THE FANTASTICKS, Book & Lyrics by Tom Jones, Music by Harvey Schmidt

It’s not always easy to find theatre on a Sunday night. But this is New York, after all, and there’s ALWAYS theatre.   It was a beautiful night, and I had toyed with seeing John Lithgow’s King Lear up at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, about which I had heard raves.  But I’d missed out on the ticket lottery, seen a lot of good Lears of late, and didn’t feel much like spending time standing in a line.

So I settled for an oldie: The Fantasticks.  “You did what?  You gave up John Lithgow for The Fantasticks?  Are you Crazy?” commented my good wife.  I plead guilty.  It was not one of the saner choices in my theatre-going experience.

After 54 years and over well over 20,000 New York performances, surely there is nothing about this show that has not already been said.  It is the longest running musical in history.  It continues to be produced all over the country and the world, Music Theatre International’s most popular item.  I have friends who have never seen it, but it begins to feel like they’re in a distinct minority.

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I myself had never seen it in New York, and I had been very slow in coming to it as a “favorite.”  Back in the 60’s, my wife and I made an attempt to see it in a Boston theatre set in a tiled hotel lobby.  Not being fans of slapstick comedy for its own sake, we thought the first act was so bad, so hopelessly overacted, so puerile in its content,  so irrelevant to the world, that we left during the intermission.  Of course, we missed the whole point.  For years I wondered what all the fuss was about.  Why should The Fantasticks, of all plays, become the most popular, longest running musical in the world?  … And I have to admit:  I still have no clue!

But then in the mid-70’s, I directed a school production and toured Vermont with it.  I came to love the music, as well as the simplicity and the honesty of the story, with its clashing imagery of idealism and cynicism.  With age I grew more in tune with its very basic exploration of what we expect from life and what the world ends up handing us.   So finally, it was time to go see a professional production … both acts!

The current The Fantasticks is staged at the corner of 50th and Broadway in the 3rd floor hole-in-the-wall Jerry Orbach Theatre, so named for the late Law and Order star and the very first El Gallo when the play debuted in 1960.

It was pretty much as I remembered it, and pretty well done.  There is one major change in the script, brought about by the demands of political correctness, and officially sanctioned by Jones and Schmidt.  The “Rape Ballet” was no more, having been replaced by words like “raid” and “abduction.” The classical use of the word “rape” was intended to be much closer to the original sense of bridal kidnapping, or a raid. But no more. In this day and age of commonly talked about sexual abuse, “rape” is not deemed a word to play with for laughs. I confess to missing the “Rape Ballet,” and while I fully understand the need to replace it, I find it very sad that, even on a New York stage, even surrounded by plays full of hilarious obscenities, we apparently live in times where it had to go.

IMG_1855It seems like “everybody and his brother” (actors, that is) come around to playing in The Fantasticks sooner or later, and I’m sure casts are continually rotating according to actor availability.   The list includes many future Hollywood and Broadway stars.   Not surprisingly, everyone in this cast had marvelous voices, and a fair modicum of acting talent.  On the other hand, energy, level of commitment and ability to relate to the material varied widely.  For instance, shining over them all was Samantha Bruce as the Girl, Luisa, who was not only in rare voice, but captured every nuance of character and timing.   By contrast, the young actor playing “The Boy,” despite being in fine voice and bringing some impressive credentials to the role, appeared somewhat disconnected from the whole process.  In general, though, it was a fun evening of fine voices and not a little personal nostalgia.

One niggling thought to clear up:  One of the Broadway discount ticket sites inexcusably lists the lyricist Tom Jones as Tom Jones, the Welsh pop singer of the ’70’s (“Delilah,”  “It’s Not Unusual”).  Decidedly, NOT SO!  Our own Tom Jones was born in Texas, and since college has successfully teamed up with his friend Harvey Schmidt for such Broadway hits as I Do, I Do110 in the Shade, and of course, the longest running musical in the world.

 

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Sarah Treem’s WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID

Truth be told, I am really quite taken with the talents and stage presence of Cherry Jones.  I would not by choice miss anything in which she appears; and when you get right down to it, so soon after our North Carolina visit, she’s the real reason I have ventured back into the streets of New York for my biannual theatre binge.   I was in time to catch her in the final performance of When We were Young and Unafraid.   The play was written by veteran TV writer Sarah Treem (House of Cards), and produced by MTC (the Manhattan Theatre Club) at City Center’s Stage 1.  … All impressive credentials.  Catchy title too.  How could I go wrong?

IMG_1862Miss Jones was of course magnificent.  Simply by being there she leant gravitas and credibility to the play, although the material offered no great challenge for her.  Zoe Kazan, Elia’s granddaughter, was also present and did a fine job, as for that matter did the rest of the cast.   So why am I not waxing enthusiastic?

