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

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Unnatural Acts.  Photo:  Classic Stage

Review | Unnatural Acts | Written by Members of the Plastic Theatre | Conceived and Directed by Tony Speciale | Classic Stage Company

Unnatural Acts is a strong and thought provoking play based on a true and tragic event:  the purge of a group of gay men at Harvard University in 1920.  The catalyst was the suicide of Cyril Wilson, assumed to be gay, which led Harvard to get rid of the group of homosexuals associated with him, evidently to avoid scandal.

One by one, ten students and one instructor suspected of being part of Wilson’s cadre of homosexual friends were interrogated by a “Secret Court” of high level administrators which determined their “guilt” as homosexuals, or their “innocence.”  Most were found “guilty” and were expelled.  We learn, by the end of the play, of the blight the investigation and expulsion cast on almost all of their lives.

It’s a fascinating and very clever theatrical choice that the only characters we see in the play are the eleven directly affected men.  The Harvard disciplinary board is a dark presence, its activities illuminated only by the monologs of the accused young men called in to testify and responding to questions.  All focus is on the men themselves, their lives, personalities, purposes, sexual drives (though oddly, nobody seems in love), interactions, and the effect on these of the punitive purge.

At the start of the play, the eleven react variously to Wilson’s suicide.  Some close friends feel grief and attend his funeral, acting as pallbearers, while others who knew him casually are more distant.  As the play advances, though, the noose tightens equally around all of them.  That’s a powerful structure.

Early on there’s a wild party in the suite of Earnest Roberts that I think everyone who sees the play is bound to remember for a long time.  It’s very well staged.  There’s drinking, music, lovemaking, and banter while Roberts, “the

The party's warming up ...  from Unnatural Acts.  Photo:  Classic Stage

The party’s warming up …  from Unnatural Acts.  Photo:  Classic Stage

ringleader,” makes witty proclamations from tabletops, wearing a gorgeous sequined flapper dress.  The process that will crush most of them is well underway but they don’t understand that yet, partly because these men, mainly sons of privilege, have a sense of invulnerability.

But soon enough they’re all roped in.   Being a congressman’s son won’t get you out of this one.

Under interrogation, some are damned for telling the truth and others damned for lying.  One egregious liar who’s gay is exonerated and one truth-teller who’s straight receives a relatively mild one-year suspension (and may be the only one who goes on to live a long time and have the kind of fulfilled career that Harvard men look forward to).

The disciplinary board appears to have tried sincerely to separate those who were “guilty” from those who were “innocent” — as those words applied to gays in 1920.  But “sincerity” is irrelevant — the play drives home that secret deliberative bodies are inherently cruel and unjust, and that intolerance set in motion against a class of people judged to be different from oneself is cruel and unjust.

Why did Harvard do it?  Since the disciplinary board is a kind of composite character in the play, I missed knowing what motivated them.  Was it blind prejudice?  Avoidance of scandal?  Or?  The investigation begins right after Wilson’s death and Harvard already had a reputation as the most “faggoty” school: this suggests the administration had been looking the other way with regard to gay activities until Wilson’s suicide raised the fear of scandal, but that’s a guess.  Those eleven men would have been guessing about that, too, and talking it over.

Tony Speciale conceived the play and shepherded it through a process of collaborative creation with the cast, and it’s presented as an ensemble piece.  The actors are for the most part very good, though some characters could use greater differentiation — that’s an awful lot of young men in suits to keep track of (though it’s easy to remember the nude track star and Roberts in a dress!).  That nobody’s in love, however, is unlikely.  A focus on a deep love among these individuals would heighten the play’s impact.  The direction, with dramatic switches from a bright to a dark stage, is tense and clear.

This is really an example of many cooks who didn’t spoil the broth, but arrived at a sturdy, unified drama that tells an important story.

Unnatural Acts plays at Classic Stage in New York City’s East Village — through July 10 run extended through July 31.

