Monday, March 11, 2024





The New York Shakespeare Festival and its affiliate, the Public Theater, are awesomely significant theatrical institutions born from the farsighted vision and ferocious driving enthusiasm of a man born in Brooklyn in 1921 to poor Eastern European immigrants. His name was Joseph Papirofsky (changed later to Papp), he grew up speaking Yiddish, served in the South Pacific during World War II, and, in the postwar years, did battle with the most powerful figures in New York City government to realize his dream of a socially conscious theatre accessible to all classes, even, when possible, for free.

Joe Papp was an extremely articulate, flamboyantly feisty figure, an artistic David among the city’s political Goliaths. His battles to get his institutions recognized and funded, his toils to support plays that bedeviled the powers that be, and his social activism were closely followed in the press, making him and his theatres household names.

Consequently, his fiery life and memorable stage accomplishments had already been duly analyzed and documented in a series of books before last year when his fourth wife, Gail Merrifield Papp (b. 1934), not much shy of 90, produced her own take (Lanham, MD: Applause, 2023, 346 pp.) on her controversial husband, who died at 70, in 1991. Having read all the previous books about Papp and his theatres, I didn’t rush to buy a copy of Merrifield’s (as I’ll call her) contribution. Nevertheless, being a regular visitor to Papp’s emporia almost from their inception (my college scene design professor created Papp’s theatre in Central Park), the call of duty was too strong to resist. My effort was duly rewarded.

Writing in clear, unfussy, but often sensitive and elucidating prose, Merrifield provides as personal a look at her late husband as possible, a portrait that, while it corresponds in most areas to the public record, offers private impressions that only she can provide, among them incidents she witnessed that take us into man’s heart and soul as a devoted husband and father. She covers all the major brouhahas of Papp’s professional life (including some from before she met him), but her position as a fly on the wall gives her a unique perspective on events. That position became possible when she was hired by the Public Theatre in the mid-1960s, serving at first as a general factotum for Papp, but evolving, because of her innate abilities, into the role of Director of New Works Development (a title that underwent various changes), making her responsible for finding worthwhile new plays.

The San Francisco-born Merrifield recounts her early life and family background—which includes a theatrical lineage that presumably ties her to John Wilkes Booth—before covering her life in the 50s trying to find a career path in New York. She describes the serendipitous circumstances of her hiring (at first, as a summer temp) by the Public Theater in its early days, whose physical circumstances she records, and carefully notes how she and Papp, her boss, gradually fell in love over the years, although he was then married to his third wife, Peggy Bennion, mother of two of his children.

We read of Papp’s divorce and of Merrifield’s marriage to him (she, too, was divorced). Even after marrying him, Merrifield continued to work for Papp, becoming an increasingly integral contributor to the success of what was now their mutual enterprise, and being responsible for some of its most notable choices. One, for example, was when she convinced the initially skeptical Papp to produce Larry Kramer’s explosive The Normal Heart, one of the first plays to confront the AIDS crisis of the 80s.

Merrifield explains how, despite her lack of a theatrical education, she gained one—especially in Shakespeare—from working so closely at Papp’s side, even taking his whispered notes during rehearsals. While much of what she says has been covered elsewhere, the fact of her proximity to the events she covers, and the anecdotes she recounts, make her highly readable account necessary reading.

Merrifield writes about the creation of the musical Hair,  the virtues of the Mobile Theater, the acquisition and development of the Public Theater building at Astor Place, Papp’s artistic and social missions, free Shakespeare in the Park, the search for worthwhile American plays, the commercial success of shows like A Chorus Line and many others, Papp’s direction of what was known as the “Naked” Hamlet (with Martin Sheen), Papp’s battles with the critics, the nontraditional casting for which Papp became renowned, the Public’s commitment to plays by writers of non-white ethnicities, the explosion in the number of play submissions, the loss to AIDS of major theatre figures at the Public, the casting of Diane Venora as Hamlet, the Lincoln Center debacle, his sponsoring of shows like for colored girls . . . , and so many other important and fascinating happenings related to the both Shakespeare in the Park and the Public.

