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

Tag: Flea Theater Page 1 of 3

TEACHER AND STUDENT L-R Dan Amboyer as Dan Proctor and Rodney Richardson and Gerald Caskey. Photo Joan Marcus.

Review | Two Class Acts | Two Premieres by A. R. Gurney | Directed by Stafford Arima | Flea Theater

… when the syllabus is better than the class … 

Two one-act plays by A. R. Gurney are presented in tandem, Ajax, as in the ancient Greek hero, and Squash, as in the game.  Having enjoyed many Gurney plays, I was keen to see these but Ajax and Squash are not Gurney at his best.

In each play, a cheeky college student challenges, and to a degree upends a serious-minded college teacher.

Ajax (45 minutes), starts off promisingly.  Audience members descend downstairs at The Flea, enter what looks like a classroom, and some get to sit at a desk with a syllabus for Intro to Classic Greek Drama awaiting them.  The syllabus looks great, just like the real thing, from Week 1, Intro to Greek Drama, through Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and beyond – I want to take that course!   The play isn’t as good as the syllabus, though.

THE STUDENT Chris Tabet as Adam Feldman. Photo Joan Marcus.

STUDENT Chris Tabet as Adam Feldman. Photo Joan Marcus.

A student, Adam Feldman, starts the class late in the semester, makes no attempt to catch up, and defies the teacher-scholar and author of the orderly syllabus, Megan Tucker, by ignoring the assigned essay topic in favor of his own topic:  Sohocles’ Ajax as an example of PTSD.  It turns out that PTSD is a new idea for Megan – she’s unsure about what it is, and can’t even get the initials right, Adam has to explain them (oh those dumb ivory tower college teachers).

TEACHER Olivia Jampol as Megan Turner. Photo Joan Marcus.

TEACHER Olivia Jampol as Megan Turner. Photo Joan Marcus.

Not possible.

The view that Sophocles’ character, Ajax, represents a warrior suffering from  PTSD has had a lot of play for a long time, so much so that the Pentagon, in 2009, funded an independent theater company, Theater of War, to visit military sites and stage readings of Ajax and also of Sophocles’ Philoctotes to help soldiers of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars objectify their struggles with PTSD.  No classics teacher would have missed that!  Hooray for the beleaguered classics resonated throughout the profession!  The classics matter!

From here the play becomes even more unlikely and more forced.  Adam writes his ideas not as an essay but as a play-in-process, in which he finds parallels that don’t exist between the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and the Greeks who set up a siege at Troy.  Megan Tucker, who’s unpinned her teacherly bun for a loose hair-do and is now “Meg”, acts in Adam’s play, and goes beyond that in her enthusiasm for Adam, so much so that — well, I’ll just say that when the powers that be in the University fired her I saw their point.   Adam and Meg, however, don’t:  they blame the University higher-ups for that, as well as for banning the play on University property and things unwind into a shocking anti-semitic rant.

That’s the first play.

The second, Squash, upstairs at The Flea, 60 minutes, is about an untenured college professor (a step up, Meg was only an adjunct).  Dan Proctor is an uptight, handsome guy who loves his wife Becky, his kids, teaching the classics and the game of squash.  He’s got everything together except tenure and he’s such a one for the straight and narrow, it looks like that will work out, too.

TEACHER AND STUDENT L-R Dan Amboyer as Dan Proctor and Rodney Richardson and Gerald Caskey. Photo Joan Marcus.

TEACHER AND STUDENT L-R Dan Amboyer as Dan Proctor and Rodney Richardson as Gerald Caskey. Photo Joan Marcus.

Enter a gay student Gerald Caskey who is hot for the professor, following him to the athletic locker rooms, with a location-appropriate bare bottom episode, to express his passion for the prof’s body, and conferencing with the prof about the paper he wrote that only got a C + about Plato’s Symposium and ideas of love.   The dialog here and elsewhere is so rudimentary it’s impossible to take seriously that we’re dealing with a college professor and his student, or that the college professor has it in him to write a scholarly book of the kind that Dan is supposedly working on.