Review | The School For Lies by David Ives | Directed by Walter Bobbie | Classic Stage Company

… triple play …

What a romp!  What sheer fun!  Moliere would have loved The School For Lies.

And what a record, three for three, for Classic Stage and David Ives:

  • 2009:  Classic Stage produces Ives’ brilliant play about Spinoza,  New Jerusalem:  The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza
  • 2010:  Classic Stage produces Ives’ Venus in Fur which was a big success and launched Nina Arianda into stardom (though I found it tiresome)
  • 2011:  Classic Stage produces Ives’ The School for Lies, from Moliere’s The Misanthrope, and they’re right back on brilliant

The School for Lies roughly follows Moliere’s The Misanthrope with Ives translating it into the words, rhythms, and catch-all phrases of today’s youth-slanted English — and these are very young characters.  He’s discovered complete freedom of vocabulary — no word for word translation but every attempt, and success, at catching the sense of each line, its feeling, the characters’ pleasure in saying it and the impact on the hearer.

The effect in its way is pure Moliere.  Ives bridges the 17th to 21st Centuries!

And, though perhaps less inventive, Ives is as witty as Moliere!  Like The Misanthrope, The School for Lies is in rhyme — rhyming couplets, strings of internal rhymes, can-you-top-this? rhymes, punning rhymes, delayed rhymes that you wait for and that never disappoint on arrival — bringing a grin, a chortle, a guffaw, and a sigh of satisfaction.

We’re in Paris among aristocrats in the 17th Century.  Well, we’re sort of there:  the furnishings are of the time, and the characters wear gorgeous period costumes  but they talk like us.  Celimene is a spirited, witty recent widow and a flirt who loves society.  Frank is an impulsive, sarcastic brooder, disdainful of humanity and its superficial social conventions — hugs in particular.  He’s sort of a hippie, she’s a party girl, and yet they love, sparring like Annie and Frank in Annie Get Your Gun.   The play abounds with rich characters, Philante, Frank’s friend with the “be reasonable, Frank” message who turns into a Queen ex machina;  Clitander (fun and names) super rich and content with his stupidity;  Oronte, whose dreadful poetry bears the brunt of Frank being frank, and others to entangle themselves in each others’ lies and loves.

This is a cast with great comic timing and marvelous expressions — subtle and broad as needed — Jenn Gambatese is particularly amusing as Elainte who loves … well, everybody here loves a few different people.  The tall, tousled Hamish Linklater gives a vigorous and always humorous performance and he’s handsome so that we can believe Celimene falls in love with him against her better judgment.  Mamie Gummer is persuasive as Celimene though the role could use more sparkle.  Everybody’s good but I’d particularly mention Steven Boyer whose long-suffering deadpan in the role of two servants holds the play together — you’d think that particularl joke that goes along with him might be overdone, but it works every time.

I’ve seen The Misanthrope at the Pearl Theatre recently which prompts comparison:  the stories and characters are similar but the differences are interesting — though I was so captivated by The School for Lies that these took awhile to sink in.  In The School for Lies, the hero, Frank, speaks of his hatred of hypocrisy.  In The Misanthrope,  the parallel hero, Alceste, hates hypocrisy and injustice.  And therein lies a tale.  The School for Lies is focused on individuals, on the foibles of this group and the hilarity they engender.  Injustice looms larger in The Misanthrope where, for all the laughter, one is always aware of the great power imbalances of the social structure and the insecurities they cause.  All in all, The School for Lies is a less political play than The Misanthrope.  In a way this is surprising, since Moliere, living and writing under the tight reign of Louis XIV, had two of his plays banned by the government, while Ives has nothing to lose.

(And those court cases often referred to are totally unclear to me in both plays.)

