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

Tag: political theater

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 | Sweat | By Lynn Nottage | Directed by Kate Whoriskey | Studio 54

… losers and losers …

Sweat is not a perfect play but it’s important and by the end has great impact. As this drama unfolds, we witness through the lives of engaging individuals how competition for jobs poisons relationships between ethnic and racial groups and, most poignantly, between friends.  The backdrop is the total disregard of industry and “Wall Street” for the individuals who support them.

The story, set in Reading Pennsylvania, once a heavy industry town, moves back and forth between 2000 and 2008.  We first meet two anguished young men, an agitated Evan and enraged Jason in tense, separate interrogations with their probation officer – they’ve just been released from jail, and the rest of the play tells us how they got there.  Evan is a big, solid-looking Black hoping to find solace in the Bible.  Jason is a skinny pale White with a swastika on his sleeve – he’s come out of prison as a White Supremacist.  And yet we learn when after their recent release they ran into each other in town, they embraced, a paradox central to the play’s meaning.

Much of the action takes place in a bar when, through flashbacks, when the bar was a hangout for a local factory workers who formed a bar family for one another.  Cynthia., Evans’ Black mother and Tracey, Jason’s White mother are specially tight friends in the early years.  They share long experience at the assembly line, pride in their well-paid job in the factory their families worked for generations, fatigue, gripes, and pleasure in celebrating birthdays at the bar.

The snake in the garden comes when Management announces an opening in supervisory position, and a willingness to consider Cynthia and Tracey for the job.  Off the line and into a supervisory position – what a wonderful promotion for Cynthia or Tracey that would be!

But winners create losers: when one of the two actually wins the job, friendship shatters into a bitter outcome.  Early on, the closeness between Cynthia and Tracey seems racially idyllic but as that relationship dissipates, the race war and class war of the world at large are fought out in the microcosm of the bar, with brutal results.  It’s not just about Blacks and White’s, Nottage reminds us:  the victim count includes Stan, the White manager of the bar who’s an earlier victim of the factory owners’ disregard, and the Puerto Rican cleaner, Oscar.  And in the ultimate irony, the “winner” of the competition for the supervisory job turns out to be a loser, too – a tool manipulated by the factory owners who are exporting jobs to Mexico.  Assembly line workers are fired and who does it? … well, somebody has to do their dirty work.

A strength of this play is the thoroughgoing examination of the tragic effects on individual lives of the factory system and of Wall Street.  The inherently exploitive and non-humanistic character of capitalism and its hand maiden, economic competition, are exemplified through the characters’ many different kinds of wounds and defeats, physical and spiritual:  incarceration, drug addiction, alcoholism, family breaks, crippling bodily injuries, disillusionment, obstacles in the path toward worthy goals, and severe bodily injuries.  The play is a political critique but one expressed through vivid human lives:  the personal tragedies, and small triumphs emerge out of the situations and interactions of the three-dimensional characters with which Nottage populates the bar.

Although the play moves cleverly through time, with the set shifting from the probation office to the bar, the first act feels static.  The exposition isn’t well handled: some of the characters give preachy speeches that tell us what we should know and think rather than show us.  And the bar fly, Jessie, seems to have no role to play outside of softening what could be an over simple focus on the two mothers, Tracey and Cynthia.  The play comes alive in the second act where the varying outcomes unfold and the “lesson” of the outcomes of unbridled economic competition are driven home through what happens to the characters who are most central:  Tracey and Cynthia, and to Jason, Chris, Stan, and the rest, who’d once seemed like a family.  All of them are accounted for in important ways.

The cast is uniformly excellent, and among some of the major characters, Johanna Day’s Tracy, the White woman with an embittered sense of entitlement, is totally   convincing.   Michelle Wilson is exciting as the impassioned go-getter, Cynthia, though talky portions of the script sometimes get in the way of her naturalism.  Khris Davis is moving as the young Black man with a hopeful future vision.  Wiry Will Pullen conveys a sense of risk from the get-go as Jason, the White kid with the scary tattoos.  With the set designed by John Lee Beatty, the occasional transitions between the stern venues such as the probation office and the cozy bar have emotional impact.

Lynn Nottage’s earlier play, Ruined (reviewed here) – is also set in a bar, in a tradition that can easily be traced back to Eugene O’Neil’s The Iceman Cometh.  Nottage writes honestly, and in both of these plays, she gives us characters we care about, and then forces us to look at the horrors inflicted on these powerless people we’ve come to love by dehumanized institutions – war in Ruined, and, here, capitalism.  She’s not sentimental but still manages to make the plays seem upbeat and just plain enjoyable. She’s honest in what she lays out about the institutions she writes about, but emotionally lets us off the hook.  In Sweat, the last line, which can be interpreted in different ways, provides a great deal of relief for our concerns for Cynthia and Tracy, Chris and Jason, and the others.

