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

Tag: Signature Theatre

Review | The Antipodes | By Annie Baker | Signature Theatre

… bored room …

The Antipodes is a distasteful play.

I’d found Annie Baker’s play The Flick as dull as dishwater, with no discernible redeeming merit.  Still, I went to this one, The Antipodes, because I was snuckered in by the intriguing publicity art work and because I knew that The Flick had won the Pulitzer Prize, that Baker’s plays had won other prizes, and so I had to ask myself whether I was missing something about dramatist Annie Baker.

My conclusion is that I’m not missing anything:  this is banal, pretentious theater that delivers plays whose interest is based on the audience’s recognition of character types and commonplace actions and speech.  Commonplace life is rarely as tedious and repetitive as in these plays – thank heavens!

For The Antipodes, we’re in a board room with a long central table surrounded by chairs and with a large ink board.  As the characters come in, we learn that this is a team commissioned to come up with a new story (for a movie?), with the boss, Sandy (Will Patton), at the head of the table.  They haven’t been getting anywhere in coming up with a story, so Sandy asks each of them to tell a story drawing upon their personal lives.  One by one they do.  And on and on it goes.  None of these stories makes the grade.  Although Sandy says he never fires anybody, Danny M2 tells about his love for chickens on a farm and he shortly disappears from the group.

What is a story anyhow? — in fact, any of these stories could be profound/exciting/illuminating in the hands of a fine writer.  By the same token, any of these individuals, truly known, would have fascinating depths because that’s how people are when you really get to know them, but there are no fine writers here and that’s not how these stories are meant to be told.  And we’re not meant to even think about depths of character.  We’re meant to see banality, frustration and dead ends.  There’s some implication that civilization is at a dead end, and there are no more stories.

There are always stories — just looks like Annie Baker couldn’t think of one.

Borrowing from the Book of Genesis and combining it with visual images from the medieval world and exotic sources, she finally hands a story that’s got “breakthrough” potential to one of the quieter members of the team, Adam (Phillip James Brannon) – the story he tells is forced, a synthetic pastiche but sufficiently surreal to wake them up (if not the audience).

Will anything come of it?  Take a guess.

Beware of plays that are two hours long with no intermission:  they’re afraid that if you had the chance, you might leave in the break.

The Antipodes, directed by Lila Neugebauer, plays at the Signature Theatre on West 42nd Street in Manhattan through June 11, 2017. For more information and tickets, and a view of the publicity art work, click here.

Review | Master Harold and the Boys | Written and Directed by Athol Fugard | Signature Theatre

… careless triumph …

Master Harold and the Boys moves with this compelling force of a Greek tragedy.  It’s classic and iconic, and must be seen.  It is profound in character and social vision.

It even obeys Aristotle’s three dramatic unities – unity of time (within a single day), action (minimal subplots)  and place– described ins his Poetics.

We are in a tea room in a provincial town in South Africa in 1950.  Willie is a young Black man who wants to win a big dance contest and, in a slow time in the tea room, no customers, Sam, an older Black man, is trying to help him loosen up his style.  When Hally, the White teen-aged son of the tea room’s owner comes in, and the two Black men have already utterly charmed us, we are want to know how Harold, called Hally, feels about these two Black men. Thank heavens he seems to like them, love them, even.

Back when Hally’s family owned a rooming house, Sam and Willie lived in, and disaffected from his father, Halley often visited “Sam’s room,” especially when he felt down, for refuge and a warm, easy-going good time. Sam’s almost like a father to him.  They’re like family, right?

Yet Halley’s such an oddball, a brainy loner among his peers, he puts us on edge.  He’s nervous, jerky in his movements, and very much on edge.  There are nerve-wracking phone calls, his Dad, who has been a crippled, sick man for years, is in the hospital, his mother’s there with him, Dad wants to sign himself out but Halley tries to persuade him not to – he doesn’t want his crippled, demanding Dad, who he has to clean up after, at home.

