Sunday, April 19, 2015

191 (2014-2105): Review of THE TAILOR OF INVERNESS (April 14, 2015)

"The Fabric of a Life"

The Brits Off Broadway Festival at 59E59 Theaters begins with the potently effective THE TAILOR OF INVERNESS, Matthew Zajac’s solo play. It combines the autobiographical stream of consciousness ruminations of Mr. Zajac’s father, Mateusz, the tailor of the title, with the son’s straightforward narrative documentary exposition of his search for his family roots. Like so many persons displaced by the upheavals of war, whether it be one of the World Wars or any of those now roiling Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere, Mr. Zajac’s father endured unbelievable hardship when forced to leave his homeland and loved ones, ending up somewhere totally unexpected, and leaving the mysteries of his experiences behind for his offspring to unravel.
Matthew Zajac. Photo: Tim Morozzo.
The elder Zajac’s experiences, while personal, hold universal interest and he's fortunate to have in his son a writer and trained actor of sufficient talent to bring that story to vivid life. Matthew Zajac has been performing this material since 2008, under the able direction of Ben Harrison of Edinburgh’s Grid Iron Theatre, and has toured with it through Europe, including Poland and Ukraine; it also went to Australia. It won production and performance awards at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2010. The play’s American premiere came in 2012, at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. In 2013, Mr. Zajac published the story in book form.
Matthew Zajac. Photo: Tim Morozzo.
Matthew Zajac, a trim middle-aged man dressed simply in white shirt, tie, and slacks, plays both his father (with eyeglasses) and himself (without); a violinist (Aidan O’Rourke) on a rolling stool in an upstage corner accompanies the entire performance (original music by Jonny Hardie and Gavin Marwick), some of which includes Polish songs that Zajac sings. The setting (by Ali Maclaurin, also credited as the costume designer) is a tailor’s table set with scissors, needles, and thread, and a blueish rear wall into which garments seem to have been compressed; a girl’s dress from the 1940s hangs on the wall as well. There’s also a tailor’s female dummy and a rolling, metal clothing rack with World War II military jackets hanging on it, as well as two white children’s shirts. The backdrop also serves as a screen for the projections of subtitles for Polish-language sequences and lyrics, as well as for maps, stills, and videos (video designs by Tim Reid).
Matthew Zajac. Photo: Tim Morozzo.
Mateusz (Polish for Matthew) Zajac was born and raised in a melting-pot part of Poland called Galicia that the redrawn map of Europe later placed in the Ukraine. Speaking in a Polish-Scottish accent, he recounts his experiences (including romantic ones) after war broke out in 1939 and he joined the army; he was sent hither and yon through such far-flung places as Ukraine, Russia, Persia (as Iran was known), Iraq, Egypt, North Africa, and Italy. During the war he found himself forced to join one nation’s army after the other, including the Nazi army, and also endured forced labor on a Russian collective farm. He was a dehumanized cog, now here, now there, never told what was happening but expected to fulfill whatever obligations were put upon him, like the sequence of military jackets from different countries—including Germany—he dons one after the other at one point. (He brings to mind the title character in The Good Soldier Švejk, also spelled Schweik or Schwejk, Jaroslav Hašek’s famous antiwar novel.) Finally, he wound up in Glasgow, Scotland, after which, following numerous peregrinations in Scotland, he settled in Inverness and had a successful career as a tailor and raised a family.

Mr. Zajac tells his father’s story circuitously, inserting himself into it every now and then, introducing songs, and illustrating the route his father’s travels and travails took him through by the use of animated maps (too unfocused and crowded with data to follow very closely). Matthew, eventually anxious to fill in the gaps in his father’s story, decides to find out for himself as much as he can of what really happened, and he goes on his own journey into the past, obtaining official military records of his father’s activities, and even traveling to the Ukraine to meet surviving family members. What he learns reveals that what his father told him wasn’t entirely true, but that what actually did happen—including the tailor’s fathering of Matthew’s hitherto unknown half-sister—was actually more dramatic, if possible. The struggle to discover his father’s identity (and, by extension, his own) in a confusing landscape of mixed national, linguistic, cultural, and religious factors, is the same one so many diasporic wanderers continue to experience.