And Moliere’s play, for all of its exaggerated characterizations, is more realistic in terms of personalities and relationships, particularly in the more complex, anguished and genuinely philosophical character of Alceste, now Frank in The School for Lies.  And speaking of realism, Frank impossibly turns out to be someone else — but it’s so wonderfully funny you wouldn’t want it any other way.  These aspects give Moliere’s play the universality that inspires interpretations, adaptations, performances and other kinds of conversations with it in new generations — like The School for Lies.  But The School for Lies has its own great wit and language.

The School for Lies plays at Classic Stage in NYC’s East Village through May 22;  that’s too short a run for such an enjoyable play!

Review | Double Falsehood by William Shakespeare* and John Fletcher* | Adapted by Lewis Theobald | Directed by Brian Kulick | Classic Stage Company

A rumored connection to Shakespeare’s the thing here — not the play.

Is Double Falsehood  based on a play Shakespeare wrote* in collaboration with John Fletcher,* that has come down to us through an 18th-century adaptation by Lewis Theobald?  Classic Stage would like us to entertain that possibility.  It’s worthy to examine Shakespearean controversies but — theater is theater and this is not a good play.  And there’s nothing of Shakespeare to experience in it.

In Valencia, Spain, Roderick, the older son of the Duke is dutiful and responsible while the younger brother, Henriquez, is a rake.  Henriquez, out of town, sends Julio to collect money from the Duke and, having gotten his good friend out of the way, proceeds to woo Julio’s beloved, the well-born Leonora.  Attracted at the same time (“double falsehood”) to virtuous, lower class Violante, he rapes her onstage (Shakespeare?).  Leonora’s father tries to force her to marry Henriquez, and Julio, returning in time to interfere with the wedding, is bested in a fight by Henriquez (?) and sent on his way, while Leonora faints and her father discovers her suicide note in response to the hateful wedding prospect.

Julio becomes crazy, ranting in the wilds and stealing food from shepherds, while Violante, disguised as a boy, is servant to a shepherd who, realizing she’s female, threatens her sexually, though she’s spared by the arrival of Roderick.  He’s there though, actually, to help Henriquez steal Leonora from her refuge nunnery (and Roderick’s the good brother ?).  He speaks about honorable action but (with inconsistency, not complexity of character) we see him collaborating with Henriquez to violently abduct Leonora.  Somehow, though (somehow?) they all arrive back at the ducal palace where Julio is reunited with Leonora, and so is Henriquez with Violante who, we understand, is about to marry her rapist (?).  I felt sorry for the actress, Mackenzie Meehan as Violante, who had to stand there and make that look like something having to do with Shakespeare.  There’s no girl for Roderick, even though he’s the first born and his father’s heir (?).

The characters are thin conventions;  the only one with any interest is Henriquez because he’s nasty, and played with vigor by Slate Holmgren, though Henriquez lacks the depth of characterization of Edmund in Lear :  he’s melodramatic rather than driven.  As questioned (?) above, and commented on by others,* several plot turns seem not only un-Shakespearean but anachronistic.  But what makes the play particularly dull to sit through is the language, flat, cliched and without metaphoric inventiveness.

The best thing about the production of Double Falsehood are the quotations from an interview with Jorge Luise Borges that Brian Kulick, the passionately committed and talented Artistic Director of Classic Stage, includes in his introductory essay to the play — nothing like close contact with a fine writer like Borges.  But there’s no contact with Shakespeare in Double Falsehood — close or distant.  That one can point to crossed loves and girls dressing as boys and the fast changes of fortune — well, that’s pretty general.

* For a discussion of texts Theobald may or may not have had in hand that may or may not have related to Shakespeare in writing what Theobald claimed was his adaptation of a play he said was written collaboratively by Shakespeare and Fletcher, based on the story of Cardenio in Don Quixote, places to start are:  Classic Stage’s introductory brochure, and the entries with bibliographies on Double Falsehood in Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia — the Wikipedia article in its skepticism of the link to Shakespeare is very amusing.

Double Falsehood  plays at Classic Stage Company in NYC’s East Village through April 3.

