Wednesday, September 20, 2017

THE VIOLIN by Dan McCormick Premieres at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Peter Bradbury, Robert LuPone and Kevin Isola in THE VIOLIN.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
The Violin by Dan McCormick, currently enjoying its world premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan, is an immensely entertaining modern fairy tale set in the pre-gentrified Lower East Side.  All of the ingredients are there (albeit in somewhat mysterious or disguised form – omens and harbingers, departed souls, severed limbs, strange occurrences, secret passages, lucky discoveries, and, ultimately, happily-ever-aftering).

And so, when Terry (Devin Isola), who is mildly retarded (euphemistically described by his mother as “her special child”) lost both his parents in a flash he readily accepted the assurances of his older brother, Bobby (Peter Bradbury), a petty thief who survives by burglarizing stores and stealing cars but who is utterly devoted to Terry, that they had not really died but simply had been called to Heaven to be with God and that they might even return one day.  When Terry’s palms begin to itch, he takes it as an omen that money is about to come his way and, sure enough, while he finds no Aladdin’s Lamp nor Philosopher’s Stone nor even a winning lottery ticket, he does find a violin – a Stradivarius, no less – left in his gypsy cab.  Terry does not realize the violin’s worth nor how it may change their lives, but Bobby quickly does and hatches a plot to extort hundreds of thousands of dollars in reward money from its rightful owner for its return.

To that end, Bobby enlists the assistance of Gio (Robert LuPone), a skilled tailor (doesn’t every good fairy tale require a skilled tailor?) who is “legendary” in his neighborhood (or at least believes himself to be).  But the fact is that Gio’s father not only taught Gio the trade but also imbued him with morals and integrita, which leads Gio to be deeply conflicted over the entire affair.

Meanwhile, the mysteries (all of which are, in fact, resolved by play’s end) pile up.  What actually did happen to Bobby and Terry’s parents?  Why did Gio never marry, what was his relationship to Bobby and Terry’s parents, and why has he always been something of a father figure to both men?  Why does Gio only sit facing the door, as did his father before him?  And what, if anything, does the clutter in his shop conceal?  Is there any significance to the boot Bobby stumbled over on 14th Street – the one with the severed foot still in it?  And, of course, how will the violin caper turn out?

Robert LuPone is dispassionately cool as Gio, gradually providing us with most of the answers to our questions as he peels away the layers of his, Bobby’s and Terry’s lives.  Kevin Isola is mischievously charming as Terry (although he appears to be much less intellectually challenged and much more socially unaware than his description as “retarded” or “special” would have led us to believe; it is difficult, for example, to accept his expressing his having experienced an “epiphany” as he does - but that is not meant as a criticism of Isola; he played the role as it was written and did a fine job at that).

Best of all, however, is Peter Bradbury who provides an exceptionally rich portrayal of Bobby – a small time amoral hood who, at one and the same time, is fully committed to caring for his younger brother, despite being frequently and openly exasperated by him.  It is a complex role to play and Bradbury succeeds brilliantly.


Monday, September 11, 2017

Lee Pelletier Bewitches in THE BARONESS - ISAK DINESEN'S FINAL AFFAIR

L-R: Vanessa Johansson, Dee Pelletier, and Conrad Ardelius in THE BARONESS - ISAK DINESEN'S FINAL AFFAIR.  Photo by Elinor DiLorenzo.
Scandinavian American Theater Company (SATC) was founded in 2009 to present contemporary plays by Scandinavian playwrights and, in its first seven seasons, has staged twelve full scale productions and more than 37 readings.  Its latest full scale production, The Baroness – Isak Dinesen’s Final Affair is by the Danish playwright Thor Bjorn Krebs and has been translated by Kim Damboek.  It is currently being staged at The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan and it is a real knockout.

In 1948, the then 62-year-old Karen Blixen (Lee Pelletier) - better known under her pen name Isak Dinesen and as the author of Out of Africa and Babette’s Feast – was introduced to the up-and-coming handsome Danish poet Thorkid Bjornvig (Conrad Ardelius) by his publisher’s wife, Benedicte (Vanessa Johansson).  The Baroness Blixen, we quickly learn, is something of a cougar (she might prefer the term “lioness”) but of a more than eccentric sort and with a rather vicious streak: in the course of her platonic but otherwise increasingly intimate relationship with Bjornvig, she manages to destroy both his marriage to Greta and his love affair with Benedicte and contributes to the dissolution of Benedicte’s marriage as well.

To be sure, before encountering Bjornvig, the Baroness had had an unusual and far from easy life, her father having committed suicide when she was not yet ten years old.  When her first love for Hans Blixen-Fineckes was unrequited, she settled for an engagement to his twin brother, Bror, following him to Kenya where they married.  Bror’s infidelity led to their divorce but not before the Baroness had contracted syphilis from him, a condition for which she was treated for years with mercury and arsenic.

The net result of all this was that the Baroness returned to Denmark; eschewed the institution of marriage; forewent further sexual relations; fancied herself a witch, who had to drink children’s blood and who was capable of casting spells; claimed to have made a pact with Lucifer; perceived herself as a “lioness” who “seduced” a string of young men (her “cubs”), the last of whom was Bjornvig; and may, indeed, have been a bit mad.  But sane or not, witch or not, and devil-disciple or not, there can be little doubt that the Baroness was sadistically selfish, employing her commitment to literary freedom and creativity as a tortured rationalization for her own aberrant and eccentric behavior.

The play is presented from Bjornvig’s perspective and Ardelius performs splendidly as the malleable, conventional, submissive “cub,” so in awe of the Baroness and so eager to release his creativity and achieve literary success for himself that he is willing to sacrifice his wife, friends and family, embrace infidelity, and forego love, if that’s what the Baroness contends it will take for him to attain his goal.  Johansson, too, is excellent as Benedicte - charming, sensual, insightful and empathetic, but, ultimately, just another sacrificial pawn in the Baroness’ evil game.

Good as Ardelius and Johansson are in their respective roles, however (and they are good!), it is Pelletier who really steals the show, succeeding in conveying in her bravura performance just how brilliantly creative and obsessively committed to literature the Baroness was, while simultaneously displaying just how evil, sadistically manipulative and, yes, possibly mad, she really was as well.