The story happens in 1972 in a safe house for battered women on an island somewhere out in Puget Sound, which doubles as a B&B run by Jones’ character.   It’s a throwback to the kitchen-sink dramas of the 70’s, when we were all oh so naïve.  Looking back now on women’s issues of the day, you can’t help but be impressed by how far we have come in acknowledging the need for such shelters, and in recognizing the existence of abortions, and lesbians, and racism, all of which figure heavily into the plot.  But this audience was well ahead of the predictable characters in the play.  So the question is, what does the play have to tell us about today?

And the answer is, “Not a whole lot.”  As a set piece, it’s fine, but perhaps primarily useful to historians and sex educators.  Treem goes out of her way to include all the appropriate facts and cliché’s from the 70’s, but the play seems more about the speeches than the characters.  It’s as if each character — the victim, the black lesbian, the “daughter,” the guest, and the hostess — were in her own play. Okay, so there IS one man in the cast, but he almost doesn’t count. The two nasty males most feared and loved never actually appear in the play, and the one who does is a wimp.   Men definitely do not come out on the bright side in this play.

Having said all that, the play does provide some poignant dialogue, and manages considerable suspense.  It also raisees some important issues.  But coming as they do near the end of the play, almost as afterthoughts, they require much more attention:  Why do we human beings hide behind seeking salvation for others when we can’t even manage our own needs?  Why is it so easy to confuse passion with power, and control with love?  Why do women stay with and continue to love men who violently abuse them?  Why do men beat women?  Surely, having raised such issues, the playwright owes us a deeper exploration than “It must be because they have PTSD, so it’s OK.”  … Maybe in the next rewrite.

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Roald Dahl’s MATILDA, The Musical

Why did I pick Matilda as the first play to see on my next return to New York for a theatre binge?  I need to own up front that I am no fan of Matilda, the book, the character, the play, or its author.  So all that follows will of necessity be colored by that prejudice.

That’s not to say that I haven’t been intrigued by Roald Dahl most of my life … and feeling a little guilty about it.  When I was an impressionable 20-year-old, I was induced to read a book of his short stories. I thought one among them was the most deliciously funny and horrifying tale about a sadistic cat I’d ever come across, topping even Edgar Allen Poe.  Of course, I lost the book and have never found it since.  If anyone knows of it, let me know.  I’d love to reread it so I can at least amend my judgment.  Subsequently, I’ve tried on several of the Dahl standards, and never grew into a fan, perhaps finding his sense of humor too close to my own, not something I’d care to brag about.  On the other hand, you have to give credit to a man married for 30 years to Patricia Neal, despite his philandering ways.

IMG_1851So why Matilda, and why now?  It was a production of the Royal Shakespeare Company, whose work is consistently brilliant.   I found a deeply discounted ticket.  Reviews and friends who had seen it raved about it.  If I avoided it, maybe I’d be giving into an unreasonable prejudice.  Besides, as a former drama teacher I’m a sucker for seeing what talented kids can do on a stage.

You know the story?  Matilda is a precious and precocious 5-year-old genius whose despicable anti-intellectual parents send her off to a despicable anti-intellectual school ruled by a despicable anti-intellectual headmistress, and populated by a tribe of 5-14 year-old victims of a sick world.  Encouraged by a kind teacher named Honey, Matilda comes into her own, wreaks havoc, and all live happily ever after.

Okay, so I know this is satire, and Dahl was disgusted, as he well should be, with the popular trend away from academics and books to the “telly,” and with sexism, corporal and emotional punishment,   expectations of mediocrity, and the general weakening of the bonds of social structure.  Unquestionably, he was an ingenious satirist, whose work was frightening, sad and comical all at the same time.

It may have been a whole lot easier in print to laugh at ourselves without missing the point.  But come on, let’s face it:  On stage it is a musical comedy about child abuse … not exactly what we’re laughing much at these days.  Furthermore, it is a full-out assault, not only on its audience’s moral tolerance of abusiveness, but on its eyes and eardrums.  It takes stamina to put up with those spotlights glaring out at us and all that electronically enhanced yelling.

Okay, so the kids were all great, and a pleasure to watch.  Clearly, being an actor brings out a child’s self-confidence and joy.  They all looked like they were genuinely having a ball being make-believe victims of abuse.  On the other hand, I did find myself asking what kind of abuse it took to make them that good, and what lives they had given up to be used by producers, directors, choreographers, coaches, etc.  … See …?  That’s the kind of thinking Roald Dahl engenders in you.  And it does beg the larger question:  At what point do you become the object of what you are satirizing?  And it became even more of a concern for me with a supposedly “out-of-play” second act intro speech exhorting the children in the audience to tear up their books and sit in front of the “telly” to learn everything they’ll ever need to know in life.    Yeah, yeah … I know.  It’s satire.

Ten-year-old Paige Brady as Matilda was of course adorable, and uncannily talented.  But people-wise, the real reason to sit through the show is Christopher Sieber’s over-the-top portrayal by  of the evil school head, Miss Trunchbull.

