Monday, July 21, 2014

44. Review of THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE (July 16, 2014)

44. THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE
 

Twenty years ago the Manhattan Theatre Club produced Diane Samuels’s KINDERTRANSPORT, a moving drama about the 1938-1940 rescue operation that sent nearly 10,000 Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Free City of Danzig to protection in British homes and schools. Most never saw their families again. Each of those children had a story to tell, of course, and a number of them have appeared in English as memoirs of one sort or another. One is The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival, by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen, which has been adapted for the stage by Hershey Felder as THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE. This touching, exceptionally well performed solo piece, directed by Mr. Felder (himself a renowned performer of solo plays about great musicians), originally was seen at Los Angeles’s Geffen Playhouse, and has been produced at other leading venues. It has opened in Theatre A at 59E59, and is a must-see, both for its sophisticated, deceptively simple presentation and the virtuoso performance of Ms. Golabek herself as she tells the story of her mother, Lisa Jura Golabek, who fled Vienna as a Kindertransport child in 1938.  

Mona Golabek. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Ms. Golabek, a successful concert pianist who hosts a classical music radio program and who was taught by her mother, just as her mother had been taught by hers, introduces herself at the opening, on a black set (designed by Trevor Hay and Mr. Felder) dominated by a Steinway grand piano. The rear wall carries large, decorative picture frames in whose openings numerous projections (the excellent work of Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal) will be seen, illustrating the story she tells. She wears a simple black dress (designed by Jaclyn Maduff) with gently puffed short sleeve. Her auburn hair (actually, a too obvious wig) is styled in a page boy cut with bangs; it hints at the youthfulness of the role she'll be playing, but also doesn’t seem out of place as the character matures. Ms. Golabek soon transforms into her mother, Lisa Jura, as a 13-year-old girl growing up in elegant, artistically abundant, prewar Vienna as the talented daughter (she had two sisters) of a pianist mother and high-class tailor. She tells us that when the Nazis begin tormenting Austria’s Jews, as most vividly represented by Krystallnacht, November 9 and 10, 1938, she was sent to Britain as part of the Kindertransport mission, leaving her sister and parents behind. The play recounts her various experiences in England, where she was treated kindly, and where her talents as a musical prodigy helped her get into the Royal Academy of Music, even though she also had to work in a factory sewing army uniforms. We learn of her friendships with other Kindertransport children and of her eventually playing piano in the lounge of London’s Howard Hotel, where she met the handsome French resistance officer she would one day marry. As her story progresses we get a taste of London life during the blitz as it was experienced by Lisa and her friends, including the destruction (and ultimate reconstruction) of the hostel she stayed at in Willesden Lane. Although her parents died, her two sisters survived the war, several years after which she immigrated to the United States, where she was followed by the French officer, Ms. Golabek's father.
Mona Golabek. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
As Ms. Golabek narrates she embodies different characters, male and female, old and young, altering her voice enough to convey the accent or gender of the person she’s representing. Although she doesn't do Jefferson Mays-type transformations, she manages to make it perfectly clear who’s talking. She never rushes, always taking care to be precise, both in the way she moves her hands to mime something, or in how her graceful body language expresses various emotions. Her acting seems at the start a bit tentative, but that impression gradually fades as we become ever more absorbed by her sweetness and sincerity, not to mention the innate interest of her story. Most remarkably, as she plays both Lisa and the other characters, she often sits at the piano to accompany herself with a variegated concert of mostly classical music, playing with delicacy and passion but never, until the final number, Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 18; third movement,” getting swept away by emotion. Throughout, no matter how complex the music—which includes familiar classics from Beethoven, Debussy, Chopin, Bach, and Rachmaninoff, with two nods to popular music in “Strike Up the Band” and “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You”)—she performs with seeming effortlessness, the piano playing seeming more an extension of her acting than a performance of its own. I sat in the second row and could swear she never broke a sweat until she attacked the final Grieg concerto. I don't profess to know much about either classical music or virtuosic piano playing, but I definitely was caught up in the beauty and technical expertise of Ms. Golabek’s artistry.
Hershey Felder’s direction is perfectly in tune with the needs of the material, and is supported by an expert sound design by Erik Carstensen and significantly varied lighting by Christopher Rynne. THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE reminds us of a horrendous time in modern history, but it is an uplifting work that demonstrates both the resilience of the human spirit and the indescribable power of great music when exquisitely played from the heart. Brava.

A postscript, if I may: the Kindertransport story is a particularly timely one, as it reminds us of a moment not that long ago when Britain’s humanitarian impulses allowed it to open its arms in a time of crisis to 10,000 Jewish children who were in harm’s way. It’s impossible not to think of the catastrophe brewing right now in Texas over the plight of over 50,000 immigrant children fleeing repressive societies in search of a better place to live. In 1938, with war looming, the English people were facing a situation of life and death that would soon cause severe food and fuel shortages in their island nation, but despite the hardships they were about to endure, no one then or later spoke out against the arrival of the children the way so many are now doing in our country. Take, for example, the words of Gregg Griffith, who lives next to the shelter in Oyster Creek, Texas, where many of the children have been housed, as reported in the New York Times (July 17, 2014, p. 1): “That’s my tax money taking care of a foreign national. . . . I don’t want to take care of a foreign national. It’s not my problem. . . . I sort of feel like we should be taking care of our own first.” The situations, of course, are not really the same, but what’s happening now is definitely a humanitarian crisis involving threatened children; whatever the solution, saying one doesn’t want one’s tax money helping a mass migration of indigent kids because they’re not our own was not the way the British handled their problem 76 years ago.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

