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

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The playwright ponders ... Pierre Corneille by an unknown 17th century artist. Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

Review | The Liar | By David Ives | Adapted from Corneille’s play Le Menteur | Directed by Michael Kahn | Classic Stage Company

… bold brilliance …

This play is for everybody who loves words, word play, unexpected puns and rhymes of an unbound imagination.  It’s hilarious –and expands one’s sense of the English language.

People like to make a distinction between “plot driven” stories and “character driven” stories – this adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s play by David Ives is “word driven.”  If you’re going to enjoy it, it will be because you love the fancies words can spin, the hilarities they can spring on you, and above all the deep down satisfying pleasure of big warm laughs, one after the other.

The playwright ponders ... Pierre Corneille by an unknown 17th century artist. Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

The playwright ponders … Pierre Corneille by an unknown 17th century artist. Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

Corneille, whose life spanned most of the 17th century, is the father of both the great tradition of French tragedy and comedy.  For Voltaire, Corneille had shown that the French language could be a medium for great art, as Homer had done for ancient Greek, though subsequently Voltaire altered his views.  Le Menteur premiered in 1644,  Meet the big liar, Dorante, who starts us off by boasting of his military career in order to impress two women he meets in the Tuilleries in Paris.  The women – conveniently for farce – have names that sound alike, Clarice and Lucrece.  Even Dorante is mixed up about which is which.

What follows are mistaken identities and amusing confusions.  Dorante, thinking that he prefers Lucrece (no, he really prefers Clarice), initiates the lie that he is already married in order to avoid marrying Clarice – a lie that, as the truth snaps at his heels, he spins into ever more complicated twists and turns, the riotous inventions of a genius liar.  Clarice is engaged – secretly of course – to someone else, duels are arranged, the butler is involved with … as said, the plot is not so much the heart of the matter as the humor.

Michael Kahn has directed an able cast, with Christian Conn as Dorante, Ismenia Mendes as Clarice, Amelia Pedlow as Lucrece, and others who share their perfect timing to fill out the humor.  I particularly loved Carson Elrod as Dorante’s bumpkin butler — naive but he learns fast.

This is the third of David Ives’ adaptations* that have appeared at Classic Stage:  the others are The Heir Apparent, adapted from Jean-Francois Regnard’s Le Legataire universel, seen at Classic Stage in 2014, and The School for Lies, adapted from Molière’s The Misanthrope in 2011.

Taking off from the original plots, David Ives adapts with his particularly liberated and fanciful language so that they are truly new creations, ones that in their way put us in closer touch with the spirit of the original plays, and the gaiety they brought to seventeenth-century theater-goers, than a more “faithful” translation could give.  Through Ives’ bold brilliance, we share the joy inherent in these wonderful comedies.  I count it as one of the great good fortunes to live within range of that theater treasure — Classic Stage Company – and to have seen these plays.

Of the three, The School for Lies, was, well, the funniest – simply over-the-top, unforgettable – one of the rare times I’ve seen a play twice in one run, partly because of Molière’s vivid characters and partly because it featured, among other fine actors, the incomparable Hamish Linklater. But all bear the mark of Ives’ wit, uninhibited imagination, civilized perspective, and joie de vivre.  It’s a privilege to have seen all three of these Ives’ creations.

It’s a privilege to see The Liar.

The Liar plays at Classic Stage Company in Manhattan’s East Village through February 26, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.

* Classic Stage also produced Ives’ profound play about Spinoza, The New Jerusalem, and the  popular play Venus in Fur which opened there before moving to Broadway (as well as two others I haven’t seen).

Review | Peer Gynt | By Henrik Ibsen | Directed and Adapted by John Doyle | Classic Stage Company

… what’s the hurry ? …

This Classic Stage production of Peer Gynt, adapted by John Doyle, should be called Peer Gynt Shortened and Simplified.

This is a shrunken version of the epic verse drama which Ibsen wrote in five acts with approximately 50 characters, about a self-centered and hyper imaginative (“dreams of glory”) man who roams a good part of the earth including a trip to an underworld of trolls.  In this version there’s less of everything, fewer scenes, abbreviated episodes, fewer characters … and the violin music is evocative but thin compared with the symphonic character of Edvard Grieg’s original score.  A bright spot of the production is the fine acting of Gabriel Ebert as Peer.