In the end though, this was not a show about people, but about the artistry of the set.  It’s a trend in musical theatre with gargantuan budgets these days that I think is particularly unfortunate.  I can only hope the big money runs out soon for such projects, so that we can get back to story and people.  This was the most complicated,  ingeniously conceived and executed set I’ve ever seen on a New York stage (including Spiderman).  But much of it was completely unnecessary.  Some set pieces only appeared for brief seconds, and seemed placed only to say “Oh boy, look what we can do!!!”  It’s brilliant complications and flexibility took the majority of my focus away from Matilda and her friends.  Spectacle is all well and good, and one of Aristotle’s essentials of play-making.   But when the audience spends so much time hooting and hollering about explosions, laser lights, and school desks magically emerging from the floor, that they forget to care about Matilda’s predicament, then it seems to me that the ship has gone radically off course.

 

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Kermit Hunter’s HORN IN THE WEST, in Boone, NC

Last week, my wife and I were in North Carolina visiting our daughter, her partner, and our two magnificent grandkids.   Grandson Noah (10) and I decided we needed a boys’ night out, so we scampered off together for an overnight in Boone, to take a ride on the Tweetsie Railroad, and to pay a visit to Horn in the West.IMG_1857

Growing up in the summers on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I was an early devotee of The Lost Colony on Roanoke Island.  So in 1960, I elected to write my undergraduate thesis on Paul Green, Pulitzer Prize winner (for In Abraham’s Bosom), and inventor of the outdoor historical form to be called “symphonic drama.”  This of course justified my spending the last three weeks of the summer before graduation touring every outdoor drama I could get to.  I started with Green’s plays, among them The Lost Colony, The Common Glory, The Stephen Foster Story, and quickly moved on to Kermit Hunter, who had been a student of Green’s at the University of North Carolina.   In 1950, still with the Carolina Players, Hunter was commissioned to write Unto These Hills, for Cherokee, NC, the story of the Cherokee people and their forced removal from Appalachia in the notorious “trail of tears.” He followed that up two years later with Horn in the West, a play about Daniel Boone and the mountain rebels during the Revolutionary War.

In this theatrical day and age of cynical sophistication and technical wizardry, what a pleasure to find some of the simplicity of old-fashioned story-telling that wears its heart on its sleeve for all to see.  Of course part of me still yearns for cynical sophistication and technical wizardry, but this game is played in an entirely different ball park.  Four of the five historical dramas I mentioned above are still playing, and still heavily attended.  They turn our attention back to old-fashioned values like family, and patriotism, and freedom, and appreciation for the efforts and trials our forefathers went through that let us become who and what we are today.  They refuse to let go of our history, even blatantly preaching that we should never forget where we came from and who paid for our lives with their lives.   These outdoor historical dramas are still staged for appreciative audiences all over the country in large gawky amphitheaters carved into hillsides, competing with air traffic above and auto traffic below.  Lighting and sound effects are minimal, stage sets are primitive, and the echo of musket fire is deafening.

But in the end, you wouldn’t want it any other way. They cover all the bases in exploring what it is to be human in trying times that demand critical decisions.  They may be the purest combination of entertainment and education we have left in America.  They celebrate historical figures and events about which we remember very little.   They are inspirational, and let’s face it, they are just plain fun.

A Horn in the West begins with the 1771 Battle of Alamance Creek, which resulted in the deaths of many Southern Rebels, and the flight of the survivors to the mountains near what is now Boone.  There they opened new remote settlements  safe from “His Majesty’s laws.”   It was this circumstance that encouraged the already legendary explorer and Virginia legislator Daniel Boone, to blaze the Wilderness Trail into Kentucky in 1775, and open the West to new settlements.   But by 1780, His Majesty’s patience had worn out, and Cornwallis dispatched Major Patrick Ferguson to bring the rebels back into the fold, threatening to invade their settlements, hang their leaders, murder their wives and children, and “lay waste their country with fire and sword.”  Instead of slipping further into the mountains as might have been expected, over 1400 patriot frontiersmen rallied together, ambushed Ferguson’s army, and soundly defeated the British at the Battle of King’s Mountain.  It was the beginning of the end for the American War for Independence.

Throughout the performance were the requisite song and dance numbers, rendered by an exceptionally enthusiastic and talented company, many recruited locally from Appalachian State University.    There were love story sub-plots, and moments of high comedy, especially as provided by Brad Archer as the Reverend Sims.  There were also, poignant moments of hollow victory, and a very touching father-son story which effectively suggested just how difficult it must have been to choose sides in this conflict that nobody truly wanted.

In the fifty-plus odd years it’s been since I first saw A Horn in the West, it has changed considerably, not that I would remember it substantively in its original form anyway.  Still, Hunter himself undertook a revision in 1962 that somewhat softened the pro-white, anti-Indian ethic so prevalent ten years earlier.  And since Hunter’s death in 2001, it has continued to be revised.  Its current version demonstrates considerable respect and understanding for the Indian cause, and even for the British soldiers who died for their loyalty to the Crown.   It’s become all very P.C., which in this case has made it better story-telling.