Mr. Zajac offers a quicksilver, physically adept performance of many colors and emotions; his rhythms constantly changing, along with his volume, he is continuously engaging. The staging has him go through many arduous activities, including doing pushups when commanded to do so by a nasty Wehrmacht officer. He handles clothing in a way that brings it to life, at one point making a garment in his hands seem to breathe. Much of his effectiveness can be attributed to the imaginative way director Harrison makes even the limited props at his disposal theatrical, like the clothing rack that Mr. Zajac wheels rapidly about in one scene, or the military jackets in which he dances. The tailor’s dummy also comes alive in lovely ways, as Mr. Zajac dances with it or drapes it with a pink scarf to represent several young women in turn.

This year is the 70th anniversary of the ending of World War II and, by extension, the Holocaust. THE TAILOR OF INVERNESS is, in its own way, a Holocaust story (like two recent plays recalling that horrific history, THE HAPPY END and JANKA). Jews made up 90% of the tailoring trade in Galicia and would have been responsible for training Mateusz; there’s even a moment when the tailor, a Roman Catholic, puts on one signifying armband after the other as he questions which best identifies him: Ukranian? Russian? Pole? He then picks up a cloth yellow Star of David, pondering it for a moment, almost as if to suggest that, in a way, he too is a Jew, before putting it down again.

THE TAILOR OF INVERNESS is packed with important historical information about the Galician experience of World War II. Sometimes this goes adrift amid the multiple threads woven together in the fabric of the tailor’s story, but soon enough you’re reengaged in the tailor’s remarkable tale. Perhaps your own family history has a story similarly worth telling.

59E59 Theaters
59 E. 59 Street, NYC
Through May 3

Friday, April 17, 2015

190 (2014-2015): Review of CLINTON: THE MUSICAL (April 16, 2015)

“The West Wing It Ain’t but It's a Lot Funnier”