The dialog was much more witty and to the point in another of Gurney’s plays about college teachers a few years ago, Office Hours, also at The Flea.

Does the seductive Gerald manage to shake up the professor?  Is Dan really gay?  Is Gerald?  Or are we all just sort of a lot of this and a little bit of the other?  Or a lot of both?  Or whatever?  See this play and you won’t find out.

The real class act in Two Class Acts is the acting.  Olivia Jampol as Megan Tucker in Ajax transforms from prim to liberated with great charm and wit.  Her costumes by Sky Switzer are stunning and characterizing.  Chris Tabet is both a type and an original characterization as Adam, the student with the mix of effrontery and ideas.  (In other performances, Ben Lorenz plays Adam and Rachel Lin plays Megan Tucker).

In Squash, Dan Amboyer as Dan Proctor meets untoward events with a literal seriousness that’s humorous and touching.  Rodney Richardson as the student Gerald Caskey moves effectively from man-to-man allure to man-to-man forthrightness.  Nicole Lowrance is amusing as Dan’s prickly, down-to-earth wife.

Two Class Acts:  A Festival Celebrating A.R. Gurney, plays at The Flea Theater in Manhattan’s Tribeca through November 20, 2016.  For more information and tickets,  click here.

Hecuba and the women of Troy confront Helen in Euripides' The Trojan Women at the Flea Theater, September 2016,

Review | Euripides’ The Trojan Women | Adapted by Ellen McLaughlin | Directed by Anne Cecelia Haney | Flea Theater

“Another war has ended.  When will the next begin?”  Poseidon    

The Trojan Women is a daring and astonishing a play — it sails against the waves of the expected on  all counts.

Written 2,400 years ago by a Greek, The Trojan Women takes the point of view of the enemy – the Trojans of Homer’s epic Iliad.  How is that for astonishing?  Written by a man, it takes the point of view of women – the defenseless mothers and wives who, with the defeat of Troy, are to be taken as war booty.  Bewildered and despairing in war’s cruel aftermath, the Trojan women question the sanity and the existence of the gods. They lose the future.  They confront a world with no purpose.   How is that – all that — for daring?

In this adaptation by Ellen McLaughlin, the women of Troy, sleeping fitfully, are soon awakened to hear which woman will be taken off by which Greek.  These highborn women lament their futures based on what slaves always do:  from concubines to floor scrubbers to chicken feeders to taking care of other women’s children.

Lindsley Howard as Cassandra in Euripides' The Trojan Women at The Flea Theater, September 2016.. Photo Allison Stock.

Casssandra the Seer using her intelligence — not divine inspiration — to predict a tragic future. Lindsley Howard as Cassandra. Photo Allison Stock.

But among the women Cassandra the Seer, who will go to Greece as  Agamemnon’s  concubine, predicts the future through a different prism:  that of inference based on evidence.  Ten years ago Agamemnon, tricking his wife Clytaemnestra, had murdered –i. e. “sacrificed” to the gods” — their daughter in order to raise favorable winds to sail to Troy.  Clearly, as Cassandra reasons, upon his return to Greece, Clytaemnstra will kill Agamenon in revenge, and kill the concubine he brings home – Cassandra.  Eurpides transforms Cassandra from a Seer traditionally dependent on divine inspiration to speak the future (though not believed), into one who tells the future through reasoning – through her human intelligence.  So much for the gods.  And there it is — Greek humanism.

Hecuba and the women of Troy confront Helen in Euripides' The Trojan Women at the Flea Theater, September 2016,

Hecuba confronts Helen. L-R Clea DeCrane, Rebeca Rad (Helen) Jenny Jarnagi, DeAnna Supplee (Hecuba) Chun Cho, Amanda Centeno. Photo Allison Stock

When the Trojan women turn viciously on Helen of Troy, the ultimate cause of all their grief, Euripides provides a comparably brilliant inversion of Helen’s character.  She, like Cassandra, becomes a fast-talking logician but – true to character and in ironic contrast to Cassandra — in her selfish interest.

