“The Old Man and the Old Moon” at City Theatre

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I’d be hard pressed to identify a favorite from among the many moments of sheer theatrical magic in PigPen Theatre Company’s The Old Man and The Old Moon. Would it be that early, audible-gasp-invoking episode in the story when the Old Man (Ryan Melia) first climbs to the top of a ladder with a bucket of light to refill the moon (an effect achieved by ensemble member Curtis Gillen, with a large flashlight and, as best I could determine, a piece of paperboard), accompanied by the amplified sound of liquid pouring into a bucket, courtesy of ensemble member Arya Shahi? The sudden shift in scale as a monstrous, bony, shadow-puppet fish circles ominously around the tiny shadow of the old man sinking into the watery depths, just before the fish devours him? The delightful transformation of a wall of glass bottles into a xylophone? The flight of the glowing, water-gallon-bottle dirigible? The excited panting of the bleach-bottle-and-mophead dog (lovingly animated by Dan Weschler)? The flapping of the shoe-last fish?

L to R, front: Curtis Gillen, Dan Weschler (with puppet dog), Ryan Melia, Matt Nuernberger, Ben Ferguson; back: Arya Shahi and Alex Falberg. Photo courtesy City Theatre.

Moreover, the magic doesn’t only reside in those scenic elements of the show – the inventively cobbled-together puppets and props (by scene designer Lydia Fine), the captivating lighting (Bart Cortright) and the imaginative sound design (Mikhail Fiksel). It’s also in the music and story, which were collaboratively devised and written by the seven members of the PigPen Theatre Company: Alex Falberg, Ben Ferguson, and Matt Nuernberger, in addition to Gillen, Melia, Shahi, and Weschler. Full disclosure: these actors were among the first students I ever taught in the School of Drama at Carnegie Mellon University, and I’ve been a fan of their DIY approach to storytelling ever since they were inspired by the 2007 Pittsburgh Festival of Firsts – and in particular, by the company The Suitcase Royale – to begin experimenting with a combination of music, narrative, dialogue, simple shadow puppetry, and rough-and-ready scenic and lighting elements to tell simple but captivating stories. In the intervening years, the “PigPen boys” (as those of us in the School of Drama continue to fondly call them) have not only refined and honed their methods, but also brought more depth and richness to the stories they tell.

The Old Man and the Old Moon had an earlier incarnation back in their student days, as a much shorter folktale about an old man who abandons his job filling the moon with light to go on a journey to find his lost wife. The current version, developed with director Stuart Carden (also a CMU alum), takes the spine of that story and weaves around it ideas and insights that seem wise beyond these young men’s years. The result is an slyly funny and surprisingly poignant story about the far end of life, when duty and obligation have settled in where passion once reigned, and when habit, routine, and the long span of time have dimmed the memory of youthful promises. It’s also a story about the enchanting power of stories themselves: about how stories, and memories, can bring lost promises and destinies back to life.

The fable begins when the Old Man’s wife (Alex Falberg) heeds a call of adventure that only she can hear, and sets off on a boat alone to the west. Distraught by her disappearance, the Old Man follows after her, leaving the moon to slowly leak out its light in his absence. His quest takes him on a journey full of quirky characters and unexpected encounters, none of which I’ll spoil for you here; suffice it to say that, as in any hero’s journey, the challenges he encounters are ultimately transformative. The story is told through a combination of narration (Matt Nuernberger), movement, acting, puppetry, foley effects, and song, with members of the ensemble providing all of the live music accompaniment on an impressive array of instruments, including, at any given moment, guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass, piano, violin, drum, accordion, hammer dulcimer, and homemade xylophone. The story is set in a vaguely Northern-Anglo-coastal locale – could be northern England, or Ireland, or Nova Scotia – and the music is appropriately Celtic in derivation, with driving rhythms and earthy harmonies that blend and intertwine the seven voices to create a sonic landscape that invokes the “once upon a time” world of folklore and fantasy.

L to R: Curtis Gillen (bass), Dan Weschler (accordion), Arya Shahi (drum), Alex Falberg (banjo), Matt Nuernberger (guitar), Ben Ferguson (guitar), and Ryan Melia (violin). Photo courtesy City Theatre.

The craft on display here is exquisite – the PigPen actors are fine musicians and vocalists (they also perform regularly in clubs as a band) and they slip in and out of character with quick, decisive strokes. Much of the delight of The Old Man and the Old Moon as theater comes from the speed and dispatch with which they metamorphose the space and shuffle the story right before your eyes: the aesthetic is not one of seamless perfection, but of a DIY, show-the-wires playfulness. Hence, we see all the unmasked walls of the City Theatre space exposed behind the wooden platforms that make up the set, and the entire grid is visible, with homemade lighting instruments hanging seemingly willy-nilly from the ceiling. Costumes, likewise, are gestural rather than exhaustive in detail: a tie here, a scarf there conjures a new character into being; in one scene, bowler hats and black jackets transform Falberg and Shahi into a pair of Jules Verne-like engineer-explorers. Ships form instantly with a rearrangement of bodies; a shop door materializes out of three planks of wood; umbrellas turn into cannons and swords; ominous amplified groans establish the belly of the fish where the Old Man meets up with a legendary seafarer (Ben Ferguson) – through their ingenious manipulation of objects and materials the PigPen boys summon a joyful spirit of make believe and infect the audience with childlike delight and wonder at what the imagination can conjure.

