Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Manhattan Project and Oppy

The other night we went down to the 14th Street Y to see a "science" play by Jack Karp called Irreversible, produced by the Red Fern Theatre Company.  We left with conflicting feelings -- what a terrific play, sharp, well structured, tightly directed.  With one huge flaw, and not one that could be put aside lightly:  the leader actor was horrendous.  Luckily, it was a play, not a film, so the next production of this play -- and Irreversible deserves another production -- need only cast a better actor as J.  Robert Oppenheimer and it will garner itself a longer run. 

Irreversible is a damn good play about the sons of bitches who made the atomic bomb.  It is about physics and math and those bright boys who get as excited as children as they discovered a means to commit genocide and paralyze the world with fear.  Central to the play is J. Robert Oppenheimer (called “Oppy” throughout the play, except for his mistress and his wife).  

Set in Los Alamos between 1944 and 1945, when great scientific minds gathered in a “secure location” akin to a prison to find a way to end the second world war sooner rather than later, the play uses five characters to represent the thousands of employees — scientists, military, administrators, not to mention wives — involved in the Manhattan Project and raise questions about the work that was done there.  This is a fine play, well wrought by playwright Jack Karp and directed by Melanie Meyer Williams.  The five characters Karp placed at Los Alamos, plus another important component back at Berkeley, gave him the bare necessities to tell the story, with a few extra names like Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi tossed in but not appearing — why confuse the issue, except as in the case of Teller, the originator of the incredibly dreadful idea of a “super” bomb that could out-do and out-destroy the atomic bomb.

Five of the six actors did excellent work.  One did not.  Irreversible had a hole in the middle called the lead actor, Jordan Kaplan, who is not capable of playing a mystery like J. Robert Oppenheimer.  Kaplan played the man like a middle school boy who'd received too much praise, over-acting up a storm.  He hit all his marks and knew all his lines (presumably).  He filled his performance with annoying physical quirks and breathy commentary.  He couldn’t even fake smoking with an electronic cigarette, or cough convincingly.
 Not to worry, though.  The rest of the cast was quite good:
Amelia Mathews, Josh Doucette, Hugh Sinclair, and Kaplan. Photo Credit Red FernTheatre Company 2015.
Dan Odell played a convincing Niels Bohr, a man of calm and confidence with important things to say, to teach.  Too much of it falls on deaf ears.
Hugh Sinclair as General Groves was as exuberant about the pyrotechnics as a little boy, representing the military that cannot trust someone with a foreign accent, yet cannot resist a big boom.
Amelia Mathews as the other woman in Berkeley was marvelous, very much of the 1940s and yet wild as a political and sexual radical.  Even as she entered the set in semidarkness to turn pieces of office furniture into a liquor cabinet for her apartment, she moved in character, a depressed, lonely, and drunken woman.
Laura Pruden as Oppy’s wife Kitty was an opposite type, sharp, understanding. Where Jean was danger and excitement, Kitty offered safety without claustrophobia — a scientist herself, she was caustic without being scathing.  Pruden engaged us as a mature, intelligent, and warm woman, just the sort a genius like Oppenheimer needed to balance his life.
Josh Doucette as Oppy’s younger brother Frank was the moral compass, he represented us.  Presumably not as smart as Robert, but more balanced and straightforward, Frank, with Kitty, tried to bring out Oppenheimer’s humanity, but J. Robert Oppenheimer sacrificed that to his god, physics.

Dan Odell as Niels Bohr and Jordan Kaplan as Robert Oppenheimer.  Photo Credit Red Fern Theatre Company.
When Kitty wants to go horseback riding, on the horses they’ve brought to the complex —horses their son had fed and named, that Oppy and Kitty had ridden on their honeymoon — Oppy says he’s moved them to a different pasture.  In fact, Oppenheimer sacrificed them to science — the new pasture was part of the first test of the “gadget” in the desert.  The play is harsh and truthful (which is not to say its history was all on the mark, but this is a play, not a documentary).  The star-scientist Oppenheimer was stripped of his charm to show that his particular genius would always put science — and himself — above it all, above humanity.  This portrait of Oppenheimer is rather like that picture in Dorian Gray’s attic.

Laura Pruden as Kitty Oppenheimer (Photo Credit Red Fern Theatre Company)
Playwright Karp employs visual foreshadowing to set up the frightening end of the play.  The military and scientific personnel viewing the first test of the “gadget” were advised to lie prone on the ground, and the actors lay face down in a circle.  This stage picture is echoed in the second act by the actors in white kimonos, their faces hidden by white masks, this time lying face up in the same circle surrounding the oblivious Oppenheimer.

The Red Fern Theatre Company’s production of Jack Karp’s Irreversible is a good piece of work that was so well written, directed, lit, and, for the most part, acted, that it could almost cover that gaping hole in the middle of the performance.  We let the lapse of casting Kaplan slide as we hope to see a future production as good as this one with someone in the central role who is worthy of it.
~ Molly Matera, signing off.   Despite Jordan, see this and hear the play before it closes on the 29th.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Nineteenth Century American theatre on a Twenty-First Century Stage

The cast of An Octoroon is fabulous — funny, sharp, imaginative, courageous.  This company is tight, it transforms its delightful costumes into normal apparel, and much of the play is very funny except when it’s suddenly appalling.   Mind you, the horror has been there all the while. An Octoroon is effective.  Then what about it irks me so?

Comedy is hard, and particularly terrifying when it’s about serious subjects.  Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ play, while a hit last year at SoHo Rep and receiving accolades this year in a new production with Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, is to me a brilliantly executed (cheers to director Sarah Benson and the aforementioned cast) schoolroom exercise in theory, with a cast that makes it appear complete when it’s not done baking yet.  It works much of the time until the author interrupts to tell us how clever he is, and how he’s manipulating us. Melodrama is supposed to make us feel, not think, but playwright Jacobs-Jenkins wants both.  I don’t mind a good manipulator, and this play has plenty of points to make, in its beginning in the present leading to the play within the play.  The playwright tells us this play is about race and race relations and morality. And yes, doing any version of An or The Octoroon will generate passions surrounding those subjects.  The problem is that the playwright’s attempts at cleverness interrupt the play, stopping the action and extending what should have been a longish one act to an overlong two act.

Jacobs-Jenkins’ fascination with mid-nineteenth century melodrama, particularly a play by Dian Foucicault, is the basis on which he stages the issues he wishes to discuss in this play.  The 19th century playwright Foucicault appears to be a character in the play within the play, along with the narrator/playwright of this play. Yes, it’s that confusing.  The opening of the evening immediately distanced me from it when the playwright’s stand-in opens the play with a conversation between said playwright and his therapist.  Luckily it’s not actually Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins, but rather the delightful newcomer Austin Smith, who plays the playwright in the present, a romantic hero visiting a plantation in the melodrama (George), as well as the mustachioed white villain of the piece (M’Closky). Oh yes, he’s in whiteface for most of the evening.  Brilliant.

Foucicault’s play was called “The Octoroon,” which is a person who is 1/8 black. The new play is called “An Octoroon,” but it is not about a woman who is 1/8 black.  It is about us, white people, black people, what happened then, what’s not all that different now.  The title character, Zoe, is beautifully portrayed by Amber Gray, who sings, and laughs, and loves, and cries and leaves us hanging – and caring.  During a melodrama, the audience may care about its characters, but not three weeks later.  Ms. Gray’s “Zoe” still follows me around.  I want to know what happened.  Jacobs-Jenkins doesn’t wring the last tear out of us – he is unusually and wisely silent about her fate.  Her last several scenes, when her life as a free woman is torn apart as she’s sold as a slave, are just devastating to her and to us.

Mary Wiseman as Dora and Austin Smith as George in An Octoroon.  Photo Credit: Gerry Goodstein
Except in the narrative breaks where Jacobs-Jenkins makes his characters instruct us as to the form of melodrama and his intent with his version of the play, the story ranges from funny to heartbreaking, as do the performances by the brittle yet glittering Mary Wiseman as Dora, a southern heiress who loves George; Ian Lassiter in multiple roles of various races; Maechi Aharanwa and Pascale Armand as battling and loving Minnie and Dido, the funniest out-of-time house slaves you can’t even imagine; Haynes Thigpen as Foucicault and a devoted but sometimes drunken Indian brave; and Danielle Davenport as the desperate field slave Grace.  Yes, these are all dreadful stereotypes brought to glowing life by this fine cast.

In addition to the actors, who all sing with warmth and/or gusto, the evening is hauntingly accompanied by Lester St. Louis on cello. 

The play had memorable staging and shocks, but some of them were of the sort that hit the audience over the head with a bat, which takes us out of the play and therefore we stop trusting our responses to the story before us.  If Jacobs-Jenkins must bracket his play with lectures, he would be best advised to cut them down and let the actors play on our heartstrings and manipulate us more subtly.

Some stage pictures were horrifying, some silly, and some unspeakably lovely, courtesy Mimi Lien’s scenic design and Matt Frey’s lighting design.

Although I have issues with some of Jacobs-Jenkins more obvious techniques, still I came away from An Octoroon moved and glad to have seen it.  I look forward to Jacobs-Jenkins’ maturation as a playwright.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to prepare for an ever busier theatre season.