In a usual pattern of conquest, the Greeks, of course, can’t afford to let live the son of Hector, the greatest fighter of the Greeks.  The irony of what his mother Andromache says, in the moments before the child is literally ripped from her arms, is breathtaking.

Phil Feldman as Talthybius and Casey Wortmann as Andromache in The Trojan Women at the Flea Theater. Photo Allison Stock.

Irony and tragedy. Phil Feldman as Talthybius and Casey Wortmann as Andromache with her child. Photo Allison Stock.

The current production at the Flea makes the play, that is a cascade of dramatically intense situations, action and ideas, seem static.  The directing depends on outdated ideas of what Greek tragedy should look like and sound like rather than on a direct confrontation with the text.  The set and costuming are burdened by the same unimaginative vision.   The Bats, the Flea’s young repertory actors who have been brilliant in every past production I’ve seen, are here, like the rest of the production, burdened by the obvious.

These actors speak, however, with clarity and projection, and if you go, you will hear every word – and that’s worth plenty!  This production can be experienced as a kind of dramatic reading, which is one very good way to get to know a play.  In fact, this adaptation was originally presented as a staged reading at Classic Stage Company in Manhattan in 1996, and some of that format may cling to it.  In her adaptation, McLaughlin simplified the play somewhat and — much to the purpose of a staged reading – has individuals speak lines drawn from the unified Chorus that Euripides wrote.  An iconic anti-war play, The Trojan Women has often been performed in response to specific wars, and this adaptation was developed in collaboration with the Balkan Theater Project in response to the Bosnian War, and refugees from that war performed the Classic Stage production.

The highest irony meets the highest tragedy in The Trojan Women.  Some reviewers of this production suggest there’s something inherently static about Euripides’ play – don’t believe it!  The play is a cascade of dramatically intense situations, actions and ideas as the productions by  Elizabeth Swados and Andrei Serban at La Mama fully demonstrated — among the most thrilling, dynamic, action-filled theater I’ve seen.

Ancient Greek playwrights were thought of as teachers, and in writing this play Euripides was critiquing his own people, the Athenians in attendance at the city dramatic festival, for their brutal depredations in the course of the Peloponnesian War.  That the lesson wasn’t learned, and has never been learned, is part of Euripides’ tragic awareness.  The play starts with the god Poseidon’s words, “Another war has ended.”  And then immediately, “When will the next begin?”

The Trojan Women plays at the Flea Theater in Manhattan’s Tribeca district through September 30,2016.  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.

Tony Shalhoub as Willie and Brooke Adams as Winnie in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days at the Flea Theater

Review | Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days | Starring Brooke Adams and Tony Shalhoub | Flea Theater

   … for the ages …

Brooke Adams as Winnie in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days

Making the best of it … Brooke Adams as Winnie. Photo Joan Marcus.

Brooke Adams’ Winnie is as great a tour de force as I’ve ever seen in theater.  As she speaks, what’s everyday for most of us becomes, for this poetically, physically, allegorically limited woman, heroic.   Adams is “on” most of the play, it’s a near monolog, but Tony Shalhoub as Willie balances her greatness, reduced in old age to strain against his set of physical limitations to save her.  Brooke Adams and Tony Shalhoub in Happy Days are breathtaking.

Here’s how it goes:  In a surreal world, the sun blazes down on a low, desert-like hill where we see Winnie, her lower half buried in a hole and the upper above ground, like a marble bust only this upper half is a real, colorful, vivacious woman.  Not young, though, she’s a blowzy blond with bleached hair and a frilly decollete, but even in old age you can see her beauty and sex appeal.

Improbably, half dug in to the earth as she is, she begins her day brightly, pulling from her purse, her toothbrush and other items and getting her day going.  It’s worth seeing this play if only to see Brooke Adams as Winnie brush her teeth thoroughly, missing no underneath places and including the tongue …. “as if it matters” is the operative thought.