Not least are the considerations of Papp’s successor when he would no longer be able to carry on his enormous responsibilities. Brief descriptions of the contributions of JoAnne Akalaitis, George C. Wolfe, and Oskar Eustis, who managed to keep Papp’s institutions not only alive but still flourishing form the conclusion.

Just as interesting are the chapters about Papp’s private life, his five children, his Judaism, his country house, his travels, his singing talents, his activism, and, ultimately, his bout with prostate cancer and death. The latter carries with it even more heartbreaking poignancy because Papp was mortally ill at the same time as his beloved son, Tony, the two of them even being cared for in the Papps’ apartment before that became too onerous. Tony passed from AIDS-related causes in 1991, the same year that his father would close his eyes forever. Papp would have to suffer for months from fatal cancer while grieving the loss of his beloved son. What Merrifield, who comes off as a kind, loving, insightful, even-tempered woman, who was happily willing to put up with Papp’s forceful personality, had to go through during those difficult days and nights can only be imagined.

Merrifield’s memoir, which includes an index, also has a bibliograph and an appendix listing featured actors, choreographers, composers, directors, and playwrights, from 1956 to 1991, making the book useful for future historians. After reading Public/Private (a perfect title), it will be impossible to again visit the Public Theater without a tableau of what transpired in that building running through one’s brain.





Monday, March 4, 2024






Having recently come across a couple of strongly positive comments about Edwin McLellan’s rendering of material from a much longer work by the great Meiji period (1868-1912) novelist, Mori Ōgai, in a work he called Woman in the Crested Kimono (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985, 192 pp.), I decided to order it online and see for myself. Unfortunately, while the title seemed familiar, I didn’t realize until I started reading it this week that I not only already had a perfectly good copy, but that I’d reviewed it for in 2008! Here, then, is that review, slightly edited. 

As with another book recently discussed here that uses "Kimono" in its title, Rebecca Copeland's novel, The Kimono Tattoo, this book about Japan is not about theatre. On the other hand, it's based on a book by Mori Ōgai, a versatile writer who was one of the earliest modern Japanese playwrights, so there's that.

It also happens to be a delightful read, one I came across by chance when it was mentioned in Hanley's Everyday Things in Premodern Japan. It tells the story of a Japanese woman named Shibue Io, who lived during the mid-19th century and died in the 1880s, her life spanning the late Edo period and the early Meiji. She was the wife of a scholar-physician named Shibue Chūsai, the subject of a long and very detailed biography by the great Meiji writer Mori Ōgai. Edwin McLellan, rather than translating Ōgai’s book itself, extracted only those parts concerned with Chūsai’s remarkable wife, Io, and then interpolated his own musings and commentary on the woman and her times. He also provides excellent documentation in the form of endnotes, which give the book a necessary grounding in historical research. 

We follow the life and times of Io as she marries the well-respected Chūsai, bears a sizable brood (not all of whom lived long), raises and educates her children, is widowed, and endures the hardships that came to families associated with the samurai (or bushi) class during the time of the Meiji Restoration (1868). This exceptional woman was extremely well educated for her time, and several of her children were themselves involved in scholarly pursuits. Io was not only intellectually inclined, she also—having been given martial arts training—had considerable physical bravery, as described in several vivid anecdotes. 

The book pursues the story of her husband, and each of her children, and by the time the volume concludes, after only 150 pages of narrative, we feel we have come to know not only Shibue Io, but her entire family, and a few persons closely associated with the Shibue. Moreover, we get a marvelous picture of what life was like for an upper middle-class Japanese family living in Edo during the closing days of the shogunate, and how topsy-turvy things became when it had to adjust to the social, economic, and political upheavals surrounding and succeeding the Restoration. 

McLellan's commentary has just the right touch; knowledgeable and sensitive, and always helpful in engaging the reader's interest in and sympathy for the cast of characters whose story he (and Ōgai) is telling. He keeps the narrative clear, reminding the reader of who individuals are when they reappear in the story, and continually offering valuable insights into the cultural and historical circumstances of the times, including the place of women. This is a book that anyone interested in 19th-century Japanese life should read; since it was published in 1985, I regret not having known of it before. 