Sweat not only drives home the grim effects of capitalism and “Wall Street,” but it makes the audience feel good.  You’re left with a gratifying the sense that by understanding the truths Nottage lays out – by getting it — you’re now on the side of the angels helping to solve the problems!

As Jake says at the end of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Sweat plays at Studio 54 on West 54th Street in Manhattan .  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.

Review | The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht | Translated by Eric Bentley | Directed by Anya Saffir | Music by Cormac Bluestone | Pipeline Theatre Company

Pipeline Theatre Company’s Caucasian Chalk Circle is one of the best productions I’ve seen all season, if not the best.  It’s a complicated and fascinating play within a play, fired by Brecht’s moral passion, in which a visiting bard, The Singer, spins his tale to two work groups in Communist Russia contesting over control of a fertile valley.  A solution to the conflict — a moral — emerges from The Singer’s dramatized story.

During a civil war, the Governor and his wife, threatened and rushing to escape, forget to take their infant, Michael, with them (the Governor’s killed but the mother gets away).  A servant girl, Grusha, rescues the baby and, to save him from the Prince, flees to the mountains pursued by the Prince’s soldiers, the Ironshirts.  Grusha’s ingenuity, stamina in crossing vast distances through the cold Caucasus mountains with the child in a sack slung from her shoulders, and courage in the face of obstacles can only be compared to the flight of Eliza in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Thrust out of a brief refuge in her brother’s rural house, Grusha finally agrees to marry a villager who’s on his deathbed so that she and the baby can have a roof over their heads.  But after the wedding, the Civil War ends and her husband, no longer threatened by the draft, wakes up hale and hearty!  She’s stuck with a live husband — just when her true love, the soldier Simon, released from war duty arrives to find her married to someone else (though her marriage is, luckily, unconsummated).

Also now that war’s done with, Baby Michael’s mother has decided she wants her child back — after all Grusha’s huge sacrifices for him and the love she bears him.  Back in town, we meet one of the most fascinating characters Brecht created, Azdak — for his story check out the play.  But Azdak through a convoluted series of events becomes a Judge who in an erratic and corrupt way tends to favor the poor and the oppressed.  When the case comes before him of which is the “real mother,” Grusha who took care of the baby, or the birth mother, Azdak devises a solution reminiscent of the Judgment of Solomon: you can bet the one who loves him most wins and you can bet that’s Grusha.  Things work out well also for Grusha and Simon.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle has a vast number of characters and the many actors, except for The Singer, play multiple roles.  The acting is without exception, and without even a moment’s lack of focus or concentration (not anywhere, and I was in the first row and in arm’s reach of the actors) exceptional:  professional, well-trained, moving.  Three parts are particularly key.  Grusha experiences the gamut of human emotions and experiences, and Maura Hooper, in this huge role, expresses these whether subtle or large scale.  The part of Grusha is so central that the success of the play truly depends on it and Ms. Hooper carries it off with great stage presence and charisma.  The roll of Azdak is similarly key in the later part of the play where Gil Zabarsky in the part is powerful, rakish and hilarious.  And throughout Michael R. Piazza as the Singer bridges the episodes with a voice brimming with thoughtful tenderness;  his face constantly reflects the experience of taking in the events he’s describing.  But in truth the same could be said of everyone — these are such good actors!

Talk about production values!  Using, well, not a lot — beams, rope, a ladder, a large and wondrously ragged piece of cloth, the designers of this off-off Broadway production conjure up vast distances in a varied landscape, from city to rural mountain villages, treacherous bridges crossing precipitous valleys — I could only think, Spider Man eat your hat.

The puppet that represents Michael as a toddler has a refreshingly original look and conveys the fluctuating vitality and unease of the young child.  The puppets of the men hanged up there are bedraggled and poignant.  The music, both in the background and accompanying Brecht’s songs suggests Russian folk songs and Kurt Weill — just right.

But what about that solution to the conflict — the moral of the story?

Brecht drew upon an old Chinese play for Caucasian Chalk Circle but made an important change:  in the physical tug-of-war between the child’s birth mother and the woman who cared for him, the birth mother in the old Chinese story spares her child by releasing her hold on him, while the woman who cared for him would tear him apart.  It’s reversed here:  Grusha, who has cared for him, puts her own desire to possess him second and acts upon what’s best for the child — she let’s him go — while the birth mother in her selfish urge to possess him would tear him limb from limb.