As the play advances, past and present collide.  We learn more about the way Sam has pulled Halley over the rough spots, been like a father to him, and also about the ways apartheid has been felt in that relationship in ways known to Sam but not to Halley.  Halley is caught between that sweet nostalgia and the maddening present forced upon him by his sick, inconsiderate and demanding real father.

Halley is frustrated and furiously angry, but he doesn’t have to truly struggle with the issues, or reconcile his feelings about his two fathers.  Because of the system of apartheid, he has a way to vent his frustrations right at hand, an easy line of least resistance because Halley — the skinny kid among two mature men — is boss here. A loving history, sentiment, all that soft stuff quite aside, the bottom line:  he Master Harold and they are the boys.  Halley can let loose at the expense of others with impunity – and while we know he’s bookish and brainy, we haven’t seen anything to us about his character, in spite of Sam’s best efforts.

Thus Sam comes face to face with reality:  he’s changed.  So is the audience, as the obstinate, inevitable cruelty of apartheid takes its careless triumph over the human spirit.

Leon Addison Brown creates a beautifully full characterization of Sam, mature, experienced in life (though alas, he learns more here), humorous, with deep and protective feelings for Halley and Willie.  He touches our hearts even in the way he walks across the stage of moves in teaching Willie how to dance.  I wish the play had given some hint of an answer to one question:  We know Sam has a girlfriend, but why did this loving man never have children of his own.

Noah Robbins is simply brilliant as Halley, the hyper kid dragging around his heavy book bag.  His characterization is one of those — like Eddie Redmayne’s as Stephen Hawking in the film The Theory of Everything — where it’s hard to believe that the “real” person is anything other than his character.

Sahr Ngaujah conveys Willie’s youthful extroverted vitality – the opposite of Halley’s self-involvement. Willie isn’t a natural dancer like Sam, but he’s out to win the dance contest.  Ngaujah unites a touching clumsiness with Willie’s determination to win, an emblem of victory over limitations.

Frank Rich, reviewing Master Harold and the Boys for the NY Times in 1982 wrote, “There may be two or three living playwrights in the world who can write as well as Athol Fugard, but I’m not sure that any of them has written a recent play that can match ” ‘Master Harold’ … and the Boys.”   Agreed.

group-areas-act1950.  We wouldn’t necessarily know, watching the interactions of these three characters, that this was the key year  in apartheid’s history in which the Group Areas Act was passed with its formal segregation of blacks and whites, but through Fugard’s play, we  feel its weight on individuals.

Master Harold and the Boys plays at the Signature Theatre on Manhattan’s West 42nd Street through December 4, 2016.  For more information and tickets, click here.

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 | Incident At Vichy | By Arthur Miller | Directed by Michael Wilson | Signature Theatre

… and then there were none … 

In many ways, this is Arthur Miller’s most pessimistic play, and also perhaps his greatest.  At least, this outstanding production makes it seem it is.

In Vichy, France during the German occupation of World War II, eight men have been hauled in off the streets one by one, and locked in a detainment room to await examination by a crew of Nazis in the terrifying room next door.  The Nazis are looking to “export” Jews – most of those here are Jewish – as well as Gypsies and Communists.  The Nazi “anthropologist” will find who’s Jewish by pseudo-scientific methods plus checking for circumcision while the German officer maintains order.  Early on, a businessman, who isn’t Jewish, is released after his examination, and a gypsy is taken out of sight to the examination room – he’s headed for the trains to Poland and the concentration camp – or according to some accounts, worse.

Like “ten little Indians,” the men disappear one by one by one into the room and we never see most of them again.  Meanwhile, the ones left talk, veering between a terrified understanding of what awaits them from the Nazis and rationalizations about why “their case” might be different.  The waiter takes hope in that every morning he serves the German officer at the restaurant.  In a fascinating and unexpected character study, the actor, Monceau, finds a kind  of confidence in his own élan, while Von Berg, an Austrian aristocrat, thinks he’ll make it out safely because of his high position.  The Boy, not yet 15, thinks they don’t take minors – don’t count on it.

