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Hecuba and the women of Troy confront Helen in Euripides' The Trojan Women at the Flea Theater, September 2016,

Review | Euripides’ The Trojan Women | Adapted by Ellen McLaughlin | Directed by Anne Cecelia Haney | Flea Theater

“Another war has ended.  When will the next begin?”  Poseidon    

The Trojan Women is a daring and astonishing a play — it sails against the waves of the expected on  all counts.

Written 2,400 years ago by a Greek, The Trojan Women takes the point of view of the enemy – the Trojans of Homer’s epic Iliad.  How is that for astonishing?  Written by a man, it takes the point of view of women – the defenseless mothers and wives who, with the defeat of Troy, are to be taken as war booty.  Bewildered and despairing in war’s cruel aftermath, the Trojan women question the sanity and the existence of the gods. They lose the future.  They confront a world with no purpose.   How is that – all that — for daring?

In this adaptation by Ellen McLaughlin, the women of Troy, sleeping fitfully, are soon awakened to hear which woman will be taken off by which Greek.  These highborn women lament their futures based on what slaves always do:  from concubines to floor scrubbers to chicken feeders to taking care of other women’s children.

Lindsley Howard as Cassandra in Euripides' The Trojan Women at The Flea Theater, September 2016.. Photo Allison Stock.

Casssandra the Seer using her intelligence — not divine inspiration — to predict a tragic future. Lindsley Howard as Cassandra. Photo Allison Stock.

But among the women Cassandra the Seer, who will go to Greece as  Agamemnon’s  concubine, predicts the future through a different prism:  that of inference based on evidence.  Ten years ago Agamemnon, tricking his wife Clytaemnestra, had murdered –i. e. “sacrificed” to the gods” — their daughter in order to raise favorable winds to sail to Troy.  Clearly, as Cassandra reasons, upon his return to Greece, Clytaemnstra will kill Agamenon in revenge, and kill the concubine he brings home – Cassandra.  Eurpides transforms Cassandra from a Seer traditionally dependent on divine inspiration to speak the future (though not believed), into one who tells the future through reasoning – through her human intelligence.  So much for the gods.  And there it is — Greek humanism.

Hecuba and the women of Troy confront Helen in Euripides' The Trojan Women at the Flea Theater, September 2016,

Hecuba confronts Helen. L-R Clea DeCrane, Rebeca Rad (Helen) Jenny Jarnagi, DeAnna Supplee (Hecuba) Chun Cho, Amanda Centeno. Photo Allison Stock

When the Trojan women turn viciously on Helen of Troy, the ultimate cause of all their grief, Euripides provides a comparably brilliant inversion of Helen’s character.  She, like Cassandra, becomes a fast-talking logician but – true to character and in ironic contrast to Cassandra — in her selfish interest.

In a usual pattern of conquest, the Greeks, of course, can’t afford to let live the son of Hector, the greatest fighter of the Greeks.  The irony of what his mother Andromache says, in the moments before the child is literally ripped from her arms, is breathtaking.

Phil Feldman as Talthybius and Casey Wortmann as Andromache in The Trojan Women at the Flea Theater. Photo Allison Stock.

Irony and tragedy. Phil Feldman as Talthybius and Casey Wortmann as Andromache with her child. Photo Allison Stock.

The current production at the Flea makes the play, that is a cascade of dramatically intense situations, action and ideas, seem static.  The directing depends on outdated ideas of what Greek tragedy should look like and sound like rather than on a direct confrontation with the text.  The set and costuming are burdened by the same unimaginative vision.   The Bats, the Flea’s young repertory actors who have been brilliant in every past production I’ve seen, are here, like the rest of the production, burdened by the obvious.

These actors speak, however, with clarity and projection, and if you go, you will hear every word – and that’s worth plenty!  This production can be experienced as a kind of dramatic reading, which is one very good way to get to know a play.  In fact, this adaptation was originally presented as a staged reading at Classic Stage Company in Manhattan in 1996, and some of that format may cling to it.  In her adaptation, McLaughlin simplified the play somewhat and — much to the purpose of a staged reading – has individuals speak lines drawn from the unified Chorus that Euripides wrote.  An iconic anti-war play, The Trojan Women has often been performed in response to specific wars, and this adaptation was developed in collaboration with the Balkan Theater Project in response to the Bosnian War, and refugees from that war performed the Classic Stage production.

The highest irony meets the highest tragedy in The Trojan Women.  Some reviewers of this production suggest there’s something inherently static about Euripides’ play – don’t believe it!  The play is a cascade of dramatically intense situations, actions and ideas as the productions by  Elizabeth Swados and Andrei Serban at La Mama fully demonstrated — among the most thrilling, dynamic, action-filled theater I’ve seen.

