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

Tag: Adam Rapp

Review | The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois | Written & Directed by Adam Rapp | Atlantic Theater Company

… holding on …

Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois is a tense, brilliant drama that takes you from the worst to the best.

From the first moment we see Ellis, a man in his 40’s in khakis and a plaid shirt, agonizing over deodorant and picking invisible dirt out of the rug, we know that he’s crazily over-anxious about expected visitors, erratically nutty, and trying to seem “OK” like other men.  When two teenage girls arrive, Monique, a Black, fast-talking self-defined “gangsta,” and Catherine, White, thin, on edge, who seems unable to look anybody in the eye, you think you’ve snagged it.  He’s got himself a pair of over-young girls for sex.  Monique appears obviously in charge of Catherine who seems barely able to speak and Monique had made the contact with Ellis.  Monique dangerously dominates Catherine — It looks like we’re headed toward a grisly destruction of innocence.


Rapp does keep you on the edge of your seat – or thinking you might do better not to watch.  But surprisingly Catherine, who seemed so morbidly shy and ashamed, takes charge.  She tells Monique she wants to be alone with Ellis, sending Monique off to wait in the bedroom.  We realize it’s Catherine, not Monique nor Ellis, who made this meeting happen (with some help from Facebook) but we’re not sure why.  Monique, somewhat apprehensive for her friend, disappears into the bedroom.

Powerful relationships are revealed.  I won’t spell them out because it’s part of the suspense.  I can say that Catherine, who seemed a beleaguered, dominated girl of low intelligence, turns out to be quite a person who, at thirteen, has clear career plans to become a graphic novelist plus a plan to enable her to get to art camp in the coming summer.  She’s filled with admirable purpose.  And when you consider the steps she has taken in this play to get what and where she wants, and how well she succeeds by the end of it, you feel she has every chance to make it.

But what about Ellis?  The more we learn about his propensity to violence and then, specifically, about the terrible thing he’s done, the more certain it seems that there’s no way Catherine can hold  on to the relationship she’s bravely sought from him, in fact, no way she (nor the audience) can forgive him.  Wrong again.

Catherine keeps seeking:  she doesn’t give up on Ellis.  And Adam Rapp has more to say about him.  You think he’s done the worst thing possible – but there’s another way to look at it.  We come to understand, partly through information from Barrett, Ellis’s visiting nurse, that while the play has confronted us with mortal violence and visible brutality to make you wince – not only from Ellis — we haven’t witnessed evil.  Catherine holds on, and we learn from this thirteen-year old girl: don’t be so fast the judge others.

The acting and directing are extraordinary.  In the role of Ellis, William Apps is completely convincing as an ordinary nice looking man struggling against his demons to maintain that semblance of conventionality and composure.   This is a great performance.   Katherine Reis conveys the several purposes and emotions in her young woman’s heart with fascinating subtlety.  Nothing is missed:  hers, too, is a great performance.

Susan Heyward is terrific as the all-out Monique, dancing, slanging, transgressive, but with a bottom line of decency that needs some prodding from Barrett, played by Connor Barrett, guardian angel on hand – and what is a guardian angel after all?  A mature person with the skill to defuse destructive directions and enable fulfillment.

Adromache Chalfant’s set of Ellis’s modest home, with lighting by Keith Parham, is a checklist of bare minimum:  living room with sofa, table, lamp, pale flower picture on the wall needing color, needing love.  The beige rug is a portrait of Ellis’s state of being, washed, rubbed, scrubbed, cleaned hard, but with a ghostly stubborn stain.

I have to thank Adam Rapp:  he has given me not one but two outstanding theater experiences in a single year, The Purple Lights Of Joppa Illinois, and his play Wolf In The River, which has just ended its run at The Flea theater, reviewed here.  Rapp writes with revelatory sympathy and great humanity about those who live on the margins of society, their relationship to the more conventional, centrist world, and about the possibility of transcendence. You don’t expect dramas as saturated with brutality as Rapp’s to be inspiring but they are. I enjoyed the mythic expansiveness of Wolf In The River; The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois is more spare:  both are powerful.