Bayard, a Communist, and in the know about things, has the most terrifying view of their imminent fate, while finding hope and sustenance in his Socialist vision of the future.  For now they’re trapped but, using his working man’s knowledge of trains, this future-looking man finds a way to prepare his future escape — that is, if it will work.

Leduc, a psychiatrist who fought against the Germans before the occupation took hold, tries to stir them to collective action to save themselves.  First he exhorts the able-­bodied men among them to overcome the single guard at the gate and make a run for freedom, but they see his plan as futile, even counter-productive since each individually clings to the possibility that he will somehow be spared.  Leduc is equally unsuccessful at persuading the German officer to free them.

Miller’s well known plays  All My Sons, Death Of  A Salesman,  and A View From The Bridge  are focused on individual tragic figures: the catastrophic events that engulf them are the  result of an interplay between societal iniquities and individual weaknesses. Not everyone carries character flaws likes the ones that lead Miller’s tragic figures to disaster – they are special cases, and most people can avoid the pitfalls that  George Keller, Willie Loman, or Eddie Carbone fall into, and come out better.  This is less true of The Crucible,  where human nature is on trial as much as the flawed but ethical John Proctor: in this way, Incident At Vichy is like The Crucible, though Incident At Vichy has greater philosophical breadth.

In Incident At Vichy, humanity is the tragic figure.  Self-interest subverts any attempt at positive collective action, words are useless, and humans are murderous.  Because of these themes, as often said that in Incident At Vichy, Miller explores how the holocaust could have developed.  Human nature makes it so.  The play ends with an act of stunning altruism, but the heroism of this selfless act is compromised, because this is a man who, because of personal, private despair, has already demonstrated his wish to die.

The ensemble cast is uniformly excellent and Michael Wilson’s direction has a tense driving force .  It’s a “one act” play but in two parts, and has all the feel of a full length play.  Incident At Vichy leaves you with the sense that what you have seen surely happened and in just this way, and, since the play is based on actual events during the Nazi occupation of France, it did happen – though not in these words.  Out of actual events, the playwright’s shaping purpose created a powerful work of art.

Incident At Vichy plays at Manhattan’s Signature Theatre on West 42nd Streeet through December 13, 2015.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Review | Love & Money by A. R. Gurney | Directed by Mark Lamos | Signature Theatre

Will the rich dowager be fooled by the tall, handsome and, in her WASP world, exotic Black con man who has a lot of smooth dance moves?  That is the question.

Cornelia, a wealthy WASP dowager (emphasis on WASP is Gurney’s) is closing down her house with all its rich furnishings (great set by Michael Yeargan) to move to some sort of elder living which she with vivacious irony refers to as a “nursing home.”

Cornelia’s stuffed shirt young attorney, Harvey, on hand for financial arrangements, is trying to fulfill his fiduciary duties by deterring her from giving away all her money to charity when another threat to good financial planning arrives on the scene in the person of a young Black man who calls himself “Scott” and who claims to be the son of Cornelia’s deceased daughter: this “new found” grandson is here looking for big money.

We know “Scott’s” a con man from his transparent lies, so do Harvey and Cornelia’s down-to-earth one-of-the family style house maid, Agnes.   “Scott’s” elaborate inventions to save his story constitute the play’s jokes.  But what about Cornelia?  Is she so yearning for a live grandson that she’s blind to his dishonesty — though  otherwise she’s intact and sharp as a razor.

Meanwhile, Jessica, a young Asian music student, arrives to check out the player piano Agnes is planning to donate to Julliard (does Julliard really want a player piano?).  Accompanied by the piano, Jessica sings Cole Porter (identified as signature WASP composer though, hey, Catholics — even Jews, Muslims, and Others — are known to love Cole Porter).   By the way, in contrast to Gurney, I don’t think heavy drinking is a limited to WASPs either.  Anyhow, the more Jessica dismisses “Scott,” the more he likes her.

And so it goes toward a feel good resolution in which those who are uptight loosen up, WASPS turn out to be as nice as everybody else, multi-racially and multi-ethnically speaking, America’s in great shape, and money can further good outcomes  — that is if there’s a fairy godmother around like Cornelia.