Ancient Greek playwrights were thought of as teachers, and in writing this play Euripides was critiquing his own people, the Athenians in attendance at the city dramatic festival, for their brutal depredations in the course of the Peloponnesian War.  That the lesson wasn’t learned, and has never been learned, is part of Euripides’ tragic awareness.  The play starts with the god Poseidon’s words, “Another war has ended.”  And then immediately, “When will the next begin?”

The Trojan Women plays at the Flea Theater in Manhattan’s Tribeca district through September 30,2016.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Adam Rapp's Wolf In The River at The Flea Theater. Kate Thulin, Jack Ellis and Michael Swift ... and audience looking on. Photo Hunter-Canning

Review | Wolf In The River | Written and Directed by Adam Rapp | Featuring the Bats | Flea Theater

… why we go to the theater …

This is great theater.  It’s hard to separate the play itself from the creative staging and perfect acting but it all adds up to as stunning a theatrical experience as anyone ever needs to have.

Xanthe Paige and Jack Ellis in Adam Rapp's Wolf In The River at The Flea Theater, March - May 2016. Photo Hunter Canning

Xanthe Paige and Jack Ellis … and audience in background. Photo Hunter Canning

We’re in an unnamed place in Adam Rapp’s hillbilly country – the southern accents, by the way, are authentic and appealing — and at true center is a mound of dirt.  In the first focus of the play, an actor digs in, lies in, messes around at length with the pile of dirt with druggy flowers and bits of junk like old foil chewing gum wrappers – this is a play about life’s fundamental elements, its physicality, the bones beneath the skin, about the closeness of life and death, of creation and dirt.

An impoverished clan of disaffected misfits lives here near the river, lorded over by Monty,  a vibrant Xanthe Paige,  who rules by force of personality and makes money by collecting blood to sell from denizens of this down and out place.  At the bottom of the hierarchy of brutality is sixteen-year old Tana (Kate Thulin), the most vulnerable, constantly threatened and visibly battered — that’s Tana’s blood on the refrigerator (this play is not for the squeamish).  As an expression of her vulnerability, she’s naked and trying to cover herself when she first comes on stage.

Is there any way out for her from this life of degradation?  They’re all isolated, stuck in place by poverty, ignorance, listlessness, locked in a kind of rooted repetition of oppressor and victim, as Dothan (William Apps), a veteran of Afghanistan and Monty’s boyfriend is frozen in a mental prison of PTSD.

But Debo (Maki Borden) loves Tana.  A young man from the outside, he comes from a state that does have a name, Illinois, and from a family that does real work.  Tana speaks with him on a cell phone he gives her, arousing envy that increases the brutality of her down-and-out clan.   But perhaps there’s a life beyond the confines of this hopeless place.   Perhaps if Tana could somehow manage to cross the fearsome river …

Adam Rapp's Wolf In The River at The Flea Theater. Kate Thulin, Jack Ellis and Michael Swift ... and audience looking on. Photo Hunter-Canning

Kate Thulin, Jack Ellis and Michael Swift … and audience looking on. Photo Hunter Canning

Or, in this play of murky ambiguities of time, is Tana dead before the play begins?  That’s what The Man (Jack Ellis), who partly narrates Tana’s story, implies.  Is it too late?  Is she already the victim of the wolf in the river?  The girl of whom nothing was found but three teeth?

The play draws strength from the symbolic resonances it finds in physical things.  Like the silver foil among the junk in the dirt pile, Tana is a throw away girl but, with the nuanced simplicity and inner strength of Kate Thulin’s characterization, she gleams.  The old style refrigerator that sits off to the side, grimed, smeared with blood, a character in itself, is an archetype of dilapidated lives.

The language of Wolf In The River is wildly lyrical and grounded in specifics — an unusual combination, and you never doubt that the people speak the way Rapp has written for them.   The poetry reaches a peak in a thrilling monolog about bones, delivered like a patter aria with virtuoso speed and totally unsentimental passion by Jack Ellis.  He enumerates all the bones in the human body, the bones beneath the skin, all at the same time apparent in Ellis’s super slim articulated body, and he makes sure we feel and know we all share those bones, from toes to skull.

The bones monolog is in and of itself is reason to see Wolf In The River – though there’s much more.  As a narrator (with occasional other roles to play), Ellis’s stage authority is an engine that drives the play forward.

For all of the dark overtones, Rapp gives us a “perfect day” when Tana and Debo first meet, memorable for its staging, development and acting.  Tana is sunbathing on a dilapidated dock, surrounded by the audience seated in a circle of chairs, when Debo, on the outside of the audience, comes by in his boat.  She responds to the young man’s attentions while he poles his boat behind the audience, unwilling to leave or break the magic circle of love (not the only magic circle in this play).  The boat that isn’t there is so convincing it’s  kind of an enchantment, and Debo’s smile of pleasure is unchanging, conveying his joy and determination to love.