The audience ranging in age from 5 to 85 seemed to love what they heard and saw.  I had been somewhat concerned that Noah might be bored with the whole thing,   For me it was a trip down nostalgia lane, but for him … ?

“That was VERY cool,” he said. “And my eyes didn’t even get all stingy and blurry like they do after screen time.  I think it’s better to have real people acting the story.”  You can’t get a better endorsement than that these days. Lets hear it for live theater!

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CATF: Chisa Hutchinson’s DEAD AND BREATHING

Scan 141990003I had been especially eager to see Dead and Breathing, mostly because it purportedly tackled the important theme of “right to die,” and it sounded like a light-hearted approach to a controversial subject. Light-hearted it certainly was, if not all that controversial. Any attitudes the play takes on controversial issues are already set in stone, well beyond the debate stage.

Once again: two superior actors, as expected.  The acting talent has been consistently superb all weekend.  This time Lizan Mitchell plays Carolyn, a crusty old woman dying of cancer, tired of being sick, and eager to get it over with.  So right off the bat she solicits her new hospice nurse, Veronika, “with a K,” for help.  Veronika, played by N. L. Graham, is both deeply “Christian,” and a viking of a tough broad.  She is of course shocked and offended, and refuses, until …  And there I either have to stop story-telling, or throw in a spoiler alert.  And the play is way too much fun to even hint at what happens next.

In a Saturday afternoon roundtable discussion, playwright Chisa Hutchinson herself initially came across as a bundle of fascinating contradictions.  She’s a quiet young woman with a mundane day job and a prep school and Vassar education, who carries on her sleeve the anger of the streets where she was raised.  “If you want drama in a play, put a black person on the stage!” she cries out.  “If you want crisis, if you want anger, put a black woman on the stage!”

Still, the two black people on stage in Dead and Breathing could as easily have been white or any shade in between … ignoring of course the terrific rhythms of black street dialect used here with maximum humor and intensity.  This pair lacks inhibition, and neither party has any hesitation to get right to the point of her thoughts and feelings.  Not a few of the more refined “civilized,” largely caucasian members of the audience were surely feeling “I wish I could be that forthright.”

Speaking the truth, bluntly, and seeing it accepted, is one of the things the theatre does better than any other medium.  And if recognizing and acknowledging those truths keeps us in gales of laughter, so much the better.  In that regard, without trying too hard, this piece was the most successful of this year’s Festival.

For only two small moments was there a pause in the loud laughter that otherwise filled the room for a solid eighty minutes.  One was my fault … when my silenced phone suddenly decided to sound a very loud tornado alert, warning me to “get inside immediately.”  And the other, when the play teetered on the edge of preaching on a subject the audience did not yet consider relevant.   That unexpected new development turns out to be very relevant, of course, although Carolyn’s reaction to it seemed way over the top for such a down-to-earth woman.

Once a playwright has come up with such an intriguing pair of characters, and put them through their paces in a challenging situation, and raised the ante a few times, there’s always the problem of how he or she gets it all resolved.

Antoine Doinel's final scene in Les Quatre Cents Coups

Antoine Doinel’s final scene in Les Quatre Cents Coups

Hence the popularity of contemporary plays and films that finish without resolution.  We end up with countless variations on Jean-Pierre Léaud’s famous “where can I go from here”  stare out to  sea in Francois Truffaut’s The Four Hundred Blows. But Miss Hutchinson has elected not to do anything like that here.  As a consequence, she provides us with a little too pat a finish.  Not pat enough, however, to detract from a hilarious play that challenges current “norms,” attitudes toward dying, etc.  It will surely lead to long discussions and debate among its audiences.  This is the stuff of fine theatre.

An after-thought:  That “tornado” turned out to be a super violent wind and lightning storm, flying tree limbs, flooding, and the works. It struck Shepherd University just as we were leaving the theatre at the end of the play. Consequently, many of us stood and sat around for another half-hour or so, meeting and chatting with new friends and neighbors, while we waited for the storm to permit a safe walk to our cars.  The discussions and debate generated by Dead and Breathing began immediately.  For one new friend, for instance, Veronika represented the unlikely force by which crusty old Carolyn finally accepts Christianity.  I didn’t really see Carolyn accepting much of anything in the play, but it would certainly be worth a longer discussion.  It was great fun, and left me feeling such opportunities would be welcomed if regularly scheduled.

And so, for us, ends the 2014 Contemporary American Theatre Festival.  Should you feel tempted, it continues through August 3. We’ll surely be back for the 2015 Festival, looking to be challenged and surprised by new works, as yet largely untried and unproven.   It is so reassuring to find not only these gutsy playwrights and plays, but to find this gutsy audience, willing to risk their convictions, time and money, for the chance of getting a fresh take on American life, far removed from the lights of Broadway, in a remote little West Virginia town.

