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

Tag: Martha Clarke

Review | Angel Reapers | By Martha Clarke and Alfred Uhry | Signature Theatre

Directed and Choreographed by Martha Clarke

Here again Martha Clarke has given us a lovely new creation of her unique vision, a theatrical union of dance, music and narrative.  Although Angel Reapers, about repression and ecstasy among the Shakers, is a smaller, less commanding theater piece than Clarke’s Garden of Earthly Delights and her staging of  Threepenny Opera, it has her mark.

The Shakers religious sect is known for celibacy and ecstatic prayer and in Angel Reapers these are two sides of the same coin.  Repression finds an outlet in wildness, sanctioned and controlled by rigid dogma and social control.

While awaiting the performance — and the prayer meeting — the audience sits on two sides of the austere meeting house, near to becoming part of the congregation. We are in the original Shaker foundation in the United States, a group headed by Mother Ann Lee who came here with a small circle fellow Shakers, including her brother William, in the late 18th century .

I’ll never forget the beginning of this play: men and women uniformly dressed by gender, silently, in a choreographed but natural seeming entry, take seats opposite one another in the unadorned, white washed meeting house. And after a notably long silence (in which you think you’ve figured out that this is going to be all about repression) they break into laughter.

It’s life-affirming, and conveys quickly the tension between straight-faced discipline and irrepressible human emotions that the play is all about.

And then they break into song.

In a beautiful pattern of emerging, we get to know driving aspects of each character’s  emotional history. Through mime, song, dance and speech, we encounter the heartaches, spiritual conflicts, suffered abuses, thwarted passions, religious yearnings, and idealistic visions that thrust the characters toward the tightly structured Shaker life.  Beneath the cloak of conformity, suffering and pleasure are personal

At prayer meetings, as in revival meetings, ecstatic dance and song pull individuals from communal obedience to private gyrations, spastic movements, seizures, rolling on the floor, these movements signifying loss of control choreographed to beauty by Clarke.

But ecstatic release in song and dance doesn’t erase the effects of sexual repression and its heavy burden of guilt: within this small, tight knit community, homosexual yearnings are barely concealed. Incestuous love is conveyed in a delicate scene in which Brother Lee tenderly washes the feet of his sister, Mother Ann Lee who – what an irony – makes the rules here.  The passionate, anarchic love affair between a young man and woman, followed to its outcome, creates something of a plot. The essential narrative, however, is the emerging of characters from communal to specific.

Clarke’s previous extravaganzas have filled the eyes with luscious color. Here she takes a turn to tones of gray and white.  The women wear modest grey dresses and white coifs and the production, with costumes by Donna Zakowska and scene design by Marsha Ginsberg, takes its cues from those colors.  Color is like that: placing a Rembrandt next to a Rubens, the muted colors more than hold their own.

The cast that sings, dances, mimes and speaks is excellent. The dancing of the men in particular, with their powerful stomping, whirling movements, all right near you in the small theater, is vibrant and exciting.

While enjoying Clarke’s sumptuous theatricality, one senses that the underlying script is thin.  Also there is a toward the end there’s some awkward speechifying —  the authors seem to be trying to make sure we know what to think about what we’ve seen — which is unnecessary and interrupts the wholeness of the production.  In spite of a tailing off at the end, one leaves still in the thrall of Martha Clarke’s vision.

Music direction and arrangements are by Arthur Solari who also worked with Samuel Crawford on Sound design.  Lighting design, which brings out the beauty of the greys and whites almost as if you’re seeing through a delicate filter, is by Christopher Akerland, .

Angel Reapers plays at Signature Theatre on Manhattan’s West 42nd Street through March 20th.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Review | The Threepenny Opera | Book and Lyrics by Bertolt Brecht | Music by Kurt Weill | English Adaptation by Mark Blitzstein | Directed and Choreographed by Martha Clarke | Atlantic Theater Company

Mack the Soupspoon (… couldn’t resist …)

From the first moments of the overture, discordant and musical, played by superb musicians from the back of the stage, you know you’re experiencing something great.  The Threepenny Opera is one of the greatest pieces of musical theatre of the 20th Century — it’s up there with Porgy and Bess — and happily this production fulfills it.