Review | Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov | Translated by Paul Schmidt | Directed by Austin Pendleton | Classic Stage Company

… three ages of women …

Chekhov wrote Three Sisters for production on a proscenium stage but I think he would have been thrilled to see this expansion of his work in Classic Stage’s magnificent large and high performance space.  The potential breadth of Three Sisters is fulfilled in a way I’ve never seen before: the philosophical vision, the psychology and the drama enlarge as if here they’ve found a space to unfold their wings.

Irina, the youngest sister, is virginal and flits around wearing white.  Beginning the play on her 20th name day, Chekhov sets his theme, the struggle toward maturity.  Whom will Irina marry — a real life suitor, or an imagined love of her life dwelling in Moscow where the family once lived and where she longs to return?  Masha is the married woman, sensitive, witty, a trained pianist.  Now 25, she wed too young and, chafing at the bit of marital disappointment, carries on an affair with a dashing and idealistic officer temporarily stationed in town.  Olga, the oldest, is the spinster (at a mere 28!), and a school teacher, motherly and protective toward her sisters , her students and toward the old servant woman.

Together the three sisters represent the three ages of women: emblematic and at the same time richly drawn, fully individualized characters.

The sisters and their brother, Andrey, are living fairly well, following the deaths of their parents, in a provincial Russian town in the late 19th Century (Three Sisters was written in 1900).  The action centers around the family house.  Things have been moving along in a kind of status quo, marked by the loves and enjoyments that link the siblings and their individual frustrations and longings, shaded by an elegiac sense of a better past.

But Andrey shakes the status quo.  Unknown to his sisters, he’s been gambling what’s left of the family fortune, threatening the house’s ownership.  And he falls in love with, and then marries a coarse, noisy woman, Natasha, the opposite of the sisters in education, refinement and class background.  And when she has a baby — oh my a Baby — and ultimately another, she really rules the roost, thrusting the sisters out of their bedrooms and, it seems, ejecting them from their lives.

Will the sisters become victims?  Looks like it.  We worry for them, feel sad for them, while thinking something along the lines of the day of their class is done and here comes the New Russia.

But instead they grow.  Three Sisters is a play of self-actualization.  Each accommodates to reality in a different way.  Chekhov doesn’t make it easy for them.  When we think we know what needs to be done, new challenges roll in like tidal waves onto this quiet family in a quiet town.  The sisters draw strength from within and from each other.  Only Andrey ends up a flop and a laughing stock, a victim of his own weakness and under the thumb of his crude wife.  But the individual victories of the three sisters — not fantasy victories but genuine ones — are moving and resonate and remain in the mind as inspiring.

At the end one man, Fedotik, who has just lost all in a fire — as at the end all human beings lose everything — reminds us that ultimate loss does not negate that his life, and that these lives reach into the unseen future.  The production, designed for viewing on three sides in Classic Stage’s theater, with its central faceted and climbing set, continuing as a reflection in a smoky mirrored backdrop, carries that largeness of vision.  What a big play!

The acting is on a high level with two performances particularly strong.  Maggie Gyllenhaal is convincing as the agitated, seductive, artistic sister, verging on hysteria and yet holding on (one reviewer in the NY Times found her characterization too contemporary but no, Gyllenhaal gives us a fine embodiment of a “neurasthenic” woman known very well in 19th-century literature).  Jessica Hecht is charismatic as the older school teacher spinster — nothing dowdy here!  Her charm and warmth, the way we see her thinking in response the the events that pass before her eyes and ours, her growth in strength for what she doesn’t want but must take on — for others as well as herself — is compelling.  James Patrick Nelson moved me greatly in his final lines that link the present of the play with the ongoing theater of human hopes.

Three Sisters plays at Classic Stage through March 6th at 6:30.

Review | Jacques and His Master by Milan Kundera | Adapted from Diderot | Dramatic Reading, Directed by Brian Kulick | Classic Stage Company

… 18th-Century Post-Modern …

What a play!  And what a marvelous way to get to know it!