Like his father before him, who frittered away a fortune and abandoned his wife and son, Peer is trouble through and through. He scorns a promising bride and then abducts her from her wedding with another man, the first of the women he skips out on.  Banished from his community for the abduction, he lands in the under-the-mountain realm of the Troll King who provides Peer with a motto:  “Be true to yourself and to hell with the world.”  One of the many ambiguities of the play is that Peer didn’t really need the motto – he was already a prime egoist.  Another ambiguity is the very question of whether the episode among the trolls “really happened” or was a figment of Peer’s imagination, the question that runs through most episodes of the play.

Perhaps that’s why in Classic Stage’s program for the play, the Cast lists only seven characters – seven!  The play has over fifty!  Those listed are of Peer’s village, perhaps under the assumption that all the others are only imagined by Peer and thus don’t need to be listed – what a simplification that is!  And it’s indicative of the reductionist approach of this production to Ibsen’s vast play.  Even if Peer imagines the others, or some of the others, they’re still characters, for Pete’s sake!  So, if you know the play, you’ll be surprised to see no Button-molder on the list of characters, that devilish figure prepared to melt down Peer’s soul into indistinguishable nothingness with the rest of ordinary humanity – he’s not listed because, I guess, he’s “just imagined.”

The saintly-like pure woman who loves him is Solveig (whom he first encounters at the wedding where he “ruined” the bride).  He has a brief idyll with Solveig in a remote mountain cabin but an old mountain woman from Peer’s time spent among the trolls turns up with her troll-human hybrid child – Peer’s misbegotten son conceived through his “thought.” Through this child born not of a sexual act but of sexually lustful thoughts, Ibsen represents the Northern European Protestant idea that thoughts alone – not just deeds but mental imaginings, fantasies and desires – can determine guilt.  This intrusion from Peer’s sinful past provokes him to abandon Solveig (who, however, continues to love him and appears at the end in a kind of redeeming role).

After a time as a successful merchant – slave trading and the like — Peer is robbed and abandoned in North Africa.  Alone amidst the harsh elements of nature like King Lear on the heath, he finds his way to his true “empire,” an insane asylum where everyone is like him in living in a private world – the mad being the ultimate egoists, as Peer understands it.  Among the adventures beyond the madhouse is a climactic terrifying shipwreck, and the mysterious encounter with the Satanic-like agent, the Button-molder, ready melt him down indiscriminately in his ladle, with whom Peer attempts a Faustian-like negotiation.

In the role of Peer, Gabriel Ebert runs the gamut of human experience and of affect and emotion.  He’s tall and virile, clownish and pixy-like, adult and childlike, ranging through these transformations with wit, understanding, and extraordinary physical and emotional energy.  In spite of the minimizing of the play itself, one can see through Gabriel Ebert’s dramatic characterization Ibsen’s monumental character of Peer Gynt.  It would be great to see Ebert in a fully realized version of this tantalizing, confusing, and iconic drama.

Two hours with no intermission.  What’s the hurry anyhow?

Classic Stage, some years ago, staged Target Margin’s ambitious and thoroughgoing production of Goethe’s Faust.  Peer Gynt is in many ways comparable to Faust in its egoistic, hedonistic central figure and his multi-faceted life-voyage, its mystic overtones, symbolic characters, philosophic resonances and ambiguities.  I wish Classic Stage had brought to Ibsen’s Peer Gynt a similar broad, determined embrace of the play’s epic scope and complexities. Without that, and in spite of Ebert’s great efforts, the play seems irrelevant … even silly.

Peer Gynt plays at Classic Stage in Manhattan’s  East Village through June 19, 2016.  For more information and tickets, click here.

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 | Doctor Faustus | From Christopher Marlowe’s Play | Adapted by David Bridel & Andrei Belgrader | Starring Chris Noth | Classic Stage Company

A smart man makes a really bad bargain

Faustus makes his famous life and death deal with Lucifer that he will have lower-down devil Mephistopheles as his servant, to fulfill all his wishes, but he’s already been warned: Lucifer is Mephistopheles’ true master.  Ultimately not even a devil can serve two masters.

Still, there are quite a number of tricks Faustus and Mephistopheles can pull off, and it’s a great deal of fun, and thought-provoking, to see them at it!

The engine that sets things going it Faustus’ disappointment with the limits of academic learning.  As a scholar, he’s diligently made his way through all the disciplines – Renaissance disciplines – and each and every one has let him down.  He found that Logic is useful for arguing but doesn’t lead to truth. Medicine has developed to be successful in curing many illnesses but it cannot cure death — shades of Sophocles who says much the same thing in Antigone.  The problem with Law, which Faustus also dismisses, is clear to him (though I found it vague).

And as for Divinity, all humans commit sin and sin is punishable by death so — what’s the point?  “What doctrine call you this?” he exclaims. “Que sera sera.”  This clues you in that the play takes up the topic of Calvinist pre-destination vs. free will, a central topic in Marlowe’s time (though we don’t find out where Marlowe truly stands).

Disillusioned by academic learning, Faustus turns to magic and, with a circle and incantation, conjures up Lucifer and a parcel of devils.  Heady with excitement, Faustus renounces his baptism and makes his bargain:  he’ll have Mephistopheles as his servant to fulfill his will for twenty-four years, contingent on what Lucifer and God allow, and at the end, his soul will be turned over to Lucifer and eternal damnation.

He readily sets aside his early quest for truth after Mephistopheles throws in some pseudo scientific but negative sounding double-talk.  He doesn’t put up a fuss when he learns he can’t marry because marriage is a holy sacrament and he’s given up on his baptism — he’ll be happy enough with prostitutes.  He gets plenty of warnings from scholars, angels, and a terrific show that Mephistopheles puts on for him in which the Seven Deadly — and unappealing looking — Sins are paraded before his eyes, and ours. Occasionally Faustus has some misgivings, should he repent?  Can he repent?  But never mind — he throws his magical powers into entertaining himself with women and with practical jokes.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thinking, if I had those powers I’d … complete the sentence with whatever the individual feels is particularly worthy.

It’s interesting to think of Shakespeare’s Prospero, a theatrical magician of the same time — Prospero used his magical powers to help those he loved, to make things come out right for human beings — and spirits, too.  Faustus is totally self-involved.

Still, though Faustus isn’t admirable, he’s lovable, or at least charismatic, because of the appeal of a character who gives up everything for what he wants, and also because, joining him on his adventures, we have such a good time.

Not all the scenes in this production live up to Marlowe’s free-flowing inventiveness. The parade of the Seven Deadly Sins is flat, though livened up with some enjoyable audience participation.  Still, the visualization of the individual sins lacked imagination — especially compared with other fantastic evocations I’ve seen at Classic Stage.

On the other hand, the trip to Rome where, turning himself invisible, Faustus does some tomfoolery at the expense of the Pope has breadth and vision in evoking an overview of Rome with puppets and flight and visual jokes.  The total irreverence towards the Pope brought to mind the negative view of the Cardinal as a hypocrite in a nearly contemporary play, John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore, that I saw recently. Both plays ask searching questions that touch on religion, but both English playwrights share the certainty that Catholic Rome doesn’t hold answers.

The most breathtaking sequence in this production is the love scene between Faustus and Helen of Troy whom Faustus conjures up. Marina Lazzaretto is stunningly trim and elegantly nude as Helen: she expresses Helen’s essential nature, both available and impossible to possess. Here is one of the most essential, ungratuitous nudity I’ve ever seen in theater.  It’s Chris Noth’s best scene¸ too, and he fully expresses Marlowe’s unsurpassed love poetry.  It’s nothing less than perfect.

One’s always curious to see an actor much enjoyed on TV in a play.  Chris Noth works energetically at the role of Faustus:  I don’t think he’d win the role in open casting (and Classic Stage has in my view somewhat lost its way in focusing on big name actors), but he expresses himself forcefully and clearly, though not with the character’s full resonance.

In the comic counterpoint to Faustus’ ambiguous master-servant relationship with Mephistopheles, Walker Jones is delightful as Faustus’ servant, Wagner and Ken Cheeseman is hilarious and with great timing as the servant’s “servant,” Dick.  I was part of the audience that got into “audience participation” when Cheeseman (here in the guise of a sort of zombie) came at me – that was fun.

This play frees the imagination:  and this production of Doctor Faustus led me to imagine that there could be an even more playful, surprising, imaginatively free production, but this was well done, a fascinating play on a fundamental theme, great to see.  Marlowe creates a world: I was sorry when the play was over, and it continues to illuminate my mind.

Doctor Faustus, directed by Andrei Belgrader, plays at Classic Stage in Manhattan’s East Village through July 12, 2015 .

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 Heir Apparent by David Ives | Adapted from Le Légataire Universel by Jean-François Regnard | Directed by John Rando | Classic Stage Company

David Ives does it again — almost.  His earlier adaptation of Moliere’s le Misanthrope (1666), renamed The School for Lies  (reviewed here in 2011) was an orgy of unending laughter.  This adaptation of Regnard’s le Légataire Universel (1708) which he renames The Heir Apparent isn’t as successful although Ives follows his same rules of mod transformation, because Regnard’s play falls short of the brilliance of le Misanthrope.

So what does David Ives “do” with these late sixteenth and early seventeenth century French plays?

He translates them into completely contemporary lingo, without any inhibitions or unnecessary reverence for  “The Past,” unworried about “anachronism,” using contemporary slang and turns of phrase, and in a spectacular rush of imagination invents contemporary in-jokes in place of  the in-jokes of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries that today would seem like out-jokes, or be missed.  He’s tremendously witty!  Meanwhile, he holds to the past in the costumes and, with titillating ambiguity, in the decor, and for the plot maintains the rules, regulations, customs and laws of the 16th and 17th centuries, all of which, coming up against the contemporary language and modern references, create a delicious cognitive dissonance.

Thanks to David Ives, these plays come to us more themselves than they would be in literal word-for-word translations.  They’re as good as they were in their own day which in the case of Moliere means marvelous, less so for Regnard.

Jean-François’ Regnard was a reigning comic playwright of the Comédie-Français after Moliere; this is his best known work.  The situation is that  a rich old man, Geronte, appears to be dying and his poor nephew, Eraste, is angling for his fortune, which will enable him to marry the beautiful Isabelle.  Obstacles arise for Eraste including the varied set of characters seeking the dying man’s fortune who appear and, in some amusing scenes, claim in one preposterous way or another to be long lost relatives.

The biggest obstacle of all is that the tough old geezer, much as he seems on his last legs, simply doesn’t die.  Crispin the servant, facilitator to the core, invents clever schemes to help Eraste whose own inability to do anything for himself makes him a less than sympathetic character as a lover, which I found a weakness in the play.  Who cares if this jerk gets the girl or not?

Much of the early part of the play (at least it seemed to go on a long time) centers around old man Geronte’s problems with his plumbing: there’s lots of tiresome scatological joking and horsing around.  Instead of an amusingly extreme aspect of character (such as one would find in Moliere), we’re stuck with Geronte’s extreme digestive problems, but Paxton Whitehead, abandoning any vestige of narcissism, gives his all to the rather repulsive role and, when called for, produces an impressive of physical transformation.  By the end of the play, the characters’ situations have changed but — in contrast to le Misanthrope — they haven’t learned much.

The most interesting character is Scruple — the short lawyer of briefs — acted by David Pittu who plays it like José Ferrer as Toulouse-Lautrec in the 1952 John Huston film, The Moulin Rouge — on his knees.  He’s also responsible for the most hilarious scene in which the attorney, a true professional, is drawing up his client’s will while oblivious to false identities — always good for laughs, and Pittu’s intelligent but obtuse sober mien adds to the fun.

Carson Elrod is energetic and amusing as Crispin, the man of many devices and “a whole comédie-française in himself.” Suzanne Bertsch is appropriately imperious as Isabelle’s mother.

See The Heir Apparent and you’ll enjoy it, but you don’t “have to see” it the way I felt you “had” to see The School for Lies.  (I saw it twice just so somebody else who’d miss it otherwise could see it once.)

The Heir Apparent plays at Classic Stage Company in New York City’s East Village through May 4th, 2014.

Review | A Man’s A Man by Bertolt Brecht | Translated by Gerhard Nellhaus | Original Music by Duncan Sheik | Directed by Brian Kulick | Classic Stage Company

… Brecht no way…

This early play of Brecht, set in British Colonial India, takes up the story of a pleasant minded civilian, an Irishman named Galy Gay, who — on his way to buy fish for himself and his wife — is waylaid by three soldiers whose fourth companion has disappeared and is, by force and brain washing (though that term came in later), turned into a enthused soldier, defined here as a killing machine.

