“Venus in Fur” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

Tags

Where do I begin in singing my praises of the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s enormously satisfying production of David Ives’s Venus in Fur?

PPTvenus010

Whitney Maris Brown as Vanda. Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

I might as well begin with the play itself, which is a provocative and canny – and rather sexy, I might add – work about erotic desire, power and manipulation. The story revolves around an audition for a fictional new play based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 quasi-pornographic novel Venus in Furs, which explored the dimensions of what later came to be called masochistic desire (after its author). As Ives’s play opens, director/playwright Thomas (Christian Conn) is about to leave after a long day of not finding the perfect actress to play the lead role of “Wanda von Dunayev,” his play’s reluctant dominatrix, when in barges a young actress, Vanda (Whitney Maris Brown), begging for a chance to audition even though she’s hours late for her scheduled time. She won’t take no for an answer, and Ives soon has her bewitching Thomas in a cat-and-mouse game that niftily maps the dynamic of the humiliating audition process onto the masochistic desire for degradation that is at the heart of both Sacher-Masoch’s novel and Thomas’s play.

Ives’s writing is alternatingly funny, terrifying, and exhilirating. Vanda is playing for higher stakes than just the lead in Thomas’s play, and her manipulation of both the situation and him is dazzlingly delightful. There is fantasy here: a fantasy of revenge and comeuppance, but also one that, harking back to Greek tragedy, speaks a warning to all who would provoke the gods with their presumption of superior knowledge.

PPTvenus014

Christian Conn & Whitney Maris Brown. Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

The role of Vanda is a plum one for an actress. The character is wily, confident, and wickedly intelligent, and the actress playing her has to be able to whip back and forth between the 21st century Vanda, who seems to be blustering her way into an audition, and the sophisticated, aristocratic 19th-century Wanda of the play within the play for which she is auditioning. In addition, Vanda plays a number of other ruses as she uses Thomas’s Wanda to slip through his defenses. The superb, chameleon-like Whitney Maris Brown shifts between the various registers that the role demands with a seemingly effortless spontaneity, and her acumen as an actor shines through in her character’s lightning-quick intelligence. Conn is equally sharp as Thomas, and he brings heart and soul to a character that might easily fall into stereotype. Together, these two actors make the stage crackle with an almost electric charge.

The production’s design deserves praise as well. David M. Barber’s set reproduces the kind of all-purpose room one might rent from an old school or YMCA to use as a rehearsal studio, a little dingy and downscale, with nice details like a small note above the door lock that you might imagine reminds users to turn out the lights upon leaving. Tilly Grimes’s well-curated costumes allow Brown to utterly transform herself from leather-clad modern sex diva to demure nineteenth-century lady in the blink of an eye. Zach Moore’s sound design brings the ominous threat of a storm into the space, and Peter West’s lighting design adds in the frisson of magic that hovers at the edges of the play.

Readers, I’m aware I was a little hard on Tru, the Public’s last production. But with Venus in Fur the theater caps off what has otherwise been a really successful season with an edgy gem of a play, one that has it all: humor, suspense, brilliant dialogue, intriguing characters, outstanding performances, and a cheeky, mischievous take on the dynamics of power and sex. Hail Aphrodite!

“The Spitfire Grill” at Front Porch Theatricals

Tags

Wouldn’t it be “GREAT” to turn back the clock to that happy era when “we all” lived in neighborly small towns with thriving businesses on “Main Street,” men worked “real,” well-paying jobs at the local quarry or mill, their wives made sure their shirts were laundered when they needed them and their dinner was ready when they got home, and “everyone” was just so much better off?

That’s not just a question animating a dishearteningly large proportion of the American electorate this year. It’s also one that threads, rather uneasily, through the center of James Valcq and Fred Alley’s The Spitfire Gril, a musical that debuted in 2001 and was based on a 1996 film by Lee David Zlotoff.