43. Review of ATOMIC: THE MUSICAL (July 15, 2014)

ATOMIC: THE MUSICAL
 

Usually, when an explosive device fails to go off we call it a dud. On the other hand, when a show turns out to be a dud we often call it a bomb. You can use either word to describe ATOMIC: THE MUSICAL, a new show (originally produced in Australia) at the Acorn Theatre, directed by Damien Gray, about the development of the A-bomb. The notion of musicalizing the multifaceted story of the Manhattan Project, which created the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is not a new one. As recently as 2005, DR. ATOMIC, John Adams and Peter Sellars’s generally well-received opera about the bomb, which focuses on scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer during the project’s last days, premiered at the San Francisco Opera House, followed by several other productions, including one at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2008. ATOMIC, which should have chosen a title less reminiscent of the opera, examines the story mainly from the viewpoint of Leo Szilard (1898-1964), the Hungarian-born Jewish physicist who studied under Albert Einstein in Germany, which he fled in 1933, and who came to New York in the late 1930s to take a position at Columbia University.
Jeremy Kushnier. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Szilard (Jeremy Kushnier), who discovered how to create the chain reactions that made the atomic bomb possible, was one of the less well-known Manhattan Project scientists, which included such geniuses as the German Edward Teller (Randy Harrison) and the Italian Enrico Fermi (Jonathan Hammond), not to mention Oppenheimer (Euan Morton). He was outspoken in his belief that the principles of atomic energy should be used not for mass destruction but for mankind’s good. But he was caught up in the frenzy of a project that had to race against the clock to create the A-bomb before it happened in Germany, which had an even more advanced nuclear research program. He believed that once America had created the bomb it would be able to defeat Germany by simply revealing its existence. The fact that Szilard and so many of his peers were Jewish made their race to defeat the Nazis even more urgent. When Germany surrendered even before the bomb was completed, Szilard thought there’d be no use for the bomb, and was sorely distressed when it was dropped on Japan. Whether this was the right decision or not remains a hotly debated question, and is visited toward the end of ATOMIC, but despite all the serious issues and complex personalities forming the background to this story, the show remains mired in banalities and inconsequential personal matters, many of them surrounding Szilard’s relationship with Trude Weiss Szilard (Sara Gettelfinger), a pediatrician. For some reason, the play shows them as married, but that didn’t take place until 1951. 
Jonathan Hammond, Jeremy Kushnier. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Unlike the tighter focus of DR. ATOMIC, this episodic show—with book and lyrics by Danny Ginges and Gregory Bonsignore and music and lyrics by Philip Foxman—covers the immediate prewar years, as well as the years during World War II when the Manhattan Project was born in New York, moved to Chicago, and grew to immense size. An attempt is made to hold it together by framing it within the context of the 1954 hearings during which Oppenheimer (Euean Morton) faced a Congressional hearing that stripped him of his security clearance because of his communist sympathies. This sometimes seems, though, more an opportunity to introduce Oppenheimer’s unusual persona—shown here as a pedantic pontificator with a streak of showmanship—than to elucidate Szilard’s story, which was not the subject of the hearings.
Randy Harrison, Jeremy Kushnier. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Another frame is provided by an opening scene showing a Japanese couple in Hiroshima having a quiet morning conversation (in their native tongue) when—BAM!—a blast of white light and noise indicates they’ve been evaporated. Toward the end, this scene is repeated at somewhat more length, but the explosion is accompanied by a slow-mo choreographed scene (staged by Rick Sordelet) in which, amid the bright lights, Szilard is seen physically annihilating the couple (Bam! Pow! Crunch!, it almost seems to shout), as in a guilty nightmare where he feels himself responsible for their deaths. The show doesn’t end here, though, and continues wrapping up loose ends for at least another 10 minutes. At nearly two and a half hours (with one intermission), these scenes only extend a show that has long overstayed its welcome, never having demonstrated why it was necessary to make a musical of this historically interesting but not especially theatrical material. Chain reactions, radiation, protons versus neutrons, thermodynamics, anyone?
Jonathan Hammond, Alexis Fishman. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Although music dominates the show, there are a significant number of spoken scenes that, had they been sung, might have qualified ATOMIC as a rock opera. Apart from a couple of songs, such as Enrico Fermi’s “America Amore” and the Andrews Sisters-like “The Holes in the Donuts,” sung by a trio of women (Sarah Gettelfinger, Grace Stockdale, and Alexis Fishman) dressed like Rosie the Riveter, the show is a series of big-voiced, familiar-sounding rock anthems, most of them filled with platitudinous and heavy-handed lyrics that sometimes rhyme and sometimes don’t. The “Donuts” number, choreographed by Greg Graham, is suggestive of a more appealing stylistic direction the show might have taken by using pastiche numbers influenced by wartime tunes.
Euan Morton. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
A neutral setting of open-framed boxes, designed by Neil Patel to suggest the periodic table, allows for the many scenes to move quickly from one to the other without the need for cumbersome set changes; a long, six-legged table on wheels, moved about by the actors, figures in nearly every scene. The set allows for a myriad of rock concert-like lighting—strobes included—by David Finn, but even with all the light cues the visual elements eventually become dull and repetitious. Emma Kingsbury’s period costumes are generally effective, especially the Rosie the Riveter clothes, and Fermi’s reddish suit stands out, but not much else in this department is especially memorable. The white silk negligee worn in one scene by Trude, attractive as it is, seems decidedly out of character.

Photo: Grace Stockdale, Jonathan Hammond, Alexis Fishman. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Given the dimensions of the subject matter, it’s clear that numerous shortcuts had to be devised to tell the story. The number of characters had to be greatly pared down, the scientific jargon reduced to a minimum (although there are several mouthfuls to digest), the personalities simplified, and some comic relief inserted. This means, for one thing, that important historic figures are caricatured rather than treated seriously, most egregiously Fermi, depicted as an oversexed, Italian-accented refugee who seems more interested in being in America because of its sexual opportunities than for the opportunity to pursue his scientific interests.
The cast, in good voice, sings its collective heart out, and, given the drawbacks of the material, does its best at making the characters lively, if not believable. Szilard, unlike Oppenheimer, is not the most charismatic physicist around whom to construct a rock musical, although Mr. Kushnier does a fine job in the role. Lurking in the story, however, is someone who, though her story is important for other reasons, might be worth the effort of dramatizing it (but not necessarily making it into a musical!). This is Leona Woods (Alexis Fishman), the only woman on the Manhattan Project team. Putting her life on the stage might create the right sort of theatrical chain reaction.   

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

42. Review of THE LONG SHRIFT (July 14, 2014)

42. THE LONG SHRIFT

 
Given his status as one of the hottest (and most controversial) film and theatre entities on the planet, it seems appropriate to assume that James Franco—currently starring on Broadway in OF MICE AND MEN—could, if he wished, have had his pick from a large pool of new plays with which to make his Off Broadway directing debut. Unfortunately, the one he happened to choose, novelist Robert Boswell’s THE LONG SHRIFT, which opened the other day at the Rattlestick, is a static, generally lifeless, and clumsily composed slice-of-life drama in the pseudo-Sam Shepherd tradition about the potentially potent subject of high school rape. It’s torpidly staged with scant imagination and nary a shred of theatrical urgency, and acted with flat-line monotony that only now and then blips into life. If my wife had gone with me she’d have been saying someone should stick a pin in these actors.  
 