The outstanding cast is drawn from The Bats, The Flea’s resident company who, the program states, also contributed to the text.  Arnulfo Maldonado’s stunning scenic design covers the walls with dense overlays of posters and notices, scrawls and graffiti that convey the processes and ambiguities of time and unite audience and performers.  A powerful script, over-the-top imaginative staging, dance movement and singing — Wolf In The River provides a psychedelic, if grungy, wholeness and encounter with essential truth.

Wolf In The River plays at The Flea Theater in Manhattan’s Tribeca through June 6, 2016.  For more information and tickets, click here.

For a review of Adam Rapp’s The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois, click here.

Colin Waitt as Jesus and the cast. Photo Jonathan Hollingsworth

Review | The Mysteries, 52 Episodes From the Bible Written by 48 Playwrights | World Premier | Conceived and Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar | Dramaturg Jill Rafson | Featuring The Bats | Flea Theater

The Mysteries is one whopper of a project!

It’s an epic telling of the Old and New Testaments, referring to Medieval and later “mystery plays” of the life of Christ, 52 episodes more or less in sequence divided into three parts:  The Fall, The Sacrifice, The Kingdom.  Written by 48 playwrights, it’s performed by 54 actors who act, sing and

Sarah Keyes of the Angel Chorus. Photo Hunter Canning

Sarah Keyes of the Angel Chorus. Photo Hunter Canning

dance 78 parts or so in 5 ½ hours, all taking place on the relatively small performance space of the Flea, with the audience in touching distance of the actors, and not only that, it includes dinner! .

This is the third immersive play directed by Iskander at The Flea: first was These Seven Sicknesses  by Sean Graney, an interweaving of all seven extant plays of Sophocles (!) and next was Restoration Comedy by Amy Freed.  They feel like a trilogy though the subject matter isn’t continuous, but they all bear Iskander’s mark. The Mysteries is the least coherent of the three and not my favorite, but it’s remarkable for its ambition, it’s engagement with ideas, its remarkable degree of success, and the open arms it gives to the flow of highs and lows of the human condition — all with a focus on joy that comes through somehow even when things are not going well in the human epic.

It begins with a scene in heaven where we meet the lavish Angel Chorus that will be with us for the duration of the play, and witness Lucifer’s expulsion from heaven, something like in Milton’s Paradise Lost.  We encounter right off God, played by Matthew Jeffers:  he’s a fine actor — making expressive use of his face and voice and his whole body like a dancer, helping us see the way he takes things in and how he comes to his decisions.  Beyond that, he represents an original and powerful casting decision since he’s a dwarf — different from most everybody else but not in the way one expects, and raising interesting questions about the view that humans are made in God’s image.  He’s there at the beginning and there at the end — rarely in between, no surprise there:  the play would be less powerful and less coherent without this uniquely envisioned God.

We also meet the rebellious Lucifer in that first scene in heaven, played with dazzling cynicism by Asia Kate Dillon, and at the same time the angel Gabriel, played by Alice Allemano, who, obedient to God, in contrast to Lucifer, struggles valiantly trying to make sense out of God’s commands and following through on them.  These two, Lucifer and Gabriel, played by tall, striking women, fine actresses who resemble one another, hold the vast array together like bookends.

The scenes in the Garden of Eden are delightful, played, appropriately in the nude, by Jaspal Binning as Adam and Alesandra Nahodil as Eve.  Throughout the play, Biblical episodes are interpreted by the many playwrights in non-canonical ways and the first of these is brilliant:  the knowledge the first couple gain through their disobedient eating of the apple is — how to tell a good joke and how to enjoy one!

After a quick flip through a couple of other Old Testament episodes, including a moving dramatization of The Flood with the multitudes choreographed as drowning (I thought of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Flood), it turns out that only a small portion of the play is devoted to the Old Testament, with the emphasis, timewise and in numbers, on episodes from the life of Christ.

Allison Buck as Mary. Photo Hunter Canning

Allison Buck as Mary. Photo Hunter Canning

So, with intermissions that included, first a delicious vegan Mediterranean dinner handed to the audience by charming, talkative cast members, and, after Part II, desert (excellent baklava and tangerines!), the play wends its way through major moments of Christ’s life, from his birth to  the Virgin Mary (multiple and inconsistent unorthodox interpretations provided by several authors) onward.

The miracle of Christ’s resurrection of the dead Lazarus is vivid, scary and funny — the shrouds and semi-corrupted skin of those interred are  represented by wrappings of what appears to be toilet paper, referencing the repellent in a fascinating, appealing and hilarious way.  I felt sorry, though, for those whom Jesus didn’t resurrect, and they didn’t seem happy about it either.