Set in fictional Gilead, Wisconsin – a town that, having depleted both its local quarry and its forests of all their valuable resources, now has little satisfying or gainful employment to offer to its residents – the musical is alternatingly cynical and sentimental about the mythical “lost America” the town represents. The plot revolves around a scheme to raffle off the town diner that elderly owner Hannah (Terry Wickline) has been trying to sell for a decade. The idea is that her Spitfire Grill will go to the person who writes the best essay describing why they should win it. The ad that hometown girl Shelby (Erin Lindsey Krom) and ex-con newcomer Percy (Lindsay Bayer) write to publicize the raffle describes Gilead accurately, but in terms that bathe it in a nostalgic-aspirational Norman Rockwell-esque glow: “Have you ever dreamed of a town so small they roll the sidewalks up? …. Here’s a chance to win a grill … the customers who eat here are people that you know.” To Hannah’s surprise, the response to the ad is overwhelming: thousands of essays pour in from people all over the country grasping at that very dream.

spitfire

L to R: Erin Lindsey Krom (Shelby Thorpe), Terry Wickline (Hannah Ferguson) and Lindsay Bayer (Percy Talbott) singing “Come Alive Again.” Photo by Martha D. Smith, courtesy Front Porch Theatricals

The musical doesn’t quite know what to do with the nostalgic impulse it has dredged up by way of this plot device, however. On the one hand, it seems to want to win our sympathy for these retrograde dreams of pastoral bliss: the desire for a simpler, less harried, more connected life expressed in the essays Hannah receives is one that it’s hard not to relate to. Moreover, the rousing central ballad of the first act, “Diggin Stone,” invites us to align ourselves with the frustrations Caleb (Matthew J. Rush) feels after having been left behind by his town’s economic decline (a laid-off foreman from the quarry, he’s trying to eke out a living selling real estate “till the quarry’s open again”). “Where are the days when a man could lift his head/ Proud of the ways he’s earned his daily bread?” he croons with agonizing resentment.

But careful where you hang your hat: as it continues, the song starts to sound like a potential anthem for disaffected voters ready to believe that their problems will be solved by a huge wall around the country. Among Caleb’s complaints:  “…Then hard times come to town/ Shake your hand and set you down/ Set you up to watch you fall/… You stand back up and get knocked down/ Watch as a stranger takes your town/ You suck it in and you swallow lies/ Something deep in your belly dies….”  Youtube bears me out on this one: when I searched for a recording of the song so that I could quote the lyrics, its algorithm spit out, at the top of the list of related videos, an interview with Jon Stewart about the current presidential race in which he queries, in response to such complaints: “When was America great? … And who took your country away from you?”

So although this musical was written over a decade and a half ago, long before the great recession, it seems very much a musical for and of our current moment, albeit with a much more ambiguous critical stance than it might have taken had it been written more recently. The play’s politics feel a bit like beads of mercury, sliding away from any attempt to pin them down. For example, the nostalgia of “Diggin’ Stone” is countered by the fact that the drunk, bullying Caleb is the least likable character in the story, which encourages us to cast something of a gimlet eye on his grievances. Moreover, the dark underbelly of the patriarchal utopia that he and the raffle entrants yearn for is sliced open when Percy reveals her back story of rape and assault at the hands of an abusive stepfather. Clearly, the musical wants to point out that “everyone” was not better off in that mythical “great America” that never was. But although The Spitfire Grill has several potentially incisive and critical insights to offer into the absurdity and irreality of sentimentalizing and nostalgizing the past, the imperative of a redemptive happy ending means that faith in small-town virtues – if not the patriarchal order – must nevertheless be reconfirmed in its final moments.

The musical’s gender politics also give with one hand while taking with the other. Long stretches of the play pass the “Bechdel test” – there are three main female characters, they talk to each other, and, for most of the play, not about men. It’s refreshing to see a musical that takes a positive look at intergenerational friendship between women and pays homage to women’s ingenuity, strength, and fortitude. But then, for reasons that are unclear, there must be conventional heterosexual wooing: the sheriff, Joe (Clay Singer) falls for Percy and finds, in her, a motivation to stay in Gilead (but in order for him to make his obligatorily awkward proposal, the heretofore rather butch Percy has to doll herself up in a floral dress. What’s up with that?). I have a similar beef with the hetero coupling in Wicked – it feels like a bone tossed to the musical comedy dogs, completely inessential to what would otherwise be a fully satisfying story about female friendship. (For a brief few minutes during the first act, I thought that the romance might blossom between Percy and Shelby; alas, we’ve yet to see that romantic plot in a musical.)

Director Rachel M. Stevens makes an effort to call attention to the “not-greatness” of Gilead (and the “great again America” it can’t help but symbolize for a modern audience) by keeping Hannah’s son Eli (Michael Petrucci), a homeless Vietnam War vet, a constant and haunting presence on the stage from the very beginning of the play. It’s a laudable impulse. But because we don’t really learn his story until near the end of the play, the significance of this figure doesn’t quite have the intended impact.