Ben Ferguson (guitar); Arya Shahi (puppeteer).

But as charming as the wizardry of their puppetry and sound effects are, the real source of enchantment in The Old Man and the Old Moon comes from its keen insight into the human heart. A quiet pause toward the end of the play, when the wife smiles with knowing satisfaction at the Old Man’s recall of his promise to take her on an adventure, says everything you need to know about the deep affection that holds a couple together over a lifetime. That may be the show’s most magical moment of all.

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“The Hard Problem” at Quantum Theatre

British playwright Tom Stoppard has built a career writing plays about ideas. His first play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, was an existentialist comedy, in which two minor characters from Hamlet take center stage and obsess over (what we know to be their imminent) death. His 1993 masterpiece Arcadia takes on the subjects of chaos, chance, the second law of thermodynamics, and the nature of evidence and truth in our understanding of history. Other of his plays – like Jumpers, Travesties, and The Invention of Love – also weave scientific, philosophical, historiographical, mathematical, and psychological ideas and allusions into dense (and sometimes quite comic) meditations on the meaning of life, the existence of a higher being or order to our lives, and the role played by chance and coincidence.

The Hard Problem may be Stoppard’s headiest play to date, with the pun absolutely intended. The central intellectual question here is the “hard problem” of the title: how do you explain consciousness? Scientific materialists seek explanations for mental activity in the physical workings of the brain: according to this position, all behavior, thought, decision-making, and ethical reflection are evolutionarily determined and stem from chemical and electrical signalling in the brain. This model works well to explain many cognitive functions, such as reactions to pain stimuli or to psychological stressors: the brain is like an enormous computer, processing inputs in complicated but essentially predictable ways.

The materialist approach has a more difficult time explaining our ability to think about our thoughts and behavior, however. This is a question that has dogged scientists since the mid-1990s: if thought and behavior happen on the level of molecules and chemicals, why doesn’t our cognitive processing go on without any self-reflection at all (as we presume it does in most insects and animals)?

Alex Spieth as Hilary. Photo by John Altdorfer, courtesy Quantum Theatre

In The Hard Problem, Spike (Andrew William Smith), a young up-and-coming professor, embodies the first of these two positions: he’s Darwin, Mendel, Crick and Watson, adamant in his conviction that there is no problem or question that cannot and will not find concrete scientific explanation in the material world. Hilary (Alex Spieth), a psychology student, is unconvinced: materialism’s failure to explain emotions like sorrow leads her to wonder if there might be some explanation beyond the measurable world – like, for example, God.

The play drops us in medias res as Spike and Hilary argue about the “prisoner’s dilemma” in Hilary’s apartment, after Spike has given her a ride home. He’s agreed to help coach her for a big job interview at the Krohl Institute for Brain Research, but of course he has familiar ulterior motives for his seemingly altruistic act, and consequently the question of what constitutes altruism – as in: is there any such thing as true selflessness, or do all acts of altruism stem from self-interest? – is another running theme throughout the play. The ideas come fast and furious as the scene moves from Hilary’s apartment (where, after she sleeps with Spike, he discovers her praying) to the Krohl Institute (where she successfully competes against math genius Amal (Vinny Anand) for a job in a psychology lab run by Leo (Ken Bolden)), to the upscale dining room of hedge fund squillionaire Jerry Krohl (Randy Kovitz) and his adopted daughter Cathy (Grace Vensel). In between, Hilary serendipitously reconnects with Julia (Fredi Bernstein), an old pal from high school who teaches Pilates at the Krohl and also happens to be the girlfriend of another Krohl scientist, Ursula (Dana Michelle Griffith). Along the way, in addition to the problem of consciousness and the question of what constitutes altruism, the play also ranges over the mystery of coincidence and the challenges of predicting human behavior, as well as game theory, quantification of risk, ethics, morality, and sexual politics in the workplace.

Stoppard being the writer he is, many of these ideas are woven together: his worlds are carefully constructed to work in mysterious ways. He draws wry connections, for example, between the human mind and hedge funds: no one in the play can explain how those work, either. Likewise, the supposedly “rational” stock market managed by complex computer algorithms can suddenly appear to be mysteriously irrational and fail to “compute.” Some things, he seems to believe, will always elude human understanding. Stoppard also drops ideas and themes like Easter eggs: the “prisoner’s dilemma” that is the subject of the first scene’s argument returns later, when Hilary chooses to take the fall for a research mistake made by her colleague Bo (Claire Hsu); and coincidence (a favorite Stoppard element) is both the subject of inquiry (Cathy asks Jerry to define it in their first scene) and a driver of the plot (not only does Hilary bump into Julia at the Krohl, but Cathy turns out to be Hilary’s biological child, a “coincidence” the play takes no pains to hide, and the production even less).

Still, it’s a lot of information to take on board, and many of director Rachel Stevens’s choices layer an additional set of concepts onto this idea-heavy play. Characters watch from positions around the playing space as scenes unfold on stage, and the dramaturgical function of their presence as witnesses is unclear. Is it to signal that the characters are like us? Are we meant to understand that the scene in front of us is a kind of psychological experiment that the other characters are watching play out? Or are they giving theatrical form to the notion of self-reflexivity – that is, in watching their own play, do the characters stand in for the way the mind reflects on itself? If I thought long and hard enough, I might come up with another half dozen ways to interpret this choice; unfortunately, the production doesn’t offer many clues as to which might have been the director’s intent.