On to the Passion of Christ, from the Entry into Jerusalem through the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, at times with relatively standard action — Peter actually denies Christ — and other times with less familiar takes — Judas betrays Christ because Jesus asked him to do it, Judas being unwilling (though he ends up badly anyway).   The play goes through conniptions assigning blame for Jesus’ death, not wanting to hurt anybody’s feelings, and that matter is left to confusion.

Karsten Otto as Joseph and Colin Waitt as Jesus.  Photo Hunter Canning

Karsten Otto as Joseph and Colin Waitt as Jesus.  Photo Hunter Canning

The Crucifixion is relatively straightforward, with Colin Waitt, who plays Jesus, conveying the human nature of Christ experiencing terror and pain.  And after that on to — according to what is said — Salvation, but it’s hard to see Salvation in what we’ve been witnessing except that the Angel Chorus proclaims it.  Based on what we’d seen, I thought that the play was about to end shortly before when God, absorbed with the problems of his Creation, wonders aloud who is He anyhow to be telling others what to do.

There are repetitions and generally one feels the play needs the kind of overall editorial vision for dramatic unity and intellectual coherence that it would get if it were single-authored.  The discrepancies in religious and philosophical points of view can be seen as expressive of the many ways of looking at the Biblical account of human history, but the narrative line meanders, so that The Mysteries is less compelling than, for instance, the seven plays by Sophocles treated by a single playwright in the equally ambitious These Seven Sicknesses.

In the category of “buyer beware”:  The Bible is run through the hoops of unorthodox and blasphemous interpretations.  Also there’s a lot of complete nudity.  My hunch is that many of the authors scripted nudity in their episodes so nudity loses the weight of meaning it can carry in theater.  It gets a little ho-hum.

In a time of many “90 Minutes And No Intermission” plays, and thanks to the idealism, ambition, talent, volunteerism and boundless youthful energy of The Bats, here’s one that’s big enough and long enough to provides a near total experience — talent, ideas, and joie de vivre. It’s somewhat unruly, and out of kilter in its consideration of the Old and New Testaments, but it’s spectacular, always visually fascinating, often exciting, and often powerful.

 Colin Waitt as Jesus and the cast. Photo Jonathan Hollingsworth

Colin Waitt as Jesus and the cast. Photo Jonathan Hollingsworth

The Mysteries  plays at The Flea Theater in Manhattan’s Tribeca district through May 25th, 2014.  EXTENDED with performances through July 14th, 2014.

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L-R John Paul Harkins, Whitney Conkling and Matthew Cox.  Photo Hunter Canning

Review | Sarah Flood In Salem Mass by Adriano Shaplin | Directed by Rebecca Wright | Featuring The Bats | Flea Theatre

Costumed actors take your tickets, will for a modest amount pour you a glass of wine, and engage in gorgeous and intriguing dance-like interactions in front of a stunning backdrop of silky delicately-toned hangings.   It makes you sure you’re in for great theater.  Once Sarah Flood in Salem Mass starts, though, the fun dissipates.   With its reference to the Salem Witch Trials, the play takes on the trappings of seriousness but flings itself into making a jumble of the actual events and persons;  that could be OK, except that it offers no thoughts or ideas in return for its use of this tragic historical episode and the multitudes who suffered hideously because of it.

Watch  out for that that telescope! ...  Allison Buck as Amanda, Seth Moore as Worthy. Photo Aaron Zebrock

Review | Restoration Comedy by Amy Freed | Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar | Featuring The Bats | Flea Theater

Winter doldrums? … Let Restoration Comedy completely restore you!

Magic unfolds in the relatively small performing space of the Flea Theater flanked by a few rows of audience seats.  That central space comes alive with color, wit, music, dance, energy.  In fact the energy spills from the stage throughout the theater — at the entrance actors costumed in the flounce and style of the 17th Century greet you with drinks and mill everywhere to talk with you, get to know you in the way of director Iskandar’s immersive theater — seen last season in the Flea’s masterful production of These Seven Sicknesses.

This ebullient cast, drawn from The Flea’s resident company of young actors, will even tell you — if you ask — that “restoration comedy” refers to the plays produced in England in the late 17th Century, notably rakish in reaction to banning of theaters and anything that smacked of abundant pleasure under the Puritans.  True to its tradition, Restoration Comedy is filled with alliances, dalliances, gender bending, word play innuendo, and a dose of plain old polymorphous sexuality.

Couples entwine, bottoms are bared (this might not be one for the children), the play lets loose.  Snooping through a telescope on her husband making love to another woman, Amanda wonders if this current passion of his is “double jointed.”  But for all its advocacy of anything goes, this is not in your face aggressive like Hair  — there’s a delicacy to it, just as there is to the extraordinarily lovely colors that fill the stage, the creative choreography, and the marvelous music that’s everywhere.   It’s real subject — joy of life .