P.S.  Dear readers, I welcome comments, “likes,” and disagreements on these posts.  Please share them with friends, and up there in the upper right corner, you’re more than welcome to subscribe to be notified of future entries.   This makes my 100th post in almost four years.  And as you can see from my history, for a blog, posts will be relatively rare, and come in bursts.   Why not open up a dialogue?

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CATF: Bruce Graham’s NORTH OF THE BOULEVARD

IMG_1782On Sunday afternoon, we walked into the theatre for this show to be greeted by an extraordinarily realistic auto repair shop right up there on the stage.  Impressive!  And incidentally, it has to trade off every other night in repertory with the motel room set of One Night! … Which reminds me to rave about the designers for this whole Contemporary American Theater Festival enterprise.  Of the five new plays this year, this is the only one wedded to absolute realism in fine detail, and to be sure it’s all there: the grime, the cracks, the blaring radio, the rags, even the real car, hood up. But that’s not unusual: No set for any of the five plays shows any sign of make-do or slipshod scene design.  Every effort has been made to provide each playwright a finished, creative production design, in every way possible in keeping with the play.  Quality is evident all around.

Mr. Graham earned his stripes in stand-up comedy, which is pretty obvious from the first few lines of his dialogue here.  Words seem to come loud, hard and fast to him and to his characters.  This is a brazenly funny play, a madcap combination of farce and sitcom, set in that deceptive time of “Everything will turn out all right after all” optimism that followed President Obama’s election.  There are four recognizable, semi-sane characters, barking catchy one-liners that don’t sound at all forced, and performing spot-on comic buttons and hilarious slapstick movements.  An old man and his son throw truly damaging insults at each other.  A neighbor-friend in a cop uniform (or is he a security guard?) provides an observer’s eye, and also serves as the catalyst for the play’s ultimate moral dilemma.   The fourth man is Trip, the garage’s beleaguered owner, desperately hanging on to his shoe-string business.

As they say, “It’s all in the timing.”  And with these guys, the timing is impeccable, both in the writing and in the delivery.  They made it easy to laugh.  But the laughter is also more than a little embarrassing. And my wife would say it’s downright depressing to be laughing while watching so much emotional anger and pain being batted around. Yes, this is one of those plays where you find yourself laughing out loud at a bad situation turned worse, that really isn’t very funny at all.

Trip’s garage is the last holdout in that now destitute part of the city that has gradually become a dangerous gang battleground, largely abandoned by the middle class and traditional neighborhood businesses.  In so many ways, we realize that these guys, and so many more like them, are doomed.  It’s an old story:  The working middle class has gotten the shaft, and its survivors are left to dream the economically impossible dream.  In this case, they dream of moving to the “north side of the Boulevard,” where life would presumably be a bowl of cherries.

The entire first act of the play is devoted to setting up situation and character, saving action and dilemma for Act Two.  By the time an outrageous proposal seems to point our boys in the direction of their dream, we’ve already come to see that there really is no way out … and up north, the cherries are all gone anyway.

Like any good comedy, North of the Boulevard takes ordinary recognizable situations and characters, and exaggerates to the max.  So here we are, caught laughing away at a truly disturbing, farcical exaggeration of a situation that we know will inevitably be tragic.  It’s good old-fashioned dramatic irony in the extreme, and it works.  But we really do need to wrestle with our own consciences in order to give way to the hilarity.

In the end of course, it’s laughter that ultimately permits us all to blunt the impact of tragedy.  In North of the Boulevard, Bruce Graham has crafted a play from an uncomfortable one-gag joke that should give us all reason to question the superficial comforts of the universe we live in.

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CATF: Christina Anderson’s THE ASHES UNDER GAIT CITY

IMG_1788Christina Anderson was inspired to write her play based on the circumstances of black people in Seattle in the 1800’s, then as segregated an American city as you could find.  Free blacks were actually prohibited from entering the state of Oregon by its constitution when it was admitted to the union.  In 1860, when Abe Lincoln was elected president, Oregon’s black population was 128, out of a total of 52,465.

At the end of the Civil War, the new states in the Northwest were not alone in their exclusionary policies, but merely carrying on a long northern tradition.  Free blacks were a population largely unwelcome in the North, ignored, forgotten about, disrespected, and most of all “disregarded,” as stated by the protagonist of The Ashes under Gait City.

After the fictional Gait City had been leveled to the ground by a devastating fire some time in its past, it was rebuilt.  But one little piece of its history was missing:  It no longer recognized that it had ever had a black population.  And now, Simone, an internet spiritual leader, decides to incite her fellow black Americans to move into the city and reclaim their history and their respect.

Much of the play is given over to the nitty-gritty of finding a place to live and gaining an initially reluctant small cult following.  Only in its last thirty minutes does it get into serious debate about the function of cults, the need for revolution, the quest for dignity as human beings, respect, or even mere recognition.