Maureen Anderman holds the stage well with a typical characterization of a wealthy dowager, and Pamela Dunlap’s flat comic delivery as Agnes, the Maid who’s been there forever, is amusing.  Joe Paulik does what he can with as the generic stuffed-shirt attorney.

But why, with all the brilliantly talented young performers in New York City, was Gabriel Brown cast as “Scott??  He imitates a Black man playing a cool Black man with good dance moves but doesn’t create a character.  And why, with all the marvelous young singers looking for jobs in theater, was Kahyun Kim cast as Jessica?  Her main job here was to sing Cole Porter which she did in a thin, strained voice, nowhere up to the task.  As for the “chemistry” and burgeoning romance between Jessica and Scott – forget it.

If you see this play, you won’t be sorry because Gurney has a talent for making you feel you’re being pleasantly entertained, but you don’t need to see it.  Signature Theater has much better things to do than produce this sitcom.

Love & Money plays at the Signature Theater on West 42nd Street, Manhattan’s Theater Row, through October 4, 2015.

Review | The Painted Rocks At Revolver Creek | Written and Directed by Athol Fugard | Signature Theatre

The World Premiere of a Superb Play

Nukain is an uneducated black farm laborer working in South Africa during the period of apartheid who has nothing of his own but a vision: he paints brilliant designs on bare rocks, creating beauty out of bare bones nothing. This stunning play presses forward with the intensity of a Greek tragedy.

Nukain lives in a pondok (Fugard uses words from the local languages effectively), a small shack made available to him by the Afrikaner landowner couple he works for, and he cares for a destitute, bright eleven-year old black boy, Bokkie, who helps the old man, dragging the wagon with the paints and brushes through the dusty red earth.  Nukain has painted his “flowers” on over 105 rocks  — Bokkie’s counted them – but on this Sunday in 1982, Nukain faces  “the big one,” a huge rough boulder, center stage, and we sense this is his final, great challenge.

Overcoming a reluctance to take this last one on, Nukain paints on the big rock his own story, his self- portrait: a man who has walked dark roads in search of work, overcome personal losses and those thrust upon him by the dehumanizing system of apartheid — to create himself.  I feel blessed to have seen this painting come into creation — reassured by the strong black hand print in the center, and moved by the rainbow at the top.  Nukain is a life-affirming man.

Elmarie, the sweet. young Afrikaner wife, kindly brings some food up to them (left overs, but they look tasty), but her brutal edge springs open like a switch blade at a sign of challenge from either of the two blacks — and she senses a challenge in Nukain’s painting of his story as a man on the big rock.  “Hose it off,” she tells Bokkie.  By this point in the play, the very thought of destroying the painting is beyond bearing – for Bokkie and the audience.

The second act, taking us years ahead to 2003 and the post-apartheid period, brings an encounter on that same dry piece of earth between Bokkie, now a grown man with a real name, Jonathan, and Elmarie.  Post-apartheid, Jonathan’s arc has swung upward and Elmarie’s is in sharp descent.  He wears a suit and tie and leather shoes (slung over his shoulders – a touch of Nukain’s wisdom),  he’s educated and a high school principal, with ideas of someday writing his story.  Elmarie and her (now ill) husband, are living in a state of siege as blacks, seeking to appropriate land, have been murdering white landowners including Elmarie’s neighbors.

Nukain had died all those years ago and three days after completing his work on the big rock.  The light reference to Christ’s three days in the tomb suggest, I think, a spiritual living on for the uneducated, profound creator artist that is fulfilled as the play unfolds.  As for the painted rocks, out in the open, Nukain’s rock paintings, including the self-portrait of his story, have faded.  Jonathan has returned, he says, to restore Nukain’s paintings from the effects of weather and time, but that’s only part of the story.

To the extreme, self-interest and history separate Jonathan and Elmarie , but an underpinning of common humanity keeps them talking.  Nukain does, in a sense, live on.

Leon Addison Brown brings a towering dignity at war with a survivor’s servility to the role of Nukain.  Thirteen-year old Caleb McLaughlin, playing young Bokkie, is totally focused on studying, helping and learning from Nukain and each instant of the action, inner and outer, is reflected in his face and body.

