Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Elements of "Orange Julius"

Last Wednesday night, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater & Page 73 presented the New York Premiere of “Orange Julius” by Basil Kreimendahl as directed by Dustin Wills.

At the end of 90 minutes of fine acting by the small cast on the compact stage, I asked myself, “What was that play about?” 

Orange Julius” has many elements.

The five-person cast was fabulous, particularly Stephen Payne as Julius and Mary Testa as his long-suffering wife France — I do not recall ever hearing her name, but that was her name according to the program.  Of course, it was his name that was important:  Naming a Vietnam vet “Julius” allowed him to make a joke about Orange Julius while linking his name with Agent Orange.

Mr. Payne and Ms. Testa played with utter naturalness, creating organically grown and shaped and developed characters in beautifully textured performances.

Their children were called “Nut” (played by Jess Barbagallo) and “Crimp” ( played by Irene Sofia Lucio).  The first time we see her she’s crimping her hair and threatening to crimp that of her little sister.  These two have a lovely sibling rivalry, taunting, teasing, helping one another.  A real relationship on paper, although a real connection between Mr. Barbagallo and Ms Lucio seemed lacking. 
 
In rehearsal:  Stephen Payne and Jess Barbagallo (Photo Credit:  Bruce Cohen)
The play takes place in the family garage, which sometimes seems to play a living room, sometimes a car, and, when the garage door is open, Vietnam.  Kate Noll’s set design was simple and clear, evoking a time, an economic class, a trap.

Montana Levi Blanco’s costume design was excellent — every person was wearing clothes befitting the character. That’s good costume design, to be essentially unnoticed.  The small space was well lit by Barbara Samuels and the sound by Palmer Hefferan was effective.  Director Dustin Wills’ staging used the tight quarters to excellent advantage.

The play begins in the 1980s, told in flashbacks by an ever-present onstage narrator — Nut — who talks way too much and is not quite reliable.  She — or he — is earnest, but memory is not fact, as noted when Nut says he was 7, 9, or 8.  Later she was 12, or 10 or 13. 

Nut is of small stature.  While referred to throughout as a girl, a daughter, a sister, Nut is played by a male.  Nut speaks of wanting to go through a past life regression, to the audience, and to his mother when still pre-pubescent.  Is this play Nut’s past life regression?  The confusion is not clearly settled (perhaps not for Nut either), even when Nut’s older sister offers him/her a training bra.  Nut at some point was a girl, but enters the Vietnam scene clearly as a male. 

Nut is simultaneously engaging and annoying.  Sister “Crimp” is sometimes mean or angry, always the epitome of a big sister bestowing wisdom and love on her younger sister, Nut.  At least one character is missing, a brother referenced in several scenes but never seen.  Is he dead?  Is he in a hippie commune feuding with his Vietnam vet father?  There’s a story left untold.  Not every story need be told, yet the missing brother nagged at me and held my interest longer than Nut did.  Because Nut is telling the story, it’s an awful lot about him/her when it is Julius and Mary who are the most interesting characters.

Back to my original question:  What is this play about?  What point is playwright Kreimendahl trying to make?

ەThe effect of war on the next generation?

ەThe aftermath of science used for evil (i.e., Agent Orange)?

Possible fact:  Julius went to war, was attacked by American military industrial complex and fatally poisoned with Agent Orange.  It was vile from the very beginning and it took decades to kill, but kill it did, via multiple cancers.

Not quite possible fact:  Nut says that in Vietnam, a girl was born the same day he was and her father too had been poisoned with Agent Orange.  The Vietnamese father was dead and the girl was born with bulging eyes that could never close. 

Is that true?  How could Nut know that?  We only know what Nut tells us, shows us, but we readily believe that Julius was poisoned with Agent Orange and died a slow death psychologically and physically.  Therefore, should it not follow that we believe that a girl was born in Vietnam the same day Nut was, with a birth defect, possibly connected to the poisoning of her father with Agent Orange.

ەIs the play about the nature of Self?  Of Truth?
 
In rehearsal:  Director Dustin Wills and Ruy Iskandar (Photo Credit: Bruce Cohen)
There are many flashbacks to Vietnam played beyond the open garage door with Julius and the angry foulmouthed soldier “Ol’ Boy” (only named in the program), well played by Ruy Iskandar. Julius and “Ol Boy” are there, but so is “Nut.”  Or at least the actor is.  Was his “past life” self there, is he playing someone else, is he playing his father?  But Julius was in the same scenes.  It’s not that they weren’t good compact little scenes.  It’s that they didn’t make much sense as a part of the whole.  Is this Nut in his memories of another life?  Has this character in Vietnam anything to do with Nut?  Are any of Nut’s memories reliable? 

An old television is on a worktable in the garage.  It is often on through the play, showing old films and television programs and a lot of “Platoon.”  I do not have clear memories of that film, just the scenes repeatedly shown in movies about war movies.  An audience cannot be expected to remember the film, and yet I think much of it was re-enacted in the Vietnam flashbacks, so what was the story of Julius and why was Nut re-enacting “Platoon?”
 