In 2008 I concluded by saying, “I'm delighted to have finally made its acquaintance,” but now, 16 years later, I can happily add that I’m equally delighted to have been reacquainted with it.


77. SUNSET BABY (seen March 2, 2024)

For my review of Sunset Baby please click on THEATER LIFE.

Saturday, March 2, 2024




Stephen J. Bottoms’s Playing Underground: A Critical History of the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway Movement

It’s taken me 18 years to get around to Stephen Bottoms’s jampacked critical history of Off-Off Broadway (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006, 401 pp), but I’m glad I finally got the chance, especially as I was at least a molecule in the remarkable moment it chronicles in modern American theatre. I was an undergraduate theatre student at Brooklyn College when the movement quietly began, graduating in 1962, and then leaving New York for two years to get my MFA in Hawaii. So I wasn’t able to participate at the beginning, which, had it been otherwise, might have radically changed my life’s direction.

It soon did so, however, for several of my college classmates, who began to putter about in the zero-budget environs of early Off-Off endeavors, particularly at Caffe Cino, Judson Church, and La Mama, of which I only began, dimly, to become aware on returning to New York in 1964. By then, I was married with a kid and in need of a steady income, no longer footloose enough to mingle amid the unpaid, unwashed, if not untalented denizens of the West and East Villages.

I remember in the mid-1960s running into hippie-ized college theatre pals on Second Avenue, me dressed neatly as per my status as a budding academic, they in ragged jeans, shaggy beards and mustaches, and abundant hair of the type soon be memorialized in a Broadway hit. Smugly, I felt as if I’d made the right choice. Little did I know that one or two of these scruffy artists would, a few years down the line, be able to buy and sell me. Among them, Joel Zwick, then a burgeoning avant garde director (mentioned in passing by Bottoms), even became one of the most successful sitcom directors in TV history, also directing My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Others, although they may not have become zillionaires, made seriously valuable contributions to the kind of alternative theatre that was springing up in churches, basements, lofts, and storefronts all over the downtown area. While only a few make it into the pages of Bottoms’s excellent book, and then only in passing or in photo captions (like Larry Loonin or Shellie Feldman), I’m proud of what they contributed to those countless shows I participated in only as a spectator.

Except once. In 1966, Wilson Lehr, a former professor of mine, was directing a play at the fabulous Ellen Stewart’s La Mama (when it was at 182 Second Avenue, before it moved to E. Fourth Street) by a La Mama regular, Bruce Kessler, another former classmate. Off-Off was notorious for its campy spoofs, riddled with sexual innuendoes, of iconic cultural institutions, and Bruce’s The Contestants (not mentioned by Bottoms) was a takeoff on TV game shows in which I played the slick, Bob Barker-ish MC.

A Facebook friend I haven’t seen in person since then, Nancy Gabor, played the show’s sexy hostess, wearing a flashy, legs-revealing costume with black mesh stockings. Others in the cast included yet another college friend, Blanche Dee (somewhat older than me and what one might call pleasingly plump to avoid accusations of fat shaming), who would one day appear on Broadway in the nude, and Allen Garfield, who went on to considerable success on stage and screen as a supporting actor.

The play, awful as I’m sure it was, had some historical interest. Bottoms tells us of how La Mama was forced to close because of a conflict with Actors Equity over its nonpayment of union actors; when the dispute was settled, The Contestants was the first show La Mama produced. Another reason to remember it is the great photograph of the costumed cast standing and sitting in La Mama around Wilson and Stewart (with whom I would spend several days in Beijing 25 years later). It was published in the only other book providing a historical overview of Off-Off Broadway, David Crespy’s Off-Off-Broadway Explosion: How Provocative Playwrights of the 1960's Ignited a New American Theater (2003). Playing Underground, by the way, is no slouch in the photo department.