The spirited, very funny CLINTON: THE MUSICAL returns us to the naughty (and, in the modern way) gay 90s when the raunchy Democrat in the White House had not yet ceded power to the ranchy Republican who took us into Iraq following the nightmare of 9/11. Perhaps one day, when the darkness fades, it’ll be possible to conceive of a musical spoof of the Bush years, when, at least until 2006, we were able to escape from its horrors into the fantasy of a noble Democratic presidency via TV’s “The West Wing.”  Now, 15 years after the Clinton era ended, we’re able (thanks to time, the great healer) to look back and laugh through the prism of parody at those fin de siècle traumas; this is especially so since the main players in that 90s White House are still very much with us, with one of them announcing just this week that she’s running for the office her hubby clung to despite all that could be done to remove him.
Cast of CLINTON: THE MUSICAL, with, on platform, from left: Duke Lafoon, Tom Galantich, Kerry Butler. Photo: Russ Rowland.
There’s a lot here on which to exercise your zygomatic muscles when you compress into 92 raucous and often off-color intermissionless minutes a presidency marked (marred?) by Hillary Clinton’s failed health care plan, the Paula Jones accusations of sexual mischief, the so-called Whitewater scandal, the actual Monica Lewinsky scandal, the charges (still churning) of witchcraft aimed at the First Lady, Bill’s budget balancing efforts (with Hillary’s help), Newt Gingrich’s government shutdown, Clinton’s impeachment, Ken Starr’s prosecutorial antics, the 1996 campaign, the constant media frenzy, and the rest of the wild Washington shenanigans in the environs of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Center, John Treacy Egan; behind him, left: Veronica J. Kuehn; right: Kara Guy; rear: from left: Dale Hensley, Judy Gold, Kevin Zak. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Smartly staged and choreographed by Dan Knechtges, and written by two Australians, Paul Hodge and Michael Hodge, CLINTON sets us smack down in designer Beowulf Boritt’s just-cartoonish enough Oval Office (nicely lit by Paul Miller), the side walls decorated with portraits of presidents and their presidential squeezes. A portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt can turn translucent so we can see Eleanor (Judy Gold) herself behind it offering advice (“A woman is like a teabag” that gets stronger when steeped in hot water) to Hillary, her spiritual mentee. Those above can open to reveal various characters who pop their heads through them, including Hillary, who shows up to welcome us to “her first presidency.” The central portion of the set revolves to show other locales, like the sub-sub basement where Gingrich and Starr machinate against the president.  
Duke Lafoon, Veronica J. Kuehn. Photo: Russ Rowland.
The hilariously vibrant Kerry Butler plays Hillary, her blond hair set off by the First Lady’s familiar blue pants suit, while two actors play 42’s battling selves, the silver-haired Tom Galantich as the idealistic, earnest pol, WJ, and the dark-haired Duke Lafoon as the louche, weed-toking, sax-wailing, Arkansas-accented Billy. The imaginative premise shows the two sides of Clinton’s personality struggling for supremacy and Hillary’s favor.
From left: Kevin Zak, John Treacy Egan, Tom Galantich, Kerry Butler, Kara Guy (behind Ms. Butler), Veronica J. Kuehn, Dale Hensley. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Supporting them is a sensational ensemble of singer-dancer-actors playing multiple roles, highlighted by the towering, droll Judy Gold as Eleanor and, most memorably, Monica’s loudmouth friend and betrayer, Linda Tripp; the overstuffed, light-on-his-feet John Treacy Egan as the junk food-wolfing, dimwittedly nasty Speaker of the House and arch-Clinton adversary, Newt Gingrich, his head topped like whipped cream by a glaring white wig, who gleefully sings “Nay” to every Clinton idea; Kevin Zak as special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, a ghoulish creep with an upswept pompadour resembling a soft ice cream swirl, who strips off his clothing (while singing “A Starr Is Born”) to expose a toned body dressed in scanty S/M gear; and Veronica J. Kuehn as the sex-addled, beret-topped White House intern, Monica, who warbles the genteel “I Can’t Fucking Believe I’m Fucking the President” while cavorting around his desk, and tossing off lyrics like, “I feel like we just click when I’m sucking on his . . . thing.”   
Judy Gold, Veronica J. Kuehn. Photo: Russ Rowland.
As this suggests, CLINTON: THE MUSICAL sometimes gets down and dirty, but the dirt is clean enough to remain within the boundaries of acceptable bad taste (how else do you do a show about a commander in chief who shot off his bazooka in an oval orifice?).
Front: Kerry Butler; rear: Tom Galantich (left), Duke Lafoon. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Also, you may remember a pack of Republican stiffs named Lott, Helms, Boehner, Hutchison, Dole, DeLay, Gramm, and Hyde; they’re here, too, but in the form of cardboard cutouts, all in black and white except one with a face notable for its Man-Tan veneer. Also standing by in cardboard stiffness is VP Al Gore. Socks, the Clinton cat, appears as a sock puppet, but little Chelsea passes by inconspicuously in the dialogue. Costume designer David C. Woolard does a bang-up job costuming everyone—cutouts excepted—in satirically amusing but not too overdone 90s' getups.
Front: Duke Lafoon; rear: Tom Galantich. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Catchy tunes, sprightly dancing, on-the-spot caricatures, and ribald humor combine to make this a welcome contribution to a mainly somber season. I’ve smiled a lot but haven’t seen too many shows this year that made me actually laugh (I can be a real sourpuss) so the fact that CLINTON: THE MUSICALrevised after first being seen at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and then being shown last year at the New York Musical Theatrehad me chuckling regularly is a sign that not only is this show funnier than most, but—when looked back upon through the fog of war—the Clinton epoch was funner than other presidencies. I can’t help but wonder if the imminent office holder's tenure (WHOEVER THAT MAY BE!) will prove equally as uproarious a couple of decades from now.
From left: Kara Guy, Duke Lafoon; Dale Hensley (on floor); Tom Galantich, Kerry Butler, Veronica J. Kuehn. Photo: Russ Rowland.


189 (2014-2015): Review of HAMLET (April 10, 2015)

"O, What a Noble Play Is Here O'erthrown"

For my review of HAMLET, please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

188 (2014-2015): Review of GIGI (April 15, 2015)

“This Parisian Pastry Needs More Than Eye-Filled Hours”

My review of GIGI has migrated, in a somewhat briefer version, to THEATER PIZZAZZ. Please click the link to find it there.

Audrey Hepburn, program cover of 1951 Broadway production of GIGI .

Neil Simon Theatre
250 W. 52 Street, NYC
Open run