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

Tag: Joe Pintauro

Review | Men’s Lives by Joe Pintauro | Adapted from the Book by Peter Matthiessen | Directed by Harris Yulin | Bay Street Theatre, Sag Harbor, Long Island

… endangered species …

Men’s Lives tells the story of what happens to fishermen on the East End of Long Island when the forces of change and politics put an end to the only way they know to make a living.  No more skeining with big nets, comes the law from Albany.  And with that, their way of life, based on a tradition of 300 years, is sucked out from under them the way, when you’re standing near the surf, the waves pull the sand out from under your feet.

In order to dramatize Matthiessen’s epic book, Pintauro makes the sensible dramatic choice of focusing on a single iconic fisherman’s family, a father who knew the good times and huge hauls, his three sons who all love the fisherman’s life, and a tough, loving, mother who owns the old house set in sand dunes facing the sea.  Nevertheless, so much is said rather than shown, one feels one’s being informed rather than engaged.

As the story unfolds on a set evoking the sand dunes and the cries of sea birds, we learn that times have been hard — Alice, the mother, recently and in secret, took out a mortgage on the house to keep food on the table but still, the men are seeing the sparsity of the great game fish, the striped bass, as cyclical, sure they’ll come back.

When William, the youngest boy, is washed overboard and drowns, the family draws upon a stoic fatalism, part of their fisherman’s inherited way of life, and holds together.  But they can’t overcome the second blow: the NY State government in Albany bans their way of fishing for stripers, seining with big nets.  This legislation is favored by environmentalists and based on environmental and fish stock benefits but, it’s indicated, the real force behind the legislation is self-serving political pressure brought to bear by wealthy sports fisherman, ‘the rod and reelers.”

The play fails to sort out the significance of the environmental issue.  Is Walt, the father, really correct in thinking that because in the past there have been swarms of fish, they’ll be there in the future?  Experience and common sense indicate that sweeping the seas with large nets leads to endangered fish populations.  (Sometime the loaded, heavy fishermen’s nets needed to be dragged in with the use of tractors, a point not made in the play.)

But whatever the truths of the issues, the fact is that these men’s admirable qualities of stamina, muscle, intimate knowledge of the fish and the waters, and courage against the elements are now useless, and so they feel irrelevant, helpless and without purpose.  They drink, they flounder at other jobs, they die prematurely.  Their fishing dory — open boat — breaks up, their house collapses, becoming no more than an odd-shaped lump among the dunes.  Only Peter, representing the author Matthiessen, who has wandered as a character throughout the play, sympathetic to the fishermen’s plight but unable to help, survives and comes in to his own purpose, to bear witness.

Men’s Lives tells an important story of what happens when a way to earn an honest living becomes obsolete.  It is a tragic story and highly topical, particularly in a world of fast technological change.  Here and there the play comes to dramatic life, particularly when Deborah Hedwall as a gritty, determined Alice is pushing her men — unfortunately to do the impossible.  In a memorable episode, Scott Thomas Hinson as Popeye, the friend, dances his own drowning.  Generally, though, I didn’t believe these actors had the wind in their hair and the waves at their back — especially Peter McRobbie, a fine actor but who here as the father, Walt, who would seem more at home with a pipe and a good book in his study than on that small open boat.

Joe Pintauro’s play Raft of the Medusa, also about a group of men struggling to survive against great odds, with the sea as metaphor, and recently presented off-Broadway in NYC, has far more intrinsic drama.  But what Men’s Lives lacks in drama, it partially makes up for in history.  I read the book awhile back but I’m glad to have seen the play as a refresher, all the more because I know how nowadays you can fish a full day east of Gardiner’s Bay, where these men took their boats, without catching a single striped bass “keeper” — even the once incredibly abundant blue fish, described in the play, are hard to find.

This is the 20 year revival of the play that inaugurated the Bay Street Theatre in 1992.  Men’s Lives has special meaning for being played in Sag Harbor, on Long Island’s East End, and the play itself, first presented during a Baymen’s protest, and with several Baymen attending the first performance, has its own dramatic history.  For more on its background, and for other information and tickets, click here: Men’s Lives.

Group therapy: (right) Gil Ron as Dr. Jerry Rizzo (Center) and cast members of Raft of the Medusa, Barefoot Theatre Company at Cherry Lane Theatre. Photo: Michael Mallard

Review | Raft of the Medusa by Joe Pintauro | Premier of Revised Edition | Directed by Francisco Solorzano | Barefoot Theatre Company | Cherry Lane Studio Theatre

… cut adrift …

Raft of the Medusa is powerful, intensely human, and totally real — you are there.

