Monday, March 25, 2013

Off Off Broadway: The Tragedy of King Arthur by W. Shakespeare

L-R: Jordan Kaplan, Eric Emil Oleson, Jacques Roy, and Tom Schwans inTHE TRAGEDY OF KING ARTHUR BY W. SHAKESPEARE.  Photo by Debby Goldman.

Arthur Phillips is a true polymath: a one-time child actor, a jazz musician, a speechwriter, a five-time Jeopardy! champion, and a highly creative novelist with several bestsellers to his credit.  His fifth book, The Tragedy of Arthur, was published to critical acclaim in 2011 and has since been adapted for the stage by Phillips as The Tragedy of King Arthur by W. Shakespeare.  The Guerrilla Shakespeare Project is now presenting the off off Broadway world premiere of the play at TBG Theatre on West 36th Street in midtown Manhattan.  And it is a truly first-rate professional production, well worth seeing.

The 367-page book that Phillips published in 2011 really was two books in one.  Book One - the first 256 pages - were written as an “introduction” to The Tragedy of Arthur, a presumably long lost play by William Shakespeare that had just come to light.  That “introduction” was presented as having been written by a novelist named “Arthur Phillips,” who bore such a strong resemblance to the real “Arthur Phillips” that it was tough to tell the two apart.  (In an attempt at keeping things straight, from here on out, I’ll refer to the real Arthur Phillips who wrote the book and subsequently adapted it for the stage as Phillips-1 and to the Arthur Phillips who is the protagonist in the book as Phillips-2.)  Anyway, in his “introduction,” Phillips-2 explained that the way the long lost play had come to light was that his father, a recently deceased convicted forger and Shakespeare fanatic, had bequeathed it to him.  Given his father’s history, Phillips-2 was understandably skeptical regarding the legitimacy of the play his father had “discovered” but it sure seemed real, tests performed on the manuscript’s paper and ink appeared to further legitimate it, and no one other than Phillips-2 himself seemed to doubt its validity.  In penning his “introduction,” Philllips-2 also elaborated at length on his relationship to his father and his sister so, to a great extent, the “introduction” may be thought of as constituting Phillips-2’s “memoir” (and Phillips-1’s fictional “memoir.”) 

Book 2 – the last 111 pages – was the text of the “Shakespeare” play itself, The Tragedy of Arthur, a five act play written primarily in blank verse.  The plot for the play clearly was drawn from Holinshed’s Chronicles, Shakespeare’s primary historical source, and the play’s language was thoroughly consistent with Elizabethan language and grammar.

So was The Tragedy of Arthur really a newly discovered play by the Bard of Avon or just another clever forgery by Phillips-2’s father?

When Phillips-1 adapted his novel for the stage, he couldn’t very well write a play based only on the first 256 pages of his book (the “introduction”), stage that, and then stage a five act Elizabethan-style tragedy (the last 111 pages of his book) right after it.  So he did something very much better: he created an intricate work that wove together the dynamics of modern father-son relationships, Arthurian legend, and outright fantasy, a work that incorporated a play within a play, and one that challenged its audience to question its very understanding of truth and reality itself.

The protagonist of The Tragedy of King Arthur by W. Shakespeare is Arthur (that’s actually Arthur Phillips-2, played with extraordinary acrobatic athleticism by Jacques Roy).  When he is bequeathed the manuscript of The Tragedy of Arthur, he is, to say the least, skeptical.  His sister Dana (Sarah Hankins) is miffed that the manuscript has been left to him and not to her, but she is more willing to entertain the notion that it might actually be legitimate.  Arthur’s agent (Geordie Broadwater), his lawyer (Jordan Kaplan) and a professor who presumably has vetted the manuscript (Tom Schwans) share Dana’s attitude, not Arthur’s.

When Dana prevails upon Arthur that they act out the play themselves, in an attempt at determining whether or not it is a forgery, the characters morph into the very characters of Arthurian legend who they are depicting.  Arthur, of course, becomes Prince Arthur – he who was to become the legendary King Arthur – but he is hardly the dashing character we’ve come to expect.  Dana morphs into Mordred – Prince Arthur’s mortal enemy.  And Arthur’s dead father (Eric Emil Oleson) appears in Arthur’s daydream or imagination or in some such fantastical form and, in the course of the play, becomes the Earl of Gloucester (who was a second father to Prince Arthur in earlier times).

Press releases for The Tragedy of King Arthur by W. Shakespeare describe it as being “an evening of fraud, forgery and illegitimacy, centering on the complicated relationship between a father and son” and notes further that “The Tragedy of Arthur is a play full of Shakespeare’s language, poetry, insight, drama beauty, and history; however, the mystery of its true origins begs us to blend and blur what we know and what we choose to believe.”  The description of The Tragedy of Arthur may be a bit hyperbolic but the rest of the press release is true enough.  This is, indeed, a play about ambivalence, fallibility and deception that causes one to question just what we mean by “truth.”

The entire cast performs brilliantly but three actors truly stand out.  Jacques Roy is incredible as both Arthurs –Phillips-2 and Prince Arthur – bounding about the stage as a modern day Douglas Fairbanks and literally climbing the walls.  Eric Emil Oleson is splendid as Phillips-2’s father in one scene and as the Earl of Gloucester, Prince Arthur’s virtual second father, in the next.  And Geordie Broadwater is delightfully amusing both as Phillips-2’s agent and as an effete French diplomat exploring both the possibilities of a political alliance with Prince Arthur and more intimate liaisons of his own. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Off Broadway: For Love

John Duddy and Laoisa Sexton in FOR LOVE.  Photo by Trevor Murphy.
When Laoisa Sexton’s one act play For Love had its very short-lived world premiere at the 1st Irish Theatre Festival last September, it was named a “Pick of the Festival” by Irish Examiner.  Cahir O’Doherty, reviewing it for Irish Central, called it “the strongest debut by an Irish writer I have ever seen.”  Since I missed that opening (there were only four performances), I was delighted to learn that the play would enjoy a somewhat longer run at Irish Repertory Theatre on West 22nd Street in midtown New York this year (especially since I’m generally enamored of Irish theatre and I’ve long been a fan of the IRT).  And so it was that I went to see a performance of For Love – and on the day of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, to boot!  My expectations were high.

Sad to say, I was a wee bit disappointed.  To be sure, the play is well written and well performed.  But that is not enough.  For Love is pointedly described as taking place in modern day Dublin during a period in which “Ireland is experiencing one of the greatest economic downturns in its history,” which led me to believe that I was about to experience something quintessentially Irish (what with it being the Irish Repertory Theatre and an Irish playwright and St. Patrick’s Day and all).  But, in fact, once one cuts through the actors’ brogues and learns the Irish slang and references in the play (the program provides a fine “cheat sheet” for that purpose), there really isn’t anything particularly Irish about the play after all.

Indeed, the tale of three thirty-something, love-deprived, and sexually frustrated women in Dublin – Val (Jo Kinsetta), Tina (Georgina McKevitt), and Bee (Laoisa Sexton, the playwright herself) – could have taken place in New York or Cleveland or almost any other place you might imagine (in good times or in bad), rather than during an economic downturn in Dublin, and nothing would have been lost.  Bee, who had a love child when she was sixteen, is now on the verge of becoming a grandmother herself and is seeking to recapture her lost youth (even if it is with a married man).  Her friend, Val, lacks even the solace of a child; her life has somehow slipped away from her and the likelihood of her ever having a husband and a family of her own (rather than a series of one night stands) seems to diminish daily.  Tina is married but that doesn’t appear to matter; she seems to derive more pleasure from shopping and self-gratification than from her marriage.  And although all three women perform well, there’s nothing particularly Irish about any of it.

The play calls for several male roles as well – Aidan, One Night Stand, Club Guys, Bartender – but the playwright has specified that they all be played by the same actor (in this production, he’s John Duddy) as if to underscore the fungibility of men.  In one or another of those roles, it’s he who interacts with each of the women.

It may be argued that what disappointed me most about the play – what I perceived as mundane and platitudinous events in ordinary lives that take place every day all over the world – was actually the play’s strength.  That is, its depiction of unloved, sexually deprived women in economically depressed Dublin might be viewed as just the symbolic portrayal of a universal condition.  But even if one looks upon it that way, the play still fell short for me: what it still required was a more developed story line that would distinguish the lives of these three women from those of so many others.  Lacking that, we still were left with little more than some good theatrical performances but with no real insights into the lives of the characters on stage.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Off Off Broadway: Pit

Molly Lovell, Samantha Jones and Sarah Matteucci in PIT.  Photo by Chasi Annexy.

Melisa Annis’ name might not be familiar to you yet but, take it from me, it will be.  This young Welsh playwright has just burst on the scene with her first play, Pit, now enjoying its world premiere at Theater for the New City on First Avenue in Lower New York.  Produced by Longview Theater Company, Pit is a wonderfully textured tale of the struggles of the working class inhabitants of a Welsh coal mining town as they seek to come to terms with the consequences of Margaret Thatcher’s adamance in dealing with the striking coal miners’ demands.

Unsurprisingly, the play is politically correct (it is, after all, being staged at the Theater for the New City!), but it is not knee-jerk so.  The IRA shows up – but not as heroes.  The Communist Party has a role to play, too – but a very questionable one.  And while the playwright’s sympathies clearly are with the strikers, she does not dismiss anyone crossing a picket line out of hand.  In short, Ms Annis has expressed, in Pit, a thoughtful sensitivity to the nuances of everyday life, rather than allowing herself to get caught up in philosophical abstractions.

She has done this by interweaving several different stories into a complex tapestry of life in a small Welsh coal mining town in 1984.  And she is very fortunate in having an extremely talented cast of performers telling her tales.  George (Patrick Eichner) is the leader of the coal miner’s union and the driving force behind their strike.  Val (Samantha Jones), his wife of more than thirty years, is his lovingly devoted and staunchest supporter, leading the miners’ wives on the picket line. Mavis (Molly Lovell), Val’s sister and herself an unfortunate miner’s widow, is equally supportive of the miners’ strike.

But the strike has gone on longer than anyone had expected it to; the miners’ “dole” benefits have been exhausted; and Val, unbeknownst to George, has only been able to make ends meet by mortgaging their home and putting them deeply in debt, one possible solution to which might be for George to break ranks with the men he leads and return to work as a “scab” in order to salvage his family.  Meanwhile, Gareth (Michael Mraz), another of the town’s striking coal miners, has been sent off to negotiate alliances with other potentially supportive parties, one of which turns out to be the IRA.  And that relationship has at least the potential of entangling Gareth in an IRA terrorist plot.

While Gareth is away, his wife, Caitlin (Sarah Matteucci), meets Justin (Kurt Kelly), the student leader of the Communist Party (which is also supportive of the miners’ strike), and he prevails upon her to attend Communist Party meetings.  As matters develop, Justin’s interest in Caitlin is as much personal as polemical and when Gareth returns, all hell breaks loose.

The play’s action takes place in two venues – Val’s kitchen and the local pub – and the set has been well-designed to accommodate both.  The pub’s proprietor, a former coal miner himself is now so ill (presumably from some coal mining work-related disease), that the actual management of the pub has fallen on the shoulders of his misfit son, Huw (Jake Levitt). The regulars at the pub – George, Gareth, and Frank (Ted McGuinness) who is also Gareth’s father-in-law – are understandably disdainful of Huw, what with his Mohawk haircut, nose ring, and red trousers, and his general incompetence at even drawing a pint of “mild.”  And yet it is Huw who cuts through the townspeople’s agonizing over Communist dialectical materialism, IRA terrorism, labor relations, and all such talk to focus on the reality that what it all comes down to is putting bread on the table for one’s family, caring for the sick, fulfilling one’s obligations, and preserving the marital bond.
I think that even Margaret Thatcher would have approved.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Off Off Broadway: Electra

Kelli Holsopple in ELECTRA.  Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, co-founded by Craig Smith and Elise Stone (who were formerly affiliated with the sorely-missed Jean Cocteau Repertory) is an exceptionally talented and professional off off Broadway troupe with a penchant for the classics.  In 2011, Phoenix embarked upon a celebration of ancient Greek drama by commencing the staging of a House of Atreus trilogy of plays over a three year period - an ambitious project which is now culminating in the production of Electra at The Wild Project on East 3rd Street in the East Village.

For its first work in 2011, Phoenix revived Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis.  Helen, the wife of Menelaos, King of Sparta, had run off to Troy with Paris, a Trojan prince, and all of the leaders of Greece, including Agamemnon, Menelaos’ brother, joined in a war against Troy to retrieve her.  Agamemnon was the commander of the Greek forces but the goddess Artemis has withheld the winds so that they are unable to sail for Troy.  In exchange for allowing the Greek troops to sail, Artemis has demanded the sacrifice of Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter.  The play ends with Iphigenia being sacrificed and the Greeks setting sail for Troy.

For its next work in 2012, Phoenix opted not to revive Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, but rather to launch the world premiere production of Agamemnon Home, a play by Glyn Maxwell that was based on the original tragedy by Aeschylus but took considerable liberties with it.  It is a decade later and Agamemnon, no longer the heroic figure we’d come to expect, is returning home with his men.  In his absence, Clytemnestra, his wife and Iphigenia’s mother, has hooked up with Aegisthus, Agamemnon’s cousin.  After Agamemnon and Cassandra, his concubine and war prize, wash ashore, it only remains for Clytemnestra to resolve her relationship with Aegisthus and wreak vengeance on Agamemnon for having killed their daughter.

The 2011 production of Iphigenia in Aulis, relying on a fine translation of Euripides tragedy, proved to be an excellent revival of a Greek classic.  The 2012 production of Agamemnon Home, on the other hand, was not a revival per se but rather was a re-working of the original Aeschylus theme.  As one who generally prefers not to see the classics tinkered with, I preferred the Iphigenia in Aulis production but I must admit that Agamemnon Home was still so good in its own right that I certainly enjoyed that one as well.

Now, for its third and final production in the trilogy, Phoenix has again staged a revival of an original Greek tragedy – this time Sophocles’ Electra in the translation by Anne Carson.  We have now come full circle:  Agamemnon sacrificed Iphigenia in Iphigenia in Aulis, Clytemnestra avenged Iphigenia’s death by killing Agamemnon in Agamemnon Home, and now, in Electra, it only remains for one or more of Agamemnon’s and Clytemnestra’s children – Electra (Kelli Holsopple), Chrysothemis (Morgan Rosse), and/or Orestes (Josh Tyson) – to avenge Agamemnon’s death by killing their mother, Clytemnestra (Page Clements).

Electra is consumed with the desire to avenge her father’s death by matricide but, as a woman, her opportunities to achieve her objective are limited.  Her sister, Chrysothemis, shares Electra’s goal but is not nearly as obsessed by it as Electra is.  And so the sisters hopefully await the return of their exiled brother, Orestes, who should be capable of accomplishing their goal.  Orestes ultimately does arrive and the deed is done.

Unfortunately (since this is the only one of the three plays still running), I found Electra to be the least satisfying of the three.  Running time for the show is listed at 90 minutes but the performance I attended ran closer to 110 minutes and much of the excess I thought derived from unnecessary repetitive verbosity in the initial scenes.  Amy Wagner directed all three plays and Kelli Holsopple is a truly fine actress (she played Iphigenia in Iphigenia in Aulis and Cassandra in Agamemnon Home) and Ms Wagner and Ms Holsopple teamed up to do a fine job on the first two-thirds of this trilogy but, for what it’s worth, I think they went off the rails a bit on this one.  In Electra, I found Ms Holsopple’s performance to be excessively histrionic; indeed, she almost literally bounces off the walls.

But all things are relative and. as a whole, the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble is so professional a troupe that even this lesser production is still worth seeing.  Ms. Clements, in particular, does a fine job in her portrayal of Clytemnestra and Joseph J. Menino is delightful as Pedagogus, Orestes’ servant, former tutor, and traveling companion. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Off Off Broadway: The Drawer Boy

L-R: Alex Fast, William Laney and Brad Fryman in THE DRAWER BOY.  Photo by Alexander Dinelaris.

Here’s something you might not know about Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy:

Although many New Yorkers never even heard of the play (I hadn’t myself until just last week), it actually was the fourth most produced play in the United States in the first decade of this century (according to the Wall Street Journal).

And here’s something else you might not know:
Despite that broad national popularity, the play, which debuted in Canada fourteen years ago, has never been produced in New York - on or off Broadway – until now.

But forget the trivia.  Here’s really all you need to know:

The Drawer Boy finally has come to New York, in a terrific production by The Oberon Theatre Ensemble at the June Havoc Theatre in the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex on West 36th Street.  And now that it is here, it really is not to be missed.  I don’t know why it took so long to get here, but now that it has, I’d urge you to make every effort to see it.

The Drawer Boy is a gentle, sensitive, touching play of the kind that we don’t get to see much of anymore.  It focuses on the lives of two lifelong friends - Morgan (Brad Fryman), a farmer, and Angus (William Laney), the “drawer boy” of the play’s title  (Angus is so called because of the architectural sketches he made of houses that Morgan and he planned to build for themselves and their families at some time in the future.)

Morgan and Angus have been friends since childhood.  Canadian schoolmates, they subsequently went off together to Europe to fight in World War II, where they met, and fell in love with Frances and Sally, two tall British girls.  Angus suffered a head injury during the war which affected his short term memory but  Frances and Sally so loved Morgan and Angus in return that, despite Angus’ injury, they accompanied the boys back to Canada after the war so that the four of them might embark on new lives together.

But it didn‘t quite work out like that.  The play takes place in 1972 – forty years after the war – on a farm in central Ontario.  Morgan and Angus are farming the land, tending the chickens, milking the cows.  But Frances and Sally are nowhere to be seen.  As Morgan tells and re-tells the story to Angus, Frances and Sally died years ago in a tragic accident.  Or did they?

And then Miles (Alex Fast), a young actor eager to research the lives of real farmers as background for his play, shows up.  And as he delves deeper into the two farmers’ lives, unexpected truths emerge.  The lines between theatre and real life, between what one is told or what one remembers or what one wants to remember and what really happened increasingly are blurred.  And the stories that Morgan tells Angus take on a life of their own.

William Laney is extraordinary in the role of Angus, whose personality shifts from that of a mathematical idiot savant to that of a mentally challenged man who cannot recall from one moment to the next to whom he is speaking, who is submissively obedient to Morgan in one instant and angrily flailing out against what he can neither remember nor comprehend in the next.  Brad Fryman is equally impressive as Morgan, lovingly concerned for Angus who is as much his ward as his friend and tortured by the memories he carries within him and cannot share.  And Alex Fast is splendid as Miles, serious and conscientious in his craft but at the same time bumbling and incompetent.

All in all, a fine play with three  wonderful performances.  Go see it.