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 take 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.


Saturday, November 19, 2016

Sparkling Desires

Single Carrot Theatre is in fine form with its opening production of the season: Savage/Love by Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin.  The play is a loose mosaic of monologues and sketches dealing with the irrational impulses propelling human passion.  Ascetically dressed in white, the cast begins by making short speeches incorporating many of the cliches concerning love which pepper our everyday speech and the bits and pieces of unrequited love affairs.  The play then moves into a series of two-person dialogues, athletically performed, fleshing out the various opening maxims.  At the conclusion the cast becomes a chorus line reminding the audience that they are part and parcel of the lunacies just enacted on the stage.  The play itself has the feel of a plate of tantalizing hors d'oeuvres but the main course seems to be missing.  The barbed sharpness of the writing partially compensates for the thin structure.

The direction by Jen Spieler is brilliance incarnate.  The quick changes in location, posture, mood, and even props prevent this simply structured and mono-themed piece from receding into predictability. The production suddenly turns musical (with banjo) and then athletic (with energetic leaps over platforms) and then wistful (with exhausted lovers under the covers) and then farcical (as we suddenly do the laundry).  The scenic design (Edward Victor), lighting design (Ryan Johnson), and sound design (Meghan Stanton) keep the cascade of visual and audial images flowing without overwhelming the straightforward poetry and humor of the script.

The cast demonstrates the ensemble cohesion and energy which is Single Carrot's forte.  All six actors are supple and convincing as they quickly change genres, characters, and situations.  One standout moment involves Paul Diem and Genevieve de Mahy in an offbeat musical interlude.

Savage/Love has the typical Shepard note of danger and menace.  But the tone here, especially at the conclusion, is more mellow.  The lunacy, fear, and desire are part of the simple, awkward human desire to love and be loved.


Saturday, October 22, 2016

Gorgeous Anne

Chesapeake Shakespeare Company is currently offering a rarity: Maxwell Anderson's Anne of the Thousand Days.  Originally produced on Broadway in 1948, this drama about the stormy relationship between King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn became a popular, opulent 1969 film starring Richard Burton and Genevieve Bujold.  But to accommodate the tastes of film-going audiences, the movie script dropped most of the blank-verse passages in the original script.  (Along with T.S. Eliot and Christopher Fry, Anderson was an architect of the short-lived revival of neo-Shakespearean verse drama in the mid twentieth century.)  It is a delight to see and especially to hear Anderson's lush poetry, which climaxes in a series of monologues and verbal duels at the play's conclusion, as the royal marriage collapses and Anne marches to the scaffold.

A stylized version of the Globe, Chesapeake's theater provides a splendor neo-Tudor frame for the production.  The three-story tall background set of Tudor arches and the dazzling, rustling costumes add to the jewel-box glow.  The period vocal groups and the expertly choreographed dances enhance the professional polish of the production.

The greatest achievement of Kasi Campbell's direction is bringing out the humor in what is otherwise a tragic tale of political intrigue.  The comedy behind Henry's awkward attempts at seducing Anne and Anne's stratagems to yield to Henry only at a high political price is repeatedly on display.  One of the comic highlights of the production is the witty negotiating banter of the dueling couple as they dance and leap through the convoluted turns of a Tudor saraband.

The effort to bring out the tragic complexities of the lead characters is less successful.  Lizzi Albert (Anne) and Ron Heneghan (Henry) bring a certain stature and ardor to their respective roles.  But they tend to deliver their lines in a monotonous, declamatory manner.  They rarely explore the rich emotional palette of Anderson's verse.  The soaring monologues and duels of the last act require an emotional range and tonal variation which the lead actors have yet to master.  One has the impression of an unfinished interpretation.  Much of the supporting cast is excellent, with Yury Lomakin's Cromwell and Molly Moores's Elizabeth Boleyn (Anne's mother) as standouts.  Campbell's meticulous direction of the many group scenes (concerts, dances, card games, trials, processions) enhances the production's pictorial quality.