In The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois, we worry when things don’t seem to be going well for the characters, we’re relieved when they do, and we’re inspired by their determination to love.  Rapp uses brutality not just for sensationalism (though that’s there), but to take you to a deeper understanding.  The sense that that we ourselves may be at fault, that — in contrast to Catherine — we’re too quick to think the worst of others, heightens the impact of the stunning, breathtaking ending.  I felt changed.

Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois plays at the Atlantic Stage 2  in Manhattan’s Chelsea district through June 26, 2016.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Adam Rapp's Wolf In The River at The Flea Theater. Kate Thulin, Jack Ellis and Michael Swift ... and audience looking on. Photo Hunter-Canning

Review | Wolf In The River | Written and Directed by Adam Rapp | Featuring the Bats | Flea Theater

… why we go to the theater …

This is great theater.  It’s hard to separate the play itself from the creative staging and perfect acting but it all adds up to as stunning a theatrical experience as anyone ever needs to have.

Xanthe Paige and Jack Ellis in Adam Rapp's Wolf In The River at The Flea Theater, March - May 2016. Photo Hunter Canning

Xanthe Paige and Jack Ellis … and audience in background. Photo Hunter Canning

We’re in an unnamed place in Adam Rapp’s hillbilly country – the southern accents, by the way, are authentic and appealing — and at true center is a mound of dirt.  In the first focus of the play, an actor digs in, lies in, messes around at length with the pile of dirt with druggy flowers and bits of junk like old foil chewing gum wrappers – this is a play about life’s fundamental elements, its physicality, the bones beneath the skin, about the closeness of life and death, of creation and dirt.

An impoverished clan of disaffected misfits lives here near the river, lorded over by Monty,  a vibrant Xanthe Paige,  who rules by force of personality and makes money by collecting blood to sell from denizens of this down and out place.  At the bottom of the hierarchy of brutality is sixteen-year old Tana (Kate Thulin), the most vulnerable, constantly threatened and visibly battered — that’s Tana’s blood on the refrigerator (this play is not for the squeamish).  As an expression of her vulnerability, she’s naked and trying to cover herself when she first comes on stage.

Is there any way out for her from this life of degradation?  They’re all isolated, stuck in place by poverty, ignorance, listlessness, locked in a kind of rooted repetition of oppressor and victim, as Dothan (William Apps), a veteran of Afghanistan and Monty’s boyfriend is frozen in a mental prison of PTSD.

But Debo (Maki Borden) loves Tana.  A young man from the outside, he comes from a state that does have a name, Illinois, and from a family that does real work.  Tana speaks with him on a cell phone he gives her, arousing envy that increases the brutality of her down-and-out clan.   But perhaps there’s a life beyond the confines of this hopeless place.   Perhaps if Tana could somehow manage to cross the fearsome river …

Adam Rapp's Wolf In The River at The Flea Theater. Kate Thulin, Jack Ellis and Michael Swift ... and audience looking on. Photo Hunter-Canning

Kate Thulin, Jack Ellis and Michael Swift … and audience looking on. Photo Hunter Canning

Or, in this play of murky ambiguities of time, is Tana dead before the play begins?  That’s what The Man (Jack Ellis), who partly narrates Tana’s story, implies.  Is it too late?  Is she already the victim of the wolf in the river?  The girl of whom nothing was found but three teeth?

The play draws strength from the symbolic resonances it finds in physical things.  Like the silver foil among the junk in the dirt pile, Tana is a throw away girl but, with the nuanced simplicity and inner strength of Kate Thulin’s characterization, she gleams.  The old style refrigerator that sits off to the side, grimed, smeared with blood, a character in itself, is an archetype of dilapidated lives.

The language of Wolf In The River is wildly lyrical and grounded in specifics — an unusual combination, and you never doubt that the people speak the way Rapp has written for them.   The poetry reaches a peak in a thrilling monolog about bones, delivered like a patter aria with virtuoso speed and totally unsentimental passion by Jack Ellis.  He enumerates all the bones in the human body, the bones beneath the skin, all at the same time apparent in Ellis’s super slim articulated body, and he makes sure we feel and know we all share those bones, from toes to skull.