Monday, September 27, Classic Stage presented a reading of Jacques and His Master, written by novelist Kundera as an adaptation of Denis Diderot’s 18th-century novel.  Read by a cast that completely fulfilled the play, headed by two wonderful actors, Dan Oreskes as Jacques and F. Murray Abraham as Jacques’ Master, it was as vivid as any totally dramatized production — like radio drama, one sees it all!

It’s an on-the-road story — Jacques and his Master are traveling, and talking, the relationship between them makes you think of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza — although other narratives come bounding to mind including by Pirandello and Beckett.  Jacques is a cheeky and forthright servant, and the story he tells to please his master of “how he fell in love,” and fell out of it — and whether in it or out of it of the consequences of love and its necessity — is constantly interrupted.  As encounters arise bringing new stories, with these stories leading to yet others, characters transform themselves:  the down-to-earth Hostess Innkeeper “becomes” the upper-crust French Mme de la Pommeraye when she tells Mme’s story — all with actress Roberta Maxwell’s delicious French accent.  It’s enormously entertaining — and funny.

While breaking every rule in the book of a “well-made play,” Jacques and His Master never loses its engaging narrative flow.  One cares continually — though why?  and about what?  That things matter so even though one isn’t sure of anything is part of the brilliance of the work.  The abrupt and arresting segues into new scenes and characters with age-old and repetitive love plots must have fascinated Kundera.  The ending moved me greatly.  Jacques and His Master, written in 1971, is Kundera’s only play.

Classic Stage, on East 13th Street in NYC, will conclude this year’s “Books on Stage” reading series with Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salmon Rushdie Monday, October 4.  Previous readings have been based on Proust, Pirandello, Tolstoy and Brecht.  Thanks to Classic Stage for this magnificent series of theatrical readings.

Review | Orlando, from Virginia Woolf’s Novel | Adapted by Sarah Ruhl | Directed by Rebecca Taichman, choreographed by Annie-B Parson, with Annika Boras, Francesca Faridany, David Greenspan, Tom Nelis and Howard Overshown | Classic Stage Company

… another great first act …

The first act of Orlando is a kind of enchantment — like falling in on Prospero’s island.  We are in the 17th Century:  Orlando appears as a swashbuckling young nobleman in a solo sword dance beautifully choreographed by Annie-B Parson.  We go on to follow his adventures, his love adventures, that is — we never see him do much else with the sword.  Much is narrated, with the playwright, Sarah Ruhl, using Virginia Woolf’s words from the novel, which adds to the sense of magical “Once upon a time … “  This is a play about liminality, in gender, in modes of story telling, and in time.  We understand quickly that boundaries are permeable, and everything can change into its other.   It’s a wonderful beginning.

Orlando’s early love conquest is Queen Elizabeth, played by David Greenspan, who hoists around the stage a witty, bare-bones version of that high-ruffed costume we know so well from Elizabeth’s portraits — to say nothing of all those movies.  Soon Greenspan plays another of Orlando’s conquests, a Central European archduchess who — no surprise here — later turns out to be an archduke (one thinks of Count Orlovsky in Der Rosenkavalier), allowing Greenspan to invent even more hilarious and irresistible mannerisms.

Orlando, though, is not only conquering in love but conquered — by Sasha, a Russian princess played with deft delicacy and toughness by Annika Boras (hard to believe this beautiful seductress who skates in from the far North is the same actress who played Electra in Classic Stage’s Oresteia as a thick, dumpy, anguished homeless hag.  Boras is great actress.)

Ultimately disappointed in love by the faithless Sasha, Orlando finds emotional refuge in exotic Istabul where, mysteriously, he falls asleep and wakes having been transformed from a man into a woman.  This is demonstrated when the fine actress who play Orlando, Francesca Faridany, is relieved of her bedclothes and appears fully naked.  That’s a dramatic ending to what has been a visionary and delightful Act 1.

