Monday, April 27, 2015

Rare Revival of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore by John Ford

L-R: Amelia Pedlow and Matthew Amendt in 'TIS PITY SHE'S A WHORE.  Photo by Richard Termine.
‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, the bloody, complex tragedy written by John Ford circa 1630, has been staged far less frequently than one might have expected, given that it’s been around for nearly four centuries.  Indeed, its current revival by the deservedly acclaimed Red Bull Theater at The Duke on 42nd Street in Times Square marks the play’s first major off Broadway production in twenty years.

And yet there is, in fact, considerable justification for so little attention having been paid to this play over the years: its primary theme – that of an incestuous love affair between two siblings – apparently deeply offended the more tender sensibilities of earlier generations.  Moreover, our theatre-going predecessors seem to have been much more disturbed by Ford’s sympathetic treatment of the play’s male protagonist as an admirable, studious man who just happened to be in thrall to emotions beyond his control rather than as a despicable sexual pervert deserving of nothing more than our absolute contempt.  In our more “enlightened” age, the play has come to be viewed in a much more understanding light and we are especially fortunate that Red Bull Theater, the only company in North America committed to the exploration and production of the Jacobean plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, sees it that way.  If not, we might never have had the pleasure of seeing this truly terrific revival of this long-ignored work.

The setting of the play is Parma.  Giovanni (Matthew Amendt) and Annabella (Amelia Pedlow) are star-crossed lovers with a vengeance: they are passionately in love but they are also brother and sister which, contrary to what one might expect, doesn’t necessarily create an insurmountable impediment to the consummation of their mutual desires.  Putana (Franchelle Stewart Dorn) is Annabella’s tutoress and is not only aware of but comfortable with the illicit relationship.  Friar Bonaventura (Christopher Innvar), Giovanni’s tutor and confessor, is also aware of the relationship but, unsurprisingly, as a Catholic priest, he is clearly disapproving.  Other than Putana and Friar Bonaventura, however, no one else knows what is going on between the siblings – at least not at the beginning.

Certainly their father, Signor Florio (Philip Goodwin), is unaware of the situation.  He very much loves his children and is especially eager to assist his daughter in arranging a marriage to a good man whom she truly loves.  To that end, he agrees to allow Bergetto (Ryan Garbayo), who is something of a simpleton and the nephew of his friend Signor Donado (Everett Quinton) to attempt to win his daughter’s hand, albeit to no avail.

Nor is Bergetto Annabella’s only suitor.  She is also being wooed by Lord Soranzo (Clifton Duncan), a nobleman, and by Grimaldi (Tramell Tillman), a Roman gentleman and soldier.  Annabella indicates that if she were to marry anyone (which she’d prefer not to do since she is so in love with her brother), it would be Soranzo, although he is, in fact, something of a cad: after carrying on an adulterous affair with Hippolita (Kelley Curran) and leading her to believe that he would marry her if only she were to be widowed, he unceremoniously dumps her when word arrives that her husband Richardetto (Marc Vietor)  actually has died while away on a dangerous journey (a journey that Hippolita had encouraged with Soranzo’s approval in the hope that Richardetto’s death would, in fact, ensue).  Finally realizing that she must eventually marry someone other than her brother, Annabella reluctantly agrees to marry Soranzo.

Spoiler Alert!   As it turns out, Richardetto hadn’t really died at all but, suspecting that his wife might be having an affair, faked his own death and returned to Parma, disguised as a doctor and accompanied by his niece, Philotis (Auden Thornton).  Eager for revenge against Soranzo for having slept with his wife, Richardetto convinces Grimaldi to attempt to kill Soranzo, in order to eliminate Grimaldi’s primary competition for Annabella’s hand.  Grimaldi tries but fails, accidentally killing Bergetto (who, in the wake of his rejection by Annabella, had become betrothed to Philotis) instead.

Annabella realizes that she is pregnant with Giovanni’s child and, under the circumstances, is convinced by Friar Bonaventura to marry Soranzo forthwith, before her condition becomes apparent.  A wedding is planned and all are invited.

Meanwhile, Hippolita also plans vengeance against Soranzo, in her case for his having left her to marry Annabella, prompting her to conspire with Vasques (Derek Smith), Soranzo’s Spanish servant, to poison Soranzo.  But, as is often the case, betrayals may beget double-crosses: Vasques remains loyal to Soranzo and poisons Hippolita instead during Annabella’s and Soranzo’s wedding festivities.

Inevitably, Soranzo realizes that Annabella is pregnant and conspires with Vasques to take revenge upon his wife and her as yet unknown lover.  Vasques learns the truth from Putana and wreaks vengeance on Putana for her complicity in Annabella’s sin by leading a group of bandits in constraining her and blinding her.  Annabella writes a letter to Giovanni in her own blood, alerting him to the danger that awaits him now that Soranzo knows that he is the father of her unborn child but Giovanni, who is too hubristic to believe that any harm might ever befall him, rejects advice to decline Sorenzo’s invitation to his wedding feast and attends anyway.

At the feast, all hell breaks loose.  Giovanni visits Annabella in her room, kisses her, then stabs her to death.  He returns to the feast, wielding Annabella’s heart skewered on his dagger, and informs everyone present of their incestuous relationship – at which point Florio dies immediately from shock.  Soranzo attacks Giovanni but Giovanni gains the upper hand and stabs Soranzo, killing him.  Vasques joins the fray, wounding Giovanni and ordering his bandits to kill him.

By the time the play ends, the stage is covered in bodies and blood.  Poggio (Ryan Farley), Bergetto’s servant, has survived, and so has Richardetto (who has revealed his true identity), and Donado, and Friar Bonaventura (who skipped town after delivering Annabella’s bloody letter to Giovanni in order to avoid any further involvement in the situation).  Grimaldi, Vasques and Philotis have survived too, but they have also all left town: Grimaldi has been sent back to Rome by The Cardinal (Rocco Sisto); Vasques has been exiled to Spain (also by The Cardinal; and Philotis has been sent to a convent by her uncle, Richardetto.  And they, together with The Cardinal, are the lucky ones.

All of the others are dead or soon to be.  Giovanni, Soranzo and Bergetto have all been stabbed to death.  Florio has died of shock.  Hippolita has been poisoned.  Putana is to be burned at the stake, also on orders of The Cardinal, even after having been blinded.  And Annabella, as if to add insult to injury, has not only been stabbed to death but literally “disheartened.”

The play has everything one might expect from a Jacobean drama, ranging from impediments to true love to murder most foul (including stabbing, poisoning, and burning at the stake); from betrayals and double-crosses to disguises and false identities; from adultery and cuckoldry to religious hypocrisy and ethnic bigotry.  Not to mention incest and nudity, to boot.  This play has it all and this revival plays it for all its worth.  It is truly a wonderful production that should not be missed.

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Belle of Belfast at DR2 Theatre

L-R: Kate Lydic and Hamish Allan-Headley in THE BELLE OF BELFAST. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Virtually everyone in Belfast in 1985 (whether Catholic or Protestant, young or old) was affected by the Irish “troubles,” although the manner in which they attempted to cope with their predicaments varied widely from person to person.  For one it might be religion; for another, alcohol or drugs; and for yet a third, sexual rebellion. Thus, Ben Reilly (Hamish Allan-Headley), raised to be a good Catholic but orphaned as a young boy when his parents perished in a car crash, eventually became a mild-mannered Catholic priest, taking solace in his religious faith and certain that his parents, looking down upon him from Heaven, were pleased with the path he had taken.  Dermott Behan (Billy Meleady), on the other hand, another priest with whom Ben shared living quarters in later life (but one who was much angrier and fiery than his clerical roommate) found solace of a different sort: he sought comfort in alcohol.  And Anne Malloy (Kate Lydic), who also was orphaned at a very young age when her parents were blown up as collateral damage in an IRA terrorist explosion, thereby becoming martyrs to their cause, found an entirely different solution: she acted out as a sassy, rebellious, promiscuous, seductive teenager, ultimately engaging in the most damaging sexual behavior.
Anne is the central character in The Belle of Belfast written by Nate Rufus Edelman and directed by Claudia Weil, produced by the Irish Repertory Theatre and currently enjoying its New York premiere at its temporary location at the DR2 Theatre in Union Square in downtown Manhattan, and the play revolves primarily around her relationship with Father Reilly, the parish priest who is twice her age.  The play treads very familiar ground but does so effectively, largely due to the remarkable talent and professionalism of its entire cast which, in addition to Allan-Headley, Meleady and Lydic, includes Patricia Conolly as Emma Malloy (Anne’s somewhat loopy great-aunt who has cared for her since Anne was orphaned) and Arielle Hoffman as Ciara Murphy (Anne’s best friend who is as lost as Anne is).

In our last review (of a recent revival of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros) we commented on man’s frequently foolish tendency to focus on the trivial and insignificant at the expense of the truly important.  Ironically, something quite similar is at issue in The Belle of Belfast.  In Rhinoceros we were introduced to characters who were more concerned over whether the rhinoceroses they encountered were Asian or African or had one horn or two than with the massive devastation they were causing.  In The Belle of Belfast, Emma dwells on such trivia as where and by whom it might be appropriate for her to be touched and by the sin she might have committed by viewing an incident of shoplifting rather than any of the larger issues in life.  Duncan is seemingly more concerned with the number of Hail Marys to prescribe in the professional for the most minor of religious infractions than with the death and destruction all about him (he actually takes pleasure in the martyrdom of Anne’s parents since it entailed the deaths of seven Protestants as well).  And Anne is persistently hung up on replacing all her “fucking” profanity with milder “fecking” expletives, a distinction which actually seems to matter to Father Reilly (who remains more concerned over maintaining his relationship with the Church than with his relationship with Anne, even at her time of greatest anguish).
It is a sad but all too true commentary on the human condition.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Ionesco's Rhinocerous in Revival by Onomatopoeia Theatre Company

The Onomatopoeia Theatre Company
by Eugene Ionesco

Rhinoceros poster art - “The Rhinoceros” woodcut (1598) David Kandel

Eugene Ionesco wrote Rhinoceros in 1959, more than a half-century ago; it was first produced a year later under the direction of Orson Welles at the Royal Court Theatre in London, starring Laurence Olivier as Berenger.  In 1961, the play moved to Broadway, featuring Eli Wallach as Berenger and Zero Mostel as Jean, a role for which Mostel won that year’s Tony Award.  In 1973, it was adapted for the movies (still called Rhinoceros) and in 1990 it was adapted for a musical entitled Born Again.  Currently it is being revived in a limited off off Broadway run by The Onomatopoeia Theatre Company at the Gene Frankel Theater on Bond Street in downtown Manhattan, starring Adam G. Brooks as Berenger and Alex Levitt as Jean.  This is a very ambitious project for Onomatopoeia to undertake, considering how high Olivier, Wallach and Mostel set the bar in their earlier performances, but both Brooks and Levitt, although relatively young actors, have proven themselves to be up to the task and both can take justifiable pride in their own performances.

The play’s plot is a classic example of the theatrical genre known as “Theatre for the Absurd,“ the movement with which Ionesco is most closely identified.  One or two rhinoceroses are running amok in a small peaceful French town.  Nor are these ordinary rhinoceroses that may have escaped from some local zoo or traveling circus.  Far from it.  They actually are people who have contracted "rhinoceritis," a strange malady that turns its victims into full-fledged rhinoceroses (Asian or African, take your pick), horns and all.  Before long, there are not just one or two rhinoceroses on the loose but dozens – a full-fledged epidemic.  But what does it all mean and what, if anything, should be done about it?

Thomas R. Gordon, Onomatopoeia’s Artistic Director has affirmed that the Company seeks …to create theatre with a focus on sound! Any and all types of sound!  Whether it is music, yelling or a symphony of emotions, we aim to create theatre that must be heard to really be seen!”  Well, if that is the Company’s mission, I can think of no better play for it to have revived than Rhinoceros, what with all the stomping, grunting, wheezing and trumpeting emanating from the pachyderms from which the play derives its name. 

But of course Ionesco’s motive in writing his play wasn’t just to make noise.  He had some very important things to say and while critics and playgoers continue to disagree on whether his primary goal was to indict the Communist movement (much as George Orwell did in Animal Farm), or whether it was to condemn Vichy France’s collaboration with the Nazis during World War II, or whether it was just one more example of existential angst (think Becket or Camus), there are at least three points on which they are all in substantial agreement:
First, the play certainly is an attack on conformity and the willingness of all too many otherwise decent and well-meaning people to capitulate unthinkingly to the will of the majority.  It is quite similar to the point that Ibsen asserted in Enemy of the People when he proclaimed that “The majority is never right.  Never, I tell you! That’s one of these lies in society that no free and intelligent man can help rebelling against.”  Edmund Burke expressed a similar sentiment when he wrote: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

In Rhinoceros it is Berenger (a somewhat irresponsible sot) who turns out to be that last “free and intelligent man,” retaining his humanity in the face of the “rhinoceritis” epidemic, even as he watches one after another of his friends and neighbors– ultimately even including his best friend, Jean, and his sweetheart, Daisy (Charlotte Vaughan Raines) – succumb to the deadly disease, despite their most vehement initial protestations.  Apparently, when push came to shove, they all decided that one must “go along to get along” and that despite one’s personal values, one should “not be judgmental” but should simply “live and let live.”  Maybe being a rhinoceros wouldn’t be so bad after all.

Second, Ionesco clearly intended to mock mankind’s frequent tendency to focus on the trivial and ignore what is truly important - in short, to fail to see the forest for the trees.  The Logician (Clinton Powell) and The Old Gentleman (Albert Baker), played almost as if they were Estragon and Vladimir in Waiting for Godot, discuss at great length whether the first two rhinoceros sightings were of one and the same rhinoceros at two different moments in time or were of two different animals; whether the beasts had one horn apiece or two or whether one rhino might have had one horn and the other two - if, indeed, there really were two different animals; or, if there actually had been only one rhinoceros after all, whether it might have had two horns at the time of its initial sighting but lost one before it was sighted the second time; whether the animal (or animals) were Asian or African rhinoceroses; whether it is the Asian rhinoceros that has one horn and the African rhinoceros that has two or whether it might not be the other way around; and on and on.  Lost in all the verbiage was any consideration of the fact that the rhinoceroses were wreaking havoc throughout the town.  And that ultimately, as they spread, the consequences for the entire world could be absolutely catastrophic.  One rhino or two, one horn or two, Asian or African - who really cares?

Third, Ionesco holds up to ridicule those who simply deny reality whenever they find it unpleasant to accept.  Thus Mr. Botard (also played by Clinton Powell) vehemently denies to Ms Dudard (Zoe V. Speas) that the rhinoceros (or rhinoceroses) even exist, let alone represent a threat to the town, despite all of the eye witness testimony to that effect.  And he denies to Mrs. Boeuf (Julia Register) that humans could possibly be turning into rhinoceroses, despite the fact that she claims to have just seen her husband turn into one.  These are simply facts that he chooses not to face.  Until, that is, Mr. Boeuf, who has, indeed, turned into a rhinoceros, shows up to destroy the staircase leading to the office in which Mr. Botard is holding forth, necessitating both his and Ms Dudard’s rescues by several firemen.