And then, surpassing expectations, the play begins to question whether such searches inevitably turn back on themselves, so that the revolutionaries become exactly what they have decried and protested.  The virtues of strong leadership and free elections come into question.  The evolution of the play takes on shades of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” or Lois Lowry’s “The Giver,” particularly at the very end, although to me the irony felt both naïve and excessive.  Still, it’s also not hard to recognize parallels in our own world where the “righteous” become the oppressors, and where “the others” are but a problem to be either eliminated or ignored.  The evidence is in the headlines.

The play is loosely structured as a series of short, more-or-less chronological episodes, which of course is a popular approach these days in reaching short attention spans. That’s possibly at least partly the result of the workshop approach to play development, where suggestions for scenes come from many different directions, some focused, and some not so much.  I found myself longing for a tighter story line, with a limited number of essential scenes with ever-rising tension and a sharper sense of irony.

We are way beyond an angry treatise on black history here.  These are big themes, a part of our common human need to understand our own behaviors and needs, and figure out where we fit in the puzzle of life and death.  It’s not our otherness which draws the focus, but our sameness.  And critical to the success of the play is its ability to force us, or trick us, into accepting our own blind hypocrisy, and into recognizing our individual need to be seen.  It’s the dilemma of Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man:  You don’t have to like me.  You don’t even have to respect me.  Let’s just start with knowing that I am.

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CATF: Thomas Gibbons’ UNCANNY VALLEY

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Yesterday’s noontime matinee was performed in the little Studio 112 Theater at Shepherd University.  It is equipped with an entire stage on wheels, floored about a foot off the ground, and facing a floor-to-ceiling steeply raked wall of audience.  A magical room for fine theatre to be a-borning: Intimate, moveable, completely flexible, and fascinating.

We sat in the front row, just a few feet from two astounding actors: Playwright and actor Barbara Kingsley, who with over 200 professional stage appearances from Broadway to LaJolla, would be a familiar face to any decent theatre addict, plays computer programmer Claire.  And Alex Podulke is back from last year, having acquired credits from all over the country, to play Julian, a very personable human-like robot.

I have to admit that based on the advance write-ups, Uncanny Valley was the play from which I expected the least. I’m not an especially avid science fiction fan, and the robots in my head, with their monotonic HAL/Robby/Klaatu/R2D2 voices, are actually pretty boring. (I know, I know: R2D2 squeaked, and Klaatu was the humanoid, not the robot, which didn’t speak at all. There, I’ve given myself away.)

I could not have been more wrong in my prejudice. What Thomas Gibbons has crafted in Uncanny Valley has little to do with science fiction.  Instead, it is a perfect little story documenting the evolving relationship between the constructed human-robot Julian, and Claire, his programmer/trainer.  It is also a quiet little parable about the desire to achieve eternal life, the increasingly blurred little valleys between life and death, and the mysterious gulfs between parents and children.  The process of Julian’s education, and the introduction of his emotional capacity are extraordinarily touching.  So is Claire’s growing maternal affection for this “machine,”  which is beautifully revealed with the gift of Julian’s legs and the talk of her own daughter.

But the big question of the play comes after the training, the downloads, and the mechanical challenges have been completed.  Who/what is Julian? And what are the ultimate moral and legal consequences, the costs of his existence to human society?  The play leaves us debating many urgent questions it does not attempt to answer, merely mapping out a road to some fascinating critical issues that science will force us to deal with much sooner than we think.  The work going on in the play is being explored in today’s laboratories.  Take a look on line at Bina48, or Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov’s 2045 Initiative.  Or as was recommended by a physicist friend and fellow audience member, pick up a copy of  Robo World: The Story of Robot Designer Cynthia Breazeal.

Science fiction?   Pah!  … Not this time.

As a playwright and director myself, I had only two objections to an otherwise superb theatrical experience.   A very bold decision is made late in the play, intended for theatrical impact that I found distracting.  It feels more like a concept director’s decision than a script matter, but I could be wrong.   I can’t be more specific without compromising the story;  suffice to say, I thought the questions raised in the dialogue itself were sufficient challenges without cluttering the matter up with an obscure gimmick.

If I were to admit it, my second concern comes down to sheer envy:  I agonize over writing a play.  I deal with laziness, writer’s block, clutter, and endless rewrites. Gibbons makes the whole process feel like a cake walk.   I mean … come on!  The guy walks into a dentist’s office waiting room and picks up an  article in National Geographic.  And two weeks later he has laid out this little gem?  It’s downright “uncanny!”

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CATF: Charles Fuller’s ONE NIGHT

Last night was opening night of the 24th annual Contemporary American Theater Festival. My wife and I are here for our third year.   See my blog post of July 14, 2012; sadly, I got either swamped or lazy and neglected to write up the three plays we saw here last year. Suffice to say they were good enough to bring us back and establish a tradition for us. IMG_1778If you don’t know of the Festival, check out the CATF website. Hosted by Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, WV, it sets out to produce and develop new American theatre, and its core values are “to sustain an artistic process of innovation and daring, to tell diverse stories, to create a profound and ever-evolving relationship between the audience and the work.” Pretty impressive goals, and they make it hard to stay away. This year, we re-upped for all five new plays.