It’s challenging to consider whether a man can be completely transformed, re-machined as Brecht would have it, in order to fulfill a role that fulfills the purposes of society’s top dogs, but the play doesn’t make the case.  The transitions are too abrupt, the change not convincing, and  so — whatever the reality may be — the premise appears silly.  The humanity that permeates Brecht’s best work is lacking here, and the play comes across as diagrammatic and over-long by someone whose full dramatic talent has yet to develop.

Still, whatever the virtues of provoking thought and shaking up assumptions A Man’s A Man may have, this production has an opulent flavor at odds with the play’s biting, expressionistic character.  Among Hollywood-like touches, a vast ceiling-to-floor silvery curtain shimmers, a dead ringer for Christmas tree tinsel, to represent the façade of a mysterious, exotic temple within which one British soldier disappeared.  Generally the scale of stage elements, including a prop involving a fake elephant, and the comfortable lighting, contrast with the spare expressionistic vision the characterized the initial German production of 1926.  Anything can be worth doing but the visual extravagance in the Classic Stage production vitiates the drama and Brecht’s tough-minded political point of view.

Gibson Frazier brings power, if not irony, to the role of Galy Gay, particularly in the catalytic scene in which through cruel devices, he’s transformed into a machine-like soldier.   I think that in a production more true to the play’s essential expressionism, the schematic brutality and patent artificiality could have a strong impact.  Here it elicited the response:  “no way.”

The part of Widow Behick — a gutsy Mother Courage type of woman along the lines of those Brecht wrote into several of his plays — is played by Justin Vivien Bond, a brilliant male drag performance artist.   It’s great fun to watch him — he’s the highlight of the show and keeps it from feeling interminably dull — but, although he takes seriously and acts well the few tender moments, the camp aspect of the performance robs the play of the natural humanity that perhaps a woman playing the part directly, without the distancing of camp, may have provided.

Duncan Sheik’s music, contemporary but resonating with Kurt Weil, nostalgic but up-to-date, was appealing and I hope it finds its way into other Brecht productions since, though written for this one, it wouldn’t be limited to it.

Here’s a chance to see an early Brecht play, for some a reason to go — but it’s far from being Brecht’s best, and this production sidesteps its essence in favor of scenic and other distractions.

A Man’s A Man plays at Classic Stage in Manhattan’s East Village through February 16th, 2014.

Review | Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare | Directed by Tea Alagić | Classic Stage Company

… Where art Romeo and Juliet? …

What I liked best about this Classic Stage production of Romeo and Juliet was the depiction of the men around the Montague Romeo and those around the Capulets as young toughs with a contemporary style.  Nothing new about that, of course, think of West Side Story, and Shakespeare in contemporary dress is commonplace.  But Harry Ford (substituting the night I attended for T. R. Knight), with his thick body packed into leather and to-the-head corn rows makes a charismatic Mercutio, volatile, dirty-mouthed, amused and amusing, and the rest of the guys fit in to the idea, though they’re not consistently as convincing.

Shakespeare’s poetry is spoken throughout with an ineffective mix of over-contemporary-casual and over-emphasis on the last beat of each iambic line:  strange bed-fellows.  Much of the dialog is spoken so to-the-chest or throw-away, that it’s hard to catch — this is particularly true of Romeo, played by Julian Cihi, but in general the poetry and even a lot of the words are sacrificed in the name of contemporary naturalism.  The upshot:  the speech sounds artificial and the poetic power is lost.

What a relief when Daniel Davis as Friar Laurence is on stage: he speaks with complete naturalism while conveying the rhythms and beauty of the poetry, and the projection of his clear, emotionally powerful voice is exciting.  His strength makes the character of Friar Laurence seem more central than in other productions, and that in itself is illuminating.

