Sunday, January 26, 2014

Will the Civil War Never End?

Downstairs at New York’s City Center, the Women’s Project Theater presents a play about the United States, human beings, divisions, and Pickett’s Charge.  Director Daniella Topol has guided her fine actors in an engaging and engrossing play about us, then and now.

Jessica Dickey's Row After Row is a treat, stimulating heart and mind, beautifully acted and directed.  The clever scenic design by Clint Ramos even provides a stimulating smell — wood, woodchips, and sawdust surround the warm set of an old wood and stone pub. 

Playwright Jessica Dickey has lived in Gettysburg, where history is not confined to the past.  Civil War re-enactors travel to each battlefield of the war and dress in Confederate and Union army regalia and weaponry as accurately as they can afford, and repeat battles.  At Gettysburg, the playwright participated herself in a re-enactment of Pickett’s Charge and found a story to express.  Thus Row After Row.

If you do not recall, Pickett’s Charge was the disastrous “hail Mary” play in the Battle of Gettysburg, in which Confederate soldiers marched then ran a mile through an open, undulating field, defenseless, toward their Union enemy. Not surprisingly, they were slaughtered by enemy cannon fire, a furious hail of bullets, and finally, when a decimated group made it to the Union line, bayonets and fists.  Over 2000 soldiers died that day, and well over half of them were Confederates.  Thousands more were wounded and captured.  It was devastating.  It still is.

Rosie Benson as Leah, Erik Lochtefeld as Tom, and PJ Sosko as Cal.  Photo Credit:  Carol Rosegg
In Row After Row, the scene opens on three people — Lieutenant General James Longstreet watching the charge, a Union deserter, and a woman in the garb of a Confederate soldier.  Moments later, we see the woman sitting on a stool in a stone-walled pub, and the two men enter exuberantly.  They are re-enactors, the men having done this for 20 years, the woman a new participant.  The action of the play shifts back and forth between these three re-enactors in the present day and their counterparts during the real battle of 1863.  Lighting Designer Tyler Micoleau creates these time shifts subtly by a dimming, almost clouding of the lights when we revisit the sooty battlefield — the heat of a July day, men, horses, guns, and cannon all collaborating to kick up dust and smoke — then a slight bump to the soft but brighter light within the modern-day pub. 

The three actors are compelling in both eras.  Rosie Benton plays Leah in the present, a former modern dancer from New York, and a resident of Gettysburg in the past.  Leah simmers with anger and pain, yet an openness to new experiences and new people.  Benton is sharp, precise, and soft all at once, quite marvelous.  Erik Lochtefeld is Tom in the present, a schoolteacher, a re-enactor who chooses each year to play the Yankee deserter — an outsider who sues for peace in both eras.  Lochtelfeld’s skill and warmth bring us into his heart in both time periods.  PJ Sosko is Cal, who takes his re-enactments very seriously, and chooses to be General Longstreet.  Leah’s description of him as a “bona fide meathead” is probably the kindest epithet of the evening, yet he’s not all bad. He and Tom have been friends since 6th grade, but in recent years Cal has seen less and less of Tom and is almost as heartbroken as General Longstreet is upon watching his men charge to their pointless deaths.  Sosko grabs us ungently and brings us along as he tries to grasp the world around him.

Rosie Benson as the Woman in 1863.  Photo Credit:  Carol Rosegg.
Cal and Leah provoke one another once Leah sits at Tom and Cal’s traditional table.  Cal immediately dubs her a “farb” — a person who takes part in a re-enactment with less than authentic fabrics and costumes and weaponry.  A fight between the two men and another that includes the woman are brilliantly choreographed by J. David Brimmer, who more than met the challenge in the theatre’s close three-quarter staging.  

The Woman, Sosko as General Longstreet, and Lochtefeld as Union deserter in 1863.  Photo Credit:  Carol Rosegg.
Eventually we learn enough about these three people to hope they find their way, make the best choices, to do their part in making their lives, and our union, “more perfect.”  Like the Civil War, the past is not done with, and lives on in the present.

Cheers to all the cast and crew and creators of this fine piece of drama that includes some hearty laughs leavening the serious subject matter.  It was a satisfying evening at the theatre, but only runs to February 16th, so order tickets here: 

~  Molly Matera, off to re-read some history that Jessica Dickey has clearly read already.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

EST presents a rooster, a hen, and some unpleasant not-quite-humans

Ensemble Studio Theatre’s production of Year of the Rooster by Eric Dufault is dully pretentious, superficially acted (with two exceptions), and altogether disappointing.  The play, in its current incarnation, was last done at EST just a few months ago, receiving enough good press to influence the theatre company to present it again.  Having sat through its tedious two hours, I do not understand what all the fuss was about, and John Giampietro’s tepid direction did nothing to pull the overlong piece out of the mire.

The main character, a pathetic little guy named Gil whose McDonald’s name tag reads “Girl,” is played cartoonishly by Thomas Lyons.  He is put upon by the various bullies in his life.  This “protagonist” is the same at the play’s end as at its beginning, and his cyclical journey was not in the slightest bit interesting or surprising.
Lyons, Bess, and Moreno in Year of the Rooster.  Photo Credit:  Russ Kuhner
The play opens with Dickie Timble (played with oozing slime by Denny Dale Bess), as a master of ceremonies at a cockfight, comparing that habitual torture to “culture” handed down from the Golden Age of Greece.  Dickie is a vulgar bully and an ass-grabbing back-slapping good old boy.  He is not an individual human being with realistically human traits.  We follow him to meet Gil behind the counter at the McDonalds.  Gil is the epitome of ineffectual, easily intimidated by his mean-spirited mother, Dickie, and the young woman who has just made manager at McDonald’s, Philipa.

Megan Tusing does remarkably good work with Philipa, a character full of stereotypical anger issues, then continues to stand out as the overfed McDonald’s hen with whom Gil wants his rooster to mate.  Said rooster is the most interesting creature in the play, the very angry and drug-abused cock Odysseus Rex, extremely well played by Bobby Moreno with birdlike twitches and physical and verbal passion.  Cockfighting is offensive yet the scene portraying it had the best staging of the play, choreographed by fight director Qui Nguyen.

It is a bit disturbing that the best drawn and acted characters in the play are not human. Gil’s mother Lou is a liar and a cheat, but Delphi Harrington is wasted on an outline of a caricature.  Everyone in this play is foul-mouthed and full of hate for everyone and everything around them, except for the hen.  When Gil makes it to the top of the pile of his insular cockfighting circle for a short while, he’s just as vicious and ugly as everyone who was cruel to him.  Because he’s as stupid as he is dull, he of course is not on top for long.
Apparently roosters, like cats, will attack their reflections
If that is the point of the play, please someone beg playwright Eric Dufault to revise it as a one-act.  In its present stage of “development,” it is two hours of torture. Mr. Dufault must go back to school.  Tossing in some cockfighting sports history of the Greeks merely implies he read some Cliff Notes about ancient Greece.  What he needs to do is finish reading Aristotle’s Poetics in order to understand what constitutes a play.  Year of the Rooster does not make the grade. 

~ Molly Matera, recommending you go see some other play in NYC.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

In Repertory: Twelfe Night and the Winter of Our Discontent

Shakespeare’s Globe is in town, and instead of performing one play at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University downtown as they usually do, they brought two to perform in repertory for a few months on Broadway at the Belasco Theatre.  The Belasco is gorgeous, but with this company, it’s difficult to appreciate the beauties of the interior because as the audience enters the theatre, the actors are onstage dressing and being dressed.  Watching this fascinating process is riveting — observing the way period costumes are built, layer upon layer, onto the human body; some actors are sewn into their costumes; and seeing men turned into women. 

As in Shakespeare’s time, the female roles are not played by women, but rather by men.  Each man playing a female has a diverting way of walking, almost gliding across the stage, sometimes mincing, swinging the heavy skirts to their best advantage.  Watching them before the play even starts is mesmerizing.

Twelfe Night deserves its own glowing review.  Alas, I bubbled over with praise of it to friends and didn’t write down a word, so its mentions here will essentially be comparative.  I saw the plays a month apart — Twelfe Night (as named in the First Folio and printed in the program) on Friday the 6 December and, to start the new year off right, Richard III on Thursday the 2 January (yes, the night of the first snowstorm of 2014, nicknamed “Hercules”).  Perhaps we should have seen the Richard in this program first, so our expectations for the next play would not have been so high.  The Twelfe Night was deliriously funny, a pinnacle for all others to attempt.  As it was, the near perfect Twelfe Night left us with high expectations that were dashed the night the snow fell outside the performance of The Tragedie of King Richard the Third. 
Sebastian and Olivia, Orsino and Viola in Twelfe Night.  (Photo Credit: Joan Marcus)
What is it about Richard III?  I am often dissatisfied with productions of the play, no matter who excels in the leading role.  Is it just poorly written?  Well, with all due respect to the incomparable Bard, compared to other plays, it is, rather.  (He had to be careful, of course.  The late-arriving protagonist/hero of the play, Richmond, would be the great grandfather of Shakespeare’s Queen, so the War of the Roses had to end on a particularly redeeming note for the ancestors of the ruling monarch.)  This production from the Globe is well cast but that isn’t enough — especially not with someone as strong and magnetic as Mark Rylance prancing about the stage as Richard of Gloucester.
Rylance as Richard and Samuel Barnett as Queen Elizabeth
Once costumes are donned and the musicians applauded, Mark Rylance as Richard seduces us immediately.  Rylance found every hint of humor in the play, and made us as guilty as Richard by making us laugh with him throughout the evening.  The problem — and it may be the play as much as director Tim Carroll — is that the good actors working with Mr. Rylance fade in his aura, with two exceptions:  Samuel Barnett (a fine Viola in the Twelfe Night) as Queen Elizabeth (mother of the princes in the tower, wife of the sickly then late King Edward IV) gives as good as he… she… gets and is marvelous and powerful, every inch a queen; and the Buckingham as played by Angus Wright (last seen in one of the most delightful performances of Andrew Aguecheek I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience) could more than hold his own with Rylance. 

Often we see a star turn in a play like Richard III, and often we just think we got the second string touring cast in all but the lead role.  This time, though, we have very recent evidence of the finely honed skills of this company of players.  Which leads back to the play, which needed some judicious cutting, but perhaps not the cutting it did, in fact, receive.  More on that anon.
Joseph Timms as Lady Anne and Mark Rylance as King Richard III.  Photo Credit:  Joan Marcus.
Let’s look at the actors in this company.  Peter Hamilton Dyer’s Catesby was better than his often incomprehensible Feste, but Liam Brennan’s Clarence partook in one of the longest and dullest death scenes (and very poorly staged, Mr. Carroll) in Shakespeare despite his sexy turn as Orsino in Twelfe Night.  Paul Chahidi was a marvelous Maria in Twelfe Night, but his Hastings seemed stock and his Tyrrell seemed… well, rather mad.  As if he were speaking in tongues, his delivery rang through the theatre without cohering. 

Colin Hurley’s King Edward IV and his Lord Stanley were well defined and differentiated.  After his wild and woolly and hilarious Toby Belch in Twelfe Night, he was happily not a disappointment in Richard.

Joseph Timms was an unusually good Sebastian in the Twelfe Night. Generally a rather thankless role seemingly cast because of a resemblance to the Viola, his Sebastian had verve and vigor. Timms’ turn as Lady Anne (one of the most difficult roles in Shakespeare since her actions make no sense at all) in Richard III was interesting in large part due to his physical behavior.  That the character is ultimately unconvincing based on the famous wooing scene is the fault of the playwright more than the actor.

Kurt Egyiawan was not as interesting a Valentine in Twelfe Night as he was in his two roles in Richard III:  His Duchess of York (that is, King Richard’s mother) was basically cranky, but his physical work was good.  In the second half of the play he was Richmond, quite believable as the virtuous prince, a just man, a tad dull (Richmond always is), a fitting founder of the Tudor dynasty leading in a direct line to Shakespeare’s real life monarch, Elizabeth I.