In rehearsal:  Irene Sofia Lucio and Mary Testa (Photo Credit: Bruce Cohen)
Meanwhile, Nut’s sister grows up to be a nurse who is defecated on by a patient she was turning to prevent bedsores.  While this was clearly not on purpose, still, this is what she thinks her life is, being “dumped” on. She is bitter.  Her choices seem to be based on what she knows she can do (take care of sick people) but which do not please her.  She tried to help her mother care for her father, but France wouldn’t always allow it.  France needs help and cries out for it, but does not accept it from her children.  Ms. Testa’s pain is heartbreaking. 

It’s difficult to know over what time period the episodic play takes place:  mostly in the 1980s, although once Nut says it’s 2004.  There are some touching moments, some funny ones, some sad ones. Late in the play, and presumably in time, France tries to feed her husband baby food, which may be all that he can stomach.  He pushes the spoon away, makes a mess as a child would, and pushes France’s hand away.  He then gently clasps her wrist.  He is still Julius, her husband.  The moment is brief, but memorable.  Julius is broken, supported by his family.  He is angry, he is in pain, he has terrible memories.  France is cracking under the strain but holds the family together no matter what.  Sister “Crimp” traveled in and out, seemingly always there until we’re told she lived in another part of the country.  At some time or another.  Time matters.

Nut appears to have been transgender in a time that would not be forgiving or understanding.  That issue, however, comes off as a sidebar, a distraction from the real story of Julius & France.  If the play is supposed to be about Nut discovering herself as male, why isn’t that the story?  Why not tell Julius’ story with a son?  We don’t know why Nut is telling us all this, and since she or he isn’t a reliable narrator, we may never know.

All in all, I liked everything about the production except the play, because the playwright could not make up his mind as to what it was about.  Many interesting elements, interesting moments, interesting characters. But too many elements.  It was a surprisingly long 90 minutes.


~ Molly Matera

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Goldoni's "The Servant of Two Masters" at TFANA

The Samuel H. Scripps mainstage at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center is a wonderfully designed performance space:  it is multiple theatres in one, so flexible one may not recognize it from one season to another.  This production’s proscenium staging worked perfectly.

The Servant of Two Masters is silly, absurd, crass, ridiculous, pointless, and very, very funny.  Downright hysterical in fact, based on commedia dell’arte, a theatrical structure that set standard character types into scenarios, the characters performing functions in standard plots that usually involved lovers, tricksters, and hungry servants.  Characters were typically masked (and therefore recognizable in every town the troupe wandered into) except for the young lovers.  There are always young lovers.  The actors/characters often improvise the actual scenes, filled with slapstick, physical humor, and often violence.  Midway through the 18th century, Carlo Goldoni put this scenario on paper. 

Something like 270 years later, Christopher Bayes (director) and Steven Epps (lead actor, the hungry servant Truffaldino) have taken Carlo Goldoni’s play (as adapted by Constance Congdon) and discarded whatever words interfered with the laughs they were looking for, which probably change nightly.  This is a living theatrical form, dependent on current events and the audience’s knowledge thereof.  Like improv, but with a storyline providing more overall structure. 

Considering the political humor running riot through the performance, I wish I could be transported back in time to hear what they all said before the election.

The evening started with Italian music your grandparents (maybe great grandparents) played and listened and danced to.  No, not Dean Martin or Al Martino, earlier than that, back in the old country, the kind with mandolins and guitars and small accordions — like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5FlNBuS7YgM.  With music in our ears, magic appeared around the wonderful mainstage with a Roman arch creating the proscenium and strings of patio lights illuminating the theatre like starlight.  It was delicioso.

Briefly, the servant of two masters has two masters because he has no money and he’s very hungry and his first master didn’t give so much as a centime for a hunk of bread.  “Federigo” (spoiler alert:  actually the late Federigo’s sister Beatrice in disguise for most of the play) won’t have money until “he” goes over the books of deals with Pantalone, father of the young woman to whom Federigo was affianced.  And therein lies a tale.  The second master turns out to be Florindo, for whom Federigo/Beatrice is searching, the man who killed Beatrice’s brother Federigo in a duel over her and who is her lover.  No one recognizes anybody, of course.  Poor Truffaldino, the incompetent servant, is still hungry halfway through the play!

Meanwhile another young couple’s wedding plans start out blessed but upon the return from the dead of Federigo, well, the first arrangement must take precedence, which infuriates the Dottore, father of Silvio, the beloved of Clarice. Love is frustrated, Beatrice reveals herself as a woman to Clarice so of course they’re now like sisters, while the true lover, Silvio, is jealous and behaves very foolishly.  Oh, what will become of them all?

And Truffaldino is still hungry.  When he finally has a chance to eat, it’s catch as catch can:  food flies over the curtain to be caught and tossed by Truffaldino juggling with the two highly energetic waiters (Aidan Eastwood and Sam Urdang) while he’s also juggling the service of a meal to each of his masters.
 
The juggling waiters (Photo by Gerry Goodstein)
The play is filled with music (all played by Christopher Curtis and Aaron Halva), including television advertising jingles from 30 years ago, snippets of show tunes, some pretty ditties for the ladies to sing (by Aaron Halva), pratfalls and slaps, a little swordplay, and an evening of ridiculous fun. 

This company of players knows how to milk a laugh, go off and around the bend and then, like good jazz musicians, bring the story back on track and move along briskly.  And they all sing wonderfully. 

The star of the show is Truffaldino portrayed with high energy by the remarkable Steven Epps.  He runs from one master to another, he leaps, he weeps, he receives beatings, he is a hoot and a half.

I didn’t even recognize one of my favorite actors from the Fiasco Theater Co., Andy Goteleuschen playing the Dottore, father of the whiny lover Silvio (Eugene Ma).
 
Steven Epps as Truffaldino and Allen Gilmore as Pantalone.  (Rehearsal photo by Gerry Goodstein)
Pantalone, father of Clarice, sometimes friend and sometimes enemy of the Dottore, was well played by Allen Gilmore.

Orlando Pabotoy’s Florindo brought down the house when he came out brushing, or perhaps caressing, his wig.

Liam Craig’s Brighella the Chef is creepy but not as nasty as the Brighella character often is in Commedia.

Liz Wisan never fooled me, I knew she was a woman dressed as a man!  But the audience always knows, it’s the characters onstage who aren’t playing with a full deck.  As Beatrice in disguise as her dead brother Federico, Ms. Wisan did a fine job as alternately winsome and tough.

Adina Verson is very charming, sings beautifully and is hilarious as Clarice.

Finally, Emily Young is sweet, funny and poignant as Smeraldina, the typical lady's maid conspiring with her mistress only to fall for the not in the slightest bit wily Truffaldino.  She also had a fine time speaking as a modern feminist standing up for women’s rights against the vulgarians coming into power.
 
Cast unrecognizable without their masks, except for the Dottore (L) and Pantalone (4).   Rehearsal photo by Gerry Goodstein..
My feeling about nine out of ten of the shows I see is that they run a little longer than they need to — and this very, very funny show was not an exception.  It could lose 10, 15 minutes.  Just not the intermission, which is needed for the audience to catch their breaths after over an hour of laughing as well as for the bathroom break implied by Truffaldino. I suspect which 10 minutes is arguable — something I felt lasted too long, such as Pantalone’s leg business, probably did not appear so to others.

There’s no down time in The Servant of Two Masters, it’s just chock a block non-stop, full of laughter and song.  If you’re sensitive to raunchy innuendoes, verbal or physical, you might be offended once or twice, but really, in today’s world, aren’t we offended by someone or something multiple times a day?  Grin and bear it for the sake of the rest of the life-giving oxygen provided by all the laughter.


~  Molly Matera, signing off to read TFANA’s always entertaining program with quotes about the playwrights, the play, the times.  Or perhaps watch the 1952 film, Scaramouche!

Goldoni's "The Servant of Two Masters" at TFANA

The Samuel H. Scripps mainstage at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center is a wonderfully designed performance space:  it is multiple theatres in one, so flexible one may not recognize it from one season to another.  This production’s proscenium staging worked perfectly.

The Servant of Two Masters is silly, absurd, crass, ridiculous, pointless, and very, very funny.  Downright hysterical in fact, based on commedia dell’arte, a theatrical structure that set standard character types into scenarios, the characters performing functions in standard plots that usually involved lovers, tricksters, and hungry servants.  Characters were typically masked (and therefore recognizable in every town the troupe wandered into) except for the young lovers.  There are always young lovers.  The actors/characters often improvise the actual scenes, filled with slapstick, physical humor, and often violence.  Midway through the 18th century, Carlo Goldoni put this scenario on paper. 

Something like 270 years later, Christopher Bayes (director) and Steven Epps (lead actor, the hungry servant Truffaldino) have taken Carlo Goldoni’s play (as adapted by Constance Congdon) and discarded whatever words interfered with the laughs they were looking for, which probably change nightly.  This is a living theatrical form, dependent on current events and the audience’s knowledge thereof.  Like improv, but with a storyline providing more overall structure. 

Considering the political humor running riot through the performance, I wish I could be transported back in time to hear what they all said before the election.

The evening started with Italian music your grandparents (maybe great grandparents) played and listened and danced to.  No, not Dean Martin or Al Martino, earlier than that, back in the old country, the kind with mandolins and guitars and small accordions — like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5FlNBuS7YgM.  With music in our ears, magic appeared around the wonderful mainstage with a Roman arch creating the proscenium and strings of patio lights illuminating the theatre like starlight.  It was delicioso.

Briefly, the servant of two masters has two masters because he has no money and he’s very hungry and his first master didn’t give so much as a centime for a hunk of bread.  “Federigo” (spoiler alert:  actually the late Federigo’s sister Beatrice in disguise for most of the play) won’t have money until “he” goes over the books of deals with Pantalone, father of the young woman to whom Federigo was affianced.  And therein lies a tale.  The second master turns out to be Florindo, for whom Federigo/Beatrice is searching, the man who killed Beatrice’s brother Federigo in a duel over her and who is her lover.  No one recognizes anybody, of course.  Poor Truffaldino, the incompetent servant, is still hungry halfway through the play!

Meanwhile another young couple’s wedding plans start out blessed but upon the return from the dead of Federigo, well, the first arrangement must take precedence, which infuriates the Dottore, father of Silvio, the beloved of Clarice. Love is frustrated, Beatrice reveals herself as a woman to Clarice so of course they’re now like sisters, while the true lover, Silvio, is jealous and behaves very foolishly.  Oh, what will become of them all?

And Truffaldino is still hungry.  When he finally has a chance to eat, it’s catch as catch can:  food flies over the curtain to be caught and tossed by Truffaldino juggling with the two highly energetic waiters (Aidan Eastwood and Sam Urdang) while he’s also juggling the service of a meal to each of his masters.
 
The juggling waiters (Photo by Gerry Goodstein)
The play is filled with music (all played by Christopher Curtis and Aaron Halva), including television advertising jingles from 30 years ago, snippets of show tunes, some pretty ditties for the ladies to sing (by Aaron Halva), pratfalls and slaps, a little swordplay, and an evening of ridiculous fun. 

This company of players knows how to milk a laugh, go off and around the bend and then, like good jazz musicians, bring the story back on track and move along briskly.  And they all sing wonderfully. 

The star of the show is Truffaldino portrayed with high energy by the remarkable Steven Epps.  He runs from one master to another, he leaps, he weeps, he receives beatings, he is a hoot and a half.

I didn’t even recognize one of my favorite actors from the Fiasco Theater Co., Andy Goteleuschen playing the Dottore, father of the whiny lover Silvio (Eugene Ma).
 
Steven Epps as Truffaldino and Allen Gilmore as Pantalone.  (Rehearsal photo by Gerry Goodstein)
Pantalone, father of Clarice, sometimes friend and sometimes enemy of the Dottore, was well played by Allen Gilmore.

Orlando Pabotoy’s Florindo brought down the house when he came out brushing, or perhaps caressing, his wig.

Liam Craig’s Brighella the Chef is creepy but not as nasty as the Brighella character often is in Commedia.

Liz Wisan never fooled me, I knew she was a woman dressed as a man!  But the audience always knows, it’s the characters onstage who aren’t playing with a full deck.  As Beatrice in disguise as her dead brother Federico, Ms. Wisan did a fine job as alternately winsome and tough.

Adina Verson is very charming, sings beautifully and is hilarious as Clarice.

Finally, Emily Young is sweet, funny and poignant as Smeraldina, the typical lady's maid conspiring with her mistress only to fall for the not in the slightest bit wily Truffaldino.  She also had a fine time speaking as a modern feminist standing up for women’s rights against the vulgarians coming into power.
 
Cast unrecognizable without their masks, except for the Dottore (L) and Pantalone (4).   Rehearsal photo by Gerry Goodstein..
My feeling about nine out of ten of the shows I see is that they run a little longer than they need to — and this very, very funny show was not an exception.  It could lose 10, 15 minutes.  Just not the intermission, which is needed for the audience to catch their breaths after over an hour of laughing as well as for the bathroom break implied by Truffaldino. I suspect which 10 minutes is arguable — something I felt lasted too long, such as Pantalone’s leg business, probably did not appear so to others.

There’s no down time in The Servant of Two Masters, it’s just chock a block non-stop, full of laughter and song.  If you’re sensitive to raunchy innuendoes, verbal or physical, you might be offended once or twice, but really, in today’s world, aren’t we offended by someone or something multiple times a day?  Grin and bear it for the sake of the rest of the life-giving oxygen provided by all the laughter.


~  Molly Matera, signing off to read TFANA’s always entertaining program with quotes about the playwrights, the play, the times.  Or perhaps watch the 1952 film, Scaramouche!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Theatre as Warning: Red Bull Theater’s Coriolanus at the Barrow Street Theatre

The Red Bull Theater’s production of William Shakespeare's Coriolanus at the Barrow Street Theatre is ensemble playing at its best, directed by Michael Sexton.  The small and tight-knit ensemble played early Romans and Volscians of all classes. 

About five centuries before Julius Caesar was stabbed in the Curia, the Roman patricians and warriors and plebeians had defeated their previous king, Tarquin the Proud, and established the Roman Republic.  This was not a republic in which all citizens were equal, but it was a start.  The play’s plebeians of the early republic become a character as a group with a common view.  When the play begins, the plebeians (lower class, working class, what you will) have “tribunes” to represent their interests in the patrician Senate.  Essentially the tribunes can be seen as go-betweens (like your local councilman, congressman, etc.), and can misinterpret or misrepresent (willfully or not) the plebeians to the patricians and vice versa. The plebeians want their fair share of grain (of which the patricians have more than they need).  The patricians don't want to give anything away.  This society is blatantly stratified. 

Caius Marcius is a fine soldier but a socially inept patrician.  Too soon after the Roman army has gotten rid of “Tarquin the Proud,” Caius Marcius behaves with much too much pride, setting himself up for a fall after rising as a military hero and gaining the surname Coriolanus after conquering the Volscian city of Corioli.  His politically ambitious friends and family want him to accept the Consulship of Rome (the highest elected political office of the Roman Republic).  I doubt it will surprise anyone that this does not turn out well 

The splendid cast elucidating the story and the people are:

Dion Johnstone is a powerful and articulate Coriolanus.  Strength and fury emanate from him except when he’s speaking to his mother, wife or son.  He is powerful, passionate, a bit dense, and very arrogant.