I was particularly eager to see Charles Fuller’s newest play, One Night. I remember years ago seeing his A Soldier’s Play, which won a Pulitzer Prize back in 1982, and was subsequently made into the award-winning film, A Soldier’s Story. So I had high expectations of this new one.  One Night had played last Fall at the Cherry Lane in New York, but Mr. Fuller is clearly not finished with it, continuing to make further revisions and try out new ideas.

Fuller himself was present in last night’s audience.  He is a gentle giant of a black man, who deals brutally and honestly with the evils of racism, and who is utterly dismayed by our human capacity to invent cogent “reasons” to harm each other.   We “good guys” have found ways to accept the necessity of war, otherwise known as the legitimized mass murder of individuals who have no need to harm each other were it not for the demands of “God” or country. We have accepted radical racism as being justified by “fear of what’s different,” or by self defense … even when no perceived threat is actually present. We have accepted post-traumatic stress disorder as a fact of life, lashing out at each other in the form of rapes, serial murders,  and mass shootings. And on it goes. IMG_1780

These are the themes Mr. Fuller tackles in One Night. No easy task! It’s the story of Alicia, an Army sergeant brutally raped by three men while serving in “the sandbox,” as the Iraq theatre of operations was called. In a seedy motel room following her discharge, she tries to stitch her life back together with a questionable fellow vet. Seeking ordinary victim justice has proven fruitless. She finds herself plagued by flashbacks, accused of setting a fire she can’t remember, and harassed by the motel pimp, the police and the fire department.

There are a lot of angles to follow through, and the script seems cluttered by unnecessary complications. I wasn’t sure just why the pimp even needed to be here. Worse, it took a long time to uncover a nonessential mystery I hadn’t even realized was a part of the play. The combination of too much and too little information prevented any real suspense or climactic impact, and the last few scenes in the play seemed to disintegrate into hopeless cliché, as if rushed to meet production deadlines … which in this case, could not have been so.

However, the complicated process of making a play takes seeing, and revising, and discussion, and testing, and response. And process is largely what this Festival is for. I already know from his other work that Mr. Fuller is a craftsman, and I have little doubt he’ll continue to develop the work into a very dramatic piece on an urgent theme. Or instead, … he could listen to the enthusiastic endorsement of the young man who sat next to me before this afternoon’s matinee: “Hey, wasn’t last night’s play  intense, awesome, deep, perfect?” … and choose not to change a thing. Such is the nature of theatre.

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LE MISANTHROPE @ La Comédie Française

Paris, Monday, 21 April.

Now that sounds exotic.  Originally, I wasn’t going to write this one up.  On the other hand, I’m here, and I did take myself to the Comédie Française for a matinee performance of Le Misanthrope.  And since I use this blog to explore my own responses to theatre performances, why stop now?

Hotel Malte-Opera, Rue de Richelieu

Hotel Malte-Opera, Rue de Richelieu

I won’t go into why I’m here, except to say that I discovered a discount flight and a nice little hotel in Paris for four nights that totaled only slightly more than my more habitual four nights in New York.  Besides, I lived here for two years as a boy.  The compulsion to visit it again combined with an inexplicable urge to finally go to see the cathedral at Chartres, and also to fight my way through the crowds at the Louvre to see renowned art first hand,  neither of which had attracted me as a boy.

Sadly for me, Joan was tied up with some pretty intense editing of her challenging new book, Me, Myself, And Mom, A Journey Through Love, Hate, And Healing.  But meanwhile, the trip became irresistible.

Chartres Cathedral

Chartres Cathedral

I. M. Pei's Pyramid entrance to the Louvre, completed in 1989.

I. M. Pei’s Pyramid entrance to the Louvre, completed in 1989.

Mona Lisa & Me

Mona Lisa & Me

“So what’re ya gonna do?”… (as declared by one of the Mr. Joneses quoted in my last post.)  So here I am!  (… and already planning a return visit with Joan.)

IMG_1302I guess it’s reasonably required of any serious theatre buff when in Paris to visit La Comédie Française.  It’s a genuine landmark in the history of the theatre.  The main auditorium, La Salle Richelieu, is an absolutely beautiful, carefully preserved, gilded treasure, dating from 1789.

But, one thing you may NOT want to feel obligated to do is to attend a performance at La Comédie Française … that is not unless you are fluent in classical French and adore Molière wherever and however you can find him.  It’s too damn much like work.  I can still do all right in a casual conversation with a patient Frenchman, but not with rapid-fire satire in classical seventeenth century French in rhymed iambic hexameter, or whatever it is.

So for this I’d done my homework, reread the play in English, studied up my Cliff notes, and was prepared to keep up appearances by laughing in all the right places.  It didn’t happen. … not even with Le Misanthrope, perhaps Molière’s best known work.  Maybe I should have picked Le Songe d’une nuit d’été (Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream), on the schedule for that following evening.  No, not French enough.