Someone missing, you say?  Yes indeed.  There was one queen missing from this production of Richard III:  Margaret, termagant, widow of the dead Lancastrian King Henry VI who was ousted by the Yorkists (Richard’s family), and mother of the slain Prince Edward (who was the husband of Lady Anne, later Queen Anne – get it?).  This character should be the canker, the boil on Richard’s butt, an enraged victim of the Yorkists who teaches all others how to curse.  She was a major character in the Three Parts of Henry VI, and she’s fun.  She plays a major role in the conversation of the once powerful now powerless women of the play, leaving only the ineffective Queen Anne written in to join the bereft Queen Elizabeth, and the cranky Duchess of York to lament in Act IV scene iv, the traditional wailing women scene.  Perhaps the embarrassment of riches of too many queens in the script was seen as too confusing?  The long feud between the Lancastrians and the Yorkists certainly does not come as second nature, particularly to an American audience.  Nevertheless, Margaret is a vital part of the chemistry of the players.  Her absence contributed to the lopsidedness of the production, leaving out chunks of the politics, oversimplifying the changeable loyalties, essentially eliminating the history of each individual in the story, as if their own actions or inactions hadn’t brought them to this very place.  Richard III is the culmination of generations of internecine warfare; neither he nor his England sprang from nothing.  Ignoring what came before for the rest of the characters makes Richard III a showcase for Mr. Rylance instead of a play with intricate plotting and storylines.  What goes around comes around, that’s the moral of the story, but you won’t get it in this production.

Losing Margaret is short-sighted on the part of the producers and director.  I am far from a purist, but cutting Margaret’s character and its function diminishes the play — and even without her the production ran three hours!

Gentle reminder:  Twelfe Night was well nigh perfect.  Its subtitle is “or What You Will” and we will, we will.  Liam Brennan’s Orsino fell in love with the girl disguised as a boy played by an actor disguised as both, the wonderful Samuel Barnett.  Their chemistry was sparkling, ready to burst into flame.  The old gang at Olivia’s place were naughty and lusty, with superlative performances by Colin Hurley as Sir Toby Belch, Paul Chahidi as Maria, and Angus Wright as Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
Rylance as Olivia and Fry as Malvolio in Twelfe Night (Photo Credit:  Joan Marcus)
Mark Rylance proves he does not need to edit a play to make himself the star — his Olivia is timid, brittle, then giddy and lusty and wild, his powdered face malleable, his body alternating between stiff and yearning, girdled and rubbery.  His line readings will overpower my mind whenever I re-read the play.  He’s a comic genius with brilliant timing — which shows up in his Richard as well, of course.

The member of the company who appeared in Twelfe Night but not in Richard III is the estimable Stephen Fry, whose Malvolio was articulate, witty, arrogant, and deserved what he got — until he didn’t.  Suffice to say, Fry was an excellent Malvolio and I hope he returns to the New York stage soon.
Samuel Barnett as Viola and Mark Rylance as Olivia in Twelfe Night (Photo credit Joan Marcus)
In general this is a marvelous company.  The scenic and costume design by Jenny Tiramani merge into a whole that is magnificent.  The audience members on the stage may see a lot of backsides, but their proximity to the players makes them part of the experience, and the players’ connections to living audience is just thrilling to see.  Music by Claire van Kampen is period, fitting, and well played and well utilized in both productions.  Director Tim Carroll worked wonders with the great Twelfe Night but fell down on the job with Richard.  That said, I have no knowledge of the script he was handed, since no dramaturge is mentioned in the program. 

Editing Shakespeare isn’t easy, though often necessary.  The wrong bits were edited out of this Richard.  Thankfully the Twelfe Night was so extraordinary it entirely redeems the problems of the Richard.

~ Molly Matera, signing off and urging you to see at least one if not both of these plays in repertory.  (If just one, you know the Twelfe Night is the better!)