Yet … why such naked drama? the question that pokes its way into enjoyment of the intermission espresso. After all, disappointment in love doesn’t usually lead to gender change.  Nor did we need to see Orlando nude to believe he was male, though he was being played by Ms. Faridany:  why, then, do we need a fully naked Orlando to see that she’s female?  Sarah Ruhl is good at end-of-the-first act visual shock — in her Dead Man’s Cell Phone, there’s the abrupt apparition of a dead man we’ve been hearing a lot about.  Does she feel her second acts are less strong and wants to make sure you come back?

Act 2 shows the now female Orlando returning to England, and whizzing through the 18th and 19th Centuries to the present. The second act loses interest, I think, for two reasons.  Things happen so fast that we loose the character.  Then, the idea is that we learn through now female Orlando something of the difference between being male and being female, but the differences, in the play, are superficial rather than inward.  Now she’s expected to eat small, exquisite portions of food instead of big stuff.  She develops an urge, felt as an itch on the second finger of her left hand, to marry.  Pretty obvious, huh?

The cast is excellent, and the choreographic movement of Annie-B Parson does all it can to enrich the play.  But what’s it really like to have lived both as a man and a woman?  For this, you’d have to ask Teiresias.

Orlando plays at Classic Stage in New York City’s East Village through October 17th.

Review | The Forest by Alexander Ostrovsky | Adapted by Kathleen Tolan | Starring John Douglas Thompson and Diane Wiest | Directed by Brian Kulick | Classic Stage

… realm of the free spirit …

Alexander Ostrovsky was one of the most popular and prolific Russian playwrights of the 19th Century.  The Forest, written in 1870, nine years after the emancipation of the serfs, reflects shifting relationships between the classes:  Raisa, an elderly, wealthy landowner, is selling off her forested estate bit by bit to Ivan, once a peasant and now a wealthy wood merchant.

The fiscal arrangements weight heavily on the lives of others.  Raisa’s penniless ward, Aksyusha and Ivan’s son are in love but Ivan won’t let his son marry a girl without a dowry which won’t be forthcoming from tightwad Raisa.  Meanwhile, Raisa is lusting after Aleksev, a good looking young opportunist — supposedly she’s selling her forests to raise money for Aksyusha to marry Aleksey but she’s really picked him out for herself, opening the play to an old woman-young man farce.

Into this estate-focused web of conventional wants two outsiders enter, itinerant actors Gennady and his sidekick Arkady.  While the immediate reason for dropping in is that Gennady is looking for a handout from his wealthy relative, Raisa, still they are restless men and seekers of something selfless, spiritual and creative.  To gain entrance, they put on an act — Gennady as a Gentleman with Arkady as his servant.  When their true identities are discovered, Raisa is pleasant to her relative but becomes defensive, worrying about his claims to her fortune, and pays him a modest amount to get rid of him.  Ultimately, because of Gennady’s largeness of soul, that money becomes a deus ex machina to set everything alright, and everybody gets what — and whom — they want.

This play develops the romantic contrasts between the spiritually liberated outsiders — the actors who appear out of the moody density of the forest — and mundane, housebound insiders.

So the forest of the title is both the realm of the free spirit and what’s being sold off for money, chopped down piece by piece, and the tension between these two fuels the author’s creative fire, and give the play its depth and tragic resonance.

It’s a fine play, yet leaden and dull in this current staging by Classic Stage.  The early parts, which are talky — and not quite the brilliant conversation of Shaw — were too slowly paced.  In the very large part of Raisa, Diane Wiest was annoying:  her high voice went on and on with little modulation — like someone practicing the flute when you’re trying to get some sleep — and her emotional range was narrow.  The smaller parts were not particularly well cast.

One great actor, however, John Douglas Thompson, brought dramatic and physical dynamism to the role of Gennady.  After tedious Act I, we stayed only to watch him.  When he spoke the lines of Shakespeare the part requires here and there it was immediately thrilling.  He was, by the way, the only actor who ran up and down the rickety-looking ramp — that worried most of the rest of them — with grace and ease, his athleticism a dimension of his force as an actor.