In keeping with a play that questions whether everyone should be held to marital fidelity or if it’s too much a one-fits-all straightjacket, the plot’s starting point is the marriage of a pure and virtuous woman, Amanda, and John Loveless, a libertine seeker of sexual variety.  Joined in holy matrimony — but can they possibly be right for one another?  The play seeks to find out via a positive maze of ins and outs and wildly funny characters and situations.  To help save his friend’s marriage (and putting aside, of course, the fact that he’s madly in love with her), Loveless’s best friend, Worthy, sets about teaching Amanda the art of sensual variety:  she turns out to be an enthused pupil!

James Fouhey as Loveless and Stephen Stout as Foppington.  Photo Aaron Zebrock

James Fouhey as Loveless and Stephen Stout as Foppington.  Photo Aaron Zebrock


So much happens in the play — and in the intermission which is fairly wild with singing by talented cast members, dancing, and drinks and hors d’oeuvres for all — that the play needs strong and individualized performances from the main characters to hold the narrative line.  James Fouhey dominates wonderfully as Loveless — wry, amused, exotic, bemused, leaping across the stage with his long body.  Allison Buck is charming and amusing as Amanda in both her personae — holding firm and giving in as the apt pupil of the amorous Worthy, played with a kind of sophisticated understatement by Seth Moore.  Stephen Stout is a real show stopper as the outrageous alluring sensualist, Foppington.  His accent, sounding the way the old typography looks, is worth seeing the play for in and of itself.  Thank you, Stephen Stout, for so many deep laughs!  But everyone is no less than perfect in their many parts.

In fact everybody who has had anything to do with this play does what he or she does superbly.  There’s an entire troupe of first rate dancers, with fresh and imaginative choreography by Will Taylor — not the kind of group shuffling around the stage that sometimes goes by the name of “choreography.”  In designing the costumes, Loren Shaw found a way to make them both amusing and beautiful:  I understand they’re all hand sewn, one more gauge of the sheer quality that’s sewn into every inch of this production.  I’d like to mention everybody but this is one ambitious project:  I count a cast of 40 (the NY Times critic was impressed recently because Golden Boy on Broadway has a cast of 20).  Hah!  Eat your heart out Broadway:  Off- and Off-off Broadway are where it’s at!

There’s an infectious idealism at the Flea — as if everybody is feeling “isn’t it wonderful what we’re doing!”  And it is.  Why anybody who wants to go to the theater would go to anything but Restoration Comedy is beyond me — unless, of course, you don’t feel like laughing.

Restoration Comedy  plays at The Flea Theater on White Street in NYC’s Tribeca through December 30, 2012.

   Ensemble.  Photo Aaron Zebrock

Ensemble.  Photo Aaron Zebrock

Review | Job by Thomas Bradshaw | Directed by Benjamin H. Kamine | Featuring The Bats | Flea Theater

… why do the righteous playgoers suffer? …

The story of Job reinterpreted by a contemporary playwright:  what an intriguing idea.  Exotic times and places — here the ancient Near East — are appealing.  And a play that takes you to supernatural venues, like Heaven, as this play does, and to actually “see” God, at home, so to speak, always have an extra magnetism.

I was really looking forward to this play.  But Bradshaw’s Job is intellectually incoherent, weak on character, and brings no insight into the iconic story to the question asked by the story of Job:  Why do the righteous suffer?

Instead it has the most graphically cruel, bloody, violent, and sadistic depictions of any play that I have ever seen (and my guess is that has ever been produced).

Back there in the ancient Near East, righteous Job starts off as a man of stature — he’s a Judge in his community — and wealth — he has huge holdings in land and livestock, and he has a loving wife and family.  Truly he’s been blessed by God and he responds with piety and burnt offerings.  But — it’s easy to be good when things go well for you — Satan works out a deal with God to test Job’s piety by loading Job down with misfortunes.

Soon Job’s son seizes his sister, Job’s daughter, in brutal lust, beats her, and — the girl’s all-out attempts to fight him off turning into involuntary twitches — strangles her to death — and with the help of a huge drop of his own saliva to his penis, rapes her.  (Is it counted as rape if she’s dead? a character questions later.)

Still Job does not curse God.

Sean McIntyre as Job with Marie-Claire Roussel as Esther.  Photo by Hunter Canning

Sean McIntyre as Job with Marie-Claire Roussel as Esther.  Photo by Hunter Canning

But his wife curses Him plenty and is out the door.

Subsequently Job is castrated by victims of his earlier justice, the lumps of Job’s testicles — and penis — falling bloody but unmistakable to the stage floor.  Plop.  And plop.

Naturally, the victims, father and son, cut out Job’s eyes.   (Boils would seem good after this.)