Similarly, the transitions between scenes, while admirably fluid, either contain perplexing narrative content – for example, characters laugh and giggle as they put together the Krohl dining room – or unnecessarily underline themes and ideas that are already heavily present – as when the lighting design (Andrew David Ostrowski) throws a red glow on Hilary’s chest, to signify that she is more “heart than head,” or the media design (Joe Spinogatti) projects a brain scan or uterine ultrasound on the floor. Stevens also begins the play – and then occasionally punctuates it – with moments in which Hilary pauses and takes a Deep Significant Breath, adding yet another underexplained narrative thread to a play that already threatens us with information overload.

Stephanie Mayer-Staley’s scenic design whisks various pieces of lab/office furniture into place on wheels and then adroitly transforms them to establish the various locales needed for the play’s action – bedroom, hotel room, dining room, living room, as well as office and lab. The lines are clean and modern. Upstage of the playing space is a maze of clutter through which audience members must traverse to reach their seats, filled with boxes, mementos, household items, sports equipment, and other remnants, all piled up willy nilly. Both the objects themselves and the labyrinthine path through them evoke an attic of the mind, the vast storehouse from which a sense of self and history emerges. That’s a nifty idea in and of itself, but one that’s only tenuously connected to the concerns of the play (identity and memory are not primary thematic threads), and when Hilary disappears into that space at the end of the play, after having decided to abandon science for philosophy (where, to my mind, she’d been dwelling all along!), it’s not clear whether we’re supposed to read the movement as a retreat into the subconscious, a trip down memory lane, or something else.

Like I said, this is a heady play. So skip the wine at the lobby bar and opt for coffee instead: you’ll need it to keep up.

“DODO” at Bricolage Production Company

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Photo by Handerson Gomes, courtesy Bricolage Production Company.

What is lost when something disappears, as the dodo did just around three centuries ago?

The National Self Preservation Society wants you to be thinking about that question, on both the macro and the micro level. You can apply to be a “donor,” and if your application is accepted, you’ll be invited to enter through a secret portal of the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History after closing hours, where you will be guided on a journey through hidden spaces that will prompt you to ponder the fates not only of lost species, but of lost artists, lost languages, lost songs and poems, and lost ways of life as well.

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Center: Michael McBurney, surrounded by “donors.” Photo by Handerson Gomes, courtesy Bricolage Production Company.

Indeed, you may find yourself at times musing about the eventual fate of the human race; or about how a museum of the future might represent our species; or about what evidence of our existence humanity might leave in the geological record for a future species to discover in a few billion years. You might discover yourself reflecting on what you, personally, will leave behind. You will almost certainly be caught up in childlike wonder and delight at the opportunity to explore the suddenly mysterious museum space after dark. And at some point in your journey, you will be asked to leave something behind: a donation towards the collective goal, if not of self-preservation, at least of self-memorialization.

Your experience will be different from mine, of course; each donor takes an individual journey, just as we do in life, although – as in life – we all wind up in the same place in the end. That place (and if you pay close attention to the signs you will understand that DODO refers to something other than an extinct wingless bird!) is one in which you may experience something akin to a rebirth of consciousness. It’s also a place from which you may be awakened not only to a recognition of all the ways – good and bad – humans leave their impact on world, but also to a spectacular and deeply humbling reminder that no matter what happens, the Earth’s beauty will surely outlast us.

“East Texas Hot Links” at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company

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The setting for Eugene Lee’s play East Texas Hot Links is a down home bar nestled deep in the woods of East Texas, rendered in authentic detail by Mark Clayton Southers’ scenic design, with dart board and rotary pay phone hanging on the wall, a jukebox along one wall, vinyl covered barstools, formica tables, and mismatched chairs. But don’t be fooled by the realism of the set: the story told here expands into a conflict reminiscent of ancient Greek or Shakespearean tragedies, and it’s given a suitably epic treatment by director Montae Russell and his strong ensemble.

L to R: Cheryl El-Walker, Charles Timbers, Monteze Freeland, and Sam Lothard. Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre.

That expansion takes a little time to get going, however. Most of this 90 minute play is devoted to building the world out of which the play’s violent climax explodes. The Top o’ the Hill Café, where the action takes place, is a seemingly safe space for its characters: the bar is reserved – as the hand-painted sign on the door notes – “For Coloreds Only,” and it is presided over by the tough but warmhearted Charlesetta (Cheryl El Walker). But danger lurks outside. The year is 1955, and a new interstate highway threatens the demise of Charlesetta’s establishment; even more concerningly, the recent mysterious deaths and disappearances of a number of black highway construction workers have the bar’s clientele worried about a resurgence of KKK activity in their area, and about the relationship between the white contractor in charge of the highway job and the Klan.

Regulars at the bar include Roy (Monteze Freeland), a handgun-packing ex-basketball star; Columbus (Kevin Brown), a local landlord; XL (Jonathan Berry), Columbus’s brother-in-law and a long-time employee of the white highway contractor; Adolph (Leslie Howard), a blind war veteran who is the community’s scholar-in-residence; Buckshot (Sam Lothard), a giant of a man with a dangerous temper; and the young, ambitious Delmus (Taylor Martin Moss). The play’s extended exposition establishes the relationships of these characters to each other and to the outside world, revealing their interpersonal tensions and their thwarted ambitions as well as their anger and frustration over their systematic oppression in the Jim Crow south. The “hot links” of the title refer to Adolph’s musings about how we’re all part of the metaphorical food chain, and you could be forgiven for being lulled into the impression, halfway through the play, that its conflicts will be on the order of whether or not the family piano should be sold to buy a piece of farmland.