In my own defense, it didn’t happen with the rest of the audience either, the laughter, that is.  Up until the intermission, there was not a single out-loud guffaw.  And I counted only maybe a dozen suppressed giggles.  This was not the Molière I expected:  No just plain silliness, and certainly no slapstick.  I’ve never been a huge fan, but in the past he has provided me with many good guffaws along the way, and his work is the very foundation of the modern biting sitcom.

Do your work, muse!

Do your work, muse!

My hotel was just down the street from from where he died, and I thought it wouldn’t hurt my muse if I took a selfie with the master looking down over my shoulder.  I can always use the inspiration.  And there he was again, sprawled all over the sidewalk in chalk next to the Hotel du Louvre.
IMG_1301

 

Clearly, Molière remains a prominent staple in French culture.  And I felt under considerable obligation to pay my respects.

So back to  this particular production:  What happened to the notoriously comic antics of Alceste, the misanthrope, the critic of all mankind, the curmudgeonly grouch and negativist, as he insists on exposing all the lies and hypocrisies that surround him?  Judging

My rat's-eye view from Row 1.

A rat’s-eye view from Row 1.

from the audience’s response (and from my rat’s eye point of view in the front row, the last to go, and for good reason, as I found out)?  Gone!   But why? Alceste is a one-man truth squad, loaded with potential for laughter. But here, what was funny about him or his “victims”?  Nothing!

It’s true that a more serious tone than I was prepared for is there in the writing.  This is supposed to be one of the less frantic, more character-driven of Molière’s works, and rumor has it that the story is somewhat autobiographical.  He had already learned too well that there is a price to be paid for insulting society by being brutally honest.  His last play, Tartuffe, had provoked violent reactions, so this time he had determined to leave the higher echelons of society alone.  Consequently, in Le Misanthrope, first produced in 1666, nothing much happens, relatively speaking.   There’s not a lot of exaggerated movement and foppishness to make fun of.   Instead, his aim here was presumably higher (and safer), attacking human nature itself.

The director, Clément Herview-Léger, had  wonderful talent to work with.  The resident acting company is of course superb, providing a tightly controlled blend of precise movement and contemporary realism.  And the seasoned actors have figured out how to make conversation sound astoundingly real and modern, despite their poetic artificiality.  The somewhat off-putting contemporary setting was in some kind of abandoned, white-washed palatial ballroom, and in modern dress. Alceste (Löic Corbery) came across not with pompous self-assurance, but as a never-satisfied, handsome young whiner, a kind of late-in-life student idealist, full of doubts and self-hatred, constantly depressed over the universal hypocrisy of mankind, and frustratingly in love with the wrong woman (Georgia Scalliet as the holier-than-thou Célimène).  (I still can’t figure out why a brutally honest man of Alceste’s nature, a professional at seeing through sham, can’t see through the blatant phoniness of Célimène).   C’est l’amour!

Georgia Scalliet as Célimène, and Löic Corbery as Alceste, in Molière's  Le Misanthrope, 2014. Photo © Brigitte Enguérand.

Georgia Scalliet as Célimène, and Löic Corbery as Alceste, in Molière’s Le Misanthrope, 2014. Photo © Brigitte Enguérand.

With a stiff neck from looking up at shoes onstage, and in a narrow, uncomfortable seat, it was not easy to watch a depressed man going through his paces in a “comedy” stressing what’s wrong with all of us.  Despite the plays relative “maturity” in its approach to satire, I’d go so far as to say the pacing itself was even more painfully depressing, full of long pauses, and so slow as to be downright “anti-comedic.” And somehow that just doesn’t fit with my notions of Molière.

To the best of my knowledge, neither myself nor the sell-out audience, who are presumably far more accustomed than I am to what goes on in this sacred hall of humor, ever indulged in a decent belly-laugh!   It was hard to say what we recognized in ourselves, which to my mind is the whole point of satire.  This was a disappointing come-down from the noisy laughter elicited by The Realistic Joneses two days earlier.

There is a great deal more positive to be said for my experience with Le Misanthrope.  It is after all a masterpiece.  And it was quite wonderful to hear the exceedingly clever rhymes and rhythms actually work in conversation … not in the sing-songy pedantic cadence usually heard in classrooms.  And most of all, the wonderful tingling that comes from sitting in that space, in the company of the three-and-a-half-century-old spirit of Molière himself, can not be lightly dismissed.

Even so, I must end with a confession:  I happily slipped away during the intermission.  So there it is.  A cardinal sin, I know.  Maybe the director and his company were preparing to lay it all on us in the second half.   But after all, I already knew how it would end:  Alceste goes on being misanthropic, alone, isolated from all the corruption and hypocrisy he has insisted on criticizing and exposing, unable to live in human society.

On the other hand: It was a beautiful, sunshiny day … mostly.
And Paris was out there!IMG_1331

And there were old neighborhoods to walk!

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