The brutes topple the wounded man over in his chair.

Then they take the chair.

Job’s eye bandages, his patriarch-in-the desert type cloak, and the whole stage is a bloody mess for the rest of the play.

By the time Job’s cattle, sheep and goats are stolen, why should anyone care?

There are scenes in Heaven where an easy-going God fecklessly keeps in bounds the rivalry between his two sons, Jesus and Dionysus (there are a whole lot of other of God’s sons scratching at a closed door), and chats with Satan about just how far they should take this Job thing.

So far, although some of Job’s misfortunes are newly invented, the story has — roughly — followed that of the Book of Job.  There’s a new twist, though, at the end which I won’t reveal — it’s just another graphic presentation of disgusting, brutal violence unmotivated by anything the playwright has developed through the play.

The Flea Theater’s crew of outstanding young actors has less to work with than usual because the characters, even including such potentially rich figures as Job, and God, are thinly written, and ultimately are not sympathetic or arresting.  God is cute.  Job is bombastic.  The choreography is flat and obvious, compared with that seen at The Flea recently in its masterful production of These Seven Sicknesses, where The Bats had the chance to fulfill their outstanding and varied talents.

It’s conceivable that all this voyeuristic violence could have a point, but it doesn’t.  It’s there for its own sake.  There is no new way offered for looking at the story of Job, no insight into why the righteous suffer, no idea that could carry one’s thoughts to a new place.  It’s hard to square the wishy-washy “what’s the point of this play?” problem with the clarity of purpose and driving development in Bradshaw’s fine, earlier play, The Bereaved.

I thought for awhile the idea might be that Job caught on to the fact that God was merciless and so, following God’s example, became merciless himself but when I asked the playwright in a “talk-back” after the performance if that was “the idea,” he gave the uncommitted answer that he had for most questions, “It’s open-ended.”   But open-ended is one thing;  intellectual inconsistency, unmotivated action, arbitrary characterizations … these take you nowhere.

Job plays at the Flea Theater in Manhattan’s Tribeca through November 3. Note: It’s been announced that Job is coming back to The Flea Theater — Thomas Bradshaw’s Job is returning to The Flea to run  January 4 – 28.

Satomi Blair as Jocasta, photo Laura June Kirsch, courtesy Flea Theater

Review | These Seven Sicknesses by Sean Graney | Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar | Flea Theater | Featuring The Bats


Allison Buck as Tekmessa and Grant Harrison as Ajax, photo Laura June Kirsch, courtesy Flea Theater

Allison Buck as Tekmessa and Grant Harrison as Ajax, photo Laura June Kirsch, courtesy Flea Theater

If you’re lucky enough to see These Seven Sicknesses, you’re in for a rich adventure.  It’s like setting sail.  First of all, you’ll walk in to a party — there’s a buzz, the actors, in costume, are there to talk with you, offering to bring you water or wine.  This is transformative, opening you to whatever’s going to happen soon on the stage, that is, the wood floor between the facing banks of the audience.   

The play is an ambitious and exciting weaving together of the seven extant plays of Sophocles.  It follows their basic story lines and generally their emotional arcs while changing some aspects.  To catch any of Sophocles’ words you have to think fast because the language is our current lingo and delivered with today’s expressions and body language, marvelously by a superb group of young actors — the Flea’s Bats.  The stories are tragic, and Graney’s treatment of them is witty and hilarious.  Since it’s a long evening¸dinner is served (by the actors to the audience) after Act I and — if you can believe it –- dessert comes after Act II, which leaves room for delightful conversation among the actors and audience.  Feeling so well taken care of is in itself transformative.  

For those who may know Sophocles’ plays and are interested in the order in which they’re taken up, Act I presents, with these titles, Oedipus [The King], In Trachis, In Colonus.  Act II:  Philoktetes, Ajax.  Act III:  Elektra, Antigone.

The opening act is over-compressed which led me to think These Seven Sicknesses might be superficial but — hold on, it isn’t!  Still, much of Act I is performed with rambunctious speed.   Oedipus acknowledges his guilt fairly early on so Sophocles’ portrait of him as a searcher for truth is lost.  The Oedipus episode slows down, though, for its exciting, theatrical crescendo.  In a scene poignantly played by Satomi Blair, Oedipus’ wife Jocasta, drenched in guilt at the discovery of her polluted marriage with her son, steps into her bath and cuts her wrists, her blood reddening the water (in Sophocles she hangs herself).  In terms of the themes of blood and pollution in the play, as Ms. Blair commented to me in the intermission, this manner of suicide is rich in symbolism.  To see a woman step into a bath on the  plank floor between the facing banks of seats has character of a sacrifice: it”s “not in Sophocles” but it’s filled with suggestive resonance of other sacrifices of women in these plays and at the heart of much Greek drama.

