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

Tag: Public Theater

Review | Father Comes Home From The Wars Parts 1, 2 & 3, by Suzan-Lori Parks | Directed by Jo Bonney | American Repertory Theater | Public Theater

… when Emancipation was proclaimed … 

The master of a modest sized Texas plantation has been called to fight for the Confederates and wants his slave, Hero, to come along, promising he’ll free Hero when it’s over, a promise the master has reneged on previously.  Will he follow the master to war on what he knows is the wrong side, chasing the carrot of his personal freedom?  Or will he stay back on the plantation and remain a slave?  The master has given Hero the choice.

As his fellow slaves discuss the option and bet on which way Hero will go, we get to know them, particularly, the old man who’s like a father to Hero, Penny his wife, and Homer , a fellow slave whose foot has been amputated in punishment for an earlier attempt at running away.   On our journey toward learning that ethically Hero falls somewhere between a man of ordinary human frailties and an anti-hero, we learn that Hero, at the master’s insistence, was the one who actually did the deed — cut off Homer’s foot.  Part 1 is called “The Measure of a Man” and Hero isn’t measuring up well.

Driven by the desire for freedom, and more decisively, to escape his fellows’ scorn, Hero follows his master to war.  In Part 2, “A Battle in the Wilderness,” the raw co-mingling of hate, love, loyalty and cruelty between the master, now a Colonel, and Hero, and the overriding terror of one gun at the ready, is intense.  The episode is a dramatically exciting reflection of the war, known through distant gunfire, and of the struggle between slavery and freedom as it affects three men:  the master, now a Colonel in the rebel army, Hero, and a captured, wounded Union soldier the Colonel holds in a small slatted cage.  Hero earns his name — for once — and the play reaches its highpoint of moral clarity:  freedom is unambiguously good.  Almost.

Part 3,  “The Union of my Confederate Parts,” brings Hero back to the plantation.  As an assertion of personal freedom, he’s chosen a new name for himself, Ulysses, referring to the classical epic wanderer and to the head of the Union army.  It happens, though, it’s also his dog’s name, Odyssey — Homer’s Greek hero Odysseus is named Ulysses in Latin.  In a brilliant monolog by the talking dog, Odyssey lets us know that loyalty is intrinsic to dogs but that with humans it’s an add-on.  But is it a virtue?  Hero’s loyalties are misapplied and he’s back to morally slack — it’s up to others to make the break.

A great strength of this play lies in the complexity of its main characters and the importance of the issues they face.  Motivations are ambiguous and conflicts are moral in the largest sense, and resonant in terms of race relations and American history.  The equivocal emotional and risky intimacy that could arise between masters and slaves, often described within the slave system as among women, and women and children, is here explored in a male relationship, between the master and Hero.

Scenes are filled with dramatic tension and stimulating turns.  And — things seldom being  as they seem — the main characters are full of surprises.   The episode “in the wilderness” with Hero, the Colonel, and the Union soldier has an iconic strength and lingers in the mind.

While the play generally pulls one into its world, the artifice doesn’t always work.  The lofty and often poetic language is at odds with the realism — I know that some people were able to accept the unrealistic language and the actors’ generalized — and not southern — accents that went with it but for me thoughts like these people would never talk this way pushed in on my belief.  Fantasy is one thing — and the talking dog is wonderful — but the tension between brutal realism and tony language was, for me, not integrated.  My suspended disbelief kept getting unsuspended!

As to Hero’s following the master to war or staying back on the plantation, the question taking up the whole first part — did the master really say to his slave, “you decide”?  I don’t think so.

Hero observes, in Part 2, that a slave has a selling price but there’s no price put on a free man, so, he asks, focusing on himself who would fetch a hefty price, is a man worth more as a slave than free?  This  meditation is too naïve for the highly articulate language written for the character and also underestimates his intelligence since with two free men in plain sight, it’s obvious that freedom is worth just about everything, as he himself demonstrates in the same scene.  In Shaw’s play Candida, and Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude The Obscure the idea of the auction price of a woman occurs without any forced or cute play with words.

So, I don’t think this play is the “masterpiece” some have called it but I think it’s compelling, and illuminates in a serious way aspects of the psychology of slavery,  a moment in the Civil War and a moment of transition in American history: Hero comes home with a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation in his pocket —  he just forgets to read it to the other slaves, before they run away.  It’s well acted and beautifully produced:  small note — the slave cabin which is the focus of the set in Parts 1 and 3 is based on the genuine slave cabin in the Smithsonian Museum, a moving touch of realism.  Parts 4 through 9 are anticipated:  I’m looking forward to them.