Like Ford as Mercutio, Daphne Rubin-Vega plays Juliet’s nurse in a vivid characterization based on a contemporary type.  Rubin-Vega’s Nurse is a bust-in-your-face Hispanic woman with an alluring accent — think Chita Rivera — with a crisp, aggressive white blouse, black harem pants and high heels that rock her through a fascinating gait.  Excitement leads her to lapse sometimes into rapid-fire Spanish that even a native Spanish speaker might miss:  evidently the director thought it was OK for the audience to lose her words for the sake of naturalism and humor but — at the risk of being a stick-in-the-mud — with Shakespeare, I’d rather hear all the words.  Still, there’s a welcome freshness to bringing the nurse out of the shadows of servility and showing her as a feisty foreigner.

But Romeo (Cihi) and Juliet, played by Elizabeth Olsen, are the least effective actors in the production.  Passion? What passion?  Cihi never seems deeply affected by Juliet.  Juliet’s main approach seemed to be to raise her voice all-out loud to convey strong feeling, straining her throat.  There’s no erotic chemistry, even in bed.  Simply put, these two young actors have at this point neither the emotional depth nor the stage presence to carry such roles.

Instead of an ensemble flow in this production, there’s a range of styles and performance individuality.  It follows that the production leaves one with the impression of a few stellar bits.  Mercutio, the Nurse, and Friar Laurence are well worth seeing.

Romeo and Juliet  plays at Classic Stage Company in Manhattan’s East Village through November 10, 2013.

Review | Ivanov by Anton Chekhov | Translated by Carol Rocamora | Directed by Austin Pendleton | With Ethan Hawke as Ivanov | Classic Stage Company

Ivanov is not as perfect a play as Chekhov’s Three Sisters (at Classic Stage) or The Cherry Orchard, which came later,  but I enjoyed it even more — filled with fascinating and amusing characters, it spills over into a rambunctious panorama of life.  That’s all the more amazing because — characteristically Chekhov — the characters like to proclaim that they’re  “bored ” but the play is vital and engaging — how does he do it?  One thing:  the writing is marvelous.  And in this Classic Stage production, the acting is superb, and Austin Pendleton’s naturalistic, soft-voiced direction highly effective in drawing you in and making you believe.

Ethan Hawk gives his all:  he understands every nuance of Chekhov’s portrait of the anguished, depressed Ivanov and portrays it vividly through voice, facial expression, and movement — he fairly dances through the part.  His is a particularly individualized performance, but all the actors are perfectly cast and draw the most of humor and meaning from their parts.

Ivanov, a landowner in late 19th-century Russia, is in straightened fiscal circumstances, is married to a woman he no longer loves, and has let his once ambitious agricultural plans for his estate fall by the wayside.

Plenty of reason to be depressed in all that, and so we first meet him lying in his rumpled white linen suit on his rumpled bed in daytime, fitfully trying to read.   Interruptions, such when the steward of his estate comes in with a shady — read modern exploitive — money-making scheme, exasperate him.  Reminders — as from the well-meaning, pompous young doctor, that Ivanov should save his wife Anna, who is dying of tuberculosis, by taking her for a long rest in a warm climate — exasperate him even more.

Sorry for himself as he feels, though, Ivanov is not a victim:  he’s brought his woes on himself, but he’s created a victim in his wife.  Five years ago, he passionately wooed her, and she gave up Jewish faith and her family for love of him.  Had he, back then, wooed her for her money?  so that his “falling out of love” is really disappointment that when she converted to his Russian Orthodox faith she lost her dowry?  Or did the stifling cloud of his depression simply descend upon him as Chekhov, a medical doctor, knew can happen?  We’re never sure.  One thing is clear:  Ivanov is not a good man — but a fascinating theatrical character, and fascinating to women.

Now Anna’s doctor is continually hammering at Ivanov to take her away for warmth and rest while Ivanov abhors the idea of being alone with her.  Anyhow, he doesn’t have the money.  He evades all pressing issues by going over to the Lebedevs’ estate where things are a lot more fun, even though he’s harassed by Zinaida Lebedeva, a tight-fisted  money lender, for the 9000 roubles he owes her.  There are a variety of acquaintances, characters, jokes, his warm friend, Paul Lebedev, and — brandy in the punch — the Lebdev’s 20-year old daughter, Sasha, who’s infatuated with him.

Anna and her faithful advocate and doctor follow him there, only to catch him kissing Sasha, which leads Anna to believe that Ivanov has always been false, their love a sham from the start, that the bitterest pill for a sick woman.   How Chekhov works out these situations of love and betrayal … well, let’s just say Ivanov finally does something forceful.