Satomi Blair as Jocasta, photo Laura June Kirsch, courtesy Flea Theater

Satomi Blair as Jocasta, photo Laura June Kirsch, courtesy Flea Theater


Seth Moore as Philoktetes and Alex Herrald as Neoptolemus, photo Laura June Kirsch, courtesy Flea Theater

Seth Moore as Philoktetes and Alex Herrald as Neoptolemus, photo Laura June Kirsch, courtesy Flea Theater

Philoktetes, next,  follows most closely Sophocles’ actual and emotional story line, it’s given the time it needs, and is magnificently acted by Seth Moore:  the upshot — a great Philoktetes!  Years ago, as the story goes, the Greeks were headed to fight at Troy but the warrior Philoktetes had a gangrenous, disgusting leg wound, so they abandoned him on a desolate island — “They left cans of food for me but no can opener,” Philoktetes says.  Now, after ten years of fruitless war, the prophetic word is out that the Greeks can’t capture Troy without Philoktetes’ magic bow.  The play begins as Odysseus and Neoptolemus, Achilles’ son, arrive on the island to get it.  They and we meet a Philoktetes in agony, half-crazed with bitterness at the way he has been treated¸ his isolation, and the unrelenting pain of his rotting leg.  With Odysseus and Neoptolemus plotting by fair means and foul to get that bow, the pain of suspicion is added to his anguish.  Philoktetes covers the long stage with his one good leg and a make-shift crutch, his suppurating leg fallen upon, and stomped upon by Odysseus who’ll stop at nothing.  In this episode several nurses, on hand throughout These Seven Sicknesses as a singing Greek chorus … Well, what they do here is an operation, more I will not say, except that it gives Seth Moore the opportunity to add some blood curdling cries of pain to his stunning performance.

Ajax, the story of another unappreciated warrior, omits Sophocles’ rich, long speeches but gives plenty of time to the main dramatic action, choreographed on a grand scale and performed with thrilling power, deft speed and spinning turns by Grant Harrison as Ajax.  The hero whose name is proverbial for great strength is brooding over an unbearable blow to his honor:  since Achilles, the greatest Greek fighter, died, his armor was to be awarded to the next greatest fighter and in a vote the Greeks awarded it — not to Ajax but — to Odysseus.  Ajax is agonizing over the intolerable insult when a squadron of armed men and women enter in a choreographed advance, uttering the low, oddly frightening bah’s of sheep.  Driven by a passion to avenge his honor, and crazed by the disrespect, Ajax enters battle against what he thinks are his enemies and slaughters them all, only to find out that he has, in his insanity, slaughtered nothing but a herd of sheep.

After that, what’s left for a hero to do?

Philoktetes and Ajax emphatically bring to mind current issues:  fruitless wars that last ten years, and the grievous plight of fighters, suffering wounds that won’t heal, lacking their due respect, who may be driven to violence and suicide.  Seeing these issues laid bare in ancient stories expands them to the universal.      

Other highlights include Kate Michaud’s passionate and complex performance as Herakles’ wife Dejanira, stung by Herakles’ rejection of her in favor of a younger woman but loving him still — with good reason, that’s one mighty, compelling Herakles played by Victor Joel Ortiz.

With the shaved head and dark garb of a Buddhist monk, Holly Chou, a brilliant character actor playing the Blind Seer, speaks prophetic ambiguities with precise articulation — what an irony! 

Betsy Lippit bounds into Elektra an explosive tomboy.  What a fury she is, grappling in full rage with her mother Clytaemnestra, who brings out her side of the story, played by Akyiaa Wilson.  These are only among my favorite episodes and performances — there are great moments throughout.  There are, after all, 7 plays and a cast of 37! 

These Seven Sicknesses is a rich feast of theater!

These Seven Sicknessess plays at the Flea Theater in Manhattan’s Tribeca through March 4.*

*Due to popular demand, The Flea Theater will bring back THESE SEVEN SICKNESSES this summer. This critically lauded theatrical adaptation of Sophocles’ seven surviving plays (Oedipus, In Trachis, Philoktetes, In Colonus, Ajax, Elektra and Antigone) will return for a limited engagement June 6 through July 1

Future Anxiety | Raul Sigmund Julia as Malcolm sets down his heavy bucket for a moment as Holly Chou as Comrade Li profers a creation. Photo: Richarde Termine

Review | Future Anxiety by Laurel Haines | Directed by Jim Simpson | Flea Theater

                … normalcy meets end of world …

Future Anxiety is a vast, crisp ensemble play that brings you to the future by following through on everything that’s undermining our earth as we know and love it.  “Vast” even though it all takes place in The Flea’s rather small Off-Off-Broadway theater but when this talented group gets through with it — it seems positively epic!

