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

Tag: New York Theatre Workshop

Review | An Iliad by Denis O’Hare & Lisa Peterson | Based on Homer’s The Iliad | Translated by Robert Fagles | Directed by Lisa Peterson | With Denis O’Hare and Stephen Spinella | New York Theatre Workshop

Denis O’Hare gives  a magnificent performance as “The Poet”, a bard transported through time from ancient Greece to today, picking up our style and our way of speaking to tell us the story of The Iliad.   A smallish man on a near-bare stage with pipes and a sink near the back wall, he’s travel worn, time worn, his only baggage a knocked-about canvas suitcase — that and his memory.

At first O’Hare speaks in a searching, self-effacing, almost ordinary way – oh oh, what’s he going to do with Homer? — until he catches fire, and holds the audience rapt.  Superb lighting design punctuates emotion as O’Hare takes on the characters — now he’s Achilles enraged at Agamemnon’s insult, now Hector chucking his baby’s chin before going off to die, now Andromache grieving for Hector and herself.  What a tour de force of swift shifting characters and volatile emotions!

And sometimes he’s just himself, that ordinary seeming man, but a true professional: driven to take on his gift of telling, struggling to understand the significance of the gore and mayhem he’s describing and — since he’s made that trip through time and has a bard’s outstanding memory — of all wars.

His shadow may loom large, to suggest, for example, the power of Achilles.  But he’s rather slight.  And crowded as the stage seems to become with the vivid characters of all sizes, shapes and ages he brings to life, he remains alone, an everyman, burdened with responsibility, compelled to grapple with meaning.  Epic and personal, history and one man making it through come together in a great performance.

The language moves from colloquial to epic (in Fagles’ translation).  So sometimes he’s not speaking Homer’s words at all but that doesn’t make it any less an Iliad.  The story of the Greeks at Troy was first sung by generations of bards in their own ways until, when writing came to Greece, The Iliad was written down and codified.  That’s why this is called An Iliad -– there were others.  And this Iliad, while moving from personal musing to epic description, captures the essential truths of the characters’ personalities and conflicts in the epic attributed to that elusive poet, Homer.  This is a telling that Homer would applaud, if he knew about us (unless, as a fellow-bard, his competitive sense got the better of him).

The ancient bards and rhapsodes sang with lyres or cytharas.  Here the bass provides the musical and emotional resonance:  the original music by Mark Bennett, played by Bassist Brian Ellingsen, is so beautiful it warrants its own soundtrack.

Program notes describe the long and careful development that brought An Iliad into being.  Like the outstanding These Seven Sicknesses  currently playing at The Flea Theater, the creators have found in the ancient Trojan War a way to engage with our long war in Iraq.  The creative team includes Scenic design by Rachel Hauck, Costume design by Marina Draghici, Lighting design by Scott Zielinsky and Donald Friend is Production Stage Manager.

Denis O’Hare and Stephen Spinella are taking on the role of The Poet in different performances.  This is so good, I want to see it again, and see Spinella.

An Iliad plays at New York Theatre Workshop in Manhattan’s East Village through March 25, 2012.  Extended through April 1.

Review | The Select (The Sun Also Rises) | Based on Ernest Hemingway’s Novel | Directed by John Collins | Created by Elevator Repair Service | New York Theatre Workshop

… so what’ll we do now? …

With The Select, The Elevator Repair Service, an outstanding experimental theater company, has for some reason, created a complete misfire.  The adaptation, the acting, the direction, the set — it misses in just about every way possible.  How could this have happened given their recent illuminating adaptation of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, which did everything right?

I didn’t see their Gatz, based on Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby but by most accounts that, too, was highly effective.

The Select is about American and British expatriates living in post World War I Paris, a group of sophisticated, feckless bar hoppers (The Select is the bar and these are somehow select people), most of whom manage to get by without having to work — what Gertrude Stein dubbed “the lost generation.”  A central tension is the love between the American Jake Barnes, whose war injury makes sexual fulfillment impossible, and the British Brett Ashley – a smart talking “modern woman” who makes love readily with just about every man in sight maybe because she can’t have the one man she wants: Jake.  Because or not because? that is the question.  Jake works as a journalist, but when ennui threatens to overcome the small group that keep running into one another in Paris, he’s as free as everyone else to go off to Pamplona, Spain to take in the running of the bulls for some excitement.