But Lee has something larger in his scopes. With the arrival of Boochie (Charles Timbers), a high stakes gambler, the play’s stakes start to skyrocket as well. Boochie is also the local seer, who, like a Tiresias or Cassandra, picks up on the fates of others. On this night it’s a dark cloud hanging over Delmus that sets off his alarms, and the chain of revelations and repercussions set in motion by his foresight is devastating, for both the characters in the play and for us, the audience.

Riveting and impactful, East Texas Hot Links could not be playing on our stages at a more apropos moment. At a time when we have a President who seems unable to distinguish between Nazi terrorists and peaceful protesters, who tweets out racist dog whistles at every opportunity, and who seeks to quash the protests of black football players and their supporters, the play’s depiction of how white supremacy destroys communities of color not only from the outside in, but also the inside out, feels like both a cautionary tale and a call to solidarity.

“I Won’t Be In On Monday” at Off the Wall Productions

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Anne Stockton’s new one-woman show I Won’t Be In On Monday, which is receiving its world premiere at Off the Wall, might best be described as a character study, albeit one that requires a little detective work to uncover. When we first meet Stockton’s character, Nikki, she presents herself as a competent and poised professional – well-dressed, articulate, and charming. But as the play progresses, we get clues that she is not fully what she seems, and by play’s end the person before us bears little resemblance to the woman we first met.

Writer-Performer Anne Stockton as Nikki

In fact, I Won’t Be In On Monday asks its audience to “play detective” in more ways than one, as it also explicitly puts its audience in the physical and imaginative position of the detective who is interviewing Nikki about the workplace theft of a couple of valuable rings – that is, Stockton’s monologue consists of answers to questions posed by an imaginary detective who seems to be sitting front and center of the audience. It quickly becomes clear from her answers that this detective suspects Nikki is the thief, a suspicion we just as quickly begin to share, as she begins to offer elusive answers to some of his questions and as details about her personal life – such as her imminent plans to spend a vague amount of time in Tahiti – engender suspicion that she’s about to become a fugitive from the law.

But all is not what it seems in Nikki-land, and what she has to hide goes beyond stolen rings. I don’t wish to spoil this little gem of a character study by giving away its secrets: part of what makes this a compelling story is that its ambiguous clues and its misdirections rope you into sympathy with a character that it might otherwise be hard to find common cause with. Stockton presents Nikki’s unraveling under pressure with sensitivity and subtlety; she’s made a study of people like Nikki, and she gets the details right. Austin Pendleton directs with a light touch, using light and sound sparingly to capture the shifts in register in Nikki’s thoughts, moods, and tactics. Together they offer an opportunity to detect the humanity and pain in the kind of character we would generally prefer to keep at a distance.

“Equus” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

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What is it about our current Zeitgeist that brings a play like Equus back into the repertoire? The play had a run on Broadway a few years back, with Daniel Radcliffe in the role of Alan Strang, the disturbed young man who blinds six horses, and it is now playing at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, featuring Spencer T. Hamp as Strang and Daniel Krell as the psychologist Martin Dysart, who is tasked with figuring out why Strang committed that brutal act. And though the plot of the play is structured around Dysart’s quest to understand Strang’s motives, it broadens out thematically to a condemnation of the deadening features of modern capitalism, of the ways consumption and material acquisition eclipse or substitute for spiritual connection – an accusation the flower generation hurled at their parents back in the 1960s and 70s when this play premiered. Are we “there” again, at a moment of reckoning with the ways in which modern life disconnects us from passion?

L to R: Spencer T. Hamp and Daniel Krell. Photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater

I’m not sure that we are; I certainly don’t see signs of that particular critique of modern society among the young people I teach on a daily basis (I see lots of other ways in which young people are disenchanted, just not along those lines). So is Equus back because the audience to whose values it might have originally spoken – those young adults in the early seventies who wanted more out of life than a new refrigerator or a packaged trip to Italy – are now regional theater subscribers closing in on retirement age, ready to revisit the idealism of their youth?

Certainly the Public Theater’s version of Equus places its focus on the character its audience may be most likely to identify with in the play. In this production, directed by Ted Pappas, the main conflict in the play rests in Dysart’s anguish about his disconnect from his passions, and in his jealousy over what he sees as Alan’s experience of communion with the divine. Dysart’s rueful assessment of his own impoverished existence in comparison – “I shrank my own life” – plucks a seductive chord: don’t we all wish to believe that there should be more to life than going through the motions of our daily routine? Is there something to be envied in those whose madness frees them to dive deep into worship and ecstasy? It can almost make you forget that Alan, in a frenzy of psychotic violence, stabbed out the eyes of six beautiful horses with a hoof pick.

