Saturday, December 19, 2009

Brown/Trinity Rep Consortium's "Woyzeck"

Last year Christopher Windom, now a third-year MFA candidate in directing at the Brown/Trinity Rep Consortium, staged a powerful production of The Tempest at the Pell Chaffee Theatre. That show was about growing up and growing old; its characters left behind the realm of desire—a hermetic, if comfortable, place—to join the world of experience. Windom returns this year with Georg Büchner’s 19th-century proto-naturalistic Woyzeck; its cruel determinism would be enough to send Miranda back to her father and Ariel back into spritely servitude. Two more different plays would be hard to imagine. But if Windom’s range is admirable, his accuracy is imperfect. While The Tempest was a great swirl of language, movement, and music, his Woyzeck is strangely inert. Aiming, I think, for a kind of pointed social commentary, Windom has just missed his mark—the play is an elusive target—and presents instead an amusing but toothless satire.

Woyzeck is a study in degradation; its voice is, sometimes maddeningly, the passive. Franz Woyzeck, a low-ranking soldier in the army, is being cheated on by his wife, experimented on by his doctor, bossed around by his superiors, and pissed on by his peers. He hears voices in his head and has apocalyptic visions. And in this version, which is set in America after World War II, he has the most damning affliction of them all: he is black. All of this amounts to a lot for the audience to take in; the unarticulated wave of abuses visited on Woyzeck swamps us, too. When Windom tries to differentiate among Woyzeck’s torturers, as he must to give the show texture and substance, he resorts to caricature rather than nuance.

Caricature, despite its boardwalk connotations, is not necessarily a clumsy or anti-dramatic technique; it can be used skillfully to represent the extreme range of characters’ subjective experiences. Here, however, it depicts only the director’s biases. In Woyzeck, the doctor, known as The Doctor, is manic and self-infatuated; the army captain, called The Captain, bloviates tirelessly in reflective sunglasses; Woyzeck’s wife’s lover, the Drum Major, is gigantic without being threatening; and Woyzeck’s peers are lecherous hicks. These exaggerations tell us more about Windom’s sense of stagecraft than Woyzeck’s sense of terror. In this Woyzeck, the forces that loom over Woyzeck are laughable—The Doctor is a klutz, The Captain a self-parody—so his desperate response to them is inexplicable. His dread, obviated by Windom’s goofy representations of his oppressors, is preposterous. By revealing these authorities as frauds—by shining a light through the veil of power—Windom reduces Woyzeck to a comic punchline: only a rube would let himself be dominated by such transparent impostors. For the play to be tragic, power must remain opaque. We must be able to see both the banal ferocity and inscrutable fakery of the society that crushes Woyzeck. Caricature is an apt tool for this task if it is used ironically to depict Woyzeck’s distorted perspective; as it is, his mounting madness has no traction. He is reacting to characters that exist only as semaphore from director to audience.

Will Shaw, who plays the hapless Woyzeck, does his best, but he seems to be in a different play than the actors around him. He has a rich, stentorian voice that is a good match for his feelings of estrangement and doom, though it does not seem to be the voice of someone beaten by authority: it is sometimes prophetic, but it is never persecuted. Shaw’s physical mannerisms are reactive. His default posture is a sort of electro-shocked tautness, his face pulled back in a wide-eyed grimace, his arms stiff down to his fingertips. Shaw has improved immeasurably in his time in the Consortium—he is not only more confident onstage, he is also more compelling—but we still get the sense, when watching him, of an actor hard at work. Rebecca Gibel as his wife, Marie, is tender and troubled; she defends Woyzeck in public but betrays him privately. It’s a wonderful and challenging role, and Gibel revels in drawing out its unresolved ambivalence. Karl Gregory, whose sustained and controlled hysteria as the self-justifying writer Heiner Muller in Charles Mees’s Full Circle was one of the real pleasures of last year’s theater season, is hysterical again here as The Doctor. He has the unfortunate condition of being extremely likeable onstage; projecting menace will, one suspects, be an enduring difficulty for him. But his natural charm and physical fluidity, when soundly harnessed to subsumed sinister intentions, will make his evil that much more grotesque. He need only look to Patrick Mulryan’s performance as the amber-voiced Nazi Youth from Trinity Rep’s recent Cabaret for an example of dewy duplicity. In Woyzeck, Mulryan plays The Captain, whose gnomic pronouncements on virtue, issued in a clipped bark, both puzzle and diminish Woyzeck. Mulryan is enjoyable in the role, but his characterization seems twice removed from its source: it is a play on a parody.

At least he appears to be having fun in a production that feels cautious, even dutiful. Windom, I think, is still searching for meaning in the play. It was his directorial confidence that buoyed The Tempest last year and that was missing in the performance of Woyzeck that I saw last week. His choices feel explanatory, as though compensating for the show’s difficulty. One wants to encourage him, to say, there is nothing to explain; just a story to unfold.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Christmas Carol at Trinity Rep

A Christmas Carol, now at Trinity Rep, begins with a solitary chair onstage and ends with an ensemble easily outnumbering the available seats and, anyway, too boisterous to even think about sitting down. One would feel like--well, like a Scrooge, for not joining them in smiles and song. But this holiday cheer, like much holiday cheer, feels clinical: it is just as carefully calculated as any of mean old Scrooge's accounting sheets. Is ersatz magnanimity really any better than genuine irascibility? As silly and dispensable as this Christmas tradition might feel, it can still summon our deeper, richer feelings if it aspires to any sort of authenticity--that is, if its own feeling is deep and rich. But this production shows Scrooge transforming from sourpuss, right past sweetheart, to pure sap. Scrooge, in his final, viscous incarnation, is cloying and unpalatable. This is a real shame. As played by Timothy Crowe (whom we last saw onstage swaying like a deeply rooted but fatally weakened tree as the lone character of conscience in The Receptionist), the Scrooge of the first quarter of the play is a virtuosic misanthrope, bilious and bullying. His mastery of mockery makes him a pleasure to watch: we can't wait to hear what outrageous affront he'll come up with next. As the show moves along, however, we begin to lose him. Crowe concedes too much. Instead of insisting on Scrooge's reprehensibility, he relents. His Scrooge is not such a tough guy, after all. He is neither, it turns out, such a nice guy, even after his putative transformation. Doubtless he has been transformed, but the process has been more chemical than spiritual, and he spends the last quarter of the play oozing around the stage like a sugary paste. This caricature of sweetness is almost horrifying; it is certainly less recognizably human than the earlier caricature of bitterness.

The Baltimore writer Stephen Dixon has a story, "Change," in which a man resolves to end his cynicism and condescension and open himself up to possibility in the world. He goes too far, of course, and one of the strangers on the street whom he accosts with kindness challenges him: "'People hear you like this they won't take to it. I don't know what you conceive of as new changes, but if this is supposed to be one for the better, I hate to think of what you were like before.'" If only Scrooge were offered such objective criticism.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Fear and Loathing in "Amadeus"

To judge by the plays now showing on Rhode Island stages, all we need is love. The Gamm Theatre is presenting a romantic doubleheader, Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo and Juliet (love splits the series), while Providence College has just finished its own Romeo and Juliet and Trinity Rep gives us the midlife melancholy of Shooting Star. Each of these plays is fine in its own right, and some are even excellent, but, en masse, they suggest a stolid, sincere uniformity of theatrical subject. In the Age of Aquarius, each new loving couple has all the sparkle of a much-handled coin. Thank goodness, then, for the fear and loathing of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, which is being staged with fervid feeling and sharp, dark humor by the Elemental Theatre Collective in Beneficent Church. By producing the play in a church, director Alexander Platt has embraced certain aspects of the show—its awe before genius and its terror before God—while downplaying others, especially its heavily psychologized second act. He is also suggesting that the story of Salieri and Mozart has the moral universality and narrative elegance to compete, as it were, with the ritual played out in church every week. I think he gives the play too much credit; but, in doing so, he gives the audience a vigorous and satisfying theatre. There may be a generally applicable lesson here: that, in theatre at least, it is best to overshoot your mark. We leave the church pale from the show’s moral chill; it is a response, if not quite a rebuke, to the warm-heartedness prevailing on our local proscenia.

Amadeus tells the story of Antonio Salieri, the Kappellmeister of the Austrian empire, whose mediocrity is revealed and envy aroused when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, having toured Europe and dazzled audiences as a young prodigy under his father’s oppressive influence, arrives in Vienna and aspires to a position at the court himself. I should say, rather, that Salieri tells the story of Salieri: the play’s galvanizing emotion is jealousy; its preferred medium, alloquy. There is no Amadeus without Salieri’s hypnotic narration. Indeed, he is one of the great storytellers in theatre: utterly honest and completely untrustworthy. When we first see him, he is an old man, crumpled and obscure, his only claim to distinction the rumors whispered in town that he is Mozart’s murderer—rumors that he is more than happy to confirm. Thus the play, which takes the form of a confession, begins.

Salieri starts with his conversion, which is not so much religious as musical. As a young boy in church, Salieri observes the power, the near-divinity, of the choirmaster, and is weakened by the sound issuing like unction from the choir. He resolves, in a fit of fresh conviction, to abjure earthly pursuits if God will grant him this one desire: to become a renowned composer. At first, Salieri believes that God has committed to this exchange; his musical gifts impress Emperor Joseph II, and he is advanced to the top of the musical hierarchy at the court. But when he meets Mozart, and hears his extraordinary compositions, the mere adequacy of his own talents is harshly exposed. As if Mozart’s genius were not dispiriting enough, his vulgarity and impiety are an actual affront to Salieri, whose life has been a symphony of self-abnegation. With the same determination that he had once applied to his devotion to God, Salieri turns to the destruction of Mozart. He attempts to seduce Mozart’s wife, Constanze; he bedevils Mozart with specious encouragement, which he directly contravenes to court officials; and, finally, as the young composer withers in illness and isolation, he terrorizes him by impersonating a black-clad figure from Mozart’s nightmares and nightly demanding a requiem mass. Detached but demanding, Salieri reenacts Mozart’s father’s imperiousness. In this disguise, Salieri transgresses the limits of human power: he is not only Mozart’s father, but also his God, and his death.

Shaffer, on the other hand, violates only the rules of compelling drama; the overt psychologizing of Salieri’s revenge against God is drama’s antithesis. For Shaffer, both Salieri and Mozart are products of exacting and implacable fathers whose deeply imprinted influence must be exorcised. Salieri completes his renunciation of God by assuming His power; he simultaneously completes his destruction of Mozart. We last see Mozart, reduced to mewling dependence, in his wife’s arms. But she has been transformed into his mother; the scene is a pieta. This Oedipal twist represents a contraction, rather than an expansion, of the first act’s premise. Salieri begins as a dervish of despair and ends as a methodological proto-Freudian. The energy and urgency of the show follows this narrative diminishment.

It is up to the actors to enliven the show’s second act, but it is clear that they are more at home with anguish—the dominant tone of the first act—than with evil. The play makes special demands on the actor who plays Salieri and who must sustain the story. Max Vogler is a credit to the role. His performance, part leer and part lecture, is sinister and dangerously seductive. However, though he demonstrates something like virtuosity in the first act, he can’t summon a necessary vengeful vitality later in the show. He has Salieri’s apologetic bewilderment down, but not the malevolence that would warrant it. Salieri’s conversion from victim to agent—from servant to executor—might be more powerful if it were more stark, but Vogler and Platt are sympathetic rather than judgmental. Even as he persecutes Mozart with an alienated indifferent, he retains his humanity. Their interpretation is intelligent and compassionate, but it dulls the sharp edge of Salieri's madness. Bryan Kimmelman is given the thankless task of playing Mozart, who was portrayed with famous impertinence by Tom Hulce in the 1984 movie version of the play. Kimmelman’s vocal characterization is fine, but his body is disengaged. He looks a little scrawled, like shorthand, so we can never quite make out what he’s trying to depict. Worse, his abstracted representation of conducting, composing, and performing is distractingly silly; Mozart himself is silly, of course, but when he is robed in his music he should, I think, achieve a certain heightened dignity. D’Arcy Dersham plays Constanze Mozart with terrific poise, capturing her toughness and fragility with equal credibility, and Tanya Anderson is frequently hilarious as the curt and condescending Emperor Joseph.

