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

Tag: La Mama

Review | Les Bonnes/The Maids | By Jean Genet | Directed by Oliver Henzler | La MaMa

… oppression  …

Enter the weird world of Claire and Solange – the world of what oppression does to the human spirit.

The language is brilliant and stunningly expressed by two great actresses in this production, the psychological twists and freehand switches on role playing are the products of a stupendous dramatic imagination. But unlike the actual notorious murder that inspired the play, the Papin case, the maids, not the mistress, are the ultimate victims.  The author’s profound reversal of the expected ending raises this play from a shocking oddity of kinky love-hate relationships (which it is!) to the level of a true classic.  To have seen this great, passionate production is a life treasure.

In the Papin case, in France in 1933, two sisters, employed in the same household as maids, murdered their employer’s wife and daughter.  In Les Bonnes/The Maids, two maids who are sisters, Claire and Solange, play-act as the mistress whenever Madame, the mistress, is out, masquerade in her dresses, express their furious resentments and debasement, and plot her murder.

Only they don’t seem to have it in them.  They spend so much time analyzing every nuance of the words and actions of each other, and their relationship, and of all the other words, actions and relationships of that touch them – Madame, her lover Monsieur, and the milkman Mario, that Madame always comes home too soon, forcing them into a humiliating scramble to get Madame’s clothes back on the hangers and everything back in order.

They are not, however, totally inept.  In an intimation of what they may be capable of, Claire has written a letter denouncing Monsieur – and the man’s in jail.  But in the course of the play, during their hectic afternoon of dressing up in Madame’s finery, analyzing their anguish, and hurling recriminations, a phone call comes, and they learn Monsieur has been released from prison, forcing a change in their plans, or speeding them up.  Madame arrives, self-involved, patronizing, self-dramatizing – she’s going to follow her lover to the ends of the earth, enraptured by the sense of her own generosity, she’s gives Claire and Solange her red dress that is a dominant feature of the evening, and her fur cape – and takes them back.  But she notices the phone dangling off the hook – questions are asked, mild suspicion aroused and, distracted, she rushes out of the house to meet her lover, not taking time to drink the tea Claire has prepared for her – Madame’s good luck.

Role boundaries are permeable.  Claire becomes Madame, dominating her older sister, Solange who also play-acts as the dominating Madame.  Sisters detest one another and are lovers.  Solange is the virulent hater while Claire has softer moments – but don’t count on it.

When Madame leaves to meet Monsieur, freed from prison, the sisters revert to their play-acting “game” but this time, through a leap of the author’s imagination, and the perverse logic of their role-playing, Oppression gathers in its victims.

This was a stunning production, physically centered around a tall noose-like contraption with a twisted bucket – suggesting buckets of water eternally carried, to which Solange and Claire are tethered, like mules to a grinding stone.  The set design, by Lloyd Huber and Di Girolamo, is as imaginative and emotionally signifying as any I’ve ever seen.

The play was presented in the original French with English titles above, and the acting by two French actresses, Helene Godec as Solange and Laura Lassy Towsend as Claire was surpassing.  The heat of emotions and tightly entwined dialog of these two sisters, who know each other too well, was breath-taking.  Cloe Xhauflaire as Madame was on a par, though her role is less demanding than the astonishing intensity of the interplay between Solange and Claire.

I saw this production of a classic play of huge intellectual and artistic importance at the very end of its run.  The best I can say by way of apologies that it’s not there for you now is:  keep an eye on L’Atelier Theatre Productions and La MaMa.

Les Bonnes/The Maids played at La MaMa theater in Manhattan’s lower East side from March 2-19.  For more information about the production and its creative team, and some telling photos, click here.


Review | AdA (Author directing Author) | Power | La MaMa

Written and Directed by Neil LaBute, Marco Calvani, Marta Buchaca

Each playwright wrote one of these short plays, directed by another of the authors, and the acting is for the most part stellar.   It’s a brisk and engrossing evening of theater.

La MaMa E.T.C., in association with GOH Productions, presents Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre in The Republic, or, My Dinner with Socrates written and directed by Vit Horejs. The philosophers discuss democracy. L-R: Christopher Broholm and Socrates puppet, Alan Barnes Netherton and Adeimatos puppet, Jonathan Mastrojohn and Glaucon puppet. Photo by Lee Wexler/Images for Innovation.