The bones monolog is in and of itself is reason to see Wolf In The River – though there’s much more.  As a narrator (with occasional other roles to play), Ellis’s stage authority is an engine that drives the play forward.

For all of the dark overtones, Rapp gives us a “perfect day” when Tana and Debo first meet, memorable for its staging, development and acting.  Tana is sunbathing on a dilapidated dock, surrounded by the audience seated in a circle of chairs, when Debo, on the outside of the audience, comes by in his boat.  She responds to the young man’s attentions while he poles his boat behind the audience, unwilling to leave or break the magic circle of love (not the only magic circle in this play).  The boat that isn’t there is so convincing it’s  kind of an enchantment, and Debo’s smile of pleasure is unchanging, conveying his joy and determination to love.

The outstanding cast is drawn from The Bats, The Flea’s resident company who, the program states, also contributed to the text.  Arnulfo Maldonado’s stunning scenic design covers the walls with dense overlays of posters and notices, scrawls and graffiti that convey the processes and ambiguities of time and unite audience and performers.  A powerful script, over-the-top imaginative staging, dance movement and singing — Wolf In The River provides a psychedelic, if grungy, wholeness and encounter with essential truth.

Wolf In The River plays at The Flea Theater in Manhattan’s Tribeca through June 6, 2016.  For more information and tickets, click here.

For a review of Adam Rapp’s The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois, click here.

L- R: Mandy Nicole Moore as Shirley Judyhouse, Nick Lawson as Pointer Scully, Sarah Lemp as the mother Bean Scully. Photo: Annie Parisse.

Review | Ghosts in the Cottonwoods by Adam Rapp | Directed by Adam Rapp | With Gretchen Hollis | Presented by The Amoralists | Theater 80 St. Marks

… but you won’t read this in the comic books …

Ghost in the Cottonwoods is a tale of family sin and retribution — it sure isn’t Aeschylus or O’Neil but it’s in that tradition.  It’s told with a seeming acceptance of violence, as if that’s how life is, and directed at such a rollicking pace that the terrible things we see on stage seem hilarious — for awhile.

The story, about hillbillies, unfolds in an isolated cabin.  A mother and her gangling son, Pointer (think Li’l Abner), are awaiting the older brother, Jeff, who’s broken out of prison — it takes awhile to learn what sent him there but when we do it’s, of course, a shocker.  Dad’s dead.  Mother doesn’t know how to read, doesn’t much leave the house, but has a lot of spirit, smokes a pipe like Mammy Yokum, makes her own moonshine, is seductive with her son, and when, after a flirtatious idyll with a stranger who’s come to the house, she realizes he’s a bounty hunter after Jeff, she does pretty well at polishing him off.

Bones have a way of slipping, the mother muses, not having seen her older son for six years, what will Jeff look like now?  How will he have changed?  We find out, and it isn’t pretty.  Gradually laughter fades and a kind of wonder about the capacities of humans to harm one another takes over.  Countering evil is the teen-age romance between Pointer and Shirley.  She’s intelligent, Pointer tells his mother, who’s afraid he’ll flee to the big city with his girlfriend to do musical rap, she taught me to read. 

Ghost in the Cottonwoods is a play of brutality and love.  Its bright staccato texture and use of hillbilly cliches give it a comic strip appeal;  I wasn’t surprised to learn that the author has written a graphic novel.  And it draws on visual sensationalism to keep the audience interested — e.g., not just the one requisite nude but three, and that’s the least of it.  But the play gains depth through Pointer and Judy, beautifully played by Nick Lawson and Mandy Nicole Moore, who provide a counterpoint to the brutality.  We worry about them.  Given the conflicts set for them, will their motivations for richer lives take them beyond this narrow, cruel world?  Will their love pass the test?  It’s not the first time these questions have been asked, but Ghosts in the Cottonwoods gives an update on the answers in a refreshing contemporary mode.

Ghosts in the Cottonwoods plays at Theatre 80 St. Marks in NYC East Village through December 6th. THE RUN HAS BEEN EXTENDED AND PERFORMANCES WILL CONTINUE THROUGH DECEMBER 12.