I have my issues with the way this play figures mental illness – while part of me wants to agree that pressures to conform to social and psychological norms are culturally and spiritually deadening, I can’t get on board with the play’s romanticizing of the mentally ill as more spiritually alive, or with Dysart’s belief at the end of the play that his “cure” for Alan will be a diminishment. The idea that madness brings you close to the divine feels like the most dated thing in this play. But it may very well be the right time to bring back its critique of consumerism and materialism: now that who we are is so much more inextricably tied into what we consume – as purchasers, as readers, and as social media “users” – the question of what it means to be truly alive – and how an individual might capture those moments of ecstatic presence and liveness – may well start to feel urgent again.

This is all to say that although Equus may seem something of a chestnut, it remains engaging. Shaffer’s script gets a lot of credit for that – the story is exquisitely crafted. And Pappas’s stark production tells that story in a clean, simple, and compelling manner. Krell makes Dysart’s spiritual anguish real, conjuring regret and self-recrimination in a manner that makes you believe he really might trade his sanity for a moment of the kind of passion he thinks Alan has lived. Hamp convinces as the teenager, simultaneously feisty, combative, and aggressive, and also insecure and totally cowed. Also strong in the ensemble are Lisa Velten Smith as the lawyer Hesther Salomon and Nancy McNulty and Timothy Carter as Alan’s mother and father. And then there are the horses – Ben Blazer, Michael Greer, Lawrence Karl, Ryan Patrick Kearney, Benjamin James Michael, and Luke Steinhauer – whose movement choreography in the climactic scene of violence not only brings the horror of Alan’s crime to life, but also reminds us what’s at stake when we mistake madness for divine inspiration.

L to R: Spencer T. Hamp and Ben Blazer (horse). Photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

“A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City” at City Theatre

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What greets you as you take your seat for A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City is scene designer Tony Ferrieri’s recreation of a two-bed hospital room, precisely observed down to the last detail, from the institutional peach of the wall paint, to the white boards scrawled with names of the caregivers on duty. A hanging green curtain – of the pale green favored by women’s hospitals – separates the two beds, which are occupied by sleeping patients – the one on the right has clearly been there longer (her corkboard is filled with pictures); the one on the left has a visitor, a young woman who is scribbling ostentatiously in a journal. Depending on how early you take your seat, you may watch these sleeping patients, this scribbling woman, and this remarkably authentic hospital room for quite some time – perhaps for an amount of time that starts to feel, uncannily, a lot like that awful suspended hospital-time of the real world of medical care.

L to R: Helena Ruoti, Jenni Putney, Tim McGeever, and Kendra McLaughlin. Photo Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre

It’s a setting and situation that most of us wouldn’t associate with comedy, but the set provides a small clue that humor (often of the most inappropriate sort) is what’s on offer by way of the two watercolor paintings on the wall, which depict the sort of flowers that unmistakably resemble female genitalia. Sure enough, the first thing that bursts out of the young woman’s mouth after the play begins is a series of edgy vibrator/rape jokes, material for her stand-up comedy routine, which she’s practicing aloud to her sleeping mother. These jokes aren’t particularly funny, but I think that’s the point: like the play, the comedian’s one-liners straddle an uncomfortable line between the comic and the dire, and the attempt to wring humor out of seriousness isn’t always wholly successful.

The plot of the play is, as advertised, a “meet-cute” romance: Karla (Jenni Putney), the young comedian, meets Don (Tim McGeever), the son of her mother’s hospital roommate, while both are visiting their cancer-stricken mothers. As the genre requires, their initial encounter is contentious – he objects to both the volume and content of her jokes, she’s repulsed by his schlumpy wardrobe and priggish passive aggression – and the relationship leads slowly (but predictably) toward romantic coupling. They are a classic mismatched couple, with shades of both Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn and Pretty Woman in the setup. Playwright Halley Feiffer’s twist on the genre is to toss in not only the challenges of coping with loss and grief, but also the characters’ own emotional baggage: Karla fits the mold of the self-obsessed, narcissistic comedian to a “T,” and Don, despite being a startup millionaire, is a sad-sack who is emotionally estranged from both ex-wife and teen son.

Karla also has a vexed relationship with her mother, Marcie (Helena Ruoti), who is nearly as abusive and unlikable as the dad in Feiffer’s previous play, I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard. Feiffer claims in the interview published in the program that A Funny Thing is not autobiographical, but both this play and I’m Gonna Pray seem suspiciously interested in airing dirty family laundry. While it’s refreshing to see a work that resists the temptation to portray a dying person as sentimentally “reformed,” Marcie’s cruelty toward Karla makes her seem more like a portrait drawn in revenge than a fully worked out character.

The production, directed by Joshua Kahan Brody, successfully walks the delicate line between comedy and seriousness that the play demands. Many of the physical comedy bits Brody stages elicit gasps of delighted laughter, including the play’s romantic climax, a sex scene in the bathroom, which is also one of the funniest moments of the play. He has a deft hand with the play’s more serious scenes, too, and arguably the most memorable moment of the play comes when Don reminisces about establishing an early moment of trust and respect with his young son, a connection now lost to him. It’s a heartbreaking scene, handled beautifully by the emotionally labile Tim McGeever, who starts from a place of awkward, lighthearted apology and ends in a state of solitude and deep regret.

Indeed, while all three of the principle actors give strong performances, Tim McGeever’s emotional journey as Don is the standout. Physically and verbally flexible, McGeever contorts in frustration, deflates in sadness, collapses into laughter, and practically vibrates with joy and desire; he has so much heart and life that, although Karla is clearly the character at the center of the playwright’s interest, McGeever makes this Don’s story. Contrived as the situation that brings Don and Karla is – and as farcically outrageous as some of the physical action becomes – what seems real in this play, besides the hospital furniture, is the pain and loneliness that McGeever brings to life in Don.