Father Comes Home From The Wars Parts 1, 2 & 3 plays at The Public Theater in downtown Manhattan through December 7, 2014.

Review | Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance) | Written, Directed and Designed by Richard Foreman | Presented in Association with Ontological-Hysteric Theater | Public Theater

Richard Foreman and the Ontological-Hysteric Theater that he founded in New York City in 1968 have been icons of avant-garde theater.  He’s made a number of statements about his philosophical and theatrical purposes touching on, e.g., “total theater,”  “minimalist theater,”  “primitive,” etc., but statements are not theater.  Just what do we have in Old-Fashioned Prostitutes?  Stunning style, no substance.

Entering the theater brings you to a marvelous bright world of bumble-bee colors — golden yellow and black — dominating in staccato rhythms: equidistant punctuations are everywhere.  In terms of design, an underlying grid, overlaid with a wide variety of visual excitements, stretches from the backdrop of the stage half-way through the theater, along the walls and on overhead strings.  It’s a powerful stab at a total visual experience.  It’s complex (what happened to minimalist?), rich, surprising, and makes you keen for the play.

Then the play opens and from the first banalities, you realize you’ve already seen the best part.  An aging man, looks back on his encounters with prostitutes in Venice, and in particular on his his ambivalent longing for one named Suzie.  Raised up by his memory, Suzie vamps with a lot of European style and confidence.  Her friend Gabriella is more uncertain and flapper-like winsome — finger to cheek and two cute knees pressing in to each other.  Prostitution hasn’t taken a toll on either of them and their costumes are terrific.

The solipsistic philosopher George Berkeley is referred to and philosophical words are uttered.  The actors are busy and vividly costumed.  Nothing much happens in theatrical terms.  OK, we’ve seen it:  the spectacle wears thin, Emperor’s New Clothes style.   The hour length of the performance seems a long time.   See it for the design, just don’t expect a play.  The grid design has its roots in early 20th-century Cubism.  Things here make one think of a colorful old-fashioned typewriter,  sound and all, exploded large.  Is this all still avant garde?

The cast does a good job with the material:  David Skeist (Alfredo), Stephanie Hayes (Gabriella), Alenka Kraigher (Suzie), Rocco Sisto (Samuel), Nicolas Norena (Bibendum [aka Michelin]).

Old-Fashioned Prostitutes plays at the Public Theater in downtown Manhattan through June 6.

Review | King Lear by William Shakespeare | Directed by James Macdonald | Public Theater

… not in our stars …

The cast is so star studded* that it’s surprising that this production comes out no more than a serviceable Lear.   But that’s still a lot:  since it’s such a great play, and all the words (except for the Fool) come across with full clarity it’s a rewarding evening.  You understand all the actions, motivations, and entanglements of the plot and come out feeling you have an enhanced understanding of the play.  That’s worthwhile.  The language seems immediate, not distant.  Good.  But the poetic power is damped, and the production seems disjointed.

I went to see this Lear because I have been fascinated by Sam Waterston’s brilliance as an actor on Law and Order and so wanted to see him on stage.  It turns out that as Lear, he’s best in the quieter scenes, the ones that lend themselves to just the sorts of tv close-ups we’re used to seeing him in.  We watch his face registering evolving situations with great subtlety, calculating, negotiating, gauging his own responses — you see his mind at work.  But in the passionately emotional scenes, such as Lear on the heath, or the death of Cordelia, he strains.  Not that he holds back — he reaches courageously for big, but it eludes his grasp.  Darn it.  He looks silly — not tragic or even pitiful — shuffling around in his long johns with one shoe on and one shoe off.  A lot of poor decisions were made in the staging of this play.

The most compelling performance — by one of the greatest actors in the world today — is John Douglas Thompson as Lear’s loyal follower, the Earl of Kent.  Thompson’s Kent is vigorous, wily, and self-sacrificing, ready for any task, physical or mental, to protect the King and the Kingship.  Thompson brings his rare physical power and athleticism to the role:  to convey an urgent  moment, he takes the breadth of the stage in three strides.  He’s miscast though, as Kent who, at times, verges on the obsequious, not Thompson’s natural mode by a long shot.  I would like to see him as Lear.