Virgilia, Coriolanus, and Volumnia in front, Cominius and Titus Lartius behind.  (Photo By Carol Rosegg)
Lisa Harrow was ruthless as Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia.  Her love for him displaced by her own ambition, Volumnia is not an easy character to like, but Harrow makes her three-dimensional.

Patrick Page was engaging but sleazy.  He is just a politician, but his heartbreak at Coriolanus’ rejection of him in the second half of the play is real.  His Menenius Agrippa was a Southern styled good-old boy.  While amusing, this choice seemed rather tired, even trite since everyone else in the play has city or homogeneous accents. Like the production, Mr. Page has political points to make.


Patrick Page as Menenius Agrippa (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

Matthew Amendt as Tullus Aufidius did not look like a tough warrior so he had to act it, and he did.  He spent a great deal of time off center, and I enjoyed watching him out of the corner of my eye as he responded — or didn’t — to Coriolanus.  His building fury is only broken by the death of the man he ordered killed, a man as like him as a brother.
 
The banished Coriolanus and Tullus Aufidius (Photo by Carol Rosegg)
Aaron Krohn played a strong Cominius, Coriolanus’ long-time friend and general. Krohn comes into his own as the sensible and sensitive friend to Coriolanus back in Rome.  Zachary Fine was Coriolanus’ fellow soldier and friend Titus Lartius. Both are also transformed to be part of the plebeians of Rome, slipping easily into other speech patterns and beliefs. Fine also plays a sodden member of the Volscian Aufidius’ staff and was charming and funny opening the production’s second half with great hilarity — this should be no surprise from the man who played Crab and Valentine in the Fiasco Theater Company production of Two Gentlemen of Verona at TFANA in 2015 [https://mollyismusing.blogspot.com/2015/05/2-shakespeares-and-upstart-crow.html]. 
 
Titus Lartius, Coriolanus, and Cominius (Photo by Carol Rosegg)
The plebeians are easily manipulated by the two tribunes who are supposed to represent the plebeians but who have agendas of their own.  These two are well played by Stephen Spinella (Sicinius Velutus) and Merritt Janson (Junius Brutus). Sicinius makes me very angry, but Spinella is so good and was honestly physically afraid of Johnstone’s Coriolanus that my anger with him faded, if just for the moment.

Rebecca S’Manga Frank played multiple roles, from Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia who she completely differentiated from angry Roman plebeians calling for Coriolanus’ banishment.

Olivia Reis played Coriolanus’ small son.  Her face was a child’s face until she reappeared as a courtesan in the Volscian camp or a Roman plebeian, when she became an entirely different physical person. 

Edward O’Blenis did excellent work as First Citizen in Rome, an angry man, powerful and skilled at goading his fellow plebeians to revolt.  In the Volscian city of Corioli, he is the lieutenant to Tullus Aufidius. 

Christina Pumariega played a broad range of roles, each better than the last, from the Roman patrician Valeria to an acrimonious plebeian to a bawdy wench in the town of Corioli.

Coriolanus is the story of a man who was not temperamentally suited for public office.  He was a fine solider and general. He knew himself inappropriate to be Consul but allowed those with more ambition than he had push him to accept the honor.  What he may not have seen, since understanding people was not his strong point, was that each friend and relative who urged him on wanted to live in the reflection of a Consul’s power.  That was for themselves, not for him, not for Rome.  Inevitably his unfitness surfaced, his unfiltered mouth insulted every person he did not consider his peer, that is, most of mankind and particularly the plebeian class whose votes (“voice”) he needs to be named Consul.  The incensed plebeians accuse him of treason and want him either executed (by being thrown from the Tarpeian Rock) or banished.  Being banished from the country whose wars he’d fought is a bitter pill.  He goes over to the other side, to fight by the side of his arch enemy Tullus Aufidius, goes to war against Rome and denies his friends and family. 

The final act of murder/execution was harrowing to see and highly effective, played center stage as it was.  And, not surprisingly, the fool who ordered the death of Coriolanus regrets it and is heartbroken but it is too late to mend. 

Does any of this sound familiar?

I am not a purist in Shakespeare: I’m all for cutting, editing, even moving scenes around if it clarifies and moves the story along.  Shakespeare’s storytelling is strong enough to withstand a great deal of messing about.  This streamlined script, though, seemed a tightly strung bow, aimed predictably to show the power that can lie with two manipulative politicians directing the uneducated masses as a weapon against an enemy, not necessarily of the people, but of those two politicians.

I’ve seen the play before, and found it dreadfully appropriate that I saw this production on election night.  


~ Molly Matera, signing off to re-read Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, the novel, as opposed to the wonderful play version produced by Bedlam that I swooned over last week.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Kings of War_Shakespeare in Dutch at the BAM Opera House

Kings of War is my second Shakespearean mash-up by Ivo van Hove (who directed Toneelgroep Amsterdam in performance of the adaptation by Bart van den Eynde and Peter van Kraaij).  The first (Roman Tragedies in 2012:   http://mollyismusing.blogspot.com/2012/11/friends-romans-dutch.html ) was longer, truer, better.  This outing is more particularly edited, not unsuitable for the U.S. election season.  In this production, van Hove and his cohorts for this translation by Rob Klinkenberg “adapted” Shakespeare’s Henry V, Henry VI Parts 1, 2 (not so much) and 3, and Richard III into one evening about kings and family feuds and wars and just plain murder.  Or was it?

