Sunday, July 31, 2016

Pride and Petulance: A Lesser-Known Shakespeare Play on War and Women

It was a perfect summer evening at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. Hot but not stifling.  Clear, with enough of a breeze to keep most of the bugs at bay.  And a brilliant production on the stage for about three hours.

An infrequently produced play, Troilus & Cressida is set in Troy (a.k.a. Phrygia) when the war between Troy and the Greeks, ostensibly over Helen of Troy, has been going on for seven years.  This seems to be symbolized by the debris surrounding the set on its lower level, trash bags and plastic chairs separating the audience from the stage.

Calchas, a minor Trojan priest, allegedly foresees the fall of Troy and moves into the Greek invading camp.  His daughter Cressida he leaves to the care of his brother, Pandarus, remaining in Troy.  It seems the Trojans do not hold Calchas’ daughter responsible for her father’s surely treasonous actions, and Troy’s youngest prince, Troilus, falls for her.  The "romance” of the play is orchestrated by Cressida’s uncle Pandarus. 

John Glover, my favorite Pandarus to date, opens the play as Prologue, and closes the tale of lust, greed, and violence with sly wit.
Andrew Burnap as Troilus, John Glover as Pandarus, and Ismenia Mendes as Cressida. (Photo Credit Joan Marcus, NYT)

The major players you’ll have heard of.  Among the Greeks are 

  • Agamemnon, the great general played with confident strength by John Douglas Thompson
  • His brother Menelaus, cuckolded husband of Helen, an appropriately mealy-mouthed performance by Forrest Malloy (who also plays a creepy Calchas)
  • Nestor, the old soldier brought to grumpy life by Edward James Hyland
  • Ulysses, the canny statesman-like soldier played as a shrewd and smarmy politician by Corey Stoll
  • Achilles, famed as much for his pride and petulance as for his prowess on the battlefield, from which he has abstained for some time*, was unexpectedly and marvelously played by “understudy,” KeiLyn Durrel Jones
  • Patroclus, Achilles’ special friend lounging around the Greek camp tents played like a juvenile delinquent by Tom Pecinka
  • Ajax, an oddly scrawny and remarkably dumb soldier related to both the Greeks and the Trojans played with humor and heart by Alex Breaux
  • Diomedes, a hardened middle management level soldier well played by Zach Appelman

 *We learn later that this is to honor his other love, Trojan princess Polyxena

In Troy, the setting of the story, are 
  • The valiant Hector, an honorable man, eldest son and heir to King Priam, passionately played by Bill Heck
  • Paris, the arrogant lout who stole away Menelaus’s wife Helen and whose libidinous impulses started this whole mess, was coldly played by Maurice Jones
  • Aeneas, a leading citizen soldier was adroitly and cleverly played by Sanjit De Silva
  • Troilus, youngest son of Priam — “He eats nothing but doves, love, and that breeds hot blood, and hot blood begets hot thoughts, and hot thoughts beget hot deeds, and hot deeds is love.” — is played in pubescent heat by Andrew Burnap
  • As the vulnerable young woman of the piece, in love, yet wise beyond her years, Ismenia Mendes does finely detailed work bringing Cressida to life onstage.
  • Alexander, Cressida’s clever gossiping servant sets a light tone in the first act, competing with Pandarus for his mistress’ attention and favor.  Well portrayed by Nicholas Hoge
  • In Troy we also meet Hector’s wife Andromache, silent until she can bear it no longer, bravely played by Tala Ashe
  • Hector and Troilus’ sister, the prophetess Cassandra to whom no one listens, strikingly played by Nneka Okafor
  • And Helen.  Not a typical Helen, this production gave us a fascinating portrayal of an unhappy woman who is guarded by armed men and supplied with wine.  This unusual choice was well played by Tala Ashe

KeiLyn Durrel Jones in rehearsal, not as Achilles in this photo.  Center is Corey Stoll rehearsing for Ulysses, and finally John Douglas Thompson as General Agamemnon.  

Daniel Sullivan’s production for Shakespeare in the Park is the best I have ever seen of this play.  It’s generically modern with soldiers in flak jackets, carrying guns as well as knives, the Trojans in black, the Greeks in desert war camouflage.  Laptops are used by Pandarus and Cressida to watch the parade of Trojan warriors returning to Ilion after a day of battle, as well as by the Greek military.  Ulysses’ long summation early in the first half of the play is enhanced by an amusing slide show.

David Zinn’s set easily turns from Troy’s hedonistic blood-red walls with a look of watered silk to the metallic gray Quonset hut walls of the Greek camp.  A level above the main playing area is put to excellent use by soldiers, the vile Thersites, this play’s unusual “clown” (nastily played by Max Casella), a betrayed and bereft Cressida, and also serves as a strategic lookout for Ulysses.

Ulysses is a particularly threatening character in this production, a corporate/government type, his uniform a white shirt, a suit and tie.  He instigates, cajoles, instructs the Greeks, sounding even tempered and sensible until his rage leaps out only to be restrained once more.  In the second half this wily manipulator plays Troilus against himself while condemning Cressida to the fate of all women in men’s wars, particularly those relegated to “camp follower.”

John Glover is a brilliant Pandarus, witty, lascivious, and romantic in his matchmaking of Troilus and Cressida — unless it was purely a power play to set himself up for better times to come.  Troilus starts out sweet, romantic, but turns into a weak fool, first by not stepping up or even speaking out for his purported love Cressida while the Trojans and Greeks barter her like a goat. By the end he turns against the woman he loves as she attempts to stay alive and avoid gang rape after being tossed alone and friendless into the Greek camp.  These are enemies to the Trojan state and likewise to her.  Troilus’ character slides downhill from the moment he attains what he thinks is his heart’s desire, the love of Cressida.

Lighting designed by Robert Wierzel and sound design by Mark Menard brought forth startling battle sounds of gunfire and explosions.  Brightly lit Trojan lovers contrasted with the gloomy grays of the Greek camp where Cressida is surrounded by soldiers hovering to pounce if her protector deserts her.

The fight scenes, choreographed by co-fight directors Michael Rossmy and Rick Sordelet, were tight and frightening, and the dread death of Hector, an act of cowardice and misplaced vengeance, was bloody and heartbreaking.

Women are silenced and used, Andromache left alone, Cassandra locked up, while Helen is imprisoned in Troy and Cressida is imprisoned in the Greek camp.  Very powerful statements clearly defined in this production. As Thersites says, “War and lechery confound all.” 

Bravo Daniel Sullivan, bravo Public Theatre, bravo to a fine cast and crew for this stellar production.  Oh, and bravo to William Shakespeare once again.
Tom Pecinka as Patroclus, David Harbour as Achilles (whom I did not see), and Max Casella as Thersites.
(Photo Credit Joan Marcus)

~ Molly Matera signing off to re-read the play. The opening of the play has been postponed due to an accident that befell David Harbour, scheduled to play Achilles.  The night I saw this play his understudy KeiLyn Durrel Jones gave an excellent performance, so I hope he takes over the role permanently.  Go wait on line in Central Park for this one, it’s worth it.  You can see a video excerpt of the production here:

Friday, July 22, 2016

Hoping a Limited Run Reappears with Joe Morton as Dick Gregory

Luckily for me, I caught Joe Morton in “Turn Me Loose” during its last week at The Westside Theatre. “Turn Me Loose” is “a play about comic genius Dick Gregory.” Based on how much I laughed for the 90-minute duration, I’d call that an accurate description.  Mind you, the play is as much about Dick Gregory the civil rights activist as it is about comedy, so there was plenty to ponder.

Joe Morton brought to vibrant and seething life Dick Gregory, a controversial comic who rose to fame just before and during the Civil Rights movement.  The audience was howling with laughter one moment, then particularly pensive as Mr. Morton enacted a dialogue between Mr. Gregory and Medgar Evers in the months prior to the latter's death.  The language, whether Mr. Morton was playing the young, the old, or middle-aged Gregory, was funny, provocative, angry, smart, and passionate. 

Joe Morton as Dick Gregory.  Photo Credit Sara Krulwich/NYT

Playwright Gretchen Law encapsulated Gregory’s extraordinary contribution to our nation’s conscience and comedy in a brief play (deftly performed on a practical, single set designed by Chris Barreca and lit by Stephen Strawbridge) with just two actors:  Mr. Morton giving a bravura performance as Mr. Gregory, and John Carlin doing captivating and imaginative work as a 60s stand-up comic, a heckler, a cabbie, and a radio interviewer, among others.  John Gould Rubin directs so that not a moment of raw, scathing wit is lost, nor is a moment of warmth for the man himself.
Morton as Gregory opposite John Carlin as a Radio Interviewer.  Photo credit Monique Carboni 
Every scene was engaging and thought provoking, every drop of sweat off Mr. Morton’s face endearing. 

The Westside Theatre’s downstairs performance space was an excellent venue for this penetrating production and I hope the play returns here or to another incarnation in an equally intimate space so those who missed this limited run might catch it next time around. 

Not only a fine evening of theatre at The Westside Theatre, but Dick Cavett was sitting in the row ahead of me!  Keep an eye out for a return or revival of Turn Me Loose.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to read a little not ancient enough history

Friday, July 1, 2016

Who is the Genius?

Genius is the rather ambiguous title of a film about Maxwell Perkins, who was the editor to the works of  several American literary geniuses of the first half of the 20th century.  It’s based on the ambiguously titled biography of Perkins written by A. Scott Berg, “Maxwell Perkins:  Editor of Genius.”  Who is the genius Berg is talking about — this particular editor, or the authors whose work he nurtured to publication, novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe, to name the three authors that appear in the film.  Who is the genius of the film’s title?  The writer Thomas Wolfe, or, as F. Scott Fitzgerald calls Max Perkins, the genius at friendship. 

Genius is a sweet little character study of a movie, visually convincing, gentle, welcoming the audience into its beautifully produced world (with the barest acknowledgment of the Depression).  Michael Grandage directed the script by John Logan based on Berg’s biography of the editor to Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wolfe, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, to name a few. 

While Genius purports to be based on the biography, it’s only a taste, a dram, an excerpt covering the years between when young Thomas Wolfe walked into Maxwell Perkins’ office at Charles Scribner’s Sons Publishers and Booksellers on Fifth Avenue with an overlong manuscript that would eventually be whittled down to become the very long novel, “Look Homeward, Angel.”  The younger man’s death in 1938, just over a decade after he walked into Perkins’ office, ends the story of the film.  Not even a third, in fact, of Perkins’ 37-year career as an editor of some of the most remarkable American authors of the first half of the 20th century.  But the period it covers provides a beautiful stage for Colin Firth as Perkins and Jude Law as Wolfe to play together and become men of another time. 

Colin Firth is astute, smart, and heartfelt casting for Maxwell Perkins.  Repressed yet passionate, loving and compassionate but oh so quiet that his gentle smile is always a delightful surprise.  Maxwell Perkins was a nurturer, and Firth embraces us all.

Jude Law did deep and detailed character work in bringing the volatile Thomas Wolfe to life, apparently barely recognizable to some members of the audience when I saw the film, with his dark curly hair and southern accent contributing to his bold portrayal of the volatile young writer from Asheville.
Colin Firth as Maxwell Perkins and Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe.
Photo Credit: Marc Brenner/Roadside Attractions
How much like Thomas Wolfe was fellow southerner F. Scott Fitzgerald in his youth and health.  Here we see Fitzgerald as a middle-aged man weighed down by responsibility and reality.  Ernest Hemingway seems a mature sportsman, subdued yet warm and friendly, and prescient of young Wolfe’s eventual betrayal of his father figure Perkins.

Each famous writer is nicely played as a human being, not a famous author whose books we all read in high school.  Dominic West excels in his brief appearance as Ernest Hemingway.  Guy Pearce is a heartbreaking F. Scott Fitzgerald whose glory days are past, and whose wild and vivacious wife Zelda has sunken into mental illness.  In his exquisite sadness, it occurred to me Fitzgerald might have been glad the television series Endeavour did an adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” in a recent episode.

This shot appears several times in the film with the more modern buildings edited out!
Nicole Kidman did fine work as Wolfe’s paramour and sponsor, Mrs. Bernstein. She looked the part of the “older woman,” without vanity, which contributed to her believability. Some of the audience didn’t recognize her, either, until they saw her name in the credits, always a compliment to an actor.

Laura Linney was superb as Perkins’ wife Louise, aghast and downtrodden when Wolfe denigrated playwriting, her passion.  She was not merely someone’s wife or mother, she is a fully developed character, loving to her husband and children, angry when he chooses his work over a family vacation, rather judgmental of the married Mrs. Bernstein while still sympathetic.  Ms. Linney has grown into a remarkably sensitive actor whose every feeling is subtly offered to us. 

There are many pieces creating the whole of a film, and each element of Genius was of its time, the late 1920s through 1930s in New York City.  Music by Adam Cork was emotive without intruding, at one with fine cinematography by Ben Davis of a timely production design by Mark Digby.  In my mind’s eye the film is almost in black and white, although I know that it wasn’t.  Art direction by Alex Baily, Gareth Cousins, and Patrick Rolfe was complemented by costume design by Jane Petrie.
Firth as Perkins and Law as Wolfe commuting to Connecticut
Photo Credit: Marc Brenner/Roadside Attractions
John Logan, on the advice of biographer Berg, sensibly put the oft-read book aside to write the movie.  I read an article by a fellow who had read the excellent book and was very upset with all that was left out.  The biography of Max Perkins was about his life and his 37-year career.  Such things are difficult to cover in their entirety in a theatrical film.  Logan chose an dramatic segment with a volatile writer, and did a good job of it.

Much as I was captivated by the film, when I walked away from the theatre I felt something missing, only realizing what I missed as I wrote this.  I missed that whole story, which can only be apprehended by reading A. Scott Berg’s biography of Perkins and the works of Perkins’ authors.  If you want more, read the books.  If you want to stop in for a visit to 1930’s New York City and the fascinating people who lived and worked there, see the film, Genius.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to read….so many choices….