Things we take for granted are in short supply — toilet paper’s doled out one square at a time.  Violent storms rack the sky interrupted by fires broad as the horizon — shades of today’s news of tornadoes and fires.  Radioactivity everywhere is a given.  When an awakened cryogen who hasn’t yet fully accommodated to her new body wants to go outside for some fresh air, the thought sends the nurse into paroxysms of laughter.  Oh yes, and China having collected on its debt, Americans are serving as slaves to the Chinese.

Karl, a man with a Jesus complex, played by Ugo Chukwu, is offering

Future Anxiety | Ugo Chukwu as Karl recruiting for a space trip.  Photo:  Richard Termine

Ugo Chukwu as Karl recruiting for a space trip.  Photo:  Richard Termine

salvation via a space voyage to another planet but it’s clear that in spite of his manic optimism, the trip isn’t going to make it.  But is staying behind any better?  As a parable, Future Anxiety reminds me of Thornton Wilder’s optimistic The Skin of Our Teeth, but in reverse.

One reason the play manages to seem so big is that the set is a series of platforms on different levels, performance spaces for fast moving individual vignettes of impending disaster.  The actors are from the Flea’s young theater group, the BATS, which is a good thing because the staging and directing require outstanding agility and energy.  Reynaldo Piniella (as Jake) leaps at full twisting speed from level to another — but he makes it!

A compelling aspect is that this future is not too distant and things are not all that different from today, only worse.  The population that’s crowding the planet isn’t 40 billion or 200 billion — it’s 12 billion (today, approximately 6.9 billion).  Sonia (Katherine Folk-Sullivan), the sweet girl with the mean job of people collector (like house re-possessor) munches a bag of chips she’s found somewhere with an expiration date of 2012.

Among the excellent performances, Holly Chou’s as Comrade Li, in charge of U.S. debtor-slaves, is a genuine show stopper.  The expressions that cross the face of this martinet party-liner who finds liberation in poetry are in  themselves a reason to go to The Flea and see the show.  I’ve never  seen anyone carry a bucket on stage that looked so genuinely heavy as when Raul Sigmund Julia as the slave-poet Malcolm labors under her eagle eye.  Same when he digs his shovel into a pile of rocks.

Future Anxiety | Raul Sigmund Julia as Malcolm sets down his heavy bucket for a moment as Holly Chou as Comrade Li profers a creation. Photo: Richarde Termine

Raul Sigmund Julia as Malcolm sets down his heavy bucket for a moment as Holly Chou as Comrade Li profers a creation. Photo: Richarde Termine

While not the first future dystopia by a long shot, Future Anxiety rings a new and important bell:  a growing sense of guilt among human beings about the state of the planet and, joined to it, a negative assessment of our own kind.   In expressing this point, the role of the poet, Malcolm, is key.  Malcolm is given a chance to be free of his slave labor, but he’s so burdened by a sense of guilt for what human beings have wrought on this planet that he prefers to remain a slave, rather than add his hand to the destructive work of those who play responsible roles in this world.

There’s some brief but wonderful use of constructed masks/dummies, like the one Karl makes to replace his beloved but estranged Christine (Joy Notoma), leaning his head against it and draping its limp puppet arm across his own chest in a poignant-though-you-know-it’s-a-dummy moment.

For some of its jokes the play relies too closely on Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone (I know it well because I acted in it).  Future Anxiety doesn’t need anybody else’s jokes, though.  It’s fired by the underlying seriousness that makes for the best humor!

Future Anxiety plays at The Flea Theater in NYC’s Tribeca through May 26th.

Review | American Sexy by Trista Baldwin | Directed by Mia Walker | New Play Series – Downstairs at the Flea

     … cat’s cradle …

The broad narrow playing space downstairs at the Flea has been painted the
reddish sandy color that says Southwest and there’s a weathered sandstone rock. In this evocative Western scene, a college age foursome traveling together enjoy – not much though, as it turns out – an interlude at the rim of the Grand Canyon.

Review | Looking at Christmas by Steven Banks | Directed by Jim Simpson | Flea Theater | World Premiere

The Flea’s Romantic Holiday Comedy
Looking at Christmas Comes to TV
December 21 – 25 on Thirteen WNET

Thirteen WNET will air The Flea Theater’s acclaimed 2010 production of Looking at Christmas by Steven Banks (head writer of SpongeBob SquarePants) beginning December 21. Filmed live at The Flea last year, this romantic comedy set in front of New York’s famed holiday window displays is directed by Jim Simpson and features The Bats, The Flea’s resident company of actors. Broadcasts on Thirteen WNET are slated for Dec. 21 at 10pm; Dec. 23rd at 3am, and Dec. 25 at 11pm. Check your local listing for air dates in other markets.  Here’s the review.

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