Tuesday, March 3, 2015

165 (2014-2015): Review of THE NOMAD (March 1, 2015)

"Isabelle, Queen of the Desert"

Apropos of THE NOMAD, the 70-minute new musical by Elizabeth Swados (music/book/
lyrics) and Erin Courtney (book/lyrics), at the Flea, a few words of introduction might be in order. It's based on the brief but unusual life of Isabelle Eberhardt (1877-1904), born and raised in Switzerland, the daughter of an aristocratic German-Russian mother and an Armenian father, who happened to be both a priest and an anarchist. Well educated and multilingual (six languages), she took an interest in Islamic culture, learned Arabic, and traveled to Algiers with her also unconventional mother in 1897, where both converted to Islam.
Neil Redfield, Teri Madonna. Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum.
Her mother died while they were in North Africa and her father passed away in Switzerland in 1897, after which Isabelle returned to Africa, where she took the name Si Mahmoud Essadi, dressed (and was accepted) as a man (although she was heterosexually promiscuous), adopted a nomad’s life to explore the Sahara, and lived among the Arabs, smoking kef, drinking extensively, engaging in mystical Sufi practices, and writing in books and newspapers about her experiences. She was involved in the French colonial presence in Algeria, but also supported the oppressed local citizens. She faced many dangers, and nearly lost an arm to an assassin’s blade. In 1901 she married an Algerian soldier named Slimane Ehnni and in 1904 she died when her clay home in Algeria was destroyed in a flash flood. She was only 27.
From left: Ryan Neal Green, Glenna Grant, Teri Madonna, Ben Schrager. Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum.
The drama in the life of such a surprisingly independent, late 19th-century, cross-dressing woman has not escaped the eye of film and theatre makers. ISABELLE EBERHARDT, a 1991 movie, starred French actress Mathilda May (Peter O’Toole was also in it), while British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1981 play NEW ANATOMIES also examined this iconoclastic woman’s life. There even has been an opera about her, SONG FROM THE UPROAR: THE LIVES AND DEATHS OF ISABELLE EBERHARDT (2012).
Teri Madonna and Ensemble. :Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum.
Swados and Courtney have created a skeletonized telling of Eberhardt’s story, at least 90% of it sung, directed by Swados with the aid of nicely stylized movement and choreography by Anj Taj. Members of the Flea’s resident acting company, the Bats, make up a flexible ensemble of 11, several of them playing named roles; barefoot, they fill the space in simplified versions of Arab garments, occasionally mixed with French army uniform elements, while Isabelle is played by Teri Madonna, with--for some inexplicable reason--her 17-year-old self portrayed by Sydney Blaxill, who often shadows her older persona. The show commences with Isabelle singing about her death, so there’s no suspense about the outcome, and then rambles through the chief moments in her life, none of them creating any sense of a developing drama.
Teri Madonna, Sydney Blaxill. Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum.
Lydia Fine designed the effectively simple set (nine vertical strips of lightweight cloth surrounding an open stage), the costumes, and Isabelle’s horse, consisting of a hand-held EQUUS-like horse’s head supplemented by additional parts held by ensemble members to create a full-sized, moving animal, much in the familiar Julie Taymor mold (or that of a low-rent WAR HORSE). Daisy Long's lighting goes a long way toward bringing the space to colorful life. However, the lyrics have a dull flatness and borderline banality, saying very little that's memorably insightful, while Ms. Swados's music—much of it seemingly inspired by Arab melodies and rhythms—is only sporadically engaging; too often, it’s little more than serviceable underpinning to support the expository lyrics. Ms. Madonna, who wears a fez, slacks, and a loosely fitted shirt, carries a tune but is not an especially gifted singer. She has a persistently upbeat attitude, which she projects regardless of what’s happening around her. 