Pinning on her hat, filing her nails, she warms herself up with a free form chat about the past and comments on the present.  She’s glad to be alive – it’s a happy day!  And when, as the hot day advances, her positive view wears thin, she always finds something to declare a mercy.  Willie’s on the other side of the rock, reading the paper but, stuck as she is, she can’t see him.  Oh, if only he’d come over here to live a little while.  But at least he’s here, “it’s a mercy.”

Willie, barely seen and of few words, blows his nose formidably – with not much happening, it’s a real event.  An old man, he goes off on a kinky postcard.  He hands the postcard over to Winnie. “What are they doing?” she asks.  But she shrugs, accepts, makes excuses for him …. they’ve been together for a long time.

As Act II opens, Winnie’s now buried to her neck.  This is quite a shocking image.  The personal items — tooth brush, nail file, a gun — are near but out of reach because, after all, her hands are buried with the rest of her. “It’s a mercy” comes out almost strangled.  With all of Beckett’s wit and Winnie’s valiance, still, the drastic reduction of possibilities is looking beyond bearing.  Willie emerges from his side of the rock, gallant in a top had and tuxedo though with the limited movement of a six-month old child:  in a stunningly choreographed crippled dance of determination  — another reason in itself to see this production – he strains toward what’s lying around on the hill top, out of Winnie’s reach, that will save them both.  She dug in, he at a crawl, Winnie and Willie are near the point where gravity takes over.

Like the valiant Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin Of Our Teeth, Winnie and Willie are real people with powerful allegorical presence.  Winnie and Willie are all human beings facing the intractable limitations of old age, though not all human beings share their triumph of love  That’s one “message” of the play – love can help.  Another is, act as if it matters.

Happy Days is romantic, funny, touching, and profound and this production, directed by Andrei Belgrader, with Brooke Adams and Tony Shalhoub is one for the ages.

Happy Days plays at the Flea Theater in Manhattan’s Tribeca district through July 18, 2015.  For more information and tickets, www.theflea.org

Tony Shalhoub as Willie and Brooke Adams as Winnie in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days at the Flea Theater

Tony Shalhoub as Willie and Brooke Adams as Winnie. Photo Joan Marcus.

Review | The Nomad | World Premiere | Book and Lyrics by Elizabeth Swados and Erin Courtney | Composed and Directed by Elizabeth Swados | Choreographer Ani Taj | Flea Theater

… nothing missed …

Teri Madonna and Friend Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum

Teri Madonna and Friend Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum

The opening afternoon of The Nomad was a cold winter Sunday: we made it from the subway to The Flea as falling snow cloaked everything in all-over veils of white to gray … and then the show began.  What a burst of color, brightness, and music, what delicious vibrance, as the play carries you to North Africa and its hot deserts.

With insistent percussive music saturated with North African overtones, theatrical effects to delight and astonish, and the superb performance of Teri Madonna in the lead role, it tells the story of Isabelle Eberhardt (1877-1904), a well-educated Swiss woman who left Europe to immerse herself in North Africa culture and the Sahara desert.  She dressed as a man for the freedom it afforded her, converted to Islam, married an Algerian, wrote about North Africa, and died in a flash flood and died at the age of 27.

The play, in a brief, intense time, takes us through the major episodes of Isabelle’s life.  Sydney Blaxill beautifully plays and sings Young Isabelle, breaking out of the cocoon of her life in Switzerland:  the Young Isabelle and the grown Isabelle are often on-stage together, the way our young selves are present in our adult lives.   We see Isabelle the overcoming the hazards of travel by ship, dazzled on her arrival in North Africa as we are through the vibrance of the scenes, and surviving the death and ceremonial burial of her mother who accompanied her.

Now alone, she finds a desert horse, her first friend in the new world, and her beloved companion – I loved him too as I think everyone in the audience did.  This comforting, nuzzling horse she rides is an open-work construction of what look like birth branches, moved choreographically by the ensemble.  Talk about suspended disbelief, this horse is a  real – or put it this way, he’s as real as the unforgettable horse in War Horse, and a full match in tenderness, strength and character.

