world. In the Greco-Roman lamps, the human figures often have face and body features describing inferiors as they are held to be in that culture. they are servants or a slaves and — and there’s a joke here — within the artistry of the lamp, they are shown doing what servants do all the time: they ‘re carrying things for other people: the weight of the lamp. In parallel, the big-nosed foreigner bearing the weight of this Han period Chinese lamp likely expresses a cultural attitude that sees foreigners as “inferiors” — not proved, that’s my hypothesis.
The figure’s hollow body held the lamp’s oil which flowed from a small hole in his chest into the round bowl.
Burial Ensemble of Dou Wan, Western Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D.9), Suit: jade with gold wire; pillow: gilt bronze and jade; orifice plugs: jade. H. 67 11/16 in. (171.9 cm), Lent by Hebei Provincial Museum and Hebei Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics.
Burial ensemble of Dou Wan, detail.
Among the many ways the art found in the tombs – here and throughout the world — expresses the desire to live forever, Dou Wan’s jade burial suit is among the rarest. The hand wrought jade plaques, held together with gold wire and following the shape of her body, along with other jade plugs and disks, conferred immortality. The burial outfit included a gilded bronze pillow. Gold, used with jade in this burial, is precious for its rarity and brightness and also because, since it doesn’t tarnish, it “lasts forever”: thus it’s a symbol, and sometimes a guarantor, of immortality. This burial suit is unique and so valuable I am surprised it was allowed to travel outside of China.
With 160 objects, this is quite a large exhibition that drives home two themes: politically, the unification of China and, in terms of human hopes and fears, the desperate desire for immortality. In some ways, it’s an old-fashioned kind of exhibition, focused on articles from lavish tombs and the elite class. Perhaps to preserve some fugitive colors still present on some of these ancient works, such as the terracotta warriors, the lighting of the exhibition is low which does not bring out the inherent drama and beauty of some of the works of art. Still, this is an exhibition not to be missed. Many of the works are from provincial museums and museums far from the largest cities so that even if you lived in China, you might never see them all, and to see them here is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There are many surprises and much to learn about the art and history of China’s formative classical dynasties which shaped the forms, institutions and values that are in many ways alive today.
Elephant and Groom, Western Han dynasty, 2nd century B.C., gilded and silvered bronze, Elephant H. 7 7/8 in. (20 cm), Groom H. 2 13/16 in. (7.2 cm), Lent by Nanjing Museum. Elephants were no longer present in this part of China (hunted out, climate change) so this group, from a prince’s tomb, represents a fascination with exotic animals.
Age of Empires: Chinese Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C.-A.D.220) will be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from April 3rd through July 16, 2017. For more information about the exhibition and visiting the museum, click here.
Enter the weird world of Claire and Solange – the world of what oppression does to the human spirit.
The language is brilliant and stunningly expressed by two great actresses in this production, the psychological twists and freehand switches on role playing are the products of a stupendous dramatic imagination. But unlike the actual notorious murder that inspired the play, the Papin case, the maids, not the mistress, are the ultimate victims. The author’s profound reversal of the expected ending raises this play from a shocking oddity of kinky love-hate relationships (which it is!) to the level of a true classic. To have seen this great, passionate production is a life treasure.
In the Papin case, in France in 1933, two sisters, employed in the same household as maids, murdered their employer’s wife and daughter. In Les Bonnes/The Maids, two maids who are sisters, Claire and Solange, play-act as the mistress whenever Madame, the mistress, is out, masquerade in her dresses, express their furious resentments and debasement, and plot her murder.
Only they don’t seem to have it in them. They spend so much time analyzing every nuance of the words and actions of each other, and their relationship, and of all the other words, actions and relationships of that touch them – Madame, her lover Monsieur, and the milkman Mario, that Madame always comes home too soon, forcing them into a humiliating scramble to get Madame’s clothes back on the hangers and everything back in order.
They are not, however, totally inept. In an intimation of what they may be capable of, Claire has written a letter denouncing Monsieur – and the man’s in jail. But in the course of the play, during their hectic afternoon of dressing up in Madame’s finery, analyzing their anguish, and hurling recriminations, a phone call comes, and they learn Monsieur has been released from prison, forcing a change in their plans, or speeding them up. Madame arrives, self-involved, patronizing, self-dramatizing – she’s going to follow her lover to the ends of the earth, enraptured by the sense of her own generosity, she’s gives Claire and Solange her red dress that is a dominant feature of the evening, and her fur cape – and takes them back. But she notices the phone dangling off the hook – questions are asked, mild suspicion aroused and, distracted, she rushes out of the house to meet her lover, not taking time to drink the tea Claire has prepared for her – Madame’s good luck.
Role boundaries are permeable. Claire becomes Madame, dominating her older sister, Solange who also play-acts as the dominating Madame. Sisters detest one another and are lovers. Solange is the virulent hater while Claire has softer moments – but don’t count on it.
When Madame leaves to meet Monsieur, freed from prison, the sisters revert to their play-acting “game” but this time, through a leap of the author’s imagination, and the perverse logic of their role-playing, Oppression gathers in its victims.
This was a stunning production, physically centered around a tall noose-like contraption with a twisted bucket – suggesting buckets of water eternally carried, to which Solange and Claire are tethered, like mules to a grinding stone. The set design, by Lloyd Huber and Di Girolamo, is as imaginative and emotionally signifying as any I’ve ever seen.
The play was presented in the original French with English titles above, and the acting by two French actresses, Helene Godec as Solange and Laura Lassy Towsend as Claire was surpassing. The heat of emotions and tightly entwined dialog of these two sisters, who know each other too well, was breath-taking. Cloe Xhauflaire as Madame was on a par, though her role is less demanding than the astonishing intensity of the interplay between Solange and Claire.
I saw this production of a classic play of huge intellectual and artistic importance at the very end of its run. The best I can say by way of apologies that it’s not there for you now is: keep an eye on L’Atelier Theatre Productions and La MaMa.
Les Bonnes/The Maids played at La MaMa theater in Manhattan’s lower East side from March 2-19. For more information about the production and its creative team, and some telling photos, click here.
Sweat is not a perfect play but it’s important and by the end has great impact. As this drama unfolds, we witness through the lives of engaging individuals how competition for jobs poisons relationships between ethnic and racial groups and, most poignantly, between friends. The backdrop is the total disregard of industry and “Wall Street” for the individuals who support them.
The story, set in Reading Pennsylvania, once a heavy industry town, moves back and forth between 2000 and 2008. We first meet two anguished young men, an agitated Evan and enraged Jason in tense, separate interrogations with their probation officer – they’ve just been released from jail, and the rest of the play tells us how they got there. Evan is a big, solid-looking Black hoping to find solace in the Bible. Jason is a skinny pale White with a swastika on his sleeve – he’s come out of prison as a White Supremacist. And yet we learn when after their recent release they ran into each other in town, they embraced, a paradox central to the play’s meaning.
Much of the action takes place in a bar when, through flashbacks, when the bar was a hangout for a local factory workers who formed a bar family for one another. Cynthia., Evans’ Black mother and Tracey, Jason’s White mother are specially tight friends in the early years. They share long experience at the assembly line, pride in their well-paid job in the factory their families worked for generations, fatigue, gripes, and pleasure in celebrating birthdays at the bar.
The snake in the garden comes when Management announces an opening in supervisory position, and a willingness to consider Cynthia and Tracey for the job. Off the line and into a supervisory position – what a wonderful promotion for Cynthia or Tracey that would be!
But winners create losers: when one of the two actually wins the job, friendship shatters into a bitter outcome. Early on, the closeness between Cynthia and Tracey seems racially idyllic but as that relationship dissipates, the race war and class war of the world at large are fought out in the microcosm of the bar, with brutal results. It’s not just about Blacks and White’s, Nottage reminds us: the victim count includes Stan, the White manager of the bar who’s an earlier victim of the factory owners’ disregard, and the Puerto Rican cleaner, Oscar. And in the ultimate irony, the “winner” of the competition for the supervisory job turns out to be a loser, too – a tool manipulated by the factory owners who are exporting jobs to Mexico. Assembly line workers are fired and who does it? … well, somebody has to do their dirty work.
A strength of this play is the thoroughgoing examination of the tragic effects on individual lives of the factory system and of Wall Street. The inherently exploitive and non-humanistic character of capitalism and its hand maiden, economic competition, are exemplified through the characters’ many different kinds of wounds and defeats, physical and spiritual: incarceration, drug addiction, alcoholism, family breaks, crippling bodily injuries, disillusionment, obstacles in the path toward worthy goals, and severe bodily injuries. The play is a political critique but one expressed through vivid human lives: the personal tragedies, and small triumphs emerge out of the situations and interactions of the three-dimensional characters with which Nottage populates the bar.
Although the play moves cleverly through time, with the set shifting from the probation office to the bar, the first act feels static. The exposition isn’t well handled: some of the characters give preachy speeches that tell us what we should know and think rather than show us. And the bar fly, Jessie, seems to have no role to play outside of softening what could be an over simple focus on the two mothers, Tracey and Cynthia. The play comes alive in the second act where the varying outcomes unfold and the “lesson” of the outcomes of unbridled economic competition are driven home through what happens to the characters who are most central: Tracey and Cynthia, and to Jason, Chris, Stan, and the rest, who’d once seemed like a family. All of them are accounted for in important ways.
The cast is uniformly excellent, and among some of the major characters, Johanna Day’s Tracy, the White woman with an embittered sense of entitlement, is totally convincing. Michelle Wilson is exciting as the impassioned go-getter, Cynthia, though talky portions of the script sometimes get in the way of her naturalism. Khris Davis is moving as the young Black man with a hopeful future vision. Wiry Will Pullen conveys a sense of risk from the get-go as Jason, the White kid with the scary tattoos. With the set designed by John Lee Beatty, the occasional transitions between the stern venues such as the probation office and the cozy bar have emotional impact.
Lynn Nottage’s earlier play, Ruined (reviewed here) – is also set in a bar, in a tradition that can easily be traced back to Eugene O’Neil’s TheIceman Cometh. Nottage writes honestly, and in both of these plays, she gives us characters we care about, and then forces us to look at the horrors inflicted on these powerless people we’ve come to love by dehumanized institutions – war in Ruined, and, here, capitalism. She’s not sentimental but still manages to make the plays seem upbeat and just plain enjoyable. She’s honest in what she lays out about the institutions she writes about, but emotionally lets us off the hook. In Sweat, the last line, which can be interpreted in different ways, provides a great deal of relief for our concerns for Cynthia and Tracy, Chris and Jason, and the others.
Sweat not only drives home the grim effects of capitalism and “Wall Street,” but it makes the audience feel good. You’re left with a gratifying the sense that by understanding the truths Nottage lays out – by getting it — you’re now on the side of the angels helping to solve the problems!
As Jake says at the end of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
Sweat plays at Studio 54 on West 54th Street in Manhattan . For more information and tickets, click here.