Some aspects of the production are more successful than others. Music director Deana Muro leads a unseen, first-rate ensemble of five musicians who capture a range of vernacular music styles with dexterity and panache. Among the cast, Bayer, Krom, and Singer are particularly strong, demonstrating impressive vocal and emotional range. As the nosy, gossipy Effy Krayneck, the reliable Becki Toth builds an easy rapport with the audience and provides consistent comic relief. Andrew David Ostrowski’s saturated lights help evoke the autumn colors that are the town’s signature draw, but on opening night, shaky follow spot cues were a distraction. As was Lindsey B. Mayer’s incoherent scene design, in which putty-colored exterior siding on moving panels form the interior walls of the restaurant. The slatted wall behind the diner kitchen looks more like the wall of a barn than that of an eating establishment, and the row of old windows at the back of the stage seem a superfluous afterthought. Equally incoherent was Stevens’s seemingly arbitrary use of real props for some actions, and mime for others. I’m not sure what kind of theatrical world we’re in when a character can light and smoke a real (herbal) cigarette but has to pour invisible coffee from a real pot into a real cup and chop invisible vegetables with a real knife.

Those distractions aside, the storytelling here is clear and compelling, and the fact that I found so much to think and write about (this is one of my longest posts in a while!) is a sign that this musical got under my skin. Perhaps not only in ways I find agreeable; but, in my humble opinion, any art that gets the neurons firing at such a high volume is well worth the price of admission.

“The Giver” at Prime Stage Theatre

Tags

Gray rectangular panels hang like opaque windows on the back wall of the stage. They are mirrored by gray rectangular panels on the black floor, and gray rectangular tables and benches that furnish the spaces in which the characters – dressed in blocky tunics the same shade of light gray – live their gray, square lives.

Giver and Jonas

L to R: Ken Lutz and Will Sendera

This is what “Sameness” looks like, as effectively imagined by set designer Johnmichael Bohach and costume designer Kim Brown: colorless, rectilinear, rule-bound. Based on Lois Lowry’s popular and award-winning novel, The Giver (adapted by Eric Coble) presents a utopian Community in which social harmony is engineered through the radical abolishment of competition and choice. Children are taken from their birth mothers to be raised by adults unrelated to them; at twelve, they are assigned to a profession selected by a committee of elders. The same rules apply equally to all, and the same benefits accrue to all, eliminating the differentials in wealth and possession that lead to social conflict. People are equal and without material wants. It’s a harmonious and placid world.

But as we all know, every utopia is also a dystopia. Here, it falls to young Jonas (Will Sendera) to discover the disturbing foundation on which his peaceful and conflict-free life is based. Jonas can “see beyond” – which means that he can see color where the rest of the people around him can only see shades of black and white (an effect achieved cleverly through J.R. Shaw’s pinpoint lighting design). Instead of receiving a normal career assignment at the age of twelve like his peers, Jonas is chosen to be the “Receiver” of the Community’s memories, and sent to train with the current holder of that office, the Giver (Ken Lutz). In the process of receiving that treasure store of memories, Jonas comes to realize what “Sameness” has cost his community, and takes action to force it into change.

I’ll confess I haven’t read Lowry’s novel, so I’m not in a position to judge how faithfully Coble’s adaptation hews to the original. The story the play tells is clear and direct, building suspense through the first act about what, precisely, Jonas will do with the heavy responsibility he’s been given (at intermission, a young boy in front of me exclaimed to his dad: “this is a real cliffhanger!”) The theatrical challenges posed by Coble’s script are handled deftly by Prime Stage’s director, Melissa Hill Grande, and her design team. Video designer Joe Spinogatti and sound designer Angela Baughman vividly enliven the memories the Giver imparts to Jonas in images projected on the rectangular screens and sound effects that immerse us in the memory with him – the sound of wind and snow, of a horse’s gallop, of laughter and music at a birthday party. Bohach also nicely contrasts the straight-edged, monochromatic world of the community with the Giver’s curve- and color-filled apartment, which intrudes from behind the screens in a metaphorical foreshadowing of the play’s ending.

In addition to Sendera and Lutz, the cast includes Ricardo Vila-Roger as the Father, Zanna Fredland as the Mother, Micah Primack and Grace Vensel as Jonas’s friends Asher and Fiona, Gina Preciado as Larissa, Naomi Grodin as the Chief Elder, and the charismatic – and truly adorable – Sadie Primack as Jonas’s little sister Lily. The ensemble gives persuasive performances all around, making clear, strong choices to show that a life of passionless contentment may be comfortable, but it is hardly really living.

“The Lion” at City Theatre

Tags

“What makes a lion a lion?”