Like Gericault’s epic shipwreck painting, The Raft of the Medusa of 1819 (see it below left), this play is based on a dire situation with many deaths and few survivors — only instead of shipwreck victims, these are victims of a mortal disease, brought together in 1988 not on a survival raft but — same thing — in a group therapy session for those infected with the AIDS virus.  Seeing the play you know this is what it was like:  beyond belief grim, and yet — in the way its draws out the best in people, there’s a gleam of light, a breath of hope, as in the painting.   It’s a rich, brilliant and beautifully written play, acted to perfection.

At the start of the play, the youthful Donald dies agonizingly in the arms of his lover, Michael, in a stunning, male pieta (compare the old man and young boy in the left foreground of the painting).  The scene moves to a realistic group therapy session — sparse office, metal chairs — with its big city racial and ethnic admixture, from affluent and successful to homeless and out-of-work, drawn together by a common denominator, AIDS.

Group therapy: (right) Gil Ron as Dr. Jerry Rizzo (Center) and cast members of Raft of the Medusa, Barefoot Theatre Company at Cherry Lane Theatre. Photo: Michael Mallard

Group therapy: (right) Gil Ron as Dr. Jerry Rizzo (Center) and cast members of Raft of the Medusa, Barefoot Theatre Company at Cherry Lane Theatre. Photo: Michael Mallard

A beautiful White gay model, Tommy, can’t get a job since he’s gotten so thin.  There’s Alan, an enraged Hispanic with Karposi’s Sarcoma dotting his face like marks of Cain.  Men and women, young and old, they got it all the ways you can.  Doug, a Black drug dealer who seems straight, got it shooting up in jail.  Some of them tell their stories — prompted or not by the psychiatrist, Jerry.  Cora, a slick looking professional woman, distances herself from the gay men but eventually blurts it all out.  Donald who has died his painful death mysteriously moves in and out — a Christ figure, which is why the point that he is Jewish is emphasized (he wanted to be a Rabbi, a teacher):  he hovers, in every way a Holy Ghost.

The group session lurches through quieter periods of “sharing” through to volatile bursts, fueled by the unbearable tension of near and certain death.

The action is heightened by the arrival of newcomers, a high school girl who got it from her boyfriend (his family has moved to California to avoid her suing them) and a well known tv and movie actor.  Their arrivals clarify underlying situations and catalyze the revelation of explosive truths about themselves and others. In the original event that the painting describes, there was cannibalism among those set adrift on the raft with almost no food and water — and, we discover, there’s cannibalistic exploitation in the group therapy room.

 Adrift at sea: (below) Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) The Raft of the Medusa, 1819, oil on canvas, Paris: Louvre Museum, H. 4.91 m., W. 7.16 m

Adrift at sea: (below) Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) The Raft of the Medusa, 1819, oil on canvas, Paris: Louvre Museum, H. 4.91 m., W. 7.16 m

The group dynamics are absolutely on target.  This is an author who understands human beings on the deepest level:  what a pleasure to be in his company.  The acting is uniformly excellent.  John Gazzale plays Donald’s death with no-holds barred passion.  Samantha Fontana shows sustained power as the smart, bitter Cora.  Andrew MacLarty, with an alluring blend of innocence and seductiveness, makes you love Tommy.  In an unforgettable performance, Gillian Rougier fairly dances through her role as Nairobi, a hearing and mentally impaired Black woman who has lost just about all and will now lose the rest.

There’s a lot of blame thrown around among these desperate human beings: Michael blames Donald for infecting him, Cora blames the guy who gave it to her.  The government comes in for blame for not doing more to find a solution to AIDS, as the government was blamed in the 19th Century for gross safety lapses at the time of the shipwreck of the Medusa.  The psychiatrist blames himself for encouraging sexual liberation, “freedom”, in the ‘70’s before implications were known; that’s why he’s a weak figure, asking, uncertainly, after a pause, helplessly when he hears a tale of desperation, “how does that make you feel?”  (Hey, man, how do you think that makes me feel!)

With all that blame, is there forgiveness?  That’s a biting question in this play, and to the credit of its great realism and tough mindedness, never answered.   But there is love, because what else is there?

Pintauro’s Raft of the Medusa is an outstanding theater experience.

Raft of the Medusa plays at the Cherry Lane Theatre in NYC’s Greenwich Village through October 22.

*See Wikipedia for the history of the event and the Louvre for information about the painting.

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