There have, of course, been other books about Off-Off, but they’re mostly about specific individuals, companies, themes, or plays; a decent number of play anthologies can be found online. I plan to cover Crespy’s book this year (I couldn’t find my copy so I ordered a used one online), but, its insights and stories aside, it’s nowhere near as comprehensive as Playing Underground. Bottoms provides quite thorough descriptions and appraisals of all the leading (and many of the secondary) actors, writers, directors, and producers of the movement, not to mention detailed histories of every significant theatre or company. He discusses, with keen critical insight, numerous plays, the titles of many likely be as unknown as Sanskrit to most readers, but representative of the kinds of comedies, musicals, and dramas on which Off-Off thrived.

Bottoms, a theatre professor at Manchester University in the UK, who now goes by the name Stephen Scott-Bottoms, offers a remarkably well researched study, based both on the archives and many interviews, although, born in 1968 and raised in Yorkshire, he was too young to have himself seen what he writes about. He provides quality assessments of the four leading institutions, Caffe Cino, La Mama, Theatre Genesis, and Judson Poet’s Theatre, with excellent portrayals of their charismatic leaders, Joe Cino, Ellen Stewart, Ralph Cook, and Al Carmines. Numerous other, equally important figures (and groups, like the Living Theatre and the Open Theatre) are discussed, the artists including the likes of Charles Ludlam, Robert Patrick, John Vaccaro, Michael Smith, Joe Chaikin, Sam Shepard, Penny Arcade, Larry Kornfeld, Jeff Weiss, Marshall Mason, and Lanford Wilson, among so many others, along with the shows they created, and the circumstances—sometimes sordid—of the worlds they inhabited.

Bottoms’s smoothly written, academically precise but always crystalline overview covers thematic issues, like the place of nudity, drag, homosexuality, and politics, and gets into the weeds on all the principal topics concerning the financial and artistic difficulties involved in sustaining a movement that sought a freewheeling, unconventional approach to making theatre with barely any funds to support it. The transition from presenting plays for either no admission fee or a dollar-a-week club membership to a profit-based or, at the least, grant-sustained, system is closely analyzed, as are all the other developments (like the profits that came to several OOB shows after moving to OB) that, inevitably forced such a quixotic artistic paradise to fade before the onslaught of real-world practicalities. 

There are very few items of significance overlooked by Bottoms. Anybody familiar with the period will note some artist, show, theatre, or group that might have been included, even if only briefly (like actor/director/playwright LarryLoonin, whom I like to call the Zelig of Off-Off Broadway). But that—like these comments—would have swelled the book to impractical lengths. I do feel compelled, though, to note two notorious shows of the 1960s I expected to encounter, even in allusions, as having been unquestionably influenced by the freedoms being mined by the underground theatre: Barbara Garson’s MacBird! (originally staged by my classmate Roy Levine, 1966), and Lennox Raphael’s Che! (1969). Both fall somewhere in the gap between OOB and OB.

The first, done at the Village Gate, in Greenwich Village, was a frank satire on the Kennedy assassination, in which Lyndon Johnson is imagined as the Macbeth-like leader responsible; it created a political firestorm over free speech that almost led to its closure. Although technically Off-Broadway, it’s doubtful it would have been produced without the outside the envelope-influence of Off-Off.

The same could be said of Che!, seen at the Free Store Theatre in Cooper Square (bordering both the West and East Villages). Another political satire, this one inspired by Che Guevara, it had conservative forces falling all over themselves because of obscenity charges (“profanity, filth, defecation, masochism, sadism, masturbation, nudity, copulation, sodomy and other deviate sexual intercourse,” according to the judgment that eventually killed it). It presumably was even more outrageous than what was routinely done on Off-Off stages. At that very moment, Oh! Calcutta! (in which I had other college friends!), was drawing crowds. Its mention in Bottoms’s book brought Che! to mind, as they were both part of the same historic free speech in the theatre debate.

Off-Off-Broadway, as Bottoms carefully notes, had an impact not only on American stages, but across the globe—witness the Fringe in London, for example. In Japan, which had a similar explosion of untraditional theatre, the name for such work is angura, a bastardization of “underground.” Kudos to Stephen J. Bottoms/Steve Scott-Bottoms for choosing so pertinent a word for his title.