 
Scott Haze, Allie Gallerani. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Much is made in the media about Mr. Franco’s polymath interests, his program bio noting that he is “an actor, director, screenwriter, producer, teacher and author.” This makes him sound like the second coming of Orson Welles. To add to the many academic programs he’s been enrolled in, I’d recommend graduate courses in directing. His Wikipedia entry touches on his several other talents, none of which, however, have been put to very good use in THE LONG SHRIFT. Had he himself played the leading role, though, instead of the ineffably boring Scott Haze (who has appeared in several of Franco’s films), perhaps the stultifying evening might have had more dramatic interest than it does. That might have meant using another director, of course, which would have been all to the good, as Mr. Franco is no Orson Welles.
Annie Gallerani, Scott Haze, Ahna O'Reilly. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The gabby play runs 95 minutes, without an intermission, although at least four or five spectators, regardless of the discomfort to themselves and others, squeezed their way through the narrow rows to take their leave well before the final curtain. Most of the action takes place in a seedy, faceless, tiny, Houston apartment (designed by Andromache Chalfant), cheaply paneled and with a standard hollow wooden door that never seems to close properly. (The Rattlestick has a penchant for such cruddy locales.) This “hovel,” as they call it, is where Sarah (Ally Sheedy) and Henry (Brian Lally), have been forced to move after selling their house to pay the legal costs of defending their son, Richard (Mr. Haze), when, at 18, he was accused of raping the homecoming queen at Lancaster High School. For this assault, if it actually happened as reported, he spent five years in prison before the girl recanted her story and his sentence was reduced. When the play begins, not long after Richard’s incarceration, the cynical Sarah and Henry, a feckless Viet Nam vet, bicker over their perceptions of Richard’s guilt. Sarah, who won’t even visit Richard in prison, believes he did it and Henry stands up for his son.
The main action begins in the second scene, set ten years later, just when Lancaster is preparing a 10th year reunion for the class of 1999. Richard has recently moved in with his widowed dad. Who should show up at the apartment but Beth (Ahna O’Reilly), the rich girl whose testimony sent the working-class Richard to jail and who, for reasons to be uncovered, did an about face and got him released. Having suffered the consequences of the trial and his conviction, Beth—who’s greeted with a faceful of whiskey—seeks forgiveness, redemption, or whatever, although the incessantly simmering Richard refuses to hear what she has to say. Another visitor soon arrives, this being the attractive, enthusiastic, but rather oblivious Lancaster student body president, Macy (Allie Gallerani), in charge of the reunion; I’d like to know, by the by, in what high schools students are allowed to run reunions. Her dimwitted idea is to have Richard—his notoriety makes him a celebrity, doesn’t it?—be the keynote speaker. (She’s airheaded enough to let him put a move on her.) And Beth, naturally, will share the stage with him. Further, she agrees to do so wearing a dress of Richard’s late mother. This is only a sample of the improbable and implausible writing raging through Mr. Boswell’s play.
Richard’s speech—held before a curtain with a reunion banner on it—turns out to be a disaster during which he removes his shirt to reveal a large black swastika tattoo on his chest, a sign of the rites of passage prison life required. The lack of any strong negative reaction from the invisible crowd of former students and teachers to his diatribe against their failure to support him is yet another dramaturgic puzzle.  
The play also indulges in a totally unnecessary dream scene between Henry and Sarah, played in green light, in the middle of which there’s a flashback, all of which seems amateurish and unnecessary. Burke Browne’s lighting, here and throughout, is decidedly inferior, with the actors’ faces frequently being so poorly illuminated as to make their expressions indecipherable from my seat at the rear of the theatre. This, too, must ultimately be laid at Mr. Franco’s door.
The play concludes with its only truly dramatic confrontation as Beth and Richard air their issues, but all this does is suggest the play that might have been, and the theatrical tension that should have driven the action from the start. There are valuable ideas hiding amidst the problematic writing, especially concerning the effects of rape accusations on victims and alleged perpetrators. Just yesterday, the front page of the New York Times ran a major story on a college rape and its aftermath: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/13/us/how-one-college-handled-a-sexual-assault-complaint.html?_r=0.
Hopefully, Mr. Franco will direct for the stage again, if only in an effort to wipe the slate clean and start afresh.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

41. Review of FUERZA BRUTA: WAYRA (July 11, 2014)


41. FUERZA BRUTA: WAYRA

 
 
 
FUERZA BRUTA means “brute force,” which is a pretty good way of describing the nonstop energy of this show’s no-holds barred assault on an audience’s ocular and aural receptors. This Argentinean explosion of immersive theatre, created by Diqui James, which has been performed in many international venues, is back at the Daryl Roth Theatre, where an earlier incarnation enjoyed a run from 2007 to earlier this year. The new production is called WAYRA, which means “wind” in Quechua, certainly a suitable word for a show whose effects depend to such a great degree on powerful wind machines. Critics who’ve seen it before note that much of what they saw in its most recent incarnation as FUERZA BRUTA is being repeated; since I never saw the show before it was all new and, technically, at any rate, memorably impressive.

FUERZA BRUTA. Photo: Jacob Cohl.  
 
Content-wise, WAYRA might be considered a demonstration of sheer technological wizardry devoid of characters, plot, or any semblance of story, with occasional flashes of potential drama that ultimately blend into the relentless display of lights, acrobatics, flying, head-pounding taped and live music, and treadmill running, with the audience on its feet throughout in a large, high, dark, open, and fog-filled space. When the show begins, we see a man in white walking and running on a treadmill, being passed by others who slide by him only to fall backward into an invisible trashcan, as others take their place. Plastic tables and chairs also rush by to meet the same fate, as do large framed portals filled with paper, Styrofoam, and cardboard, through which the man on the treadmill smashes, sending shards everywhere. At one point, he’s shot (BANG!) and collapses, his shirt all bloody. Not to worry, as he’s soon up and running again. Meanwhile, a group of fiery percussionists on a raised stage at one side begin banging away and singing (music by Gary Kerpel) in what sounds like Spanish but--because the words are mostly drowned out by the noise--could as easily be a made-up language like what you hear at CIRQUE DU SOLEIL.