Review | The Republic, Or, My Dinner With Socrates | Adapted and Directed by Viot Hořejš | Czechoslovak – American Marionette Theatre | LaMaMa in Association with Goh Productions

Socrates actively engaged in his search for understanding — talking, talking and talking, and asking leading questions — serene as the time approaches for drinking the hemlock, the Athenian state’s means of executing the philosopher on grounds of believing in his own gods and corrupting the youth, is an iconic historical event.  Through the use of live actors speaking the words while manipulating small puppets, and with shadow puppetry on the background screen, The Republic, Or, My Dinner With Socrates seeks to draw for its interest on the tension between philosophizing and imminent death but unfortunately the production fails its material.  

Review | Stopped Bridge of Dreams | Written, Directed and Designed by John Jesurun | Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa

… artistic directors …

Ellen Stewart, the astoundingly brave and brilliant founder of La MaMa theater in NYC’s East Village, died just about a year ago, Jan 13, 2011.  Since, from the time she founded her experimental theater group in 1961 to the time of her death, La MaMa created approximately 3,000 productions.  (!)  I doubt anyone could have seen all of them — except Ellen Stewart.  But some of the greatest theater I’ve ever seen, simply unforgettable productions, were at La MaMa.

What will happen to La MaMa now that Ellen Stewart is gone?  Here’s what I’ve noticed so far.  Things are busy at La MaMa which is a good sign.  They’ve been serving as a venue for some other exciting theater groups and performers which keeps their performance spaces — the tiny and the large — active.  They’ve also mounted their own productions since the loss of Stewart and these, in my view, have been less successful.

Stopped Bridge of Dreams, La MaMa’s own production, is a case in point.  It has a lot of trendy elements, from Oriental influence and allusions to the use of video and “multi-media” — not much multi, mainly, video — but these seem mainly there to distract one from thinking about that there’s no real play here.

While there’s not really a plot, there’s a situation, though it takes awhile catch on to it.  We’re up in the air in a transcontinental airliner that functions as a brothel and the characters are the prostitutes plus the Madam.  We hear about the clients but never see any.  The denizens of the plane have some ghostly characteristics but they’re alive — somewhere in the numinous between life and death and past and present, though that doesn’t quite work out either.

The characters have various relationships among themselves.  A central relationship is between the Madam and a young man who is or is not one of her thousands of unborn aborted children; you may guess that this is a tense relationship.  There’s a flirtation or two.  Although the prostitutes populating the plane seem suited to the environment, and generally not looking to leave, there’s seems to be an underlying ennui.  Or maybe that was my ennui waiting for this to be over.

This all takes place under monitors that just below ceiling level run the full length of the long theater, with screen-saver like videos suggesting the heavens, clouds, etc., and also some panoramic shots of cities approached as for landing from above (my favorite shots).  Cameras provide varied angles and greatly magnified close-ups of the performers interacting or narrating, live or filmed ahead of time.

There’s reference to an early “floating world” Japanese novel with narration from it of the tragic story of a young girl who grows up to be a prostitute and supplants the current Madam as the new Madam of the plane.  The old one will drift off to become a cloud — at least that’s what she says.

Speaking of video … The Wooster Group, an outstanding off-Broadway group, pioneered the use of videos and other tech, slick and mod-appearing devices in their plays in ways that are challenging, witty, and make one see things in new ways.  The video-driven multiple points of view in Stopped Bridge of Dreams rely on some aura of innovation, but are unsearching.  This play doesn’t lead one to see things in new ways, through tech or otherwise, it’s more watered down Sci Fi.

The author, director, designer, John Jesurun, has an imposing lists of honors and activities for his theatrical work, including back in 1996 a MacArthur “genius award” Fellowship.  So much for all that.  The — to now — falling off from quality of the La MaMa productions since the death Ellen Stewart drives home that among the real geniuses of the off- and off-off Broadway scene are the Artistic Directors.  Creators such as Ellen Stewart, and — to name just a few current — Brian Kulick of Classic Stage, Jim Simpson of the Flea Theater, Jonathan Bank of Mint Theater, Elizabeth LeCompte of the Wooster Group, and others, make it happen.

Although their theater groups each differ profoundly one from another, these artistic directors share imagination, intense individuality, leadership, love of theater, and perseverance against great odds.  They unite individual vision with habits of personality that, to me, are quite astonishing, they are like iron in their toughness.  If you want to look for genius, in my view, here’s where.

About that question, how will La MaMa fare?  Give it time.  Great artistic directors need apply.

Stopped Bridge of Dreams  plays at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre in NYC’s East Village through February 5, 2012.

Clowns Full-Tilt ensemble. Edge of that bathtub visible on left with canvas open to possibilities on right. Photo: Marina Levitskaya

Review | Clowns Full-Tilt: A Musing on Aesthetics | Created and Directed by Kendall Cornell | In Collaboration with the Ensemble, Clowns Ex Machina | La MaMa

… art, life and wit! …

If you enjoy the pleasures of really deep satisfying laughs coming fast one upon the next, see Clowns Full-Tilt.  It’s marvelously performed, and constantly surprising.

On a stunning, helter-skelter post-mod stage with classical columns at the tilt, derelict platforms covered in brown paper, and an old-fashioned bathtub, the cast of nine multi-talented women, all wearing red clown noses, bring to three-dimensional life some famous paintings — and with some “great moments” in literature thrown in.  They dance, they sing and they act with a non-stop, cleverly devised flow of one scene to the next.  Everything is done with vigor, balletic grace, and infectious ebullience and everything is underlined by great wit — to say nothing of knowledge of art, literature and the classics.

Serious ideas lie behind the laughter – and you’re laughing all the time.  Among the paintings, Degas’ disaffected couple in his key painting, Absinthe, come to life and talk existential (what else in a French cafe?).   Diego Rivera’s Frida Kahlo is there

Meet Frida Kahlo. L Diane Lovrin and R Carla Bosnjak. Photo: Marina Levitskaya

Meet Frida Kahlo. L Diane Lovrin and R Carla Bosnjak. Photo: Marina Levitskaya

with her iconic stare and dashing Mexican ruffles.  If you’ve always wanted to see the face of the girl in Wyeth’s Christina’s World, now’s your chance … and hold on to your hat because you’re in for a surprise.   Dreiser’s American Tragedy finds its way in as a source for great comedy – why not!  Nothing is sacred, even a Raphael Madonna and Child, and it’s all life affirming.

Some particularly strong episodes with a feminist bent go beyond the art-to-life theme.  Smart girls in school anxiously come up with the right answers to difficult questions while being equally anxious about staying, as the word goes, “dainty.” There’s a classic confessional in which venial, and not so venial sins are admitted that strike knowing cords of recognition.  Like all fine clowns, these are fine actors, and you see in their faces their struggles to confess — or not to.

And Clowns Full-Tilt is liberating with its unabashed range of female body types in motion.  The cast appears at times looking nearly nude in pink unitards with bright nipples (sometimes a bit askew), and dance, sing, act and range into the audience in their full female variety.  Short, tall, thin, chunky, younger and older (though all not apparent in the photo below), their joie de vivre casts its spell.  They all dance well but they all wouldn’t make it into the American Ballet Theater.  Talk about acceptance – yes!

Clowns Full-Tilt ensemble. Edge of that bathtub visible on left with canvas open to possibilities on right. Photo: Marina Levitskaya

Clowns Full-Tilt ensemble. Edge of that bathtub visible on left with canvas open to possibilities on right. Photo: Marina Levitskaya

Clowns Ex Machina — like the deus ex machina, the “god from the machine” who appeared miraculously at the end of ancient tragedies thanks to a scenic contraption — and made everything OK.  Perfect title for this clown troupe — great comedy makes everything OK, too, at least for a little while.  But then, the Greek gods couldn’t do any better.

I’m glad to think of all the great paintings, all the literature, all the ideas in the world just waiting for a thorough go-over by Clowns Ex Machina.   Great there’s room for lots more to come!

Clowns Full-Tilt plays at La MaMa’s First Floor Theatre in Manhattan’s East Village through November 20.

Review | Journeys | La MaMa

The stage for Journeys is simple to make the women’s voices seem louder– seven women who recount their struggles for human rights in seven different countries.

The original activists’ stories are told by playwrights and presented by actresses — at first that’s a disappointment, one’s looking for authenticity, but would we want the “real” women — engaged in their ongoing struggles — to drop by East 4th Street in NYC for our benefit?  Let them do their work!  The plays are uneven and the best are those told as if in the voice of the women actually involved in the struggle.  What was it like to try to eliminate domestic violence in Russia, and how on earth does one ever come to take on such a task?  Here’s what and here’s how!

The most beautifully written is Susan Yankowitz’ play about Mukhtaran Mai, an illiterate Pakistani (“I didn’t know we had a constitution”) who after a gang rape ordered by local officials in retribution for no crime she’d committed stood up for herself in court.  Moving through a judicial system illiterate (signing blank documents with a thumb print), she nevertheless obtained a settlement of $8,000 with which she set about building schools in the face of continued opposition–Musharaff said women are getting raped now just to become millionaires, according to the play.  The moment when toward the end the marvelous actress, Reena Shah*, tells us she’s going to one of the schools she herself built –“I’m in fifth grade now,” is worth all.

Journeys is at La Mama, in the East Village in NYC, 74A East 4th Street

      Next week:    Brecht’s Galileo at Classic Stage.

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