Sunday, December 10, 2017

Suffering and Creativity at the Peabody

The Peabody Institute has provided many splendid concerts and symposia for the Baltimore public.  One of the apexes of that splendor occurred last Friday.  In conjunction with the medical school of Johns Hopkins University, the Peabody sponsored a panel exploring the link between mental illness and artistic creativity.  The focus was the poetry of Robert Lowell (1917-1977), a national poet laureate and a leader of the confessional school of poetry in mid-twentieth century.  The centerpiece was the lecture by Kay Redfield Jamison, a medical school faculty member (specialist in mood disorders) and the author of a recent biography of Lowell, Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire (Knopf, 2017).  She explored how Lowell's bipolar illness, especially the phases of mania when he ranted, sang, rhymed, and rapidly explored words, informed his brilliant but terrifying verse.

Later in the evening The Flux String Quarter performed Images from A Closed Ward (2010), a thirteen part musical composition by Peabody faculty composer Michael Hersch.  Austere and slow-moving, the work evokes the various seasons of mental illness.  Often atonal, this is painful music to hear, but as the work progresses, rays of hope and normalcy seem to penetrate the muted sounds of bewilderment and despair.  The slow, repetitive movements gradually take form into something more sun-streaked and harmonious.  Renowned for its championship of contemporary serious music, the Flux String Quartet brilliantly performed this demanding piece, with its arctically slow tempos, and turned its painful emotional impulses into alternately muffled and soaring plaints.

During the performance stark passages from Lowell appeared on the screen--"And the laugh of Death is hacked in sandstone"---as did slowly dissolving black-and-white photographs of old, abandoned mental institutions.  Both visually and audially, the weight and lacerating power of mental suffering undulated from the stage.   In this work and performance of genius, the unbearable could be heard and seen, indeed almost touched.

This is very difficult music.  As the composer lamented in his introductory remarks before the concert, serious contemporary music has difficulty finding an attentive public.  The modest crowd on Friday night was far smaller than the usual crowds for Mozart or Brahms.  At the end of the first movements some of the concertgoers made clear their displeasure as they slammed the theater doors and exited.  For those of us who remained, we not only heard a lecture about the link between mental suffering and creativity; we witnessed its embodiment in something sublime.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Marseillaise goes agitprop

Lauren Gunderson's quirky The Revolutionists is a play trying very hard not to be the play it is: a didactic political tract sternly teaching the audience its feminist lessons.  Everyman Theatre is currently giving the recent play a dazzling East Coast premiere, with florid costumes, brilliant special effects (that guillotine!), and Edith Piaf singing us into our seats to the strains of the Marseillaise.  But despite the many efforts at humor and the energetic performances by a wired cast, the play is a stern warning that we have unjustly forgotten the women at the center of history's big events.  And that we must atone for this forgetting.

The play brings together four women who lived at the time of the French Revolution: Queen Marie-Antoinette (Beth Hylton); Charlotte Corday, the assassin of revolutionary leader Marat (Emily Kester); Marianne Angelle, a Caribbean anti-slavery activist ( Dawn Ursula); and the playwright Olympe de Gouges (Megan Anderson).  These four historical women never met in real life.  Gunderson's strategy is to gather them all into De Gouges's study as they ask the playwright's assistance in various literary projects of their own.  The cast members deliver fine performances, with Hylton and Kester giving sympathetic treatment to two controversial characters whom textbooks and films have long reduced to caricatures.   Casey Stange's energetic direction moves the cast quickly through the more languorous stretches of dialogue and very effectively incorporates brassy sound and sight effects to recreate the revolutionary atmosphere of the period and the play's action.

Despite some humorous lines and many absurdist twists in plot and the play's internal timeline, the play can never shake its moralizing purpose.  We are repeatedly reminded that women did important things in past and that history has unfairly forgotten them.  It's all true but the repetitive lesson grows thin before the end of the first act.  In the second act, Olympe de Gouge's all too serious musings on the vocation of a woman playwright have the solemnity of a sermon for an obligatory catechism class.  Even the attempt to unmask misogyny gets tangled up in its own misogyny.  The play's Marie Antoinette is a reprise of the old misogynist caricature of her: a greedy, callous numskull who cares only for her jewelry and cosmetic appearance.  This is one area where the script could use a revisionist tune-up.

One of the real injustices facing the theater at the moment (and certainly in its past) is the small number of women playwrights whose works enter into full production.  Everyamn's first-rate production of Gunderson's drama is part of its admirable effort to rectify this gender balance.  Especially ambitious is Everyman's spring season, where it will offer staged readings of five plays by contemporary women playwrights.  

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Shaking the Foundations with O'Neill

Spotlighters Theatre's new production of Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape is a courageous, risky project.  An early expressionist play by O'Neill (1922), the piece is full of long, dark, brooding monologues that can easily produce acedia in the audience.  One is far from the complex inter-familial dialogue found in his later, more popular works like Long Day's Journey Into Night.  The play's closing scene, where the protagonist befriends and is then killed by an ape at the zoo, has every potential to turn into farce if not carefully handled.

Directed by Sherrione Brown, this production of the play is a triumph.  She has not only directed this play; with the assistance of Rebecca Clendaniel and Nancy Flores, she has choreographed it.  Standout scenes are the end of act one, where a defiant Yank in a jumble of bodies swears vengeance against an upper-class woman, a terrific scene of snobbish wealthy churchgoers parading down Fifth Avenue, and the climactic scene where Yank confronts the ape in the zoo cage.  (Brown wisely takes a minimalist approach to the scene.  The actor playing the gorilla remains in shadow, wears a dark full-body stocking, and uses dark make-up on his face.  His gestures and grunts are restrained, brief, and periodic.  The ending is heartbreaking without a trace of the comic.)

At the center of the production is the mesmerizing performance of Michael Leicht as Yank.  A physically domineering fireman who spends his day shoveling coal in the furnace room of an ocean liner, Yank deteriorates into "the hairy ape" as his anger explodes.  In the first scene he affirms his worth as a manual laborer who makes the ship run in an otherwise bleak universe marked by alcoholism, brutal crew members, and exploitative bosses.  He mocks the efforts of Paddy (Thom Eric Sinn) and  Long (Phil Gallagher) to find some broader meaning for their lives in nostalgia and Marxist politics respectively.  The consolations of religion are also bitterly pushed aside.  He explodes into vengeful anger when a wealthy woman, daughter of a steel magnate (Karen Starliper), calls him "a filthy beast" when she spots him cursing and disheveled in the furnace room.  His fellow crew members turn the sobriquet into the taunting "hairy ape." His subsequent efforts to express his rage by joining Manhattan socialites and labor activists only land him chained in the cage of jail. Bereft of any place in human society, Yank desperately recognizes his solidarity with the hairy ape at the zoo, who promptly kills him.  Leicht brings out the muscular strength, naive pride, and cascading anger in the character but he also brings out the pathos.  The fall of Yank here is immensely moving even if the ambient nihilism remains terrifying.

Not to be missed.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Lear, Big Bird, and the Kardashians

Single Carrot Theatre's production of Lear tackles an unwieldy property---to put it lightly.  Young Jean Lee's avant-garde play loosely borrows from Shakespeare's King Lear.  The three Lear daughters (Cordelia, Regan, and Goneril) and the two Gloucester sons (Edgar and Edmund) are still intact but they have changed.  Their self-absorbed speeches sound more like the Kardsashians trying to pick out another bauble for their ungainly wigs.  Their non-sequiturs sound more like Gracie Allen on speed.  The fun is complicated as the vaguely Tudor romp turns into a visit from Big Bird facing the fact of death of his father-figure in the beloved PBS series.  The wheel turns again as the play closes with a tear-stained monologue from a mysterious, contemporary everyman lamenting the death of his own father.

Despite the absurdity of the rhetoric and the action, the play maintains a surprising unity.  It's all about the death of the father, whether it's the heroic ancient father (Lear), the comforting surrogate television father, or the deeply missed actual father who will never return.

Director Andrew Peters expertly manages the play's abrupt changes in tone and plot.  The script's sudden swerves in mood from burlesque to elegy could easily result in breakdown.  The cast (Surasree Das, Paul Diem, Tim German, Chloe Mikala, Elizabeth Ling) also makes convincing transitions from the opening satirical cartoon of self-absorbed adolescents fresh from a series of murders to decent, everyday neighbors ready to show compassion for the bereaved Big Bird and the grief-stricken guy next door.  The extraordinary scenic design (Allison Campbell), costume design (Nicki Seibert), and sound design (Connor Ciesil) give the entire playing area an ominous, dream-like aura perfectly suited to this exercise in the surreal.



Monday, May 15, 2017

Irish Absurdism at the Motor House

Rapid Lemon Productions is currently presenting a double bill of Irish dramas at the Motor House, the sleekly remodeled successor to the old Load of Fun at the art hub of North Avenue and Howard.  Ably directed by Lance Bankerd, the program matches Samuel Beckett's nihilist classic Endgame with the recently written (American premiere) Voices in the Rubble by the emerging Irish playwright Darren Donohue.  The result is an intense and oddly entertaining foray into the absurd.

Donohue's opener plunges us into the surreal cocktail hour of middle-class Avril (Lee Condracci) and Tony (Zack Jackson).  In their chit-chat Tony calmly reveals that his boss just showed a ninety minute tape of Zack sexually assaulting the office secretary to the rest of the employees gathered in the boardroom.  Just as calmly Avril reveals that her day consisted in killing the postman---or was it Tony's brother?---and stuffing him into the refrigerator.  An intense young man (Matthew Lindsay Payne) suddenly springing from the refrigerator begs the couple to kill him but the incompetent duo can't figure out the right means.  A mysterious commanding gentleman who enters via the couch adds to the fun---or is he just an elder version of Tony?

Condracci and Jackson give riveting performances as the embroiled couple.  Their waltz-like movements as they dart off to Paris, Sweden, or China are highlights of carefully choreographed performances.  Unfortunately, Donohue's script is weakened at key points by puerile sexual chatter.

Endgame takes us back to Beckett's apocalyptic space in nowhere.  We are in a dark speck of a place beyond meaning and redemption.  There is only command and obedience, but the repetitious gestures lead nowhere.  Commanding is the crippled Hamm (Zack Jackson) and obeying is the limping Clov (Matthew Lindsay Payne).  Jackson and Payne marvelously complement each other.  The mindless, arbitrary joy of Jackson bounces off the angry, frustrated huffing and puffing of Payne.  Bankerd's direction brings out the vaudeville implicit in the duo.  Uproarious notes of humor suddenly erupt from a universe Hamm correctly describes as godless and pointless.


Friday, February 10, 2017

Richard III on the Marne

Modern Shakespeare productions suffer a predictable temptation.  Solid Shakespeare productions can be grounded in three settings: neo-Elizabethan (with actors in tights and codpieces running through Tudor decor); historical (the setting referred to in the script, such as classical arches where actors in togas roam in Julius Caesar); contemporary (where actors in street clothes use two plain benches in a minimalist set).  But directors are often tempted to concoct a snazzy setting from another period having nothing to do with the script.  The result is a gimmick that tears against the action of the drama and the very words of the Bard.  I have sat through a Comedy of Errors set in 1930s Fascist Italy (with platoons of nuns marching in Art Deco squares), a Tempest placed during spring break in 1950s Fort Lauderdale (Miranda was an Annette Funicello knockoff), and a mysterious Merry Wives of Windsor set in a Wild West show in 1890s Montana (the dog act was the best part).

Alas, in the otherwise excellent Chesapeake Shakespeare Company production of Richard III, director Ian Gallanar has let his vandalizing inner child mangle the script.  He has set the production in World War I.  Singers regale us with "Keep the Home Fires Burning" and soldiers run around the stage with rifles and gas masks.  Photographers snap the picture of royal family members.  But the script keeps reminding us that this is all about the War of the Roses, that we are in medieval Catholic England, and that the harried Richard wants a horse, not a taxi to the Marne, as his final military campaign collapses.  The incongruity of the juxtaposition of script and setting reaches a climax at the production's conclusion.  Just after Henry Tudor delivers his eloquent speech celebrating the reconciliation of the warring houses of York and Lancaster in his own now-royal person, the entire cast appears on stage to serenade us with "Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag."

Despite the tiresome gimmickry, Gallanar's direction is often a tour de force.  He brings out the stakes in the play's bravura scenes, such as the seduction of Lady Anne, the curses by Queen Elizabeth, and the tragicomic killing of Clarence, Richard III's brother.  His staging of the nightmare/ghost scene, where Richard confronts the spirits of all those he has murdered on his trip to the throne, is one of the finest one will see in any theater.  The sound design and audial design brilliantly highlight the dramatic action.  Chesapeake's magnificent multi-level playing space permits the perambulating acting corps to draw the audience into the play's action.

Vince Eisenson gives a bravura performance as Richard III.  This part can easily bring out the ham in an actor as Richard rejoices in his villainy and his successive conquests of his victims.  Actors often chew the scenery and wink at the audience as Richard bags one royal personage after another.  Eisenson is more restrained and businesslike in his campaign.  He brings out the real charm of Richard as he seduces lady Anne, the daughter of one of his victims, and the "good uncle" benevolent concern as he creates a sanctuary for  the nephews he will murder.  We always knew he was a villain.  Now we know why he was such a convincing salesman.

The fine supporting cast gives excellent support to Eisenson and acts as convincing foils.  They maintain an admirably clear diction throughout the performance and very much cohere as a single ensemble caught mob-like in the dark ascension of Richard.  Especially fine are the performances by two children actors (Mia Boydston, Gareth Swing) as the doomed children of Edward IV.


Saturday, January 21, 2017

Surrogacy as Satire

With its usual predilection for the avant-garde and the challenging, Single Carrot Theatre has opened its production of Samsara.  Written by the contemporary Asian-American playwright Lauren Yee, the play---or, rather, dramatic fantasy---studies a middle class couple's adventures in infertility and surrogate motherhood.  Through its wild humor, featuring a talking-and-dancing fetus and a Maurice Chevalier imitator, the play develops a pointed critique of our new, wilful way of reproduction and its exploitation of the poor women and the children they bear in their wombs for a price.

The relationship between the couple desiring to have a child, Craig (Paul Diem) and Kate (Alix Fenhagen), begins in farce but gradually becomes more serious as the strains in their marriage, their mixed motives for resorting to surrogacy, and their painful personal histories come to the fore.  Economics---and a dose of colonial imperialism---complicates the picture.  For reasons of cost, the couple decides to use an Indian woman as a surrogate mother in an inexpensive but reputedly safe clinic in India.  The clinic turns out to be anything but safe; the presiding physician oversees prenatal care and births on a not very sanitary assembly line.  The surrogate mother Suraiya (Saraniya Tharmarajah) is not exactly a volunteer.  The money she receives from the surrogacy is necessary to fund her studies in medical school and fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor.  All these factors collide in producing the play's tragic outcome.

The fantasy figures deepen the plot.  In the night's strongest performance,  the fetus Amit (Utkarsh Rajawat) not only bonds with the mother bearing him; he wittily interacts with Suraiya as he questions what life beyond the womb might be like.  Calling his mother "Microwave," since she has been hired to give him warmth and nurture, Amit brings out the impossibility for the surrogate simply to act as the passive, indifferent partner in a business deal.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific, Kate deals with her own fantasy partner, a mysterious Frenchman (Dustin C.T. Morris) who is a stand-in for the anonymous French donor of the sperm used to create the couple's developing child.  Full of music, champagne, and overly Frenched accents from the old MGM movies Gigi, Morris's exuberant performance boosts the farcical joy of the production but also reveals even further the odd cultural prejudices that have marked this misguided adventure in procreation.

For all its vibrancy and imagination, the play does not completely work.  The effort to portray culture shock as Craig experiences provincial India in a visit to the surrogate on the eve of birth is full of its own cultural cliches about India and East/West differences.  Diem's brilliant, dynamic performance as the husband who moves from culture shock to bewilderment to outrage does not quite overcome the cultural wallpaper.  Some of the advice offered by the surrogate mother to her bouncy fetus sounds like an after-school special.  The sudden happy ending as the quarreling couple is reconciled seems forced and abrupt.  One senses a fascinating and highly imaginative tragicomedy that could use further work along the path to becoming more incisive.

A great assist in the production is the support provided by the mobile setting (Jason Randolph), the shifting lighting (Thomas P. Gardner), and the witty sound design (Steven Kriegel), where classical Indian music crashes into "thousand strings" versions of the old MGM musicals.  The Carrots' signature drive and vitality are permanently on display.