The first two hours and twenty minutes of the evening were engaging, imaginative, clever, even funny.  The main events (political) of Henry V (“H5”) were covered, then on to Henry VI (“H6”) part 1, sliding over part 2, then clarifying the raison d’être for Richard III (“R3”) in part 3 of H6.  We fell from some highflying places to a very poor R3 for the second half of the production, so bad I catnapped during the last 20 minutes or so and didn’t miss a thing.  What happened? Why were van Hove, van den Eynde and van Kraaij able to, according to their own themes, comprehensibly condense four plays into less than 2 ½ hours, and make a hash-up in under two hours of the last one. 

For the first half, the setting was modern, easy to rearrange, and augmented with continuous video and supertitles showing us what was happening offstage. In Shakespeare, offstage usually means violence, and sometimes it does in Kings of War.  We’d watch backstage action on video until those participants entered the playing area.  At one point, what we saw were lots of sheep.  (They were not really backstage.)  The music of the first half was brass (by “Blindman”: Konstantin Koev, Charlotte van Passen, Daniel Quiles Cascant, and Daniel Ruibal Ortigueira), very exciting and fitting, especially with the inclusion of the marvelous contratenor Steve Dugardin

Each king was introduced on a red patterned carpet rolled onto the stage.  We have already seen the procession, of course, on the video.  The new king, Cardinals, right-hand men, queens, mothers and the like, all those people who have or wish to have the power behind the throne, would walk in step behind him (each him) as he walks to his coronation.  It’s a nifty set up, making it perfectly clear whose reign it is, with the King’s name flashed on the supertitle just to make sure we all knew what’s what.

The Coronation of Henry V (Photo by Jan Versweyveld)




















Shakespeare generally puts the real violence offstage, therefore it appeared on video (by Tal Yardin) in this production.  Some of it was rather harrowing, and York’s examination of Uncle Gloucester’s offstage corpse in H6 was ghastly and effective.  Van Hove and his colleagues seemed most interested in the political machinations of the kings’ courts, courtiers, advisers, wives, so it was confusing but delightful that he retained the wooing scene between King Henry and Katharina toward the end of H5. 

There were some interesting and well-articulated performances in multiple roles by
·         Eelco Smits as Grey in H5 and the king himself in Henry VI
·         Leon Voorberg as Charles VI of France in H5, Warwick and later Stanley
·         Aus Greidanus Jr. as Gloucester, the regent for Henry VI, and later as Buckingham in R3, doing nice creepy work in the latter
·         Bart Slegers as the Chief of Staff in H5, York in H6 and later Edward IV (however briefly) in R3
·         Hélène Devos was adorable as Katharina in H5, with interesting choices (hers, van Hove’s?) as Lady Anne in R3
·         Robert de Hoog was excellent as a whiny Dauphin in H5, as the manipulative snake oil salesman Suffolk in H6, and charmingly broken as Clarence in R3.

But the best, the star of the evening, was Chris Nietvelt.  I’d seen her as Cleopatra (among others) in the Roman Tragedies, and here she played three roles:  Montjoy, the French courier in H5, then Leonora, foolish and self-destructive wife to Gloucester in H6, and finally Elizabeth, wife then widow to Edward IV, mother to the two princes murdered in the Tower and to young Elizabeth, wanted by Richard for his third wife (lest you worry, eventually to marry Richmond, Henry VII).  Ms. Nietvelt continues her fine characterizations and truthful performances that I learned to expect from her the last time I sat through many hours of Shakespeare in Dutch.

King Henry VI and Queen Margareta
There were some rather dull performances in single roles:  Marieke Heebink as the Duchess of York in R3, when she was as shallow as her theatrical son: Hans Kesting as Richard III.  Also far from stellar and merely scary was Janni Gosling as Margareta, queen then widow of Henry VI, lover of Suffolk, and theatrically Johnny-one-note from the moment we met her.

While I’m naming names, design and lighting by Jan Versweyveld, music by Eric Sleichim (yay first half, boo second half); costumes by An D’Huys.

In the second half, the set looked like the lobby of a middle class hotel. We saw that what had been the musicians’ gallery in the first half was populated with a “disc jockey” with no discs, just a machine to control the electronic sound, which produced irritating noise.  But then, most of the second half was annoying. 

Hans Kesting enters as Richard with a birthmark on his face and a limp.  His clothes are ill-tailored so he seems to be more physically inhibited than he is.  Richard was drawn to a full length mirror onstage, and kept returning to it.  Between that and the video filming him looking at himself, I had double vision with nausea.  Halfway through, to top it off, for no reason at all, Richard takes off his clothes center stage to change into his not much different costume for his coronation.  It took much longer than it deserved.  There could have been ten minutes cut off the playing time.  Surely there were other places to edit as well.