Soon, a pair of  female aerialists start flying above us, hanging sideways as they race around and bounce off a huge, Mylar-like curtain that slowly surrounds the audience. It’s hard to tell if they’re happy or angry, but they’re definitely not placid. This hyper-expressivity runs throughout the show.
 
FUERZA BRUTA. Photo: Jacob Cohl.

In another feature, clearly the most spectacular, a transparent pool slides into place over the audience and, as water rushes into it, cast members go dashing, crashing, careening, sliding across, and banging their  fists on it. You stand there, craning your neck (as during so much of this aerially-oriented show) to watch these activities directly overhead, wondering about the safety of having a large pool made of some Lucite-like material filled with water and half a dozen performers suspended over a couple of hundred spectators. Then the pool descends slowly so you’re able to actually raise your hands and touch it, reaching out to the performers, who touch back (albeit with the plastic between them and you), all the while noting how the lighting keeps changing the colors of the water and actors’ bodies.
 
FUERZA BRUTA: WAYRA. Photo: Jacob Cohl.
The audience often has to move to make way for the technical equipment, such as when a giant disk-like sheet of silver-coated fabric is pushed to the center of the space. Suspended horizontally on either side are a man and woman who do a frantic sequence of movements as they attempt (or seem to attempt) to get to the other side of the disk, whose orientation shifts frequently. As with all the other performances in WAYRA, they display admirable acrobatic agility and skill, but a serious nod of respect also must be given to the hardworking technical crew whose efforts at controlling the movements of the disk and aerial wires are quite visible during this routine.  
 
FUERZA BRUTA. Photo: Jacob Cohl.

In another remarkable number, you help move a heavy clear plastic sheet, crisscrossed with white tape across the space over your head, only for a wind machine to blow the plastic higher and higher until it forms a gigantic dome. You’re essentially inside a balloon, and a male and female aerialist (joined later by another man) do a sequence of movements on the outside surface, also flying in through large holes whose covers they remove. A willing audience member even gets hooked up to the apparatus and, legs locked around the female performer, flies off into the upper reaches of the space before returning safely to terra firma. Then a large tube is joined from the wind machine to one of the holes in the surface of the inflated plastic, and the male performer does various acrobatic things while suspended in this wind tunnel, as bits of paper swirl all around him (there’s a lot of confetti to clean up when the show is over).

FUERZA BRUTA: WAYRA. Photo: Jacob Cohl.

As the lights continue changing or strobe-flashing, the music blasting with a hypnotic beat, the audience dancing and moving about as they clap or wave their hands overhead, and performers even dancing with you, you feel as if you’re in some postmodern rave, but even as you enjoy yourself, it’s hard not to worry about your safety or even about how people manage in such close, confined quarters (don’t go if you’re claustrophobic) to maintain their personal space and respect that of others. The show could easily be dismissed as mindless sensationalism, but it’s hard to ignore the input of some rather clever and ingenious minds in conceiving and putting it all together so seamlessly.

At the conclusion, a shower spigot opens above and those at the center of  the space get soaked. Amazingly, the mostly young audience under the sprinkler stayed right where it was. In fact, my theatre companion, a woman in her mid-30s, raced right to the water to participate in this joyful ritual. She emerged soaked but happy, but after 70 minutes of standing and stretching my neck upward, this septuagenarian has to admit he was glad to still be dry as he hastened out into the warm summer air at Union Square.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

40. Review of THE LION (July 9, 2014)


40. THE LION
 

 
The setting (designed by Neil Patel) at City Center II is a semicircular upstage wall, painted a mottled tan and brown, vaguely suggestive of a recording studio or cabaret stage, with a single door, three chairs, half a dozen guitars of varying sizes and styles (mostly acoustic with one electric) standing on their bases, and several mikes. During the ensuing performance, Ben Stanton’s lighting will play exquisitely across the space, following its ever-changing emotional arc.
 
Through the door enters a handsome young man—his chiseled features convey something of a cross between Colin Firth and Jeremy Renner—in his 30s, with a mane of wavy, blondish brown hair, wearing a bluish-gray, well-tailored suit, with a crisp white shirt and tie. Later, he’ll remove his jacket to reveal a classy set of suspenders. This is Benjamin Scheuer, songwriter, composer, guitarist extraordinaire, and writer of THE LION, presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club. Under Sean Daniels’s flawless direction, he’ll hold you in his thrall for the next 70 minutes as he sings and talk-sings about his life.
 
Benjamin Scheuer. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

Speaking the lines of all the characters, he focuses mainly on his relationship with his polymath of a dad, Rick, an economist, lawyer, mathematician, and gifted guitarist. Ben, whose mom is English, tells of his two younger brothers, and how he and they learned music from their beloved dad. A wonderful tune about his father’s making him a toy banjo out of a cookie tin is heard early on and late. But as Ben grew into his teens, his father, to whom he was attached mainly through the music they shared, began to treat him more harshly than his boyhood misdemeanors warranted; his father, who had began having serious headaches, died of a brain hemorrhage when Ben was fourteen. The connection between his father’s ailments—especially the depression of which Ben learns much later—and his treatment of his son is never made explicitly, but is easy to imagine. The theme tying Ben’s story together is his constant preoccupation with trying to come to terms with his love-hate relationship with Rick, a man so admired and loved by many people in prestigious positions that a book of encomiums about him was produced. Ben had great difficulty reconciling the man others knew from the father he remembered.
 
Benjamin Scheuer. Photo: Matthew Murphy. 
Ben, his mother, and brothers moved to England, but Ben eventually returned to New York and became a rock musician, playing at CBGB, among other venues. He tells of his love affair with Julie, which ended when she decided to travel the world, and then of the central and defining development in his life thus far, bone cancer, the suffering this produced, and his ultimate cure. A song about how one grows by weathering life’s storms emphasizes a principal dramatic theme. Always anxious to play music like his dad, he eventually learns to play music like himself. By this time, the tie is off, the suspenders lowered, his socks removed, and the man Ben is shines through.