That’s one of those silly riddles an adult might tease a child with, keeping the answer a secret in order to string the child along.

It’s also the question at the heart of Benjamin Scheuer’s solo performance work The Lion, where it first appears in the context of a nursery song that Scheuer remembers his father having made up to entertain his three young sons. But the song never provides the answer to that riddle, and when Scheuer’s father suddenly dies and leaves thirteen-year-old Benjamin to take on the role of man of the house, he takes that answer – along with all the other wisdom, advice, and support he might have provided to his sons – with him. In fact, he also leaves behind a great deal of mystery, as Scheuer discovers – like so many of us who lose our parents before we really get to know them as adults – that his father was a very different person to his children than he was to his friends and colleagues.

The Lion

Benjamin Scheuer in ‘The Lion’

The personal journey Scheuer recounts through song and narration is a powerful one. Scheuer’s had a life rocked by misfortune: the tragedy of losing his father was followed up by a diagnosis of stage IV Hodgkins Lymphoma a decade later. But as painful and wrenching as his life has been, Scheuer recounts his autobiographical tale with a dryness and distance that keeps it from falling into sentimental tear-jerking. He’s wry and funny and self-aware to a perfect degree, so that even as, for example, he recalls his thirteen-year-old self’s devastation at the fact that his father died while he was on a band trip, after he had argued with his dad and refused to speak to him for a week, his adult self reassures us that he knows he didn’t cause his father to die. The theatricality of Scheuer’s presentation of his story is buttressed by Neil Patel’s deceptively simple set, which has an embossed upstage wall that comes to vivid life under Ben Stanton’s ingenious lighting design. As Scheuer moves through his story and from one guitar to another, the lighting makes it feel as if the stage is in a constant state of transformation around Scheuer.

The seventy-minute performance strings together a series of original songs that span a wide variety of styles, from children’s song to folk to ballad to rock, with Scheuer accompanying himself on one of the six guitars scattered around the stage. Music, Scheuer tells us, was his father’s primary gift to him, and he has honored the giver in the nurturing of that gift. Scheuer’s voice is smooth and lovely, and his guitar technique is masterful, whether he is plucking out complicated, delicate melodies or using the guitar primarily as a rhythm instrument. The beauty of Scheuer’s music is matched by the poetry of his lyrics, which contain unexpected gems. For example, although he had long avoided confronting his feelings about his father’s death, an urban misfortune triggers reconciliation: “Someone stole your old guitar/ and unlocked hidden tears/ It helped me start to face my fear/ Build a bridge before you fully disappear.” I don’t really have the words to describe how terrific Scheuer’s music is, so I’ll just cheat and embed a video here.

Scheuer eventually figures out for himself what makes a lion a lion – and sings a showstopping, triumphant song about it – but he’ll never know what his father’s real answer to that riddle was. And therein lies the poignancy of this gorgeous and moving musical: we can never really fill in the gaps our fathers leave behind, and those unanswered questions may be the ones that come to define us.

“Cock” at Kinetic Theatre Company

Tags

The title of this play is a bit of a red herring. I suppose it’s meant to refer to what’s “between” John (Thomas Constantine Moore) and his two lovers – his boyfriend of many years, “M,” played by Ethan Hova, and the woman he’s recently met and fallen in love with, “W,” played by Erika Strasburg – but the play is not nearly as racy and rough, in language or attitude, as the word “cock” would conjure for the American imagination. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing: it’s a nice surprise to find that the play eschews in-yer-face explicitness, but unfortunately its title also risks turning off audience members who would otherwise be charmed and taken in by this smart, complicated, and riveting play about the complexities of coupling in a “post-identity politics” age.

Cock is, in fact, only very tangentially about what hangs between the legs of three of its four characters. More centrally, it’s about a young man’s struggle to make sense of who he is by trying to figure out what he wants from a relationship, both physically and emotionally. John is a strange character to place at the center of a drama, because unlike most dramatic characters – who are defined in terms of “what they want” and “the obstacles that keep them from getting what they want” – John seems immobilized by an incapacity to define his desires. He’s a gay man who suddenly finds himself in a sexual relationship with a woman, and his inability to choose between M and W becomes not only an existential crisis for him, but also a condemnation of the kind of identity-politics that insists on categorizing and pigeonholing people in terms of sexuality and sexual preference.

Cock

Thomas Constantine Moore as John. Photo courtesy Kinetic Theatre Company.

The play has a deliberately disorienting structure and style: playwright Mike Bartlett notes that it should be staged as if it were taking place in a cockfighting arena, and Johnmichael Bohach’s set offers a credible replica. A low wall encircles a floor covered in sawdust; distressed corrugated metal panels form the walls behind the audience risers, which surround the playing space, with bench seats up close for spectators who want to get intimate with the action. The space is otherwise devoid of all furniture and props, and the playing style it demands takes inspiration from the likes of director Ivo van Hove – that is, spare, stark, stripped to the essentials. A character says he’s going to sit down and then doesn’t; objects get mentioned, but they are neither seen nor mimed; W moans as John fingers her, but Moore is not even touching Strasburg. All that busy work of pretending and faking and imitating and indicating is abandoned as the actors focus on the presence of the thoughts and emotions expressed by the text. It’s thrilling and captivating.

It’s also, at first, rather confusing. This is a play that demands a little patience. The first section of the play offers glimpses, in snapshot-style, of John’s relationship with M, hopscotching forward in time; the second section fills in the gaps with John’s intervening relationship with W. Nicholas Erickson’s sound design provides buzzing bells and static-y radio to help jump-cut all these moments together, but the first two sections are hard to put together.

The payoff comes with the third section, when the warring lovers spar over John at a dinner party, to which M has invited his father, “F” (Sam Tsoutsouvas), as reinforcement. From this point on, metaphorically, John is the weakest bird in the cockfighting arena, pecked at from all sides by the other characters, all of whom have much more clearly defined wants and needs. At the same time, he’s also the “prize” the other birds are fighting over. That fight is both entertaining and horrifying. As M, Hova neatly treads the line between charmingly catty and manipulatively abusive; Strasburg wears an equally sharp set of spurs as the direct, winning, shoot-from-the-hip W. Director Andrew Paul is unafraid of letting his actors and audience stew in cringingly awkward moments: for example, when M and W finally realize that John has not yet chosen one of them over the other, there is a long, awful silence in which Thomas Constantine Moore masterfully embodies the anguish of his indecision, his face a grimace of shame, embarrassment, and self-disgust.

That anguished silence was, for me, the biggest takeaway from the play; in the end, although John finally makes a choice, it’s a paralyzing one – and one that reveals the universality of the contours of abusive relationships, no matter the gender of the abuser and victim. Although John’s waffling initiated the contest, he’s its ultimate victim: his bedraggled, scarred, and bloodied carcass is what gets left behind in the sawdust.

“Tru” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

Tags

Truman Capote was a strange and interesting man. I have memories of seeing him on television, when I was a kid, memories mainly of the nasally voice, the lisp, the fey affect, and above all, the superior, dismissive tone that seemed to infuse his every word and gesture. My younger self found him both fascinating and repellant – his wit and charisma were thrilling, while his malicious, cutting disdain felt toadish and icky.

theater-review-tru

Eddie Korbich as Truman Capote. Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

That Truman, alas, is not much on view in Jay Presson Allen’s 1989 one-man bio-play Tru. Instead, we get a much gentler version of the man, fussing about his recent fall from grace among his wealthy patrons after he published a story à clef about them in Esquire magazine in late 1975. He natters anecdote after anecdote about the many famous and infamous people he’s had the good fortune to cross paths with as he drinks his way to terms with his new status as a persona non grata.

Eddie Korbich does a good imitation of Truman Capote, but it’s not an uncannily great one; the simper and the giggle and the skip may all be true to form, but the edge of arrogance and condescension is missing. Instead, he gives us the genial, flamboyant, gay-comedian version of the man.

Making Korbich’s job infinitely tougher is the question of why we should care about Truman Capote and his social ostracism in the first place. I can see why this play might have won a Tony Award in 1989, just five years after Capote’s death, when he was still in the cultural memory and – let’s not forget – open discussions of homosexuality were still relatively rare on stage (that would have been a year before Angels in America premiered at the Taper!). I’m hard pressed, however, to see what makes this play compelling to a present-day audience, other than as a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

I get that the Public needs its annual “one-hander” to fill out the season with a production that’s easy on the budget. But I’m willing to bet artistic director Ted Pappas could find solo-performer scripts that speak more pithily to the present moment. May I suggest a perusal of the Kilroys list?

“The Last Match” at City Theatre

Tags

Back and forth, back and forth go the volleys between defending champion Tim Porter and his challenger, Sergei Sergeyev, at the US Open. And so, too, go our loyalties between the two men, as they unspool for us the thoughts, fears, and memories zipping through their heads in the midst of their high-stakes match.

On its surface, Anna Ziegler’s play The Last Match is a character study, of two highly competitive superathletes and of the two women they love. And as character studies go, it’s an appealing one: American tennis star Tim (Danny Binstock) has the easy confidence and entitlement of a man who’s been a lifelong winner. He seems in possession of a completely charmed life: beautiful wife Mallory (Daina Michelle Griffith), newborn son, walls of trophies, millions of adoring fans. So naturally, when the play opens, we’re quickly aligned with Russian underdog Sergei (the winsome, trickster-ish JD Taylor), a young hothead who has scrabbled and fought his way to the top ranks. Sergei’s past is darker than Tim’s: where Tim rose to the heights of tennis with the full support of a loving middle-class family, Sergei left his working-class home at a young age, a decision that led to his success at tennis but irrevocably estranged him from his family. Now the only person in Sergei’s life is his fiancé Galina (Robin Abramson), a tough, take-no-prisoners Russian compatriot who has ambition to burn.

Last Match

JD Taylor as Sergei Sergeyev, Robin Abramson as Galina. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover.

The play’s narrative framework is the tennis match that brings the two athletes together. As they “play” game after game (indicated, thankfully, by minimally sketched slow motion movement), we’re brought into their headspaces and given a peek into what drives them, what keeps them in the game and motivated, and what has the capacity to disarm them, both physically and psychologically. The script has the actors shifting quickly from telling us what they are thinking and feeling to showing us moments from the past, and director Tracy Brigden stages these shifts fluidly on Narelle Sissons’s minimalist set, which gestures at a tennis court with its astroturf surface and glossy blue scoreboard but readily doubles as a café or park as the scene requires. The pared down look of the production carries over into Susan Tsu’s costumes – brightly colored tennis togs for the men, sharp iconic pieces for the women – and into Ann G. Wrightson’s clean, spare lighting design. Joe Pino’s sound design helps the imagination fill in what the set leaves out, situating us smack dab in the middle of the court with “pocks” of racket against ball and “whooshes” of ball through air.

The Last Match provides illuminating insight into the mindset of tennis champions. But to my mind the real accomplishment of this play lies in the way it skillfully shifts your sympathy from character to character: you may begin, as I did, rooting for the underdog Sergei, but part way through you may find yourself wanting Tim to win, and then back to Sergei again, until by play’s end you really don’t want either of these guys to win or lose. Tim starts out seeming like the kind of cocky braggart you want to get his comeuppance, but he becomes increasingly sympathetic as he reveals that his life has not been nearly as smooth sailing as it appears from a distance. Sergei, likewise, has moments of narcissistic assholery that make him less of an appealing underdog. Consequently, I left the theatre thinking less about the characters than about all the ways framing narratives shape our alliances, both to the good and the bad. A mentor of mine once attributed the political potency of theatre, film, and television to the fact that it’s hard to hate someone after you’ve empathized with their story. That’s the good. The bad is that it can be too easy to acclimate yourself to someone who figures out ways of framing assuaging narratives (I’m thinking here of what slowly seems to be happening among the Republican establishment vis-à-vis their once-reviled nominee; I’m also thinking of the piquant German comedic film Er ist wieder da, or Look Who’s Back).

In the end, The Last Match cleverly confronts our desire to take sides and root for “our” team or champion, leaving us, championless, to ponder how readily that desire can be manufactured and manipulated.

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” at barebones productions

Tags

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a timely play in this political season in which citizens seem to be aware, more than at any other time in personal memory, that the system is rigged. Indeed, where better to investigate the means through which the powerful few define and shape the material and existential conditions of the powerless many than in a loony bin, where those in authority not only shape the physical conditions of existence, but also define and determine what constitutes psychological and emotional “normality”?

Cuckoo's Baseball photo by Lou Stein

L to R: Maurice Redwood, Billy Jenkins, Kim Parker Green, Randy Kovitz, Nick Lehane, Patrick Jordan, Leandro Cano, Michael Lane Sullivan (partly hidden), Dave Mansueto, and Mark Tierno. Photo by Lou Stein, courtesy barebones productions.

Based on Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel of the same name, Dale Wasserman’s 1963 theatrical adaptation tells the story of the hell-raising, anti-authoritarian R. P. McMurphy (Patrick Jordan), a convicted felon who has feigned madness in order to serve the remaining eight months of his prison term in a mental hospital instead of doing hard labor. McMurphy lands in a ward ruled over by the calmly sadistic Nurse Ratched (Kim Parker Green), who maintains her authority via a system of disciplining surveillance, psychological manipulation, and internalized fear that would put Michel Foucault in a state of awe.

Both the novel and the play wrap a parable about the insidious abuse of power by those in charge around a potent critique of the institutional treatment of the mentally ill. Kesey based his novel on his own experience of working as a night orderly in a mental institution, and the cruel, medically suspect practices his novel exposed – overmedication, psychological and emotional abuse, electroshock therapy, and lobotomy – were later used as part of the rationalization for closing down mental hospitals and deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill. That might, in hindsight, have been the wrong lesson to draw: for the acutes and chronics in Kesey’s fictional ward, the institution itself is not the problem but rather the fact that it puts them at the mercy of someone who wields power with no oversight, and whose only motivation is to retain that power. The play’s emotional punch comes from our dread about the foregone outcome of the clash between the cocky McMurphy – who is so confident he can best the system that he bets all he’s got on himself – and Ratched, who holds cards he doesn’t even know exist.

Cuckoo’s Nest is above all interested in how psychological manipulation helps those in power maintain the status quo. We see this most potently played out in a devastating confrontation between Nurse Ratched and Billy Bibbit, a young man so terrified of his mother’s disapproval that he’s rendered virtually speechless by a debilitating stutter (played with heartbreaking sensitivity by the superb Nick Lehane). When Billy, having finally lost his virginity to a prostitute McMurphy has sneaked into the ward, suddenly finds himself able to defy Nurse Ratched with fluid confidence, she instantly reduces him back to a stuttering cower by reminding him of how disappointed his mother will be when she hears of his behavior. Ratched’s use of her superior insight into the inmates’ neuroses and psychoses to keep them in a state of subjection to her will is a vivid illustration of the principle that knowledge equals power.

The play’s interest in the effect of psychological manipulation extends into the political sphere, as well. Unlike the film version starring Jack Nicholson, in which we don’t discover that the giant, silent Chief Bromden (the imposing Leandro Cano) can speak until well into the story, Wasserman’s play follows the novel’s lead in positioning the Chief as a narrator, interlacing his experience of disenfranchisement as a Native American at the mercy of dominant white culture with the mental patients’ subjugation to the power structure of the mental ward. Thus the play also functions to dissect the ways the system uses the internalization of racism to oppress people of color. The enormous Chief repeatedly expresses the belief that he’s not “big enough” to fight back, his vision of himself having been shaped by white culture’s marginalization of his people and his history. It’s up to McMurphy to help Chief realize the mental and physical strength that goes with his size; in many ways, although it’s McMurphy who sets the action of the play in motion and drives it forward, the character who has the most transformative journey is the Chief.

The barebones production is compelling and gripping. Director Melissa Martin has assembled a huge and talented cast to populate Tony Ferrieri’s eerily imposing mental ward, which, with its forced-perspective foreshortening, realizes in architectural form the equivalent to Ratched’s discombobulating menace. Barbed wire along the upper rails of the house pens the audience in the space as well, suggesting our own imprisonment in a system clearly rigged in favor of those who already hold power. Costumes by Angela Vesco complement Ferrieri’s disorienting set, with blinding white sixties-era uniforms for the institution staff and a range of pajama-like outfits for the patients that render them childlike and vulnerable. Parker Green brings a steely coldness to Ratched, offering a crystalline surface off of which Jordan can bounce his feisty, antic McMurphy.  In addition to Cano and Lehane, standout performances in the ensemble include Randy Kovitz, urbane and fidgety as Harding, a voluntary inmate dealing with repressed homosexuality; Michael Lane Sullivan, squinting and disconnected as Martini, a hallucinating schizophrenic; and Dave Mansuelo as the bomb-obsessed Scanlon.

“The Flick” at the THE REP

Tags

I’ve had a copy of Annie Baker’s 2011 play The Flick sitting on my bookshelf for about half a year, but when I heard that the REP would be producing this play as part of their season, I decided to hold off reading it so that I could experience it first on stage rather than on the page.

I’m so glad I did. The REP’s production of Baker’s keenly observed play about three underpaid workers at a run-down single-screen movie house swept me off guard from its very first moment, when the barely articulate Sam explains the nature of the task at hand – sweeping up after the feature – to his new co-worker Avery with hypernaturalistic shorthand:

“We call this the walkthrough? …. Pretty simple. … You just … uh…”

That line is followed by a long silence in which the two men awkwardly begin to clean the floors of the theater between the rows of seats. And while that may not sound like a very riveting opening to a play, it is in fact totally captivating. For it’s as if we, the audience, are behind the projection screen, looking out from “movie world” into the bank of seats in the “real world,” eavesdropping in on the private, casual, and nondescript conversations of people who think they are unobserved.

Baker’s hyperrealistic dialogue and action – peppered with long pauses in which the characters, having nothing to say to each other, say nothing – offers a perceptive glimpse into the lives of three precisely imagined wage slaves in the service economy. It’s difficult to pinpoint, in a “this is the story” kind of way, what The Flick is “about,” because there’s no strong central conflict; rather, The Flick is a play that puts under scrutiny characters who are, among other things, mainly determinedly engaged in conflict avoidance. And under Robert A. Miller’s sensitive direction, the terrific ensemble of the REP production brings those characters brilliantly to life.

The Flick

L to R: John Steffenauer, Sarah Silk, Saladin White II. Photo: Jeff Swensen.

Sam is a thirty-five year old white dude who is still living in his parents’ attic; he’s the type who would have barely graduated high school and then spent his twenties partying to heavy metal while not finishing community college. When Avery later asks him what he wants to be when he grows up, he takes a longish pause before pointing out “I am grown up … that’s like the most depressing thing anyone’s ever said to me.” Sam’s quiet desperation is masterfully captured by actor John Steffenauer, who physicalizes the role with a guarded mask of a face, a choked, croaking voice and the slump-shouldered, half-awake, shuffly walk of a person who’s molded his body to the confines of his dead-end job. Sam seems slow of both thought and speech – not stupid, necessarily, just not quick with words – and Steffenauer fills the character’s hesitancy with a groping yearning that is both touching and comic.

Steffenauer’s powerful and understated performance is counterbalanced by Saladin White II as Avery, the new hire, and Sarah Silk as Rose, the projectionist. Like Steffenauer, both White and Silk underplay, giving the script’s pauses and hesitations their full due and allowing the stillness between lines to dampen “actorly” affect. White’s Avery is physically verklemmt, but he’s the most verbally ept of the group; son of a professor of semiotics and linguistics, Avery’s a movie buff with an aficionado’s capacious memory, and White modulates skillfully between Avery’s cocky confidence when the subject is film-related, and his stuttering insecurity when it comes to normal social interactions. Silk is fabulous as Rose, playing her with a vivacious insouciance that feels both studied and careless: Rose is a gal who’s always a little “on,” but Silk is firmly in the hypernaturalistic performance style of the play even as she plays with and “performs” for Sam and Avery.

The Flick 2

Sarah Silk and Saladin White II. Photo: Jeff Swensen.

The question of realness and performance is one that the play slyly dances around; at one point Avery tells Rose that his depression stems from his belief that “everyone is acting out some like stereotype” and later Rose accuses Sam of “performing,” both of which jar us into remembering that these are actors acting in front of us, even though, with all the pauses and half lines and inarticulate thoughts, it kind of feels like we are watching “real people.” You might think for a moment that this is a kind of cinematic performance transplanted to the stage, but then Sam quotes a few clichéd movie lines and calls attention to the artifice of cinema as well. And while the dialogue and acting style are ultra-quotidian, the play draws on all sorts of theatrical conventions – blackouts, recorded music, scene changes, etc – that keep it from seeming either “real” or “cinematic.” Baker’s play is at once compellingly realistic and provocatively theatrical.

Scene designer Dick Block has filled the small space of the studio theater with a very credible reproduction of a movie theater that hasn’t seen better days in a really long time. Small details in the set – like the handful of missing tiles on the mosaic panels, and the grime on the upstage walls – make all the difference. Details are also eloquent in Michael Montgomery’s costumes; indeed, you might glean practically everything you need to know about the three characters from their hair alone (Sam has a near-permanent case of hat head, Avery wears his hair cropped control-freak neat, and Rose, the most uninhibited of the bunch, sports a wild and unruly tangle of long dark curls dyed bright green on the ends). Sound designer Steve Shapiro threads scenes together with themes from old films, underscoring the disconnect and disjuncture between the cinematic “real” (which so often provides life with a soundtrack) and the theatrical “real” of the play’s many silences and pauses.

The Flick is one of those rare works that manages to be hilariously funny even as it’s breaking your heart. Director Miller lets the play unfold with a pace and mood that allows both its comedy and tenderness to flower; often, one or the other of these blooms in the awkward silences that settle between characters unsure about what to say next. The characters’ uncertain, cautious, and at times passive-aggressive hesitation to engage each other captures a truth about the modern social contract; its optimistic ending – dare I say its Hollywood happy ending? – indulges a sweet hope that dead-ends are not always what they seem.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 303 other followers