Despite the inherent fascination in her story, previous attempts to stage or film Isabelle Eberhardt’s life generally were not well received. THE NOMAD, like its predecessors, informs us of the woman’s existence as a mass of contradictions, and as a gender-bending path breaker, but, beyond that, it fails to create much drama out of her dramatic life.
Flea Theatre
41 White Street, NYC
Through April 6

Monday, March 2, 2015

164 (2014-2015): Review of ABUNDANCE (February 25, 2015)

"Oh Give Me a Home Where the Elephants Roam"

Gritty Westerns centering on the travails of sturdy women settlers on the 19th-century frontier are rare livestock on the American stage, and even in films, although the recent movie THE HOMESMAN, starring Hilary Swank, made worthwhile inroads in the genre. Beth Henley’s (CRIMES OF THE HEART) intriguing contribution, ABUNDANCE, was first produced at the South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa, CA, in 1989. It was staged locally in 1990 by the Manhattan Theatre Club (with Amanda Plummer as Bess Johnson and Tess Harper as Macon Hill), and subsequently was given a number of regional productions. It then largely faded from view before being revived by the Hartford Stage Company in 2013. ABUNDANCE is now being given a sturdy, if not entirely fulfilling, revival by The Actors Company Theatre (TACT) at the Beckett. A compact, five-character play, staged here in minimalist fashion, it offers something refreshingly different from the glut of contemporary domestic dramas.
From left: Kelly McAndrew, Tracy Middendorf. Photo: Marielle Solan Photography.
ABUNDANCE takes place under the big sky of the Wyoming Territory, beginning in the late 1860s and covering a quarter of a century in the lives of Bess Johnson (Tracy Middendorf) and Macon Hill (Kelly McAndrew). Bess and Macon are mail order brides who meet the day their new husbands, homesteading ranchers, arrive at the small town stagecoach depot to pick them up. Bess gets hitched to Jack Flan (Todd Lawson), hunky but gun-slinging, surly, laconic, illiterate, and abusive. Macon’s spouse, a facially scarred, one-eyed widower named Will Curtis (Ted Koch), is, despite his lack of social graces, generally sincere and well-meaning. Still, he too—at the beginning—treats his wife, who finds him “repulsive,” more as property than as partner. Bess, naive and goodhearted, is ready to do whatever’s necessary to please her new husband, although he immediately stifles her best qualities, like her love for singing. Macon, outgoing and risk-taking, speaks metaphorically of coming out west "to see the elephant," hinting at the abundance with which she hopes to fill her life. She dreams of one day writing a novel about her experiences, and bonds deeply with Bess, while the men keep a cautious distance from one another. Ironically, as the play progresses, Bess becomes the adventurer, while Macon becomes the homebody.   
From left: Tracy Middendorf, Kelly McAndrew, Todd Lawson. Photo: Marielle Solan Photography.
Henley has done her research well, so we learn how people living in primitive conditions on the frontier managed to survive the cold winters and lack of food; in one scene, Bess is busy picking grains of wheat out of the straw stuffing in a mattress. Material goods are scarce, but when Will gives his wife a Christmas present, it’s nothing she can make immediate use of: instead, it’s a glass eye he thinks will make her happy when he puts it in his empty socket. This kind of black humor pervades the play, which has multiple references to body parts lost in accidents, like the three fingers Will’s first wife lost, making a ring she wore useless.  
Todd Lawson, Marielle Middendorf. Photo: Marielle Solan Photography.
Following an angry outburst in which Jack burns his and Bess’s house down, he and she move in with Will and Macon, where they become permanent guests. Jack's fecklessness and selfishness do little to assuage Will’s annoyance, while Macon is more accommodating. Things take a surprising turn for the worse when Bess is abducted by Indians (an incident loosely based on the story of a woman named Olive Oatman); she doesn't return until the U.S. Army finds her five years later. 