Such rich, abundant, fully realized theater as Classic Stage’s production of Ivanov  takes you beyond yourself.  Chekhov creates a full world that offers the bright, stimulating pleasure of attentiveness for the duration of the play.  And the characters are so alive, amusing and vivid that they stay with you in your world afterwards.

Ivanov  plays at Classic Stage Company in Manhattan’s East Village through December 9th, 2012.

Review | Galileo by Bertolt Brecht | Translated by Charles Laughton | Directed by Brian Kulick | Choreographed by Tony Speciale | With F. Murray Abraham, Robert Dorfman and Amanda Quaid | Classic Stage Company

The conflict in Galileo is iconic:  freedom of ideas vs. censorship.  Brecht peppers his play and his character of Galileo (1564-1642 ) with some Marxist views which are anachronistic but the play triggers thought and thrills one at the power of human intellect.

Everybody’s having a good time looking through the telescope Galileo has recently perfected, and figuring out its benefits and fiscal profits.  Galileo, short of money, wouldn’t mind reaping some profit, too, but fundamentally he’s peering into his telescope in his quest for truth, recording his observations, and thinking about them.  His observations and calculations reveal to him that the earth rotates around the sun, not the other way around.

Galileo understands, of course, that his heliocentric view runs directly counter to Catholic dogma in which Man and his earth are at the center of God’s creation, but, driven by the passion to know, excited and even arrogant in the power of his discoveries, he seems unworried that the Church, through its powerful enforcement arm, the Inquisition, will censor his ideas or threaten his personal safety.

In one of the great scenes in theater, Cardinal Barberini, Galileo’s old friend, is transformed from an ordinary man into The Pope as he stands, center stage, and is dressed, with the aid of an advisor, into full papal regalia, buttoned from neck to hem into to his long gown, taking up the mitre, until, crowned by the tiara, his identity becomes merged fully with the Church.  And, having resisted to this point, he now accedes to his advisor’s insistence that Galileo’s heresy must be stopped, and he releases Galileo to the Inquisition.

It’s enough just to see the Inquisition’s horrific instruments of torture — Galileo recants.   Recant – it’s worth pausing to think about what it means.   Driven by fear, Galileo is forced to state publicly that what he knows to be the truth is not the truth.

His “unheroic” recantation disillusions some of his followers.  But they weren’t shown the instruments of torture.  Among the disappointed, Galileo’s servant says “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.”  “No, Andrea, unhappy is the land that needs a hero,” Galileo answers.  Brecht’s Galileo is as much a man of the flesh as of the intellect, one of the keen strengths of the play.

His geocentric view now branded a heresy, Galileo spends the rest of his life under house arrest, but he continues his scientific studies — examining sunspots by peering through his telescope to the point where he blinds himself.  His followers smuggle the results of his investigations beyond the borders of Italy and to the larger world.  Brecht believed that revolutionary ideas are ultimately unstoppable:  in this instance he was right.

F.. Murray Abraham portrays Galileo with a gruffness that suggests a weary experience with the world, but misses the inner excitement and inspiration of his life as a scientist.  Robert Dorfman conveys exquisitely the gentle humor of Brecht’s Pope, thoughtful, ironic, amused even at himself, until he takes on the rigidity of high position.  Amanda Quaid as Galileo’s daughter effectively moves from joyous young love to its disappointment, to a nunnish devotion to her aging father, representing the fallout of the effects of Galileo’s scientific drive on those he loves.

The set is so evocative one seems to hear the music of the spheres.  Suspended globes of different sizes in bluish tones conjure up the solar system, their appealingly rough surfaces referring to Gallileo’s key — and religiously controversial — observation that the moon isn’t perfectly smooth but has mountains.  At times a round projection suggests a view through a telescope — here I think this production missed a bet:  instead of generic views of starry skies, etc., they would have done well to show what Galileo with the magnification available actually saw when he put his eye to the lens, including the way, over time, things moved.

This is a play that I think is inportant to know, and here’s your chance to see it well produced and performed.  Earlier, Classic Stage presented a staged reading of Galileo, including the play’s two possible endings, one “hopeful,” one “hopeless.”  The reading included both endings:  here we have one.

Galileo plays at Classic Stage Company in Manhattan’s East Village through March 18, 2012.

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