“The Scottsboro Boys” at the REP Professional Theatre Company

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The case of the Scottsboro Boys is one of the most disturbing and distressing miscarriages of justice in US history: in 1931, law enforcement officers in Scottsboro, Alabama, pulled nine young black men from a Memphis-bound locomotive after learning of an altercation between the black men and a group of white men hoboing on the same train. Two white women also on the train then falsely accused the black men of having raped them, presumably to avoid being arrested for prostitution. The series of trials that ensued over the next half decade, during which the black defendants were systematically and repeatedly denied due process, resulted in a landmark Supreme Court decision establishing a defendant’s right to a competent defense. Yet despite multiple appeals five of the nine young men were eventually convicted of the crime and sentenced to harsh prison sentences.

The Cast of The Scottsboro Boys 3

L to R: Lamont Walker II, LaTrea Rembert, Steven Etienne, Tru Verret-Fleming, Ivy Fox, Marc Moritz, Tony Lorich II, Jared Smith, Scott Kelley, Joseph Fedore, Jonathan Blake Flemings. Photo by John Altdorfer, courtesy the REP.

Given the history it tells, you might expect that the musical The Scottsboro Boys would be no easy thing to experience. That’s both true and not true. True because the musical confronts a difficult history of racism through a form – minstrelsy – that’s guaranteed to make perceptive viewers squirm with discomfort and, perhaps, some dismay. Not true because the REP’s energetic production, sensitively adapted from Susan Stroman’s original staging by director Tome Cousin, is thrillingly performed.

The telling of the story is framed, throughout, as a minstrel show, featuring the standard characters Mr. Interlocutor (Marc Moritz – the only white actor in the ensemble), who serves as a kind of director or master of ceremonies, and Mr. Bones (Billy Mason) and Mr. Tambo (JR Whittington), the joking clowns. But unlike traditional minstrel performances, which trafficked in stereotypical and degrading portrayals of African Americans, here the tables are turned and the mockery is aimed at racist Southern whites, with black actors caricaturing white “types.” This produces some complicated effects. On the positive side, it not only puts the power of representation in the hands of the black characters, but also allows the production to find humor in and produce entertainment out of what is otherwise an unrelentingly depressing story. Yet because Mr. Interlocutor is white, and because he often seems to be commanding the other characters to do parts of the minstrel show against their will, the form of the musical also replicates the very power dynamic it seeks to expose and condemn in its content: in other words, throughout much of the musical the black characters seem – like the historical figures they represent – at the mercy of a white “master.”

The Cast of The Scottsboro Boys 1

L to R: Steven Etienne, Billy Mason, Lamont Walker II, LaTrea Rembert, Tru Verret-Fleming, Scott Kelley, Jonathan Blake Flemings, J.R. Whittington. Photo John Altdorfer, courtesy The REP.

As such, several of the “minstrel acts” can produce some dizzying cognitive dissonance. Take, for example, the musical number “Electric Chair”: is it okay to be entertained at the sight of three young black men spasmodically tap dancing the nightmare of execution by electric chair? What if they dance as beautifully and virtuosically as actors Joseph Fedore, Steven Etienne and Scott Kelley do – does that make the fact that their characters seem to be doing so at the behest of two “white guards” (played by Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo) and one actual white man (Mr. Interlocutor) any easier to swallow?

Likewise, when the minstrel players depict the civil rights lawyer from New York who took up the Scottsboro boys’ defense as a “carpetbagger,” it’s clearly meant to show that Southern racism extended to Jews as well as blacks, and that the discrediting of the defense counsel by means of xenophobic caricature was a factor in the gross miscarriage of justice perpetrated against the Scottsboro nine. But does knowing that make it any easier to listen to one black man, parodying a Southern white Attorney General, menacingly counsel another black man, dolled up as a dimwitted white woman, about the perils of taking “Jew money”?

Four days after seeing the show on opening night, I’m still chewing on these, and other, contradictions and complications in the musical. I think that’s a good thing. The Scottsboro Boys takes the matter of representation seriously, challenging its audience to face some ugly and discomfiting truths not just about the historical event it depicts, but also about the impossibility of representing racism and prejudice without reanimating their effects and reproducing their power to wound.

Lamont Walker II as Ruby in “Never Too Late”; photo courtesy Tome Cousin.

But those are all thoughts that came largely after seeing the production, which is so theatrically satisfying, and which moves at such a swift pace, that there is little opportunity to reflect in the moment. In concept and staging the REP version of the musical is modeled largely on the original Stroman-directed production, but with imaginative modifications that give the production its own originality and vitality. Britton Mauk’s scenic design features a large backdrop stretched on a wooden frame, like a trampoline on edge, with “The Scottsboro Boys” stenciled across it like the advertisement for a vaudeville show. The stage is further framed by a set of large wooden beams on posts, as in an enormous barn or wooden warehouse, on which long lengths of rope are draped – a reminder of the ever-present threat of the lynch mob. The bare wooden stage gets transformed into the various locales needed for the scenes – train, jail cell, courtroom – by the clever rearrangement of chairs, which also serve to create the traditional minstrel-show semi-circle for the framing numbers. Andrew David Ostrowski’s lighting design works magic on this set, utterly transforming the color and texture of the backdrop from scene to scene (at one point, I could have sworn it was made of marble) and creating bold contrasts between the theatrical minstrel acts and the more somber historical scenes. Costumes, by K.J. Gilmer, vividly establish the characters, and are used effectively to demarcate the “minstrels” from the historical characters they portray.