From a firm start with the Henry plays, the evening devolved to an uninspired R3. Kings of War, while shorter than the excellent Roman Tragedies that led us to this adventure, did not live up to that 2012 production 


This company uses the same designers and videographers and some of the same actors.  Interestingly, one of the flaws of this modern styling and the microphones and the television and the video is the same problem the Roman Tragedies had in the same BAM Opera House back in 2012: that I often could not tell who on the stage was speaking (particularly when two of the younger male actors looked rather similar to one another).  The miking of actors must be compensated for in the staging so we don’t wonder who’s speaking, what with all those sounds coming from the same place.  I also noted that the first two plays of the Roman Tragedies (Coriolanus and Julius Caesar) were well edited and “mashed” but that the last play, Antony & Cleopatra, like the last play in Kings of War, Richard III, lasted too long, as if the editors got tired and just said, this will have to do. 

In any case, I’m glad I experienced this production, flaws and all, and will give the next Shakespearean mash-up from Toneelgroep Amsterdam a try.


~ Molly Matera, signing off to re-read Coriolanus to figure out how much the Red Bull Theater production cut.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Pride and Petulance: A Lesser-Known Shakespeare Play on War and Women

It was a perfect summer evening at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. Hot but not stifling.  Clear, with enough of a breeze to keep most of the bugs at bay.  And a brilliant production on the stage for about three hours.

An infrequently produced play, Troilus & Cressida is set in Troy (a.k.a. Phrygia) when the war between Troy and the Greeks, ostensibly over Helen of Troy, has been going on for seven years.  This seems to be symbolized by the debris surrounding the set on its lower level, trash bags and plastic chairs separating the audience from the stage.

Calchas, a minor Trojan priest, allegedly foresees the fall of Troy and moves into the Greek invading camp.  His daughter Cressida he leaves to the care of his brother, Pandarus, remaining in Troy.  It seems the Trojans do not hold Calchas’ daughter responsible for her father’s surely treasonous actions, and Troy’s youngest prince, Troilus, falls for her.  The "romance” of the play is orchestrated by Cressida’s uncle Pandarus. 

John Glover, my favorite Pandarus to date, opens the play as Prologue, and closes the tale of lust, greed, and violence with sly wit.
 
Andrew Burnap as Troilus, John Glover as Pandarus, and Ismenia Mendes as Cressida. (Photo Credit Joan Marcus, NYT)

The major players you’ll have heard of.  Among the Greeks are 

  • Agamemnon, the great general played with confident strength by John Douglas Thompson
  • His brother Menelaus, cuckolded husband of Helen, an appropriately mealy-mouthed performance by Forrest Malloy (who also plays a creepy Calchas)
  • Nestor, the old soldier brought to grumpy life by Edward James Hyland
  • Ulysses, the canny statesman-like soldier played as a shrewd and smarmy politician by Corey Stoll
  • Achilles, famed as much for his pride and petulance as for his prowess on the battlefield, from which he has abstained for some time*, was unexpectedly and marvelously played by “understudy,” KeiLyn Durrel Jones
  • Patroclus, Achilles’ special friend lounging around the Greek camp tents played like a juvenile delinquent by Tom Pecinka
  • Ajax, an oddly scrawny and remarkably dumb soldier related to both the Greeks and the Trojans played with humor and heart by Alex Breaux
  • Diomedes, a hardened middle management level soldier well played by Zach Appelman

 *We learn later that this is to honor his other love, Trojan princess Polyxena

In Troy, the setting of the story, are 
  • The valiant Hector, an honorable man, eldest son and heir to King Priam, passionately played by Bill Heck
  • Paris, the arrogant lout who stole away Menelaus’s wife Helen and whose libidinous impulses started this whole mess, was coldly played by Maurice Jones
  • Aeneas, a leading citizen soldier was adroitly and cleverly played by Sanjit De Silva
  • Troilus, youngest son of Priam — “He eats nothing but doves, love, and that breeds hot blood, and hot blood begets hot thoughts, and hot thoughts beget hot deeds, and hot deeds is love.” — is played in pubescent heat by Andrew Burnap
  • As the vulnerable young woman of the piece, in love, yet wise beyond her years, Ismenia Mendes does finely detailed work bringing Cressida to life onstage.
  • Alexander, Cressida’s clever gossiping servant sets a light tone in the first act, competing with Pandarus for his mistress’ attention and favor.  Well portrayed by Nicholas Hoge
  • In Troy we also meet Hector’s wife Andromache, silent until she can bear it no longer, bravely played by Tala Ashe
  • Hector and Troilus’ sister, the prophetess Cassandra to whom no one listens, strikingly played by Nneka Okafor
  • And Helen.  Not a typical Helen, this production gave us a fascinating portrayal of an unhappy woman who is guarded by armed men and supplied with wine.  This unusual choice was well played by Tala Ashe



KeiLyn Durrel Jones in rehearsal, not as Achilles in this photo.  Center is Corey Stoll rehearsing for Ulysses, and finally John Douglas Thompson as General Agamemnon.  

Daniel Sullivan’s production for Shakespeare in the Park is the best I have ever seen of this play.  It’s generically modern with soldiers in flak jackets, carrying guns as well as knives, the Trojans in black, the Greeks in desert war camouflage.  Laptops are used by Pandarus and Cressida to watch the parade of Trojan warriors returning to Ilion after a day of battle, as well as by the Greek military.  Ulysses’ long summation early in the first half of the play is enhanced by an amusing slide show.