On the way to the Pamplona fiesta, Brett detours for a brief affair with Robert Cohn (for Hemingway and the “select” crowd he created, her willingness to sleep with a Jew appears to be a gauge of her decadence).  Jake and a buddy detour for some Hemingway-masculine-bonding and fishing in the mountains.  Eventually the whole tense and bored crew makes it to Pamplona where there continues to be much drinking and Brett enters into an affair with Pedro Romero, the current star matador — she even gets an ear out of it.  That affair won’t last but then nothing does — except the earth which abideth forever, as evidently some still thought back in the 1920’s.

The actors, many of whom were so effective in The Sound and the Fury, are miscast here.  Jake, the central character upon whom much depends, lacks the defining charisma of a hard boiled, thoughtful newsman.  Brett lacks fascinating magnetism that would draw all these men to her.  Toward the end, it’s kind of interesting to see a petite actress with a tight pony tail as Matador Romero, dressed as a torero and slashing her red cape at the upended table moved around by another actor, a scene that’s to give us the idea of what a bull fight’s like:  but it’s not possible to believe her masculinity would overwhelm Brett.  It seems these actors were just more suited for Faulkner than for Hemingway.

The unchanging set is wrong from the start, when it’s supposed to represent a Paris bar/nightclub, in that instead of individual, likely marble, tables it’s is fitted out with long commercial tables with metal legs that would furnish a seminar room in a modest college.  The designers may have found it convenient have these inauthentic but multi-purpose tables on hand for non-bar contexts, but when a character supposedly goes to his room to stretch out, he looks like he’s lying down on a very uncomfortable table, and when one of these long tables is upended to represent a fighting bull well … let’s just say it doesn’t convey “bull.”

The play as a whole lacks drive; it’s one thing to represent bored characters, another to bore the audience and, judging by those who did not return after the intermission, I was not alone in checking my watch.

Evidently for The Elevator Repair Company this turned out to be a detour, and I’ll look forward to their getting back on track for their next production, and to their real fiesta.

The Select (The Sun Also Rises) plays through October 23rd at New York Theatre Workshop on 4th Street in NYC’s East Village.

Review | Restoration by Claudia Shear | Directed by Christopher Ashley | New York Theatre Workshop

… on restoring Michelangelo’s David …

This is a very enjoyable play, a light comedy with enough seriousness about its characters and thematic consistency to give it ballast.

Review | Things of Dry Hours by Naomi Wallace | Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson | New York Theatre Workshop

It’s the deep South, 1932, during the Great Depression and we’re in the home of Tice Hogan, a Black man who’s lost his job at the local factory, and his daughter Cali, a young woman with a sour marriage behind her.  They’re making do — Tice picks up some odd jobs and Cali does laundry for White folks — when a White guy, Corbin Teel, tumbles into their house, he’s probably killed a foreman in a fight at the factory, needs a hideout, and forces the Hogan’s to let him stay by using as a lever his knowledge, from some guys at the factory, that Tice is a member of the Communist Party.

How unusual for current theater — a sympathetic communist character.  Things of Dry Hours  has an important point to make:  capitalism, not racism, is the fundamental enemy of men and women at the bottom of the barrel, a view Marx would endorse.  Racism is a capitalist device and diversion.

Naturally, and metaphorically, bonding takes place among the three.  Corbin has probably been sent by the higher-ups as a snitch.  Nevertheless Tice’s humanity and belief that people can change lead him to try teaching the illiterate Corbin the truth about capitalism as he sees it, as well as how to read, using the Communist Manifesto as the text for both.  Corbin falls for the bitter and eccentric Cali.  She’s the toughest nut to crack of the bunch but love, of a kind, does filter through her hard veneer.