Mr. Scheuer recounts the emotionally fraught tales of his familial and romantic loves while seated in one or the other of the room’s chairs, always with a guitar on his lap, through his original music and lyrics, some rhymed and some not. Apart from the loud, insistent chords of defiant rock on his electric guitar, played during his rock musician phase, Mr. Scheuer’s folk/folk-rock music has an appealingly direct, storytelling quality, the melodies and rhythms usually being subordinate to or  supportive of the  words, which he delivers with easy charm and poignantly affecting richness. He isn’t equipped with a superbly musical voice, but with one that is perfectly attuned to the kind of personal and directly touching music he composes. There’s a quality of naturalness, ease, and niceness about him that makes you feel that, after little more than an hour in his company, you not only know but trust him.   

With his charismatic looks, sweetheart of a smile, perfect timing, and accessible feelings, Mr. Scheuer could easily be a movie star. Who knows, perhaps this lion will roar one day from the silver screen. In his sensitively conceived new solo musical, THE LION, Ben Scheuer is one big cat that can truly sing, “within my gentle paws I’ve got devastating claws.” Grrrrr.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

39. Review of KAIDAN CHIBUSA NO ENOKI (July 8, 2014)


39. KAIDAN CHIBUSA NO ENOKI


 

Look out! Kabuki’s back in town and I paid $168.50 to see it from an orchestra seat! (Couldn't get comped for this one.) Actually, it would have cost the same or more in Tokyo, so, when you consider the expense of bringing this large company of actors and musicians over, with their extensive costume wardrobe, sets, and props, the price is rather reasonable. And, despite my having several cavils, I received more for my money than I did from recent Broadway shows. The play is called KAIDAN CHIBUSA NO ENOKI, and it’s being presented by the Heisei Nakamura-za company at New York’s Lincoln Center Festival. Before I discuss the performance, here's some background you may find useful.
 
 
Nakamura Kankurō, Nakamura Shidō. Photo: Shochiku.
 
If you see kabuki in Japan, chances are it will be at the Kabuki-za, Japan’s most famous theatre, which, in its newest incarnation, holds 1,964 seats. Almost always, the plays you’ll see will be museum-quality reproductions of the classics, done with care and respect for the genre’s historical traditions. More innovative approaches are sometimes available as well, since several modern kabuki stars have tried over the past three decades to inject new life into the form, either by the creation of spectacular new plays using all the features of contemporary stage technology or by returning to the spirit of the past, which has been buried under layers of stultifying respect for tradition. The latter approach is exemplified by Heisei Nakamura-za, founded in 2000 by the late Nakamura Kankurō V (later Kanzaburō XVIII). Kankurō, one of the most popular and versatile actors of his day, wanted to reinvent the atmosphere and freedom of kabuki during its 19th-century heyday, before Western influences entered Japan and led to kabuki’s gradual loss of artistic flexibility as it focused on maintaining its traditions while struggling to survive amid the onslaught of new forms of entertainment taking over Japanese stages.
 
Nakamura Shichinosuke. Photo: Shochiku.

Heisei is the name of the current era in Japanese history, begun in 1989 when Emperor Akihito ascended to the chrysanthemum throne, and Nakamura-za is the name of one of the three most famous theatres in Edo (now Tokyo) during premodern times. Founded in 1624, it was managed by a string of actor-managers named Nakamura Kanzaburō, a line that virtually ended in 1893 when the Nakamura-za burned down and wasn’t rebuilt (as it had been after many earlier conflagrations). In 1950, the rising young actor Nakamura Moshio (1909-89), seeking to take an important new name (as is the custom in kabuki when an actor reaches a new plateau of excellence), chose to revive the dormant name of Kanzaburō, which had had 16 previous holders, even though he wasn’t related to the Kanzaburō family line. He was the first Kanzaburō not to combine the roles of actor and manager; he was also the first to be recognized as a truly great actor. He explained later in life that the reason he chose a dormant name was so no one could compare him with the previous holder, which is usually the case when an actor assumes the name of someone still remembered by many fans. His son, Kankurō V, inherited his father’s talent, but, after his father died, chose to restore the Kanzaburō tradition of actor-management, even if only sporadically, by creating the Heisei Nakamura-za.

For its debut performance in November 2000, the company built an intimate temporary theatre, seating about one fourth the number of spectators as the Kabuki-za, on a bank of Tokyo’s Sumida River. It was so successful that it repeated the experience every few years thereafter. In 2004 the company was the highlight of the Lincoln Center Festival, recreating on the Lincoln Center grounds a semblance of its Tokyo venue, while in 2007 it was invited to return; this time, possibly to save money, the performance was held in Avery Fisher Hall, whose dimensions and layout proved highly satisfactory for kabuki. In both visits, the plays produced were kabuki classics, NATSU MATSURI NANIWA KAGAMI in 2004 and SUMIDAGAWA GONICHI NO OMOKAGE (aka HŌKAIBŌ) and REN JISHI (a dance play) in 2007. Kankurō, who became Kanzaburō XVIII in 2005, was the star attraction on both occasions, of course, and his sons, Nakamura Kantarō (the present Kankurō VI) and Nakamura Shichinosuke, were vital costars. Sadly, in December 2012, Kanzaburō died, a victim of esophageal cancer, aged only 57. His death was an enormous shock to the kabuki world, and his sons, only in their 20s, were saddled with the responsibility of carrying on the distinguished family tradition of great acting created by their grandfather and continued by their father.
 
Nakamura Kankurō. Photo: Shochiku.

Now, these young actors are heading the company’s third visit to Lincoln Center, except the venue is the Rose Theatre, in the Time Warner Building, which, to be honest, is not the best place for a kabuki performance. One of the most distinctive elements of a kabuki production is the runway on audience left  called the hanamichi, which, in its most familiar usage, extends from the stage to a curtained area at the rear of the house, and is used not simply for entrances and exits but for important moments of acting performed a short distance from the stage where they can be viewed from most parts of the theatre, including the balcony. For the hanamichi to be effective, it must be on the same level as the stage proper, so spectators can see the full bodies of the actors, from toes to head, which means looking up a bit if they’re seated in the orchestra. When kabuki tours to foreign cities whose theatres spatial designs don’t allow for the construction of a hanamichi (which sometimes happens even in Japan), usually because the auditorium rake is too steep, various alternatives are employed, including short runways built along the audience left wall, or runways that stop midway down the aisle to turn at an angle to a side exit. In some cases, the actors don’t enter the auditorium at all, but use the front of the stage, moving from one side to the other. And, of course, the use of the aisles themselves is a possible choice. This, unfortunately, is what the company is forced to do at the Rose, so that audience members seated in the orchestra see only the upper part of the actor; if he bends down, he vanishes until he stands again. The effect greatly diminishes the powerful impression the actor makes when he stands on the runway, slightly above orchestra seating eye-level, isolated amid the spectators on either side of him, an effect made even more memorable when the hanamichi has lighting built into one of its sides.