Based on John Gay’s 18th-century The Beggar’s Opera, The Threepenny Opera was first produced in Berlin in 1928.  It’s an outstanding and unusual  example of a political point of view, here Brecht’s socialist critique of capitalist society, transformed into art that’s not preachy: skip the preaching, as Jenny reminds us in her “Solomon Song.”  Yet the message,  “First feed the face, and then talk right and wrong,” comes across loud and clear — and joyously.

Set in 19th century London and populated by low-life characters, including prostitutes, beggars and thieves, the show centers on a lean, mean crook Macheath, known as Mack the Knife.  Irresistible to women, he turns the head of Polly, the protected daughter of the wise-to-the world Mr. Peachum, “King of the Beggars”, and Mrs. Peachum.  When Macheath marries Polly (sort of), a furious Mr. Peachum determines to have him hanged;  there are crimes aplenty to accuse him of but the Chief of Police is — guess what — corrupt.  Still, caught in the snare of his “old dependency — women”, as Mrs. Peachum sings it, he comes near to death, only to … see the show!  It’s such a great ending.  Yes, more joyous irony.

What a marvelous wealth of songs!  The singers are all good but some capture the grating quality of the style of Weimar Berlin with which Martha Clarke imbues the show.  John Kelly as the Street Singer delivers a wonderfully subversive introductory “Ballad of Mack the Knife” and is charismatically sleazy throughout in the role of Fitch. Mary Beth Peil is tough and terrific as Mrs. Peachum.  These two most fully capture the character of the music and the essence of The Threepenny Opera.

As Macheath, Michael Park understands the meanings of his all-out songs and gets them across with rich vigor, but his persona, and gorgeously tailored suit, are too comfortable looking — too capitalist — for Mack the Knife.  Not knife-like, he’s more a Mack the Soup Spoon.  F. Murray Abraham is gruff and tender as Mr. Peachum, though he’s not a great singer.  Laura Osnes sings Polly’s songs with a beautiful, strong voice, though she seems too worldly-wise in advance, rather than learning a thing or three from Macheath.

Now what about Jenny?  A big question for this show. Jenny, a prostitute and maid in the brothel, and Macheath’s sometime lover, is the pivotal role Lotte Lenya sang in the original Berlin production in Berlin in 1928 and again in the 1956 production at the Theater de Lys in New York City, and often heard recorded since.  In this production Jenny is misconceived:  turning her back of the strident, no-holds-barred Jenny that Miss Lenya gave and that’s scripted, Miss Clarke gives us a depressed, near-ingenue Jenny, played by Sally Murphy, even to the point of changing the words to suit this passive characterization.  Ending her famous revenge fantasy song, “Pirate Jenny,” by imagining all “the bodies piled up” in front of her, Miss Murphy sings with a shrug: “So what?”  A far cry from Lotte Lenya’s vengeful words:  “That’ll learn ya.”

Maybe Miss Clarke thought Lotte Lenya’s tough Jenny was too iconic, so went the other way.  At any rate, this passive characterization lets us down also in “Solomon Song” where, abandoning irony for woebegone, Miss Murphy sings, face turned away, brushing across the far walls of the set like a teen-ager without a prom date.  The role is salvaged only by the fact that it’s a stupendous song, and Sally Murphy is a poignant, fine performer so that wistful, though off-key, didn’t interrupt the impact of this wonderful show.

