Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Towards the Moon, a Folk-Rock Musical from Scotland

L-R: Lindsay Avellino, Liam Nelligan, and Lindsay Wund in TOWARDS THE MOON.  Photo by Paul Andrew Perez.

Despite his apparent delusions of grandeur (he expects to write a great novel but can’t seem to come up with any good ideas), Bobby (Liam Nelligan) seems to be the quintessential loser.  He’s 27 years old and still living at home with his Mum (Lindsay Wund); he has just been fired from his job at a call center by Ms McKenzie (Elizabeth Pryce Davies); and he has been dumped by his girlfriend, Mandy (Elena Ruigomez).  Unable (or unwilling) to find a new job and rejected when he applies for admission to James Watt College, Bobby seems to have hit rock-bottom and he turns to drink for solace.

But it is always darkest before it gets totally black.  Bobby discovers that his best friend, Sam (Ricky Romano) has hooked up with Mandy (which Bobby sees as his friend’s betrayal of him, despite the fact that Bobby and Mandy already had broken up).  Inebriated, Bobby lunges in anger at Sam, trips on the corner of a bench and falls on his head, rendering himself unconscious.  And ironically, that’s when Bobby’s life turns around.

While in hospital, Bobby has an out-of-body experience, in which he sees himself lying unconscious on his hospital bed with his one remaining friend, Mag (Lindsay Avellino) at his bedside, and that, literally, turns out to be his wake-up call.  Bobby does in fact write his novel and it is a great success.  He travels to New York, becomes rich and famous and, in the most hackneyed and timeworn of literary traditions, discovers that “east or west, home is best,” “all that glitters is not gold,” and that, indeed, ”what does it profit a man if he should gain the whole world and lose his soul?”  Or as several of the actors in Towards the Moon frequently put it:

You can’t see the stars in New York.
Not like you can on the Clyde.

And ultimately, that is the message that I think we are meant to take away from Towards the Moon by Andrew McGregor, now premiering at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan.  Not that one should face reality and abandon childish dreams (for if Bobby had done that he never would have become the acclaimed writer he always knew he was meant to be).  Nor that one should stick to his dreams at all costs, no matter how far-fetched they might be (which, is, of course, what Bobby did for so long that it cost him his love, his home, his friends and family).  Rather, the mixed message that is conveyed is that we should hold fast to our dreams but never forget that what we sacrifice in seeking to achieve them might be worth more than whatever we actually do realize – in much the way that King Midas eventually discovered not that gold was worthless (it certainly isn’t), but that what one sacrifices to get it may well be worth much more.

Towards the Moon is a folk-rock musical that first saw the light of day at Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2012.  It is pleasant enough, covering very familiar territory, breaking no new ground, and with a relatively forgettable book and lyrics.  But the score is distinctively entertaining and the musical’s young and enthusiastic cast members are so contagiously exuberant that audience members (including this one) at the performance I attended uniformly left with broader smiles on their faces and bouncier springs to their steps than when they first walked in.  

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Preacher and the Shrink Opens on Theatre Row

L-R: Tom Galantich and Dee Hoty in THE PREACHER AND THE SHRINK,
Dr. Michael Hamilton (Tom Galantich), the senior pastor of his church, has been estranged from his daughter, Constance Hunter (Adria Vitlar), ever since the untimely death of his wife (Constance’s mother) from breast cancer years earlier.  Her death did a real job on Constance in many ways.  For one thing since Constance could no longer believe in the existence of a God that would allow her mother to suffer and die as she did, it prompted her to leave her father’s church.  For another thing, it caused her to abandon her home because she could not bear to experience omnipresent reminders of her mother’s life and death.  Additionally, it led to her estrangement from her father, perhaps because she blamed him (as God’s representative on Earth) for what befell her mother; perhaps because she simply blamed him personally for not having found a way to save her mother himself; perhaps because he failed to assuage her pain after her mother’s passing; or, more likely, for all of those reasons.  Worst of all, however, her mother’s death damaged Constance emotionally and psychologically (and perhaps irreparably), as she began to obsess over her own breasts – not only her perception of their beauty and sensuality but also her conviction that she was genetically destined to eventually suffer the same fate that befell her mother.

Rev. David Wheeler (Mat Hostetler), the junior minister in Mike’s church, only wanted to console Constance, to encourage her to return to the church and, ideally, to bring about a rapprochement between her and her father – but he got more than he bargained for.  It is said that “no good deed goes unpunished” and that’s what turned out to be the case here: Constance so misconstrued David’s actions that she threatened to charge him with sexual misconduct for fondling her breast.  When Constance urged her father to initiate an investigation into David’s actions, Mike was non-plussed.  On the one hand he wanted to be as supportive of his daughter as he possibly could be and her charges were quite serious.  On the other hand, he knew David well, he really couldn’t believe that Constance’s accusations possibly could be true, and he realized that even if David were found innocent of such charges, the very fact that they had been brought at all would be ruinous to his life and his career.

To my mind, that is the point at which The Preacher and the Shrink by Merle Good, now previewing at The Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan, really jumps the shark.  Mike seeks advice from Dr. Alexandra Bloomfield (Dee Hoty), a prominent psychiatrist, as to how he should handle the situation confronting him, without realizing that Dr. Bloomfield is the woman with whom he had once had a youthful affair at a Christian summer camp (and without realizing how the loss of her virginity then had affected her).  An unlikely coincidence, to be sure, but there is more: unbeknownst to Mike, Constance was one of Alexandra’s patients!  Yes, some suspension of disbelief may be necessary to derive the fullest pleasure from a theatrical production, but this all does seem a bit much.

And yet the play continues to strain credulity even more.  Constance offers to drop her charges against David if Mike will deliver a sermon in which he renounces his religious beliefs.  It is sort of the flip side of God’s testing Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as proof of his devotion to the Lord.  Here Constance is testing Mike by asking him to renounce God as evidence of his devotion to his daughter.  And get this: Mike actually considers Constance’s demands!

Many good plays have addressed the question of the effect that false accusations of sexual misconduct might have on innocent parties.  Oleanna by David Mamet and Doubt by John Patrick Shanley are just two that come immediately to mind.  The Preacher and the Shrink fits into that genre but, despite being professionally performed and well-directed, its undue reliance on coincidences in the intersections of the lives of its characters causes it to fall well short of their level of excellence. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

All That Fall, Beckett's Radio Play, at 59E59 Theaters

Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins in ALL THAT FALL AT 59E59 Theaters
All That Fall is quintessential Beckett, a chronicle of birth and death, sex and sickness, childlessness and old age, loss, grief, despair, the meaninglessness of life and yet, through it all, an hilarious recognition of the need to go on.  It is an existential inquiry, a murder mystery, a tragicomedy, all at one and the same time, but most important of all, it is wonderful theatre.

Set in rural Ireland, the play focuses upon the bitter, septuagenarian, rheumatic and overweight Maddy Rooney (Eileen Atkins) as she struggles to make her way to the train station to meet her blind husband, Dan Rooney (Michael Gambon) upon his return from work.  Her intent is to surprise him on his birthday.  But before arriving at the train station, she encounters Christy (Ruairi Conaghan) with his dung cart; Mr. Tyler (Frank Grimes), a retired bill-broker on his bicycle; and Mr. Slocum (Trevor Cooper), a racecourse clerk and “old admirer” in his limousine.  It is no coincidence that with each meeting the transportation technology advances – from cart to bicycle to automobile – nor that each means of transportation is beset with its own problems, foreshadowing a climactic crisis when Dan’s train is late. (Christy’s hinny refuses to pull the cart and must be whipped; Mr. Tyler’s bicycle tire goes flat; and the engine in Mr. Slocum’s car dies (as does the hen he accidentally runs over in the road).

Once Maddy arrives at the train station, the plot thickens.  As it turns out, Dan’s train was late because of a horrible accident along the way: a child fell to the tracks and died under the train’s wheels.  But why is Dan so reluctant to tell Maddy about it?  Was he involved?  When he later comments, as he and Maddy wend their way home, albeit in a seemingly totally different context, “Did you ever wish to kill a child?” and admits to having resisted just such impulses himself in the past, what is he really saying?  And when we recall his comment to the effect that when he was alone in his train compartment “I made no attempt to restrain myself” – what does it all mean?

Originally commissioned by the BBC as a one act radio play, All That Fall was first broadcast in 1957.  Beckett vehemently opposed its being transferred to a medium other than radio, denying requests to stage the play from both Ingmar Bergmann and Sir Laurence Olivier (although he did authorize a French TV version in 1963 and a German stage production in 1966).  Since Beckett’s death, his estate has followed Beckett’s wishes, generally granting permission only for radio productions or staged readings in which producers agree to limit actors to speaking their lines and simply walking to and from their chairs.

That is what the estate did in authorizing the Richard Darbourne Ltd-Jermyn Street Theatre-Gene David Kirk stage adaptation of All That Fall in 2012.  Directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon, the play was first presented last year at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London in the form of a live radio play with the actors holding scripts and with few props and a minimalist set.  It then moved to The Arts Theatre in London’s West End where it was performed in the same fashion before arriving at 59E59 Theaters this month where it is being presented in a similar manner.

Despite the restrictions imposed by Beckett’s estate, this is one terrific production.  Even within the confines of the conditions imposed upon him, Trevor Nunn has done an extraordinary job in coordinating Beckett’s detailed sound effects with minimal movements by the play’s actors in order to achieve an outstanding production.  In so doing, he also has elicited fine performances from each and every one of his actors but most especially from Eileen Atkins.  Hers is a truly remarkable talent and she displays it in this production for all its worth.

Not until very near the end of the play do we learn the significance of the play’s title when Dan asks Maddy what the text of the coming Sunday’s sermon is to be.  Maddy responds that it is “The Lord upholdeth all that fall and raiseth up all those that be bowed down” – at which point they both burst out laughing.  But what is so funny?  It might, of course, simply be bemusement over the fact that God hadn’t done much to raise Maddy up, given her bent posture.  More likely, though, it runs much deeper than that, alluding not only to the child who fell from the train but also to Minnie, the child that Maddy herself lost years ago; to Mr.Tyler’s unborn grandchildren given his daughter’s recent hysterectomy; and to all other children who may have died unborn or prematurely.  Maddy and Dan appear to be laughing at the notion that God cares about “all who fall” or, indeed, at the very idea that God even exists at all.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Dream Play by August Strindberg at The Gene Frankel Theatre

Miranda Webster in A DREAM PLAY at The Gene Frankel Theatre
August Strindberg wrote A Dream Play in Swedish in 1901 and it was first performed in Stockholm six years later.  It is considered one of Strindberg’s most important and ground-breaking plays.  Strindberg, himself, having written the play following a near-psychotic episode in his own life, referred to it as “the child of my greatest pain” and “my most beloved play.”  As Strindberg described it:

“In this dream play., the author has…attempted to imitate the inconsequent yet transparently logical shape of a dream.  Everything can happen, everything is possible and probable.  Time and place do not exist…the imagination spins, weaving new patterns, a mixture of memories, experiences, free fancies, incongruities, and improvisations. The characters split, double, multiply, evaporate, condense, disperse, assemble.  But one consciousness rules over them all, that of the dreamer; for him there are no secrets, no scruples, no laws. He neither acquits nor condemns, but merely relates; and, just as a dream is more often painful than happy, so an undertone of melancholy and of pity for all mortal beings accompanies this flickering tale."

The principal character in the play is Agnes, the daughter of the god Indra, who descends to Earth seeking to understand humankind and the reasons behind human suffering.  She encounters many characters, including those of primarily symbolic value (such as those representing theology, philosophy, science and law, and she experiences all sorts of human suffering including poverty, cruelty, and the repetitive routine.of daily life.  Ultimately she concludes that human beings are to be pitied and she returns to Heaven.

The Onomatopoeia Theatre Company is currently staging an English language production of the play adapted and directed by Thomas R. Gordon at The Gene Frankel Theatre on Bond Street in lower Manhattan.  It is an ambitious project that is being carried out by a young and enthusiastic troupe which states that its mission

“…is to produce theatre for the New York City community that not only entertains audiences but also enlightens and educates everyone involved…[and that it is] dedicated to producing shows that can change a person’s heart and imagination.” 

To that end, the company’s prior productions have included Dracula: Bloodlines by Thomas R. Gordon, both Macbeth and The Tempest by Shakespeare, The Three Sisters by Chekov, and Lysistrata by Aristophanes.  It will be interesting to see what they come up with next.