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KOMISAR'S CURTAIN-RAISERS
by Lucy Komisar

Photo from 'The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek'
Michael Pitt and Alicia Goranson are teens who live dangerously because they see no future, in "The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek." (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Contents: July 8, 1999:
(1)"The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek" at the New York Theatre Workshop
(2)"A Midsummer Night's Dream" at New York City parks
(3)"Gemini" at the Second Stage
(4)Caryl Churchill's "Vinegar Tom"
(5)The Foundry's "Gertrude and Alice"
(6)"Tales from a Traveler" at La MaMa

"The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek"
by Naomi Wallace, directed by Lisa Peterson
Produced by the New York Theatre Workshop
79 East 4th Street
460-5475
Opened June 30, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar June 28, 1999
Stylized, poetic, and unsettling, Naomi Wallace's play lays bare the tragedy that joblessness wreaks on adults and children, the damage people do to themselves and others when their sense of self is destroyed by losing the main definition society gives it -- a job. Under Lisa Peterson's deft hand, sentimentality is stripped away, and there's only a stark sense of lingering desperation.

The theater's interior is brick, and those rough walls surround a cavernous stage marked only by two enormous cross-hatched steel structures set at right angles like pieces of a giant erector set. Two giant steel beams jut out over the audience. The stage holds a simple wood table and chairs.

It is 1936 in a small rural town. Schoolmates Dalton (Michael Pitt), 15, and Pace (Alicia Goranson), 17, live fast, because they see no future. Pitt endows Dalton with a na´ve and sensitive innocence. He says he has grades for college. Pace retorts, "Who is going to pay for it? Look at your shoes." Goranson plays Pace with a reckless nobility; she is wise and cynical, and she has given up. Symbolically but futilely warding off the threats around her, she carries a switchblade. She's a kid with adult despair.

And the adults are like children. Despondent men play children's games. Dalton's father Dray (David Chandler) makes shadow figures of animals with his hands. He breaks plates to expiate his rage. He's afraid to go out, fearful that people won't be able to see him. He says, "You are what you do, burning, freezing, not just making steel, making ourselves. Now I do nothing. I am what? Nothing." Chas (Philip Goodwin), the tightly wound local jailor, mimics the motions of a beetle.

Only Dray's wife Gin, given stolid power by Nancy Robinette, has a sense of what to do -- organize. A worker at a plant where people have been laid off, she joins a council that plans to take over an abandoned glass factory. Dray opposes that as "red thoughts" and reminds her of a strike where police shot workers in the back. She looks at her hands stained blue from the chemicals where she works, and comments ironically, "Red thoughts, blue hands."

The plot revolves around Pace's dare to Dalton to try to beat a fast train across a trestle bridge. Chas's son Bret once tried to do it and was killed. You wonder if that wasn't deliberate. Chas remarks about him "ordering death like it's a nice cold drink." He says Bret "had a gap in his heart; he was empty."

The play occurs in vignettes that move in almost balletic style between time and place. Props like a feather pillow take on multiple meanings. The loose feathers push their points out of the casing, then fall in clumps like a bird, then are blown up like tree leaves, then drop from the sky, and finally are pushed with a broom over the floor of black marble.

Scott Zielinski's lighting creates spaces and moods of eerie foreboding, serving up stark brightness and luminous shadows, with light from a grating dramatically illuminating characters from below.

When David Van Tieghem's furious screeching train blasts through the audience, it pulls one back to harsh reality -- just in case anyone though the subject of this powerful play was about only the past, and not the present.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream"
by William Shakespeare, directed by Scott Cargle
Produced by The Shakespeare Project
Parks around New York
946-1869
Opened June 27, 1999
Closes August 15, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar June 26, 1999
"A Midsummer Night's Dream" is the perfect play for verdant outdoors. Sitting on a grassy hill in Central Park, watching actors perform with a backdrop of the small boat pond, the play is infused with the magic that Shakespeare intended for it. It's a magic that explodes under Scott Cargle's direction as a delightful comic romp that wraps characters in New York accents and attitudes.

The excellent David Logan Rankin plays Puck as a slightly sinister, long-haired derelict, and Rankin's master of revelers is a cool, spaced-out hipster jazzman with white jacket, bow-tie, cummerbund, and sunglasses.

Jennifer Tober is a natural comic as Helena, one moment broadly mimicking a spaniel with legs up and paws raking the air and the next shrieking in furious anguish, "We should be wooed!" In pink pinafore over black leotards, she'd be at home in any singles bar or on the phone with her girlfriend, the perfect modern woman complaining about men.

Brian Tom O'Connor also brings Hermia's dominating father up to date as a the sort who gets foot-stamping mad when daughter is late bringing home the car.

The play is filled with contemporary inflections and gestures. Hermia (Tracey Mitchell) and Helena catch each other's eyes and thrust two thumbs up when they're pleased with an outcome. It's also a very physical and slapstick. The women beat up on the men and even jump and hang on them.

Cargle has thrown in high-tech modernisms. When Peter Quince (Brian Tom O'Connor) reads the prologue to the "play within a play," he follows the text on a palm-top computer -- which malfunctions. To get the attention of one of his players, he pulls out the character's walkman earphones.

Felicitous casting offers a new take on the Bard and his times through a racist reference which shocks modern audiences. They gasp when Lysander (George Drance) declaims angrily to Hermia, "Away, you Ethiope!" Tracey Mitchell, who plays Hermia, is black. That's followed shortly by "out, tawny Tartar, out!"

The highlight of the play is the workmen's comic entertainment for the aristocrats. It floats on brilliantly funny acting, enhanced by Suzanne Savoy's clever costumes. Ben Lipitz is an hysterical Piramus, with an aluminum pie plate as stomach armor and a pail with a bristly scrub brush as a helmet. Mitchell is a fetching lion with yellow mop mane. Mike Lesser, also the choreographer, does Thisbe in a tight fitting purple gown, fake curls, hypernasality and dauntless spirit. Tober is a droll, half-dazed, potato-chip-eating man-in-the-moon.

The fairy king and queen, Oberon and Tatania, are played by William Charles Mitchell and Suzanne Savoy carrying the ethereal puppets that Savoy and Teri Maknausas created. These fantasy creatures in gauzy costumes are charming as they flit though the air at the end of long sticks, though they never quite persuade you that they are the fairy characters of the play.

The musical magic is produced by a metalophone, glockenspiel, and xylophone gracefully striking Dawn Buckholtz's graceful tunes. It's a dream of a production for a midsummer's night in New York.

"Gemini"
by Albert Innaurato, directed by Mark Brokaw
Produced by Second Stage Theatre
307 West 43 Street
246-4422
Opened June 16, 1999
Closed
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar June 23, 1999
Ah, the innocence of the 70's, when the angst of college students and their elders was played for broad laughs instead of dark ones, when even rage and betrayal were leavened by funny accents and over-the-top shticks. Albert Innaurato's 1973 play, revived by Second Stage and directed by Mark Brokaw, shows sympathy for good-natured fumbling people though the muddles of their young and adult years and retains the edgy warmth and humor that originally made it a hit.

The characters are cartoonish, real people blown larger than life in the way that a kid remembers adults and the people around him -- with their idiosyncrasies magnified.

Francis (Brian Mysliwy) is a sophomore at Harvard who is living through painful confusion about his sexuality. He thinks he might be "queer," which is the word he and others use. His distress increases when, after term's end, Judith (Sarah Rafferty), the sharp, satiric waspy Radcliffe classmate he's been dating, shows up uninvited at Francis's South Philadelphia row house. We see the backyard designed by Riccardo Hernandez with garbage cans, folding chairs, a tricycle, a rug hanging over a concrete wall, a few tomatoes on a window ledge, and wash on the line. Francis is a scholarship student.

Judith has brought her knapsack and her brother Randy (Thomas Sadoski), a Harvard freshman. To the clash of sexual identities, add the clash of cultures. The Hastings are wasps, the sort that Francis's father (Joseph Siravo), a printer, refers to as "white people."

Fran and his girlfriend Lucille (Julie Boyd) are working-class folks, aware of their own limitations, who have settled for each other as they've settled for everything else in less than satisfactory lives. Fran talks too loud, has rashes that make him scratch, and engages in other habits that defy elegance. Lucille, a frequent pain in the neck, became a stock figure as the grudging dinner guest with her "No thank you, Fran, I'll just pick," as she scrounges from everyone's plates.

Next door lives Bunny (Linda Hart) the vulgar, hard-drinking floozy with hair that's too blonde and necklines that are too low. Her son Herschel (Michael Kendrick), a shlumpy, fat, neurotic asthmatic, is fixated on local transport to the point where he imagines he's a bus or trolley.

Innaurato has a wonderful ear for dialogue and also for the absurdity of people's lives and motivations. The play entertains with good-natured, nutty humor and yelling and carrying-on.

The cast is appealing, especially Julie Boyd and Linda Hart as the two wacky ladies who represent contrasting fantasies of women as sexual beings-- one prudish and the other whorish. Since Judith, an attractive female, never really comes alive, one wonders if Bunny's vulgar riff about her "boobies" -- which goes on much too long -- subtly reflects the disgust with which the young gay man viewed female sexuality.

Underneath, of course, there's the serious question of how Francis, his friends and his family accept his homosexuality. Though that crisis is tempered by the fact that for the moment he seems most passionate about Maria Callas and his opera records. That's what dates this sweet play. For all the underlying angst, people manage to settle for each other.

"Vinegar Tom"
by Caryl Churchill, directed by Alexandra Aron
Produced by Teabag Productions
Third Eye Repertory Theater, 22 West 34 Street
414-7792
Opened June 4, 1999
Closed
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar June 18, 1999
This was quite a radical play when Caryl Churchill wrote it in 1976. Taking the theme of witchcraft, she didn't spin a tale of evil, hysteria and possession by the devil, but focused instead on poverty, humiliation and prejudice -- on the oppression of women in 17th century England. She said she wanted to show how the women accused of witchcraft saw themselves. The result from Churchill's brilliantly witty hand was a satirical musical pastiche that gets a deserved fine reprise by Teabag Productions under director Alexandra Aron.

Our feminist heroine Alice (Megan Hollingshead) is an independent woman who wants sex but not marriage. She's seen what the latter brings. Her mother (Joyce Greene) was glad to be left a widow by the husband who beat her. They're now poor but free.

Life for rich women also has perils. Betty, the daughter of the manor, played by Carolina McNeely with a comic upper class accent, is deemed crazy because she refuses the man she's promised to.

And the married housewife Susan (Erin Quinn Purcell) is wracked by despair at the thought of yet another child.

Herbalist (Anne Gourley) mixes potions to help them cope.

The women wend their way through an evil lot of men. Alice's rejecting lover (Rob Newton) tells her, "You're not a widow, you're not a wife, you're not a virgin--you're a whore."

Poor Betty is tied and bled by a sinister doctor in a black cape (Newton) who explains that she suffers from hysteria, woman's weakness, caused by noxious gas that rises every month to the brain.

Farmer Jack (Arthur Aulisi), who's been trying to get Alice into bed, complains that not only is he now impotent, but his organ is gone! He's been bewitched!

That sets the scene for the creepy Henry Packer (also Newton -- these villainous men are all alike), the fanatical interrogator who tortures putative witches by sticking pins into their genitals. Joyce Green delivers an extraordinary, crazy, fanatical "witch's" confession. She also has a superbly sweet singing voice.

The songs make a contemporary connection, as characters warble, "It's blacks and its women and often it's Jews. We'd be happy if they go away, find something to burn, let it burn up in smoke, burn your troubles away." There's an especially funny vaudeville number with the engaging Hollingshead and Greene in black hats and broomsticks singing anti-women lines from the Bible.

The production benefits from Susan Soetaert's excellent costumes whose earth tones evoke old paintings. The sprightly music is by Helen Glavin. It's all done in good fun and high spirits. Who ever said feminists don't have a sense of humor?

"Gertrude and Alice: A Likeness to Loving"
by Lola Pashalinski and Linda Chapman, directed by Anne Bogart
Produced by The Foundry Theatre
The Signature Theatre, 555 West 42 Street
244-7529
Opened June 9, 1999
Closed
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar June 19, 1999
If "People" magazine had done a spread on Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, it might have looked like this. Lots of name-dropping and references to parties attended by famous people. Repeated allusions to their sexual life, including jealousies over past lovers and judiciously sprinkled double entendres. Finally, a focus on Stein's obsession with and achievement of fame. Maybe Lola Pashalinski and Linda Chapman are avid readers of "People. At any rate, they've certainly absorbed its ethic. Along the way, they have managed to make two supposedly remarkable women seem boring, tiresome and pedantic.

The conceit in this two-person play is that the characters speak as Stein wrote, archly twisting and repeating words and phrases. That's rather charming. Stein (Lola Pashalinski) declares, "I reflect that you reflect about me." She repeats, "More and more I love repeating."

The problem is not the style but the substance. There's not very much that's literary -- odd, since that's the reason the world was interested in them. The only thing that appears to interest the authors (who in real life are lovers) is the women's lesbianism. Sexual allusions are made with slight leers, snide double entendres, and such sly quips as "convents and monasteries make people gay."

Gertrude calls herself "he" and repeats, "My life is my wife is my life," by which she means Alice. Actually, she seems enormously self-centered and doesn't persuade one at all that Alice is her life. She keeps blowing out Alice's cigarette, though it's not clear whether that indicates concern for her health or a desire to control her. Alice makes a big suspicious fuss about Mabel Dodge. Gertrude makes an equivalent jealous fuss about Alice's former lovers. No one would dare write such a silly scenario for a man and woman. (Well, maybe on a sitcom.)

Stein and Toklas inhabited Paris in a fascinating period in the first few decades of the century, and Stein's book about their life, "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas," was a best seller in 1933. She also wrote novels, plays and poems. Yet, all we get on the literary side is that she had a fight with Virgil Thompson, who composed the music for "Four Saints in Three Acts," that "James Joyce is an incomprehensible that anybody can understand," and about Hemingway, that "Anyone who married three girls from St. Louis hasn't learned much." Alice comments about their literary friends, "I am sick and tired of their palaver."

Is that really all Gertrude Stein took away from her friendships with those eminent intellectuals? Was she so self-absorbed a writer that she couldn't make conversation? Was Alice Toklas really so bored with the literary lights of Paris?

It's true that Stein was disappointed at not making money and was obsessed with fame. But surely there was more to her than that. At one point Stein asks, "What is the point of all this?" I wondered the same.

The best element of the production is Myung Hee Cho's stark, elegant set featuring a white wood settee covered in black and white stripes, a silk upholstered chair, and a white podium. Dramatic lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin in changing shades of green, blue, beige, yellow, red, and purple colors patterned squares on the walls. One of the squares evokes Matisse's cutouts. It's the only thing that makes one think of Paris.

"Tales from a Traveler"
by Erwin Kokkelkoren, directed by Bert Oele
Produced by Amsterdam Theater Company
La MaMa E.T.C., 74 East 4 Street
475-7710
Opened June 17, 1999
Closed
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar June 25, 1999
Erwin Kokkelkoren's one-man rumination on good and evil is presented with imagination and panache by a very talented performer under the direction of his collaborator Bert Oele. Nevertheless, in spite of staging that fascinates and grabs your attention, the text is disappointingly trite and pretentious.

Kokkelkoren muses on a life of 500 years, which allows him to reflect on both the medieval plague and modern military dictators. Good and evil tug at him through life. He's really just simple soul. We hear the sounds of schoolyard noises as he thinks of his innocent childhood, then turns, in a white nightshirt and white-face death mask, to confront "death," described as an (obviously slimy) green thing on a silver tray.

His desires are simple. He wants an iced cupcake, and wine and a cigarette. Wearing a birthday hat and colored streamers, he blows a party horn and prances around to oompah singing. He draws with chalk on a blackboard to diagram meeting an elderly person in the forest. Death, you see, is a journey.

But first there's a look back. The good side is represented by Sincerio, who wants happiness distributed fairly. Kokkelkoren explodes into artful movement, dancing with a ladder to Frank Sinatra's "Fly me to the Moon." Sincerio kills a dictator who cynically proclaims, "We are entitled to our own culture." Kokkelkoren chases "this brute" from his throne and then mimes him dancing around with jacket decorated with gold braid and ribbons.

Then there's Demonio, whose evil deeds are represented by the gruesome strangling of a naked sex doll. There is something curious at work here. The attack on the dictator is done in a spirit of opera buffa, but the sexual brutalization of the "woman" is performed in a very extended realistic pantomime, to the point where you wonder whether this is meant to titillate as the doll's manufacturer intended.

Finally, Kokkelkoren, who is Dutch, distracts with poor English diction, which leads to such faults as saying "d" in place of "th" so that "other" sounds like the under part of a cow. That deepens the sense of slapdash, non-professionalism that marks the monologue itself. [Komisar]

Theater critic Lucy Komisar gives pre-show briefings and post-show discussions for theater parties to enrich playgoers' experiences. She'll also help find an appropriate show and make or advise on arrangements. Interested parties may telephone (212) 929-1610 for information.

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