The production’s overall concept, set, lighting and costumes are glorious.  The spirit of caricature, the costumes, and choreography are inspired by images from George Grosz’s gutsy and unblinking illustrations of Berlin low-life of the period, as Robert Ruben, who saw the show with me commented, a bringing together of art and theater that recalls Miss Clarke’s Garden of Earthly Delights inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting, reviewed here in 2008.    For instance, the sofa in the brothel and the choreographed arrangement of girls on and around it appear to be drawn directly from an illustration by Grosz, a sort of tableaux vivant. All is over-washed with Martha Clarke’s luscious glow and sense of luxury.  George Grosz deserves mention in the show’s program.

Joyous irony:  the show’s grim, underdog message — useless, it’s useless, even when you’re playing rough, useless, it’s useless, you’re never rough enough — is transformed through transcendent art: you walk out of the theater elated.

The Threepenny Opera  plays at the Atlantic Theater in Manhattan’s Chelsea district through May 4th, 2014 — extended through May 11th.

Ballet Review | Garden of Earthly Delights by Martha Clarke | Music by Richard Peaslee

If you want to know how many positions at all speeds the young, nude (nearly) human body can take on, including when airborne — think upside-down — see Garden of Earthly Delights.  All this and a story, too.  The ballet recounts humanity’s path from innocence, to guilt and repression including a vivid auto da fe, to a conclusion in hell, with a glimpse of springtime renewal at the end.

In its tripartite interpretation of existence, the ballet reflects Hieronymus Bosch’s great triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, painted early in the 16th Century, that hangs on the wall of the Prado Museum in Spain as a pilgrimage destination for art lovers.  Several positions of the dancers and their intertwinings, such as the famous sex play with the flowering branch, are drawn specifically from Bosch’s painting.  As if with a paint brush, Clarke represents through her dancers the look of wiry nudity that for many makes a Bosch look like a Bosch (though the type was widespread in  northern art), in contrast to more voluptuous models of the contemporary Italian Renaissance that western culture has tended to adopt as its ideal.

Mostly, though, Clarke draws more generally from Bosch’s towering level of imagination:  taking inspiration from his unparalleled inventiveness of images, surrealistic disjunctions, challenging sexual unions and no-holds barred polymorphic sexuality.  The music, performed by musicians in monk’s dress on early instruments and on other instruments that appear in Bosch’s painting, introduces unfamiliar and haunting sounds that interplay with the surreal vision.

Release from gravity is a governing fantasy in this ballet.  The performers seem almost nude in their sheer body tights but the lycra neatly slickens the areas of the body that would show gravity’s pull.  When their turns come, these young dancers are ready to take off.  Water scenes, too, continue the idea of floating.  In this focus on buoyancy, Clarke is in strong contrast to Bosch, more Rococo than Northern Renaissance, true to the tradition of ballet.

With all the inventiveness of motifs in Clarke’s Garden, and expertise of production, why does this ballet drag?  With each new visual motif, starting with the initial entrance of the dancers in a four-limbed walk that shows off the beauty of their lean backs, as Bosch reveals it, one starts off fascinated, and is soon waiting for what’s next.  The Garden only lasts about an hour, but it’s a long hour.  Bosch’s painting of The Garden of Earthly Delights has fascinated endlessly, in its individual motifs and as a whole, for the past 500 years.  That’s a lot to ask of a contemporary ballet but since Clarke herself emphasizes the connection, one does wonder why her Garden of Earthly Delights, with its serious purpose, skill and inventiveness, is not more compelling.

My tentative answer is that Bosch’s figures, in all their numbers and variety, convey a massive sense of ebullient and unquenchable free will.  The opposite is true of Clarke’s ballet.  Each individual dance motif, as “shocking” and original as it may seem, runs its path through in an automatic way, so that when one sees the beginning one sees it all, and has to wait until it concludes for a new thought.  Artistic design and choreography dominate feeling.

But there’s another aspect to the ballet beyond that hour–its continuation in the imagination.  The next day it’s left a gift, a memory of the soaring physical freedom of the very human dancers with which one can identify.

Garden of Earthly Delights is playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre in NYC’s Village, through May 31st.

Nearby restaurant favorite — BellaVitae, 24 Minetta Lane (right next door!)

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