Thursday, June 29, 2017

36 (2017-2018): Review: TEREZIN (seen June 28, 2017)

“Never Again”

 According to scholar Alvin Goldfarb, at least 257 Holocaust-related dramas had been written by 1997. Others, of course, have been produced since then, just as every year seems to bring one or more Holocaust movies to the screen, such as the recent The Zookeeper’s Wife. Documentaries (many available in full or part on YouTube), historical studies, and other forms of recollection, both academic and artistic, abound. The latest example to arrive on a New York stage is Terezin, by Nicholas Tolkien, great-grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings. Judging by this play, young Tolkien has a very long way to go before approaching his great-grandfather’s level. 

Sasha K. Gordon, Peter Angelinis. Photo: Carol Rosseg.
Terezin, perhaps better known by its German name of Theresienstadt, is a Czechoslovakian town whose two fortresses were converted by the Nazis in World War II into concentration camps for prisoners of war and, especially, Jews, the latter living in what the Germans called a “ghetto.” Terezin was noted for the large number of prominent Jewish artists, performers, and intellectuals living there.

Company of Terezin. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Regardless of its model camp status, Terezin’s Jews were mistreated, starved, tortured, and killed. A great many inhabitants, at least 15,000, were children. While 33,000 Jews died at Terezin, many more died at Auschwitz after being transported from Terezin, which was intended as a way station.   
Sasha K. Gordon, Natasa Petrovic, Sam Gibbs, Blake Lewis. Photo: Carol Rosegg. 
German propaganda, designed to fool inspectors from the visiting Red Cross, included a documentary film (the making of which is part of Tolkien’s play) showing the Jews living athletically, intellectually, and artistically active lives in this so-called “spa town”; a considerable part of the film shows a soccer match played in a large courtyard surrounded by a building several stories high with a series of arches on each upper level fronting exterior passageways. 
Sam Gibbs, Sophia Davey, Natasa Petrovic, Sasha K. Gordon. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
These seem to be the inspiration for the gray walls encompassing Terezin’s abstract set, designed by Anna Driftmier, where the multiple arches have been so reduced in scale they suggest not only mouse holes but rows of crematorium ovens. One is actually used for deceased characters to crawl in and out of. Driftmier’s set, which includes a thin curtain on a circular track that can hide or reveal as much of the space as needed, is filled with black, sculptural pieces resembling bare branches. The effect is a bleak, unattractive background for Tolkien’s clumsy, overwrought, melodrama about a small group of Nazis and their Jewish captives. 

Amanda Szabo's lighting does its ineffective best to create a haunting atmosphere, while the costumes of Marie Claire Brush and Belinda Hancock are more or less what you'd expect although seeing Nazi officers with their collars opened loosely seems inauthentic, no matter how uncomfortable the actors might be otherwise.
Company of Terezin. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Tolkien’s script is loosely based on The Terezin Diary of Gonda Redlich, a personal account of daily life at the camp kept by a young Jew who lived there for three years before being sent to Auschwitz, his hidden diary not being found until 1967. The playwright manages to squeeze in many of the significant facts about life in the camp but, instead of focusing on Redlich’s own experiences—he’s merely a secondary character (Alex Escher)—he concocts a story about two girls, Violet (Sasha K. Gordon) and Alexi (Natasa Petrovic), the latter a gifted violinist, daughter of another violinist, Isabella (Sophia Davey), murdered by the Nazis. 
Company of Terezin. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Using a combination of realistic and surrealistic methods (like multiple shadow effects or the manipulation of a sheet of fabric draped over an arm to suggest playing a violin), Tolkien, who also directed, tries to create a semi-phantasmagoric expression of the horrific experiences endured by the girls and their acquaintances. Very little rings true, however, in the writing, staging, or performances. The Nazis, particularly the two chief ones—Commandant Karl Rahm (Michael Leigh Cook, the most polished actor) and Udo Krimmel (Blake Lewis)—are the sociopathic stereotypes we’ve seen in countless movies; I wish I’d counted how many times a Luger was whipped out and pointed as a way to settle a dispute.
Michael Leigh Cook, Natasa Petrovic, Sophia Davey. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The rambling, suspense-challenged plot, filled with superficial characters and unpersuasive developments, fails to dig deeper than its litany of familiar Nazi cruelties.  One of its central premises is that Rahm’s son, Erik (Skyler Gallun), the camp architect, is actually a Jew Rahm raised after his “Jew bitch” mother abandoned him, and that Rahm—in a revelatory speech that sounds like something lifted from a 19th-century melodrama—thinks little of murdering him should the need arise. Equally preposterous is the other chief plot line, which holds that, after Violet goes missing, Rahm will tell Alexi of her whereabouts if she teaches him to play the violin like a master in one week. Act Two, in particular, is a pileup of dramaturgy that’s gone off the rails.
Natasa Petrovic, Alex Escher, Sasha K. Gordon. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The story of Terezin has been dramatized in at least half a dozen previous plays and musicals. One of them, The Tiny Mustache, which has received several workshops, may get a production down the line. One can only hope that, if it does, it’s a lot better than Nicholas Tolkien’s muddled version of what transpired.
Sasha K. Gordon. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Playwrights Horizons/Peter Jay Sharp Theatre
416 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through July 2

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Sunday, June 25, 2017

34 (2017-2018): Review: MEASURE FOR MEASURE (seen June 23, 2017)

"Viennese Nights"

Oskar Eustis’s Trumpian Julius Caesar of recent controversy is over but its melody lingers on in Measure for Measure, yet another modern-dress, politically-themed, Shakespearean revival. Unlike Eustis, Simon Godwin, an associate director of England’s National Theatre, doing his first Shakespeare with an American company, doesn’t make the characters immediately recognizable as current Washington figures. In the wake of Julius Caesar, however, it’s impossible not to be distracted by contemplating the potential analogies, even when they lead nowhere in particular. Thus one may be excused for wondering, "Is this a Richard Nixon I see before me?" when Thomas Jay Ryan's Angelo makes his entrance.
Thomas Jay Ryan. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
As Jonathan Kalb, dramaturg for this Theatre for a New Audience production at Brooklyn’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center, explains in the program, Shakespeare’s dark comedy has a striking timelessness, which he lays out in a series of bullet-points. These include (I’m paraphrasing), among others, a male political leader with a record of sexual harassment who impugns slanderous motives to his critics; who publicly smears women who accuse him of misconduct; and who employs religion to control immoral social behavior by enforcing puritanical laws. In addition, another mendacious leader speciously justifies his secretly spying on his citizens.

Borrowing a page from the “immersive theatre” playbook, Godwin seeks to plunge his audience into a Vienna seething with corruption by having them (if they choose to do so) enter the theatre proper by walking through a murkily-lit backstage hallway designed to suggest Mistress Overdone’s brothel. You almost immediately brush past the madam herself (you’ll realize this later), dreamily filing her nails, and then pass several spaces showing actors in sexually provocative costumes, like flesh and blood versions of Mme. Tussaud’s wax exhibits, while an assortment of neon-lit sex toys adorn the walls. Finally, you emerge into the theatre proper, where properly dressed ushers help you to your seat. It’s all so faux and gimmicky that it’s impossible for the brothel’s owner's name not to come to mind.
January Lavoy, Christopher Michael McFarland. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
When the lights go up on the play, the balloon-festooned, parquet-floored, thrust stage becomes the site of a rock music-backed orgy with dancing participants (music by Jane Shaw; choreography by Brian Brooks) reminiscent of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. And smack dab in the middle is Measure for Measure’s central character, Duke Vincentio (Jonathan Cake), so dope and drink addled he falls asleep on the floor enveloped in the draperies.
Jonathan Cake. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
He’s found the next morning by his advisor, Escala. The latter is Shakespeare’s wise, old Escalus, changed to an attractive, business-suited woman so she can be acted by the talented January Lavoy (who also plays Mistress Overdone--as a flashy tart with a heavy Latina accent--and a nun). As the Duke straightens his disheveled appearance, he begins his opening monologue, its gnarly language in no need of such distractions.

The notion of making the Duke, generally portrayed as a wise, decent ruler, into a relatively youthful debauchee seems motivated in part by his later description (“He would be drunk, too”) by the sardonic, ever-jesting Lucio (Haynes Thigpen), played here as a velvet-jacketed, coke-sniffing pimp.
Jonathan Cake, Haynes Thigpen. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Just as the orgiastic Vienna disappears as the play gets on to its principal business, so does the duke’s depravity, when he forsakes his presumed physical addiction in favor of his plot-driving decision: to turn over his power to his deputy, Angelo, while pretending that he’s leaving town. In reality, the duke, for motives that remain cloudy, is going undercover in a friar’s cowl and robes so he can observe both his citizens’ behavior and that of Angelo.  

The aforementioned Lucio is the good friend of Claudio (Leland Fowler), a young man who’s arrested for having impregnated Juliet (Sam Morales), a minor infraction since the couple was planning on getting married anyway. But the newly empowered Angelo is so mercilessly draconian that, insisting on the application of an old law, he decrees death for Claudio. Claudio’s pious sister, Isabella (Cara Ricketts), on the brink of taking her vows as a nun, is thus inspired to intervene and beg Angelo for mercy.

From this follows the central conflict when the morally circumspect Angelo is so aroused by Isabella’s presence that he succumbs to lust, agreeing to free Isabella’s brother only if she’ll sleep with him. The pious Isabella, however, would sooner lose her brother than her maidenhead, thereby creating a huge moral dilemma.
Oberon K.A. Adjepong. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Multiple deceptive situations are created at the Duke’s contrivance so that everything can eventually be resolved in typically romantic fashion when the Duke finally steps in, reveals his identity, and sets things right, even taking Isabella for himself.
Christopher Michael McFarland, Kenneth De Abrew. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
As the frequent laughter suggests, Godwin’s overall interpretation leans toward the comic although the play can just as well be done more bleakly. Lucio, who first appears pouring baby powder down his underpants as if he's soothing a painful crotch, is the chief comic character, although it’s hard to make him funny
Zachary Fine. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
The more clownish characters succeed better at this, like the language-mangling constable Elbow and the prisoner Barnardine, both given distinctively broad characterizations by Zachary Fine; he plays the first with self-important military gestures and the latter as a fully bearded, longhaired, Russian drunk.
Thomas Jay Ryan, January Lavoy. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.

The best-played comic scene involves two other clowns, Pompey (Christopher Michael McFarland), a tapster employed by Mistress Overdone, and Froth (Kenneth De Abrew), arrested by the police chief-like Provost (Oberon K.A. Adjepong). Their hearing is conducted by Escala, whom Lavoy portrays with Jeanine Pirro attitude.
Zachary Fine, Christopher Michael McFarland. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
The production, running around two hours and 40 minutes, is swiftly paced and vigorously, if not subtly, performed. Played on an open set designed by Paul Wills, superbly lit by Matthew Richards, with much use of mobile prison cages that come in through large, metal, upstage doors, it’s filled with the kind of novel touches we expect in such modern-dress (excellent costumes, also by Wills) affairs. For example, Mariana (Merritt Jansen), the woman Angelo abandoned when her dowry was lost in a shipwreck, opens the play's second half as a rock singer in a cabaret, with actual audience members seated at cocktail tables. Some spectators also get to wave flags for the Duke’s grand entrance.
Merritt Janson, Cara Ricketts. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Too much of the dialogue, though, is delivered in rapid, full-throated, rhetorical style; it's a common problem in Shakespeare, where actors tend to shout at rather than talk with one another. British actor Jonathan Cake, a handsome leading man, plays the Duke as a light romantic lead, having fun with his conniving, and downplaying the more dignified manner often associated with the role.
Jonathan Cake, Leland Fowler. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Although she makes a strong impression, I was never convinced that Cara Ricketts’s Isabella was a dedicated novitiate; the way she embraces her brother and the friar/Duke suggests she’s more passion-prone than she’d like to admit, which complicates her refusal of Angelo’s deal. 
Cara Ricketts, Leland Fowler. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Thomas Jay Ryan, always interesting, captures Angelo’s icy officiousness and hypocritical self-righteousness (his habit of cleaning his hands with Purell is a smart touch) but fails to believably express the man’s struggle to overcome his concupiscent cravings. When he suddenly grabs Isabella it comes off more as the result of a stage direction than a stiff erection.
Thomas Jay Ryan, Cara Ricketts. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
While, overall, it's a more unified production than Julius Caesar, Godwin's Measure for Measure comes, unfortunately, at a moment when it can't help being trumped by a production that received remarkable attention even though many wouldn’t give two pence for it.


Theatre for a New Audience/Polonsky Shakespeare Center

262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn
Through July 16

Friday, June 23, 2017

33 (2017-2018): Review: IN A WORD (seen June 22, 2017)

What must it be like to lose a child, not by the finality of death, but by the uncertain fate of a kidnapping? How long must one wait and suffer before being able to move along with one’s life? Is the pain any less because the child was adopted? Or that the child was so seriously troubled it affected your every waking minute, even losing you your job? And endangering your marriage? Does the coping ever stop?

Justin Mark, Laura Ramadei. Photo: Hunter Canning.

These are some of the questions confronted by Lauren Yee’s tenderly crafted In a Word, being given a quality performance under Tyne Rafaeli’s delicate direction in the intimate Cherry Lane Studio Theatre. This well-acted three-hander, running a little more than an hour, introduces us to Fiona (Laura Ramadei), a grade school teacher, and her husband, Guy (Jose Joaquin Perez); they’re an ordinary young couple, whose seven-year-old, Tristan, appears to have been snatched two years ago after Fiona parked at a gas station and left him alone for three minutes.

Justin Mark, Laura Ramadei. Photo: Hunter Canning.
After two years of waiting for the cops to solve the case, Guy wants to declare a moratorium on their grief, at least enough so that Fiona can break free of her obsessing and go out with him for dinner, something to which she’s already agreed. She remains, however, chained to her grief and guilt, precipitating the flashback memories that constitute the main action. These are seamlessly integrated into the generally realistic, present-time structure to examine Fiona’s emotional and mental state. Lines of dialogue with words bearing particular resonance are woven through the script as markers, often serving to trigger recollections that instantly shift us from the present to the past.
Laura Ramadei, Justin Mark. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Sometimes, the recalls are tinged with distortions or exaggerations that invoke mild laughter, which serves as relief to the general grimness. The effect, at times, is to suggest that Fiona’s fixation has driven her to the point of madness. She even imagines different people introducing themselves as the kidnapper in places like the grocery. In the memories, a young actor, the versatile Justin Mark, plays eight roles, among them the detective investigating the kidnapping; Fiona’s principal, Ted; Guy’s buddy, Andy; and, most significantly, Tristan. 
Laura Ramadei, Jose Joaquin Perez. Photo: Hunter Canning.
When we see Tristan, adopted when he was two from an unwed friend of Andy’s, he’s more than a handful; highly intelligent, he’s rude, potty-mouthed, and undisciplined. He’s also unable to bear more than a passing touch from his mother. Yee’s script suggests that he probably has Asperger’s.  Fiona, despite being a second-grade teacher, is reluctant to accept that he’s anything but a hyperactive kid. Ted, though, urges that he be placed in a special ed class taught by a fellow teacher Fiona unreservedly calls a retard, a word Tristan picks up on as well.
Justin Mark, Jose Joaquin, Perez, Laura Ramadei. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Words, the play indicates, both spoken and unspoken, make a difference; Fiona even keeps a swear jar for every vulgarity someone makes. Misunderstood language--“leave of absence,” for example, through the change of “leave” into “leaf” ultimately becomes “tree of absence”--allows for a distinctive touch of poetry. With so many of the flashbacks suggesting an alternative, even magic reality, it’s no wonder Stowe Nelson’s fine sound design allows the buzzing of improper words to be heard whenever the jar is opened.
Laura Ramadei, Justin Mark, Jose Joaquin Perez. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Rafaeli’s production unfolds in a sleek West Elm-like living room designed by Oona Curley with an upstage area marked by a set of translucent glass doors. The actors slide these back and forth in different configurations, altering perceptions of time and feeling. Curley also did the evocative lighting, with one particular moment showing a ghostly Tristan staring through the doors as if just on the cusp of vanishing. The effect is, in a word, haunting.


Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce St., NYC


Thursday, June 22, 2017

32 (2017-2018): Review: BASTARD JONES (seen June 21, 2017)

"What's New, Tomcat?"

In 1963, when Tom Jones, Tony Richardson’s brilliantly unconventional movie version of Henry Fielding’s hilariously raunchy 1749 novel, The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, opened, 23-year-old Welsh pop singer, Tom Jones, was just breaking into show business. Less than two years later, Jones became an international star with his recording of “It’s Not Unusual”; his personal life—married to the same woman from the age of 17 until her death in 2016 while nonetheless having multiple affairs—demonstrated that this great star’s parents could have given him no more fitting name than that of Fielding’s irrepressibly randy, 19-year-old, sexy tomcat. 
Evan Ruggiero, Rene Ruiz. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Fielding’s Tom was no singer, of course, but that’s no reason not to make him one, as you can hear for yourself in Bastard Jones, Marc Acito (book, lyrics, direction) and Amy Engelhardt’s (music, lyrics) freewheeling musical comedy version of Fielding’s book. Musical comedy is actually far too tame a way to describe what goes way beyond even musical farce in its rowdy, hellzapoppin approach, throwing realism to the winds and—although there’s no nudity per se—letting it all hang out.

Acito and Engelhardt have stripped the 18 chapters (or “books”) of Fielding’s picaresque novel down to a two-act romp (with a 15-minute intermission) running nearly two hours and 20 minutes (although advertised as an hour and 45). It might not feel so long were it not for the metal, low-backed, barstool-like chairs at the Cell (or nancy manocherian’s the cell as it seems to prefer being called); they’re so high your feet either rest on a slim crossbar or dangle. They get my vote as the most uncomfortable in the New York theatre.
Adam B. Shapiro, Matthew McGloin. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Commenting on the action is a comical narrator, a barber-surgeon named Partridge (Rene Ruiz), who also participates in the narrative as Tom’s sidekick, putative father, and others. The story itself focuses on the relationship between Squire Allworthy (Tony Perry), of Somerset, and two young men, the goodhearted Tom Jones (Evan Ruggiero), a bastard foundling the squire took in and raised, and the ratfink Mr. Bilful (Trey Gowdy lookalike Matthew McGloin), jealous son of Allworthy’s sister Bridget (Cheryl Stern).
Company of Bastard Jones. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Tom’s sexual escapades with various women, including the servant Molly (Alie B. Gorrie), whom he believes he’s made pregnant (a belief fostered by his weakness in mathematics); Lady Bellaston (Crystal Lucas-Perry), an aristocratic nympho; Mrs. Waters (Lucas-Perry), a woman Tom rescues; and Sophia Shepherd (Elena Wang), his true love, are commingled with the story of Tom’s birth and true identity, his position as an heir to Allworthy’s fortunes, his joining the British army, and so on.
Tony Perry (above), Rene Ruiz, Evan Ruggiero, Crystal Lucas-Perry. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
For some reason, Sophia’s last name has been changed from Fielding’s Western to Shepherd, and her father, Squire Western, is transmogrified into Rev. Shepherd (Adam B. Shapiro), a buffoonish fire and brimstone preacher, obsessed with Tom’s fornicating proclivities. But this is a minor question in an irreverent spoof in the Theatre of the Ridiculous tradition that takes neither Fielding nor itself seriously.
Matthew McGloin, Crystal Lucas-Perry. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Staged by Acito with an imaginative flair for physical action—his complex fight scenes in close quarters, with multiple characters wielding weapons, fists, and feet are highlights—the rambunctious production has the air of a devised theatre piece birthed by the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. This results in a carefully calibrated cacophony of door slamming, head banging, and otherwise free-swinging mayhem, supplemented by Joe Barros’s vibrantly energetic choreography. 
Evan Ruggiero, Alie B. Gorrie, Crystal Lucas-Perry. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Aside from three well-used doors on the Cell’s permanent balcony, above and behind the general acting area, there’s no set to speak of, making Gertjan Houben’s expert lighting work overtime to enhance the show’s visuals. In fact, Bastard Jones is the kind of show where a few cleverly used props replace the set when used for a variety of purposes other than their original ones.

A basket becomes a pregnant belly, or a table, with its center leaf removed, is converted to a wagon drawn by actors playing horses; held vertically, it’s a wall with a window through which an actor sticks his head. Sexual hijinks are viewed in shadow pantomime through backlit sheets. Supplementing the let’s-put-on-a-show feeling are Siena ZoĂ«’s costumes and wigs, a wild, nonsensical conglomeration of found elements from multiple sources, only a tiny few suggesting the 18th century. 
Alie B. Gorrie, Matthew McGloin, Adam B. Shapiro, Evan Ruggiero. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The actors, most of whom play multiple roles, are equally eclectic, crossing gender and racial lines and even including two disabled artists. This is actually the third production I’ve seen this month—the others are The Cost of Living and The Artificial Jungle—in which actors with so-called handicaps display excellent talents Ruggiero, for instance, who lost much of his right leg to bone cancer, plays the lusty Tom with an old-fashioned peg leg that does little to prevent him from climbing all over the furniture or even doing a soft-shoe vaudeville routine with Rene Ruiz’s Partridge. And Alie B. Gorie’s being legally blind is no hindrance to her participation in the knockabout staging and dance numbers.

Engelhardt’s music is generally fun, with large infusions of rock and other upbeat styles, but there’s little here that will last beyond the show it’s written for. Engelhardt and Acito’s lyrics range from clever to serviceable and the songs all get worthy performances from everyone in the well-cast show. Of particular note are the beautiful Elena Wang, gifted with marvelous pipes, and Crystal Lucas-Perry, who rocks her numbers bigtime.
Rene Ruiz, Cheryl Stern. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The show’s biggest drawback is its sophomoric humor, especially the attempts to wring laughs from the more salacious references and stage business. Although there was frequent laughter when I went, almost every joke had a winking, isn’t-this-funny juvenility that more frequently missed than hit, like what you’d expect from a college fraternity show. Malapropisms mount, puns are plentiful (fiesta rĂ©sistance, quel frommage, etc.), farts are frequent, and lines like “I fart on your happiness” get the loudest laughs.

According to Acito’s program note, he and Engelhardt are concerned about communicating the social criticism regarding human rights in Fielding’s satirical writing, but, given the nonstop barrage of singing, dancing, fighting, lovemaking, and general silliness on view, few visitors are going to pay much attention to Bastard Jones’s themes. If they like its brand of broad humor and sexual liberation they’ll have a good time. And, even if, like me, they find themselves groaning at the poor puns and frowning at the clownish campiness, they’ll likely enjoy the joie de vivre of Bastard Jones.

P.S. It was just announced that Bastard Jones has raised $10,000 for Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors Fund, dedicated to ending homelessness of LGBTQ youth.


 nancy manocherian’s the cell 
338 W. 23rd St., NYC
Through July 14