L-R Ryan Neal Green, Glenna Grant, Teri Madonna, Ben Schrager Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum

L-R Ryan Neal Green, Glenna Grant, Teri Madonna, Ben Schrager Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum

Isabelle’s life purpose is to miss nothing – nothing in Algeria anyhow.  Through a series of episodes, we visit celebrations, funerals, murderous attempts, romantic love, brutality, tender moments, Colonial suppression, hookah parlors, and the flash flood in which Isabelle dies – an exotic panoply of North African culture and terrain.

Each episode is a distinct creation of free-flowing visual, musical and dramatic imagination.  There’s no blurring.  For each there’s different music and a different song – and that makes a remarkable twenty-two songs tracing the stages of Isabelle’s life, each a joyous pleasure.  And — what takes it far beyond a series of postcards — each episode brings us deeper into the central character of Isabelle.  What a bounty of imagination, brilliant theatricality and strong central character this show is!  What density!  What a gift!

Neil Redfield and Teri Madonna Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum

Neil Redfield and Teri Madonna Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum

Madonna is fascinating in the role of Isabelle, bringing a kind of rough toughness to the songs and characterization.  In addition to Sydney Blaxill as young Isabelle, Madonna is ably supported by a cast that includes Glenna Grant as her mother, Neil Redfield as Slimene, Ryan Stinnet as Vava, and a lavish, talented ensemble of fine singer-dancer-actors.

The Nomad is thought provoking, theatrically stunning, and introduces a compelling new character into the world of our collective imagination.

The Nomad plays at The Flea Theater in Manhattan’s Tribeca district through April 6, 2015.

Danielle Slavick and Stephen Barker Turner. Photo Hunter Canning.

Review | I See You by Kate Robin | Directed by Jim Simpson | Flea Theater

Danielle Slavick and Stephen Barker Turner. Photo Hunter Canning.
Danielle Slavick and Stephen Barker Turner. Photo Hunter Canning.

This play is a compendium of current topical concerns about the environment, junk food and junk in our food, etc., built around a romance between a man and a woman, each with children and each married to someone else.

Nina, a successful writer, and Jesse, a sculptor who doesn’t exhibit his work and a take-care-of-the-child dad, meet while keeping an eye on their young children at the playground.  Nina’s the big talker and who takes up those topical concerns with apocalyptic pessimism.  Jesse, who’s into meditation,  tends to see good possibilities in problems (he’s such a dull personality I didn’t notice this about him but that’s what Nina says). environment, junk food and junk in our food, etc., built around a romance between a man and a woman, each with children and each married to someone else.

Their flirtation rumbles along through conversation, punctuated by a couple of dramatic incidents, one involving Jesse’s child and another a big hurricane, dramatized with multi-colored lighting effects.  There are two possible endings but a lack of suspense.

Nina’s articulateness and answer-for-everything personality is well conveyed by Danielle Slavick — her responses and emphases in gestures are sharp and fun to watch for awhile though by the end of the play they seemed repetitive.  There’s no chemistry felt between her and Stephen Barker Turner  in the role of Jesse, though, and in any case it’s hard to know what she sees in him.

The play seems to “hope” in a sense that people will respond to it through recognition of current situations and buzz words — ecological problems, stay-at-home-dads (and alleged lowered testosterone levels, Science Times sorts of things), women who make more money than men,  pollution of seafood, vegans, inter-religious relationships, meditation. The romance  seems no more than a synthetic framework for voicing these familiar  contemporary issues.

I See You plays at The Flea Theater in Manhattan’s Tribeca district through December 21, 2014.

Colin Waitt as Jesus and the cast. Photo Jonathan Hollingsworth

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

The Mysteries is one whopper of a project!

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

Sarah Keyes of the Angel Chorus. Photo Hunter Canning

Sarah Keyes of the Angel Chorus. Photo Hunter Canning

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allison Buck as Mary. Photo Hunter Canning

Allison Buck as Mary. Photo Hunter Canning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Colin Waitt as Jesus and the cast. Photo Jonathan Hollingsworth

Colin Waitt as Jesus and the cast. Photo Jonathan Hollingsworth

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

Related articles
Carolyn McCormick and Peter Scolari. Photo Joan Marcus

Review | Family Furniture by A. R. Gurney | Directed by Thomas Kail | Flea Theater

“My ancestors fought the Indians along the Mohawk River before they signed up with George Washington,” says Russell, father of the family. “Your mother’s great great grandfather helped plan and design the Erie Canal.” This is an amusing, beautifully observed and perfectly acted play about an upper class “WASP” family — Gurney’s favorite territory — on the cusp of social change in the aftermath of World War II.  It’s set in 1954 at a summer lake house near Buffalo, NY.

To cut to the quick, there are moments when Peter Scolari as Russell — Yale, money, connections, family — is so imperturbable based on his sense of certainty about his family’s entitlement and at the same time so natural and vulnerable to the challenging immediacies, so totally believable, that I’d like to go back just to see him do it again.

Carolyn McCormick and Peter Scolari. Photo Joan Marcus

Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Carolyn McCormick.  Photo Joan Marcus

Carolyn McCormick is equally tone perfect as Russell’s entrancing wife, Claire, a woman born to do all the right things and doing most of them right — raising her two, now college aged, kids with focus and intelligence, bringing home everyone’s favorite goodies in big paper bags like the mother of the Bobbsey twins, heading up what must be every charity in Buffalo, but with her own vulnerability and underlying, passion, harnessed — though not eliminated — by “good breeding.”

The challenges that threaten the smooth skein of Russell’s privileged view of himself and family come thick and fast:  his son, Nick (Andrew Keenan-Bolgar), is in love  with a Jewish girl Betsy, (Molly Nordin) and his daughter Peggy (Ismenia Mendes) is in love with an Italian.  Oh those kids!  And, although she’s sticking to their own cast and class, his wife may be having an affair: Mr. Baldwin is, like Claire, a tennis player.  Russell’s sport is sailing.

A scene where Russell, on a small sailboat with his daughter, persuades her — as they repeatedly tack and and duck under a swinging boom — to take a vacation from the Italian Marco by offering her a trip abroad (to Italy!) is so good the audience applauded spontaneously in mid-act.

Fitting the “WASP” stereotype to a T, Russell often sounds arrogant and narrow minded.  He’s fast to cast aspersions on other ethnic groups, warning his daughter about her beloved Marco, for instance, by telling her that all Italians “become gangsters or politicians.”  But faced with the reality of his daughter’s deep emotions, and his understanding of true character, he turns tack.  After all, he did once have a Jewish girlfriend, though they never thought seriously of marrying (“I had my English roots to keep me in line, while she fell back on the Old Testament.”)  And Claire sees a virtue in “hybrid vigor” all along.  This is a very benign, Norman Rockwellian vision of social entrenchment.

Peter Scolari and Ismenia Mendes.  Photo Joan Marcus

Peter Scolari and Ismenia Mendes.  Photo Joan Marcus

They’re forced to change, and they were never really that prejudiced anyhow — just enough for Gurney’s wit to offer one delicious laugh after another.

Popular songs create not only a nostalgic aura, as in Woody Allen, but are part of the interplay between surface and depth that’s at the heart of this play.  In a particularly moving moment, a brilliant moment, really, Russell moves to accompany his wife to the kitchen but she, thinking of someone else, lightly holds him off.  “Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah …. “ he sings softly.  Betsy, the Jewish girlfriend’s not the only one into “hidden meanings” — so’s Gurney.  A message of this play is that “People can know and not know,” and at the very least, that’s something we can work with.

Molly Nordin and Andrew Keenan-Bolger. Photo Joan Marcus

Molly Nordin and Andrew Keenan-Bolger. Photo Joan Marcus

There are some implausibilities in Family Furniture, particularly in the denouement.  These are easily overlooked because the characters of this beautifully cast play and the repartee, and the nostalgic, seductive  sense of a moment of American wholeness provide an evening of total delight.

Family Furniture plays at The Flea Theater in Manhattan’s Tribeca through December 22, 2013.