Bianca Amato is so charming as the young Elmarie, though sure she’s boss,  that it’s remarkable to see her shift to the older Elmarie, protecting herself with a gun on the ready, ravaged by events, struggling to maintain her ideology of Afrikaner entitlement, while responding to Jonathan, a man of the new South Africa.  Sahr Ngaujah plays the role of the adult Bokkie, proud of his nation though troubled by excesses, seizing his manly place in the world.

Fugard based his play on a true story of an African farm laborer, Nukain Mabuza, who painted a garden of rocks in the region of South Africa in which the play takes place during the late 1960’s and 1970’s; the play’s narrative and characters are invented. First taken up by Fugard years ago, The Painted Rocks At Revolver Creek was completed through a commission of the Signature Theatre, which has produced other works by this prolific and powerful playwright, including The Train Driver and Blood Knot.  As my companion at The Painted Rocks remarked, it’s high time Fugard was considered for a Nobel Prize.

For a fascinating background article, with photographs of Fukain and his painted garden, see The New York Times Sunday, May 3, 2015.  The one book about Nukain, The Painted Stone Garden of Nukain Mabguza by F. C. Clarke, seems not to be currently available.

The largest issues of historic change and social justice, and the tragedies and ambiguities that accompany them, are made immediate through three “small” lives played out on a patch of rocky earth.  That scrubby piece of earth itself is a like character in the play, rendered with real earth and rock in Christopher H. Barreca’s hard-hitting scene design. Sitting in the front row, I sneezed from the dust, and was glad even that way to be a part of Nukain’s world.

This is a play that matters greatly.  Thank you, Signature Theatre, for helping to bring this superb play into creation.

The Painted Rocks At Revolver Creek plays at Signature Theatre on West 42nd Street in Manhattan through June 7, 2015.

Review | The Mound Builders by Lanford Wilson | Directed by Jo Bonney | Signature Theatre | Pershing Square Signature Center

A group of archaeologists and others attached to them are holed up in and around what’s referred to as a modest, rustic cabin — but the set presents us with a vast lodge — engaged in excavating a series of mounds in Illinois left by pre-Columbian tribes. Early in the play our sympathies fall with them, as high minded scholars seeking to advance knowledge about an early civilization, led by the august Professor, August Howe. But the play is clever in that the self-interested local, a macho brute of a guy, Chad Jasker, who wants to make his fortune developing the land, gains on our sympathies, or at least our understanding, at the same time that we are learning more and more about how crude and self centered he is.

That’s the lineup:  and the issues of The Mound Builders, first presented at Circle Repertory Theater in 1975, remain timely;  conflicts between those who move in the sophisticated, international world of scholarship and locals, archaeologists and land developers; by an easy extension those who want to dig things up in order to know more and those, like Native Americans protecting ancient burials for any number of reasons.  And all this comes with the inevitable meditation on the blind destructiveness of time, and how all our mounds eventually crumble.

We know what Chad Junker wants and we sense what lengths he’ll go to get it.

In contrast to our clarity about Chad, a problem with the play, told in flashbacks, is that the archaeological activities of this group aren’t vivid or convincing.  The play never leaves the house, an odd choice for a story about field work.  Sometimes somebody goes out the door to unseen the site.  Mention is made of students living in tents.  But this doesn’t convey the intensity and focus of a dig, or the dawn to dusk activity of working archaeologists. A scene where some artifacts of this ancient people make it to the house and are — not counted or catalogued but — more or less tossed around is something of a travesty.

Also vitiating the conflict between archaeological and local interests is the presence in the house of several non-archaeologist family members.  The most vividly written character is the cynical, seen-it-all, ailing Delia K. Erickson, who has all the best lines but has nothing to do with the plot.  Her three initials presumably refer to the decay of … western civilization … all civilizations … more on that time-mneditation stuff.