By now, lust has invaded the premises, with Macon becoming Jack’s Jill. Bess, back with her husband and friends, her arms and chin tattooed in blue, is bitter and barely able to speak. She is, however, convinced by the enterprising Professor Elmore Crone (Jeff Talbott) to coauthor a book about her experiences as a squaw. Its success turns everything topsy-turvy, leading to role reversals and painful personal rejections; at the end, none of the surviving main characters is who they were when the play began.
Kelly McAndrew, Ted Koch. Photo: Marielle Solan Photography.
There’s an extremely appealing bluntness to the way the characters talk in ABUNDANCE, a rich, direct, and often comic vernacular that gets to the point and expresses emotion while at the same time conveying information. People say what’s on their mind, and don’t beat around the bush, but they do so in pithy language that has a juicy flavor reminiscent of Mark Twain. For example, Bess and Macon, in their first conversation, have this colloquy:

MACON: . . . Ya know what I hope? I hope our husbands don't turn out to t'be just too damn ugly t'stand.
BESS: You think they'll be ugly?
MACON: Maybe. Maybe. But I hear divorce is cheap and easily obtainable out here in the west.
BESS: I'd never get no divorce.
MACON: Honey, I'd rip the wings off an angel if I thought they'd help me fly! . . . 

From left: Tracy Middendorf, Ted Koch, Kelly McAndrew, Todd Lawson. Photo: Marielle Solan Photography.
Not everything hangs together plausibly, however, as Henley’s agenda in exploring issues of female empowerment forces a not entirely believable transition in Bess’s character. First, we have to accept her near catatonic state on returning, even though she seems angrier about the low price her Indian spouse sold her for to the Army than because of any specific abuse; then, given the opportunity to exploit her adventures for financial gain, she rapidly becomes a ruthless businesswoman, dominating her previously brutish husband and coldly ignoring her seriously needy former friend. Similarly, Macon’s descent into solitude and disgrace seems too schematic, and lacks the pathos it demands, although this may be a fault in the production rather than the writing. 
Tracy Middendorf, Photo: Marielle Solan Photography.
The play moves forward in episodic installments as time passes and we get to know more about how conditions change the characters’ lives and relationships, especially in terms of Bess and Macon’s friendship. Eschewing the more heavily scenic approach of the Manhattan Theatre Club’s production, which used two turntables, director Jenn Thompson wisely employs a sparse, cinematic staging that, aided by interesting sound design and original music by Tony Algya, avoids the need for time-consuming scene changes; still, the pacing in some scenes could be brisker.
Tracy Middendorf, Jeff Talbott, Todd Lawson. Photo: Marielle Solan Photography.
Wilson Chin’s setting is essentially a raised platform used for all the locales, each of them differentiated by one or more simple pieces of furniture. Surrounding the stage on all three sides is a narrow skyscape suggestive of clouds and mountains, atmospherically lit by Philip Rosenberg. One scenic item, however, is puzzling: a thick hoisting pillar and beam that stands throughout in the up right corner, resembling nothing so much as a gallows, although the play never alludes to hanging. Tracy Christensen’s costumes are a simplified version of conventional Western wear, combining traditional with modern touches, like the zippers on Jack’s jacket, or the tank top Macon wears.   
Kelly McAndrew. Photo: Marielle Solan Photography.
Ms. Middendorf does all that’s required of her multifaceted character, but never seems to break beneath the surface; she’s most satisfactory when playing the successful, sharply focused author/lecturer. Ms. McAndrew brings life and vitality to Macon during the good years, but the final scene, when she appears as a syphilitic wreck, lacks the poignancy it demands. Todd Lawson’s Jack Flan has the right aura of cruelty and swagger, yet his sullenness succumbs to one-dimensionality. As Will, Ted Koch is suitably rough-edged, yet sympathetic. Jeff Talbott’s professor makes the most of his skimpily drawn role.

While unsuccessful on a number of fronts, ABUNDANCE is nonetheless worth seeing as an example of Beth Henley’s best writing. The actors aren’t always able to make her lines bounce they way they should, but even then they’re almost always worth hearing. And, at a bit over two hours, there's an abundance of them.

