| return to index of reviews | go to other departments |NYTW theatre and film reviews from the 1997-98 season are archived here. It is simple to search for a particular review by using your browser's "find" function. In Netscape, drop down the "EDIT" menu and choose "FIND." Type in an author's name (example, "Euripides") or a key word from the title (example, "Trojan" for "The Trojan Women"). The browser will skip to the topic you have indicated (if it is here).
On The Record: Reviews from the 1997-98 Season
Two Wilde Nights in NY
by Margaret Croyden
"The Judas Kiss" -- The Agony of Oscar Wilde
The Broadhurst Theater
235 West 45th Street
"Gross Indeceny, The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde"
Minetta Lane Theater
18 Minetta Lane
307-4100 NEW YORK, May 14 -- Writing about Oscar Wilde in the "New York Review of Books," the critic/editor Jason Epstein called Wilde a prophet and a man whose behavior and dreadful punishment was a foreshadowing of future attempts to control morality and impose a sense of conformity upon individuals. Indeed a prophet, for the trial and punishment of Oscar Wilde for gross indecency at the height of the Victorian era is still as relevant today as it was in 1895.
Oscar Wilde dared to live beyond bourgeois notions of morality and its imposed restrictions. At the time of the Oscar Wilde trials, in 1895, the law against homosexuality was strictly enforced--and those who practiced it were subject to imprisonment. Finally in 1956, English law decriminalized homosexual activity. But in 1895, Oscar Wilde was convicted of being a homosexual, thrown into jail after three miserable trials, and condemned to hard labor for two years. He emerged a broken man, unable to write, his reputation destroyed, and deserted by his lover for whom he sacrificed everything. He lived only two years after his release from prison and died in Paris at the age of forty-six, alone and penniless.
Only a few years before, Wilde was the toast of London. Two of his most successful plays were running in the West End, "The Importance of Being Ernest" and "The Ideal Husband." He was accepted as a wit, an intellectually gifted poet and playwright, and after many struggles, had finally reached great success in the theater. His friends included Frank Harris and George Bernard Shaw who thought Wilde was one of the best comic writers of his generation.
Yet, when he fell in love with Lord Alfred Douglas and came under his spell--when (against the advice of his friends) he initiated a suit against Douglas's father for libel and had to withdraw it because the half mad father had compelling evidence against him-- when the father then issued a counter suit, charging him with gross indecency--Wilde refused to flee to Paris to avoid the trial which again friends warned could not be won. So against all reason, Wilde chose to face the trial.
Here the mystery begins. Why did this brilliant man, who had worked incessantly to maintain his image and who had the intelligence to understand the mores of his time, contribute to his own downfall amid warnings from his own friends and lawyer? To this day, despite all the memoirs, letters, biographies, plays, and films about Oscar Wilde, the motivations that led to his self-destruction remain inconclusive.
Yet writers cannot resist opening up the subject again. Two plays have arrived that portray Wilde's life from different vantage points. Downtown, at the small Minetta Lane theater, "Gross Indecency, The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde," a docu-drama using original sources, depicts Wilde's ordeal during the three trials, as the title indicates. The second, at the Broadhurst theater uptown, is "The Judas Kiss" by the British playwright David Hare staring Liam Neeson.
In "Gross Indecency," Moises Kaufman has done a masterly job of writing and staging the work with a group of versatile actors (many doubling in their roles) who dramatize the devastating atmosphere of Victorian England. We see the press' self-righteous, scurrilous attacks on Wilde; the cruelty of the public which instantly turned against him, the acrimony of prosecutor and judge who treated him worse than a common criminal, the philistine questioning on the morality of his art by the Court and by the Crown itself and the overwhelming hypocrisy of the ruling classes, who themselves were frightened of being accused. Surely this play, taken from original sources, is a most scathing indictment of the social and political precepts of the Victorians.
More striking is the resemblance to our world today. The extraordinary hatred for those different from themselves is as prevalent today as it was in Wilde's time: the continuing antagonism and discrimination against homosexuals, the press's puerile interest in gossip disseminated by disreputable journalists as well as respectable ones, the incessant voyeurism into the private sex lives of public officials, the unregenerate hatred between politicians and their malevolent attempts to discredit each other, the acrimonious drumbeat of the moral arbiters who preach their shibboleths as gospel but in reality are the gauleiters waiting to hang nonconformists. Clearly, the Oscar Wilde story and everything it represents has not vanished from our world. It is but a chilling reminder of the possible consequences for those who defy society's proscribed mores.
In contrast to "Gross Indecency," David Hare's "The Judas Kiss," staring the magnificent Liam Neeson as Oscar Wilde, does not describe the trials, but focuses mainly on the mystery of Wilde's relationship with Lord Douglas (Bosie) and Wilde's irrational self-destructive behavior. In Act one, set in the Hotel Cadogan (designed in stunning Victorian style by Bob Crowley), Wilde is about to leave London to avoid imminent arrest. His bags are packed, his friend Robbie is there to help him catch the train, and yet at the last moment Bosie persuades him to stay and face the indictment. And so he stays. Wilde already feels doomed and "trapped in the narrative" that traveled inexorably toward his final destruction; he still believes that what he has done was done "out of love...the purest I have ever known in my life...More perfect, more vital, more telling, more various...The redeeming fact of my life. It is what I have left. It is what remains to me."
Notwithstanding the question of whether Wilde acted out of love as he says, or for more complicated reasons, playwright David Hare focuses on Wilde's obsession with Bosie and his ultimate betrayal. Wilde cannot answer Robbie who asks why Bosie is Wilde' love object. No one dares to ask another that question, Wilde says. For him love is a mysterious, fantastical phenomenon, an image of intense reality, vital to his zeitgeist. It was for romantic love that he put himself on the cross. "I cannot live without you," Wilde says when Bosie leaves him. The "governing principle of my life has been love. But of yours, it has been power," says Wilde. Bosie did achieve power; he was the instrument of Wilde's downfall and worse, he destroyed Wilde's most powerful weapon--his art. Wilde never wrote another line after his imprisonment. In the end, self- sacrificing love proved to be the Judas' kiss, the kiss of love betrayed--the love that dares not speak its name is the love that killed Wilde.
In an extraordinary nuanced and moving performance, Liam Neeson as Oscar Wilde is a commanding figure on stage, not only because of his magnificent build, but also because of his presence and a certain poetic empathy that seems to be part of his being. In the past, we have been accustomed to seeing Wilde as a witty, debauched dandy uttering epigrams and bon mots, like one of his characters in "The Importance of Being Ernest." Neeson has cut across these conventions and preconceived images. In Neeson's hands, Wilde emerges as a genuine human being: witty but compassionate, sardonic and biting, but always emotional; one who cries easily but has enough rage to swallow up the world.
As a true star, Neeson dominates the stage for two and a half hours and speaks Hare's finest poetry, even when sitting slumped in chair for almost the whole of Act II--a remarkable feat that mesmerizes the audience into a profound silence. In a role that could have been reduced to pathos and self-pity, Neeson has an amazing power to be simple, intense, and moving all at once. When Bosie leaves Wilde in the end, the scene is horribly bitter, but Neeson plays it with a poetic texture that profoundly resonates with the audience. And leaves one startled by the luminous and transcendent quality of his acting.
As Neeson portrays him, Wilde is more sinned against than sinning--a man who loved not wisely but too well. Neeson and his clever director Richard Eyre have presented an unusual picture of a complicated man of letters whose misery was induced by his mistaken commitment to romantic love--in a way a tragic figure.
In the role of Lord Alfred (Bosie), Tom Hollander a well known, accomplished British actor, has come under some nasty criticism. Admittedly he is short and Mr. Neeson towers over him. So what? Admittedly he is played with a good deal of whining and self importance--a petulant little cad. But that is exactly the point. Bosie was like that and the actor renders the character perfectly. The playwright and the director are trying to say, yes, Wilde and Bosie may have been an unlikely pair. But any couple can fall in love, despite how others perceive them. What constitutes the perfect love affair defies an answer. No parameters or formulas have ever been set or maintained. Obsessive love, sacrificial love, love betrayed, love romanticized have been indelibly stamped on the human consciousness and accepted as the mysterious workings of the human heart, never to be explained rationally. To criticize the mysterious attraction of Lord Douglas and Wilde is to miss the point. It was a mystery. And so are all the many aspects of love. Wilde knew this. And accepted it. And paid.
David Hare has written a thoughtful play. And Liam Neeson has proved again to be one of our finest actors, unafraid to tackle a challenging role. See "The Judas Kiss" before it closes. It has a limited run. [Croyden]
“HARRY AND THE CANNIBALS” PREPARE AN INDIGESTIBLE MEAL
“Harry and the Cannibals”Playwright/director Susan Mosakowski wants to be outrageous and prolifically so. Though this is our first encounter, I must say her resume is impressive. She’s been awarded a Rockefeller Playwriting Fellowship, an NEA Playwriting Fellowship, and three Northwest Fellowships. She’s directed readings for audio books with the likes of Sir Ian McKellen and Claire Bloom, has adapted for stage “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Dante’s Inferno,” plus has a huge pile of her own produced plays stacked on her shelves at home.
June 4 to June 14, La MaMa E.T.C. (First Floor Theater), 74A East Fourth Street
Presented by La MaMa E.T.C.
reviewed by Brandon Judell, June 7, 1998
Her latest, “Harry and the Cannibals” is about body part appropriation. It appears Harry, whom we never meet, is dead. Before his untimely demise, he promised his wife (Louise Favier) that they would live and love together forever. To do so, he donated his organs and more for transplant. Now all Louise has to do is find who’s got 51% of Harry.
Luckily all of the recipients are living in the same jungle and are hanging out at the same down-and-out bar. Primatologist Mary (Eva Patton), who is planning to adopt a talking ape (David Giambusso) as her child, has Harry’s ears; Dr. Lacuna (Frank Deal), an unfit shrink, his heart; Bob (Lars Hanson), a brittle seismologist, his corneas; McCoy (Malcolm Adams), a frazzled Middle- East reporter, his liver, kidney and pancreas; while Frank Stein sports part of Harry’s brain. Now all Louise has to do is sniff them out.
Blessed with a beautiful, ingenious set by Paula Longendyke, appropriately wacky outfits by Julia N. Van Vliet (although they are little too clean and ironed for jungle wear), and clever staging by Mosakowski, the play seldom holds your attention. The mostly miscast actors are playing at being off-the- wall. They’re one-note cartoon characters who have the same take on every line. Considering their lines aren’t that great to begin with and neither are the takes, this total affect achieved is humdrumness.
Among the males, only Pete (Sean Weil) as a mad, horny, former mortician achieves a few moments of true lunacy. But then Ms. Favier as Harry’s widow walks on, and suddenly the play comes alive. The first few times this brunette, beauty dressed in tasteful black, just struts back and forth across the stage without lines. Then she has her big sniffing scene, trying to sense whether the scent of her late love’s body parts is on various pieces of furniture. Then she opens her mouth and the angels sing.
Like the great Black-Eyed Susan who graced the majority of the late Charles Ludlam’s plays, Ms. Favier makes the absurd seem possible. She's able to combine sexiness with ridiculousness. She can also transfigure the mundane into something palatable, and sadly she's forced to accomplish that in spades here.
Mr. Ludlam, by the way, once wrote a manifesto for his theater company. He noted in the instructions for its use: “Test out a dangerous idea, a theme that threatens to destroy one’s whole value system. Treat the material in a madly farcical manner without losing the seriousness of the theme. Show how paradoxes arrest the mind. Scare yourself a bit along the way.”
Take heed, Miss Mosakowski. “Harry and the Cannibals” is a play that was apparently written because it was time to write a play. It lacks wit and soul or an authentic vision of craziness. The cast tries hard to be ludicrous. They only succeed in being an irritant.
But then on the plus side, this is one smart-looking production. That’s something in the scheme of things. [Judell]
SHAMANISM, THEATRE, HEALING
By Melinda Given Guttmann
This review of Yara Arts' "Flight" at La MaMa is the beginning of a long article on Shamanism, Theatre, and Healing which focuses on my examination of performances, texts; as well as describing my primary research in participating in contemporary shamanic events.
In 1975 David Cole's The Theatrical Event, and E.T. Kirby's Ur-Drama, the Origins of Theatre were published. They both posit Shamanism as the origin of both Eastern and Western theatre, but rely on anthropological references to support their theses.
In the last year, I have begun to participate in Shamanic ceremonies, which universally include the use of psychogenic plants. So far, I have participated in Native American healing ceremonies; as well as ceremonies in Bali, and most recently in remote areas of the Peruvian Amazon.
Shamanism is pre-historic and entered the English language from the study of the Tungus people of Sibera where tribal healing through Shamans was documented in the 19th Century. The Shaman was the first actor-performer-healer. Shamans, male or female, transcend normal human consciousness and are called "masters of Ecstasy," traveling on varying cosmological planes, and serving as intermediaries between the visible and invisible worlds.
All of the arts owe their origin to the spiritual acts of Shamans. The Shamans who have survived various political oppressions are eager to share their knowledge and wisdom with those of us who have lost the ability to utilize song, dance, and performance as literally healing for both the body and the mind. I would appreciate the assistance of readers who know of Shamanic performances, books, or have had Shamanic experiences to e-mail their contributions on this subject to me which I will incoporate in this project. (MGG)
NEW YORK, May 1 -- The process which Virlana Tkacz and her collaborators in Yara Arts Groups use to create their original theatre piece makes them not only artists, but also adventurers, ethnographic scholars and primary, field researchers in the anthropology of theater. Beginning in 1994, Tkacz returned to her ancestral Ukraine, in the former Soviet-Union, and brought back both texts and performers for a theater piece entitled "Yara's Forest Song", a bi-lingual intermingling of cultures in which poetics, song, movement, and setting were directorally shaped into a strikingly spare and powerful poetic condensation which continues to mark her present methodology.
Flight re-inhabits the mysterious mytho-poetic space of the Buryat people of Mongolia, which Yara Arts began exploring last year in their chamber opera, "Virtual Souls." While "Virtual Souls" illuminated the origins of the famous ballet "Swan Lake," which is a central legend of the Buryat people, "Flight" is based on the discovery of fragments of texts of a legend of a 16th century Buryat Princess which even contemporary Buryats are unaware. While "Virtual Souls" sent naive contemporary Americans into Ilud Tempus, what the Aborigines call "dream time" (the moment of origin of all creation), "Flight" explored the nature of time by having contemporary characters interact with historical, mythical figures through the magic of Shaminism in the eternal present.
Flight is a nineties innovative, minimalist and subtle exploration of Shamanism, comparable to by Richard Schechner's "Dionysus in ‘69," which attempted to primal ecstasy in the audience by engaging performers and audience in an abandoned dance. Shechner's work was the impetus for scores of international theatres to re-work ancient concepts of theater's function as a healing ceremony. Until the 1960's, Aristotilian conceptof theater as "mimeses" or "imitation" of life dominated American Theater. Its major artists were "fourth wall" illusionists of Realism, grounded in character, plot, and text. Although avant garde experimentation was bountiful in Europe in manifold forms, theater in America dragged behind the plastic arts and dance in theoretical and deconstruction of forms.
What distinguishes "Flight" from "Dionysus in ‘69" is that the audience becomes witness rather than participant in the Shamanic experience. While the aesthetic aspects of "Flight" are more refined, Tkacz retains an aesthetic distance from the audience.
The story of "Flight" begins with the mystical force which pulls an American young man and woman to Mongolia. They, with the aid of a Buryat guide, marvel with song at the ravishing beauty of the land. I would have preferred that the personae of the Americans been substitutes for Tkacz herself, sophisticated theater and mythopoetic researchers, rather than the innocent, naive Americans abroad presented to us. The mysteries of the experience beg for the self-reflexive reflections of the researcher's own experience. The mystery begins when the tourists find a knife, which has been lost by a sixteenth century Buryat Princess--who mystically breaks the time barrier and appears in the present with her woman Shaman; the latter is played with great exterior and interior beauty by Donna Ong. The present and past merge in the eternal moment when her blurred image is caught in a poloroid snapshot. The lives of the contemporary tourists and their guide (with the aid of a contemporary male shaman forcefully portrayed by Sayan Zhambalov, an extraordinary "throat singer") become merged increasing with the past which presents itself vividly in the present. The trio discover fragments of the story which would be unknown by the Buryats today of the Princess who sacrificed herself and her great love to save her country against barbaric invaders.
Tzacz has made a momentous discovery, and a Yara Arts an exquisite work of art. Present Buryats who have escaped and recovered their spirituality from decades of Soviet repression are both Shamans and Bhuddists today. Although there is no interweaving of Bhuddist practice in the piece, the Bhuddist concept of the interconnectedness of all peoples and nature is the primary revelation of "Flight." The climax of the piece occurs when the two tourists are possessed by the Princess and her lover, taking on their personae, the young woman becoming not only the Princess, but also one with nature: her eyes, she sings "are rain", her ears are "thunder." The physical journey is transformed into a metaphysical journey.
Flight is a work in progress and the cast and technical artists spoke with the audiences after the breathtaking one-hour performance, which left one hungry for the experience to continue. Tkacz said that the incidents were formed from the actual process of searching for a text with which the Buryat and American performers and musical artists could create and collaborate. Apparently they observed a secretive Shamanic festival, but changed both the music and prayers they documented, feeling it would be an impingement on the sacred to exactly reproduce the chants and music of the Shamans. The music composed and played by Genji Ito with the collaboration of Erzhena Zhambalov were an arresting, ravishing melage of Ito's innovations with tradional Shamanic song and drum beat.
I believe that audiences should be participants and not witnesses to the Shamanic aspects of Flight. The Winter publication of the journal Shaman's Drum, has an article on Shamanism and music by Kira Van Deusen, which posits that Mongolian Throat Singing (which appears in "Flight") and the Shamanic prayers are ways of creating spiritual bridges for invoking and communicating with helping spirits, and for evoking sacred energy in the minds of listners. The vibrations of "throat singing" are believed to have a healing effect on the listner. I regret that Tzcaz did not use the literal chants and prayers which she experienced--who knows what effect they may have made on her audience.
The effects already achieved are moving, beautiful, and relevatory of an unknown world both to us and to the Buryats whose spiritual traditions have been buried by a technological, materialist era of dark times and dark nationalism. This luminous nationalism gives us all hope for redemption, that the crooked places shall be made straight. [MGG]
"High Society" -- The Life of the RichA plethora of revivals from the 1930s and '40s have recently opened on Broadway, and one wonders why long forgotten, passé works seem to attract talented producers? Are they trying to gimmick up these aged chestnuts hoping to rekindle an nostalgic era that might expand business, or do they lack the imagination and talent to create something new and fresh? But alas, the more Broadway entrepreneurs try to rekindle the past, the more they fail. First there is the saccharin "Sound of Music," followed by the simplistic "Ah Wilderness," and the deadly "The Deep Blue Sea," to name a few. Now "High Society" the Cole Porter musical movie of the 1940's, based on Philip Barry's play "The Philadelphia Story," has arrived.
St. James Theater
246 West 44th Street
Opened April 27, 1998
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden April 29, 1998.
We remember the incomparable Katherine Hepburn as the charming Tracy Lord who originated the role on stage and screen, a role written expressly for her. And then came the perfect high society type, Grace Kelly, teamed with Bing Crosby in the Barry comedy, this time, reworked as the Cole Porter musical, renamed "High Society." And now fifty years later a "new" "High Society" now on Broadway--somewhat changed, but nevertheless, out of date and lifeless.
By now people are familiar with the old drawing room comedy's thin story line depicting the "plight" of the young patrician Tracy Lord who, after a divorce, is engaged to marry someone whom her snobbish family and friends deem unfit for her--a man from the working class who had become a nouveau riche executive. The Lord family do not work of course; they give parties, drink endless glass of champagne, get roaring drunk, talk nonsense and, worse still, pretend to have wit.
On the eve of Tracy's wedding, everything is turned around when a reporter arrives to cover the event, and her ex-husband also appears, who you know will win her back after she dumps her fiancee. In the course of the action, Tracy is depicted as an ice goddess, cold and unfeeling; by the end of the play, she is supposedly transformed into a warm human being. By what means is unclear, either in the script or by the actress playing the role. Oh yes, a pesky little sister pretending to be wiser than her elders is on the scene; so is a drunken alcoholic, skirt-chasing uncle; and an estranged father of the bride who suddenly appears and becomes reconciled with his wife, and a chorus of maids and butlers who act as singing commentators, dance little innocuous dances (with trays of food in hand) and fill-in while the scenery is changed.
Some familiar Cole Porter songs are charming, but a favorite one; "I love Paris" is ruined by Tracy and her silly sister's attempt at farce while singing the lyrics. "Let's Misbehave" is the best production number; at least there is some semblance of vitality.
A Philip Barry high comedy of manners needs a scintillating cast who can perform with grace and sophistication. But the director mysteriously injected farcical elements into the production, hampering the actors' characterizations and creating a sillier atmosphere than is necessary. Arthur Kopit, an experienced and well recognized playwright, has tried to breathe some life into the lines, but he has not succeeded; the text remains pedestrian. Some new Cole Porter songs have been added, but that doesn't help either.
In the main role, Melissa Errico is badly miscast. She is unequipped to play the engaging Tracy Lord (and certainly she is no match for the inimitable Kate Hepburn). Conventionally pretty, her personality and her acting are synthetic. Though she is gussied up with a white face and fiery red lips in the style of the period, she is nevertheless unattractive and charmless. And unbelievable in the extreme. There is an air of amateurishness about her, as though she were in a school play trying very hard to please, and in her effort, dragging out every cliche known to beginners. She dances well but her singing is colorless and too loud (a result of her bodymike maybe, which hinders more than helps). Although she has a beautiful figure and wears her costumes well, she cannot capture the cool sophistication needed for the role. Which is a pity, since the actress playing Tracy Lord must carry the play, not sink it.
Some of the actors however are better than others. John McMartin as the drunken uncle makes the most of his role; he has a good comedy sense and livens up his scenes. Daniel McDonald, playing the estranged husband who wins Tracy back, is handsome and debonair, and tries to give his part a touch of Philip Barry. But Tracy's obnoxious little sister played obnoxiously by Anna Kendrick is another annoying feature of the production. Child actors are always tough to like; they are obviously cute, coy, and clawing and watching them trying to act grown up and clever, even if the part calls for it, is a chore--and a bore.
The other actors are typical singers and actors usually found in Broadway musicals. They sing, they act, they dance, they joke, but they cannot save the show. We have come a long way from the forties when Bing Crosby had only to sing a few songs and everyone would swoon. With creative work like "Ragtime" and "Lion King" on Broadway, recycled, kitsch musicals will not do. Audiences deserve something better. [Croyden]
"Upstate," written and directed by Crystal FieldJust for the Record I think it appropriate that you know that I’m a writer who has for many years spent my summers in small towns in the Catskill Mountains. I love the Catskills because they are the source of many lovely memories for my adult life. I have never felt more alive than when waking up on a gorgeous summer morning, I walk out of my fishing shack/writer’s studio to breathe mountain air, hear water racing over the rocks in the stream next to the shack and see the outline of mountains against the blue and white sky. I spend the days exploring mountain trails and yard sales, then writing the nights away. It’s the best possible summer while still at home.
March 19 to April 11
Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. (at E. 10th St.)
Presented by Theater for the New City
Reviewed by Larry Litt March 27, 1998
I also don't want anyone to criticize it for the wrong reasons. And I know there's plenty to criticize. So I took offense when Crystal Field, writer and director of Theater for the New City’s premier production of her comedy “Upstate,” points to the mountains as a place where writers go to create silly little plays for children after they win NYSCA (New York State Council for the Arts) grants. Maybe they do, but most of us go there for real recreation and inspiration.
Field’s “Upstate” follows the NYSCA grant worthy playwright Richard Place (Jonathan Slaff) on his adventure to find a place to write. He's spent the grant money on a copy machine. Who knows why? Richard is commissioned by NYSCA to write a children’s play. Slaff tries hard to make Place a long suffering New York City liberal who is even willing to starve himself to near death for a good cause. But we never see his motivations. It’s not in the writing. I’m sure the playwright who created this play knows what it’s like to be a frustrated crusader for social justice and world peace, but she doesn't tell us a real thing about the inner life of the character. He seemed so out of place (not a pun) at a Greenpeace starve-in. Well, this is a comedy, so I guess she doesn't have to. We're supposed to automatically know, and therefore be "in" on the jokes, about the playwright's political life. I for one missed it.
Place’s love interest is a book editor named Bella (Susan Brennan) who is so shallow that I wondered if she had ever read a book. All she wants is for Richard to fulfill himself, whatever that means. Maybe it’s the “whatever makes you happy” syndrome that carries over into all the other characters. None of these one-dimensional stick figures offers any resistance to anything except for the character of Arthur, played by Alexander Bartenieff.
The only reason to see this play is for the upbeat character acting of Slaff and Bartieneff. Bartenieff plays Richard Place’s twenty-something cousin, or nephew depending on the expository moment. He’s trying to become a filmmaker or video artist or cliché of a modern media student. His resistance is manifest in his obnoxious behavior, that sort of half man and half whimpering child we see in so many new independent movies about young people in confused lust. That Richard doesn’t murder him, which would have made for an excellent plot complication and maybe justified Arthur’s meager existence, is a miracle. Certainly Arthur’s dropped in there for comic relief. Indeed, Bartenieff’s forceful, cloying physical style raises some hopes for the rest of the play.
Finally Richard and Arthur go to their rich, obviously Jewish Uncle Max’s (Don Arrington) country house in the Catskills, hence the mysterious name of this play. It’s an old Rockefeller estate, not one of the rich Rockefellers we're told, but one of the good Rockefellers. What the difference? Well, the good Rockefellers are the rich ones who started NYSCA which has ever since given ever dwindling grants to arts organizations and artists in New York. Which Rockefeller was that? Why Nelson, of course. And would you believe his ghost (Kevin Mitchell Martin) lives in the house upstate where Richard is writing his children’s play? I know you don't believe it, but believe, believe.
The ever considerate Arthur invites five of his Bard College friends to spend the weekend at the house as a diversion. They perform a pagan, gaiaistic ritual where we finally get to see their middle aged bodies dance around a red light fire. Meanwhile Arthur is inventing Rube Goldbergesque devices that inevitably blowup the property. Perhaps it should have been destroyed earlier, in the first act to save us the trouble of figuring out why the Bard students take Richard’s unfinished children’s masterpiece and perform it at Bard for the NYSCA case worker Mr. Lawrence (Craig Meade). How do these people know each other? [Litt]
"The Cripple of Inishmaan" A Rare Treat
The Joseph Papp Public TheaterOne of the most beautiful and touching plays to reach the American stage is "The Cripple Of Inishmaan" at the Public Theater. Written by a young Irishman, Martin McDonagh, already hailed as the most important voice to reach our shores, this play is bleak, funny, sad, and moving. Performed by a splendid cast (all Americans, except for the leading role), it is a rare treat to see such ensemble acting. Credit must be given to the director, four-time Tony winner, Jerry Zaks, who has staged the play meticulously; not a laugh is lost, not an emotional moment is false. From the instant the curtain rises on a bleak, bare, stone walled house on one of the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland in 1934, the mood and tone of the play is apparent. This is a mini tragedy about wasted lives in a poverty stricken, claustrophobic Ireland where people have good hearts-- albeit idiosyncratic--but are doomed to failure.
425 Lafayette Street
New York, N. Y. 10003
Through May 10
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden April 9, 1998
The play centers on a poor, orphaned boy crippled from birth, living with his adopted aunts and ostracized by the villagers who address him as Cripple Billy--the only name we know him by. A movie company has come to shoot a film in this remote village-- Robert Flaherty's documentary "Man of Aran" -- and most of the inhabitants, with little excitement in their lives, hope to get a part in the film--especially Billy. By sheer willpower, he connives to get a screen test for the film, and is whisked away to Hollywood, only to find that the city does not match his dreams.
As you can see, the plot is comparatively simple, but the play has plenty of texture. Especially in the playwright's use of language. The dialogue is Irish to the core with its melody and poetry that typify the best Irish writers. The playwright repeatedly uses certain words and phrases to express the psychological aspects of the characters and his delicious use of humor that masks the despair of the villagers is particularly clever. Moreover, the townspeople are quintessentially Irish--in their lingo, their jokes, their warmth and their foolishness. But even their foolishness is lovable. Take the character of Johnnypateenmike (notice his name). He is the man who disseminates "news" to the townspeople. And what news: idiotic small talk, like a choice hen has disappeared. To add to his craziness, he supplies his mother with enough whiskey to kill her so that he can inherit what little money she has. Yet, he is funny and, in the end, sympathetic.
The actor, Donal Donnelly, is so authentic in the role, it is hard to believe he is acting; his performance is seamless. His accent is perfect, his timing is perfect and, with his scraggly beard, unkempt trousers, and whining voice, he is a true comic character. Then there are the two "aunts" --played beautifully by Elizabeth Franz and Roberta Maxwell--who love Billy. One is a pessimist, the other an optimist, both are full of Irish witticisms and Irish foreboding. They carry on conversations that are ostensibly empty chatter, but their loneliness is poignantly clear.
An important character is Helen, a bawdy, filthy-mouthed girl (played with appropriate gusto by Aisling O'Neill) whom Billy loves. She is a cursing, aggressive, nasty girl but in the end, she too is redeemed.
Finally Cripple Billy, played by Ruaidhri Conroy who created the part in London to critical acclaim, is a master in projecting Billy's distorted, crippled body, his twisted spine and neck, and skinny misshaped legs --and this he does without self-pity or sentimentality. But his aura of sweetness is immediately explicit and enormously moving. Just to look at his face is to know the whole story. A lonely, abandoned child is haunted by the possible suicide of his parents, and dreams of escaping the miserable environment that imprisons him. He talks to cows, sits on a fence for hours looking at them and withstands the taunts and insults of people who cannot call him by his rightful name without adding "cripple" to it. With the exception of his"aunts" people cannot see the essential beauty beneath the disfigured body. Mr. Conroy, a gifted actor, succeeds beautifully in a difficult role that demands expert control of the body; he is quite remarkable in creating the awful deformity and at the same time, projecting a portrait of youthful frustration, at the mercy of a backward environment.
To be sure, the play has no profound philosophical meaning, and perhaps the plot even sounds familiar, but the work has a certain force and beauty of its own. The acting, the dialogue and the basic humanity underlying the work make for a genuine emotional experience...which in our theater is indeed rare. [Croyden]
Roundabout Theater Company
Kit Kat Club
124 West 43street
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden March 23, 1998.
One of the drawbacks to reviving big hits of the past like "Cabaret" is that one always remembers the original production. "Cabaret" is one of those memorable shows that remains indelible in a theatergoer's mind. Not only was the original directed by Harold Prince, a huge success, but who can forget the Bob Fosse film staring the great Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey, both playing their signature roles. Now we have the NEW "Cabaret" staring the English actress Natasha Richardson directed by Sam Mendes, also English, who first produced the work in London to glittering reviews.
Natasha Richardson may be the star of "Cabaret" but the true star is director Sam Mendes, who obviously was intent on upgrading the show. Taking it much further than Harold Prince or Bob Fosse in his depiction of decadent Berlin in the 1930's, as the Nazi's were taking power, Mendes zeros in to the ugly debauchery, and repellent grunge of the Kit Kat club players--its chorus of sordid hookers, and their odious MC. The "girls" are filthy, smelly, and grotesque, with bizarre hairstyles, raggedly underwear, torn stockings, and distorted half-crazed, drugged faces.
Their MC is a slimy, sinister, gutter rat, with an androgynous stark white face, painted red lips and naked, glittering nipples whose vile obscenities overpower every scene. When we first meet this sinister thug singing the familiar "Willkommen," beckoning us to enter his seedy club, he is barechested, wears a leather jock strapped tightly around his crotch to emphasize his genitals, which he repeatedly handles. We know at once that we are in a stinking hell hole, a rat's sewer at the time of the Nazis. It is a remarkable entrance indeed.
In the face of this ghoulish characterization which fascinates the audience, Natasha Richardson, as Sally Bowles, the lead singer in the cabaret about whom the play was written, is somewhat at a disadvantage. In Richardson's interpretation, Sally Bowles, coming from a middle-class English background, is somewhat of an outsider. While she too looks terrible with her torn stockings, bleached blonde hair, and ratty clothes, she is not quite as disgusting as the rest. Underneath is a vulnerable young woman gone astray, albeit a hooker.
Casting Natasha Richardson as a low-down cabaret singer, (with a heart of gold), the director has taken a risk, but regrettably, Richardson, who attempts to give the part a new twist, is not believable. Sally Bowles is funky; Richardson is not; Sally Bowles is sexy; Richardson is not, despite her strutting around in her underwear; Sally Bowles likes her Bohemian life in Berlin, albeit her sordid existence. Sally Bowles is a charmer, a seducer; she attracts men; she uses them; she is not a naive character unaware of her circumstances.
But whatever Sally Bowles is, she is not a proper English lady, a quality that Richardson tries to shake, but her natural gentility comes through. In Natasha Richardson's interpretation, her position in the club, and her desire to remain there is hard to justify.
Fortunately Alan Cumming's MC is brilliant. A remarkable performer, with an agile body and a rubber face, he more than captures the seediness of his character. He is flamboyant, raunchy, sleazy, and ugly. He is a master of the nasty look, the dirty gesture, the insidious body movement, the lifting of a smutty eyebrow, the beckoning of a crooked finger and the totally lascivious presence--all worked out to perfection. His is a world of sexual gestures, bumps and grinds, and behavior so garish and intentionally shocking that the audience seems mesmerized.
But compelling as he is, Mr. Cumming overplays his hand. He loves mugging and his sexual vulgarity is excessive; there is too much crotch groping, too many exposed behinds, outstretched legs, and simulated fornication. This is an in your face performance where more is less. Lewdness may be appropriate but after repeated obscenities, the actor rather than the character becomes obnoxious. Moreover, the barrage of sexual images scream at us throughout the evening and soon the repetition becomes tiresome.
In the role of Clifford Bradshaw, ostensibly the standin for author Christopher Isherwood, who wrote the original Sally stories, John Benjamin Hickey is ineffectual. The part is underwritten as well. The character's sexuality is in question. An admitted homosexual, he suddenly falls in love with Sally and when she becomes pregnant, he offers to marry her and take her home. All of which is unbelievable. Nothing leads up to this. The relationship between the two had never been developed so that the action is illogical.
A glaring bit of miscasting is Mary Louise Wilson in the important role of Fraulein Schneider. Ms. Wilson, a talented actress acclaimed for her one woman show, "Full Gallop" sings so badly and loudly and is often off key. Nor can she make up for it by acting the part either. She seems totally out of place. In fact, one of the mysteries of this production and a major flaw is that no one in the show can really sing. Don't be looking for Natasha Richardson, nor anyone else in the company, to belt out the wonderful Kander and Ebb songs.
When the cast does sing, they bellow out their songs in raucous, crude, tones made all the worse by ear splitting body mikes that ruin the famous numbers. Perhaps the director intended Sally to be untalented; nevertheless, he should have cast someone who COULD sing, and at the same time demonstrate that she is a second rate performer.
Not content to stage the show in a regular theater, the director wanted the audience to be involved in a real club. So the Henry Miller theater has been designed to resemble the Kit Kat club with tables and chairs and red lit lamps. Before the show begins, some dirty looking, bedraggled, hookers dressed in foul clothes and ripped stockings (worn throughout the show), do their stretches, and splits, wiggle their behinds, suggestively spread their legs, and telegraph what we will see repeatedly when the actual play begins.
All the while, waiters walk around the "club" selling drinks to the customers. At heavy prices. The idea of forsaking the real theater for a club is a novel idea if it works. But the audience is forced to sit on hardback, uncomfortable, shaky chairs with a lamp in front of them that obstructed the view. Moreover, the scenes that take place away from the club--the rooming house, for example--the stage is completely bare. Only four doors at the rear and a chair remind us that we are not really in a club at all, so why the gimmick?.
Admittedly, the director is full of ideas, yet after a while the show curiously lags. There is no climatic buildup. The tone is set in the first half hour and never changes or develops. And without an exciting Sally Bowles and a cast that can sing as well as act, something very precious has been lost--the Kander and Ebb score. After all "Cabaret" is listed as a musical, but music and the musical arrangements all give way to a deliberate assault on the audience in favor of a tawdry excessive shock treatment. Which in itself is not enough to tell the ironic story of Berlin at history's most crucial and tragic moment. [Croyden]
What is art?
The Royale Theater
242 West 45th Street
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden March 1st, 1998
ART, written by Yasmina Reza, which opened at the Royale Theater on March 1st, is a play that every serious theater goer should see straightaway. Marvelously acted by Alan Alda, Victor Garber and Alfred Molina, translated from the French by Christopher Hampton, and directed with painstaking detail and precision by the talented British director Matthew Warchus, this 90 minute intermissionless farce which turns serious half way is one of the wittiest and cleverest works to hit Broadway. Not that it is a complicated or even emotional play; it is distinguished by a flawless production and first class acting in a play that is minimalist, comic and subtly intellectual.
The plot is deceivingly simple. Serge, a doctor (Victor Garber), buys an all white painting for $40,000. His best friend, Marc, (Alan Alda) is shocked by Serge's taste, and begins a steady barrage of merciless criticism precipitating a break in their longtime relationship. A third friend, Yvan (Alfred Mollina), acts as intermediary between the two antagonists and is more interested in maintaining a pleasant friendship than in commenting on the art. Perplexed and saddened by the fierce battle between his friends, Yvan also becomes a target for abuse, precisely because he takes no position. The men continue to denigrate each other in an absurdist repartee reminiscent of the hilarious Steinfeid characters. These middle-class yuppies passionately debate questions of art (and life) with the fervor of true intellectuals, only to create the funniest dialogue on the Broadway stage.
But what is behind all the comedy? Why are these men so offensive to each other over a painting? Using art as a comic metaphor, the playwright's intention is to expose the vacuity of the characters' relationships and the misplacement of their emotional lives. Underneath their anger and so-called erudition are the psychological underpinnings of rigid, opinionated, ideological poseurs who cannot tolerate opposing ideas. Marc, the worst offender, is an insufferable egotist and self-centered philistine pretending to be the unchallenged arbiter of art and culture. Yet he is hard-pressed to explain his extreme reaction to the painting except to exclaim over and over that it is "shit." He apparently thinks of himself as his friend's mentor and is outraged that Serge's taste should differ from his own.
Serge is a novice who collects art because it is chic. He can neither articulate his love for his painting nor proclaim any esthetic judgment; he is more interested in what the picture's resale market price will be. Yvan, a simple, working class fellow, vacillates to win his friends' favor, only to be castigated for his ambivalence. Straightlaced and unpretentious, he is the only sympathetic character in contrast to his cold and unfeeling friends. At least he admits his ignorance and tries desperately to save the friendships. But these relationships are so precarious that one wonders what kind of friendship these men had in the first place and why they would be worth saving.
The author cleverly establishes a kind of dialectic between the characters which adds to the fun. She allows them to change their arguments from time to time, so that the audience doesn't quite know for whom to root. One minute you support the Alan Alda character because you also hate the picture; at the same time you abhor his unrelenting ridicule. Next you sympathize with the badly humiliated collector but you can't respect his trendy art. Only Yvan catches your sympathy; he is the only rational character. And he is no intellectual. Nor was he meant to be.
Though the arguments are played for comedy, underneath some important problems are raised. The notion that strong opinions lead to unbalanced, dogmatic fights, and furious personal insults, despite longtime friendships that crumble under severe attacks are important points in the play. In fact, what is the meaning of friendship between these men? Wisely, the playwright offers no solutions and only poses more questions.
The meaning of art is another problem subtly raised. What is art, how do people view a painting, who can define art, can it be objectified, or is all art (and life) finally a subjective experience? No one in the play formulates a clear-cut definition of art. Nor can they. Maybe art, like life itself, is whatever one perceives it to be--and wants it to be. To be blessed with a strong vision and able to see --art, relationships, life-- from various vantage points is itself an art. Perception is the key to everything. Which in the final analysis justifies the author's use of art as a metaphor.
The acting is unimaginably brilliant. Against an almost bare stage (all white of course) designed by Mark Thompson, the actors, dressed in either black or grey, give seamless performances. Alan Alda, as the malicious Marc, obsessed with hatred. delivers his vitriol with a laugh and devastating one- liners. Victor Garber, a weak man seduced into paying any price for art, is the perfect foil. But the scene stealer is the dazzling Alfred Mollina delivering a ten minute comic tour de force describing the absurdity of his life--an extraordinary piece of acting.
It is a pleasure to report that a cleverly written play with sophisticated dialogue, with actors who can act, and with directors who can direct, proves that the theater is decidedly not dead, but very much alive, and kicking up a storm on the stage of the Royal theater. [Croyden]
"THE CAPEMAN": A THEATRICAL PUZZLE
"The Capeman"The Capeman," Paul Simon's first Broadway musical which opened on January 29th, had all the makings of a first class production. What could be more inviting than music by Paul Simon, book by Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, and direction by avant garde choreographer Mark Morris? But even before the opening (postponed several times), the buzz was bad. After a few weeks into rehearsals, Simon had fired several cast members as well as the first director, whom he replaced with Mark Morris only to fire Morris and hire four-time Tony winner, Jerry Zaks, who doctored the final show (though Mark Morris is credited as director in the program). Simon also received bad publicity for arrogant putdowns of Broadway, and an unflattering profile in the "New York Times" did not help either. Still one went to the theater disregarding all the gossip and hoping that the show would prevail.
MarquisTheatre, 1535 Broadway
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden January 30,1998.
But it did not; it was a noble try, but Paul Simon is his own worst enemy. Here we have a talented, masterful composer, one of the country's best known songwriters for more than three decades, winner of numerous Grammy awards, an artist known for his social consciousness and a mover and shaker for various charitable social causes--certainly an intelligent and gifted artist. How did this show with its $11 million investment fail? What went wrong?
Unfortunately Simon, with his considerable ego, took over the production at the very beginning not only as chief musician, but as writer, director, and lyricist, thus muddying the waters. With no experience with a Broadway musical, he was later forced to retreat somewhat. But by then many cooks had already spoiled the broth. Derek Walcott, may be a brilliant poet, but his metier is not Broadway and he and Simon, reportedly were far from compatible. (They both shared the credit for the book and the lyrics). The basic fault however is Simon's. He had overwritten the score and apparently wouldn't budge: there were enough songs to accommodate ten shows; he mixed salsa, gospel, rock and a variety of forms that added to the confusion of the text. Plainly the songs overtook everything: story, characters, development of ideas, dramatic climaxes--all became secondary in favor of the music. True, some songs were catchy and moving, but as a whole, the music was not deep enough to carry the day. An opera or in this case, a pop opera, needs either brilliant music or a stunning production--two elements missing here.
The story depicts the life of Salvador Agron, who as a teenage Puerto Rican gang member kills two youths, is sentenced to death, but then is commuted to a long term prison sentence, and while incarcerated, learns to read and write. In the end he publishes his story about prison life. The boy is shown at three stages of his life: as a child with his mother in Puerto Rico, as a young killer, and as a grown man who, acting as narrator, remembers his past and understands it on another level.
One of the problems is that sympathy for the young man turned killer, though a true story, is difficult to accept. The psychological aspects of his life leading to the murder are not sufficiently dramatized. We are told (not shown) that his step father beat him, that he lacked self esteem, that he was influenced by his poverty and his Puerto Rican background, that he was pressured by the gang, that he was delighted to wear the famous cape (symbol of the Vampire gang) which gave him a sense of power. We gleam this information in bits and pieces from the underwritten text. And it is not enough. Even the murder does not reach any dramatic heights; it is done fast and furious behind an iron gate; we hardly see it; there is no buildup; the moment comes from no where and ends quickly.
To their credit, Simon and Walcott tried to show different sides of the problem: the killer's mother, a poor woman struggling against poverty and longing for her homeland; the mothers of the slain youths who cannot forgive the killings; the sadism of the police and the press toward Puerto Ricans; the meanness of prison life, and the frenzy of the media. Some of these scenes are moving and emotionally compelling, particularly when Ednita Nazario, in the role of the mother, has the stage. A fine actress with a beautiful singing voice, her scenes are the most memorable--but she is somewhat stereotypical; the good, religious Catholic woman who depends on God and the church for salvation. Her role in the upbringing of the boy is a blank.
Another problem is that the narrative is all too familiar. Haven't we seen and heard this story somewhere--in the movies, on the stage, in television, on the front pages of the tabloid press? If one tells this story again, one needs to find a new and fresh point of view, or invent a magnificent production with brilliant dramatic acting, or create music so compelling that it is sufficient in itself so that dialogue and story line are unimportant. But in this show, we need the story, we need the dialogue, we need the information to carry the weight of the tragedy. The music alone will not suffice.
Finally the staging is amateurish. No wonder. You don't hire Mark Morris, a choreographer, to handle a big Broadway musical (which he had never done before) and then cut the dancing to an uninspired scene or two. You don't create immense sets that dwarf the actors. If you must have such sets, you had better fill up the space. You don't hire actors who sing well but can't act, who can barely get across the stage. Mr. Ruben Blades, playing the mature Agron, has no energy, lacks charisma and theatrical presence; he just walks through the show. The young Agron, Marc Anthony is better, but without a character to develop, he faded fast. Only Ednita Nazario (the mother) held her own. So did Sara Ramierez in a small part of the young Indian woman who sends Agron letters in jail.
Having said all this, the show, because of its important subject matter does provide some tension and dramatic interest, but only in the beginning, particulary in its opening number"Born in Puerto Rico," an evocation of Agron's life in his native land, and the sad dirge "Can I Forgive Him" sung beautifully by the victims' mothers. But by the second act, all the flaws are there; and the audience's energy is sapped, the actors seem tired; the show drags. You want the curtain to come down fast. The writers, the producers, everyone involved --two many hands in this-- apparently did not know how to resolve the story, whatever there was of a story, and everything became worse.
I couldn't help thinking of the world wide success of "West Side Story" years ago, also about Latino youths, but that was another generation. Right now the theater cannot support another "West Side Story" except if it involves geniuses like Bernstein, Robbins and Sondheim--and a plot stolen from a master. [Croyden]
ON THE ANNIVERSARY OF THE MOSCOW ART THEATRE
"Three Sisters" by Anton ChekhovAn important event of this year's theatrical season occurred at the Brooklyn Academy where, under the leadership of Harvey Lichtenstein (who, as always, brings to our town exciting and original productions) the renowned Moscow Art theater presented its acclaimed production of Chekhov's "Three Sisters." This production also celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the famous Moscow Art. Not only was "Three Sisters" reviewed favorably by the New York critics, but members of the company were honored at the Actors Studio, the renowned academy known for popularizing the Stanislavsky method that originated with the Moscow Art.
Brooklyn Academy of Music
Brooklyn, New York
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden February 10,1998
One of the chief spokespersons for the company is Anatoly Smeliansky, Associate Artistic Director and a leading scholar and historian of Russian theater. He recently published the "Complete Works of Stanislavsky," "The Moscow Art Theater Encyclopedia," and is at work on "Russian Theater After Stalin" (Cambridge University Press). He is well known in theatrical circles having lectured widely in America and Europe.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon, Smeliansky appeared at my apartment for an interview at three in the afternoon and left at six--he is a great conversationalist. Charming, erudite, a man of extreme intelligence and urbanity, Smeliansky described the present situation in Moscow.
"The Moscow Art Theater today is divided into two companies, which happened in 1987 under Gorbachev, just before the breakdown of USSR. It was the first example of Glasnost, and signified the greatest change in the structure of the theater," he said. "Because of the divisions in the company, it was decided to establish two theaters: One in the tradition of Gorki, the other his theater in the tradition of Chekhov. Apparently this division signifies the conflict that still rages in Moscow: i. e., Chekhov the humanist and Gorki, the propagandist. It is the Moscow Art Theater/Chekhov that opened at the Brooklyn Academy with "Three Sisters", a production that some hailed at as a new beginning.
"We had the problem of how to reconstruct the theater," Smeliansky continued, "it had become unmanageable with its 180 actors; now it is cut to 60. Having a large company insured the actors their yearly salary but weakened the productions. Actors had to be used, and some had outgrown their usefulness. There were numerous attempts to reorganize but under the Soviet regime it was impossible despite the company's attempt hundreds of times... The Moscow Art Theater had been canonized and the theater was so entrenched as a Soviet institution, it could not be moved away from its traditional role until Glasnost."
Smeliansky recalled that Gorbachev came to see "Uncle Vanya" on the eve of the May Day parade in 1985. It was unusual for a head of state to attend the theater the night before the traditional parade. At that point members of the company surmised that a change would soon be forthcoming. And it was.
It was decided that because of the conflicts in the company, the troupe would be split in two. So today two companies stand side by side.
"The big difference now," Smeliansky said, "is the decannonization of the Moscow Art. And the desire to form a family environment among the actors, which was impossible with 180 members. Sometimes the director could hardly remember the names of the actors."
All sixty-five actors are now under contract, guaranteed for one season. The Government still supports the Moscow Art; it is considered a national treasure, but unfortunately the company cannot rely on the meager subsidy (about 25% of the budget) that only goes for salaries, not for the cost of productions. The box office takes in about 10 % of the money needed. The rest has to be raised.
"We are using the capitalistic way," Smeliansky said. "We raise money from private sponsors, not that our investors make back their money. What kind of money can you make from Moscow Art? As far as the audiences go, it is the cheapest entertainment for Russian people; they don't care about ideology or politics or serious matters in the theater. People cannot afford restaurants or clubs--it is too expensive. The theater is not cheap--$4 or $5-- but it is the only place where people feel alive. Someone is sitting next to you; you become a neighbor of somebody."
Apparently the most difficult problem of the Moscow Art Theater is producing contemporary plays, a scarcity in today's Russia. The Theater is still confined therefore to the classical repertory --Chekhov, Gogol, Dostoevsky and so forth. Ironically under the Soviets some new playwrights were produced, but the very same writers stopped writing because they have nothing to say, and presumably they are somewhat embarrassed about their propagandistic role under the Soviets.
When asked why Russian intellectuals as well as ordinary folks do not speak about their past, or why nobody has been tried for crimes, or why the KGB is still in power, or why archives have not been opened (as the Germans' have), Smeliansky said:
"People in Europe had a different problem. The regime was imposed on them from the outside, but for the Russians it was their own creation. They did it to themselves. If not for Gorbachev, the Russians would wait for a hundred years more for someone to come along and free them."
It was suggested that the drama of Gorbachev and the overthrow of the regime were perfect topics for a play, so why was no one writing about this?
"When people think of the past, they think not of the regime but they have nostalgia for their youthful days. And with that feeling the truth about the country is often minimized. People find it hard to divorce their motherland and their essential love of the country from the evils the country perpetrated. They remember their village, their families, their youth, their childhood. That becomes your memory. I have beautiful, strange memories of my childhood, and of my family.
"Another reason people don't criticize the past, is because they are dissatisfied with the present. Wild capitalism is so disgusting to them, that they prefer the past with its accommodations and its predictability of life. Yes, it has been a problem how Russians are trying to overcome their past. Every day there were programs on TV and in the papers about the past, and eventually people got sick of it. People want to forget, they want entertainment, not entertainment like in the U.S. for the rich, but entertainment for the poor to get away from their hard lives. The want consolation and we seek to create an art of consolation, not political theater. If you don't see the changes in your life for the better, then there is a disillusionment with the present and life is often compared to the past.
"The past was not, of course, glorious even for the theater. Every actor had a salary but some never touched the stage. The Moscow Art was completely under the control of the Communist Party for many years,though the situation changed when Gorbachev came to power. When the company toured, of course, there were several people who went along presumably to watch for defections. We got used to it; it didn't even matter; it was a fact of life. It all depended upon the kind of person leading the theater. Oleg Efremov, our director, was never a collaborator, he never signed anything, and we never staged any play that glorified the system; I am Jewish and to invite me to be the dramaturg was an heroic act, even though I was not a member of the party."
To change the subject he was asked, what was the practical advantage of the interchange between Russians and Americans?
"We would like to show an ideal kind of theater, how it should be; it has nothing to do with the reality of theater today, but ideals are important. What is the point of theater--just to earn money? A lot of businesses are more profitable than theater. As for the past, I must say that great pressure produced some great theater: Sovremennik and Taganka. (two non-traditional theaters). I agree that about 95% of the theaters were bad because of the propaganda but 5% of it was magnificent."
And one supposes that we have to be thankful for that. [Croyden]
THE POWER OF RICHARD
"Richard II" and "Richard III" In Repertory"Richard II" is Shakespeare's most important history play. It begins the tragic chronicle of the civil wars that was almost the ruin of England. And it is most gratifying that Theater for A New Audience has chosen to open its Spring season with this work (in repertory with "Richard III"). Richard II was the first king to be deposed and murdered at a time when lawfulness and civil rights had virtually no place in the realm. What worked in England was power, and all glory to those who could achieve and hold it. Kings were anointed as messengers of God and to disobey a monarch was either to be banished or killed at the will of the king. But if a king were not careful, rebellions could begin very easily, and a king like everyone else could lose not only his crown, but his head.
Theatre For A New Audience
423 West 46th Street
February 15, 1998
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden February 20, 1998.
This is clearly demonstrated by the plot in Richard. Before the play begins, Richard is suspected of murdering his uncle Gloucester for treason. As a result of the accusations and counter accusations, two nobles are banished, his powerful cousin Bolingbrook and the equally powerful Mowbury, each of whom accuses the other of having a hand in the murder of Gloucester. While Bolingbroke is exiled, Richard confiscates Bolingbroke's enormous wealth and property to fund a military expedition to Ireland. Furious about the king's illegal act, the forces around Bolingbroke organize; the nobles take sides; plots are fomented leading to an ominous cabal. When the King returns from abroad, he discovers a virtual coup d'etat. He is alone, deserted by his men--even by his uncle York--and is at the mercy of Bolingbroke.
With no support from his allies, betrayed by his courtiers, Richard is forced to abdicate. And in one of the most poetic and moving scenes in the play, he delivers the famous "Hollow Crown" soliloquy in which he surrenders his crown, his scepter and all his wealth to the insurgents. Summarily arrested, he is thrown into the tower and then murdered. Bolingbroke ascends to the throne and becomes Henry IV, but like his predecessor, his crown weighs heavily on his head. He instructs his henchmen to murder Richard's former friends as well as those he thinks are opposed to his rule.
The blood bath is on. Power is gained, but power must be sustained by any means. The civil wars have begun and the theme of the "Henrys," Shakespeare's next play, is foreshadowed. That will be followed by "Richard III," a play about another tyrant and usurper, who will seize the crown by murdering everyone in his way, including his brothers; but finally he will be defeated by Henry Tudor, thus ending the War of the Roses between the Lancasters and the Yorks, and ushering in the dynasty of the Tudors.
What is fascinating about "Richard II" is Shakespeare's genius in depicting the specific details of the relationship between character and politics, between the blind hubris of the powerful, who exploit their position, and those who (at any sign of weakness) compromise their loyalty, desert their leader, inform, lie, and join the enemy camp. It all depends who is on top at the moment. Shakespeare is impeccable in depicting the ambivalence, the ambiguities, the self interest, the opportunism and the blatant ruthlessness that underlie the decisions of the players involved in the brutal arena of political gamesmanship. We see the duplicity of the King's courtiers. Quick to betray their monarch, they are unconcerned with the morality or legality of deposing a king. We see the treachery of Richard's uncle York who, at the beginning of the insurrection, defends Richard, only to be persuaded to throw in his lot with the rebels. Relatives count for nothing in that world. Everything is possible in the struggle for power: lying, duplicity, hypocrisy, informants, turncoats, prison and murder. As Bolingbroke becomes king, he quickly establishes a police state; there are no trials, no hearings, only instant arrests and murder. So much for the future Henry IV. And for the tactics that seem all too familiar.
As for the depiction of Richard in this production--he is played as a tragic poetical hero who, unaware of his gross incompetency and greed, discovers too late what kingship means; yet through his misery, he becomes humanized. Ironically, he has brought on his own destruction by his own corruption, yet by the end of the play he emerges as a sympathetic figure. Obviously Shakespeare pitied him: he endowed the character with the most poetical lines in the text. The passages that begin with "Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings..." and "What must the king do now?..." are supreme examples of the beauty of the language which reflects Richard's despair and his growing awareness in the face of blatant power. To be sure, Richard is unsympathetic at first, especially when he visits his dying uncle John of Gaunt and cheerfully awaits the old man's death. But Richard is no ordinary villain; by the end of the play, he grows in stature and understands what has happened to him, but too late; his self awareness is rewarded by death.
One of the most important factors of this new production is that the director, Ron Daniels, did not try to modernize the play. Many directors are so fearful that we poor fools in the audience will not get it that they do all kinds of maddening things--cast men in women's part, change the text to fit their concepts and in general, muck up the greatest playwright who ever lived, trying foolishly to improve on him. True, the costumes in "Richard II" are not of the period, but they are not an eyesore either. The men wear long, black or grey gangster-type coats; under their jackets they wear silver breast plates and on their heads, when ready for battles, the familiar medieval head dress associated with the crusaders.
The set design by Neil Patel is particulary effective. A giant rose window is encased in the background, its reflections gleaming on the floor; on the walls are many lighted candles that immediately evoke Medieval times. Other than that the space is virtually empty, the better for the actors to move about creating interesting patterns.
Because the play needs no upgrading, and is relevant for all time, the director Ron Daniels stuck faithfully to the text. What a pleasure to hear the words without the usual mouthing and inaudibility associated so often with Americans playing Shakespeare. No need for English actors, no need for amplification. The diction is clear and forthright, but in some cases there was too much shouting.
Richard is played by Steven Skybell, an actor of considerable force and versatility. He carried off the big scenes effectively, but he sometimes lacked the poetic quality of the language. His deposition scene is delivered simply enough, each line crystal clear, but still the delivery fails to move; the poetic quality is missing. Bolingbroke is miscast; he lacks the physical presence of the usurper and future king. True, he should be icy cold but not colorless. The rest of the cast gives adequate, workmanlike performances, although in some cases actors are too conventional. Still, the company has the feel of a ensemble and the major scenes do work.
Despite the flaws in the production, the total effect is compelling. The pacing is swift, the action moves quickly, and though the play is over three hours, it doesn't feel that long. The company holds the audience in its grip creating a necessary and compelling tension. The main thing here is that "Richard II" is wonderful to see and listen to. It is to this company's credit that the essential play does come off, and that the evening is well spent. [Croyden]
"Ragtime"The long-awaited and heavily-advertised musical extravaganza "Ragtime" finally opened on Broadway January 18th. Not only did this three-hour musical arrive with the fanfare of an amazing merchandizing campaign, but it also inaugurated the Ford Theatre for the Performing Arts--an amalgamation and reconstruction of two old houses, the Lyric and the Apollo. Built and owned by the enterprising Garth Drabinsky, CEO of Livent Company (who is also producer of "Ragtime"), the Ford theater, beautiful in itself, occupies an important space on the "new" Broadway and 42nd Street, now a mecca for lavish show business events.
Ford Center For the Performing Arts
213 West 42nd Street
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden January 26, 1998
"Ragtime" under the supervision of Mr. Drabinsky, himself, began its advertising campaign about a year ago when it opened in Toronto (it is currently playing in Los Angles) and giant advertisements have been in place ever since. With this huge merchandising blitz (estimated to cost $2.25 million) well under way for the Broadway opening, anticipation was high. So was the advance ticket sale, rumored to be $17 million. A block of VIP tickets for $125 was a selling point. With VIP tickets come your own private lounge, free drinks, and line-free bathrooms.
Hype pays off. It must, considering the $10 million investment in one of the most lavish technological productions yet to be seen on Broadway. On stage is an old model T. Ford, an airplane, a railway, J. P. Morgan's library, the old Pennsylvania Railroad station, Ellis Island, the stature of Liberty, Atlantic City, the streets of Harlem, the East Side Jewish ghetto and a suburban New Rochelle home. There is also a huge cast doubling, tripling, singing, dancing, acting and generally carrying on. The creative team is formidable. With book by award winning Terrence McNally based on E. L. Doctorow's best selling novel, an experienced director in Frank Galati, the lighting genius of Jules Fisher, the scenic wizardry of Eugene Lee, costumes by the well-established designer Santo Loquasto, choreography by Graciela Daniele and music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, it would seem such a company of talent could not miss.
Yet, "Ragtime" is curiously empty. The story depicts an America at the turn of the century, seen through the eyes of three families. There is a white upper class Wasp family: a "good" mother who adopts an abandoned black baby she finds buried alive (!) in her garden, her staid conservative husband, her progressive younger brother and her precocious son who acts as narrator. Then there is the black family: the woman who abandons her child and her charismatic songwriter lover who had deserted her (only to return prosperous and ready to claim his family). The third family is the immigrant Jewish peddler and his young daughter, who struggle with poverty throughout the story but as expected, the man rises above his station in the end.
The historical figures representing social and political viewpoints of the time--Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Stanford White, Evelyn Nesbit and Houdini--interact with the fictional characters. But that confuses the story line. Fact and fiction are mixed together in an unappealing stew, which fails to delineate the two. Besides, the historical figures do not come to life; their function is symbolic; they are there as cardboard figures that depict the class struggle. Their views--and their dialogue--are one dimensional and hackneyed. They resemble agitprop characters of the thirties mouthing a party line. In the nineties, this becomes tiresome.
The three families are not drawn well, either. We know from the beginning that the "good" Mother will represent white liberalism, that the black mother will be killed and become a martyr, that the black song writer will become a radical revolutionary seeking revenge for the murder of his woman (only to be shot down), that the white brother will unite with the blacks in their fight (black-white unity), that the immigrant peddler will become rich and famous and meet up with Mother who, when her domineering husband dies, is free to marry the immigrant. With a fully integrated family of black, white, and Jewish children, they will all live happily ever after. So there are goodies and baddies, racists and protesters, flag wavers and union wavers, strikers and capitalists, nasty police and oppressed blacks. The events, predictable early in the show, obliterate any chance of suspense so that we are left with a slow- paced, clawing melodrama.
The music is another problem. It is peppered with saccharin melodies and sugar-coated lyrics, whose catch words (whenever you can catch them) are "dreams," "hope" and "justice." They are yelled, forced, repeated and whispered; the singers are so heavily miked that any possible nuances are killed. Everything is sacrificed to push the play's message--a boring appeal to political correctness. For all the screaming, shouting, and sloganizing, we are not moved.
Beside this, the show is overproduced: too many repetitive scenes, too much movement, too many people, too many irrelevant numbers (do we need a song after every scene?), too many projections, and too many theatrical effects. (Were the producers competing with the movies?). Is it necessary to bring on an automobile, a plane, a railroad, Penn station and J. P. Morgan's house? This overplay of scenery tends to distract from what could have been a compelling experience, but the disconnect between the massive sets and the characters' emotions diminishes the story's human qualities.
Two artists are worth mentioning. Brian Stokes Mitchell, the lead who plays the black songwriter, moves, speaks, and sings with grace and authority. He is a strong, appealing presence on stage and brings to each scene an energetic sexuality. Another is scenic designer Eugene Lee. A remarkable talent, Lee has created virtually an entire city, a stunning feast of glass, arches, domes, vaults, metal gates, fences, columns, stairways, even the old Penn Station--iron and steel everywhere. Bold, big and sometimes beautiful in its design and execution, Lee's work, in itself, is an artistic triumph. Ironically, the human values are dwarfed before the spectacular architecture.
What does this say about the "new" Broadway run by giant corporations? Is this large scale technological extravaganza endemic to the future of musical theater and the Disney influence that now dominates 42nd Street? Maybe corporate millions will give new life to "old" Broadway. But "Ragtime" is a poor example. Despite the money, the technical brilliance, the giant advertising, the manufactured hoopla, three hours of "Ragtime" is draining. Please, "new" producers: the least you can do is cut down your shows to the usual two hours. If you can't get it going in two, it will not come alive in three. [Croyden]
Laughing Around Town with Larry LittNEW YORK, Feb. 9 (NYTW) -- What’s going to happen to poor Lewis Black? Doesn’t he know that special effects crazed Hollywood and the new American lowest common denominator silly sitcom television producers haven’t found a use for intelligent, acerbic, iconoclastic political satirists, unless they’re willing to mellow their rant into neutral banalities. And what about us, the small, desparate, pitiful audience who seek political satire, even if it costs a few dollars to realize our quest?
Seeing Lewis Black in his one-man show “Black Humor” at the Cherry Lane Theatre reminded me why we should support more sophisticated nightclubs. I wanted to drink as Black explained his positions on our contemporary life. His accentuated sentences, his sly self criticsms, and his impish provocations made me want to toast each gag with a healthy swig of vodka.
Black isn’t one of these new kid-on-the-block comics. He doesn’t dig into the obviousness of his sex life or his abusive-possessive family for material. What a relief! I see dozens of so-called comics a month. The ethnic/family/nerd formula they perpetuate is killing the comedy tradition. But it’s still attracting casting directors for mediocre television roles in sitcoms about nothing. They should take a good, hard long look at Lewis Black. He’s a smart, barbed sacrificial scapegoat in the land of warm and fuzzy sarcasm. His cynicism is reserved for the powerful, not the poor girl or guy next door. And especially not his mom.
I know. I sound like an old curmudgeon. So forget it. Go see Lewis Black. He’ll make you laugh if you get any of the unsubtle news from the sex crazed keepers of the moral flame media. He gets my award as comic of the year for not doing TV commercial parodies. Thank the gods of satire and facetia.
Black Humor: the Comedy of Lewis Black
Written and performed by Lewis Black
Limited engagement to March 1
Presented by The Cherry Lane Theatre Company
38 Commerce Street, NYC
Wed & Thur $25.00; Fri, Sat & Sun $27.50; Student rush (subject to availability 30 minutes prior to curtain) $15.00
I’m not sure, but I think one of the reasons people love interactive dinner theater shows is the fact that they can see people make fools of themselves over a plate of fried chicken cutlet and vegetables. When I found myself at “Revenge in the Mob” currently playing in Arno Ristorante on West 38th Street, I knew from the moment I walked in the door that this show is a parody based on films about Italian gangster types. No subtlety here. Greasy haired guys dressed in shiny suits. It’s a good thing Italians can take their stereotypes and make a fun night out of them.
The best thing about “Revenge in the Mob” are the two beautiful and talented singers. Rosie Babolini played by lovely Susan Campanoro transforms the chaotic opening of the show with a belting rendition of “Big Spender” that sets the mood for entertainment. Then Lulu Sportelli portrayed by sultry Marilyn Matarrese breaks the banality of waiting for a meal with one of the slowest, sexiest versions of “Great Balls of Fire” I’ve ever heard. It made my heart pound while I fell in love. If the show had stopped there I would have been satisfied.
But the mob, the boys, the wiseguys must to go on. They ramble, play tough, talk with their hands and then emote about mob hits and who’s going to be the capo da tutti, whose mama is who’s, and a whole bunch of leadership issues that make Washington under Clinton look sane. It’s fun if you’re willing to forget that these macho icons are caricaturing real people who really kill and engage in criminal behavior that costs society a vast amount of grief and money. Fortunately for the show’s theme there is a moral reversal at the end. But I tink dere shudda been a song, baby.
I thought I could learn something about the past, both theatrical and so called real history, by seeing Jean Cocteau Repertory’s “The Man in the Glass Booth” revival at in the Bouwerie Lane Theater. This very odd play by Robert Shaw the actor, first produced in 1964, asks many pertinent questions that many have come to think are dated in 1998. But the main point, that the people, not all the people, but most of the people of Germany and Europe are complicit in the Holocaust still haunts the world political and humanitarian stages. Witness the controversy over the stolen paintings now admittedly held iin American museum collections. How did they get there and who really owns them?
Revenge in the Mob
Produced by La Famiglia
Created, conceived & Written by Benedetto Geraci
Directed by Gene Terinoni
141 West 38th Street
Thur, Fri & Sat $60.00 (includes show, dinner, tax, & tip)
For me “Man in the Glass Booth” is a precursor of “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” by Sternhagen, the extremely provocative book that examines his influences on the rest of Europe’s population. I think it’s time we examined the whole European system of categorizing by race and religion. Eugenics, ethnic politics in the name of science, is still with us. Can you imagine cloning non ethnic beings-neutrals? They’d hate us all.
Cocteau Rep’s veteran actor Harris Berlinsky carries the show almost by himself. He towers over the rest of the cast. The rest of the cast serve as pawns in the gross game milionaire Sam Godman plays on the high strung Jewish world of the sixties. Thankfully director Eve Adamson rightly knew they should let him have his head. The show has been extended through April 24.
Presented by Jean Cocteau Rep at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre, 330 Bowery.[Larry Litt]
Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 3:00 pm, some Wednesdays at 8:00 pm
Admission $29 Fri & Sat 8:00 pm and Sun 3:00 pm, $24 other times, $20 seniors, $12 students, TDF accepted.
Box office (212) 677-0060.
PERFORMANCE DATES: January 16, 17 (previews), 18 (opening), 22, 23, 31, February 1, 4, 5, 6, 8, 14 (3:00 pm and 8:00 pm), 15, 18, 19, 20, 28, March 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 21, 22, 25, 26, 27, April 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 18, 19, 22, 23, 24.
"GUY'S DREAMIN'" (a review)
and DHARMA DREAMS WITH JEAN CLAUDE (an interview)
"Guy's Dreamin'," created and performed by Jean-Claude van Itallie, Court Dorsey and Kermit DunkelbergAn ominous, rapturous rush of sacred gongs draws us into the precise, condensed poetry of the collective creation "Guy's Dreamin'".This mesmerizing performance as concise as Haiku, as intriguing as a Zen Koan, presents us with three men in black intensely engaged in answering an ambiguous question, "Is its neck broken?" The three move exquisitely while making abstract sounds, and forming various patterns of wings; forming pyramids, one carrying another on his shoulders, in an increasingly provocative rhythm. Has a bird died? Are these men birds or angels?
Composer/Percussionist: Tony Vacca
Directed by Kim Mancuso and Joel Gluck
November 6 to 16, La MaMa E.T.C., 74A East Fourth Street
Presented by La MaMa E.T.C.
in conjunction with Pilgrim Theater and Shantigar Foundation (Closed)
This piece presents riveting confessional images from the performers' lives centering on death of parents; homosexual and heterosexual epiphanies; and spiritual seeking. These performers give us a fresh paradigm of manhood in the nineties.
In fact, the performance is comprised of syncopated flashes of painful and comedic memories which are revealed through abstract sound, singing, and precise language which reverberate with the work of the Open Theatre's Sound and Movement, and Grotowski's sacred, poor theatre. The three participate in each other's texts, constantly changing form, a kaleidoscope of unconnected lives interwoven by their common dreams and themes.
A medical student from Normal Illinois takes LSD and embodies his god-like, Dracula experience to a wild drum beat. A gay man wrestles with a vengeance with a future lover in a leather bar in San Francisco. A young man meditates by the mystic Aurobindo's tomb overwhelmed by silence. The three sing the children's song, "Winken, Blinken, and Nod," and we are off sailing with them on their non-linear journeys, reminding us of how our own journeys are shaped by such small, vivid encounters with self and the world.
Jean-Claude van Itallie's debut as an actor proved to be the most stunning performance of riveting movement, language, and voice. He spoke of his European father, garbed in cashmere with a foulard, terrorizing and enticing his family; and in a more tender mode, of his bringing his mother on the Ferry to Fire Island with a row of men in suits and ties and brief cases; juxtaposed with the homosexuals in the Pines with their fuzzy sweaters; and his delight that his mother preferred the frivolous garb of his friends and lovers.
This performance piece with its arresting narratives, magnificent music, and elegant direction celebrates male gender with a fresh sensibility and should continue to travel its wonders around the planet.
WHAT WAS THE CREATIVE PROCESS BEHIND THIS WORK?
The following aree notes from an interview with Jean-Claude van Itallie, who at 61 is handsome and radiant. He also moves like a silver fox.
Jean-Claude, who has been a Tibetan Buddhist since l968, is said the piece could have been called Dharma Dreaming. Dharma is the Sanskrit word for reality, teaching, and dream. Jean-Claude has interwoven these three concepts in his workshops at Esslen, the Omega Institute, the Open Center, and at his home in Massachusetts for 20 years.
He integrates everything he knows into performance; from his Anti-nuke days, to his work with the woman he calls the best acting teacher, Carol Fox Prescott. He call acting an "act of high meditation in action." The performer must be fully conscious, and aware of myriad details from the depths of his being, to where the stage ends in "constantly progressing concentric circles of reality." He calls the "act of creation" as the "act of breathing to the belly--with the out breath as Joy!"
Jean-Claude finds that Joy permeates everything even painful experiences--finding Joy in the "exorcism of dark hidden places." He believes that the primary rule of his acting technique and creativity is "authentic experience expressed in specific images through the body." He practices what he preaches, and believes that this process of "energy flowing in the present" is as necessary for a meaningful life as well as for significant art. He works for an art which has healing power, which he terms the "yoga of theatre."
Jean-Claude is presently re-issuing his text of The Tibetan Book of the Dead as a text to be read aloud, for those in crisis, or who are dying, especially victims of AIDS . He is most proud that his house in the country is becoming a foundation for artistic and spiritual practices. The house was named "Shantigar"--Peaceful Home by his teacher Shigham Trumpga, who spent his year of retreat there. A large barn is being converted into a space for workshops and the development of theatre pieces.
This is a good moment to praise Jean-Claude van Itallie for the canon of his work. Like "Guys Dreamin'," Jean-Claude's innovative plays have universal, serious themes and an architectonic structure. In l967, he became internationally famous with his work with the Open Theatre, "The Serpent" based on the book of Genesis. He has written over thirty plays including what has been called the watershed play of the sixties, "America Hurrah." Among his major works are "The Tibetan Book of the Dead"; "Struck Dumb" based on his experience with Open Theatre Director's Joe Chaiken's stroke and aphasia; "Bag Lady"; and widely produced English versions of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" and "The Cherry Orchard." He is a genius at profound, concise, striking images and words, which reverberate with mythical power.
In l977 in The Drama Review, Jean-Claude first dreamt of becoming a performer. He wrote about his creative process which continues today that"an artist perceives reality with a wider and more intense vision. . .each new good play is a new language." He compared the technique of writing plays to shooting arrows in "Zen and the Art of Archery": "You shoot an arrow a hundred thousand times, and each time it's not quite right, and then when you are about to give up, you shoot the arrow, and it just happens to be right." Jean-Claude calls his workshops the Healing Power of Theatre and his arrows continue to shoot into our hearts. [Melinda Given Guttmann]
SUFFER A MIND ATTACK WITH RICHARD FOREMAN
Richard Foreman's "Pearls for Pigs" which had its premiere at the Hartford Stage Company on April 4, was featured at Montreal's Festival of the Americas, where I saw it on June 7. This was the first opportunity Montrealers had to discover Foreman's unique open-ended, plotless, zany Ontological-Hysteric Theatre, and - though mystified - they loved it. Now New Yorkers can enjoy this madcap "dance of theater" at Tribeca Performing Arts Center, 199 Chambers Street (212-279-4200) starting December 3.
The set is a familiar Foreman dreamscape, filled with crumpled pieces of paper, blackboards with barely legible words on them, used furniture, blood soaked rags, lamps, portraits and, of course, those space defining Foreman strings on which hand letters and punctuation marks dangle. This time, however, a miniature proscenium theater in the rear of the stage, seems to be the focus of attention. Above it all, the inscription "Oh No!" sets the tone of desperation as peculiar sounds [loud thuds and other abrupt, startling noises] - punctuate the evening's events. At the center of the piece is the Maestro [splendidly portrayed by David Patrick Kelly], an actor caught up in a whirlwind of questioning the artist's position in the world and the purpose of theater. This is not "Stop the World, I want to get off." He wants the world to CONTINUE, he says, he just wants HELP!
Help for what? and from whom? A Dr. Fishman, for one, a therapist dressed as a scuba diver who practices his golf strokes on a severed head. A soulful Pierrot, whose "poor brain has been damaged by life." Columbine, the seductress, and four large male dwarves who scurry about in black lace stockings and garters. They all challenge the Maestro, prod him, tease and confront him.
They even bow down to him - the great artist, theater creator/director [Foreman ?], ridiculously dressed in white tulle skirt and feathered hat. He is revered of course, but ultimately alone. They are unable to answer his questions. In desperation, he appeals for help to a secret spectator. No one volunteers so he offers himself up as sacrificial victim. He is beheaded, but not for long. For in theater, everything is illusion, of course, including the obviously fake horse galloping across the stage at the end of the play. And theatrical illusion is what Foreman is trying desperately to challenge. He is throwing "pearls to the pigs" and all they want is make-believe. Ultimately, the Maestro's dizzying quest for just "one single person who feels his words reverberating;" someone who thinks about things, who will willingly suffer a genuine "Mind Attack!", seems to have been to no avail. Or has it?
As the Maestro says, he wants to challenge the world with "perplexing raw material, which, he hopes, will keep the world from falling into rigidity and spiritual death." With "Pearls for Pigs," the audience has a chance to take up this challenge and run with it. [Philipa Wehle]
The Love Suicides at Amijima by Monzaemon Chikamatsu, English translation by Donald KeeneFrom the beginning of their evolution in Kyoto during the eighth century, Buddhist morality stories, whether told by traveling mendicant preacher/performers as "rakugo" or performed as plays by resident monks, have dwelt on the sacrifices humans make in order to save face. This translates as living with the knowledge and guilt that one's name and being is known to be less than perfect. It is essential to the Buddhist tradition that almost all the characters in morality tales live up the layers of imposed obligations to the Emperor, state functionaries, one's own familial clan and immediate family, as well as friends and enemies with whom a character makes foolish or deadly serious pledges.
Nov. 28 to Dec. 7
8 pm Thu.-Sat., 3:30 pm Sun. Matinee
La MaMa E.T.C. (First Floor Theater)
74A East 4th Street
Resv: (212) 475-7710
Reviewed by Larry Litt November 29, 1997
Knowing fully the dogmatic nature of life in 18th century Japan, playwright Monzaemon Chikamatsu's 1721 tragedy of sexual passion and misplaced loyalty reminds me why I'm glad I wasn't living during that highly charged pre-Meiji era. The story of innocent family man Jihei's (James Sobol) love for the beautiful prostitute Koharu (Clea Rivera) as told in English by The Narrator (Ray Ford) and acted by a Western cast leaves me confused as to the adaptive concept of director Kazuki Takase.
I would think Takase wants to convey the emotional universality of these characters for modern audiences. Instead I felt that the actions of Jihei's insistently loyal but betrayed wife Osan (Kristin Bennett) were portrayed as a spousal duty to her husband's flagrant infidelity with the prostitute Koharu. It's not made clear why a wife would sell all her worldly goods to redeem and then house a prostitute in her marital home. There's no sense of any of these character's psychological interactions except as told, not acted. It could have been a news item related on a gossipy street corner, rather than a full blown family tragedy waiting to be played out as a moral lesson for theater goers.
The seven actors perform barefoot in stylized Japanalia costumes that are neither authentic Kabuki nor Western. It was like watching Star Trek meets a couple of really poor Japanese whores through the time tunnel. Then there's a bit of singing and dancing to give the impression of gaiety in the"yoshiwara" section of the city reserved for prostitutes and other men's amusements like gambling and drinking.
In the imagined brothel Jihei's rival Tahei (Henry Leyva) challenges the lovers by threatening to redeem Koharu, in effect buying her away from Jihei. The Madame (Elisa de la Roche) gives sage advice to Koharu, "serve well each client as a man who needs you especially tonight's samurai (Mark Hattan)".
Contemporary composer Genji Ito's music is the most authentic contribution to the performance. He and koto player Masayo Ishigure created the necessary atmosphere to keep at least one foot in Japan.
Takase's attempt at westernizing an Oriental classic is an experiment with a desire to keep the play alive for a new, foreign audience. If I was supposed to be moved my Osan's sacrifice, or even question her supreme offering to her loathsome and weak husband, I was given no strong reasons. She is unsympathetic, neither as symbol of spousal loyalty nor devoted motherhood. Without empathy and compassion for Osan the morality is merely one of rigid marital custom. Families break up over love and money problems everywhere throughout history, in this case both. So why should we care about this family's story in particular?
We should care because this is a telling drama with a distinctly Buddhist twist. It reveals a special Japanese Buddhist perspective on the states of grace one achieves by total sacrifice. The lovers, weak and unsympathetic as they are, nonetheless will go to heaven because their love is pure, even though altogether wrong. Their destructive acts affect many homes and families, still they don't care. Love conquers all, but only death conquers love. They know they must put an end to their lives in order not to destroy the entire pyramid of family, community, and state or they and their families will be disgraced and destroyed by it.
What other fate than a lovers' suicide by the beautiful Amijima River, overlooking a serene Buddhist monastery. Can anything be more perfect a setting for self-destruction than cherry blossoms covered with snow besides a running brook at dawn? Yes. Keeping this classical drama in its original form as a Kabuki play. Perhaps transported back to that dangerous time when people died for their honor instead of calling lawyers to defend them would make a beautiful sacrifice. [Larry Litt]
Bloody Yakuza In A Bloodier Scotland
Daisan Erotica in "A Man Called Macbeth" in Japanese
with simultaneous Shakespeare in English on headsets
Adapted from Wiliam Shakespeare's Macbeth by Takeshi Kawamura
Directed by Takeshi Kawamura
Opened Nov. 6, limited engagement to Nov. 8 (closed)
Presented by the Japan Society
at Lila Acheson Wallace Auditorium
333 East 47th Street, NYC
$22 members/$25 non-members
NEW YORK, Nov. 10 (NYTW) -- William Shakespeare may be the idealized center of the so-called Western Canon in some academic minds, but the Daisan Erotica troupe from Tokyo has moved the center to a totally off kilter tilt with their adaptation of "Macbeth" as an allegory for yakuza (Japanese gansters) power struggles and the madness of criminal paranoia.
Director Takeshi Kawamura has decided that Macbeth himself is not one but three characters, and therefore personalities, evolving over the term of the play's action. The first Macbeth is a gunman, gambler and stuttering henchman in the mob. He has no interest in gang ascension until he is chosen by Shakespeare the Fifth (Kawamura).
This is an inspired non-traditional Shakespearean moment. Kawamura as Shakespeare the Fifth takes a paper sign reading "Macbeth" from underneath his tuxedo and pastes it across the selected actor's body like an unavoidable tattoo. From that action until his later reassignment this actor is Macbeth. The playwright has become a god for Macbeth's character, ordaining him with a future more involved in the play than the rest of the mobsters. The actor becomes willing, ready and able to be possessed by the character. Is this a reflection on the frustrations of casting compared to the assembling of a diabolical gang. Could anything be more similar or filled with uncertainty?
Along with Macbeth's unique future comes the prophecy of the three witches, wildly dancing and occultly demonstrative in brightly colored, flairing kimonos. They predict Macbeth's rise to Capo da Capo as well as Banquo's descendents eventual rise to that same fearsome and doomed throne. From here on the play becomes a wild ride through the Tokyo night with gunfights, samurai sword battles, executions, visits to the normally sedate but currently berserk bath house, Lady Macbeth's religious fanatacism, insanity, itching, conspracy and of course murder, murder and more murder.
It's the murder of Duncan that brings the second Macbeth to his peak of madness. Now he's afraid of knocking sounds and his body is crawling with insects. He kills his own loyal body guards to cover his crime. Eventually the ghost of Banquo haunts Macbeth at a dinner party for the assembled yakuza members. Macbeth as always is obsessed with prophecy. He goes to a bathhouse in Hell where the three witches reveal his pre-ordained future.
In an instant a new Macbeth is chosen, one who doesn't care about the play that he's in. Shakespeare the Fifth's girl friend is killed by mistake in a gunbattle. The gangsters throw darts at the history of Shakespearean film versions. Chaos ensues and the cast rebels, deciding to act out Macbeth's story in their own way. Lady Macbeth goes berserk, dances like a dervish until she drops from religious obsession and bloodlust guilt. Macbeth is alone, deserted and preparing for the final battle. Malcom wins, but must put finality onto the three Macbeth's downfall. So he kills Shakespeare the Fifth, an act of destruction to the aforementioned Western Canon. Maybe.
Yes, it's a lot of energy and fun watching this version of "Macbeth" with a young and highly charged cast of 14. Contemporary rock and classical music surround the action adding a mix of eras and places. I was reminded of the mayhem and acrobatics of commedia dell'arte troupes, clearly an influence on Daisan Erotica. Oh, you want to know about the Erotica part of their name. Well, the next time they're in town, which I hope is very soon, I promise you'll be amazed at the variety of body types that can fill a stage. And of course they're all beautiful as well as bloodthirsty. [Larry Litt]
SOMETIMES IT'S BETTER TO STAY HOME
There seems to be a fallacy out there in Cabaret Theater land. Aside from thinking that word (or the like) is screamingly funny, CT people think that, if you put four physically life-sized performers and a big piano on a small stage and serve dinner, you automatically get a show equal to the best of "Forbidden Broadway," fail safe.
The latest attempt to sail the shoals of sophomoric spooferie during dinner is at the Triad on West 72 Street and is called Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know. Without resorting to the obvious "Smart travelers should stay off 72 Street," let's try and find out what went wrong here, as seen on November 5, live.
No, first let's rejoice in what went right. First, bassist Jay Leonhart. As all bassists worth their salt should, he looks at all times as if this stage, this theater, are the last places he would want to be caught dead on and in. God forbid he will react to or even acknowledge you, his audience. I want him to do a one-man show. His songs are on an intellectual level -- and I don't mean they're brainy but they happily complement and join with one's own intelligence -- way above anything else on 72 street or environs (Michelin travel guide word). A delight. Well worth a visit. Worth a detour. (two Michelin travel guide phrases).
Of the four nominal performers, James Darrah seems to me to have a talent beyond the just easy. Everything he does has at least a little more than is on the page, be it Lesley Davison's knowing song, "Naked in Pittsburgh" or the Noel Coward takeoff.
Of the rest, "knowing" is an operative word. The level of travel humor is not geared to the knowledgeable traveler but to the gawk-eyed who think it hysterical that there are no bowling alleys in Bruges or that foreign languages are funny. This loses me, I'm not interested in people who don't know anything: they can't be spoofed and they're not worth trying to spoof (right, Glenn?). Lyrics, rhymes, are not clever enough. Little is a surprise. I didn't feel like I was flying First Class.
The other performers are Kathy Fitzgerald, Liz Maconahay and Michael McGrath. The have their moments but are basically generic. Material seems to be by everybody around, including Stan Freeman who is also on stage at the piano. Nobody is more professional than Freeman but here he seems to be on automatic pilot. His "Salzburg" number offended me. There is a parody there but not this one.
"Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know" plays at the Triad, 158 West 72 Street, Mon, Wed, Thurs, Fri at 8pm; Sat at 7:30 and 10:30; Sun 3 and 7:30pm. $40. An a la carte menu is available from one hour before departure. No minimum. (212) 799-4599.
End of snot-nosed review. This one, anyway. [Wex]
A GLITTERING FACADE MEETS A NON-HERO
"Cabaret" again. Legeti Artists and American Cabaret Theatre opened its four event season at the Teresa L. Kaufmann Concert Hall (92nd St. Y) on November 8. The late show, 9:30, had all the feel of a late show.
It began with the ever-redoubtable (whatever that means) Lilianne Montevecchi, with Dick Gallagher at the piano. No need to explain Montevecchi, she is ever-present and may she always be, except for this evening. Her idea of warming up an audience is by full frontal assault, horse laughs included. She was going to give a French lesson: funny, I didn't sign up for one. She pushed.
And then she sang. That was better and the selection of songs was good. It would have been better if she had tried to be herself instead of Piaf (with infinitely less range than Piaf), Liza, and maybe even June Allyson. There were still manic moments and that laugh. She did not dance.
The pianists changed without missing a note and Jean Pierre Cassel was aboard. Cassel made his first film in 1936 and has a huge film career behind him speaking French and English in mostly self-effacing roles. So when did he become a song and dance man? Never. He is relaxed, laid back, his English diction is wonderful, and he sang whatever he wanted to sing, not bothering with transitions. The fact that he can't carry a tune didn't stop him one bit. He was wearing immense taps on his shoes.
If we thought we were being entertained at our Senior Citizen Center before, we now had an exhibition of Advanced Tap for Older People (it's big in Paris). Cassel came back after that and tried to teach Tap in an embarrassing audience participation segment. "Tea for Two" went on way beyond cocktail time.
Montevecchi returned so that Cassel and she could sign off together. Why were they there? Why were we there? Had we been to school? [Wex]
"Jewish Stories Paris Brussels"Ubu Repertory Theater's latest production, "Jewish Stories Paris Brussels," offers an engaging evening of two plays that treat similar themes in distinctly different forms and language: "Mama'll Be Back Poor Orphan" by French author Jean-Claude Grumberg and "Boris Spielman's Big Comeback" by Serge Kribus of Belgium. In excellent translations by Suzanne Quittner Beal, both plays explore the scars left on the children and grandchildren of the Holocaust, "orphans" as it were of parents whose lives remain a mystery to them. How can they remember the "before afterwards" in Grumberg's son's words, when their parents have given them so little to go on? Or as Henry says to his father, in Kribus' intriguing play, "Tell me about the war. You tell me. I want to hear your story, not books."
A two-part evening comprised of Jean-Claude Grumberg's "Mama'll Be Back Poor Orphan" and Serge Kribus' "Boris Spielman's Big Comeback"
Presented by Ubu Repertory Theater, 15 W. 28th St., November 11-23, 1997
Director: Jonas Jurasas
Reviewed by Philippa Wehle, Nov 12, 1997
The unhappy "orphan" in Grumberg's "Mama" is a 62 year old man recovering from an eye operation. In his foggy post-op delirium, he calls up childhood visions of Mom the Provider and Mean Mom the Disciplinarian as well as more recent memories of Cranky Mom in a nursing home endlessly watching the TV with the sound off. As for Papa, he appears as he was at 42, the year he became one of the "sacrificed, the herded, the burned," as he puts it. Uninterested in his son's life, he only wants to know if his sacrifice was worthwhile. Neither parent answers the son's yearning to know how things really were between them or what life was like "before." "We were husband and wife" is all they can say.
Even when the son attempts to share his knowledge of the Holocaust with his Mother [he tells her of a debate in which he spoke about how the Jews suffered during the war], she angrily cuts him off with "You didn't suffer, you were a baby. Babies don't suffer." As for his books - he is a writer - she dismisses them out of hand. As far as she's concerned, people only want to read love stories. Doctors, nurses, even God, are of no help to him either. In the end, he is left to go off on his own, a sad Chaplinesque figure, suitcase in hand, walking down a receding corridor.
Kribus' son, Henry Spielman, on the other hand, claims he wants no part of the past. He has no desire to "remember," or so he says. He is stuck in the present and a sorry present it is. His wife and children have left him and he has lost his job. As if that weren't enough, his father whom he hasn't seen in over a year, suddenly appears at his door with the news that he plans to move in with him.
As the evening progresses, Father and Son reenact old injuries and open up new wounds. Both seem determined to strain their already tenuous relationship; the father, a master at oneupmanship; the son, well trained in the art of getting his father's goat. They argue, they shout, they threaten each other between brief moments of rapprochement. Boris, the Father, an elderly Jewish actor, has just been cast as King Lear in the upcoming production at the National Theater of Belgium. It is his "big comeback"and the parallel between Lear's lamentations about his children and his own relationship to his son is obvious.
While Boris criticizes Henry for just about everything, Henry contradicts everything his father believes. He insists, for example, that there is no difference between Jew and Gentile. Indeed he is convinced, or so he says, that all men are the same; "We all descend from the fish," he exclaims. "There were fish before Moses! Forget the Jews! " To which his Father, in genuine anguish, responds: "You think you can look forward without looking back? What would you have done in my place? If we don't remember who will?"
Still there are softer moments, moments of mutual reassurance and even a hint of tenderness, especially in the closing scene. The father, taken ill after drinking too much at a restaurant with his son, has collapsed in Henry's arms. They are in the middle of a busy highway, it seems. Here, Greg MacPherson's lighting and Brian Hall's sound design are particularly effective as they combine to create the sense of heavy traffic surrounding the isolated pair. Despite the flashing lights and sounds of police sirens and cars whizzing by, father and son are united in a close embrace at last.
Thanks to the ever inventive designer Watoku Ueno, the set effortlessly links the two plays together. A minuscule three sided hospital room, composed of windowed walls and a wooden floor, encloses the poor "orphan" of Grumberg's play in his nightmare haze. Doctors, nurses, Mother, and even God pop in and out of the window panes or walk unexpectedly into his space. For Kribus' piece, the corridor down which Grumberg's son disappears at the end of his Calvary, becomes Spielman Jr's apartment, a sort of railroad flat, empty but for a black telephone with an endlessly long cord. The window panes now turn into cupboards where vodka and glasses are stored or walls on which framed photos of Henry's estranged wife Charlotte hang, painful reminders of a former life.
Jonas Jurasas has rightly chosen to stage Grumberg's play in a Richard Foremanesque manner [Foreman minus the myriad assorted odd objects.] Like Foreman, Grumberg puts his character through an intense, short [35 minutes] ordeal, bombarding him with visits from doctors, hospital directors, anesthesiologists, nurses and of course the ever present Mama of the title. Jerry Matz, the son, executes his role of frightened child/confused patient masterfully. Yet something is missing to achieve a stronger sense of the man's very real pain. After all, the doctors and nurses, the hospital director, are not apparitions; they are real, even though, in his confused state, they seem transformed into menacing figures. Perhaps they need to be more manic, more aggressive in order for the audience to feel the strength of his disorientation and his anxiety.
Kribus' characters, on the other hand, are realer than real. There is no need for objects to make this clear. The ever present, very long telephone cord with which the son incessantly fiddles is superfluous [hats off to Nick Plakias for not tripping over it] as are the framed pictures of Charlotte. Kribus' drama is in the words - in the rapid fire dialogue, the frantic, driven pace and of course the delivery. The Father, superbly captured by Jerry Matz, is all bluster and grand posturing - a modern day Lear cum Ed Koch. He is a grand character, capable of cruel barbs as well as humorous self deprecation [he imagines the headlines the day after opening night: "Boris Spielman: King Dethroned, Public Groaned."] And of course he is a difficult act to follow. Nick Plakias as the son [he also played assorted characters in Grumberg's play] handles this well, managing to hold his own against such a "monster." He is especially appealing in his softer moments and understandably abrasive in his fits of fury.
"Boris Speilman's Big Comeback" as well as "Mama'll Be Back Poor Orphan" are both worth a trip to Ubu to savor these very appealing "Jewish Stories." [Wehle]
A Pathological Fish Story
"La Trota" (The Trout) in Italian and English
Written and performed by Dario D'Ambrosi
Opened Nov. 6, closes Nov. 16
Thursdays through Sundays at 7 pm
Presented by La MaMa E.T.C. in association with Teatro Patologico - Roma
74A East Fourth Street
Reviewed by Larry Litt November 8, 1997
NEW YORK, Nov. 9 (NYTW) -- Is a person mad, touched in the head, not right, because we say so or because madness declares itself in possession of the mind and soul of the afflicted? When Dario D'Ambrosi plays an aging madman in his one person performance piece, "La Trota (The Trout)," we are forced to ask the question, "Can an actor ever really be as mad as the real thing or is the role an entertainment holding back the real pain of mental illness?"
Maybe this is why I see and understand D'Ambrosi more as a benignly berserk contemporary commedia dell'arte character than as a fugitive from an institution. His deranged character mends broken plates with a glue that holds nothing together like a mind that slips away trying to hold thoughts that identify objects for their real function. Sexual attachment to a pair of pantyhose is not uncommon anymore, not since one can buy soiled panties from internet websites. Cemeteries for body parts are unnecessary since we buy and sell organs and limbs on demand, globally. Joy in bowel movements is a Freudian and common sexual topic in many magazines and plays. The fact that Shit is Big Business because of the consumer distributive culture that brings food to our tables is taught in schools as the classic economy of scales. Not wanting to kill an animal for a meal is a basic tenet of vegetarianism. And finally, seeking love under the sea has become a subject for fantasy movies like the glamorous "Splash."
So why is D'Ambrosi's character mad? I think because he is alone and completely at ease with a world that doesn't contain criticism from anyone but its alienated master. The old man is the epicenter of his own opinions about life, love and death. He asks not to be disturbed by the outside world, but he needs sustenance from it. He is more a poor eccentric, unloved by women because he is dirty and unromantic, yet not unpoetic in that populist way of war veterans living as hermits in Oregon.
He is mad from lack of caring for his appearance, but he is not different from the old coots one sees wandering the streets of New York talking to themselves. "La Trota" is a chance to go home with one of these silly codgers and spend some time with his rituals and ordeals, his loves and pain. D'Ambrosi has observed well the characters who slip through the cracks of modern society. Now he's brought one of them from Rome to visit. [Litt]
Sex Industry (two one-acts): "A Decent Job" & "Closets Full of Juicy Plums"
Opened Oct. 16th, closed Oct. 26th, 1997
Produced by and performed at Theater for the New City
155 First Avenue at E. 10th Street
NEW YORK, Oct. 28 (NYTW) -- Bina Sharif's two one-act plays clustered under highly charged silk and satin lingerie as "Sex Industry" at the Theater for the New City proves once again that women can get away with the most lust filled allegories while men are limited to confessions of perverse desire, or are merely defenders of fully corseted, panty hose protected morality.
In "A Decent Job" two young lingerie clad sex kittens dance for a horny bank executive while he contemplates, implements, then praises masturbation for fear of sexual harassment accusations. While trying to evoke contemporary social disparities, Sharif's idea isn't as clear as it could be. When The Banker (Kevin Mitchell Martin) says he's a socially responsible citizen because he provides jobs for young women whose preposterous dreams of fame and fortune will never be realized, I think Sharif means the dreams of playwright's whose themes are more repellent to the establishment than attractive to the tourist population that supports New York's uptown theater. One can make the same point using language as art rather than rant.
I for one would have been far more content if The Banker was called The New, Rich Producer who places casting notices for shows that will never be produced while auditioning actresses for nude roles. Banking, at least, is a highly litigious industry that protects its workers from widespread harrasment abuses, whereas non-union theater auditioning is about as regulated as garment center sweatshops.
Nonetheless, I must admit I enjoyed the dreamy, erotic dancing by Amy Minty and Michelle Wright. Clearly they studied their parts well. I didn't understand the unnatural bit of experimental theater thrown in at the last minute. Sharif needed an ending, so she brought on the cops screaming about morality. The playwright seemed to be without a clue for a great curtain line.
This sex farce is an obvious morality satire about work produced without regard to the talent needed to make it anything more than lap dancing. Oh where are the days of witty burlesque comedians and second bananas who told jokes instead of jacking off. Tits and ass may be a staple of adult show business, but without sharply honed wit it's merely breasticulated titillation and g-string clad asininity.
"Closets Full of Juicy Plums" proves that sexuality doesn't need specific nudity to be incredibly funny. This second, and far funnier, play in Sharif's evening was filled with the scatologically and erotically charged atmosphere that makes one hope for more Sharif in the same vein. Amy Minty gives Julie, a wonderfully immature and silly character, the believability that makes the sexuality of this teenage girl ooze with innocent yet knowing perversion.
Jerry Jaffe as Julie's stepfather is an over grown bear feeding on the honey of an hyperactive, stimulated beehive. His evocation of the purity of tasting unprocessed nectar is a paean to the real joy of unbridled indulgence in the taste of femininity.
But it was Bina Sharif herself who stole the show with her characterization of Julie's school principal. The two women talk heart to heart about the joys of sex and bowel movements, and the dangers of desiccated female sensuality. Is it true that old pussy is bad pussy? Hmm. That give me an idea for a play. [Litt]
Camus' "The Misunderstanding," in French and EnglishIn his preface to his play "The Misunderstanding," Camus speaks of the claustrophobia he experienced when he lived in the mountains of central France during 1943, as he was writing the play. "It is true that its atmosphere is suffocating," he wrote, " but we were all short of breath at that time." Francoise Kourilsky's staging of Camus first play, which opened October 7 at Ubu Repertory Theater, strikingly captures this stifling, enclosed narrow world of the play. Originally presented in French October 7 to 10 and and in English October 11 to 19, now extended through October 26, this is a unique opportunity to discover or re-discover Camus' rarely staged modern tragedy, skillfully re-enacted by a bi-lingual cast of accomplished performers.
Ubu Repertory Theater, 15 W. 28th Street, (212) 679-7562
(presented by Ubu Repertory Theater)
Opened October 7, 1997 -- NOW EXTENDED THROUGH OCTOBER 26.
Director: Francoise Kourilsky
Reviewed by Philippa Wehle October 8, 1997
Based on a news item Camus' Stranger found in his straw mattress in prison, the play's premise is simple; the action, brief and brutal. Martha and her mother run an inn in a dank, dreary town in Czechoslovakia. For years, Martha has dreamed of sunnier sea-swept climes, of "lands over which summer breaks in flames." She is so desperate to escape that she and her mother kill the wealthy travelers who stop at the inn and dispose of their bodies after robbing them.
As the play opens, Jan the prodigal son, returns home after twenty years of silence. He wants to bring wealth and happiness to his mother and sister yet he is determined to withhold his identity from them until morning. Because he will not reveal himself, he is murdered. His beautiful, passionate wife, Maria [embodied to perfection by Tatiana Abbey] fears the worst as well she should. How could anything good come of such a plan? As Meursault, in The Stranger, comments: "The man was asking for trouble. One shouldn't play fool tricks of that sort."
Herein lies the tragedy. The characters talk and act at cross purposes [another of the play's titles]. They all say things that have different meanings for the one who hears them. Jan insists he doesn't want his family to know who he is, for example, but he almost forces his passport into his sister's hands. Simon Jutras masterfully handles this ambiguity; he manages to convince us of the rationale of his almost unexplained behavior at the same time that he begins to doubt its validity.
Watoku Ueno's set, bleak and pure, sets the tone for the tragedy to evolve. Three chairs, two in front, one behind a platform which both indicates architectural aspects of the inn and serves as Jan's bed where he will lose his life. Two windows stage rear provide entrances and exits, for shadowy figures as they ominously approach Jan's room. Steps, a railing, a door, little else is needed for the characters to fulfill their destiny. Genji Ito's sound design flows from the sensual swelling of the waves of the sea Martha longs to reach to the rippling waters of the river where the bodies are thrown.
Martha, Camus's protagonist [played with grim determination by Flo Cabre-Andrews] is fittingly dressed in stark grey; her dark brown hair, severely pulled back, her lips pursed in tense anxiety. There is no ornamentation for this vengeful young woman whose hatred is visceral and whose perseverance is indomitable. The Mother, weary and worn, [played with touching pathos by Jacqueline Bertrand], nonetheless retains her beauty and some humanity whereas the daughter's youth and freshness have been taken from her.
An old servant, mysteriously silent until the end of the play, is a constant presence, appearing suddenly in a cutout of the inn's front desk or dimly perceived behind a curtained window. Is he Fate or the Absurd, or is he just an old retainer struck dumb by the horrors perpetrated in this inn of inequity? Since Kourilsky has kept the element of detective-story suspense of Camus' play, we are anxious to learn what will happen next and Michel Moinot keeps us guessing.
When he finally does speak, it is in response to Maria's prayer for help from the Heavenly Father and his answer is a loud resounding "No!" This may well be Camus' total denial of God. It is also a moment of almost intolerable anguish. Under Kourilsky's direction, we see Maria in close-up; all else has disappeared. The Mother and daughter have joined Jan in death. Only Maria is left, alone with her grief. "Pain is solitary," as Camus wrote in his preface. "At a certain level of suffering or injustice no one can do anything for anyone."
As unjust or meaningless as our human condition may be, Camus tells us, in "The Misunderstanding," we are nonetheless responsible. "You had only to speak," Maria warns Jan in Act I: "On such occasions one says 'It's I,' and then it's all plain sailing." Jan's refusal to commit to sincerity that costs him his life and the lives of those he cared for. Ubu Repertory Theater's excellent production brings out the full horror of this tragedy. The English version should not be missed; the run's extension concludes October 26. [Wehle]
Philippa Wehle subsequently filed this addendum to her review:
CAMUS' "MISUNDERSTANDING" REVISITED
NEW YORK, October 20 (NYTW) -- Good news. The Ubu Repertory Theater has had such a grand success with its production of Camus' "The Misunderstanding " that it has extended its run until Sunday, October 26.
So intrigued was I by the production that I returned to see it in English on October 14. The cast was the same except for the role of Martha, now played by Tracy Bryce. It seems only fair to say a word about her interpretation of this crucial role and, in a word, it is simply stunning - rich, textured, feminine, if such is possible in a role that requires the actress to be permanently angry. This was especially true in the scene in which she queries her brother Jan about what life is like in his country. It is only a moment, but Bryce softens, almost imperceptively, and allows herself to share her dream of "the sea and the flowers over there." [Wehle]
"HIDE MOTHER IN MY HEART" BY RALPH PEZZULLO
September 25 to October 12 (closed)
Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. (at E. 10th St.)
Presented by Theater for the New City (Crystal Field, Director)
Reviewed by Larry Litt October 12, 1997
Ralph Pezzullo's drama about two Vietnam era veterans and a mysteriously attractive young girl oozes with the tyranny of the white trash family. From opening scene to the high energy, last minute, mind changing exit These characters are deeply involved with each other's sadness and madness. But can they help each other out of their eternal pain?
Zee and Reno have been permanently scarred by the self-indulgent hippie era parents who abused them as children and continue to do so as both business partners and psychically seeded dictators. The boys every breath is directed by childhood memories, current fears, and future defenses against their family and the society that created them.
When Zee goes to visit an old girlfriend he seduced before leaving for Vietnam he discovers a young women who turns out to be his extremely Christian, and extremely horny, daughter. Reno, Zee's rock and roll star brother visits Zee's humble, junk packed, shanty in the upper Ozarks. Lust fills the room as uncle and niece flirt, touch and approach the incestuous moment. But it's not to be. Soon as they get going Zee enters the room to put a damper on the course of hillbilly nature.
And what does Zee want from all this heightened desire? He wants to be in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" playing the Anthony Perkins dual starring role. This is perfect for Nick Daddazio a superb actor whose crazed movements and voice gave me the same frightening, dangerously psychotic feeling that Robert deNiro did in "Taxi Driver."
Doug Barron as Reno is convincing as the aging, industry manipulated rock star. From his messed up life story to his matching leopard-skin pants, boots, and bikini underwear, I could hear him asking young girls to visit him backstage.
Xan Replogle as the evangelically sexual Sandy demands breast heaving attention when she hears the voice of Jesus. It was a truly eroto-spiritual moment. I look forward to worshipping in her church in the future.
Ralph Pezzullo's direction was highly spirited with a fight scene and slashing scene that made my hair stand on end. He knows action, especially for his own characters. [Litt]
HAMLET WIRED IN ELSINORE
(based on HAMLET by William Shakespeare)
Brooklyn Academy of Music, Majestic Theater
(presented by Brooklyn Academy of Music)
October 7 to 12, 1997 (closed)
Reviewed by Larry Litt October 12, 1977
Once again royal actor and philosopher Hamlet has been castrated by theater professionals afraid to examine the actual psychological, political and social conflicts. In his clearly emasculationist, though visionary, one man show director Robert Lepage sees Hamlet as a transvestite wimp seeking to gain what little revenge he can against overwhelmingly evil uncle/step-father King Claudius who has killed his father. Queen Mother Gertrude is reduced to a self-preserving co-conspirator, led astray by inevitable changes of power in barbaric states.
In this presentation for the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Majestic Theater, Peter Darling as Hamlet made me think that the Prince of Denmark was merely a quick change artist with a high tech, computer graphics education instead of the tortured rationalist that Shakespeare intended.
Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I still prefer character over style on stage. Special lighting, mechanical and sound effects that diminish the light of an actor and a play's spoken text are best left to the fashion show runways of Seventh Avenue and Milan. What's the point? Hamlet the play and lead character are certainly more effective and affective as dramatic tragedy than springboard for oversized costumes and appropriated new music.
The whole presentation would have made me happier if only Hamlet had never appeared or been heard from. I don't mind a good concert with a light show when I'm in the properly euphoric mood. [Litt]
The Roundabout Theater
at Criterion Center Stage Right
Broadway and 45th Street August 14 - October 19, 1997
The Roundabout Theater
at the Laura Pels Stage
August 7, 1997 - October 19, 19997 Reviewed by Margaret Croyden, August 19, 1997
The Roundabout Theater has hit gold and so early in the season, too. They have two fine productions running simultaneously: George Bernard Shaw's "Misalliance" and a revival of the prize winning musical "1776," music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and book by Peter Stone. Produced thirty years ago, "1776" won every possible award for the best musical of the season and well it should have. It will probably win every award this year as well. Because it is a national treasure.
The production is billed as a musical. Though some songs are funny and some are serious, the numbers are not memorable, unfortunately, or maybe it is all for the best. The book is the true star; and the music seems as though it were a fill in. Not only does the play dramatize the most important historical event of the nation, but Peter Stone, the writer, has endowed the story with sophistication and wit. The result is a delightful and involving experience, particularly for those who have taken our history for granted. However, this is not a pseudo patriotic story but a moving depiction of real people, with their own political dilemmas, their own convictions, and their own battles.
Everyone knows what the year 1776 means: the year of courage, perseverance and stamina that defined the men who created the Declaration of Independence. And here we see them in the flesh, as it were--the men of the Second Continental Congress on a Broadway stage--with all their conflicts, their idiosyncratic behavior, their arguments, and their final victory. The leader is John Adams, a scrappy, Harvard-educated Bostonian, a radical zealot who antagonizes his fellow congressmen with his continual badgering in demanding independence. Benjamin Franklin, in his old age, is there too, sitting there with the Pennsylvania delegation. Respected by all, fighting the gout, and world weary from a life of diplomacy, invention and debauchery, Franklin is not too weary to take his place with Adams. The young Thomas Jefferson, 33 years old, red-haired and handsome, is there as well, sitting quietly as a delegate from Virginia; he wants more than anything to make love to his wife, but finally agrees to Adams' insistence that he write the declaration. These three are the key players.
But there are others too, those who hated and mistrusted Adams and his cause, and up to the very end opposed him. These men, delegates from the South and their allies, are depicted as the dark side of the struggle. Reluctant right from the start to break with England, these aristocrats worshipped the British king and were fearful that independence was a losing cause owing to the superior forces of the crown. Finally after being convinced independence was upon them, and a declaration was imminent, the naysayers demanded all kinds of changes in the document, particularly the section that dealt with abolishing slavery.
Threatened with the demise of the Congress, and the Southerners and their allies bolting the Congress, and the loss of the cause entirely, Adams and Jefferson (under pressure from Franklin) capitulated to the South. The argument Franklin gave is that the Congress's first priority was independence. If that failed after the years of struggle, their cause would go down to defeat. Adams sees the point and he and Jefferson capitulate to the demands of the South. Although one knows the outcome in advance, it does not diminish the suspense and theatricality of the scene when the final vote is called. Then on July 4th, the signing takes place, and each man comes forward to put his signature on the document. A moving moment indeed. Then a scrim with the words and signatures floats downstage, through which we see the men standing in their places, just as the famous painting depicted. And a hush fills the theater followed by resounding applause.
This is a first rate production. Scott Ellis, the prominent director, has assembled just the right cast, particularly Pat Hingle to play Benjamin Franklin. Hingle does it with irony, wit and a minimum of obvious showmanship. His gestures, timing and sly smile are all simple and seamless as he captures the essence of Franklin. The rest of the cast with minor roles have all worked out specific characterizations beautifully; no one is an extra here, no matter how small the role. But Brent Spiner unfortunately is not quite equipped to portray the varied and complicated John Adams. He has the tendency to rant, and to play only one dimension of this firebrand: his anger. And Spiner handles that anger in the same way throughout the play. But luckily that bit of miscasting did not prevent the evening from being an unusual and beautiful piece of theater. Go see this. You will not be sorry.
"Misalliance," the sophisticated, zany Bernard Shaw comedy, is another delightful production. What a pleasure to hear intelligent language spoken on the stage and to listen to witty dialogue and intriguing social ideas, and laugh at Shaw's derision of the British class structure.
Once again, as in most British comedy of manners, we find ourselves at a country estate: this time it is at the home of John Tarleton, a nouveau riche underwear tycoon, whose weekend guests are Lord Summerhays, his son, Bentley (engaged to Tarleton's daughter, Hypatia), the Tarleton's vacuous son who runs the company and Mrs. Tarleton, the mother of the household, a sweet, innocuous woman who had risen from her secretarial position to marry the boss. There is plenty of amusing talk during the first act, if you like Shaw's lampooning British society and satirizing its characters. There is the head of the house, John Tarleton, posing as a super intellectual and advising everyone to read the classics; the retired aristocrat Lord Summerhays, who is hopefully marrying off his son, a silly poseur who is given to tantrums; the feminist daughter anxious to have a place in society and rants non-stop, describing the plight of women and their inability to function in the world because of tyrannical families. She loathes the man she is expected to marry, but as she says, what else is there to do? She longs for some excitement, something that would make her feel alive.
And excitement she gets. A plane crashes into the roof of the house not only bringing down a mountain of books John Tarleton had accumulated, but also bringing a dashing aviator, accompanied by a pilot, a ferocious Polish woman (Shaw's "new woman") who can take on any man. And she does. All of them fall in love with her. But she remains independent, leaving the men, to their stupidity and foolishness.
If that weren't enough, the past crawls in as well. The son of John Tarleton's one time mistress arrives on the scene and threatens to kill Tarleton to avenge his mother. This poor soul is totally unhinged, and so pitiful as he describes his slavery working in an accounting office, that we know by his desperation someone will appear to save him. In a crazy twist of the plot, too complicated to describe here, he is rescued by Mrs. Tarleton, of all people, who takes him in. All's well that ends well. Everyone gets what he or she wants, including the feminist who dumps her fiancee to marry the aviator, but not before he is promised a handsome dowry.
The production, well spoken by an ensemble of Americans who sound as if they were British and that is as it should be. Brian Bedford leads off in the role of Mr. Tarleton and as usual, delivers a cunning performance with all the nuances and details intact. Lord Summerhays, played by the veteran actor Remak Ramsay, is quite attractive in his role of a the aristocrat who would like to keep his love life secret. Particulary good is the daughter, the beautiful Joanna Going, who makes every moment of her diatribe against the class system work. And Zak Orth, in the difficult role as the oppressed clerk who comes to kill Tarleton, gives a tour de force performance, talking non stop for half of the act. Sweaty unkempt, overweight, drooling at the mouth, bent over and ranting like a man on the verge of a breakdown, he is both moving and funny. He is an accomplished scene stealer and the audience gives him a resounding ovation--deservedly so.
The play though three hours moves fast enough and is well directed by David Warren. If you like Bernard Shaw and the theater of ideas, which is rare these days, you will not want to miss this production. [Croyden]
A PARTY! A PARTY! IT'S LICIA'S PARTY!
Every year the great, nay, even historic soprano Licia Albanese throws herself a party with all of Alice Tully Hall as guests. Well, officially the occasion on October 25 was called The Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation 23rd Anniversary Celebration presents in Concert the Winners of the 1997 International Vocal Competition but it's Licia's party, don't be fooled. She greets you, she greets the guests, she toddles on stage and off stage at will, she talks (though not so much this afternoon -- bad throat) and she smiles a lot. She is also loved by everybody, really loved. It is quite an event and don't miss it next year.
There were a lot of winners of the Competition: three First Prize winners, one each Second and Third, 12 Study Grant Winners and two Encouragement Award winners. One wondered if by now the tail wagged the dog: the necessity to have enough winners to fill out a full concert program, but they are all secondary in the audience's mind. What is primary is the appearances of the older opera singers, to present awards and/or to still sing.
Once again Patrice Munsel was the host and she does that job magnificently. All the awards, presentations, introductions slide trippingly off her tongue. She is beautiful. She never takes herself seriously and she is vastly amusing. Her "turn" was a Nat "King" Cole takeoff on Albanese's celebrated walk-out from the Met's vulgar "Madame Butterfly" production: "Moanin' Licia, moanin' Licia, you're outrageous," etc. Munsel is ageless, as is Albanese.
And so are Lucine Amara and Marta Eggerth, both warmly anticipated standbys of Licia's parties. Amara, who said she started singing in 1945, evidently for the first time in her career sang "Io son l'umile ancella" from Cilea's "Adrianna Lecouvreur" and sang it superbly. What control! And Eggerth, who was an international star before1945 walked out on stage and took the whole audience in her arms. She did a full routine, speaking with energy and charm and singing with her patented Viennese/Hungarian-pure Marta extraordinary, unique, fantastic panache. How does she do it? There was a standing ovation, of course.
Seemingly from nowhere and not pre-announced, the coloratura Oceola Davis began what I hope is a deserved comeback with her aria. Jerry Hadley offered an arcane tenor aria. Brenda Lewis did not sing but received a warm ovation, beyond nostalgia. Samuel Ramey got a Lifetime Award (earned? too early?) and so did Jon Vickers (earned). Rina Gigli was sent an award -- a gold bust of her father Beniamino graced stage left -- and presenters got gifts.
The winners? Oh. Few I heard had personality or acting ability and most were undercut by the generic flaccid accompaniments of David Maiullo that precluded excitement (William Hicks came in for the guests). Chen-Ye Yuan showed a rich baritone voice with depth and a true pianissimo in Pierrot's song from Korngold's "Die Tote Stadt." Tonna Miller was right for the Silver Aria from Douglas Moore's "The Ballad of Baby Doe," and Jane Dutton's mezzo belied the fact that she had received only an Encouragement Award with the big aria from Donizetti's "La favorita." The two women paired later for the Delibes "Lakme" duet. On the other side, Nicole Maikish showed a plummy voice but a sappy presentation. Eleanor Steber always stressed acting and stage demeanor in her competitions.
Garish lows in taste were reached by the gratuitous inclusion of one of those phony falsetto numbers from the Broadway show "Les Miserables" sung by someone who had once sung it (so?) and not only the selling of CDs and Videos in the lobby, but by playing Recorded music in the lobby and piping it into the auditorium.
It was now 2 1/2 hours since the beginning of the afternoon and I could no more. O, to feel better but that is not your problem. I hate leaving a party early.[Wex]
A WELCOME CONDUCTING DEBUT
A crises seemed to be averted at The New York Philharmonic on October 23. The Avery Fisher Hall concert was to have had a young Russian pianist as soloist in the Rachmaninoff Fourth but he had to cancel. French-born Jean-Yves Thibaudet took over the instrument -- or half of it as he played the Ravel Concerto for the Left Hand. The substitution came so late that an insert had to be placed in the program book. While only he was thanked there, I should think that debut conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste and maybe the orchestra should have also been thanked.
Saraste, one of the Finnish Wunderkinder is now music director of the Toronto Symphony as well as principal conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony and the artistic advisor of the Finnish Chamber Orchestra. He and Esa-Pekka Salonen are founders of Avanti!, a contemporary chamber group, and he has been busy on many fronts although his New York appearances have been sparse. There were one-shots with Avanti! (a private concert in honor of a bank), The Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Toronto. He appears again with the Toronto later in the season.
The program with the Philharmonic began with Feria by Magnus Lindberg (b. 1958), one of the busy hive of young Finnish composers (though the program calls them now "middle-aged"). In one of the inadvertently funniest program notes I've seen, it reads that this work was going through the composer's head as a string quartet but when he got a commission for large orchestra it suddenly became a work for large orchestra. The alchemy of money.
Feriatakes up a long 17 minutes. It is one of those works that depend on its orchestration, with solo riffs for the likes of the first violin, trumpet, piano. It did not seem to have a distinctive voice, apparent structure or even phrasing, or any passion. By the end, it looked like Saraste was just sawing away meaninglessly with his arms at the orchestra. I had the feeling that Lindberg could now turn the music pages upside down and call the result a new work. He was there: when he heard how Ravel and Bartok handled their orchestrations in the following works, coupling them with no little content, did he wonder about his opus?
The orchestra played this superbly for Saraste as they did the rest of the program.
Thibaudet came on looking like a wine steward in a quasi-military jacket and striped vest. He had not pulled the Ravel Concerto out of a bottom drawer: he had it raring to go. So did Saraste. This was a thrilling performance that had every nuance and every twist right there for you. I've never enjoyed this music so much.
Then came Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, played gorgeously but played as if it were "Parsifal" on Good Friday. It sounded like rehearsal time was unlimited as each note was shaped, polished, honed. What we missed was movement. The sour "Merry Widow" quote was in perfect taste as was the whole work, but a little life would have helped.
Forget the hype and the charisma of other rising conductors, Finnish or no: self-effacing Jukka-Pekka Saraste does his job and does it well.[Wex]
CONCEPTUAL MUSIC PROGRAMMING BUT HAROLYN WAS FUN
The American Symphony Orchestra is one that is not only harsh in sound but comes complete with concept. The program notes include a college lecture. There are, however, no questions afterwards. Leon Botstein is the Music Director and he is also president of Bard College, which may explain some of this.
Their Great Performers at Lincoln Center (strange aegis) concert at Avery Fisher Hall on October 22 was entitled UPTOWN/DOWNTOWN: American Music 1880-1930, a 50 year period that was represented by four works. The composers were Jerome Kern (arranged), Edward MacDowell, Victor Herbert and George Whitefield Chadwick.
I take a paragraph break here for you to assimilate that.
The first work was "Showboat:" A Scenerio, which carries the dates 1921/1941. Since the program notes state that it was put together by Charles Miller at some point following the hugely successful opening of the show, the 1941 date goes unexplained. There is also no information about who might have played it and when. Paul Whiteman? The tunes are great, of course, in this 25 minute symphonic synthesis but the work seems to suffer, and be self-conscious about, the fact that it isn't Gershwin. For the most part it is thickly orchestrated and here was often ploddingly performed.
Now came out the piano and Ursula Oppens took on the MacDowell Second Concerto. Oppens is on top of any music she attempts and all those notes, not all composed with meaning, were conquered by her. It takes a lot of fingers and she has them. A masterful performance. The concerto was written while MacDowell was in residence in Germany and it has its German feel making all the gestures of a Big work. Its content, however, is a bit smaller. The second movement, for instance, the presto giocoso, would have benefited from a lighter touch on the part of the composer. The performance was driving, with the softer contrasts not balancing the fury.
Back to Broadway. Soprano Harolyn Blackwell had fun -- and gave us fun -- with two Victor Herbert songs, "If I Were On Stage (Kiss Me Again)" and The Italian Street Song. She may have left Broadway's "Candide" but she glittered and was gay all the same. The songs were spaced by the Overture to "The Fortune Teller." The ASO is not, however, a pit band, especially one from 1898.
The Chadwick Third Symphony (1894) ended. Chadwick was of the Boston group and is important as such. It is a professional work, well if somewhat academically orchestrated, but what I missed was an imperative. Why did he have to write it, why this note instead of that one? It is of the "I guess I'll write a symphony, it's a good career move" genre. Yes, play it, why not? Like the MacDowell.
I went to this concert because I thought it would be fun. That's allowed. Blackwell was fun.[Wex]
ARMCHAIRING IT FROM BOSTON TO ALBERTA, VIA SAN FRANCISCO
NEW YORK, October 19 (NYTW) -- The Boston Symphony opened its annual New York series of three sets of concerts at Carnegie Hall on October 15. Somehow it was a typical Boston Symphony program and an evening with which old subscribers feel comfortable. Seiji Ozawa, looking a bit shabby now, conducted.
First came a generically atmospheric Debussy "Afternoon of a Faun." Then the Big Premiere, commissioned by the Boston, Henri Dutilleux' Five Episodes for Orchestra, "The shadow of time." Former Boston conductor Charles Munch seems to have discovered Dutilleux and saw something in his music that we have not. In a big puff article in the Times the morning before the concert, the importance of Dutilleux was explained to us all and an Apologia of his for not writing as Pierre Boulez wants him to (but he'll try in the future) was included. OK.
"Shadow" runs only 20 minutes and is rife with extra-musical literary connotations, like three children singing "pourquoi" to commemorate Anne Frank. To me, it sounded like a series of musical sound effects, as for radio plays (the composer worked for many years in radio). It seemed to have no focus, and was limited in meaning.
The Times review said that the whole audience felt a sense of the importance of this premiere. I don't know, everyone I spoke to said they were there to hear soloist Krystian Zimerman.
In a switch, Tchaikovsky's "Francesca da Rimini" came before the Concerto. Here we had fortissimos that were really fortissimos and furiosos that were really furious. The whole thing was stretched out of shape and the mind wandered.
But, finally, the piano was rolled in, the orchestra took their seats as if they were at a social event -- very slowly -- and what finally happened was what so many of us were waiting for: Krystian Zimerman showed us the Rachmaninoff First Piano Concerto. Now we had volume and velocity that was not vulgar: we had sublime elegance throughout. The first movement was a blockbuster in every good sense of the word and the whole performance was simply magnificent, Ozawa along with Zimerman. It is an imperfect work but the way it was played, who cares? Zimerman, Ozawa and the Boston are embarked on a Recording venture of all the "Rocks:" This No. 1 bodes well for the project but there is nothing like live and this was it.
HEART, PURE HEART
Last May Tisa Chang's Pan Asian Repertory Theatre presented a musical comedy -- a lot more than a "musical comedy" -- called "Shanghai Lil's." It was reviewed here. On October 16 they opened it again at St. Clement's Church, revised and a bit recast. I thought it important enough to re-review and here we are.
Yes, it is important, even more important now. While it talks about Chinese, Japanese, World War II, wars in general, and love in general, it is about heart and humanity. It is theatre. The whole cast is warm and appealing, one can even say you take all eight of the actors to your heart. Act One is still a bit slow although tightened, but you get to know everyone and in Act Two you follow their emotions like a Jewish or Italian (or Chinese?) mother. Act Two carries you along and you might even find tears welling.
The action takes place from 1941-45, mostly in Lil's restaurant in San Francisco's Chinatown, a restaurant opened by her late husband and catering to Chinese. She is there as are two waitresses, Hyacinth and Peony, and Sara, an American-born Japanese finishing high school whom Lil has taken in before Sara joins her parents who are on a return visit to Japan. There are two waiters, Chase and Jerry. Wally, a lonely Caucasian with some Cantonese experience and an ex-vaudevillian, becomes a regular customer. To spur business, it is decided to have an amateur hour, and Mei-Mei, a dancer of dubious age and experience, comes in. It is November of 1941. The War and the Japanese Internment happen. Lil's becomes a successful night club but we take that on faith.
The interaction of these characters, Mei-Mei and Chase primarily but not solely, make up the story. There is plenty of time for music and dance. The men go to war, The women stay home, the old folks get together, the youngsters grow up.
Everyone in the cast is human and wonderful. Donna Ong's Mei-Mei is so original that it could stand apart from the rest of the cast but she manages to blend her idiosyncrasies into the ensemble playing and even thereby strengthening the script. Michael Minn, Chase, is an unlikely leading man as he looks like a sort of Sad Sack but he has charm, a warm singing voice, and easy sincerity. You stay with him. Mimosa is also a seemingly unlikely ingenue as Sara, physically cut from a different mold than the rest, but again she sings, dances and acts with great warmth. Timothy Huang is just perfect as Jerry, projecting the easy humor, yes, but also the pathos. May he always have roles to play on stage.
Again I use the word "warm" because Blossom Lam, as Lil, seems to have a corner on warmth. She does not appear to be an actress at all (she is) but just simply the role. The downside of that is she holds up the tempo of the first act in her smiles and qvelling. Matt Hyland couldn't be bettered as Wally, "Uncle" Wally, the Caucasian, who adopts the troupe and who is adapted by them. Eileen Rivera and Liza Lapira are cute, giggly and supportive and interchangeable as the two young girls.
Chang's direction is fluid and simple, allowing the story to be told without distraction. Her choreography, cut down I believe from the original production, also adds and adds in its diversity. Robert Klingelhoefer's adjustable single set also adds to the fluidity of the evening. Terry Leong's costumes are generous but sometimes call attention to themselves. There are too many and few really flatter.
Lilah Kan's book and lyrics are, as I believe I wrote in May, knowing. She can be both funny and heart-wrenching. Louis Stewart's music seems simple at first but raises itself to some importance as the evening progresses. The ensembles are not just exercises. There is a plethora of real tunes. It is played by Erik K. Johnston at the piano and Heather Edwards, whose synthesizer goes easily from surging strings to a guitar.
"Shanghai Lil's" runs at St. Clement's Theatre, 423 West 46 Street Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8pm, matinees Wed. and Sat. at 2pm. Tickets $30. Telephone (212) 245-2660. Have a nice time at the theatre: see "Shanghai Lil's."
THE PROVINCES STRETCH WAY OUT THERE . . .
It wasn't quite the Great Roundup but a little history first. In the far (to us) Canadian province of Alberta, there was an Edmonton Ballet and a Calgary Ballet. In 1990 they merged into the Alberta Ballet under the leadership of Ali Pourfarrokh, an Irani-born New York dancer with Cecchetti training (Margaret Craske and Antony Tudor) and a great deal of international experience. The Alberta Ballet opened at the Joyce Theatre on October 14 for week's run. Perhaps they got more out of performing in New York than New York got out of hosting them as it seemed like a vanity booking.
The program began with "The Last I Saw . ." to excerpts from something called "The Sinking of the Titanic" by Garvin Bryars. It was for eight dancers who began in silence, a lot of silence, with dull movements. Then "Amazing Grace" on the harmonium began, just the first of innumerable repeats of that hymn -- the Titanic must have gone down before that. This was very Modern Ballet with jerks, thrusts, interrupts, deep meanings I am sure. It was dreary and certainly did not show the company to any advantage.
A duet, "Butterfly Dream," first to silence again and then to a movement of a Flute Sonata by Marjan Mozetich, was choreographed by Pourfarrokh and introduced us to Barbara Moore, partnered by Dominic DeWolfe. It was a fluid love duet without too many gymnastics.
Then came Pourfarroukh's "Facets," premiered last April. This, unfortunately was to the Third Movement of Mahler's Fourth Symphony, a work that stands very well on its own, thank you, and is no way "dance Music." For three couples, it had much movement in common with the previous duet, only more so. It had its fill of soupy, romantic swoops, liquid arms, mooning preparations, dim lights, and the girls ministering to and hanging onto the boys. It also often did not fit the music, as could be expected, like a troubled male trio that did not make it to macho.
Sickness, mine, prevented me from seeing the closing "Minor Threat" to music of Mozart by Mark Godden and I apologize.
The Alberta is a nice company. I'm sure they benefited by coming to New York, but how much of New York saw them? But if you didn't see Moore, perhaps you missed something. Come to the Big City, gal. (Closed.) [Wex]
IN THE COMPANY OF MEN.NEW YORK, August 5 (NYTW) -- It is altogether fitting (and of course intentional) that "In the Company of Men," the unsparingly unpleasant new movie by Neil LaBute at Manhattan's Lincoln Plaza and Angelika cinemas, begins in a men's room and from time to time revisits one. It, so to speak, sets the tone.
Written and directed by Neil LaBute. Photographed by Tony Hettinger. Edited by Joel Plotch.
With Aaron Eckhart, Stacy Edwards, Matt Malloy, Michael Martin, Mark Rector, Chris Hayes, Jason Dixie, Emily Cline.
90 minutes. Rated R.
At the Lincoln Plaza and Angelika Cinemas in Manhattan.
Reviewed by Jerry Tallmer
In very few movies, and for that matter very few occasions in real life, has there been anyone to be disliked quite so immediately and thoroughly as the young man named Chad in whose company we are here forced to spend 90 minutes, much as a rabbit might spend 90 minutes transfixed by a cobra.
Chad is an American ubermensch, a cynical amoral arrogant macho white male who feels with deep bitterness that his superiority to all other genders and races has been shot out from under him by circumstances beyond his control. I went to school with a lot of Chads. He's a permanent fraternity boy, an equal-opportunity hater -- no blacks, no Jews, no Latinos, no greasy grinds, no ribbon clerks, nobody from the wrong side of the tracks, and especially (except as commodities) no women in his private fraternity.
By God, he's going to get back at all of them, everybody, and if he can't get back at the wolfpack of hotshot younger guys snapping at his heels on the job, he'll at least -- as a sexual irredentist -- get back at Womankind. And bring Howard along for the ride. It's going to be just like the fun we used to have at school, Chad tells Howard in a peptalk in that john.
Howard and Chad, fellow executives in this faceless corporation, were once classmates, fraternity brothers. Now Howard, a dimmer bulb than Chad, has his own anti-female ax to grind: a fiancee who's given him the brush, a mother who still wants to run his life.
As it happens the firm is sending Chad and Howard on six week's detached service to another city to help set up some sort of program there. What we'll do, says Chad to Howard, is play a game. We'll find a girl, any girl. We'll both hit on her. Take her to dinner, buy her flowers, "see an ice show" -- he sneers -- and like that. Give her a rush. Both of us. Without her knowing.
"And then one day we'll pull the rug out from under her . . . I assure you, she'll be reaching for the sleeping pills in a week. And we get a little dignity back."
The girl they hit on is a skinny, sad, wishfully pretty typist in the office in that other city. Her name is Christine. What they did not know when they picked her out was that she is and has been a deaf near-mute since age 8. Which makes the sport, for Chad, all the richer and more satisfying, particularly after he bit by smooth bit gets Christine into bed, and head over heels in love with him.
While Howie, meanwhile, plods along, not just playing the same game but being played like a fish by Chad without knowing it, just dense enough not to get Chad's sarcasm ("You and she went for a drive? That's nice. Quaint.")
This skillful little exercise in cinematic nastiness has an impressive sustained steel-hard tone that blurs only once, in a vignette of preposterous, supercilious racial-sexual degredation by Chad of a black junior exec (Jason Dixie) that I could not buy or believe, even from Chad, much less the black junior exec -- and again, at the end, when Howard, the light dawning, first goes crazy and then goes all remorsefully squooshy-soft.
Neil Labute's script, with the exceptions just above, are as tight as his direction, and I have to say that for one of those performances which, as the cliche has it, you love to hate, Aaron Eckhart's Chad -- this month's talk of the town -- is hard to top. But perhaps Matt Malloy's portrayal of the less determinate if no less wormy Howard is even more of an accomplishment.
A great deal of this misogynistic parable -- no, this parable about misogyny -- depends on the young woman in the case, who has to travel emotionally from heaven to hell in Chad's calculating hands. Unfortunately, the Christine of Stacy Edwards is not quite the pulsating beauty the setup calls for, and the voice that comes out of her -- or which the technicians have created for her -- is the weirdly illfitting cleft palate of a harelip. I suppose it's there for emphasis -- and it needn't have been. What's a good deal more helpful in setting an opposite emphasis are some amusing early moments when those two invidious Don Juans, Chad and Howie, try at first to snow a victim who can't hear a word they're saying. Howie even starts to snow the wrong target -- another female in the office -- without knowing it.
Cruel films are all right if they're purgative in one way or another. "In the Company of Men" is -- well, it just is, for its own sake. Not yours. Or in any event, not mine.[Tallmer]
GUANTANAMERA! Directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio.NEW YORK, July 28 (NYTW) -- The premise of Guantanamera!, a new entry from Cuba at Manhattan's Lincoln Plaza Cinema, is so wacky as to impart a certain naive charm to the entire film.
Screenplay by them and Eliseo Alberto Diego. Photographed by Hans Burmann.
Edited by Carmen Frias. With Carlos Cruz, Mirtha Ibarra, Raul Eguren, Jorge Perugorria, Pedro Fernandez, Luis Alberto Garcia Novoa, Conchita Brando, Susset Perez Malberti.
107 minutes. Unrated. In Spanish, with English subtitles.
At the Lincoln Plaza in Manhattan.
Reviewed by Jerry Tallmer
Picture this: An ambitious, blinkered (like a horse) petty bureaucrat -- a certain Adolfo, from the Guantanamo district -- gets the idea that he can make a name for himself and impress his superiors with an efficiency plan to settle quarrels among the recently bereaved as to sites for burial of the dearly departed.
Does one mourner want the last resting place to be in Las Tunas, while another opts for Cardenas, and yet another for Havana? Well, then, simplicity itself: "We must share the body's end among all of us." Any funeral cortege bound for, say, distant Havana, will make a brief respectful stop at each town in turn on its way to the ultimate resting place, giving each community a little touch of the last remains. And somehow -- though this like much else in Guantanamera! is never quite clear -- will save 60 liters of gasoline in the process.
Okay, that's the given.
Adolfo happens to be married to a lovely woman named Georgina, Gina for short, whom he mistreats through sheer insensitive neglect. Gina has given up everything, including a career as professor of political economics at a university where a handsome student named Candido once had a crush on her. That's long past.
Gina's remarkable Aunt Yoyita comes on a return visit to Guantanamo for the first time since she left it 50 years ago, at 17, to go off and become one of Cuba's legends, a great popular singer. Aunt Yoyita tries to fan the spark of life back into her forlorn niece, and she also finds herself renewing a 50-years-later romance with an old flame of her own, the self-effacing concert master Candido. She and the old boy are on the verge of a flashback fantasy on a riverbank when -- well, when Aunt Yoyita drops dead.
The movie now becomes a road movie, with the conveyence of Aunt Yoyita's coffin from Guantanamo to Havana through all the above towns and more. Along the route -- indeed, almost before it starts out -- guess whom Gina should bump into (literally, at a roadside stop) but Mariano, the handsome onetime economics student who is now a handsome trucker with a girl in many a truckstopping port.
They not only bump into one another once, they bump into one another over and over again en route, six times by my count, and by the fifth time, when Adolfo the funereal bureaucrat is slapping his wife around for having bought a pretty dress, Mariano springs to the rescue with a haymaker to Adolfo's jaw, and . . .
Actually, it still takes a funeral -- now a double-funeral, of Yoyita and her ancient boyfriend -- and lots of rain, and a parable about immortality and the gods and the ecological mercifulness of death, to bring Gina and Mariano together in those long looks and deep smiles which have to lead to kisses and happiness ever after.
Guantanamera!, which runs 104 harmless minutes, was co-directed by Juan Carlos Tabio and the late Tomas Gutierrez Alea, whose last joint effort, the 1993 Strawberry and Chocolate, had a lot more bite. In this one the jabs at Castro-nomics are all between the lines, though not too far between. Every so often the camera will glance in passing at something like the graffito: "Socialism or death." One of the unexplained shots, of a bunch of male and female senior citizens excercising and bowing before a heroic military statue, is pretty scary.
The directors, or the cameraman (Hans Burmann), or the editor (Carmen Frias) had the good sense to leave in the one single most truth-telling detail in the whole film: a fly that wanders an inch or two this way and that on the bare, attractive shoulder of Mirtha Ibarra, the movie's Gina, as she sits at an outdoor cafe talking about life with the old concert master. I don't know, maybe the fly was planted, the way Shirley Clarke planted a cockroach running up the wall in her film of The Connection. More power to fly-planters.
Ms. Ibarra, director Gutierrez Alea's widow, is both soulful and (restrainedly) seductive as Gina. Jorge Perrugoria is a manly if essentially oafish university dropout cum truckdriver. If I had to choose between truckdrivers I'd go with Pedro Fernandez as Perrugoria's older, wiser partner behind the wheel, whose advice to the young sport is get married, settle down, have a home, have somebody who'll take care of you when you're old -- and restrict your tasting of cupcakes to the road, where, or course, "anything goes."
Other fine performances are by Conchita Brando (relationship, if any, ungiven) as spunky Aunt Yoyita, Raul Eguren as the concert master who's lived out his lonely life without seeing anything of the world, Luis Alberto Garcia Novoa as a chauffeur much evocative of Francois Perier as Heurtebise in Cocteau's great Orpheus, and Suset Perez Malberti as one of those tasty cupcakes along the way.
The most thankless job, and, need it be said, the best, is by Carlos Cruz as Adolfo the humorless, as stiff as his spectacles and mustache. I don't know if it's he who speaks my favorite line in the film: "We're in a state of necrological alert here." [Tallmer]
MRS. BROWN. Directed by John Madden.NEW YORK, July 14 (NYTW) -- The Widow of Windsor, the populace (and Rudyard Kipling) called her.
Screenplay by Jeremy Brock. Photographed by Richard Greatrex. Edited by Robin Sales.
With Judi Dench, Billy Connolly, Geoffrey Palmer, Antony Sher, David Westhead.
103 minutes. Rated PG. A Miramax release
opening Friday [JULY 18] at Maznhattan's Angelika, Cinema I, and Sony Lincoln Square.
Reviewed by Jerry Tallmer
She had been plucked as an unformed girl of 18 to ascend to the throne; had at 21 married her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha; had adored him throuhout every one of the next 21 years; had given him -- and Britain, and the world -- nine royal children; and had lost Albert to typhoid in 1861, when she was still in her early 40s.
Inconsolable, she donned black, forced her entire court to don black, and retreated -- "in ferocious introspection . . . unfettered morbidity" -- to her summer castles at Osborne, on the Isle of Wight, and Balmoral, in the Scottish Highlands.
There, at Balmoral, Victoria found consolation. His name was John Brown. The year was 1864 -- a half-decade after the flaming assault on Harper's Ferry of that other bearded John Brown in a land 3,000 miles away that was now torn in half in its embers.
This John Brown, a rawboned Scot serving as groom and hunting guide on the Royal Family's visits to Balmoral, had once saved two little princesses by intercepting their runaway carriage. Now, as we learn in rich detail from "Mrs. Brown," a Cannes prizewinner from Britain opening this week in New York and Los Angelesw, it is John Brown who bit by bit -- gruffly yet not insensitively -- brings the light back into the life of his queen and monarch, Victoria Regina.
He does it, among other things, by addressing her in private, and not always in private, as "woman" -- "For God's sake, woman, use your head" -- which stuns the court and sometimes pretty strongly riles Victoria too. But at heart she knows one basic truth: that "Brown is all I have left of Albert" -- who, sneered at by pols and courtiers as her consort, was, much to her bitterness, denied a crown of his own -- "and now they attack Brown too."
The prime pol of this film is Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who has spent a career climbing "to the top of the greasy pole" -- a famous Dizzyism twice voiced in the film -- in no small part through arch flattery of Victoria. She has recently published some notes on the Highlands. "You sell more copies than Mr. Dickens," Disraeli, himself a novelist, tells her. "But I lack your prose style," she replies in the face of his cat-ate-the-cream smile.
A line also put into the mouth of Disraeli gives the movie its title. Locked in a political battle with his lifelong rival, Gladstone, Disraeli tells an aide: "We need help. Where is the old girl?" "Who?" the aide inquires. "Mrs. Brown," Disraeli says. When Dizzy has to take himself all the way up to Scotland to try to persuade Her Majesty -- through John Brown -- to return to London for this crucial session of Parliament, he looks forward with something less than delight to a journey "to the land of Calvin, oat cakes, and sulphur, 600 miles north of civilization."
There's no novelist but there's a bit of a schoolmaster in John Brown too. In this film the Prince of Wales, Bertie to his mother, is rendered as a contemptible wimp who can't wait for her to die so he can become Edward VII (he will have to wait until 1901, when he's in his 60s, as it happens). At one point Brown snarls at him: "Are you deaf as well as stupid?" "Do you know who you address?" Bertie haughtily demands. "WHOM you address," Brown snaps back.
The literate and pointed screenplay of "Mrs. Brown" is by Jeremy Brock, who owes a great deal (uncredited) to Lytton Strachey's masterpiece of biography, "Queen Victoria." John Madden, who put "Ethan Frome" to film and whose work has been seen on Broadway, has directed here with a crisp, firm touch.
Judi Dench, one of the great ladies of British stage and screen, gets her first actual leading cinematic role in this one -- and plays it to a granite-faced, inwardly aching T -- as the ruler of the British Empire whose love affair with her groom may or may not have been limited to horseback rides, rowboating, and fumbling conversation -- more fumbling on her part than his.
Billy Connolly, a musician, comedian, and TV star better known in Britain than America, is a forthright, eagle-eyed, ultra-masculine, and paranoid John Brown in kilt, pony tail, and sporran -- that leather pouch that dangles before a Scotsman's manhood.
David Westhead is a Bertie you'd love to strangle, and Geoffrey Palmer ditto as Victoria's stiff-necked private secretary. To Palmer is given the film's one funniest line: a groan of "Oh, God, the pipes," as the bagpipes come skirling out to welcome Victoria back to London.
Antony Sher -- late of "Stanley" on Broadway -- is more Disraeli than I suspect Disraeli ever was. There is one truly happy scene in this stonily touching film: when Victoria, in black garb and black hat, goes bathing from a bathing machine, a little house by the water with gears and steps. With her are two of her granddaughters. "Don't pother, children, swim!" she commands. She could command everything except her own heart. [Tallmer]
4 LITTLE GIRLS.NEW YORK, July 8 (NYTW) -- Denise McNair was a feisty, inquisitive child who, when the marches started in Birmingham, said to her mother: "Can I march?" No, said her mother, you're too little. "Well, YOU'RE not too little," Denise said.
Produced and directed by Spike Lee. Edited by Sam Pollard.
Photographed by Ellen Kuras and others.
An HBO documentary in its theatrical premiere at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, Manhattan
She was, says her mother, always jumping from one ideal to another. "If something happened to somebody, she wanted to be a nurse . . . If she was in ballet class, she wanted to be a ballerina."
Carole Rosamond Robertson was a Girl Scoout, an avid reader, a "daring, giving, outgoing person" who played the clarinet in the Parker High School band and, her sister remembers, could never get used to having to sit in the balcony at the movies.
Cynthia Wesley was the adopted daughter of a soldier who became a school principal. "Young lady," her mother said to her on the Sunday morning Cynthia was going to break in as an usher at church, "your slip is hanging under your dress." You'd better fix it now, her mother told her. "You never know how you're going to come back."
Addie Mae Collins walked to church with her two sisters, Janie and Sarah, that particular Sunday. "We played a game with my purse," Janie Collins remembers. "It was shaped like a football. We played and we just laughed and we joked and we were just talking all the time."
When they arrived at their church, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Janie ran upstairs to a bathroom and Addie Mae and Sarah went down to the Sunday-school classroom in the basement. The bomb that a few minutes later blew apart the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church -- on the Sunday morning of Sept. 15, 1963, two and a half weeks after the March on Washington of 250,000 people -- blinded Sarah Collins in one eye and killed Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Addie Mae Collins.
Denise McNair was 11 years old. The three other dead girls were 14.
It is to this long-lasting wound that Spike Lee takes us back in "4 Little Girls," his quiet, and because of that, all the more wrenching 102-minute HBO documentary that opens for an advance theatrical premiere Wednesday [JULY 9] at Film Forum, on New York City's West Houston Street.
Long-lasting but also all-altering.
Mr. Objectivity himself, Walter Cronkite, tells Spike Lee's camera, microphones, and us:
"I don't think the white community [in this country] really understood the depths of the prolem . . . until that incredibly mean, perverted, terrible crime of blowing up kids in a Sunday-school basement . . .
"At the moment the bomb went of and those our little girls were blasted and buied in the debris of the church, America understood the real nature of the hate that was preventing integration, particularly in the South, but also throughout America. This was the awakening."
Jesse Jackson is only slighly over-rhetorical when we hear him declare, of the events of that particular day: "We were able to move a crucifixion into a resurrection."
"That particular day . . . on that particular day" is the identifying phrase that slips from the lips of almost all the people of Birmingham whom Lee interviews these 33 or 34 years later, the parents, aunts, sisters, playmates, neighbors of the four little girls, as well as civic leaders, journalists, novelists, prosecutors, civil-rights heroes (James Bevel, Wyatt Tee Walker), and others who are still here to bear witness.
It could have made a good title for the documentary, though you can't really do much better than "4 Little Girls." And I don't see how Spike Lee, Brooklyn wunderkind, sharpie among filmmakers, hotshot Knicks fan, all the rest of it, could have made a much better, clearer, or more telling cinematic bookmark to a turning point in American history.
If the name Bull Connor means nothing to you -- if you weren't around then -- "4 Little Girls" will bring him and his dogs and his club-wielding troopers and his fire hoses back in all their Ku Klux Klansian glory.
"Bull was like the walking id of Birmingham, the hellish side of Birmingham," says Howell Raines, the New York Times on-the-scene reporter whose Sunday-magazine revisit of the experience 20 years later -- summer of 1983 -- was read by a 25-year-old Spike Lee fresh out of NYU Film School, and set him thinking.
It took 10 years for Lee to be ready to make this film, and for Christopher and Maxine McNair, the parents of Denise McNair, to be ready to talk about their daughter, Birmingam, the South, the United Sttes, and that particular day.
In this particular day, churches are once again being set afire all over the South, and not just the South. Black churches. The bomb that killed those four little girls -- as a novelist named Taylor Branch reminds us -- "blew out the face of Jesus in the stained-glass window . . . , stopped the clock, stopped time."
But the clock has not stopped. It ticks on, unappeased, unlearning, uneducable, murderous. [Tallmer]
CONTEMPT (LE MEPRIS)NEW YORK, June 24 (NYTW) -- Talullah Bankhead once famously said, as she swept out of some play or other on its opening night: "There is less here than meets the eye." I wonder what she would have said about Jean-Luc Godard's "Contempt."
Written and directed (1963) by Jean-Luc Godard, based on the novel "A Ghost at Noon," by Alberto Moravia.
With Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, Michel Piccoli, Fritz Lang, Georgia Moll, J.-L. Godard
At the Walter Reade Theatre, 165 W. 65th St., plaza level, Lincoln Center, (212) 875-5600, and Film Forum 3, 209 West Houston St., (212) 727-8110.
Reviewed by Jerry Tallmer
This 1963 opus has been hailed by cineastes far and wide for upwards of 30 years now. "One of the greatest films ever made about the actual process of filmmaking," says a filmmaker named Martin Scorsese. "It's re-release is long overdue."
That re-release, a Scorsese presentation in fine new prints, takes place in New York this Friday [JUNE 27] at both Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater (uptown) and the Film Forum (downtown) -- an unprecedented joint event for these two houses.
It's an open-ended run at Film Forum, while at the Reade a full week of "Contempt" leads off a 10-feature Godard midsummer mini-retrospective there through July 17.
Yes, "Contempt" ("Le Mepris") is a film about filmmaking, but no, it isn't, for my money, the greatest such, or anywhere near the greatest. To see it again after a dozen or so years is to find it almost shockingly -- for Godard, dear God! -- full of banality and cliche, in thought, in dialogue, in situation, in "the given" (Hollywood producers are monsters who eat writers and other creators alive), in everything except some pretty stunning locales and camerawork.
If you want to see a great movie about the process of moviemaking, wait until Truffaut's "Day for Night" comes round again. Or Woody Allen's "Purple Rose of Cairo," for that matter. Or, by inference, almost anything by Keaton starting with "Sherlock Jr." Or, if you like, "Sunset Boulevard." Or . . .
The producer/monster in "Contempt" is Jack Palance as Jeremy Prokosh, said to be based on Joseph E. Levine, one of the actual producers of "Contempt" back there in '63. Carlo Ponti was another. The contempt was of course Godard's if he thought that none of these people knew who was being caricatured, if in fact he even remotely cared.
But to have Palance swaggering around like (bad) John Wayne while saying things like: "I don't believe in modesty, I believe in pride" and making a crass, leering, unadorned play from his red Alfa Romeo for his scriptwriter's luscious wife is . . . a bit much.
The scriptwriter, a tortured soul who has to think for all of two reels before accepting bully-boy's $2,000 -- and the contempt of his own wife -- as a down-payment on turning a highbrow shooting script (about Odysseus) into trash, is the grey and callow Michel Piccoli who would go on in stronger stuff over the years to become one of the brilliant stars of world cinema.
The luscious wife, who spends most of the time kvetching between love and loathing for the poor nerd she's married to, is none other Brigitte Bardot, but even her judiciously presented posterior can't do much to save this exercise in the tedium of intelletual superiority. Nor can the much more interesting (in this film) Georgia Moll, as the scriptgirl/tranlator at whom Piccoli makes a semi-demi pass that sets Bardot's sulkiness seething.
What almost saves the picture is Fritz Lang, the great German director, here playing Fritz Lang, the great German director, whose script and movie-in-progress are being raped on the Isle of Capri by Palance, Piccoli & Co. If Lang, too, a monocled lobster, is given considerable balderdash to say -- amidst endless highblown quotes (a la Godard) from Homer, Dante, Holderin, etc. -- he does come up with one or two refreshing cynicisms here and there.
As for instance when Palance egregiously -- i.e., forcibly -- invites everyone to lunch at his villa. Lang, suiting action to the word: "Include me out, as a REAL producer once said" (Sam Goldwyn, kiddies).
That cypressed villa, by the way, gorgeously shot along with all else by Raoul Coutard, is atop a rocky promontory overlooking the blue sea; the roof of the structure -- where Bardot sunbathes -- is can only be reached up a flight of bare cement steps almost as endless and spooky as the ones in "Stairway to Heaven."
If Godard violates (no doubt deliberately) the Chekhov rule that a gun introduced in Act I must be fired by Act IV, he nonetheless ends "Contempt" in a predictable violent disarrangement of the odds that is the greatest cliche of all. And the irony of all this is that in 1955, eight years before "Contempt," none other than Jack Palance was playing the tortured artist -- and Rod Steiger the really monstrous producer -- in "The Big Knife," a Holllywood movie by Robert Aldrich out of Clifford Odets that will not be starting any retrospectives, at least not this season. [Tallmer]
"THE AMERICAN CHESTNUT" CRACKS
"The American Chestnut"Karen Finley used to be a happening in herself in the early eighties. She is famous for inserting yams up her private parts which with her, aren't all that private. A year or so later, at a disco, I saw the young woman cover herself with chocolate, all the while declaring she was employing a less desirable brown substance. She was amusing.
September 11 to September 28, P.S. 122, 150 First Avenue
Presented by Performance Space 122
8:00 pm Thurs.-Sun.
$20 to $25
reviewed by Brandon Judell, September 13, 1997
Then in 1990, Finley became part of the infamous NEA four, four artists denied grants on the grounds of indecency. Suddenly Tim Miller, Holly Hughes, John Fleck, and Finley blossomed into Saints of the liberal left faster than Mother Teresa will ever reach that position among her followers.
The problem is, at least with Finley, her notoriety that still draws sell out audiences was not accompanied with any growth as an artist. If I were currently on the board of the NEA and saw her new production, I too would deny her a grant but this time for her complete incompetence as a performer and for the lack of any artistic sensibility.
At this point I must quote the press release for "The American Chestnut." Without it, I am a complete loss to explain what Ms. Finley was trying to accomplish.
"The American Chestnut was once the most abundant tree in America. A blight during the early part of this century has given an illness to practically all American Chestnut trees. The suffering tree spends all of its energy sending out shoots to survive. This and other illnesses in the plant world are used as metaphors for social ills in Karen Finley's riveting and controversial new piece, 'The American Chestnut' . . . . This wickedly funny performance cuts between fables of unattainable growth and stories of unattainable domesticity that include cake baking, gardening, and do it-yourself projects."
This so-called metaphor for our social ills begins with Ms. Finley attired in wedding gown vacuuming the stage. A few minutes later, she calls out, "Mark, do you want to get me the Dust Buster?"
We quickly learn the performance artist is now a mother who has to stay up late now with her daughter. But why complain? she asks. Years ago when she was a "hipster" and a "swanker," she used to stay up all the time doing the club scene.
This piece segues into an analysis of the neuroses plaguing Winnie the Pooh and his friends. "Winnie the Pooh," Ms. Finley puzzles. "Why not just call me Feces Face?" This leads to a fantasy of Christopher Robbin and pals partaking in an S&M orgy.
Then comes her aged takes on the Oklahoma bombing, Betty Ford, and Margaret Thatcher.
Motherhood has apparently kept Ms. Finley from opening a newspaper in the last few years or even watching CNN. As for her "brazen" radical feminism, it's insultingly ancient. What might have been "right on" in 1972, is downright embarrassing in 1997.
What worse is her exploitation of AIDS, as if just doing her a piece on the subject adds depth to a show. Ms. Finley starts this part of the presentation sitting in a chair in front of a projection on a screen of flowers. Suddenly, she became a man, at least in her head, because she uses the voice of Walt Disney's Goofy. When a few members of the audience started laughing, she stopped the show to yell at them. Hey, she was being serious. She had to stop a few minutes later to stop other members from laughing.
Then she had to stop the show because she couldn't find a pair of gold shoes. Then again because she needed a bar of soap. Then again because she lost the script to a scene. Throughout most of "The American Chestnut," Ms. Finley had to read her lines having not bothered to memorize the dross. You had to respect that decision. Who'd want to molest their brain cells with this chain of sophistic profanities, inanities and bull?
To hold the audience's attention, Ms. Finley was constantly exposing herself, especially her buttocks. She might have had better luck with self immolation or decapitation.
What's surprising, though, was that if you covered your ears to escape Finley's piecing yelps, sort of like Roseanne barking out Rod McKuen, the show was visually entertaining. The projections and video clips were quite lovely and adept. There were the cutting up of worms, the distension of Finley's vagina as her daughter made her getaway during birth, Finley painting with milk squeezed out vigorously from her breasts, and Finley posing nude with sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art.
But once again with hands away from ears and now on lap, the pain came back instantly.
Karen Finley's "the American Chestnut" is the work of a self-absorbed artist with no respect from either her audience or herself. Finley has lost the ability to shock and all she has left is the Emperor's new clothes.
Please note, however, that Christopher Fleming's lighting design and Dave Overcamp's technical direction were top notch. [Brandon Judell]
OF JEAN SEBERG, AND THE MAKING OF AMERICA, PERHAPS
NEW YORK (NYTW) -- Unless it is your obsession, it is sometimes difficult to fathom other people's obsessions. Shoes. Used underwear. Ivana. Jean Seberg. Jean Seberg?
Yes, at Performance Space 122's First Floor Theater on Oct. 9 we saw what is obviously Kyle deCamp's (passing?) obsession, "come to life" (Jean Seberg, and what she said. For two years de Camp has assembled and now constructed a 75 minute work on the Marshalltown, Iowa, teenager who became a movie star and a very troubled young woman.
Otto Preminger did or did not break her (we see her screen test for his "Joan of Arc" and several scenes superimposed live by deCamp and her extraordinary partner Greg Mehrten -- the evening is a sort of free Fantasia and Variations on Jean Seberg although it is tightly structured. Quoting from her films, interviews, letters home and those damned FBI reports, deCamp becomes Seberg, droll Iowa readings and all. Her hair gets a special credit in the program. Seberg's marriages are detailed -- as I get older I understand more the one with Romain Gary, a fine writer to whom Seberg obviously became an obsession -- her affairs, her connection with the Black Panthers and other revolutionaries, the color of her baby, her lostness, her useless death.
She wanted to mean something, but who took the flawed star, the Parisian from Iowa, seriously, except perhaps Gary? Still, who else could have done the job she did in either "Bonjour Tristesse" or "Breathless?"
"come to life" is not a simple production technically but even on opening night everything worked, given a few lapses in tempo (I don't mind reading a script when necessary and integrated). There is an elaborate video work plan, live and taped, and clips from Seberg's films. Integration was exemplary but actually, the difficulties could be simplified a bit.
Mehrten was amazing. He is an actor with a voice and a superb sense of timing. He knows how to use both to maximum effect playing many roles and he drew only admiration from this viewer. I did miss, however, a German accent with his Preminger.
deCamp was even more amazing. You certainly believed her Seberg and her devotion to her subject. If she did not have the appeal of her subject, Seberg's appeal was ephemeral in any case. I loved her (not quite an obsession).
deCamp's show is both camp and serious. It is worthy for awards. It plays again the weekend of October 16-19 at PS 122, 150 First Avenue (9th Street). Curtain at 7:30. Tix $12. BO number (212)477-5288. Bring on deCamp.[Wex]
DANES AFTER DEATH
NEW YORK (NYTW) -- Hamlet is dead. Everybody is dead. Now what in the State of Denmark? The English Ambassador's announcement is interrupted by a brash Fortinbras who proceeds to take over. This is the beginning of Lee Blessing's play "Fortinbras," running the next two weeks at the 78th Street Theatre Lab. The script is funny and wide-ranging, all coming together at the end when everyone is, of course dead.
But deadness doesn't stop Blessing, who also wrote the Broadway play "A Walk in the Woods." Just because Shakespeare killed everyone off doesn't mean that Blessing can't bring them all on again, most of them disappointed in Death. The play is also about truth and it's worth. Ophelia takes a feminist view.
Hamlet's story is silly according to Fortinbras so he reinvents it politically in terms of a Polish spy at the Danish Court. This starts a war that doesn't happen but doesn't end. Oh, the philosophy. Oh, the threads. Find them out for yourself.
Director Donny Levit has blended together a large ensemble of widely diverse actors into -- and this was opening night, only the second full run-through, I understand -- a seamless whole with only two casting choices, the two leads, problematical to this viewer. Everyone's diction and voice tones, however, are exemplary, a joy to hear.
Best in this motley crew of 15 to my mind is Jeremy Guskin as, believe it or not, Osric. He creates a character beyond the script, sustains it, and even gets his laughs from what he doesn't do. Andrew Sellon as Hamlet, who spends part of his time on a TV screen, is a strong, almost mesmerizing Hurd Hatfield-like presence in the box, but full length is undercut (a pun) by a too-big costume. It should be re-designed immediately, my only cavil with Jared B. Leese's all-out dressings.
Jillian Crane gets to be all over the little place as Ophelia and does so with great elan. Alexis Brentani also has her sexy moments as Gertrude, carrying them off without the annoyance that they could be. John Marino is a sympathetic, warm Polonius and Ted Alan goes almost over the top as Claudius, as written, but makes us like him anyhow: Rick Kinkaid's uptight Laertes is likewise a nice guy. The two Polish Maidens, Carrie Paff and Melanie Prud'homme work together beautifully and are equally delightful, if prudishly over-dressed.
"We are not boys," Horatio says to Fontinbras at one point but that is the trouble, they are. One expects them to be in a college dorm, not Elsinore, and to be drinking lite beer out of their goblets and changing the TV station from Hamlet's head to football. Not that their acting is faulted, it's just that they are a problem believing their characters. And since they are the lychpins of the dramaturgy and the philosophy of this play, it hurts.
Not to be forgotten, Jason Volk, Hube Dodd and Wayne Salvatore were the two Sentinels and the Norwegian Captain, delighting when allowed.
At two hours plus intermission, "Fortinbras" is a bit long. There was a moment in the second act Fortinbras-Ophelia scene where I felt "OK, too much talk" and that feeling lasted until the end, and then to the epilogue (which is actually quite Bergman-esque, or Brechtian).
Levit has directed up a storm, using masterfully what designer Elizabeth Chaney left of the small stage to work on, but there was wasted space. The bed was clever, though. I would not hesitate to recommend anyone in this production for further work.
"Fortinbras" was presented by RJS Productions and the 78th Street Theatre Lab. It is at 236 West 78 Street. Other details were not supplied. It is a major play and was a surprise to see in a theatre that seats only about 50. I suggest you fill one of those seats.
A TRIO OF WONDERFUL WOMEN
The Metropolitan Opera is back on stage over in Lincoln Center and, on October 2, they let us in to see Richard Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos." For some reason it starts at 8:30, has a 25 minute intermission, and thus does not end until ca. 11:13. Are they trying to make it more important that it is?
It is important enough, especially in three members of its present cast. Everybody is raving about Deborah Voigt's Ariadne and truly it is her signature role. She proves that Strauss knew how to write for the voice and she has the voice for it. But what was exciting, and one of the great performances of my experience, was Suzanne Mentzer's Composer.
Maria Ewing, while still nominally a mezzo, did a great Composer but Mentzer is wholly taken by the role. The music swells out of her body naturally and the passion in her acting is mesmerizing. A cliche, but she is living the role. Mentzer's belief and Strauss' humanity completely take over the end of the Prologue.
Zerbinetta is a daunting role with its lengthy aria, runs, and naked highest notes but I've never heard a bad Zerbinetta (well, once, and she retired thereafter). Natalie Dessay has everything needed plus a French sense of fun, totally in keeping with the Moliere play and M. Jourdain, le bourgeois gentilhomme, upon whom this Hofmannstahl libretto is based, although "Ariadne" takes place in Vienna. Dessay is fun and helps keep the Commedia del'Arte scene from being as annoying as it usually is. She is a real comedienne and a fine coloratura.
Thomas Moser, inexplicably dressed as if he were in Strauss' "Friedenstag," was overmatched by Bacchus' music. Wolfgang Brendel was ordinary as the Music Master and Nico Castel seemed to be playing an imitation of Werner Klemperer: I wish he's play himself. Heinz Zednik made one notice the Dancing Master, and he looked like one.
Najade, Dryad and Echo were sung nicely by Joyce Guyer, Jane Bunnell and Sandra Moon and they were properly arch. The roles of the four comedians are impossible and remained so.
James Levine conducted in the restrained mood we noticed during the Ring Cycle last season, therefore did not overpower the singers except for Moser. Levine's tempos were slower than necessary in the final scene, dragging out the evening and making interest flag, although he did lead us through Strauss' compositional genius masterfully.
The direction by Elijah Moshinsky and the sets and costumes by Michael Yeargan are clever, sometimes too clever for their own and our good. At the end, the sets were ludicrous in their endless busyness and got their own laughs, not intended.
"Ariadne is being played in repertory at the Met. Most of it is fascinating and the three women, Mentzer, Voigt and Dessay are not to be missed.[Wex]
ABOUT TIME, WASTED TIME, TIMES
PAST AND MAXINE
About Time is a 75 minute entertainment devised and populated by Paulette Attie. In it she sings songs and recites poetry about Time. She is accompanied by Milton Granger at the piano and David Braynard on the bass and tuba -- not at the same time. The stage is decorated by Tom Hooper with the piano, a chaise longue, a bust of Shakespeare on a pedestal and, on another pedestal, a foot, I assume a metrical foot. There are 34 "numbers."
The music, lyrics and poetry range from far and wide and are not always what one would expect, like the whole poem "Casey, 20 Years Later," this being the Mighty Casey who finally wins a game. Even Oliver Wendell Holmes appears. The evening is directed by Justin Ross, minimally. The hundreds of light cues are by Ken Billington.
The problem is with Attie. She is just not unique enough for a one-woman show. She has a nice voice and pleasant presentation. Her diction is fine and she has the right carrying power for the space of the theater. She appears to be a nice lady who sings and recites, that's about it. No distinct character surfaces, physically or aurally. There is no real humor or charm on stage. Much is indeterminate, including age, and by this I don't mean Attie's, but what is the maturity of who is singing a particular song? Where is that song coming from? Attie's vocal timbre for each song is also quite unvarying.
There is a long cadenza with the tuba which only a fading coloratura who can no longer cope with a flute could love. Otherwise the tuba's role in accompanying with the piano fits quite well: I wonder how a bassoon would sound as in Mozart, for instance, the bassoon and the doublebass can be interchangeable.
The show is about Time. 75 minutes can be a long time. Unfortunately it gets to be here or was on September 6, the date I attended.
About Time runs until October 12, Thurs-Sat at 8pm; Wed and Sat at 2pm and Sun at 3pm. It is presented by the National Musical Theater at the Kaufman Theater, 534 West 42 Street. Tickets are $35. Telecharge (212) 239-8200. [Wex]
AMBITION DEFEATED BY LACK OF TECHNIQUE
The play is Icarus and Aria by Kirk Wood Bromley. It was presented during the Fringe Festival and has moved for a run to the House of Candles at 99 Stanton Street, below Houston. That building is for sale and the theater is not complete -- a bar around the corner is suggested for rest rooms. Curtain time was 20 minutes late on September 5 although the audience was there on time.
It is an ambitious play, written in verse and with an extremely large cast. The difficulty, or shall we say the biggest difficulty encountered, is that nobody in the cast has a smidgen of an idea about diction, all proclaiming in a pseudo-poetic babble. Therefore who are all these people, why are they running around, and just what is it that is supposed to be occupying our attention?
Icarus and Aria takes place "now," in Phoenix, Arizona (too close to the sun?). We enter past a crime scene tape barrier, chalked outlines of bodies are washed from the floor. Icarus is a star rookie football player (basketball?). All sorts of people are around, doing whatever the hell they're doing. A Hispanic gangster sings in Spanish. Icarus misses his first day of training because he spends the night with Aria. As I understood so little, I cannot reprise the plot for you. In the 80 minutes I stayed -- there was no hint of an intermission and I had heard that the whole thing runs two and one-half hours -- I might have understood maybe 50 words, few that were connected and were not isolated. Never a meaningful sentence. The lovers had just gotten together and were ready for a second round.
I do not think the language was too distinguished as one rhyme I caught was "chirp-burp" but I really can't judge its level as so little of it was projected. The actors' voices seemed untrained, even in the small space, and as the direction was all on the same level at the same tempo, there was an almost total lack of form or variation. The actors spoke out, but to nobody in particular. One would not know where to begin to sculpt this into a theatre piece. I do not know what was there to communicate.
Direction -- and dramaturgy -- is by Aaron Beall. Some of the props are actual, some pantomimed. There is nothing wrong with this when it comes to biggies like television cameras and the like but to pantomime panties is pretty petty, Polly.
The presenters are The Acting Pool and Fringe NYC. Icarus and Aria runs Thurs-Sun at 7:30pm; Sat and Sun matinees at 2pm with a different cast. Ticket prices were not listed but the reservation telephone number is (212) 420-1466.
I understand that Icarus and Aria is fun to play for the cast but I take issue here with the word "play:" acting is work, a discipline, a serious undertaking. We saw little of that. Nobody got near enough to the sun to even worry about wings melting. [Wex]
A CARUSO IN NAME ONLY
It was a well-intentioned evening on but an unfortunate one. The Enrico Caruso Museum of America presented a concert at Merkin Hall on September 3 which was fashioned to introduce the great-grandson of the great tenor, the young tenor Riccardo Caruso. He was almost lost in the shuffle, and is a long way from the paternal source, but he did appear.
First there was an interminable "introduction" by Aldo Mancusi, whose idea the museum and concert was, thanking everyone everywhere by name and deed. Then and always welcome, the great veteran soprano Licia Albanese led the singing of the National Anthem featuring her two somewhat indeterminate high notes. There was a message from the consul general of Italy who was in Italy. A letter was read from the bass Jerome Hines, preceded by a commentary. The mayor read his proclamation for Enrico Caruso Day, actually the first time I have heard a real Mayor read one instead of a lesser lackey.
At 8:35 the musical program began. Pianist Francesco Caramiello played two inconclusive works unimaginatively. Then, at 8:45, introduced of course by Mancusi, Riccardo Caruso appeared. With the music on a stand before him, he sang "M'appari" from "Martha." He proved to be a pure student with an ample voice and little musicality. This was again shown in a later "La Traviata" duet with soprano Melody Alesi and "Ch'ella mi creda" from "La Fancuilla del West," both again with the music in front of him.
Baritone Xiao-ping Dal sang the Largo from "The Barber of Seville" with a veiled voice, soprano Nicole Maikish plodded through "Signore ascolta" from "Turandot" and pianist Caramiello played something else. Caruso did his "Fancuilla" number. Then came intermission.
I do not know what came after.
Katherine Olsen was "conductor/pianist" for the singers.
For information on the Caruso Museum, call Aldo Mancusi at (718) 375-8549. For Riccardo, wait and see. [Wex]
Prolific playwright Mario Fratti has a new vehicle going, seen on September 11, Sister produced by and running at Theater for the New City. It is a play of words, not actions, and it is a melodrama. A mystery play -- what is the secret in this family? Or is it secrets? We have three characters: mother, daughter, son. The son is almost 20 years younger than his sister.
Sister is promiscuous and hates men. Son is sure of his modernity and Catholic training. Act One, almost totally a duet between mother and son, is a confrontation of the sexes and of generations. Mother comes to some realizations but the son is pure cant (no apostrophe): men and women are equal except that men are, of course, more important. The second act, much shorter, is mostly between the sister and brother. Both acts are also about weak/strong, what do men want/what do women want?
The play is preluded by the Intermezzo from "Madama Butterfly," evoking a man who left his family, and ends with the revelation. It is a whopper, so much of a whopper that leaves you quickly. This was the evening?
The acting is uncommomly good. Annette Hunt is the mother. She really searches in the first act; her timing, gestures and line readings all portray a warmth and sincerity. Her second act appearences are mostly silent, and she also projects them. Wayne Maugans keeps the brother from being a prig -- no mean feat -- and is also totally believable. His reaction to the revelation is extremely well done. Julia Levo, as the sister, does not have an easy role, but it is no less concentrated. She is very good. Her scene with Maugans portrays a real family relationship.
As directed by Michael Hillyer, "Sister" is tight and keeps all those words from driving you mad. Movement is limited but he makes thye best of it. The simple set and lighting is by Jason Sturm.
Can I recommend giving up an evening to see it? For good acting, yes.
"Sister" at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue between 9th and 10th Streets. Thurs. and Sat. at 8pm; Fri. at 8:30pm; Sun. at 2:30pm. Tickets $10. Telephone (212) 254-1109. [Wex]
THE LOVE THAT SURPASSETH . . .
The time is 1927. Lindy has just landed in Paris. Prohibition. Maxine and Francis are the beloved musical duo who sing the advertising jingles on John Sherman Tyler's Right Wing radio program. America thinks that Maxine and Francis should get married. They do, on the radio show. America cheers the happiness of this "normal" couple. The problem is that both are gay.
This the premise of the Fay Simpson Dance Theatre's production, "The Martial Bliss of Francis and Maxine," seen on September 10, one of the most fulfilling theater works that I have experienced. There is not a misstep in its 90 minutes, not in casting, not in direction, not in music, text, costuming, anything.
It played at the Ohio Theatre and has closed, alas, by the time this report is posted.
"The Martial Bliss of Francis and Maxine" was conceived and choreographed by Simpson and Bill Torres; the seamless score, with real numbers and tunes, is by Earl Wentz; dialogue by James Bosley; the "NYC director" is Deborah Kampmeier; the lighting that aids the action is by Sabrina Hamilton and costumes in which actors look good are by Tony Oedl. The fact that these people came together at the same time and the same place is a blessing.
Much of the action takes place in a gay and lesbian speakeasy so we have dance there. We also have dance numbers in other places: the seduction tango between the title characters is a gem, but so is their following number. There is one priceless scene after another. The choreography tells its own story.
The problem is both Maxine and Francis are happy being gay: it is when they marry that they realize they love each other. They don't know how to handle it. Francis' lover Ace can't. This leads to the melodramatic tragedy at the end and the touching epilogue. Everything works. Love is love.
You can't take your eyes off the five main characters, so real are they and so well do they succeed in what they do here. Simpson, whose work I have followed for some years and whose vocal timbre can obviously express any emotion, is Maxine. Here is talent that is almost scary. Bill Torres is instantly recognizable as Francis. He never goes overboard and is quite lovable in his characterization. Voice and movement are as one.
Verna Hampton is the complete showwoman as the proprietor of the speakeasy who tells the story. Bill Christ is unexpectedly moving as Francis' lover and Jeff Burchfield as the Walter Winchell-like broadcaster who thinks that "Showboat," just opened, is prurient, has it the way it was. The supporting cast is more than just supportive. That these actors/singers/dancers are together on one stage is also a blessing.
What more can one say? I liked "The Martial Bliss of Francis and Maxine." Judging from the reactions and the applause, so did the rest of the audience.
But Fay, what happened to "Lenya?"[Wex]
Kamchik: the Singing Cowboy and his Invisible Backup SingersWhen a grown man grows nostalgic for singing cowboys you know you're going to have fun. But when the man is actually living out his performance fantasies in a theater, well look out pardner, here comes a good guy with a song in his heart.
through Sept. 28
8 pm Th-Sat, 7 pm Sun
Pulse Theatre Ensemble, 432 West 42nd Street
Presented by Up Up Up
Resv: (212) 253-1160
Avner Kam, the writer, composer and performer in Kamchik, the Singing Cowboy and his Invisible Backup Singers sings his heart out in what I can only call a karaoke boy's night out with the little doggies. From his initial desire to sing like Roy Rogers so he can trade on his name to open fast food joints, to his closing tribute to Dale Evans, or Evansdale as he mistakenly calls her, Kamchik gives us songs like the cowboys would only be embarrassed to sing.
If it's true all one needs to perform in public is enthusiasm and the ability to overcome stagefright, Kamchik proves that song parodies are also a handy device for making an esoteric idea into a mad musical moment. In the middle of the evening we learn that Kamchik is actually a pleasaholic, he wants to give his lady love a bigger dick in the morning so she'll think he's "nice."
When Kamchik sings to his horse I felt there was more than just a transportation bond between them. In fact, Kamchik is a modern cowpoke whose aim is to pull the trigger on all the modern psychoanalytic stereotypes that keep crop up in modern westerns. Thanks Kamchik for shedding a little light on the silliness of singing psychoanalysts and film characters. Or is it the other way round? Go see Kamchik for a lot of parodies and laughs. You'll never pass a Roy Rogers restaurant without giggling again. [Larry Litt]
A ROUGH CROSSING, A SHAKESPEAREAN PERUSAL, AND THINGS THAT GO BUMP IN THE NIGHT
by Bert Wechsler
NEW YORK, September 1 (NYTW) -- The Jean Cocteau Repertory, which had such fun with Tom Stoppard's "Travesties" a while back, has opened its new season with that playwright's "Rough Crossing." While laughs still abound at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre, some tedium does manage to set in.
OK, farce is not easy to play and its effect may vary from performance to performance, but all the cogs did not mesh on August 29, when I saw it. First we have the "story."
I have been called to task, and rightly so, for not summarizing the plots of plays I have written about. It took the Times four columns to describe the action of "Rough Crossing." What the play is about is language, Stoppard's individual and brilliant use of language. Sure we have six characters: a team of playwrites with really no play, their young genius composer in love with the leading lady who just had a last fling with the leading man, and an ever-present, all knowing steward. They are all on a ship crossing the Atlantic to New York sometime in the 1930s.
We also have Stoppard seemingly on vacation and one tires of the six always talking, sense or nonsense, as accents come and go. He is pushing it and so do most of the actors. Language sometimes fails him here.
When you give a character a speech impediment as a running joke, you know the playwrite is reaching. The composer has a speech impediment. A lot of this comedy is really not very funny. Did Stoppard stop hard? The evening seems longer than it should.
Craig Smith is absolutely wonderful as the playwrite who maneuvers the plot. His voice, timings, relaxations and reactions are close to perfect. What a role and what an actor! The others should have given him more room, figuratively. Christopher Black comes close to real teamwork as the Steward, and his scenes with Smith are marvelous.
Tim Deak, as the composer, has the many silences which he projects as loudly as if he spoke, and when he does speak, he speaks fast. The leading lady, Elise Stone, is not sympathetic and one just doesn't believe that the chaacters she or Charles Parnell, the leading man, play are star actors. Would they play the original Molnar this way ("Crossing" emanates from Molnar's "The Play's the Thing")? Parody must have a base. And when five of your six actors rush at the same breakneck speed, you sag.
Harris Berlinsky, as the second playwrite, does not join in this jaw race. While the others are over the top, he is under and doesn't (or didn't that evening) fit in. He was in a play by himself. A more relaxing one.
Fun was made with the music of Ellen Mandel, original and witty. Edward Haynes managed to set the ocean liner on the stage of the Cocteau, even with the ocean out the window (not porthole) tilting during the storm but, un-"Titanic"-like, the piano stayed put.
"Rough Crossing" runs individual evenings and a Sunday matinee at the Bouwerie Lane, 330 Bowery, until September 26 when it will alternate in repertory with "Hedda Gabler." Ticket prices vary: it is best to check the box office, (212) 677-0060.
And yes, see "Rough Crossing."
A FIENDISHLY FUNNY "COMPLEAT WORKS"
Unalloyed mirth was shared with a theatre full of onlookers when The Kings County Shakespeare Company presented that gem of a spoof, The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged) on August 30. Yes, this was in Brooklyn, on the west side of Prospect Park in the Picnic House, built in 1928 during the colorful reign of Mayor Jimmy Walker.
The Compleat Works, lasting under two hours with intermission, was first seen in New York at the First New York International Arts Festival at Marymount Theatre. The authors presented it then, Jess Bergeson, Adam Long and Daniel Singer. It is fiendishly clever, never traducing the bard, and very funny, indeed. I will not summarize the plot.
Here the actors were Mark Mattek, Jason O'Connell and Vinnie Penna. A better matched, looser, freer trio cannot be imagined. Although they performed this before, last summer in New Hampshire, they give the impression of spontaneity throughout. Let us hope they stay together and tour this. Directed by Janus Yates Auman, it could, and should, play forever.
With a staggering amount of costume pieces and wigs, all collectible artifacts in themselves, and a couple of props, the three go through the complete works of Shakespeare, all in Act One. "Hamlet" is saved for after intermission. "Titus Andronicus" is a TV cooking lesson; all 16 comedies are distilled into one as they say, Shakespeare was a formula writer. Somehow, in one of the plays, Mattek disports himself in a Martha Graham green sack. Inspired lunacy and delightful non sequiturs are rife. The production is updated from the original with current allusions. It is hip and knowing. "Othello" is done in Rap.
The three actors' timing is impeccable. They react to and include the audience. The audience was with them every minute as actors and individuals.
"Hamlet" really didn't need all the time it received especially in the frame of the alacrity the other plays were handled. There was a long break while, using the audience, the actors Freudianly workshopped Ophelia's scream after "Get thee to a nunnery" but the audience seemed to love it. As encores they then reprised the play faster and faster and the backwards. The problem here was that we missed favorite moments of other plays and had too many of this one, but that is just a quibble.
Nicole Pintal was the roller skating (not inline skating) prop girl. She could have been used more often.
This was an evening of pure fun. It began with an outdoor pre-show in quasi-Shakespearian language. I have no idea what it was about but a young audience member, Julia, won a prize, a kiss from an actor she ran like hell from not to collect.
The Kings County Shakespeare Company ended their three-week season the next evening. It had also included "Macbeth" and "The Comedy of Errors." The company works in association with the Prospect Park Alliance for which it runs education projects. It is an Equity, professional company. Plan on checking it out next August.
MIN TANAKA AT P.S. 122
He has a world-wide career and reputation but the deeper (or even shallow) significance of Min Tanaka has always escaped me. I first saw his work maybe 16 years ago I think at Eden's Expressway with someone who had never heard of him but was thinking of taking his workshop. She didn't.
That was my first experience with Butoh but his is still not the Butoh I have grown to know. Now, with stops in Amsterdam and straight from Jacobs Pillow, with a tour in front of him, Tanaka opened at P.S. 122 on August 28, the evening I attended.
The performance space at P.S. 122 had a front curtain. First time, I think. It was in need of ironing but it was a front curtain, black. As Tanaka's "Poe Project" opened, the curtain became a scrim as a figure in an overcoat and big black hat behind it performed spasmodic movements, dimly seen. The curtain opened and there were black wings and moving curtains hanging on stage, also in need of ironing. The awkward movements continued. It was Tanaka and he finally, with great concentration (Butoh is nothing if not concentration) sat in the center of the second row of the audience. His spotlight remained with him.
A group of grotesques entered, costumed in what might be called "Haphazard Victorian." They crossed, exited, entered again, gathered, all in weird, also spasmodic movements. Tanaka returned to the stage, another grotesque, and did another "turn." People fell down -- has Tanaka reinvented falling, a cliche of many years back? There were shadows on the curtains.
Blackout. Two women in white nightgowns appeared, lit by flashlights, also nothing new. They screamed and yelled and threw fits for a very long time. What came to mind through all this was perhaps a transition street scene for "Jekyll and Hyde" or "Edwin Brood" but not a whole evening of anything. And where was Edgar Allen Poe? Children do this when playing and they think it's funny. Then they lighten up and move on to other things. Monte Python invented a whole Ministry of Funny Walks and they were funny, not limps and spasms, and psychotic tics.
Having had enough of things that go bump in the night, I left. Give me Popo and the Go-Go Boys any time.
Min Tanaka's "Poe Project" will be again at P.S. 122, 150 First Avenue (9th Street) Wed.-Sun. Sept 3-7, 9pm. Tickets are $15. (212)477-5280. The house was sold out the evening I went.
Annabelle Lee, come home.
Not quite bump-in-the-night creatures, Lincoln Center Out of Doors, ending its seasons festivities, presented Polkaroo and Friends. Polkaroo has, for 27 years, been amusing (or benumbing the minds of) Canadian children by way of television and live shows. For 25 years Polkaroo didn't speak: he didn't have much to say the afternoon of August 31, either.
He is a polka-dotted cross between a kangaroo and perhaps a giraffe. In spite of his star billing he doesn't seem to be a star, sharing the platform with Marigold, Bear, Humpty, Dumpty two humans -- one of each genre -- and a guitarist and keyboard player. They are Sesame Street-type creatures somewhat, even the humans. The music was quite the same, jump up and down tempo, and children in the large audience jumped up and down. So did a few adults, who seemed to be otherwise sober. What anyone learned is yet to be determined. [Wex]
Marivaux's "The Inconstant Lovers," translated by Stephen WadsworthIt still surprises and delights me that Marivaux's theater with its delicate, 18th century French elegance and precious turns of phrase has been taken up with such gusto by American theater directors in recent years. His rather strange universe of Commedia dell'arte stock characters - albeit more fully developed - mixing familiarly with upper class ladies and gentlemen and even Princes, strikes me as especially foreign to the tastes of contemporary American audiences. But of course much of Marivaux's current popularity in American theaters is thanks to Stephen Wadsworth's excellent adaptation/translations as well as to the many fine productions of his plays.
Barrington Stage Company, Sheffield, Massachusetts
August 6-24, 1997
Director: Michael Unger
Reviewed by Philippa Wehle, August 9, 1997
Happily, the Barrington Stage Company's production of "The Inconstant Lovers" is no exception. Originally translated by Wadsworth as "Changes of Heart," this engaging comedy tells the tale of a Prince so smitten with a country girl [Silvia] that he forcefully takes her away from her true love, convinced that lavishing her with luxury and love is sufficient to win her over. Her fiance, Harlequin, initially eager to get her back, soon gives in to the charms of a lady of the court [Flaminia] who has taken it upon herself to assure the Prince of his conquest. Silvia, in turn, falls for the Prince disguised as a royal guardsman. Thus the double inconstancy of Marivaux's title. Trivelin, a valet who had secretely pined for Flaminia and Lisette, Flaminia's coquettish sister who wants the Prince for herself, complete the cast of characters caught up in this intriguing game of love and chance.
For the Barrington Stage Company production, designer Narelle Sissons has set the play in an anti-chamber of the Prince's palace, tastefully decorated with a simple round blue green velvet settee, a few period chairs, and a chess set on a pedestal. An elegant chandelier and appropriate Cupid hang from the ceiling. A large pastoral painting on one wall hints at the natural beauty of Harlequin's and Silvia's environment as opposed to the artificiality of court life while a stag's head and antlers on another seem to suggest that the hunt is an underlying theme of the play. Afterall, these courtiers are out to get their prey and they are experts at the chase. They have been schooled in intrigue, cunning and artfulness. It should be no task for them to overcome the villagers' naive resistance and quickly win them over to their desires.
It would seem, however, that Marivaux plans to show the ruling class a thing or two. Unmoved by gifts of jewels or gold, Silvia and Harlequin are steadfast in their devotion to each other and outspoken in their protests against the Prince who has more than enough beautiful ladies in his court to please him and should, as Harlequin says to him, "show that justice is for everyone" not just the privileged.
"Who are these people who hold nothing sacred?" Silvia wonders in Act II as she energetically defends fidelity, honor and good faith and swears her eternal devotion to Harlequin. Noble sentiments indeed - and from the mouths of simple village folk whose pureness of heart seems quite sincere.
In contrast, Lisette, especially, presents us with everything that was artificial and frivolous in France's Ancien Regime. She is more concerned about her beauty mole than about any injustice done to Harlequin and Silvia. For her, designer Murell Horton has created a shimmering orange silk dress with extremely low cut bodice and a slit skirt to show off her legs, which Jennifer Bauer does at every opportunity. She expertly personnifies the perfect coquette as Harlequin so wisely labels her. Elected to seduce Harlequin, she is incapable of conquering her aversion to this country bumpkin.
Her sister Flaminia, on the other hand, finds Silvia's fiance rather to her liking and sets out to make him fall in love with her. Beautifully played by Judith Hawking as a woman who is confident of her charms and of her ability to get what she wants, she understands that the way to win Harlequin and Silvia is through declarations of tender friendship, not flirtation. Harlequin responds immediately, inviting her to join him for dinner with a "Dear friend, keep me company." [end of Act I]
Before long, Silvia too is changing her heart under Flaminia's expert guidance. She soon confesses both her excitement about the fancy dress being made for her and her attraction to a certain royal guardsman met by chance in the market place. He appears, declares his love and she swoons with feeling for him. "Love me, it makes me feel good," she admits, "but I can't return it."
As one can see, Silvia's transformation from faithful fiancee to willing lover to the guardsman is not without anguish. She is confused and unhappy about what is happening to her. Ali Marsh's Silvia, as pretty as a picture in her blue and white tunic with a pink rose on a ribbon around her neck, captures our hearts as well as the Prince's.
By Act III, it is clear that Silvia wants to be rid of Harlequin and be with the royal guardsman. Harlequin, the more naive of the two, still believes that Flaminia is just a friend. Though the Prince offers him wealth, privilege and protection in exchange for Silvia, he prefers to speak of justice and of what is rightfully his. Beside himself, the Prince begs Harlequin on bended knee. Moved by the Prince's emotional plea and by Flaminia's adorable presence, Harlequin finally relinguishes his precious Silvia to him. But not all are happy in the bargain.
The play ends on a note of uncertainty. As Harlequin slowly realizes that Silvia has already betrayed him before he gives her up, he seems genuinely hurt and confused. Even Silvia looks perplexed as she is led off by the Prince. Have they been the gullible victims of the upper class, lured afterall by promises of love? Are they just pawns in a game of chess which the cynical courtiers have inevitably won?
In the final moments, Michael Unger's staging seems to point in this direction. Harlequin, masterfully played by James Hallett, all smiles and Commedia antics until the end, suddenly presents a different face. Whereas the traditional Commedia Arlecchino was certainly capable of weeping as well as jumping for joy, this Harlequin is in real pain. He realizes the Prince has played a trick on him and he swears that one of these days he'll be back on top. "Hold on heart!" he exclaims as Flaminia strokes his head with a look of pleased satisfaction.
Certainly there is much comedy in Marivaux's theater but there is also serous drama and even a touch of cruelty. His characters suffer at the hands of the Princes and Flaminias of the world, out to get what they want despite the agony they may cause. They clearly enjoy toying with other people's affections even though they may be in love with them. At times, Unger captures this cynical side of Marivaux, but mostly, he has chosen to emphasize the comedic aspects of the play. I would have preferred more of the serious.
It is always great fun to see Harlequin perform the many tricks of his trade - lighting up with pleasure at the mention of food and drink; beating his valet Trivelin with his bat one minute and pouncing on him with delightful hugs the next; kissing Silvia with gluttoness glee; keeping company with Flaminia with childlike pleasure. His encounter with a lady of the court wearing an outrageously large white wig and a skirt so huge that the walls have to open to let her through is especially entertaining as is his exchange with a gentleman who has come to apologize to him against his will. Fine performances by Michael Countryman [Trivelin] as the apologetic gentleman and Jennifer Bauer as the "grande dame" along with Hallett's Harlequin, bring much deserved laughter from the audience.
The Prince, on the other hand, should not, I think, be laughable. Marivaux is writing under the Regency, a period during which the court lounged about in "dissipated elegance," as Flaminia herself so aptly describes it. Shouldn't the Prince show some signs of this? The fact is that he has abducted a woman and is holding her captive in his palace against her will. Yet Steven Memran as the Prince veers too frequently in the direction of the comical. One moment, he plays a love sick calf lying across the settee holding a flower; the next, he jumps for joy and twirls about when he thinks of how pure and natural Silvia is compared to the women of his court. He even plays the spoiled brat stamping his foot when he can't get what he wants. He seems to be imitating Harlequin rather than playing the sovereign. Something regal is missing until the end when he finally reveals himself to Silvia. Splendidly dressed in a rose colored velvet cloak with a lovely lavender silk vest and cream colored breeches, he cuts a fine, handsome figure indeed, transformed, perhaps, by love - we hope - into an enlightened monarch.
Hats off to Julianne Boyd, Artistic Director of the Barrington Stage Company and her staff, for presenting Marivaux to the Berkshire community and the entire tri-state area. [Wehle]
A VERY FUNNY, VERY KNOWING PLAY
"As Bees in Honey Drown"How to begin? A wonderful evening at the theater. Superb performances. Many, many laughs, yea verily unto real belly laughs, even when one is sitting alone. Fun. We are talking about Douglas Carter Beane's play "As Bees in Honey Drown" at the Lucille Lortel. What a remarkable script!
Presented by Edgar Lansbury, Everett King, Randall L. Wreghitt, Chase Mishkin, Steven M. Levy, Leonard Soloway, by special arrangement with Lucille Lortel; the Drama Department production
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street
Opens July 24, 1997
reviewed by Bert Wechsler at Press preview, July 20.
There are six actors but only two play roles that go throughout the play: the others act several characters each. J. Smith-Cameron is the protagonist (or is she the object?). J. Smith can do anything, does everything, and she is amazing to watch doing anything. The play must have be written with her in mind, for her. The first act is a virtual monologue and she isn't very quiet in Act Two, either. Her virtuosity dazzles especially in Act Two.
Bo Foxworth is her counterpart and while not dazzling, he holds up his second banana role (and sometimes first) handsomely. The characters that T. Scott Cunningham plays in the first act doesn't prepare one for his brilliance in Act Two. There, he is perfect. Amy Ryan plays a variety of characters, all right on the mark.
Mark Nelson has a wild Swedish accent for one character but is also best in the second half of the evening. Sandra Daisy's six roles are not particularly differentiated by the author but she is fine in all of them.
I won't describe the plot. Suffice to say a situation is set up and then explained. There are twists and turns. Many truths are told on many levels. I have recently extricated myself from a like situation and I can tell you this play rings true. And is much funnier than real life.
Mark Brokaw's direction gets right to the point and keeps the rhythm going. Allen Moyer's sets are endlessly inventive. David Van Tiegham's music and sound design doesn't distract as much as it could, but it tries: my only caveat.
"As Bees in Honey Drown" should run forever but in case it doesn't, see it now. At the Lortel. [Wex]
The Lincoln Center Festival '97The Lincoln Center Festival '97, now in its second season, is off to an ambitious start. Opening a three-week program of music, ballet, theater, and opera, the Festival has imported for its first theatrical event a Romanian French-speaking company of more than 100 actors in a piece reconstructed from Aeschylus' lost tetralogy, "Les Danaides," adapted and directed by Silviu Purcarete. Sparing no expense, the Festival has constructed rows of elevated seats and an enormous open stage in Damrosch Park, behind the Opera House, replete with English supertitles, and a miked sound system for the actors.
Damrosch Park, Lincoln Center
Broadway and 65 Street
July 8-13 and 15-20, 1997
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden July 8,1997
The piece opens on a somber note. Four actors, dressed in chic white clothes, enter the large empty space, cocktails glasses in hand, and walk slowly to their places at both sides of the stage: they are the Gods who will direct the action. They prattle on about life, death, and human foibles, as Greek gods are prone to do, when a chorus of fifty women, the Danaides, enter wearing black masks, and carrying white suitcases. They are in flight from their enemy, the Egyptians, and are seeking refuge in Argos. Their father, who climbs out of a suitcase, to give advice to his daughters, is played by a women with exposed breasts and a false beard, and drags his/her deformed body along the stage. (Is this the director's homage to cross dressing, cross casting, or political correctness, or all three?)
Soon the Egyptian men--fifty bald, snarling, ferocious looking brutes resembling body builders in a comic strip--land in Argos and capture the women. But the women, hoping for revenge, have a plan; they decide to marry their enemies, only to murder them on their wedding night. This they do under their nightgowns and then fornicate over their dead bodies. The women, in turn, are also murdered and soon hundreds of bloody bodies are littered across the stage. The Gods appear center stage, show off their bloody hands and bloody clothes and dance a gleeful, jubilant dance to celebrate what they have wrought, all the while pontificating about the tragic consequences of man's follies. Only one woman survives. Terrified and completely naked, she prostrates herself before the god Poseidon and is saved, but not without consequences: she will have to service him. To top it all off, the fifty men reappear, move down stage in perfect unison and proudly expose their enlarged false penises. Is this to illustrate the ancient ritual of the bacchanal after the tragedy? Who knows?
Does this extravaganza work? Not entirely. Judging from countless gimmicks the director has packed onto the stage, the tone of the production is self-consciously avant-garde, and the director is determined to make sure we get it. "This is an avant-garde production," he seems to be screaming. But actually his avant garde sensibility is fifty years late, which is understandable, considering his time spent under Communism. One thing is admirable however--his skill in choreographing the hundred people on stage. The mise en scene is arranged like a ballet with the chorus of men and women declaiming, moving and gesturing in perfect coordination. Many of the configurations and the manipulation of the huge ensemble are remarkably executed and many of the images are stunning in themselves. But much of this maneuvering is mechanical and lacks emotional underpinnings. The actors seem to act like wound up marionettes who speak, scream, move, and gesture on cue, and this inorganic approach becomes tiresome. One is impressed but unmoved. In fact, all eyes are on the director's handling of the one hundred actors on stage. Which becomes a distraction and diminishes one's interest in the story so that its tragic elements are lost.
Theatricality should have its limits, but not in this production: there are battle scenes, seduction scenes, blood letting scenes, water scenes, fires, explosions, blinding light, torches, pails and pails of water and the endless chase scenes between the hundred men and women. Then there are the symbols: the suitcases become tables, walls, barricades, trenches and hiding places, admittedly clever, but still the play fails to excite. The language is stilted. The translation from the French is formal and arcane, filled with philosophical concepts and references to esoteric ancient rites. Added to all this are pretensious discussions about crimes and punishment, wars and suffering and the origins of tragedy--none of which makes for interesting theater.
Still the director can be admired for his attempt to draw analogy to modern day horrors (Bosnia and the like), but ironically his aim is defeated by his overly ambitions soup of images and effects, which may be his forte, but in this instance, it weakened his intended aim.
One of the most troubling aspects of this presentation is the money that must have been spent--the cost of transportation and housing of this huge cast. And the construction of the special space and scaffolding and the other technical aspects of the production, none of which was simple or minimal. One wonders: in this age of scarce money for the arts, with our own artists mindful about large casts and multiple scenes if they want to get produced, whether importing a cast of hundreds is justified, whether remaking the stage, the scenery, the endless props, the housing of the actors and the staff have been worth the effort. The directors of the Festival ought to be more careful about what they import. [Croyden]
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