The Forest  plays at Classic Stage in the East Village through May 30th.  For further information, click on the link.

Review | Venus in Fur by David Ives | Directed by Walter Bobbie | With Nina Arianda and Wes Bentley | Classic Stage Company

… SM …

The Marquis de Sade died in 1814, which left over half a century for sadism to languish alone until masochism “arrived” in the 1870 erotic novel Venus in Furs — the author’s name, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, providing the word.

Ives’ play Venus in Fur roughly follows the extreme SM relationship between the man and woman in the novel, which allows for plenty of sadism, masochism, and a beautiful woman in Victoria’s Secret type of lingerie tempting and teasing a man.  Voyeurism, sexual revelation, sanctified by touches of social history and the “serious” overtones of a “classic novel” — you can see why someone thought this would be a good play to produce.  The play’s repetitive quality and predictability, and — a casting problem — a total lack of chemistry between the actors playing the man and woman, make it boring.

A young writer has spent the day auditioning women for his first play.  That he instead of the director is holding the auditions introduces a sense of authorial fantasy.  He’s closing up shop when a pushy blond woman thrust herself into his grungy office and insists on reading for the part.  Thomas is impatient, wants to get home to his girlfriend but Vanda won’t take no for an answer.  She’s not on the list for readings — her agent’s error, she insists (though it enhances the “is it real?” sense), and keeps talking.  Eventually she badgers him into letting her read for the part while making him read the male character’s lines.

From her first lines, she’s transformed from a street-wise, ordinary girl with a New York accent to the upper class 19th century countess she’s portraying.  She insists that he not merely mouth his lines but really play the part, thus enmeshing him in the archetypal slave and master relationship, with him the slave, that he’s written into the play and, through that, the “real” one with her.  They switch back and forth between play acting and being real, between their ordinary personae and the high class SM characters he’s written into his play;  with each switch, their power dynamic takes a further step toward reversal.   At the start, he’s in charge, auditioning, choosing:  by the end, victim and victor have changed places, and sexes.

In its criss-crossing of power arcs, Venus in Fur recalls Amiri Baraka’s (LeRoi Jones) Dutchman of 1964, seen in a recent revival at the Cherry Lane Theater, but whereas in Dutchman, in a similarly locked space, Blacks rise from victims to victors, here it’s the politics of feminism.

In contrast to the Obie award winning Dutchman, however, Venus in Fur doesn’t crackle and move with devastating speed toward a brilliant and unexpected denouement.  It repeats itself as it lurches toward a predictable ending.  Oh not again, one says to oneself (at least that’s what I said to myself, can’t speak for the rest of the audience) as the tall, shapely, and dramatically strong Nina Arianda once again takes off her street clothes to reveal her sexy black lingerie, or Victorian ruffles, or puts them on again, or off again, or on …   I thought she had a lot of stamina for changing clothes.  So much of this play is what the woman is wearing.  A move to boots could be called the play’s preliminary climax.  Wow!  Black boots.  Sensuality and sexual dynamics are in the line of sight but not in the air.

Venus in Fur plays at Classic Stage, on East 13th Street in NYC, through February 21.

Wes Bentley and Nina Arianda in Venus in Fur take a close look at Sacher-Masoch's well-thumbed novel. Photo courtesy of Classic Stage Company

Wes Bentley and Nina Arianda in Venus in Fur take a close look at Sacher-Masoch’s well-thumbed novel. Photo courtesy of Classic Stage Company

Review | The Age of Iron from William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida and Thomas Heywood’s Iron Age | Adapted and Directed by Brian Kulick | Classic Stage Company

(Also pertinent … Cry, Trojans (Shakespeare’s Troilus & Cressida), by The Wooster Group)

Just about the entire legend of the Trojan War is told — or at least “covered” — in The Age of Iron, from Paris’ abduction of Helen to the sack of Troy by the Greeks using their ruse of the “Trojan Horse,” all the way to the suicide of Ajax.  Brian Kulick achieved this mainly by appending to Shakespeare’s play, which is focused on a short period toward the end of the war, the “beginning” and the “end” from another Elizabethan play, Heywood’s Iron Age.   The Age of Iron is beautifully produced and you both hear the poetry of Shakespeare’s language and understand every word.