This is promising dramatic material.  Unfortunately, the play is not well written and makes several missteps.  To mention just a few.  In Scene 1 Tice Hogan has just arrived at a dark entry to heaven after an uncomfortable journey a number of years after the incidents of the play;  this scene has nothing to do with the play as it unfolds.  The grotesque sexual humiliations Cali forces on Corbin, and Corbin’s acquiescence, don’t ring true:  explanations are provided that she’s turning the tables in response to humiliations she’s suffered, and he’s hot, but nevertheless these sadistic scenes seem dragged in and motivated by something outside the play itself.  The nude male forced strip scene, not of Cali’s doing, did not emerge from the play but also seemed dragged in.  And all these characters are much too well spoken and knowledgeable about the world at large than is plausible.  If we weren’t told we were in a small town in Alabama in 1932 we’d never guess it.

What makes Things of Dry Hours  at least interesting to watch is Delroy Lindo as the Biblically magisterial yet vulnerable Tice, Roslyn Ruff as the ornery but tender Cali, and Garret Dillahunt as the frantic, doomed Corbin.  In spite of the fine cast, though, in its present state, it seems like a play with potential seen in an early workshop production.

Things of Dry Hours plays at New York Theatre Workshop in NYC’s East Village through June 28.

Review | The Grand Inquisitor, from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov | Directed by Peter Brook | Starring Bruce Myers | New York Theatre Workshop & Theatre for a New Audience

Did Dostoevsky read this over before he published it?

It’s hard to take on Dostoyevsky but this really is somewhat sophomoric. Bruce Myers was too appealing and spry for the aged Grand Inquisitor with terrifying power over life, death and torture — and that’s the whole piece, a dramatic monolog. Christ just sits and listens with his back to the audience until the end when he gets up, gives the Grand Inquisitor a kiss (love? betrayal?) and walks off, released from the Inquisitor’s threat to burn him at the stake, presumably because we all know that never happened. The whole does not add up to a “great argument” as people like to say, and as  was repeated often at a recent roundtable.

Christ, we’re told, arrived in Seville at the height of the Inquisition because he felt sorry about all the people burning, and starts off by bringing sight to a blind man and raising a child from the dead, causing an excited and hopeful stir but the Grand Inquisitor soon puts a stop to that, arrests Christ and in a prison visit speechifies to him for 52 minutes. And when all is said and done, they continue to burn people in Seville.

The Grand Inquisitor’s claim is that Christ isn’t really good for people, the Catholic Church is, and Christ’s “freedom” spoils the Church’s hold on people’s obedience and faith.  The Inquisitor’s argument includes the idea that Christ spurned miracles, although they are useful for the Church — this IN SPITE OF THE FACT that Christ’s first acts in Seville are miracles.  The Inquisitor’s argument is full of holes.  He says it’s better for people to have food than freedom but there are at least two problems there.  1) The Church hasn’t ensured food for the people and 2) why Christ’s “freedom to chose” interferes with people getting food isn’t taken up.

This is not, generally, an ambiguous piece of writing. There are two basic interpretations. 1) It’s an expression of what he saw as the hocus pocus of the Catholic Church (Dostoyevsky being a strong believer in the Russian Orthodox Church)  2) It’s prophetic of future totalitarian states which give food to people at the expense of their freedom, robbing them of their freedom of choice.  Since a totalitarian state with those attitudes did in fact rise in Russia after Dostoyevsky, that gives, I suppose, some kind of credibility to his “prophetic vision” but the connection’s pretty lose.

Dostoyevsky is a great novelist because he creates vivid characters with heart wrenching desires, passions and quests.  In this Grand Inquisitor segment, which is an anomalous drop-in to the novel, although it does have an effect on the characters outside and beyond it, the Inquisitor is a mouthpiece for ideas rather than a character.  Things are said well — this is a great writer after all — but they are not thought out well.

For what Ben Brantley calls an “immortal  parable of of worldly and spiritual power,” none surpasses the character driven, situation driven argument between Creon and Antigone in Sophocles’ Antigone (see critique of The Oedipus Cycle below) — though I wouldn’t want to see that played out of context either.

The Grand Inquisitor presented by Theatre for a New Audience & New York Theatre Workshop, directed by Peter Brook, plays at Theatre for a New Audience on East 4th Street in New York City through November 30.

Nearby restaurant favorite:  Cucina di Pesce, 87 East 4th Street

NEXT:  Black Watch at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn

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