From here, Brecht segues into lyrical poetry about possession, expressing the view that those who nurture and take care of things are the ones who should own them.  Here, Brecht is expressing his Marxist point of view;  he’s writing about property, and his view that ownership should be in the hands of those who do the work, like Grusha.  This idea came across with particular force in a staged reading of The Caucasian Chalk Circle at Classic Stage Company a couple of years ago:  if I hadn’t heard it there, I would have missed it here.  There’s so much stage action toward the end of this production that the lyrical and visionary Brechtian poetry, the play’s poetic peak, is interrupted, and Brecht’s idea of ownership does not come across clearly.  Too much weight is given to the importance of people being “good” — which Brecht didn’t much trust anyway — and too little to his political purpose and view.

Nevertheless this is a richly realized production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle.  It’s so good I can hardly wait for what Pipeline Theatre Company does next!

The Caucasian Chalk Circle  plays at the John and Seward Johnson Theater at Theater for a New City in NYC’s East Village through March 19.

Left, Maura Hooper as Grusha, Center (above), Gil Zabarsky as Azdak, (below), Glen Hergenhahn as Shauwa, Right, Jacquelyn Landgraf as the Governor's Wife (the birth mother), far right Sam Dash as Soldier.  Photo: Ahron Foster

Left, Maura Hooper as Grusha, Center (above), Gil Zabarsky as Azdak, (below), Glen Hergenhahn as Shauwa, Right, Jacquelyn Landgraf as the Governor’s Wife (the birth mother), far right Sam Dash as Soldier.  Photo: Ahron Foster

Review | Ruined by Lynn Nottage | Directed by Kate Whoriskey | Manhattan Theatre Club

… This house is a home …

Ruined brings us to a cafe-bar-whorehouse in the Congo, an oasis in the midst of war between “government” and “rebels”.  As in Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage, on which this play is loosely based, it doesn’t matter who’s fighting — the effect on the little people struggling to survive is the same no matter which violent-prone combatants they encounter and will be the same no matter who wins.

Mama Nadi runs her place and her prostitutes with a firm hand.  She’s an unsentimental, bottom-line realist, using as whores the girls who are victims of sexual exploitation — mass and ongoing rapes — by soldiers, and then expelled by their kin as dishonored.  She offers them a place and a living.  Most of the time they keep in mind that they have no choice and are grateful — but thoughts of sweeter and more decent possibilities sometimes overwhelm them.  It’s a brutal story, and a real one in the sense of being based on the playwright’s interviews with victimized Congo women.

The play thus tells an important story, and has well written and acted confrontations between determined characters.

BUT … A problem is that Mama Nadi’s seems too nice a place.  In between the terrible things that happen in front of your eyes, you begin to feel that — like the girls — you could do worse than be here.  In Mother Courage everybody’s so hungry, the last time I saw it I came out hungry — oh for some warm soup!  Mama provides food and shelter, in critically short supply in Brecht’s play.  She and her girls, and the repeat visitors form a family, like the denizens of O’Neill’s bar in The Iceman Cometh.  Mama’s strength, conveyed with an all embracing vitality by Saidah Arrika Ekulona, is reassuring.  The set is lit by a golden gleam, reflecting off the piano-polished stage floor.  Everything’s in good repair — the ramshackle bar is painted over in pretty pastels.  The play takes up violence in terms of war, gender, and conventions of honor, but until violence directly intrudes, Mama’s place seems benign.  AIDS and other STD’s, in this play about prostitutes and soldiers in Africa, are never mentioned.  None of the girls is on drugs and none is alcoholic.  If war didn’t intrude here, what would happen to these girls anyway in ten years?  Ruined doesn’t ask that.

Thus, in spite of horrific events, the overall mood is so upbeat the play is ultimately sentimental.  In this it differs mightily from Journeys, recently produced in NYC and reviewed by me here, which like Ruined tells violence-plagued stories of women from around the world based on interviews, without the rosy glow.  Ruined lets the audience leave with one of Brecht’s “happy endings, nice and easy” — without the irony.  Brecht doesn’t paint in pastel colors.

Ruined, however, draws dramatic strength from its fully drawn and realized characters and fine cast.  The play shines a light on the worst aspects of humanity, on much in between, and also on the best, particularly in the character of Christian, a purveyor of goods who loves Mama Nadi, and whose poetic and persistent character is beautifully played by Russell G. Jones.  The three girls we follow (we never see hide nor hair of the seven or eight others who are said to be there which is a real flaw in this play) have distinct personalities and their stories are moving and emblematic:  Condola Rashad as the sensitive, maimed Sophie, Quincy Tyler Bernstine as Salina who must forget the past, and Cherise Booth who … don’t miss her dancing!

Ruined is easier to take than it should be  — perversely it turns out to be a pleasant evening of theater.

Ruined plays at NY City Center Stage 1 in midtown Manhattan, through April 19th, 2009.

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