In addition to Moritz, Mason, and Whittington, Cousin has assembled a stupendously talented group of young actors to play the Scottsboro nine. Tru Verret-Fleming is powerful as Haywood Patterson, the central character in the story, a man of deep principles who pays a steep price for his unwillingness to lie. Playing the other eight “boys” are Steven Etienne, Joseph Fedore, Jonathan Blake Flemings, Scott Kelley, Tony Lorrich II, LaTrea Rembert, Jared Smith, and Lamont Walker II. All are gifted, athletic dancers, and they execute the exuberant choreography with precision and flair, especially in the spectacular dance number that opens the show and in the vigorously complex “Never too Late.” Vocally, the men of the ensemble meld together beautifully, particularly in “Commencing in Chattanooga” and in the heartwrenching “Southern Days,” which is also the number in the show that most pointedly offers agency to the “boys”/minstrel players/actors.

The emotional heart of the show beats in the person of Ivy Fox, who bears silent witness to the men’s trials and tribulations with an intensity and yearning that is almost palpable. Fox exerts a magnetic pull each time she appears, and the frame story she represents – which becomes clear in the final, emotionally eloquent moment of the play – not only sets the Scottsboro Boys case into further historical perspective, but also connects that case, and its racist legacy, to more recent examples of police violence against black men. The play’s ending offers a sobering reminder that the civil rights movement that was borne, in part, out of the Scottsboro miscarriage of justice still has far too much work to do.

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Ivy Fox as The Lady; photo courtesy Tome Cousin.

“six a breast” at CorningWorks

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In one of the vignettes in Corning Works’ new dance theater piece six a breast, dancer Sally Rousse twists and contorts her arms and legs on and around a trapeze-like swing hanging low to the ground. “Sorry!” she occasionally blurts out, in a vaguely familiar, business-like tone. Twist, contort, swing, “Sorry!” What is it that is so familiar about this scenario? And then, with her last “Sorry!”, the penny drops: she mashes the clear plexiglass seat of the swing against her breast, and the connection between her tortured contortions and the awkward discomfort of the annual mammogram (in which, my dear young and/or non-female readers, the boobies get squeezed between two plexiglass plates, often accompanied by brisk, unconvincing apologies from the tech whose job it is to make that squeeze as tight as possible) pings into place.

Leave it to dancer/choreographer Beth Corning to find such an off-kilter way to capture the indignities not just of a medical diagnostic ritual, but also a host of other (mostly mundane) tortures and torments women find themselves subject to. Makeup, domestic chores, body and skin care routines, and social expectations that women be nice, nurturing, and perpetually sublimate their rage – all these and more are grist for Corning’s dance mill, which takes the absurd and turns it into a series of sublime meditations on gender roles.

In addition to the exquisitely elegant Rousse, Corning is also joined on stage by collaborator Laurie Van Wieren. The three performers bring personality and idiosyncracy to the piece, like a female set of Marx Brothers or Stooges. Corning is the smart-ass clown; Van Wieren plays the befuddled, clumsy member of the trio; while Rousse is the dignified “straight man.” Some Corning performances are more theater than dance; not this one. Rousse’s virtuosity in ballet is on full display, and in places – particularly, in a vignette that might be subtitled “spinning her wheels,” – the beauty of her line and posture is breathtaking.

The evening is structured as a series of skits or circus acts, some solo, and some featuring two or three performers. Each skit captures facets of the female experience with wit and irony, sometimes in ways it’s difficult to put your finger on. For example, in one, Rousse traverses the stage with a basket full of eggshells; she tosses them on the floor in front of her and walks tiptoe on them. The metaphor here is clearly “walking on eggshells,” yet her mood is not one of anxiety, but pleasure, and when Corning – cleaning up behind her – steps on one of the shells herself, there’s a sense of wicked pleasure in the act. The image conveys something complicated about our relationship to these absurdities – perhaps that we’re so comfortable with what’s expected of us that we begin to fail to see how absurd the situation is.

Cleaning is a running theme throughout the performance – Corning materializes a wad of paper towels out of tiny purse to mop up spilled water in one of the early skits, and then later, in a perceptive commentary on the way women are socialized to be near-constantly vigilant about the cleanliness of their space, Van Wieren picks up a bit of schmutz from the floor mid-dance. (I’m willing to bet there wasn’t a woman in the audience who didn’t nod in recognition at both of these gestures; I’m certainly guilty as charged). Another running gag takes up the mystery of how to properly fold a fitted sheet (hint: it requires either magic, or seduction). The tension between our “domestic” and our “non-domesticated” selves is also a repeated theme, captured perhaps most vividly in a dance in which Corning’s body seems split between a barefooted “madonna” and a high-heeled “whore,” weighed down by jangling pots, pans, and babies beneath a transparent hooped skirt.