L- R: Mandy Nicole Moore as Shirley Judyhouse, Nick Lawson as Pointer Scully, Sarah Lemp as the mother Bean Scully. Photo: Annie Parisse.

L- R: Mandy Nicole Moore as Shirley Judyhouse, Nick Lawson as Pointer Scully, Sarah Lemp as the mother Bean Scully. Photo: Annie Parisse.

Review | The Great Recession | Plays by Thomas Bradshaw, Sheila Callaghan, Erin Courtney, Will Eno, Itamar Moses and Adam Rapp | Flea Theater

The Flea is presenting six plays by six authors, each with some reference to the recession.  The actors are drawn from The Flea’s “Bats,” the young, capable and energetic actors of their resident company — you find yourself hoping for a good show at least as much for them as for yourself, but it doesn’t happen.  For most of the plays, the link to the recession is so synthetic it doesn’t matter.  The plays don’t matter much either, which is too bad for what must have seemed like a good idea.

Classic Kitchen Timer by Adam Rapp is based around a kill or be killed bargain.  A character out of work is offered $25,000 to murder a baby or herself be murdered.  If someone “in the audience” prevents her from killing the baby in a set time, she’ll killed by whoever interferes, which occurs, leading to the bargain being reset for him — kill the baby and make a lot of money or be killed, and so on …   The situation is so bizarre that it doesn’t illuminate the lives of those out of work because of the recession (or for any other reason).

Fucked shows Itamar Moses’ keen ear for the dialog of contemporary relationships as in his enjoyable Love Stories at The Flea, reviewed here February 2009.  There are similar amusing moments in this one, but nothing really happens:  the girl leaves but that’s a foregone conclusion, and it’s also obvious from the start that the guy doesn’t care.  A phone conversation reveals that the guy’s dad has lost money in commodities but that doesn’t figure in the play and so seems squeezed in to fit the recession theme.

In New York Living, Thomas Bradshaw returns to his loveless couples breaking up and recoupling — what difference does it make who as long as there’s a live body and some sex?  In his recently produced The Bereavedreviewed in September, this theme had a political purpose — it was the engine that drove a revolutionary parable.  Here, the “issues” between the couples are childishly prurient with much ado about erections, and the mechanical breakups and recouplings have no purpose at all, like the plot of Cosi Fan Tutte without the music.  Needing a place to live figures but — boom or bust — that’s always true for young actors in New York City.

Severed by Erin Courtney is a conversation between two people on a bench in which the young man, in a fine suit, is out of work but optimistic, and the young woman, who seems briefly attracted to him, leaves for her job with preschoolers wearing as she does for work a huge over-the-head bulbous eunuch’s mask.

In Recess by Sheila Callaghan, insane people mill around an open area as in a classic Bedlam.  One lies dead and another’s dead by the end from compulsive exercise and anorexia, while a couple plays footsies, men fight, and the group eats a meager meal while imagining better fare.  So many people appear nude in Recess that by the end it’s totally clear that there’s a difference between male and female anatomies but then that’s not news.  Recess, the program says, takes place in an “apocalyptic near future when the bottom has indeed fallen out” but you wouldn’t know if you hadn’t read it.

Unum by Will Eno, about the mighty and not-so-mighty dollar, develops slowly and stiffly and with empty pauses between episodes, until finally it reaches a truly affecting passage when a mother with Alzheimer’s is moved to a care facility because of the squeeze on living space.

Two performances stand out among many good ones.  In Classic Kitchen Timer, Nick Maccarone is wry and balletic as a Host, really a Master of Ceremonies in the style of Joel Grey in Cabaret  (though the role seems pointless in connection with the play).  Jessica Pohly in Fucked has a terrific comic delivery while conveying genuine feeling, like Carol Burnett.

The Great Recession plays at The Flea Theater in NYC’s Tribeca through December 30.

Fucked - Flea Theater

Dorien Makhloghi and Jessica Pohly in Fucked by Itamar Moses
Photo: Courtesy of The Flea Theater

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