Beckett Theatre
410 W. 42nd Street, NYC
Through March 28

Monday, February 23, 2015

Sunday, February 22, 2015

159 (2014-2015) Review of RASHEEDA SPEAKING (February 19, 2015)

"Pinkins and Wiest: A Provocative Odd Couple"

If the amount of hilarity generated in an audience were any indication of its success, the New Group’s production of Chicago playwright Joel Drake Johnson’s RASHEEDA SPEAKING—originally seen at the Windy City’s Rivendell Theatre—would qualify as the laugh riot of the still young year. Although this icy-hearted viewer was an infrequent participant in the evening’s jocularity, he nevertheless found himself rather taken by Johnson’s often penetrating, if also occasionally implausible, depiction of racial tensions simmering under the surface of a mundane workplace situation.
Tonya Pinkins (rear), Dianne Wiest. Photo: Monique Carboni.
The New York production, given an acutely observed staging at the Pershing Square Signature Center by well-known actress Cynthia Nixon, making her directorial debut, benefits from an exceptional ensemble led by Tony Pinkins and Dianne Wiest. Pinkins plays Jaclyn, a prickly African American lady with a towering hairdo and a shoulder chip to match who’s been working in the office of Dr. Williams (Darren Goldstein), a surgeon, for the past six months. Wiest plays her coworker, Ileen, who’s been there eight years.
Darren Goldstein, Tonya Pinkins. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Early one workday morning, prior to the arrival of Jaclyn, who’s been on sick leave for five days, Dr. Williams asks Ileen—whom he’s promoted to office manager, despite there being only two employees—to keep a record of Jaclyn’s behavior, which he needs as documentation; he’s dissatisfied with Jaclyn and wants to fire (actually, “transfer”) her. This, of course, is not such a simple thing in a world where Human Resources vets every such request for evidence of bias, especially when minority employees are involved. The timid, naively agreeable Ileen is very uncomfortable with the request, which is tantamount to spying on her friend, but she allows her attractive boss to manipulate her into acquiescing. Thus begins a tense cat and mouse game forcing her to behave deceptively in the face of Jaclyn’s rightfully suspicious and deliciously devious retaliatory reactions.
Dianne Wiest, Patricia Conolly. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Jaclyn gives Ileen plenty of fodder for her notebook (which Jaclyn surreptitiously examines); Jaclyn’s behavior, as with her officious treatment of an elderly patient named Rose (Patricia Conolly), will not endear her to most audience members. But she’s a complex person, with engaging qualities that partly mitigate her unpleasant ones. And her various takes on being black in white America sting like a bee.

Despite convincing-sounding dialogue, however, some moments seem forced for the sake of stirring controversy or getting a laugh, as when Rose politely tells Jaclyn that her behavior comes from her desire to take revenge for slavery. Rose may be an old biddy, but there’s nothing about her to suggest a total idiot. Another frisson-inducer is when the mousy Ileen agrees to carry a gun as protection from Jaclyn, whom her family has warned her may be dangerous. And the name in the title, explained as a common reference by middle-class white men for a type of working-class black woman, came as a big surprise to this middle-class white man, although it does set the stage for a funny tag line.

That the cast—performing on Allen Moyer’s perfect rendition of an office/waiting room, realistically lit by Jennifer Tipton, and appropriately clothed by Toni-Leslie James—manages to overcome the play’s shortcomings and make what transpires both believable and funny is a tribute to their talent and Nixon’s guidance. Goldstein underplays his supercilious, egotistic, I’m- not-a-racist doctor with a laidback vibe suggestive of comedian Louis C.K., while Conolly brings her veteran comedic chops to the elderly Rose.

Of course, the show belongs to Wiest and Pinkins, the former playing a somewhat ditzier version of the vulnerable, verge-of-tears hummingbirds at which she’s so adept. She’s wonderful in the early scenes, especially when faced with the dilemma of being asked to spy, but the way the play forces the character to evolve isn’t totally convincing. Pinkins steals the spotlight, making Jaclyn—with her workplace grievances, such as complaints about toxins in the air—a completely recognizable pain in the butt, but she’s still able, despite being so annoying, to find the human being inside and make you empathize with her.

After ninety minutes with RASHEEDA SPEAKING’s thought-provoking office politics, racial grumbling, and employee-on-employee espionage you’ll be glad to get back to your own job where, surely, nothing faintly like this ever happens.

The Pershing Square Signature Center
Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre
480 W. 42nd Street, NYC
Through March 22