The costumes, designed by Corning and Lindsey Peck Scherloum, are stunning – all white, mostly transparent, and endlessly inventive in shape and texture. The monochrome white of the costumes beautifully supports the sublime-ridiculous mood of the danced vignettes. But with the final vignette – a presentation of Beckett’s one-act play Come and Go – we suddenly get color, as the performers come on in long coats of mustard, deep purple, and bright red, with elaborate matching hats covering all but their mouths. The visual image Corning achieves with the costuming of this final piece is striking; but even more remarkable is Corning’s simple but powerful staging. She has an intuitive understanding of how to fill out the pauses in Beckett’s work, and the result is a wry take on the way women use gossip and information to jostle for power among their frenemies. The final image of the night – of three women joined in the knowledge of having betrayed each other – feels like an apt, if bittersweet, coda to the evening’s reflections on the female experience.

“Big Fish” at Front Porch Theatricals

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What do you get when a teller of tall tales has a Gradgrind for a son?

You get the conflict that is at the heart of Big Fish, which began as a novel by Daniel Wallace, was adapted into a film by John August, and then turned into a musical by August and composer/librettist Andrew Lippa. It’s a conflict that feels familiar even to those of us whose fathers weren’t fabulists, because at heart it’s about the unbridgeable gulf between parents and children. Much as we yearn to know our parents, they will always have had lives and dreams and memories and secrets we can’t access.

Edward tells Young Will his own story

L to R: Billy Hartung and Mario Williams. Photo by Martha D. Smith, courtesy Front Porch Theatricals

The dad in question here is Edward Bloom, played with charisma and verve by Billy Hartung. His habit of telling unbelievable stories drives his son Will (Matt Calvert) nuts, partly because Will prefers reality to fantasy, and partly because he finds his father’s egocentrism grating. The musical opens on the eve of Will’s wedding to Josephine (Hope Anthony), with Will begging Edward not to ruin his wedding by spinning crazy yarns. But what also nags at Will is the feeling that his father is hiding something behind his stories and that he will never get at the truth – a feeling brought into sharp focus when Edward confesses to Will that he is dying of cancer. Will’s quest to discover the truth behind the stories brings him to the realization that his father has, in fact, been a hero of his life’s story, as the opening number insists – just in a much more quiet manner than his father made himself out to be.

Under Spencer Whale’s confident direction, the Front Porch Theatricals production of the musical imaginatively realizes the hero’s journey that Edward has fabricated upon the scaffold of his past. The scene design (Gianni Downs) establishes the setting of the play as a kind of attic of the mind, where tokens of memory are stored, and in the opening number of the musical we are cleverly introduced to the “real-life” versions of the near-mythical characters who later appear in Edward’s “big fish” stories: the girl in the water (Alex Manalo) whom he transforms into a mermaid; the taller-than-average gentleman (Henri Fitzmaurice) who will find his way into the tale as Karl the Giant; and the dark-haired lady (Missy Moreno) who gets transmogrified into a witch. When these characters later return we can readily see how all it took was just a little seasoning, just a tiny willingness to sprinkle some fancy onto memory, for Edward to turn them into larger than life figures.

Edward and the Giant Closeup

L to R: Billy Hartung and Henri Fitzmaurice. Photo by Martha D. Smith, courtesy Front Porch Theatricals.

Billy Hartung is winning in the role of Edward, as easy in his skin in the role of the elder Edward as he is playing Edward as a teenaged kid. He exudes an infectious joy for life that wins us over to his penchant for fabulism. Yet to the production’s credit, Calvert also garners our sympathy for son Will’s perspective: it would be damned hard to have a dad who constantly spun outrageous tales, especially if you tended to be as literal-minded as Will grows to be. As Sandra Bloom, Edward’s wife, Kristiann Menotiades is warm and appealing, and she does a particularly delightful turn as the teenaged version of the character in the comic number “Little Lamb from Alabama.”

Choreographer Mara Newbery Greer establishes a swirling choreographic vocabulary for the production, sweeping characters and story lines on and off the stage with a fluidity that perfectly serves the mood and energy of the play. The small ensemble is terrific, and they populate the action of the play with a variety of lively and vividly realized characters: Jason Swauger plays the wily circus master/werewolf Amos Calloway; Elizabeth Boyke is Jenny Hill, Edward’s childhood sweetheart; Stanley Graham and Matt Augustyniak are Don and Zacky Price, Edward’s high-school buddies; and Marlo Williams plays Will as a young boy. Standout moments in the show include Missy Moreno’s solo in “The Witch” and Henri Fitzmaurice’s stomp dance on stilts in “Out There on the Road.”

Witch Tells How it will End

L to R: Henri Fitzmaurice, Hope Anthony, Matt Calvert, Kristin Menotiades, Matt Augustyniak, Elizabeth Boyke, Jason Swauger, Alex Manalo, and Missy Moreno. Photo by Martha D. Smith, courtesy Front Porch Theatricals.

The Broadway production of this musical got a lot of buzz for its over-the-top production numbers and special effects (and budget, as well); Whale’s pared-down version of the show, in contrast, generates its magic through resourceful theatrical solutions, like the use of a wheeled ladder to send Edward flying out of a cannonball. I’m a fan of that kind of simplicity, especially because it allows us to use our imaginations to summon the fantasy into existence just as Edward used his to invent it in the first place. We’re thus drawn more deeply not only into Edward’s imaginative world, but also into the emotional conflict at the center of the story, where the real payoff of any theatrical experience lies. In the end, it’s not the special effects and magic tricks of this musical that have moved us, but the discovery of a shared joy between father and son.