Even those Shakespearian idioms and figures of speech that are not current in today’s English make sense and have a strong impact as if suddenly one understood “Elizabethan,” a magic I can’t explain and that I found particularly rewarding about this production.

Was it effective to fit the whole story into one drama?  There are pluses and minuses.

Homer begins the Iliad at a time late in the war and concludes it before the war’s end, as does Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressida.  Paris doesn’t slay Achilles with an arrow to his heel in the Iliad, there’s no Trojan Horse, no sack of Troy, no vote among the Greeks over awarding Achilles’ armor, and no suicide of Ajax.  In giving themselves a sharp focus, Homer and Shakespeare knew what they were doing — no surprise there — but there is great adventurousness and effect in Kulick’s telling of the story.

There’s a real satisfaction to getting the complete narrative, or most of it, under one’s belt in a single evening.  And not unimportant, it’s genuine fun to see dramatized the source of those famous figures of speech we use all the time — “Achilles’ heel,” “Trojan horse” (though I’d liked to have seen the horse).  On the other hand, in giving us the whole story, The Age of Iron loses some dramatic impact.  The play is presented in two parts, and part 2, where many people start getting killed off, and eventually we leave Shakespeare and move into Heywood, becomes overlong and somewhat wordy.

Still, the heart of the excellently staged (on a field of sand), acted, and directed production is Shakespeare’s fascinating, perverse play, with his language at full sail.  In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare turns on the tables on expectations.  The great heroes turn out to be venial:  Achilles doesn’t meet Hector in fair fight but pulls in his gang of Myrmidons to attack and kill him — and then takes full credit!  Ulysses’ sophistry beats Ajax’ heroism.  Troilus and Cressida’s pure love is sullied.  Some call that “problematic,” but to watch the conflicts and interactions of these fully written and oh so human characters is intensely interesting.  What a leap of imagination — the banquet where the leaders of the Greeks and Trojans agree to a truce so that for once they can drink and dine together, and can’t manage to keep the peace for the duration of a single evening!

Troilus and Cressida would have been enough to produce.  A more ambitious and overarching choice was made.  What would off-Broadway be if it wasn’t ready to fulfill new creative visions?  One leaves this banquet fully satisfied.

The Age of Iron plays at the Classic Stage in NYC’s East Village through December 6th. 

The Age of Iron - Troilus & Cressida

Finn Wittrock as Troilus and Dylan Moore as Cressida Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Review | Waste of Time after Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past | Adapted by Robert David Macdonald | Classic Stage Company

… what a Waste of Time …

Over the epic course of generational time that marks Remembrance of Things Past, Proust charts subtle and ever evolving change in societal attitudes — the acceptance of modernity, and of democratic values.  Waste of Time gives only the slightest nod to this grand topic and immerses itself in gossip.

Did he sleep with her?  Did she sleep with her?  Did she sleep with him?  Did he sleep with him?  And what did they do when they did?  How do Lesbians manage?  etc.

Sure there are a few laughs, like any gossip.

It didn’t help that the actors seemed less practiced than in the two earlier, and far more effective, Proust adaptations — the actor playing Marcel, Proust’s stand-in, gave the impression he’d never seen the script before.  (For reviews of the first two adaptations, see: Swann in Love, and Albertine Regained).

You couldn’t glean that a monumental novel stands behind the dramatization.

Swann in Love will be presented again at Classic Stage in NYC’s East Village on April 13 — and that’s time well spent!

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