Wednesday, January 31, 2018

150 (2017-2018): HE BROUGHT HER HEART BACK IN A BOX (seen January 29, 2018)

"Writing Outside the Box"

The much-honored, Cleveland-raised Adrienne Kennedy, biracial author of such structurally challenging, quasi-autobiographical, racially sensitive plays as Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964) and A Rat’s Mass (1970), once declared: “My plays are meant to be states of mind.”
Tom Pecinka, Juliana Canfield. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Audiences at the 86-year-old Kennedy’s latest work, He Brought Her Heart Back in Box, now in production by Theatre for a New Audience at Brooklyn’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center, should, therefore, be prepared to experience various states of mind. Some will be poetic, elegiac, dreamlike, and reminiscent. Others, though, will be lethargic, monotonous, confused, and cloudy.
Julian Canfield, Tom Pecinka. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
As in other Kennedy works, this 45-minute one-act set in the Jim Crow era—and given a visually striking staging by Evan Yionoulis—concerns issues of racial identity, segregation, male sexual malfeasance, the children born of such behavior, the obstacles to biracial romantic relationships, and violence. These topics are embedded in a mostly undramatic, disjointed narrative—reflective of Kennedy’s mother’s experiences—performed by two fine, young actors, Juliana Canfield and Tom Pecinka.
Tom Pecinka. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Canfield plays Kay, the light-skinned offspring of a white southerner and black mother, only 15 when she became pregnant. Kay’s a student at the town’s school for “colored” children, founded by Harrison Aherne, the white, wealthy, peach-growing father of the handsome Chris Aherne, played by Pecinka. Jim Crow, of course, prevents these youngsters from pursuing their mutual affection. 

Several of the school’s children are Harrison’s own mixed-race children by black women who work for him. The elder Aherne is represented by a white, articulated, life-sized puppet, dressed in a suit and sitting lifelessly until manipulated and voiced by Pecinka.
Tom Pecinka. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
The principal locale is the fictional, peach-growing town of Montefiore, Georgia—Kennedy has family roots in Montezuma, Georgia—whose layout we view in the form of a highly detailed group of model buildings and streets laid out for the entering audience to examine before taking its seats.
Juliana Canfield, Tom Pecinka. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Christopher Barreca’s impressive set places us in the basement of the aforementioned school in June 1941. Several chairs sit on the open space of the basement floor, at the upstage end of which are two brick towers separated by an extensive stairway of at least 30 steps running to a very high set of stained glass-paneled doors. A horizontal bridgeway forms a landing midway up where several scenes transpire.
Tom Pecinka. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Donald Holder provides exquisite lighting, Montana Levi Blanco has designed lovely period garments, Austin Switser offers extensive video images, and Justin Ellington creates moodily effective background music and sound. It’s hard not to feel, though, that seldom has so much been done in the service of so little.
Juliana Canfield. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
While Montefiore remains the scenic anchor, the play, set on the eve of American involvement in World War II, also includes moments at Atlanta University, from whence Kay writes to Chris, and New York, where Chis has gone to become an actor. While it’s unclear if this is also in 1941, we see him in Noël Coward’s romantic operetta Bitter Sweet, singing in an old-fashioned tenor the score’s now mostly forgotten “Dear Little Café.” 

On the other hand, this may be fantasy, as the script’s references to Bitter Sweet are to the 1940 film version, which both Chris and Kay mention seeing, she from the balcony seats reserved for colored people. (Note: Bitter Sweet, about a woman’s ill-fated marital choice, moved to Broadway from London in 1929 and was seen again only in a brief 1934 revival; it introduced the now standard “Ziguneur” and “I’ll See You Again,” which Chris will also sing.)
Juliana Canfield, Tom Pecinka. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Also coursing through the play on their own trajectory are speeches from Christopher Marlowe’s barely-known, 1593, Elizabethan tragedy The Massacre at Paris (called Paris Massacre by Kennedy). That play, about the bloody antagonism of the Catholics and Huguenots in 16th-century France, was chosen by Harrison Aherne to be performed by the schoolchildren for “reasons unknown,” according to a stage direction.
Juliana Canfield, Tom Pecinka. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
For all its vagueness, the play’s speeches—a good number of them epistolary and thus spoken to the air—are less densely packed with obscure imagery than earlier Kennedy writing; a relatively straightforward, if fragmented, narrative informs much of its body. The content generally refers to family matters—including exposition regarding Kay’s mother, the bloody circumstances of whose death are left fuzzy but supply the play’s evocative title.