The upshot is that the play is somewhat engaging for a time but the implausibility and slack tone of the archaeological segment  — from the characters and their motivations to the vagueness of the dig — intrude more and more so that one’s interest, like the great civilizations, unwinds.

The Mound Builders  plays at the Pershing Square Signature Center through April 14th, 2013.

Review | The Train Driver | Written and Directed by Athol Fugard | With Leon Addison Brown and Ritchie Coster | Signature Theatre

 … inadvertent …

Among the Fugard plays I’ve seen, this — possibly excepting the iconic The Island  — is the finest.   It’s intense, with a driving force.  Especially interesting, although race figures importantly, the tragedy isn’t driven by race but by common humanity — weaknesses and all.  I wonder if some would argue that point.  It’s certainly not characteristic of Fugard.  But just as the characters transcend race, so does the play’s driving idea.

It’s set in what first seems an off-putting, grubby, sandy, junk cluttered cemetery for those who die unclaimed and unknown, on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, but in time it comes to seem a kind of glorious kingdom for the black caretaker-grave digger, Simon.  The junk is transfigured into something most precious.  An obviously mentally agitated man, Roelf, who’s white, throws himself on the dusty scene with powerful fury, looking for the burial of a black woman he can only describe by her haircovering, a “red doek,” and her dead infant — so he can curse at her.

Why?  She’s ruined his life.  Roelf’s a train driver and a black woman, with her infant in her arms, had stepped in front of his train to kill herself and the child.  The impossibility of braking the moving train in time, the screech of the brakes, the knowledge of rolling over the woman and child and pulverizing them — the sheer horror — has forced this relatively ordinary white guy, who shares  characterizing disdain for Blacks of his kind and place, into a frenzy of searching, guilt, heightened awareness, and insanity that has forced him to lose his job, home, wife and family and landed him, desperate and volatile, in this woebegone place.

Roelf periodically pulls out a poignantly small newspaper clipping with the account of the train accident, biting down on the pain, and reminding us that the play is “true,” that is, based on a actual incident.  The clipping mentions that the train driver received psychological counseling — obviously not enough to cleanse him of his killing the woman and child.  The psychologist reminded him that, given the braking time of a train, he could not possibly have avoided the accident.  Still Roelf can find no peace in his shattered soul.

At night the cemetery is visited by violent men, and by feral dogs who come to dig up bodies, which is why Simon works hard with his shovel to dig the holes deep.  We wonder if, at nightfall, the wary Simon will let Roelf into his shabby, pick-a-piece-here-and-there cabin, and are touched when he, without emotion, and not disturbing his own routine, does.

What a subtle shift of relationships!  Simon has a home, of sorts, more than Roelf, a regular White guy, who’s been thrown out of the house forever because his despair pushed him to raging destructiveness.  Simon warms up some beans for himself in a can over a candle and sleeps under a blanket.  Roelf sleeps on the floor.

The cautious bonding between these two traditional arch enemies is brilliantly nuanced.    When they begin to use those formal, sentence-introducing words, “My friend, we take note.  My friend.  In the Beckett-like, existential gloom of the cemetery, the traditional enemies, prejudiced Afrikaner and wary Black South African, come together.

And as Roelf continues his driven search for the woman’s grave, he gradually reealizes the meaning of this cemetery for unclaimed bodies and the implications for the lives of those buried here.  With the shock of hitting new territory, he recognizes what drove an unknown woman to place herself and her baby on the tracks of an oncoming train — despair.  Raw empathy opens him to a new horror that displaces his obsession with vengeful cursing:  a human being can live and die belonging to no one.  Now he yearns to re-write the past so that he can put things to rights, he can claim her at her death.

Energized by his new purpose, heedless of risk, not stopping for night, Roelf digs frenetically to find the woman’s burial.  But it’s Roelf’s turn to cause an inadvertent tragedy — for Simon.  Collateral damage.  As Roelf said early on of the woman who stepped in front of his train, if only people who wanted to commit suicide would just jump in the river, sparing others from involvement.