L-R John Paul Harkins, Whitney Conkling and Matthew Cox.  Photo Hunter Canning

Review | Sarah Flood In Salem Mass by Adriano Shaplin | Directed by Rebecca Wright | Featuring The Bats | Flea Theatre

Costumed actors take your tickets, will for a modest amount pour you a glass of wine, and engage in gorgeous and intriguing dance-like interactions in front of a stunning backdrop of silky delicately-toned hangings.   It makes you sure you’re in for great theater.  Once Sarah Flood in Salem Mass starts, though, the fun dissipates.   With its reference to the Salem Witch Trials, the play takes on the trappings of seriousness but flings itself into making a jumble of the actual events and persons;  that could be OK, except that it offers no thoughts or ideas in return for its use of this tragic historical episode and the multitudes who suffered hideously because of it.

Review | The Vandal by Hamish Linklater | Directed by Jim Simpson | Flea Theater (returning March 22-31, another chance to see it!)

ak bleak bleak — a bold way to start a play, but it works wonderfully.  Strangers, a woman and a boy, on a cold, road at night, next to a cemetery, waiting for a bus, but the vivid characters bring it to warm, pulsating life — which is exactly the point.

Noah Robbins as the boy and Deirdre O'Connell as the Woman. Photo Joan Marcus

Noah Robbins as the boy and Deirdre O’Connell as the Woman. Photo Joan Marcus

Through snow dusted tombstones, a path runs in diminishing perspective to the distance: read infinity.  The bus is late.  The woman sinks into herself, her coat hanging crooked, too thin for this cold night.  Things couldn’t be worse.  She has some ominous connection with the nearby hospital.  She’s unresponsive to the fast-talking teen-ager who works to engage her with everything from philosophical riffs to brash seduction.

When, grudgingly, she takes his $20 bill to buy him (he’s under age) beer and Doritos we meet the third person in the play, the convenience store owner who turns out to be the boy’s father though, oddly, he hasn’t seen his son in a long time.

There are two exceptionally fine scenes in this show.  One, is the boy’s monologue born from musing on the orange Dorito powder that sticks to one’s fingers and that takes off, zooming like a comet from far to near and back again, from microcosm to macrocosm, inside to outside, being and nothingness — it’s a virtuoso piece in writing and delivery, so fast and canny I’d like to hear it again.

The other is the scene between the man and the woman in the convenience store, replete with the familiar and the uncanny, a merchant’s know-how in the face of stolen credit cards and the human connections that can override things done by the rules.

Deirdre O'Connell as the Woman and Zach Grenier as the Man. Photo Joan Marcus

Deirdre O’Connell as the Woman and Zach Grenier as the Man. Photo Joan Marcus

We’re in good hands with this convenience store owner.  One enjoys the
strong capability and masculinity, combined with burred-over vulnerability Zach Grenier brings to the role, though Grenier’s a touch too cosmopolitan for this rural corner of upstate New York.  Deirdre O’Connell is touching as the woman who’s been through so much she’s almost — but not completely — drained.  The unhesitating speed with which Noah Robbins pours out the boy’s cosmic fast talk makes you feel he knows everything, which, through his strange circumstance, he almost does.

The outcome of this short play, involving the man and the woman, is pat and, when one comes right down to it, although the boy is the most interesting and surprising character, what happens doesn’t depend on him.  I felt that this loose cannon of a character was compensating for the fact that what actually happens in the play is not unusual or striking.  Yet, there’s a governing intelligence throughout that, though the play has some of the thinness of a practice one-acter, gives it a serious resonance.  The intelligence of the language, the overall dramatic aura, those wonderful scenes, and the fine acting are compelling.  The evocative set by David M. Barber fulfills the contrasts of realism and fantasy, intimate and cosmic, around which the play winds.

What will this young playwright do next?  Having seen The Vandal  — and having loved Linklater’s spectacular performance in David Ives’ School for Lies at Classic Repertory Theatre — I’ll be on the lookout for his next play, whether he writes it or acts in it!

The Vandal plays at The Flea Theater in Manhattan’s Tribeca through March 3, 2013.  NOTE:  The Vandal  returns to the Flea Theater March 22 – 31.

Page 1 of 3

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén