Sunday, July 29, 2018

SUMMER SHORTS 2018 SERIES A at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Kate Buddeke and Adam Landon in THE LIVING ROOM, part of SUMMER SHORTS 2018.  Photo be Carol Rosegg.

For the past twelve years, Thoroughline Artists has staged an annual program of Summer Shorts: A Festival of New American Short Plays at 59E59 Theatres.  Each year’s program generally consisted of six short plays by both established and emerging playwrights, divided into two series of three one-act plays each.  And each year’s program generally proved to be extremely entertaining.

This year’s program again consists of six one-act plays, three in Series A and three in Series B. The plays in Series A are The Living Room by Robert O’Hara; Kenny’s Tavern by Abby Rosebrock; and Grounded by Chris Bohjalian.  The three in Series B are Sparring Partner by Neil LaBute; Ibis by Eric Lane; and The Plot by Claire Zajdel.

I have not yet seen Series B which won’t open officially until August 5 but I have just seen Series A and I must say I was rather disappointed.

For starters, I thought that The Living Room jumped the shark and was largely incomprehensible.  It has been presented as a satire about Frank (Adam Landon) and Judy (Kate Buddeke), white people in a living room who simply do what white people do but who come to question the very nature of their reality – in the course of which they break down the fourth wall, engage in Brechtian absurdities, endow the playwright (or director) of the play in which they just happen to find themselves with God-like attributes, and blur the distinction between actors and audience - and all with gratuitous racial overtones.  I found the entire play to be a mash-up of Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage…,” Becket’s Waiting for Godot, The Truman Show, and Westworld.  I’m really not certain what the playwright’s intentions were but I didn’t find the work interesting enough to try even harder to find out.

L-R: Francesca Fernandez MaKenzie and Stephen Guarino in KENNY'S TAVERN, part of SUMMER SHORTS 2018.  Photo be Carol Rosegg.
Unlike The Living Room, both Kenny’s Tavern and Grounded were comprehensible but had the depth of #MeToo hashtag messages.  Both plays again explored the sad truth that women have frequently been sexually exploited by mentors, married men, and men old enough to be their fathers, but neither play brought any new insights to the issue.  In Kenny’s Tavern, the exploited woman is a school teacher, Laura (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie), who would readily have slept with her married man exploiter, Ryan (Stephen Guarino) if he’d only been willing and who analogizes her relationship with Ryan to that of Monica Lewinsky with Bill Clinton.  And in Grounded the exploited woman, an airline stewardess, is Emily (Grace Experience) who was the victim of years of statutory rape, the traumatic aftereffects of which don’t seem to have left her with anything worse than a surmountable fear of flying over the ocean.

L-R: K.K. Glick and Grace Experience in GROUNDED, part of SUMMER SHORTS 2018.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
The actors in all three plays do as effective a job as might be expected in their respective roles, given the material they have to work with.  I only wish that material were better.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

THE POSSIBILITIES by Howard Barker and THE AFTER-DINNER JOKE by Caryl Churchill

L-R: Kathleen Wise and Madeleine Russell in THE POSSIBILITIES.  Photo by Stan Barouh.

Now in its thirty-second repertory season, PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project) is staging an engaging double bill at Atlantic Stage 2 in Manhattan, featuring a portion of Howard Barker’s The Possibilities together with Caryl Churchill’s The After-Dinner Joke.

The Possibilities was written in 1986 and consists of ten short plays that explore the illogical, irrational, counter-factual, and counter-intuitive aspects of the human condition within a variety of different contexts and at various times in history.  It does so in a manner that Barker referred to as “Theatre of Catastrophe” but which I see as a more traditional example of “Theatre of the Absurd” or “Theatre of the Ridiculous.” In this production, only four of Barker’s ten vignettes are staged but they are more than enough to keep your head spinning.

In the first, The Unforeseen Consequences of a Patriotic Act, Judith (Kathleen Wise) seduces her enemy - and decapitates him.  In the second, Reasons for the Fall of Emperors, Alexander of Russia (Jonathan Tindle) relates to an Officer (Adam Milano) and to a Peasant bootblack (Christopher Marshall) in unexpected ways.  In the third, Only Some Can Take the Strain, an itinerant bag-lady Bookseller exhibits a surprising attitude toward her wares - and a bit of paranoia which might well be justified. And in the fourth, She Sees the Argument But, which was far and away my favorite of the four pieces, a Woman (Madeleine Russell) is reprimanded by an Official (Kathleen Wise) for the promiscuous act of exposing her ankles – and rather than expressing remorse, suggests that her promiscuity might extend well beyond that.