Bill Irwin, a great clown, is miscast here as the Fool.  A Fool isn’t a clown — different meanings, different purposes — but Irwin plays the role as a clown, including clown face make-up (white face, short red vertical lines above the eyes), baggy costume and oversize, floppy shoes.  I sure missed the motley!  Most important, the odd, fascinating closeness between Lear and his Fool is lost.  These two hardly seem to know one another.  Also Irwin is the only member of the cast who can’t always be understood.

The other roles are generally well played by experienced and well known actors  who speak Shakespeare’s language with clear naturalism.  Still, the characters often seem emotionally separate, their words and actions foregone conclusions governed by the lines of the play rather than by their responses to one another, as if they’d rehearsed their parts too much by themselves, and not enough together.

The straightforward content, if not the full emotional and dimensions and poetry, comes across.  Seeing this play is a reasonable way to get to know better Shakespeare’s masterful Lear.   One would expect more, though, with all that star power.

King Lear plays at the Public Theater in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village through November 20th.


Review | Idiot Savant Starring Willem Dafoe | Written, Directed and Designed by Richard Foreman | Public Theater | In Association with Ontological-Hysteric Theater

Idiot Savant is a chaotic, post modern play that eludes meaning but is a great vehicle for Willem Dafoe’s particular performance talents:  his powerful ability to express every state of mind from the hilarious to the desperate through his extraordinarily mobile face and articulated body, and his energy, intelligence, and willingness to go all the way.

The set is like a character and one sees it first so let’s start with it.  It’s a room crowded with stuff like hanging chandeliers, mirrors, cabinets, looming closed doors, portraits of one man’s face repeated from one end of the room to the other, geometric patterns, rows of alternating dark and light squares, all spelling claustrophobic and obsessive.  It is hung with letters of the alphabet, some in proper order and repeated in reverse, some random, suggesting a play about meaning or the lack of it.  Numbers are painted on the floor.  It is a compelling projection of a locked-in intelligence, of the idiot savant who dwells there.

Dafoe throws himself onto this stage dressed in a zany maid’s uniform and a man’s necktie, his hair partly tied in a top-of-the-head pony tail, it’s an electric moment.  Everything Dafoe does in this is electric, but as far as the play goes, nothing much happens.  Two women move around this room with the idiot, Marie, in a medieval looking long velvet dress with a cross around her neck, read “purity,” and Olga, in riding pants, a Hedda Gabbler with a delicious Eastern European accent.  A man between two women representing two poles of femininity.  Again.  The Idiot Savant is sexually drawn now to Marie, now to Olga but can never break through the shell that keeps him to himself.  There are lots of amusing bits, gymnastics, mysterious boxes, characters appearing from cubby holes, disappearing through doors, there are servants who appear stiffly with dark and light square patterned bows lifted as if to catch a deer on a medieval tapestry, lots of distractions but no real action.  I was a little disappointed the Idiot Savant didn’t do or say anything all that savant, unless his musings and utterances were more savvy than I could catch.

Until finally an over twice-human size figure comes walking in with a prominent yellow duck’s bill and duck’s face, and we’re given to believe that he is a god, or god-like.  He speaks platitudes in an electronically altered sonorous voice that we’ve been hearing intermittently since the beginning.  Things actually dull down in his presence, and really, he seems such a stupid idea.  If you were thinking maybe there was something to this play, here’s where you decide for sure there isn’t.  Shortly the Big Duck takes off “forever.”  Dafoe does all he can to save the play with a final stunning and astounding freeze moment.

I wondered (before Big Duck) whether the idea of this play might be that human beings, the most intelligent creatures on earth, are idiot savants, locked away from one another in impotent isolation.  Maybe, but though you can make the words work, that’s not really what comes across.  Idiot Savant is exciting visuals and a thrilling actor in search of a better play.

Idiot Savant plays at The Public Theater in downtown Manhattan through December 13.

Idiot Savant Starring William Dafoe

Willen Dafoe in Idiot Savant. Photo: Joan Marcus

Review | The Brother/Sister Plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney | Public Theater

Three plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney that have several characters in common, take place mainly among Blacks in Louisiana bayou country and move forward in time are billed as a Trilogy.  The Brothers Size, in the center, is built around a significant conflict and is a fine one-act play.  The other two are choreographed, and dramatically and aesthetically lit — there are some great effects but one senses the hyper treatment is making up for their weakness as plays.  The Brothers Size, presented in a straightforward fashion, carries its own weight.  McCraney writes with a fine poeteic realism throughout, and the acting in all three plays is excellent but Marc Damon Johnson as Ogun Size in The Brothers Size is monumental.   The names of the characters are drawn from Yoruba gods.

Review | Shakespeare’s Othello | With Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Ortiz and Jessica Chastain | Directed by Peter Sellars | Public Theater and Labyrinth Theater Company

… honest Iago …

This is a wonderfully open Othello, easy to enter, listen to, live with awhile with no sacrifice of Shakespeare’s language and meaning.  It’s done in generalized modern dress, with TV monitors used for atmospheric slide projections placed center stage like gleaming mosaics.  The actors, sometimes using cell phones, link naturalistic, current English and Shakespeare’s language so that one hears Shakespeare’s language as ones own.

The cell phones raise a laugh at first but they’re no joke, so when, for instance, the Duke of Venice needs to communicate with his military commander, Othello, the interactions are conveyed in a way that’s true to Shakespeare’s conception of the distances his play covers.  It’s part of the openness and breadth that characterizes this production.

Center stage beneath the bright abstractions of the slides is the slanted platform of Othello and Desdemona’s bed.  They are intense, physical presences — we’re kept very aware of their bodies throughout, her slim, pale femininity, his dark, muscular masculinity — and even when they have no part in a scene they’re shown entwined, enamored, while other action takes place around them, a visual embodiment of an essential truth of the play about loving — “too well”. Sometimes, in the free form movement of the actors, Iago looks in on them:  yet another reason for jealous Iago to be jealous.

All the characters are often onstage when not specifically part of a scene, which heightens the sense of the flow of nature, and the thrust of cause and effect that drives this story of love, ambition and human frailty towards its tragic conclusion.  Walls, in this remarkable vision of Director Peter Sellars, would seem like artifice.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago is no lean, devilish, sharp dresser in leather slyly dripping venom into the ears of his victims, as Iago is usually pictured.  He’s full-faced, beer-bellied and very scruffy — a beer drinking buddy as we see him with Cassio, and even Othello.  Most remarkable — thrilling, really, is the way he insinuates and tempts openly and in full voice, a soft-sell with no hint of the secretive about it.  There’s no apparent reason for Othello, or Cassio, or Desdemona, or his poor shill Rodrigo, to doubt him — anyhow, who could doubt anyone with such big blue eyes (is this the first blue-eyed Iago?  certainly with a sweatshirt and baggy pants!).  Still, as time and events move forward, the characters, each in his or her own way, do begin to suspect, and the fascination grows as we seem them not suspecting enough — thanks to the synergy of their natures and Iago’s versatile play with them.

What an interpretation Hoffman has come up with — to make Iago actually look and act like the “honest Iago” Othello takes him for.  But the audience, with the benefit of foreknowledge, sees in the subtle range of expression in Hoffman’s face what’s being missed by the characters on stage:  his calculation, smart changes of tack, recognition of opportunity, glee at getting under someone’s skin — above all, his total focus on his goal: bring down Othello.  Playing Iago with such seeming lack of guile, while keeping the audience in contact with the truth about him, underlines the irony.  And it’s sure fun to watch!

As the seed of doubt takes hold, John Ortiz as Othello maintains his commander’s outer control yet lets you sense in a reddening of his face, a narrowing of his eyes his entry onto the tortuous path Iago has set out for him.  Ortiz makes his background as a naturalistic actor with a detectable New York accent appropriate, and even charming, for the tough outsider Moor, though toward the end he seemed strained to reach the vastness of Othello’s anguish.  As Desdemona, Jessica Chastain lets us see beyond the conventional blond ingenue to the talented and even feisty woman Shakespeare has scripted.

There are places where the body language becomes a little too loose-contemporary for the script — e.g., Desdemona lying down listless in the presence of those she doesn’t know well.  But all in all this production’s modern dress and techno touches make a welcome bridge between then and now but don’t distract from the fact that the play is timeless.

Othello plays at NYU’s Skirball Center in NYC’s Greenwich Village through October 4.

Review | The Good Negro by Tracey Scott Wilson | Directed by Liesl Tommy | Public Theater

… desegregating Birmingham …

The Good Negro is a fictionalized dramatization of a key moment in the civil rights struggle — Martin Luther King’s campaign to desegregate downtown Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

This play has a very strong aspect, impressive and exciting.  It focuses on the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Council struggling to keep their eye on the great ideal of freedom in the face of human failings — rivalries, sexual indiscretions, antagonisms, fear, betrayal — that could have derailed the campaign for a desegregated downtown Birmingham.  How rare for suspense to be not just about who’s going to get killed or who’s going to be found out, although those threats are imminent, but can this group of dedicated freedom fighters overcome human weakness in service of a high ideal?  I can’t think of another play or narrative that has that theme — if you can, please let me know!

And, in transcending the frailties that would divide them, they learn something important.  In order to evade distractions from their main point by the opposition, they’d been looking for “good Negroes” to carry their banners, those who had suffered dramatically from Jim Crow but who were personally beyond criticism.  By the end, these leaders have grown beyond that last acquiescence — the “last temptation.”  People are people;  Jim Crow targets all Negroes.

The play’s weakness is its failure to characterize the movement leaders, particularly Martin Luther King, with a strength to coincide with events.  After seeing The Good Negro, I read King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written while he was jailed during the confrontation the play dramatizes — it was a different voice from anything heard in the play or from his stand-in, Reverend Lawrence.  It wasn’t possible to relate the strength, the clarity, the intelligence, the weighing of factors, the understanding — the sheer monumentality of the portrait of King that emerges from his own words in the “Letter” and elsewhere with the character in the play.

Still and all, The Good Negro brings to vivid life a time when water fountains could be segregated, when the FBI and JFK played equivocal roles and the KKK was unequivocally virulent, and when a defining struggle for freedom was underway.

The Good Negro plays at the Public Theater in NYC’s Greenwich Village through April 19.

Review | Philip Roth in Khartoum | by David Bar Katz | Directed by John Gould Rubin | Labyrinth Theater | Public Theater

…  It’s a very amusing play …

You will laugh a lot at Philip Roth in Khartoum — the laughter bursts out, as in a Roth novel, from marvelous, ironic observations of vivid contemporary characters and their interactions.  And it’s a joy to watch the cast’s delight in pulling the humor and emotion out of the well written dialogue.  And all of that’s available for the price of a movie, because the Labyrinth Theater sees the play as a work in progress.

What happens when four sophisticated, intelligent couples, sexually dissatisfied and with a few other contemporary stresses thrown in, get together for a party?  The play asks whether extreme sexual moments — exhibitionist nudity, explicit sexual description, bestiality, etc. — lead to resolution of significant life issues and, ultimately, to something this play calls “truth.”  In the course of the evening — ours and the characters’ — no-matter-what sexual honesty and truth are amalgamated to the point where one loses track of which is which — as in the game they play, Truth or Dare.

When the sexual track runs thin, the focus shifts to enthusiasm for travel to Khartoum to somehow do good there for others.  By the way, there’s never any question of Philip Roth going to Khartoum — only whether he’ll make it to the party.  Another leitmotiv is that the couple among the four at whose TriBeCa loft the party takes place have an autistic child, unseen in the next room though not unheard, who is loved but not accepted, and to the extent that there is a resolution to this play, it involves that child.

… that still has a way to go …

“We’re still experimenting … the actors have only rehearsed for two weeks…”, Labyrinth begins by explaining.  The actors work beautifully together, though, and everything went smoothly except for an unscripted coffee spill and the delayed appearance of a prop, both of which got big, warm laughs from the audience.  But the play still does have farther to go to locate its significance.  Does the sexual brouhaha create any change?  What was all that about Khartoum anyhow?  Did it effect anyone’s insight?  or emotions?  One character seems to undergo some emotional change but it seems pasted on.  Why should we believe in it?  And why does everyone else get left behind?

Philip Roth in Khartoum reminds me of T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party in being about people trying to work out essential life issues at a party, and also of Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit, because in spite of wit and distractions, no one has a very good time and ultimately they’re all stuck.  But it’s different from these because, at least so far, its premise about the resolving power of sex and/or honesty is unfulfilled, and all in all it drops us off near where we started.

Why’s Philip Roth in the title?  If you’re fascinated by his novels — the great earlier ones, not the recent skimpy throw-offs (see Indignation, noted here below) — you may wonder as I did whether to see the play looking for Roth.  The characterization of Roth the man is way off target, but the play is saturated with a Roth-resembling wit and reference, as well as a will to shock — that’s real, not just name dropping.  At certain moments, the play out-Roths Roth.  As for why Roth is “in Khartoum,” I still don’t know.

The perfect cast includes:  Amelia Cambell, Elizabeth Canavan, Alexander Chaplin, David Deblinger, Jamie Klasse, Michael Puzzo, Jenna Stern and Victor Williams.

Philip Roth in Khartoum is playing at the Public Theater on Layfayette Street in NYC through December 21.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén