Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Spring Planting

I gave myself a 3-day weekend to ensure I had time enough to do my usual weekend collapse as well as planting flowers and/or herbs/veggies in the front and back gardens. The front is along the Grand Central Parkway, so although it has lots of sun, I wouldn’t want to plant edibles there what with all the soot and exhaust fumes. Of course, planting the front garden was not necessary in years past, but since Metro Management vandalized my tree, I’ve had to cover what was formerly covered by the blue spruce’s branches with flowers. The blue spruce’s roots are far reaching and shallow, so digging in the soil is precarious. Therefore I decided to create a “moat” of sorts, not dug in but built up with fencing and topsoil mixed with peat moss.

Leave it to Lowe’s — I found a couple different fencing choices. None of them would do what I envisioned. Actually, I am much too lazy to do what I envisioned, which was to have a higher “wall” on the side of the tree farther from the building where the land sloped down, and a lower one close to the building. I did this:

OK, I can not only not draw straight lines, I can’t make a border (or whatever) that is consistently 8 inches across. The result may be a bit lopsided, but it has ... character. I then planted some pretty red and pink flowers, some white pansies, something resembling 8 inches apart. Hopefully they’ll fill in. Water water water.

Now what did I forget?

Out back I planted some veggies, which are always an experiment: a zucchini plant, a cucumber plant, and a crookneck squash.

Then I piled a bunch of pink petunias into a couple pots, and watered all. Not bad.

What did I forget?

Mulch. The front and back new plantings in the new topsoil should be protected with mulch. By this time the aching from carrying seven bags of top soil around was already setting in, so I decided the rest would wait until tomorrow. So on the third day of my weekend, I set off in the morning to the local hardware store, with a little wheely thing in tow. There were workmen digging away near the laundry room, so I determined not to do laundry only to have it covered with dirt on the way back. I assumed they were Verizon employees, who had marked the locations of Time Warner’s underground cabling some weeks earlier, I suppose so they don’t cut them while digging new trenches to lay Verizon Fios cable inside pipes.  The pipes didn’t look awfully sturdy to lay i’ the cold ground.

Out here in the boondocks, we don’t have “city blocks” to make judging distances easy, but the hardware store is about a block past my morning bus stop, which is approximately five city blocks from my front door. Winters I’ve carried home my Christmas trees from the same block, and it’s easy. But a big bag of mulch? Probably not. Alas, they didn’t carry mulch at all, so I’d have to drive somewhere. The closest supplier I was sure would carry mulch was the Home Depot on Metropolitan Avenue, “around the corner” (a very large corner) from the supermarket, so away I went, combining chores, and praying to get the same parking spot on my return. 

With a large bag of mulch in the trunk, two flats of red and pink impatiens on the back seat (must vacuum back there!) plus several bags of groceries later, I got an even closer parking spot to my front door. Frabjous day.

But what’s this? A bunch of guys sitting on my front stoop and the step of the apartment opposite me, having their lunch. Equipment, shovels, stuff. These must be the Verizon guys, but now they’re digging between my building and the next. It seems unlikely that I’m going to work in my front yard with these guys there, so I leave the mulch in the trunk, and lug in the groceries. Returned for the two flats later, so now they’re sitting out back.

Out back: a guy with a machine that digs trenches. It’s odd to have a motor turning over in my back garden, a disconcerting sound. The machine driver and I cleared my pots and plant tables and birdbaths from the path of the machine (most of which are technically not in my territory, which is the width of my apartment – the no man’s land where he wanted to dig a trench to the cater-corner building is covered in weeds and vines. Maybe they’ll get rid of some of those.). He said he’d put them all back, but I doubted it.

Note: Tuesday, he has not moved it all back.

Over the last several days as I worked in the garden with the wonderful soil, I started deepening an annoying cold and cough I’d picked up somewhere. My aches became less muscular and more flu-like. Sigh. Now my head is too heavy to do anything but photograph the long mound in between my building and the next. Too long for a grave. There are young men in the back again today, digging and covering the trench to the cater-corner building. Now I have lumpy graves.

If I feel better later, maybe I’ll break out the mulch.

~ Molly Matera, signing off. Unfortunately not cleaning up the back garden until the weekend comes.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

My Year In Shakespeare

Once a year, some of us, we few, we happy few — or, as my cousin calls us, people with greasepaint in our blood — celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday.  Why celebrate the birth (and death) date of someone who wrote over 400 years ago, is not in my family tree by any stretch of the imagination, and is recalled as school days torture by the majority of people I talk with every day?  Because listening to and reading Shakespeare sharpens my mind and has afforded me great pleasure over the years, as well as being the first building block in a number of friendships that have blessed my adult life.  I am grateful, more than once a year, to the Bard and those actors/directors/teachers/friends who taught me how to take his words in and make them mine, in particular Eric Hoffmann and the late Robert Mooney.

The year’s wheel has come full circle, so I started writing down all sorts of fascinating things about Shakespeare, but then I had too much of a good thing, so I had to stiffen the sinews and start from scratch.  While setting goals for next year (for which I intend to plan ahead, just as I probably did last year for this), I’ll move apace with this year’s musings. 

Once a year my friend Horvendile posts to his blog, A Likely Story, a list enumerating things he’s done — how many poems he’s written, how many plays, short stories, how many pints of Guinness or bottles of wine drunk, among other things (and thereby hangs a tale), as well as every play he’s attended.  Many of the last will overlap with my list of plays seen because we cannot get enough Shakespeare.

I come to list Shakespeare, not to praise him, the plays and books I’ve seen and/or read that were by or about Shakespeare in the year since I last posted to the Happy Birthday Shakespeare Blog.  What would be impossible would be to list how many of Shakespeare’s phrases I have heard in everyday conversation without anyone realizing the debt.  There are too many to count, so that way madness lies.

Last year I blogged about the role Shakespeare played in my theatrical experience in terms of performing and directing.  I said it then and I’ll say it again:  I’m no scholar or academic, and my experience with Shakespeare is certainly neither as consistent nor as long as I would like.  Still I remember learning to scan, learning how the verse (or lack thereof) can inform an actor more than 400 years on how to say a line, what it means, where the stresses go.  This is a remarkable gift.  (Or curse, when the actors strutting their hour onstage mangle the verse, which is why it can be so rewarding to experience the stories anew in a foreign tongue.)  So although I haven’t acted Shakespeare in some time, I continue to attend productions of his plays several times a year, I re-read some of the plays each year and someday soon I’ll re-read the entire canon, preferably aloud with friends.

Just before we celebrated Shakespeare’s birthday last year, I saw the excellent Simon Callow perform Being Shakespeare which was written by the scholar/academic I am not, Jonathan Bates.  This is an historical fabrication bent on clarifying that Will Shakespeare had education and experience enough to have written the plays and poetry attributed to him, and happily had a number of monologues and soliloquies included in it.  This in contrast to Mark Rylance’s play, I Am Shakespeare, which I did not see but rather read.  It’s a lot of fun, but did not convince me that anyone besides Will wrote the plays.  (I still haven’t seen Anoymous.)

Will was busy, so Artie posed in a ruff.  Ruff.  (c) 2013 Eric Johnson Jr.

As summer 2012 dawned, I saw the NYC Public Theatre’s delightful production of As You Like It on a perfect evening at the Delacorte in Central Park.  Droll and heartfelt, it transported us all to joy.

In October we trekked to lower Manhattan to see a production of Hamlet from Shakespeare’s Globe.  I called it a Wee Hamlet because of the charmingly compact set the company traveled with and the short playing time — due to the very fast delivery of a streamlined script.

A representation of The Globe in London. 

In November we journeyed to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for an unusual production from the Netherlands — it was an all-day affair featuring news crawls, newsreels, no intermission, however imbibing, wandering and tweeting were allowed.  This was Roman Tragedies, which is a mash of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony & Cleopatra, by the Toneelgroep Amsterdam.  It was close to six hours, mostly fascinating.  Oh, and it was in Dutch.  No, I do not.

In the new year, a delightful Much Ado About Nothing (by the same company that did a marvelous Taming of the Shrew last year, Theatre For a New Audience at the Duke Theatre in Manhattan) and most recently the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar at the BAM Opera House.

A few decades ago (guess the year), my friends Judy and Alan and I purchased the best bargain of our lives — New York’s Public Theatre intended to perform the entire canon of Shakespeare over the course of five years, and we paid up front what then appeared to be an enormous sum to subscribe. For that investment, we saw all of the plays at least once, with extra productions over a period that stretched beyond those original five years, including reserved seats even at the summer venue, the Delacorte! Final tally: $11 per performance. The like will never come again.

One of those friends is Alan Gordon, author of the Fools Guild Mysteries whose latest publication is an essay in the new book Living With Shakespeare, an anthology of essays by writers, actors, directors, and others edited by Susannah Carson and Harold Bloom. This book has given me hours of delight and I’m not even halfway through. The evening before Shakespeare’s birthday, the editor and several contributors chatted about the book and Shakespeare and the plays at the National Arts Club in Manhattan. An evening’s discussion among friends and strangers about Shakespeare — who could ask for more on the eve of the Bard’s birth.

Also in 2013, looking forward to (I can practically hear Carly Simon singing “Anticipation”) Joss Whedon’s “home movie” of Much Ado About Nothing due in theatres in June. Then… whatever productions at BAM or elsewhere catch my eye. 

Just when there was too much time between live theatre productions, Public Television provided the exciting Shakespeare Uncovered series, with Jeremy Irons, David Tennant, Derek Jacobi, Trevor Nunn, Joely Richardson, and Ethan Hawke exploring the texts, the sources, the lore of spending a life performing or directing Shakespeare.

Videos (or DVDs, I have both) recently watched include Roman Polanski’s Macbeth with Jon Finch, Francesca Annis, and Martin Shaw.  I saw this on a high school field trip to Manhattan in the early 1970s.  Just as the nuns hadn’t realized that Romeo and Juliet would show some bare flesh in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film of Romeo and Juliet (how short-sighted of them!), I don’t think they realized the witches and Lady Mac would be naked — after all, the moors and stone castle floors of Scotland are quite chilly….  What I remember most clearly about the trip to see Macbeth was my friend Carolyn’s nails leaving marks on my arm when Macbeth’s head was lopped off by MacDuff. 

Shakespeare inspires.

With no malice aforethought but rather this birthday blog in mind, I’ll take note of anything Shakespearean that may come my way over the next twelvemonth….and once again I’ll post it to the website dedicated to bringing together people who blog and love Shakespeare and … whatever else the Happy Birthday Shakespeare bloggers do at this year’s celebration of the Bard’s Birthday.

~ Molly Matera, off to re-read Coriolanus before I view the DVD….

Sunday, April 21, 2013

New One Act Soars Beyond the Intimate Boundaries of the Duplex Stage

On Wednesday I caught the last (for now at least) performance of Aaron Mark’s one act play Another Medea upstairs at the Duplex. This is not a modern Medea. It is not Medea in drag. It is not funny, although it has some good laughs as human dramas always have. It is a conversation about how someone comes to lose himself so completely that he does dreadful things. It is an exploration, an investigation, and it is heart-breaking. We are not complicit in the acts, we don’t approve, but we are filled with dread as we comprehend.

Tom Hewitt walks onto the Duplex stage as the Writer, a tall and handsome man, unassuming, and a bit uncertain. He is here, he tells us, to talk to Marcus, who hasn’t spoken to anyone in years, but after a lengthy correspondence has agreed to talk to this unnamed writer. He is unnamed because this is not about him. It’s about Marcus. The stage is empty but for a table, with a file folder on it, and a chair. Mr. Hewitt walks behind the table and sits in the chair facing us. Once he removes his glasses, he becomes Marcus.

Marcus, an actor who must tend bar to make ends meet and shares a Queens apartment with two others, is in his 40s when he discovers love. This man holds us rapt in his gaze for over an hour. He tells us a story and plays all the parts in it, without ever leaving that chair. His face and his voice become other people in the split second it takes for dialogue to bounce back and forth. Mr. Hewitt, while barely moving his body, becomes ten people during the play.

Playwright and director Aaron Mark asks many questions in this modern study of ordinary people which finally resolve into a story that all too closely parallels that of Medea. He questions human fascination with that awful story century after century after century. In Another Medea, Marcus’s lover is even named Jason. Near the end, Jason denies doing and saying something that starts the spiral toward destruction, and it was all I could do to keep from crying out “You LIAR! You did!” We are invested in Marcus, feel his joys and his hurts. Empathy in the situation brought about by Marcus and Jason and Jason’s sister (all played by Mr. Hewitt) holds us in our seats until the final horrific moments. Then silence falls.

Mr. Mark’s script is intricate, layered, emotional, and chockful of life even though it runs just over an hour. Mr. Hewitt’s performance is breathtaking and awe-inspiring. Another Medea at the Duplex was an intimate piece in an intimate space, and that makes for a powerful evening of theatre. Keep an eye and ear out for a return of this play.

Two Acts Too Many 

On Thursday I saw a production of August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death in a new adaptation by Mike Poulton. We’d looked forward to the Red Bull Theater’s production because we’d enjoyed the company’s productions several times in the past year or two. Alas, the evening played only two notes — one each for the usually charming Daniel Davis as Edgar and one for the shrill Laila Robins as Alice. A cipher appeared as the third character in the overlong first act. The best part of the second act was that Ms. Robins found a second note, and that it was shorter than the first act. Director Joseph Hardy created no levels, no rhythms, no reason for anyone to go the long way west to the Lucille Lortel Theater.

Oh well.  We’ve seen lots of good stuff lately, and were due for a disappointing dud.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to ponder her birthday present to William Shakespeare.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Julius Caesar in Africa via the RSC

I have a fondness for the play Julius Caesar. Several years ago I directed a staged reading of it with an all female cast, and it was an enlightening experience. For instance, despite the fame of certain speeches in this play (not as many as in Hamlet, but still, enough), each and every one sounded new coming from a woman. Equal we are to men, but different indeed.

Design by Michael Vale. Photo (c) 2012 Kwame Lestrade.
Schoolkids are often forced into reading and reciting Julius Caesar, what with its nifty, time-saving combination of history and literature. And it’s true that, while technically a tragedy, this is one of Shakespeare’s historical-ish plays that doesn’t stray too far from the original source material. Who’s to say how far the original source material strayed from the facts, the setting down of which always depends on the politics of the time. At any rate, most of the time your Mark Antony, your Marcus Brutus, your lean and hungry-looking Cassius are pretty much what you’d expect, but not in the current production by the Royal Shakespeare Company playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (through 28 April). This production is set in 20th Century Africa, where all sorts of dictators, liberators, and military leaders have been rising and falling and toppling in the last several decades. Despite the modern setting, modern technology does not interfere in the telling of this story; rather, the lighting (Vince Herbert) and sound (Jonathan Ruddick) designs effectively help it along. The storm preceding the Ides of March is thrilling, with deep dark rumblings and flashes to frighten anyone.  

Theo Ogundipe as the Soothsayer.  Photo by Kwame Lestrade.
Michael Vale’s scenic design is earthy and practical, an imaginatively off-kilter setting that provided not only multiple levels for playing, but tunnels, or caves, and many steps. This is all topped by an imposing, outsized statue of Caesar, his back to the audience. Think what might happen to statues of dictators in the 20th Century. Vale also designed the costumes which, despite a hint of Roman togas, were decidedly not European. Lively and vibrant music by Akintayo Akinbode and dancing (movement by Diane Alison-Mitchell) introduce us to the citizens of “Rome,” who open the play celebrating their leader, Caesar, in the heights of rapture. That first scene foreshadows the people’s thoughtless reactions to come. Theo Ogundipe’s Soothsayer is covered in ash powder, painted to alternately stand out from and blend into the desert. He draws us from the ecstatic dancing and singing to moments of stillness as he speaks silently, questioning, looking upward. He dances, he talks, he lurks, and he finally pronounces the fateful words to Caesar: Beware the Ides of March.  
Ray Fearon as Mark Antony.

Gregory Doran, the RSC’s Artistic Director, directs this play briskly, powerfully, building on relationships, looks, whispers. Although the play runs close to three hours, Mr. Doran doesn’t allow us to feel it for a moment. The acting was generally excellent (although some of the African accented English was difficult to understand, noticeably Mark Antony).

Despite this, our ears become accustomed to the speech, and physically Ray Fearon was a remarkable Antony, a canny alpha male who can cajole, calm, and incite his listeners. It is Antony that becomes the hero of the piece as Brutus and Cassius and their faction diminish. Paterson Joseph presented a strange interpretation of Brutus as a glad-hander instead of a stoic, as if he had found Brutus’ entire character in his admonition to the conspirators on that first night in his garden, when they came with faces hidden from the darkness. He urged them not to mask themselves but rather to hide the conspiracy “in smiles and affability!” This jovial Brutus is an unusual choice, but it worked toward a fine balance of the driven characters. Poor Cassius was totally screwed and we felt each slight by Caesar as Cyril Nri showed us the reality of a man who is no longer preferred, no longer a part of the in crowd. He is filled with fear, paranoia, and resentment. In this production it was always clear that everything Cassius said was smart, and each time Brutus denied him, Brutus’ ego diverted and weakened the plan and his co-conspirators.  
Brutus and Cassius over the body of Caesar.

Joseph Mydell’s Casca was witty and malleable. Jeffery Kissoon’s Caesar was a jealous old man, a corporate kingpin with the power of life and death, chilling in his ordinariness. Several members of the company, like Ricky Fearon and Jude Owusu, had a fine time playing disparate roles. Simon Manyonda, as Brutus’ servant Lucius, was engaging in each scene, whether sleeping or waking. As for the women, Calpurnia seemed to barely exist in this production, although the image of Portia did linger, particularly in the reactions of Lucius, Cassius, and Messala (Chiké Okonkwo) to her death.

This is a forceful and vibrant production, a new interpretation of a story that still remains the same. If you’ve seen Julius Caesar, you haven’t seen one like this. If you haven’t, go learn a little history, listen to a little music, and love a lot of Shakespearean tragedy.  

~ Molly Matera, signing off to re-read the play yet again.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Kafka Story Takes On New Life In The Theatre — Again?

Kafka’s Monkey is distressing, fascinating, and riveting because Kathryn Hunter subsumes her human self and becomes an ape. She is dressed in white tie and tails and can do a sweet soft shoe, but she is an ape, with her gamboled gait and swinging arms that bend back and off kilter. When she speaks her voice and intonation are not quite … human.  For Kathryn Hunter enters the stage, crouched and dragging a suitcase and cane, as “Red Peter,” a male chimpanzee from the Gold Coast who was shot and captured by Europeans.  This ape in man’s clothing has learned that, while freedom is impossible, he can find his way out of total captivity by emulating man.  He learns to drink alcohol and spit to be a man, and even learns to speak and swear.  So completely humanized has he become that Red Peter has a pretty silver flask that fits neatly into his jacket pocket, just like a Jazz Age swell.

This sort of piece is not merely imagined and written.  No open call discovered Ms. Hunter.  This is a joint creation developed by theatrical colleagues.  Colin Teevan adapted Franz Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy” to create — along with director Walter Meierjohann and Ms. Hunter — this unusual bit o’ theatre.  It is one miserable story magnificently enacted at the Baryshnikov Arts Center where Theatre for a New Audience is presenting The Young Vic’s production.  Walter Meierjohann directs Ms. Hunter, who worked closely with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art’s movement director Ilan Reichel as the ape in Kafka’s story, who is specifically a chimpanzee in Ms. Hunter’s interpretation.
Kathryn Hunter as Red Peter with his Baby picture.  Photo (c) 2013 Keith Pattison.

A massive photograph of a baby ape’s face dominates the stage. There is a stool, two bananas, and a lectern.  Otherwise the theatre space is just that — a space with lights and ladders and poles and pulleys. Kafka’s Monkey needs no more.  Its point is funny and sad, and its audience must laugh as well as weep. It is the story of a chimp abducted and tamed and trained for various purposes— a European zoo, perhaps a laboratory.  Eventually, Red Peter says, he chose life on the stage instead of captivity in a zoo and has become a renowned music hall variety star, come this evening to address a scientific academy — and an adventurous theatrical audience. Kafka’s Monkey is an indictment of humanity for its acts against all life.

For all my rapt attention and shame at being human, Kafka’s Monkey did not feel precisely like a play.  Not because it lacks a beginning-middle-and-end, but rather because we wait while Kathryn Hunter struts her hour on the stage, we wait for the story to go … somewhere else.  Eventually, just as the Ape says there is, in fact, no way out despite his “accomplishments,” he spies the Exit sign, and goes out.  Terrific story.  But a play?
Kathryn Hunter in Kafka's Monkey.  Photo (c) 2013 Keith Pattison.

Ms. Hunter as Red Peter stares down members of the audience as any animal would.  Watching Red Peter interact with members of the audience, grooming a man’s hair as he would a fellow ape, and eating the nits found there, is a delight.  He also kindly shares a banana with another member of the audience. Red Peter’s speech patterns go from cultured European gentleman to chimp chatter and shrieks to an angry man.  Er, ape.  He hangs from ladders and twists and turns and contorts his body till we wince. He gazes at us, forcing us to look into his eyes and see ourselves.

Kathryn Hunter is amazing.  Her 50-odd year old body does everything she requires of it, which is an enormous amount.  She embodies Red Peter entirely.  Messrs. Teevan and Meierjohann and Reichel are brilliantly and bravely creative.  Still, it’s a story not a play.  In the same breath with which I say, “This is not a play,” I shout, “This is thought-provoking theatre.”

After the fact, I recalled a scene in Cabaret in which the Emcee dances with an ape in a flowered hat and a frilly skirt, singing “If you could see her through my eyes….she wouldn’t look Jewish at all!”  I wondered, was that Kafka’s monkey?  The short story was first published in 1917, and has been discussed and critiqued for decades as to all its possible meanings — including the assimilation of Jews into Christian society — and the cabaret scene of Weimar Germany combined various forms of high and low culture.  Or perhaps it was just the cleverness of Kander and Ebb.  In how many other places, references, had I already experienced pieces of Kafka’s story without having read it, and without knowing? 

Run don’t lope to the Baryshnikov Arts Center’s Jerome Robbins Theater on 37th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues to see this limited engagement (April 3-17).  Luckily for us, the remarkable Kathryn Hunter will return the following week for another short run in Fragments, from the texts of Samuel Beckett, as directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne.  She is a performer worth traveling to see.

~ Molly Matera, signing off.  So much to read and see, so little time…..

Monday, April 8, 2013

Powerful Political Theatre at EST

Finks is a powerful piece of theatre with a lot of laughs. 

For those who would look across the oceans at other countries that curtail the freedoms, physical and intellectual, of their citizenry, and say, “that couldn’t happen here”:  Well, it did, it has, and doubtless will again.  While this is no place for a history lesson, suffice to say that when World War II ended some people still needed an enemy.  Those who feared that our former ally, the Soviet Union, could infest our government, schools, lives with infiltrators to subvert the American way, decided to attack people who either were or had been members of the Communist Party in the U.S., or appeared to sympathize with them.  Thus was born the House Un-American Activities Committee (“HUAC”), one of the most un-American things I’ve ever heard of.  (There are others, but that’s for another time.)

Madeleine Lee Gilford and Jack Gilford
The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Radio Drama Network produced Finks at EST, which tells the story of two performers, Mickey and Natalie, who in real life translate to Jack Gilford and Madeleine Lee Gilford.  Other characters don’t align precisely with just one person during the McCarthy Era, but I guarantee you’ll be looking up actors, directors, choreographers from the early 1950s when you get home after seeing Finks.  The story of the play resonates as if we were transported back to 1951 as flies on the wall.  Looking back, we know the Gilfords survived their ordeals, if only by watching Mr. Gilford’s work in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with Zero Mostel, who was also “blacklisted” for most of the decade.  Nevertheless, careers were derailed and these victims and their families were punished for the better part of a decade for no crime.  The “blacklist” (which was really a booklet called Red Channels listing whomever was named by anyone) was enforced by private corporations like Proctor and Gamble and Kellogg’s who pressured radio and television networks not to employee actors named in the book.  The sickness that was the McCarthy Era touched education and politics as well.

Finks is a well-structured play, intriguing, and well written by Jack and Madeleine Gilford’s son, the playwright Joe Gilford.  The action goes back and forth between the Committee meeting room (its heavy wooden desk always present onstage and hovering), the club where we first see Mickey perform, Mickey and Natalie’s home, theaters, clubs, living rooms.  Giovanna Sardelli directed briskly, creating with her actors the right rhythm for each scene.  Choreography by Greg Graham was fun and exciting and perfectly performed by Miriam Silverman as Natalie and Leo Ash Evens as Bobby.  The storytelling is electric, building to the explosive events of the HUAC hearings and winding down to the denouement of unemployment because of the blacklist.  The scenic design by Jason Simms was clever and simple enough to fit many locations, and Sydney Maresca’s costume design was on the mark, as was Jill BC DuBoff’s sound design.

Leo Ash Evens as Bobby and Miriam Silverman as Natalie.  (c) 2013 Gerry Goodstein.
Aaron Serotsky was excellent as Mickey Dobbs (a.k.a. Gilford), a stand-up comic, singer, and actor, on the way up in the entertainment world. When he meets and falls for Natalie, he describes her perfectly as “Emma Goldman in Paulette Goddard’s body.”  Serotsky’s depiction of Mickey is simple and sweet, and we care deeply for him as he struggles to maintain his career while remaining true to his beliefs — he’s not demonstrative the way Natalie is, but once he’s with her, he’s with her all the way.   

Aaron Serotsky as Mickey, Ned Eisenberg as Fred, and Miriam Silverman as Natalie.  (c) 2013 Gerry Goodstein
The tireless Natalie — actress, singer, dancer, activist and steadfastly loyal friend — was played by Miriam Silverman with gusto, enormous energy, warmth, and certainty.  Natalie and her dancing partner and friend Bobby (Leo Ash Evens) created a small group within the actors’ union who leaned left to seek aid for those in need.  She was also Bobby’s beard, which is all swell until someone (read lawyers working with the Committee) blackmails Bobby.  The list of people who named names back then is shocking, and when it is enacted before us — friends naming friends — it is heartbreaking.  Finks is what they are to Natalie, with no sympathy for their human weakness.  Mickey has more empathy, perhaps fearing he hasn’t the personal courage to stand up to the Committee.  Ned Eisenberg is just marvelous as Fred Lang (a combination character, including Zero Mostel, but without Mostel’s survival ability) — funny, angry, and frightened, a man who eloquently took the 1st* — as had the Hollywood Ten — and was, along with many others, sent to prison for it.  Eisenberg looks nothing like Lou Costello but does a fine impersonation of him.  Finally it’s Mickey’s turn in front of the Committee, and we hold our breath, as uncertain as he is, waiting to see how he will answer the call. 

Eisenberg, Serotsky, Silverman, and Michael Cullen.  (c) 2013 Gerry Goodstein.
All performances were excellent, with some actors playing and clearly differentiating multiple roles, including Thomas Lyons, Kenney M. Green, and Jason Liebman.  Michael Cullen was straightforward as the self-assured Representative Walter bullying all who came before him. 

This is seriously good theatre, worth the walk (or cab) to 11th and 52nd Street.  Finks is only running to the 21st April at EST (http://ensemblestudiotheatre.org/finks-joe-gilford), so put it in your schedule.

* Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

~ Molly Matera, signing off.  There’s so much more reading to do about what happens when we’re not looking….

Friday, April 5, 2013

Durang + Chekhov + Disney = Laughter

Happy April.  Still pretty chilly, but I can offer some hope:  My cats are shedding like crazy, so the cold weather is almost behind us. 

It’s been quite a week.  My friends and I have seen three plays over eight days and all of them provided fascinating, funny, and/or thought-provoking evenings in the theatre.  I’ll go chronologically and start with Christopher Durang’s new play on Broadway:  Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at The Golden Theatre. 

Naturally I have a gripe:  When will audiences stop applauding just because a movie or television star shows up on the stage?  It’s their job to show up.  OK, I’m over it.  Until next time.

In Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Durang speaks to the discomfort of growing older in times unfriendly to society’s elders.  The first three named characters of the title are doing just that — the last won’t age for quite some time, and that contrast is telling.  Happily, it tells in a very funny manner.

The scene is a charming rural home in Bucks County.  Two 50-something siblings, Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) and Sonia (Kristine Nielsen), don’t do much of anything these days in the family home, which is paid for by their sister Masha, a Movie Star.  Their professor parents named the children (even the adopted daughter Sonia) after characters in Chekhov plays.  Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is Durang’s mash-up of Chekhov plays in modern times with mod.cons.,* and just as my friend Horvendile predicted, it gets funnier and funnier, hits its pathos of sad and romantic and sweet, and ends (relatively) happily.  The first twenty minutes notwithstanding, this old broad found the play delightful and recommends it despite being uncertain about the Chekhovian themes — I recognized and enjoyed them (probably not all), but cannot be sure if these were extra layers for people who got them, or if the Chekhovian novices won’t get the play at all.  I would hope and wish all theatregoers get the Chekhov, but hope is pretty slim (pickings) in the 21st century.
Sonia and Vanya and Masha
Mr. Durang pushes his assumptions a bit more:  The house cleaner is named Cassandra, and she comes in with a buzzing energy warning everyone of bad things to come connected with various words or names of unknown persons, sometimes sounds that don’t resolve themselves into names until later.  Shalita Grant is a whirlwind, funny if often incomprehensible in the role. 

Masha the Movie Star (Sigourney Weaver) has been advised by her young assistant (who is not a financial advisor) to sell the parental home where Vanya and Sonia have lived their entire lives, much of which was devoted to caring for their aging and demented parents.  Masha was off making the money to pay for the care of the parents, the house, and her otherwise unemployed siblings.  She suffered no hardship doing so — she’s a movie star, after all.  Masha is, dare I say it, aging and not getting cast in the juicy roles (with their associated pay levels) as she used to, so she worries about her future like anyone of her age.  Apparently the reason for her visit is to tell her siblings that they’re going to have to find somewhere else to live.

What ensues is an emotional roller coaster of a houseparty filled with odd and discordant creatures together for the weekend.  Happily one evening is devoted to a costume party being held by a neighbor down the street.  Vanya and Sonia, who live there full time, do not know this neighbor, but Masha the Movie Star was invited, and she’s arranged costumes for her siblings that support her own choice — to go as Snow White, with her handsome boy toy Spike dressed as her Prince Charming.

Masha, in constant need of reassurance, insists her siblings go as her dwarves.  Vanya of course acquiesces, but this is too much for Sonia to bear, and she goes to get her own costume.  She agrees to go as the wicked queen.  Ah, but which wicked queen?  The scene is set for Ms. Nielsen's Sonia to do one helluva Maggie Smith impression, and wear a fabulous dress.

Spike loves everybody and invites a stranger to join them, a young girl visiting her aunt and uncle next door.  She’s an aspiring actress and her name is … you guessed it: Nina.  Now we have a house of mismatched siblings, a boy toy, a psychic housekeeper, and the nemesis to all aging movie stars, a ”Nina.”

The imperfection:  The first 20 minutes were rather excruciating, as Kristine Nielsen’s Sonia tried too hard to fit someone’s view of a slightly disturbed person.  Even Mr. Hyde Pierce, who is an absolute genius, couldn’t pull Ms. Nielsen into Vanya’s playing space.  Considering Kristine Nielsen’s priceless performance for the rest of the play, I think it’s fair to blame that opening misstep on the director, Nicholas Martin.  The balance of the characters’ universe was fake in the opening.  It began to correct itself when Ms. Weaver showed up as Movie Star sister Masha.  (No, I am not repeating myself. Masha is never merely Masha.  She is always the Movie Star.)
Spike and Sonia and Masha and Nina and Vanya
Director Martin let Ms. Nielsen live her character in relation to Ms. Weaver’s character and Mr. Hyde Pierce’s for the rest of the play.  Ms. Nielsen is splendid, regal, adorable, and hilarious.  Unfortunately Ms. Weaver is not in the same class as the actors playing her siblings.  She tries very hard, but this is not her medium.  In some ways, you’d think Mr. Durang wrote this role for her, it seems to fit her so well.  But no matter her history with the playwright, she lacks absurdist skills on stage.  Mr. Hyde Pierce’s naturalism is a great foil for his sisters, but he and Ms. Nielsen show up Ms. Weaver without even trying.

Christopher Durang is writing for his own generation and we appreciate his voice.  It is, after all, our voice.  Just funnier.  When Mr. Hyde Pierce’s calm and calming demeanor cracks, he speaks with thousands of voices about our lost comforts and our discomfort with the ease and speed and shallowness of those mod.cons.  Once this play starts moving, it runs, it glides, it flies, it bounces and barely rests for laughs.

Billy Magnusson’s Spike is endlessly hilarious as the hunk of a Boy Toy who accompanies Masha back to the old homestead.  Spike likes to touch people intimately, he likes to take off his clothes, he likes to talk, and he can multitask on his smartphone, and he almost got called back for a part in the sequel to Entourage.  He is very fit.  He really likes stripping.  When Masha wants him to put his clothes back on because she’s jealous of Nina (you remember Nina, a sweet young thing visiting her aunt and uncle next door, played quirkily by Genevieve Angelson), she advises him to do a reverse strip.  Which he does rather literally, to everyone’s consternation — except Vanya, who sits down to enjoy the show.

It’s funny, during an evening in costume for a party, the siblings disguised as other people (or fictional characters) come closer to the truth of who they are than they do when dressed as themselves. Next morning, we get a play within a play, the truth will out, and Vanya’s magnificent rant that is totally comprehensible to people of a certain age. I felt his pain item by item.  And who knew about Tommy Kirk!  Important to note is that I understood every word he said despite his rage and railing, but did not understand about half of what Shalita Grant as Cassandra said.  I hope she learns from him.

Naturally we end up listening to the Beatles with the siblings, which makes everybody happy.  Other technical matters:  I want to live in David Korins’s beautiful warm set.  I would and/or have lived in the perfect costumes by Emily Rebholz, and the lighting design by Justin Townsend was just right.

It must be noted that we continued laughing even after the play was over as we fought our way out of the theatre onto the very crowded street.  Sweet.  The only thing wrong with Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is that Kristine Nielsen’s name comes after the title instead of above it.

*Mod.cons is an old real estate term in ads for residences, meaning "modern conveniences.That originally meant things like running hot water, a bathroom inside the apartment as opposed to down the hall and shared with strangers.  Now it means smartphones and PDAs and tweets and constant yet meaningless communication and multi-tasking.

~ Molly Matera, logging off.  I have more theatre to tell you about, but I need to sleep on those reviews.