Sunday, January 27, 2013

Off Off Broadway: After the Fall

Thea Brooks and Kirk Gostkowski in AFTER THE FALL at The Chain Theatre

I love to travel - Egypt in 2010 (less than a year before the Arab Spring erupted); South Africa and Botswana in 2011; the Galapagos Islands and Italy in 2012; and, looking ahead, Scandinavia and St. Petersburg, Russia later this year.  And yet, as a typical Manhattanite, I seldom travel to the outer boroughs (indeed, I can’t even remember the last time I was in Staten Island or the Bronx).  And so it was with some reluctance that I determined to make the trek from my home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to the Chain Theatre in Long Island City, the new home of the Variations Theatre Group (VTG), to attend a performance of their latest production, Arthur Miller’s After the Fall

I’m glad I did.

For starters, I ought mention that my expedition to the wilds of Long Island City turned out to be no big deal: it actually required less time and effort for me to get there than for me to get to Greenwich Village or the East Village or even the Theatre District of Manhattan, my more usual theatre haunts.  (Indeed, the unexpected simplicity of my trip – requiring no passport nor visa – may even encourage me to attempt a foray into the Bronx or Richmond one of these days.)

But, of course, my real pleasure in having traveled to Long Island City to see this production of After the Fall didn’t derive just from the fact that getting there was easy.  No, my real pleasure came from the production itself - a truly outstanding staging of one of Miller’s more controversial and difficult plays.  Nor was I really surprised: my initial acquaintance with VTG occurred when I saw their production of Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things in 2010.  That one just blew me away and I was also greatly impressed by their production of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love in 2011.  Rich Ferraioli and Kirk Gostkowski co-founded VTG and it was Ferraioli who directed both The Shape of Things and Fool for Love and it was  Gostkowski who starred in both of them.  Now it was Ferraioli who was directing After the Fall and Gostkowski who was starring in it (which is what prompted me to travel to Long Island in the first place) so my expectations were high.  I was not disappointed. 

After the Fall is one of Miller’s less frequently performed works, being relatively unpopular both with theatre-goers and with critics alike.  In part, that unpopularity reflects the fact that this is one of Miller’s most autobiographical works and some critics have been put off by its thinly-veiled depictions of Miller, himself, as well as its presumed portrayals of his family and friends, most particularly his second wife, Marilyn Monroe.  In part, too, it may be because it challenges its audience with its unconventional non-linear introspective structure, focusing as much or more on the thoughts and emotions of its protagonist Quentin (Kirk Gostkowski) as on the actual events surrounding him.  In part, it also may be because it asks its audience to confront a whole host of difficult philosophical questions ranging from the conflict that exists between loyalty to one’s friends and one’s obligations to one’s country to the moral issues underlying interfamilial relations to coming to grips with the horrors of the Holocaust and man’s inhumanity to man.

For my money, however, the play’s unpopularity reflects not the philosophical questions that Miller asks but rather the answer he suggests - to wit, his equation of the truly cosmic with the trivial.  Assuming the autobiographical nature of the play, Miller explores his relationships with his parents, his brother, his colleagues, his wives and the other women in his life; he addresses the moral issues involving the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings; and he confronts what may have been the deepest moral issue of the twentieth century: making sense of the Holocaust.  All important questions and worth exploring in their own right, to be sure, but to suggest that an individual’s insensitivity or disloyalty toward another individual - or even his abandonment of a friend or wife or lover – reprehensible as such acts may be, can in any way be compared to the horror of the Holocaust is itself morally obscene, Yet that is just what Miller appears to be doing.  And that may be reason enough for the play’s relative unpopularity

In the play, Quentin is cast as a lawyer but it is pretty clear that his character has been based largely on that of Miller, himself.  The play’s very talented supporting cast of thirteen play a variety of roles, most importantly those of Quentin’s parents (Bill Toscano and Kathleen Stuart); his brother, Dan (Anthony Sneed); his colleagues, Mickey (Deven Anderson), who agrees to name names before the HUAC and Lou (Matthew Dalton Lynch) who refuses to do so; his first wife, Louise (Amy Newhall); his second wife, Maggie (Thea Brooks); and his final love interest, Holga (Liz Tancredi). 

Of them all, it is Brooks who truly stands out: it is pretty obvious that her character, Maggie, is based on the character of Miller’s second wife, Marilyn Monroe, the complex, drug-addicted, suicidal, sex goddess who was childishly na├»ve and trusting and yet so insecure and manipulative as to approach the point of paranoia.  Books has captured her persona so brilliantly that she might as well have channeled her and, as a consequence, the play turns out to as much Marilyn’s story as Arthur’s soul-searching memoir.      

Given the play’s unusual structure and its cast of fourteen very talented actors, this was a very ambitious production for an off off Broadway theatre group to have undertaken.  But they did and they pulled it off.  Chalk up another success for VTG, Ferraioli and Gostkowski!

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