This outstanding play is brought to life by two magnificent actors.  Ritchie Coster conveys the lean, driven Roelf with his voice, his expression, his entire body in a great, generous performance:  the actor gives all.  (I missed some words because of the Afrikaner accent.)  Leon Addison Brown is powerful as Simon, large, dignified, uneducated, intelligent, wary but with human warmth: he holds the fulfillment of the play in his hands in the unforgettable last lines.

Directed by author Fugard, this is in all facets a brilliant production. Christopher H. Barreca’s design for the cemetery and Simon’s cabin, ingeniously included and heartbreakingly “furnished,” is tonally perfect, and real … I’ll never forget that sand, those hubcaps.  Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting makes one feel the passage of days within the play’s short running time, and Doug Wieselman’s original music supports the emotional content unobtrusively, allowing the Fugard’s dynamic action, canny dialog and magnificent language to come through.

For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die.

Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol

The Train Driver  plays at the Pershing Square Signature Center in Manhattan’s Clinton district, West 42nd Street, through September 23rd.

Review | Blood Knot | Written and Directed by Athol Fugard | Starring Colman Domingo as Zachariah and Scott Shepherd as Morris | Signature Theatre

… Who wears the suit ?….

Set in South Africa in 1961, during apartheid, Blood Knot tells the story of two brothers, one who looks White and the other Black. They’re sons of one black mother each with a different father and, as is said of the one who looks completely White, “It happens.”

They were treated differently from the moment of birth.  How do we know? The older got the Biblical “Black” name of Zachariah, while the younger. born looking White, was given a “White” name: Morris.

Other contrasts are that Morris is literate and speaks with a White South African accent, and Zachariah is illiterate and speaks with a Black South African accent.  (We know the two were brought up together and were very close as boys, so while — sure — one can figure out reasons for these contrasts, they remain unconvincing.)

They’ve been living together in Zachariah’s ramshackle shack in Korsten, a Black neighborhood on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth.  Morris, who’s been a drifter while passing as White, returned to Korsten and to Zachariah about a year ago with a plan:  putting money aside regularly from Zachariah’s wages, he’s saving up for them to buy a farm together — one thinks of Lennie and George in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

Zachariah, who works at a hard job with a mean boss, and that gives him painful feet, longs to go out for a good time like he used to before Morris installed his dour regime of saving for the future and praying.  Most of all Zachariah longs for “woman.”  To keep him on the straight and narrow while letting him gratify his “woman” fantasies, Morris sets illiterate Zachariah up with a “pen-pal”, a girl in a distant city Zachariah can fantasize about all he wants — until it looks as though the girl is going to come to Port Elizabeth and look for him.  It’s fascinating to watch Zachariah’s strength of personality blast through his dependency on Morris for the writing and reading of exchanged the letters.

Since the pen-pal girl turns out to be White and Zachariah is Black (though she doesn’t know it), the pains and ironies of race relations under apartheid emerge within this oh-so-human correspondence. The pen-pal relationship, with all its room for deception, is filled with humor, pathos and keen suspense as we worry that Zachariah’s romantic desire may lead to a tragic end.  Blood Knot has a terrific Act I.

Act II;  good-bye Lennie and George, hello Cain and Abel.  The basically we’re-in-it-together relationship in Act I is replaced in Act II by raw jealous conflicts between the brothers and by extension between Blacks and Whites.  Once the girl is out of the picture, the men are left with the fancy clothes — featuring an electric blue suit — that Morris had bought for Zachariah when they thought she might actually appear.  Morris dons the suit and — clothes maketh the man — turns gradually into a kind of mean White overbearing, plutocrat overseer, brutalizing his Black brother (supposedly all in a game.).

But with these events, telling as they may be, the action no longer emerges from the characters, but appears arbitrarily invented to make the author’s point.  Zachariah becomes more sophisticated and better spoken, and at the same time more servile than the character we’ve come to know, all in service to the author’s message, that is:  brutal conflict between brothers is in our blood, and we are all brothers under the skin. 