David Zinn’s set easily turns from Troy’s hedonistic blood-red walls with a look of watered silk to the metallic gray Quonset hut walls of the Greek camp.  A level above the main playing area is put to excellent use by soldiers, the vile Thersites, this play’s unusual “clown” (nastily played by Max Casella), a betrayed and bereft Cressida, and also serves as a strategic lookout for Ulysses.

Ulysses is a particularly threatening character in this production, a corporate/government type, his uniform a white shirt, a suit and tie.  He instigates, cajoles, instructs the Greeks, sounding even tempered and sensible until his rage leaps out only to be restrained once more.  In the second half this wily manipulator plays Troilus against himself while condemning Cressida to the fate of all women in men’s wars, particularly those relegated to “camp follower.”

John Glover is a brilliant Pandarus, witty, lascivious, and romantic in his matchmaking of Troilus and Cressida — unless it was purely a power play to set himself up for better times to come.  Troilus starts out sweet, romantic, but turns into a weak fool, first by not stepping up or even speaking out for his purported love Cressida while the Trojans and Greeks barter her like a goat. By the end he turns against the woman he loves as she attempts to stay alive and avoid gang rape after being tossed alone and friendless into the Greek camp.  These are enemies to the Trojan state and likewise to her.  Troilus’ character slides downhill from the moment he attains what he thinks is his heart’s desire, the love of Cressida.

Lighting designed by Robert Wierzel and sound design by Mark Menard brought forth startling battle sounds of gunfire and explosions.  Brightly lit Trojan lovers contrasted with the gloomy grays of the Greek camp where Cressida is surrounded by soldiers hovering to pounce if her protector deserts her.

The fight scenes, choreographed by co-fight directors Michael Rossmy and Rick Sordelet, were tight and frightening, and the dread death of Hector, an act of cowardice and misplaced vengeance, was bloody and heartbreaking.

Women are silenced and used, Andromache left alone, Cassandra locked up, while Helen is imprisoned in Troy and Cressida is imprisoned in the Greek camp.  Very powerful statements clearly defined in this production. As Thersites says, “War and lechery confound all.” 

Bravo Daniel Sullivan, bravo Public Theatre, bravo to a fine cast and crew for this stellar production.  Oh, and bravo to William Shakespeare once again.
 
Tom Pecinka as Patroclus, David Harbour as Achilles (whom I did not see), and Max Casella as Thersites.
(Photo Credit Joan Marcus)


~ Molly Matera signing off to re-read the play. The opening of the play has been postponed due to an accident that befell David Harbour, scheduled to play Achilles.  The night I saw this play his understudy KeiLyn Durrel Jones gave an excellent performance, so I hope he takes over the role permanently.  Go wait on line in Central Park for this one, it’s worth it.  You can see a video excerpt of the production here:  https://youtu.be/cKSI4GCHhuk

Friday, July 22, 2016

Hoping a Limited Run Reappears with Joe Morton as Dick Gregory

Luckily for me, I caught Joe Morton in “Turn Me Loose” during its last week at The Westside Theatre. “Turn Me Loose” is “a play about comic genius Dick Gregory.” Based on how much I laughed for the 90-minute duration, I’d call that an accurate description.  Mind you, the play is as much about Dick Gregory the civil rights activist as it is about comedy, so there was plenty to ponder.

Joe Morton brought to vibrant and seething life Dick Gregory, a controversial comic who rose to fame just before and during the Civil Rights movement.  The audience was howling with laughter one moment, then particularly pensive as Mr. Morton enacted a dialogue between Mr. Gregory and Medgar Evers in the months prior to the latter's death.  The language, whether Mr. Morton was playing the young, the old, or middle-aged Gregory, was funny, provocative, angry, smart, and passionate. 

Joe Morton as Dick Gregory.  Photo Credit Sara Krulwich/NYT

Playwright Gretchen Law encapsulated Gregory’s extraordinary contribution to our nation’s conscience and comedy in a brief play (deftly performed on a practical, single set designed by Chris Barreca and lit by Stephen Strawbridge) with just two actors:  Mr. Morton giving a bravura performance as Mr. Gregory, and John Carlin doing captivating and imaginative work as a 60s stand-up comic, a heckler, a cabbie, and a radio interviewer, among others.  John Gould Rubin directs so that not a moment of raw, scathing wit is lost, nor is a moment of warmth for the man himself.
 
Morton as Gregory opposite John Carlin as a Radio Interviewer.  Photo credit Monique Carboni 
Every scene was engaging and thought provoking, every drop of sweat off Mr. Morton’s face endearing. 

The Westside Theatre’s downstairs performance space was an excellent venue for this penetrating production and I hope the play returns here or to another incarnation in an equally intimate space so those who missed this limited run might catch it next time around. 

Not only a fine evening of theatre at The Westside Theatre, but Dick Cavett was sitting in the row ahead of me!  Keep an eye out for a return or revival of Turn Me Loose.


~ Molly Matera, signing off to read a little not ancient enough history