Jim Crow conditions are alluded to, of course, but nothing especially illuminating about them is expressed. The actors' cool, even-toned delivery of the lines prevents them from ripping deeply into the emotions these experiences might normally provoke, thus leaving the audience to respond intellectually but not on a gut level. 

These conditions are also related to Chris’s father’s involvement with a trip to Berlin in 1934 that suggests Nazi interest in Harrison’s segregationist practices. Added to these incompletely explored elements is a final moment that occurs right after Pearl Harbor; while theatrically powerful, it only opens another can of worms for the intrepid academics who will henceforth attempt to explicate it.
Juliana Canfield, Tom Pecinka. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Adrienne Kennedy’s plays are an acquired taste, which is why they’re more often discussed in college classrooms than produced on professional stages. However, this production does as much as any to make the heart of her work accessible, even if that heart is defiantly outside the box.


Theatre for a New Audience/Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY
Through February 11

Saturday, January 27, 2018

149 (2017-2018): Review: MILES FOR MARY (seen January 26, 2018)

“Points of Disorder”

It helps but you don’t have to be or have been a teacher to appreciate the wickedly human humor in Miles for Mary, the often deliciously hilarious comedy about committee work launching the new Redux Series at Off-Broadway’s venerable Playwrights Horizons. Anyone who’s ever served on a committee with a particular project in mind will recognize the behavior, ranging from unfailingly polite to manically frustrated, driving the play’s half-dozen Garrison HS teachers, as they strive to organize the school’s ninth annual, 24-hour, scholarship-funding telethon, named for a student athlete who died in a car crash.
Stephanie Wright Thompson, Marc Bovino, Michael Dalto, Stacey Yen, Joe Curnutte. Photo: Jefferson White.
The Redux Series is designed to revive outstanding Off-Off Broadway shows that, because of Equity showcase rules, would disappear once their limited number of permitted performances (12-16) ends. Playwrights Horizons couldn’t have done better than to select Miles for Mary, a play created by the collaborative group, The Mad Ones, and first seen at Brooklyn’s Bushwick Starr in 2016. Four of its six actors—Marc Bovino, Joe Curnutte, Michael Dalto, and Stephanie Wright Thompson—along with director Lila Neugebauer, wrote the script. Dramaturg Sarah Lunnie and actresses Amy Staats and Stacy Yen also contributed, the latter two credited as a “creative ensemble.” 

Amy Rubin’s set replicates in realistic detail the office/lounge of the fictional Garrison, Ohio, school’s Phys Ed Department, dominated at our left by a conference table and at our right by a desk. It’s so reminiscent of the teacher’s lounge in 2016’s Exit Strategy at the Cherry Lane one can imagine both plays being performed in it, with only some minor changes in the props. One that would have to go would be the small, boxy monitor with green text on a black background, helping to establish the time period (1988-1989).
Michael Dalto, Marc Bovino, Stacey Yen, Joe Curnutte, Stephanie Wright Thompson. Photo: Jefferson White.
When the action begins we see five teachers, all in their thirties, at the table: Ken Wyckoff (Bovino); his wife, Julie (Yen); David Eagan (Dalto), who serves as the pro forma leader; Sandra Bulkman (Thompson); and Rod Dietrich (Curnutte). Running the meeting is the unseen Brenda Zadakian (Staats), heard over the table’s speakerphone, unable to attend because of injuries from a serious accident. The situation sets up exactly the kind of comic communication obstacles you’d expect.

Over the course of the play’s intermissionless hour and 55 minutes, we slowly get to know the teachers and to appreciate their individual quirks. For example, the gym teacher, Rod, is always doing something physical, like playing shooting hoops with a toy basketball set or, in a highlight, spinning at top speed on a stationary bike. Or Sandra, who, unlike the others, wears the same clothes every day. (The spot-on costumes are by Àsta Bennie Hostetter.)
Michael Dalto, Marc Bovino, Joe Curnutte, Stephanie Wright Thompson, Stacey Yen. Photo: Jefferson White.
Everyone behaves at first in the most cordial, conciliatory way, picking each other’s brains for ideas and accepting each one offered as potentially valuable, no matter how clueless, and complimenting one another as if they were all bias- and ego-free. Each compliment, of course, covers an underlying dismissal. And the forced collegiality, naturally, only wastes time and delays realization of the project’s goals. Eventually, it’s impossible to resist the tensions that arise as the teachers try to answer the project’s needs.

The play is structured around scenes on specific subjects, each fundamentally convincing but with a patina of satire that becomes increasingly rich, and each serving to illuminate something funny in the group dynamic. These cover budgeting, themes, programming, Christmas gift giving among the members, training in how to handle the new, multi-line phones for the telethon, and what the script calls the "post mort." There’s so much detail, in fact, that it may go too far; if 15 minutes could be carefully extracted it might make an even sharper impact.
Michael Dalto, Stephanie Wright Thompson, Stacey Yen, Joe Curnutte, Marc Bovino. Photo: Jefferson White.
Much as it’s easy to laugh at what we see, it also lets us realize how our own behavior in such circumstances could just as well be thought ridiculous. As I watched, I could feel waves of embarrassment come rushing back on recalling committees where either I or someone else made fools of ourselves on behalf of some long forgotten cause.  
Stacey Yen, Marc Bovino. Photo: Jefferson White.
Miles for Mary begins getting laughs early on; I, however, needed more time to assimilate the circumstances and characters before the humor began to creep under my skin. The approach taken under Neugebauer’s subtle direction suggests the kind of dry, straight-faced comedy you get from the best British comedy. The actors all are perfectly in tune with their roles, taking them seriously and not at all playing for laughs; once you catch on, though, you begin to notice the nuances in their speech and behavior that betray their underlying comic intentions.

There are too many brilliant strokes to enumerate but moments that stand out include the one when Yen’s consistently composed Julie loses it in a nuclear emotional explosion; when Bovino’s Ken is unable to handle the incomprehension and lack of interest in the new phones he’s so excited about explaining; and when Ken complains about everyone’s patronizing attitudes, followed by the group’s decision to see what happens when they tell the truth about their feelings. For all its obvious emphasis on satirical comedy, Miles for Mary also reflects the pathos in Puck's immortal line: “What fools these mortals be.”

Miles for Mary is playing in Playwrights Horizons’ small, upstairs venue, the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre. It’s a far more delightful and original work than many of the more superficially prestigious works PH produces on its main stage. Judging by the laughter (frequency as well as volume) it generates, it might be worth someone’s while to pick it up for yet another “redux” production in an independent Off-Broadway run.


Playwrights Horizons/Peter Jay Sharp Theater
416 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through February 18

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

147 (2017-2018): Review: BALLS (seen January 23, 2018)

“She Was Strong; She Was Invincible”

First there was When Billie Beat Bobby, a 2001 telemovie starring Holly Hunter and Ron Silver as tennis stars Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Then there was last year’s well received movie Battle of the Sexes, with Emma Stone and Bobby Riggs as the famous athletes. And now there’s a smashing theatre piece, Balls, written by Kevin Armento and Bryony Lavery, featuring Donald Corren and Ellen Tamaki, two fine actors you may never have heard of, as Riggs and King.

Ellen Tamaki, Donald Korren. Photo: Russ Rowland.
The 85-minute play is a collaborative product of the One Year Lease Theater Company, known for its emphasis on physically driven work, and Houston’s Stages Repertory Theatre, where it was first performed. It was, of course, inspired by the historic 1973 exhibition match played for a $100,000 prize at Houston’s Astrodome (a once spectacular, now abandoned, baseball stadium) between Billie Jean King, then 29, and retired champion Bobby Riggs, 55.
Donald Corren. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Riggs, a colorful, bespectacled, outspoken male chauvinist, who claimed that women players were inferior to men, already had beaten top player Margaret Court in a three-set challenge match. King, also a glasses wearer, was a vocal advocate for gender equality and comparable compensation of prize money for women players. 90 million people worldwide tuned in to watch their Battle of the Sexes.
Ellen Tamika, Dante Jeanfelix. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Balls, marvelously directed by Ianthe Demos and Nick Flint, with truly awesome movement direction by Natalie Lomonte, and benefitting from the tennis coaching of cast member Richard Saudek, uses the famous match to create a phantasmagoric, nonlinear blend of athletic staging, comedic acting and mime, and historical information tying the significance of the King-Riggs story (and their individual bios) to national and world events, many connected to issues of sex and gender (including transgender) parity. 
Elisha Mudly, Richard Saudek, Olivia McGiff. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Like at least three other recent plays, Don’t Say a F**king Word, The Last Match, and the one-act “Break Point,” its performance heart beats loudest when the actors play tennis without actual balls.
Company of Balls. Photo: Russ Rowland.
A net, whose side posts allow it to be maneuvered into different configurations, is placed on a green floor with white boundary lines. Designer Kristen Robinson’s terrific green, white, and yellow set has the green floor ride up the walls at an odd angle, fashioning a surrealistic court on which the actors, remarkably, re-enact the actual shot-for-shot sequence of the original event. Mike Rigg’s lighting design deserves equal praise for its imaginative versatility.
Donald Corren. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Using rackets (as in only one of the plays I mentioned), and accompanied by  Brendan Aones’s extraordinary sound score replicating the thumping of balls on the ground before they’re served and the thwacks when they’re hit, Tamika and Corren make their serves and returns so palpable you can practically see the invisible spheres. I shudder to think how arduous the rehearsals must have been.
Alex J. Gould, Elisha Mudly. Photo: Russ Rowland. 
The effect is greatly heightened by the crouching ballboy (Alex J. Gould) and ballgirl (Elisha Mudly) stationed at either post, where they surreptitiously toss yellow balls against the net, creating the effect of missed shots they then quickly retrieve. 
Richard Saudek, Olivia McGiff. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Balls, of course, has other things on its mind, which it expresses with the help not only of the match but through a variety of well-acted, deliberately overdone characters clothed in Kenisha Kelly’s wonderful costumes. These include two flexible, clown-like mimes representing the line judges (Richard Saudek and Olympia McGiff, the former also a talented juggler), wearing striped shirts and extra-wide ties; the balls stuffed into their hip pockets give their slacks the comical look of jodhpurs.
Christina Pitter, Danny Bernardy. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Then there’s a pair of raucous, touristy superfans, the twins Cherry (Cristina Pitter) and Terry (Danny Bernardy), who comment humorously on their respective idols (she for her, he for him) from an upper gallery at one side of the auditorium.
Richard Saudek, Olivia McGriff. Photo: Russ Rowland.
There’s also the umpire (Bernardy), who often recites factoids about both tennis and an abundance of 1973 events. We’re thus bombarded with news of the first use of “Stockholm syndrome,” Roe v. Wade, the births of future celebs (cue Monica Lewinsky), the recreational drug explosion, politics, and a host of things related to issues of sex and racial equality. Much of this seems excessive, however, as the pile up of curious information becomes increasingly trivial.

Also present are cameos from various celebs of the day, especially Chrissie Evert (Mudly) and Jim Brown (Danté Jeanfelix), and highlighting the downside of fame.
Zakiya Iman Markland, Ellen Tamika, Dante Jeanfelix. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Of course, we meet King’s accommodating, feminist, pro-abortion husband, Larry (Jeanfelix), and her hairdresser cum travel secretary cum lesbian lover, Marilyn Barnett (Zakiya Iman Markland), who’s into Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Both the white Larry and Marilyn (who later filed a painful palimony suit against Billie Jean included in the action) are played by actors of color, allowing the play to encompass the topic of diversity. It’s Marilyn, by the way, who gets to rock Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman.” 
Ellen Tamika. Photo: Russ Rowland.
An unseen announcer introduces the play in a funny prologue about the relationship of the spherical objects (from the earth to body parts) called balls, after which the lights come up on the ballboy explaining their court responsibilities to the ballgirl. This scene begins the serves and returns of what will be their 40-year romantic/marital relationship, intended to reflect the shifts in nuptial affairs that emerged with the feminist movement. In what already tends toward an overstuffed narrative, these moments, which comprise their own mini-play, seem the least necessary and the most polemic.

Billie Jean and Bobby sometimes talk to each other during the game, expressing scattered thoughts on the symbolic relationship of tennis to life, hustling, male chauvinism, the odds on the game, women’s lib, and so on, much of it accompanied by snatches of pop music that can lead everyone to bust out dancing.

Tennis and theatre have a long relationship going back to the evolution of French playhouses from indoor tennis (jeu de paume) courts in the late 16th century. The rash of plays about tennis may be unusual but, as such works demonstrate, the dynamics of the game serve as a vibrant metaphor for the forehands, backhands, lobs, and overheads that make up the volleys of life.


59E59 Theaters/Theater A
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through February 24

Monday, January 22, 2018

146 (2017-2018): Review: THE HOMECOMING QUEEN (seen January 21, 2018)

“A Real Igbo Gal”

The welcome trend in mainstream theatres over the past several years of producing plays set in Africa, usually written, directed, and acted by artists with African-sounding names (a recent example being Jocelyn Bioh's School Girls: Or, the African Mean Girls Play), continues with Ngozi Anyanwu’s The Homecoming Queen, directed by Awoye Timpo (Jitney), at the Atlantic Theater Stage Two.
Oberon K.A. Adjepong, Mfoniso Udofia. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Perhaps its most ironically amusing point is that it’s set at a large, multi-roomed house on a family compound in the Igbo-speaking city of Mbaise, Imo State, Nigeria. That, you’ll recall, is the country to which our president pointed late last year when reportedly suggesting that its immigrants “go back to their huts.” He would, of course, also have included Nigeria among his “shithole” (or “shithouse,” if you will) countries. A visit to this play might disabuse him of such notions. 
Patrice Johnson, Vinie Burrows, Ebbe Bassey, Zenzi Williams. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.

Anyanwu’s central character is Kelechi (Mfoniso Udofia, a first-generation Nigerian American and herself a respected dramatist), daughter of Godwin Ekejuba (Oberon K.A. Adjepong), a widowed, ailing village chief. Kelechi, a successful novelist whose first book was a best-selling, Pulitzer finalist, returns from America, where’s she’s been living for 15 years. She left Nigeria when she herself was 15, following a traumatic event of which we very gradually learn.

Her chief reason for coming home is to care for her ailing Papa, who is dying. She also hopes to find inspiration for her next book, prompting—in a moment that leans toward the implausible—a sharp-tongued response to her impatient New York agent’s phone call requesting results. And, perhaps, she’ll be able to find peace from the torment she’s been suffering from regarding something that happened in Nigeria years before.

Kelechi discovers on her return that her American ways and attitudes clash uncomfortably with those of her abandoned Nigerian culture. Part of this requires us to take for granted that, because she began practicing as a girl, she speaks English with a profanity-riddled, decidedly American accent; on the other hand, she never mastered Igbo, whose words and expressions are sprinkled, sung, and chanted throughout.
Mfoniso Udofia, Vinie Burrows. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Actually, though, even the four women (Ebbe Bassey, Patrice Johnson, Zenzi Williams, and, at 89, the indomitable Vinie Burrows) who represent Kelechi’s cousins and aunties (a relational condition that seems endemic among the locals), and serve as a musical and dramatic chorus, speak English on some level. 

Presumably because of what happened on the neighboring compound years ago, the pill-popping Kelechi—romantically unattached following a breakup with her white boyfriend, whose name is used for a cheap laugh—is a quivering, unpleasant, self-centered mass of manic depression.
Mfoniso Udufia, Segun Akande. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
She engages contentiously with her father, who characterizes her as a "rough gal," whom she’s not seen in so long, and for whose financial wellbeing she’s responsible. She also gives the deep chill —for a time, at least—to both her father’s precocious 15-year-old housegirl, Beatrice (Mirirai Sithole), and the handsome Obina (Segun Akande), in whom her father has placed certain hopes whose realization will go unspoken here.

The plot eventually reveals the relationships between Kelechi and Beatrice and Kelechi and Obina, the latter an undersized, 10-year-old houseboy and Kelechi’s playmate when Kelechi departed and now a fully grown, hunky banker (a profession the liberal Kelechi reviles for its corruption). The reasons for her aloofness are later both disclosed and dissolved within the play’s web of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Anyanwu’s script requires the narrative to jump back and forth in time, using light and sound to shift suddenly from the present to 15 years earlier, with the actors making instant adjustments between adult and child behavior.
Patrice Johnson, Mfoniso Udofia. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
A fictional epilogue imagines how Kelechi transforms what she’s experienced in Nigeria into the first chapter of her new book, which, clearly, differs sharply from what we’ve just seen. It demonstrates Kelechi’s own belief in the power of the writer to use her skills to rewrite her history by covering truths with fictions.
Front: Vinie Burrows, Mirirai Sithole. Rear: Oberon K.A. Adjepong. Right: Segun Akande. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
The play is acted on designer Yu-Hsuan Chen’s spare, narrow, wall-less, pale beige platform—smartly lit by Oona Curley—dividing the audience into two banks of facing seats, alley style, with the principal scenic component a flight of stairs to an upper level. A flap built into the platform opens to serve as the compound’s rope and pulley-operated well.
Mfoniso Udofia, Segun Akande. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
The Homecoming Queen capitalizes on the roots movement of people rediscovering their ancestral cultures, and introduces consistently appealing Nigerian-inflected music (by sound designer Amatus Karim-Ali), singing, and choreographed movement (created by Hope Boykin). Most of the characters wear variations of colorful native garb, including eye-catching headdresses (thanks to designer Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene) for the chorus, while Kelechi—until she too dons local garments—wears tight black slacks and a sleeveless white blouse.
Patrice Johnson, Oberon K.A. Adjepong, Mirirai Sithole, Segun Akande, Vinie Burrows, Mfoniso Udofia. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
The action—particularly the chorus’s movement—flows freely on and around the platform space, marked off by four, large, square pillars. Even the surrounding walls are occupied by the chorus, a member or two of which may be performing somewhere behind you.
Oberon K.A. Adjepong, Segun Akande. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Udofia offers a compelling picture of the distraught, grumpy, not easy-to-like Kelechi, who would like to be “a real Igbo girl." As her father, Adjepong is every inch the imperious, demanding patriarch, while Akande is an attractive, convincing Obina, and Sithole is thoroughly delightful as the emotionally needy housegirl. 
Zenzi Willims, Ebbe Bassey, Patrice Johnson, Vinie Burrows. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
The Homecoming Queen, whose title comes from its heroine’s having come home to help her father find eternal peace, excels at atmospheric local color; however, its episodic, flashback-filled structure and indirect secrets can sometimes be confusing, while what we learn of Kelechi’s girlhood tragedy is neither particularly overwhelming nor original.

I wanted to laugh more at this intermissionless, hour and 45-minute play’s comedy and cry more at its pathos. I left, though, impressed more by its performative and cultural values than its emotional ones.


Atlantic Theater Stage Two
330 W. 16th St., NYC
Through February 11