At the Rose, there are audience exits built on a slightly raised level, up several steps, at either side of the auditorium, perhaps 15 feet from the stage. KAIDAN CHIBUSA NO ENOKI makes abundant use of these throughout, both for exits at audience left, where the traditional hanamichi would be, and at audience right, where a temporary hanamichi is sometimes installed, although not for this particular play. The principal use of the audience right passageway is for two or more minor characters to enter with newly written patter designed to fill the time while the set is being changed backstage. These exchanges, which include considerable use of English (the production, in Japanese, employs simultaneous translations through the use of free headphone sets), are mostly comic sketches that make local references, including to New York, Central Park, and Lincoln Center. Much the same was the case with the company’s two previous visits. There are also a number of off-color expressions, like calling a character a “schmuck” or “scumbag,” to lighten the atmosphere, although I’m sure many of the Japanese spectators, who have been coming out in force, were baffled by much of this silly banter. There are even English comments during the dramatic dialogue, when, for example, after making a quick change, a character says, “I came as fast as I could,” or, after downing lots of alcohol, “Too much sake.” Still, to a degree, such intrusions mirror the occasionally metatheatrical nature of kabuki, which occasionally allows actors to improvise personal or topical references, something much more widely practiced in the past than currently, where it’s used only in a small number of plays, like BENTEN KOZŌ.

In addition, on several occasions, a leading actor in this production will enter from the audience right doors and cross through the orchestra to the audience left aisle, where he will ascend the steps to the stage, as if having entered on the nonexistent hanamichi. The fourth or fifth row of seats appears to have been removed to allow for such crossovers.

And then there are those comic time-fillers, played in and around the first few rows. One of these employs two American-based actors of Japanese ancestry, Kinoshita Shuhei and Yoshiro Kono (to use the Japanese order of their names), who speak perfect English, to play kimono-clad, wig-wearing, theatre staff members assigned to provide plastic ponchos to those closest to the stage to protect them from the water that will soon be splashed during a fight scene at a waterfall. Messrs. Kinoshita and Yoshiro even rehearse with the poncho wearers how to keep from getting wet. Afterward they come out to mop up the floor, jabbering all the while. One keeps in touch with the backstage crew on the progress of the scene change via his cell phone. (Earlier he or someone else reminded the audience that there’d be “no texting.”)

KAIDAN CHIBUSA NO ENOKI, translated for this production as THE GHOST TALE OF THE WET-NURSE TREE, might more literally be called THE GHOST TALE OF THE JAPANESE HACKLEBERRY TREE, which sounds even clumsier. It’s actually a relatively modern play, originally written in 1897 (based on a tale originally performed by a rakugo storyteller) and revised with the addition of an important new character, Uwabami no Sanji, in 1915, which is the version now used. Although set in Edo, it’s associated with the line of Osaka actors called Jitsukawa Enjaku (there have been three thus far), and was revived in 1990 by the late Kanzaburō XVIII. In 2011, Kankurō VI (who, presumably, will one day become Kanzaburō XIX) revived it, doing it once again in 2013. Unlike the classics typically taken on tour, it remains little known in Japan, although Kankurō’s productions have increased its visibility. Dramaturgically, it’s by no means comparable to the great kabuki plays of the 17th through 19th centuries, but it’s sufficiently theatrical and contains enough familiar kabuki conventions to warrant revival. Like many kabuki plays, its raison d’être is to offer a star actor opportunities for virtuoso performance, which it does with gusto.

The company, although filled with minor actors, has only four principals, Nakamura Kankurō, Nakamura Shichinosuke, Nakamura Shidō, and Kataoka Kamezō, but, without taking anything away from Shido and Kamezō, only the first two, Kanzaburō’s sons, are A-list names in Japan, perhaps A- being more accurate as they’re still too young to have gained the respect given to seniors such as Matsumoto Kōshirō IX, Bandō Tamasaburō V, or Nakamura Kichiemon II. Shichinosuke is also the company’s chief female-role specialist (onnagata), although he also often plays handsome, delicate young men. Kankurō’s acting is the main attraction in this production, as he gets to play three major roles, using a variety of quick change techniques that allow him to almost instantly switch costumes and wigs, not to mention characterizations, in the blink of an eye. Doubles with their backs turned to the audience are used in many cases to allow the star to exit and reenter, but sometimes a double appears in a scene with Kankurō where the star seems to be confronting himself in the guise of another role. The double will turn upstage as often as possible, or pose with his arm raised before his face, but even then it is often difficult to tell the difference between the star and his double, and, while you can sometimes tell how the switch was done, the quick changes come so fast and furiously at some points that your eyes will spin like figures on a slot machine as you try to figure out how a shift was made. One such trick is done right in the aisle that otherwise would be the hanamichi, as one character, his body wrapped in a straw sheet as protection against the rain, bumps into another, allowing the sheet to hide the transfer despite it being only inches from the nearest spectators. When all three of Kankurō’s characters engage in a choreographed fight scene at the waterfall, you know you’ve seen the best of kabuki’s quick-change acting, called hayagawari.
 
Nakamura Kankurō, Abe Soma. Photo: Stephanie Berger.

The three roles Kankurō plays are Shōsuke, the gentle, kind, timid, and frail-looking servant of the famous artist Hishikawa Shigenobu; Shigenobu himself, an imposing former samurai with a commanding presence; and Uwabami no Sanji, a decadent, good-looking, yakuza-like tough guy, who gets to shed his clothes to show off a body covered with colorful tattoos. Each role requires a different bodily attitude, emotional quality, and vocal delivery, and Kankurō delivers on every count.  

The play, which runs around two and a half hours, with one intermission, is in four acts and eight scenes, each scene requiring a substantial new setting, all of them in conventional kabuki scenic fashion, using exterior flats painted in two-dimensional style or interior locales showing standardized rooms with pillars and walls. The action takes place on a riverbank, in a mansion, at a restaurant, at a bridge, in a temple, at a waterfall, and before the titular (or should that be tit-alternate?) tree, whose life-giving sap is collected in bamboo tubes by milkless mothers who use it to feed their infants. Of the three major types of kabuki play, sewamono (domestic drama), jidaimono (history play), and buyō geki (dance drama), KAIDAN CHIBUSA NO ENOKI belongs to the first; it is also a ghost play (kaidan mono), a summer play (natsu kyōgen), and a revenge play (adauchi kyōgen).