L-R: Jonathan Tindle, Tara Giordano and Kathleen Wise in THE AFTER-DINNER JOKE.  Photo by Stan Barouh.

Caryl Churchill’s The After-Dinner Joke was written originally in 1978 as a television play before its subsequent adaptation for the stage.  It is the story of a young girl, Selby (Tara Giordano), eager to do good as a charity worker and scrupulously avoiding entangling her charitable work with politics.  As she puts it: “
By definition charity is non-political. By definition, politics is uncharitable”. 
The play introduces a multitude of characters - including Selby’s philanthropic boss, Price (Jonathan Tindle)  as well as assorted rock stars, food columnists, and politicians - and features impressive multi-media effects,  unfolding in 66 short, episodic scenes, in the course of which Selby learns that separating charitable and political issues really is an impossibility.  Or as the Mayor (Chris Marshall) proclaims: “There’s something political in everything.”

The play is a scathing indictment of charitable institutions, much of it justifiable. But it then often devolves into a gratuitous attack on the free market capitalist system as a whole, which I found to be far less justifiable.  In any event, the play is sharply written, well-directed, and beautifully performed.

And so, in sum, this is a double bill well worth seeing.   

Friday, July 20, 2018

Edward Gero Stars as Antonin Scalia in THE ORIGINALIST

L-R: Edward Gero Stars as Antonin Scalia in THE ORIGINALIST.  Photo by Joan Marcus.

Antonin Scalia was the son of an Italian immigrant father and first generation Italian-American mother; a devout Roman Catholic; the father of nine children; an opera-lover; and a law professor who taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Chicago, and Stamford University.  But he is best remembered as one of the most brilliant, influential, principled, conservative and controversial Supreme Court justices in recent history.

Scalia was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan and unanimously confirmed by the Senate (98-0) in 1986, serving on the Court with great distinction until his untimely death 28 years later.  One of the most conservative members of the Court, he vigorously opposed treating the Constitution as a “living document” whose provisions could be re-interpreted by the judiciary over time to reflect changing times.  Rather, he saw the Constitution as a document fixed in its meaning whose words were no more subject to re-interpretation than were the notes of a musical score (which remained for all time as they were first written).  Thus, he described himself as an “originalist,” by which he meant that he sought to interpret the Constitution as he believed it had been understood when it was first adopted.  As he expressed it: “it’s what did the words mean to the people who ratified the Bill of Rights or who ratified the Constitution.”

It was this approach that led Scalia inexorably to his conclusions that the death penalty (clearly recognized in the original Constitution) was constitutionally permissible but that the Constitution did not recognize any inherent rights to abortion or same-sex marriage (which were not even referenced in the Constitution).  It was not that he necessarily believed that the death penalty was a desirable punishment nor that he thought that abortion or same-sex marriage were undesirable (although he very well might have), but rather that he felt that it was not up to the judiciary but to the legislature to make such decisions.  In his opinion, if the people wanted to ban capital punishment or legalize abortion or same-sex marriage, that was their right – but they had to do it through legislation, not through judicial activism.

It was also this approach that led Scalia to uphold an individual’s Second Amendment right to own a firearm, determining that the term “militia” as used in that amendment would have been understood, at the time of the amendment’s ratification to have meant “the body of all citizens.”  It was this approach, too, that led Scalia to oppose “reverse racist” affirmative action programs or policies that accorded special status to favored classes on the grounds that such programs or policies were clearly unconstitutional (being inconsistent with the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the law).  And it was this principled approach that sometimes led Scalia to decisions that he, himself, said he “deplored,” such as his upholding the constitutionality of flag-burning as an exercise of free speech protected by the First Amendment.

The Originalist, written by John Strand and directed by Molly Smith, is a truly mesmerizing and thought-provoking play.  Set during the 2012-13 term of the US Supreme Court and focusing on the complex persona of Antonin Scalia (with all his strengths and weaknesses), the play premiered in Washington, DC in 2015, less than a year before Scalia’s untimely death.  It is currently being staged at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan at a most appropriate moment, with our nation as politically polarized as I can ever remember it being and with the Senate on the verge of debating the controversial nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court to replace the retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Edward Gero is truly remarkable in his channeling of Antonin Scalia – body and soul.  He does a fine job expounding Scalia’s judicial philosophy but, even more importantly, he communicates the man’s underlying sense of fairness and deeply-rooted humanity, as evidenced by the close relationship he shared with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the Court’s most liberal members and in many ways his polar opposite – and by his decision to select a liberal to challenge him as one of his four law clerks.

Cat (Tracy Ifeachor) is the liberal law clerk Scalia chose for this term – and she may be more than even he bargained for.  She is a self-described socialist, a top-of-her-class Harvard Law School graduate, a black woman, and a lesbian to boot - and her values and beliefs, on everything from gay marriage to gun control to abortion - are diametrically opposed to Scalia’s.  And she is determined to influence Scalia as much as he might influence her, thereby helping to restore the political middle to our polarized society.

The Originalist is basically a two-hander, with Scalia and Cat sharing the stage as sparring partners.  Cat gives as good as she gets, a tribute to Tracy Ifeachor’s own considerable talents.
The only other character in the play is Brad (Brett Mack), a Republican, white male who had been Cat’s contemporary at Harvard.  His more limited role in the play seems to be to act as something of a foil to Cat and to re-raise the issue of affirmative action from another perspective   It is a role which he handles very effectively.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

PTP/NYC Stages BRECHT ON BRECHT at Atlantic Stage 2

L-R: Harrison Bryan, Christine Hamel, Jake Murphy, and Carla Martinez in BRECHT ON BRECHT.  Photo by Stan Barouh.
An exile from Nazi Germany, an avowed Marxist, and an unabashed apologist for Soviet Communism, Bertolt Brecht was unquestionably one of the most influential playwrights of the last century.  The author of more than fifty plays and screenplays – including The Threepenny Opera, The Life of Galileo, The Good Women of Setzuan, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and Mother Courage and Her Children – as well as hundreds of poems, he upended the classic theatrical world with his innovative “epic theater,” a non-linear self-referential socio-political exercise in which audiences were continually reminded that what they were watching was not real but only a representation of reality.  To that end, he sought to “alienate” his audiences through the use of a variety of spectacular dramatic incongruities including the elimination of conventional props, circus-like atmospherics, breaking down the “fourth wall,” and having characters step out of their assigned roles to engage their audiences directly.

Brecht’s work was greatly informed by the fact that he was forced to flee Nazi Germany, initially settling in Scandinavia before emigrating to the United States, only returning to East Berlin in 1947 after having been investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee for his Communist views. – and by the fact that he was a staunch Marxist and apologist for Soviet Communism.  Brecht’s socio-political and dramatic inclinations led inexorably to his ridiculing and parodying capitalism and free market systems for their presumed devolution into authoritarianism and his perception of their other shortcomings (including the exploitation of the individual).

Now in its thirty-second season, PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project)) is persisting in its mission to present theatrically complex and thought-provoking work of contemporary social and cultural relevance and, to that end, it is currently staging a superb revival of Brecht on Brecht at Atlantic Stage 2 in Manhattan.  As adapted by George Tabori from a potpourri of songs and excerpts from Brecht’s plays and private texts, Brecht on Brecht was originally produced in 1961, but it remains a remarkable revue of the playwright’s life and is as timely today as it was more than a half-century ago.

The play remains true to the principles of Brecht’s “epic theater,” with its Company of ten highly accomplished performers all donning red noses and cavorting about onstage in a rollicking circus-like atmosphere and directly addressing the audience while delivering powerful monologues and soliloquies and fine renditions of eleven of Brecht’s best-known songs (set to the music of two of Brecht’s principal collaborators, Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler).  All of the performances were good but my very favorites were Army Song and Barbara Song (both sung by the entire Company), Pirate Jenny (sung by Christine Hamel) and Surabaya Johnny (sung by Carla Martinez) - and what was for me, the high point of the play, not a musical rendition at all but rather an exceptional monologue by Christine Hamel in the role of Judith Keith, “The Jewish Wife” forced to flee Nazi Germany.