From a rich human drama, the play turns into a schematic parable.  I haven’t seen this kind of programmatic slippage in other Fugard plays; perhaps it’s here because Blood Knot was one of first plays (1961), though revised and re-titled slightly in 1987.  Colman Domingo is powerful and moving as Zachariah in Act I where he has a genuine role to play.  Scott Shepherd is a good foil to him but never as convincing because the role as written is more wobbly.

Among the reasons to see Blood Knot are to learn more about South Africa under apartheid and glimpse the effects on individual lives, and to see the young Fugard finding his way as an important playwright.

Blood Knot  plays at SignatureTheatre, The Pershing Square Signature Center, on West 42nd Street in Manhattan. Click for a review of Fugard’s The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, World Premier.


Review | The Illusion by Tony Kushner | Adapted from Pierre Corneille’s L’Illusion Comique | Directed by Michael Mayer | Signature Theatre

… “an extravagant trifle” …

The Illusion is well produced, stunningly acted, and trivial.  It’s interesting, though, for the attention it brings to formal aspects in theater history.  When Corneille wrote L’Illusion Comique in 1635, it was highly experimental for the time — daring variations on the theme of how to write a play by a young but experienced playwright (7 plays written by the age of 29).  As one would surely learn if one took the course in college, in L’Illusion Comique Corneille breaks with the three classic unities of action, time and place, mixes various traditions – tragic-comedy, pastoral, Commedia del’arte, etc. — and incorporates not one (as in Hamlet) but multiple plays within a play, the characters’ names changing in concert.  This play about the evanescence of all things is as confusing as it’s meant to be.  It’s very much a precocious — by close to 400 years — exercise in deconstruction

This is not, however, simply Kushner’s translation of Corneille’s play but an adaptation:  Kushner simplified the structure somewhat, and in many places substituted his own poetry for Corneille’s, with a focus on the pains of love that seems separate from the characters and has something of a modern whine to it.

How does it play (especially if, like me, you didn’t take that 17th-century French drama course?)  After seeing it, I did some research on Corneille’s original play and its context, and what I learned about its experimental aspects was extremely interesting.  I found watching The Illusion, however, mainly boring, with some perking up at surprising moments toward the end (I was almost ready to leave after the first act but I hung in there), a few good laughs and, scattered here and there, some fine poetry.

It starts in a dark, spooky magician’s cave, where a father enters looking for news of his son.  The father had thrown the boy out of the house years ago because he was a troublemaker and hard to handle, but now, nearing the end of life, feeling guilt and ambivalent love, he yearns to know what happened to his son.  The cave has two creepy denizens, the magician, Alcandre, and her gnome-like, scary servant, piano player and “Amanuensis”,  whose tongue she’s cut out and ears deafened, or so she says.  Together they conjure up episodes from the son’s life for the father to watch … and things are not looking good.  We see the young man — serially named Calisto, Clindor and Theogenes — as a philanderer,  a gold-digger, a heart-breaker, precariously near death, and dead, causing his father great grief (in other words:  the son fulfilled his promise).  But things are not as they seem, in case you thought they were.

The situations Calisto etc. gets into of courtly love and infidelity come across as silly:  early on, there’s no sign of depth or meaning so the episodes are irritating rather than interesting.  In Act II the increasing convolutions become so preposterous that they take on the independent life of the excessive, and they are helped by outstanding character acting.  In particular, Henry Stram (also great as the servant) is powerfully weird and intense as the heroine’s wretchedly mean father, and Peter Bartlett is fascinating and touching as the bewigged, pompous Matamore whose dreamy sadness we come to know.  The subtle and humorous expressions that cross Merritt Weaver’s face as the servant who figures out how to strike it rich are a pleasure to watch when things otherwise get foolish.  Throughout, Lois Smith has great stage presence as the magician.

So there are some saving graces in The Illusion, including especially the prompt to learn more about Corneille, and all in all I’m not sorry I saw it, but not seeing it would have been fine, too.  Corneille called his play at various times “a strange monster,” a “caprice,” and “an extravagant trifle, ”  descriptions that survive Kushner’s adaptation.  Corneille knew what he was talking about.

The Illusion plays at the Signature Theatre on West 42nd Street in NYC through July 11.

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