The fairly complex plot tells of a handsome but wicked samurai (he wears stark white makeup and a wig whose normally shaved pate is grown in) named Isogai Namie (Nakamura Shido), formerly known as Sasashige, who, with his henchman, Uwabami no Sanji (Sanji the Snake), stole 2,000 gold coins; they’re being hunted by the samurai Matsui Saburō (Kataoka Kamezō). Namie rescues the beautiful Oseki (Nakamura Shichinosuke), the wife of artist Shigenobu, from a couple of thugs, and acquires a position as Shigenobu’s apprentice; his aim, though, is to get Oseki, mother of the newborn Mayotarō, for himself. Meanwhile, Sanji, a fugitive like Namie, recognizes his old partner. When Shigenobu is called away to paint a picture of a dragon for the Nanzō-in Temple, and the faithful servant Shōsuke leaves to follow his master, Namie makes his move on Oseki. A month later, at a restaurant, Sanji extorts money from Namie. Then Namie gets Shōsuke drunk and forces him to agree to help him kill Shigenobu. Soon after, near Tajima Bridge, Namie murders Shigenobu, who has come there at Shōsuke’s suggestion to view the fireflies, and, as Shōsuke flees, the actor changes to Sanji, who enters and encounters Namie. Sanji and Namie pantomime fighting each other in the dark, a kind of scene called danmari. Shōsuke reports to those at the temple that the painter has been slain, only to be dumbfounded when Shigenobu himself (his ghost, actually) appears and completes his painting.   

When the play’s second half begins, Shigenobu’s death is being memorialized. Namie forces Oseki to marry him and threatens to kill Shōsuke if he doesn’t murder her baby. Sanji is recruited to pursue both Shōsuke and the child and make sure they both die. At the Jūnisō Waterfall, Shigenobu’s spirit prevents the baby from being drowned and allows Shōsuke to repent his behavior, but Shōsuke is attacked by Sanji and they engage in a complex fight in the water, which they splash freely all around them. During the scene, Kankurō plays Sanji, Shigenobu, and Shōsuke, in dizzying succession, with Sanji finally being slain. The final scene takes place nine years later, with Shōsuke making a living selling the bamboo vessels used to extract sap from the enoki tree, whose nutritional gifts saved the baby Mayotarō, now a child of nine. Namie and Oseki have a child of their own but Oseki and the infant are both sick and need the tree’s sap to survive. The unrepentant Namie, discovering Mayotarō and Shōsuke, tries to kill them, but the samurai, Saburō, arrives and, after another fight scene—in which Shōsuke does combat with a broom and the child with a dirk—Namie dies, flailing in the manner typical of how kabuki villains behave when mortally wounded, and the little boy gets to administer the coup de grace.  

The kabuki presented by Heisei Nakamura-za is reflective of the atmosphere assumed to have been present when kabuki was the people’s theatre par excellence, before it moved to elite status in the 20th century as the result of social evolution. In its attempts to capture that old-time feeling, it makes many concessions to modern tastes that, while very popular with audiences, can be deemed a purist’s nightmare. Regardless, its productions are always energetic, lively, well acted, and funny, even if the laughs are gained cheaply and at the expense of authenticity, if it’s even possible to determine what, at least metaphorically, authenticity really is. Nevertheless, I hereby clap my hands three times and pray to the kabuki gods that the next time Heisei Nakamura-za visits New York, they’ll do so in a venue that allows for a hanamichi. That’s one bit of authenticity that can’t be done without.  

Friday, July 4, 2014

38. Review of THE MUSCLES IN OUR TOES (June 3, 2014)

38. THE MUSCLES IN OUR TOES
 


 
If you went to a New York high school, chances are your 25th reunion was held in a catering hall, perhaps at a nice hotel where people coming from out of town could reserve a room. In Stephen Berber’s oddly titled THE MUSCLES IN OUR TOES, at the Labyrinth Theatre, a high school class that graduated in 1989 is having its reunion but it’s in the actual school itself, city not specified; this allows the playwright to set his scene in the music room, where the chief characters, escaping the festivities, randomly gather to work out their issues. The music from the affair is heard dimly in the background and, when the door to the room opens, it gets much louder (thanks to Jessica Paz’s good sound design), so we’re always aware of the events going on offstage. Given the outrageous implausibility of Mr. Berber’s plot and the cartoonish behavior of his characters, some audience members may yearn to join the offstage party and leave this bunch of losers to its own devices. Surely, something more believable and interesting must be happening at the reunion proper, where one might wish to ponder: Is the class beauty still hot? Has the star athlete turned to lard? Who’s become famous or rich? Is anyone interested in hooking up? Do I regret not having kept in touch with any of these people? And, of course, who’s married to whom, who’s divorced from whom, and who’s come out of the closet?  
 
Rear: Samuel Ray Gates. Front, from left: Bill Dawes, Amir Arison, Matthew Zickel. Photo: Monique Carboni.

There aren’t many plays about reunions of one sort or another but the subject practically forms a subgenre of movies. School reunions are the most common material, which brings to mind such popular films as SOMETHING WILD, GROSSE POINTE BLANK, THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON (which began as a Pulitzer Prize-winning play), ROMY AND MICHELE’S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION, PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED, and, of course, THE BIG CHILL. Anyone who’s ever gone to a reunion, especially one taking place as long as 25 years after graduation, recognizes the feelings of trepidation involved because they know that while they’re judging others in terms of how well or poorly they’ve fared, they themselves will be under everyone else’s microscope. Issues of pride, ego, academic and personal rivalries, friendship, sexual experiences, and so on will surface, and people will go home in different states of elation or depression, not unlike the way they often react to seeing the lives of others they haven’t seen in decades lived out in photos and status reports on Facebook.
 