Rhinoceros was first produced barely fifteen years after the end of World War II and during the very earliest stages of the Cold War when the Soviet Union still dominated half the world.  Understandably, it was especially relevant at that time, with the world still very much aware of the horrors that can accompany an unwillingness to confront evil in all its incarnations in order to avoid being deemed too judgmental, too unconventional, or simply unwilling to see the other guy’s side..  But although World War II and the Cold War are behind us, the fact remains that the play is just as relevant today as it ever was.

Today’s “rhinoceroses” are no longer Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union but they are Al Qaeda and ISIS, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Russia and North Korea.  Russia’s seizure of Crimea was eerily reminiscent of the Nazis’ annexation of Sudetenland and the world’s acquiescence in the one is as frightening as it is in the other.  And yet, as today’s “political correctness” segues into moral relativism, we find the President of the United States evaluating Islamist terrorism through the prism of the Catholic Inquisition of more than 500 years ago; seeking to understand Shariah law (which mandates stoning and decapitation for adultery or blasphemy) by viewing it through the eyes of those raised in other cultures; and urging negotiations over nuclear weapons with a rogue state committed to the sponsorship of world terrorism, the denial of the right of Israel even to exist, and the rallying cry “Death to America.”  It is tantamount to his attempting to sit down to tea with a rhinoceros.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Terrific Revival of The King and I at Lincoln Center Theater

L-R: Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe in THE KING AND I
In 2008, Kelli O’Hara garnered well-deserved Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations for her phenomenal performance as Nellie Forbush in Lincoln Center Theater’s wonderful revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific.  Now we’re about to find out if lightning, indeed, can strike twice.  Lincoln Center Theater has just launched its revival of The King and I, another Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre with Ms O’Hara again appearing in the starring role – this time as Anna Leonowens, a strong-willed English school teacher who contracts to travel to Siam to teach the children of the King (Ken Watanabe) and who ends up getting much more than she bargained for (as does the King).  And, as it turns out, lightning does strike twice: she is just as terrific in the role of Anna as she was as Nellie Forbush and this revival of The King and I is just as good as was the LCT”s justifiably acclaimed revival of South Pacific seven years ago.

But it is not just Ms O’Hara that makes this revival such a roaring success: this is simply a superlative production on virtually all counts.  Michael Yeargan’s set design is astounding from the opening scene in which Anna’s ship virtually sails directly into the midst of the audience to the sumptuous scenes of the King’s splendid palace.  The director and the cast have made very good use of much more of the theater than just the stage, with dramatic entrances and exits effected from several aisles. Christopher Gattelli’s choreography is truly amazing - a spectacular blend of Eastern and Western movement.  And Catherine Zuber’s costume designs are smart and richly evocative.

But the most important factor in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is, of course, the music and here this revival benefits especially form the magnificent voices not only of Ms O’Hara but also of Ruthie Ann Miles (who plays the part of Lady Thiang, the King’s Number One wife, to absolute perfection), and Ashley Park (cast as Tuptim, the young girl presented to the King as a “gift” from the King of Burma whose voice is absolutely thrilling.  The large supporting cast is positively first rate – especially the many children of the King whose insouciance adds a delightful spice to the mix.  

Indeed, my only misgiving about the casting of this show related, ironically, to the King, himself.  Unquestionably, Mr. Watanabe is an accomplished actor with an impressive resume, including Japanese theater credits for his performances in Hamlet, The Lion in Winter, Dialogue with Horowitz, and The Royal Hunt of the Sun, as well as credits for his roles in several films including The Last Samurai (for which he received Oscar, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations).  This production of The King and I, however, marks his debut on the American stage and it is unfortunately wanting. While he succeeds in displaying his formidable acting skills in his conflicted role as the absolute ruler of a nation aspiring to transition from barbarism to a place among the nations of the civilized world while retaining its cultural values, neither his articulation nor his singing voice were on a par with those of the show’s three female principals (admittedly a very high bar).  But notwithstanding my disappointment over that one shortcoming, this production has so much else going for it that it truly deserves inclusion in any list of Lincoln Center’s many superb revivals of classic musicals.