Some of this occurs in Mr. Berber’s play, of course, when its protagonists wander into the music room in search of one another. It starts with Les (Bill Dawes), a mustached fight choreographer who keeps noting—as if it’s somehow more prestigious—that he now works more in film than theatre, citing a movie in which his contribution was to stage a fight scene in which a remote control was thrown. Les is videotaping himself creating a message of hope for the wife of his high school buddy, Jim. We learn more about this when another high school pal enters. This is Reg (Amir Arison), a vaguely Middle Eastern-looking person, who says he’s of Persian descent even though he also has a Jewish aunt in Afghanistan (?@!). Reg works as an accountant for the federal government. Jim is a sneaker mogul with a factory in Chad, where, it seems, he's been kidnapped by Chadian radicals in retaliation for the detention in California by the FBI of a suspected Chadian terrorist. Pretty soon, we begin to realize that these characters may seem reasonably mature men in their early 40s, but that they’re not really playing with full decks. The same will be true of all the other characters. On the surface they seem relatively successful and well adjusted, but underneath they’re still the uptight, insecure kids they were two and a half decades earlier.
 

Then we meet Phil (Mathew Maher), the one-year-younger brother of Les and Reg’s classmate, Dante.  Phil, who’s openly gay and therefore considers himself an expert on all things homosexual, gives the playwright numerous opportunities for gay-slanted bantering, most of it silly and insignificant. A subtext of homoerotic preoccupations gradually emerges but its ultimate purpose is vague. By now, as well, the air is heavy with overheated vulgarities. As the plot heats up, gin and tonics are continually washed down, but all the g and t’s in the world wouldn’t inspire what these characters soon get up to. Nor would it elicit the occasional outbursts of eloquence that emerge from the same mouths that use adolescent expressions like “vagina farts.”
 

Soon, it’s Dante’s turn to enter. A banker, he’s the most formally dressed, wearing a dark business suit and tie, his black hair slicked down. Dante is an Italian-American who is converting to Judaism and insists on his kids wearing yarmulkes even though they attend a parochial school (presumably a Catholic one); why Dante himself isn’t wearing one is a question for director Anne Kauffman and costume designer Emily Rebholz. Dante, who’s wound tighter than a two-dollar watch, holds a grudge against Reg for having had sex with his girlfriend, Carrie, in their senior year, in the nurse’s room, without a condom, and from behind. This information is repeated several times in the play, just in case we forget it. Pretty soon, Dante, obviously fed up with his life (he’s going through custody proceedings), joins the conversation about how the guys should respond to Jim’s abduction by taking action. Reg's idea of starting a peace Website on Jim's behalf is unanimously rejected. So far, so good. A satire on everyday citizens with frustrated personal lives seeking to do something meaningful, even risky, to save an old friend, exaggerated as the circumstances may be.
 

What happens though is that the discussion escalates until the idea of bombing the FBI arises, modified so that only a file cabinet in the local FBI office is bombed. The point of the attack is to draw attention to the FBI’s improper detention of the suspected Chadian terrorist. You see, he could in no way be guilty because Phil assures everyone he knows for a fact that the guy is gay, with the kind of “typical” gay personality that would never commit an act of terrorism. When asked how he himself could do be involved an act of anti-FBI violence, he declares: “I’m a different breed, meaning I’m not your typical gay man.” Instead, he’s “a complex gay man as opposed, to, like James Franco.”
 
 
By now, all sense of plausibility, believability, rationality, logic, or what have you has been scuttled. The plan, however, is still on the table and a resolution is required, so we’re forced to see how the playwright works his way out of the situation and brings it back to reality. For one thing, he interrupts the progress of the plot to introduce Carrie, the girl whose sexual encounter with Reg still rankles Dante. Jeanine Serrales, sheathed in a tight, red dress, gives a sensationally over-the-top performance, as the drunk, promiscuous, and potty mouthed Carrie, which gives us some relief from the idiocies of the male characters. There's little reason for her presence but her scene steals the show. 
 
 
After she leaves, and the plot to bomb the FBI file cabinet on Jim’s behalf heats up again, guess who shows up? Yes, it’s Jim. You see, he wasn’t really abducted at all, but merely took three months off to marry a Chadian girl and go to live in her village and learn the culture (German, too, while he was at it.) Jim, by the way, is African-American, giving the play yet another touch of diversity: Persian-American, Italian-American Catholic converting to Judaism, African-American, gay, woman, guy with mustache—see what I mean? What happens subsequently is so farfetched, I’ll reveal no more. You wouldn’t believe me anyway.

 
Despite my skepticism regarding the plot, the written script has many moments that promise laughs, both because of their often imaginative use of profanity and because they manage to capture a kind of potentially laugh-worthy nasty sarcasm. But in performance, as directed by Ms. Kauffman, they too often fall flat because the actors tend to shout them when they’re not being simply thrown away. An example of the latter might be when Dante attacks theatre by saying it’s “greatest cultural contribution is fucking CATS” and Les answers, “We don’t fuck cats! 

 
Most of the actors are familiar Off Broadway faces, and they give their all, playing for realism instead of farce, which is generally the best way to make farce work if the material is innately funny. But whatever humor lies dormant in Mr. Belber’s text is hard to laugh at when nothing you see before you is remotely convincing. The miscasting of Mr. Maher, one of New York’s busiest thespians, is also unhelpful; for one thing, his physical presence and way of speaking make Phil too quirky to be the guy we’re told by Carrie is someone all the girls in high school wanted to have sex with.
 

The Labyrinth usually puts a lot of effort into creating realistic sets, and Lee Savage’s design for THE MUSCLES IN OUR TOES belongs at the top of the list for its fully realized replication of a cinderblock-walled, high school music room, complete with several rows of empty chairs. Japhy Weideman’s lighting, which uses a good deal of florescent lighting, nevertheless finds effective ways to shape the space, and—apart from my cavil about Dante’s not having a yarmulke—Ms. Rebholz’s costumes all suit their wearers’ characters well, especially Carrie's sizzling, red dress..
 

THE MUSCLES IN OUR TOES gets its title from a speech Dante delivers, one whose rhetoric seems out of keeping with this uptight nutcase. In it he recalls Les having said something about friendship that seems as far from the Les we’ve seen as Jupiter is from Earth, although Les says he doesn’t remember saying it at all. Dante says Les compared friendship to godliness, that “it is our way into the divine. . . . And when we’re there, we’ll know because our sense of loyalty will run deep like a river and our call to action, when the shit hits the fan, will hurtle us forward with every particle of our body, from the tips of our brain to the muscles in our toes.” Regardless of whether Les ever said it or Dante is making it up, that last clause perfectly expresses my incredulity, from my brains to my toes, while watching this play.