For sheer spectacle, nothing I have seen on stage this year matches Amadeus. The production is intimate, the subject terrible, and the performers full of passion and belief. We might wish that Shaffer had given them something more to believe in, but in these parsimonious times, we should take what we can get. Alex Platt and the ensemble have spun something fine from the sometimes rough fibers of Shaffer’s play. Their next challenge will be to perform a sublime version of a Salieri opera; I don't doubt that they could do it.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Shooting Star at Trinity Rep

It is a shame, or a terrific irony, that a play as imaginative and credible as Shooting Star should have such an inane and insistent title. Indeed, the title is one of the few missteps in this modest and graceful show. The story of two former lovers who reunite serendipitously in a snowed-in airport, it seems, at first, to be a non-threatening riff on the contemporary fantasy of "closure." But over the short course of the play, skepticism gives way to recognition and, finally, to admiration. Author Steven Dietz has crafted a work both archetypal and specific; he grounds the yearning of our lives in the particular experiences of his characters'. Dietz knows that as characters come into focus--as they acquire histories and secrets and desires--they become more, not less, familiar to the audience. Our imaginations are nourished with detail. The show begins in the thin atmosphere of cliché--Reed McAllister is a frustrated husband and father whose job in sales is on the line; Elena Carson does yoga, listens to NPR, and has dated a string of drummers--before descending to a more salubrious altitude. That light-headed feeling you have early on in the play, caused by a surfeit of jokes about Canada, "red" and "blue" politics, and cell phones, is replaced by a piercing clarity of feeling. Kurt Rhoads gives Reed a weatherman's smugness, leavened by a dose of quiet desperation; Nance Williamson, as Elena, is vulnerable but resilient. The script is too scripty--it is contained and centered: we never feel the rush of risk as characters edge out to some new, untested perspective or proposition--but its emotions are just right. The show is pregnant with an exquisite ache.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Trinity Rep's "Cabaret"

Cabaret, now showing at Trinity Rep, takes place at the sobering close of the dizzy, dithyrambic decade following World War I. The show, set in Berlin, begins as the 20s give way to the 30s and the extravagance of the Weimar Republic recedes before the moral stringency of the National Socialists—the Nazis. The party is still raging—its epicenter is the Kit Kat Club, its avatar the dissipated singer Sally Bowles—even as the clean-up crew starts to sweep in from the edges. Written in 1966 and based on the play I Am a Camera, itself based on Goodbye to Berlin, a collection of short stories by Christopher Isherwood published in 1939, Cabaret leans heavily on the audience's knowledge of what happened next: in 1933, Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany, a position he quickly leveraged to realize the totalitarian vision he had articulated in Mein Kampf. For the characters in the show, then, time is short. If our familiarity with history tightens the show’s tension, it also cheapens its achievement: we leave the theater not so much grieving a paradise lost as pitying the characters who have so underestimated the hell to come. The prelapsarian context charges Cabaret with moral seriousness while absolving its authors of the rigors of narrative, character, and setting. A story that ends in genocide has built-in pathos; what, besides music, can Cabaret contribute to it?

The answer to this is short and simple: Sally Bowles. Bowles is an English ex-pat who has become a star attraction at the Kit Kat Club, a bastion of frivolity in a city increasingly consumed by angst. As portrayed by Trinity firecracker Rachael Warren, Bowles is a marvel of a character, a cataclysm of opposing, or complementary, impulses: to babble and to obfuscate; to perform and to conceal; to connect and to go it alone. On stage she’s plucky and inscrutable; off, she’s fidgety and vulnerable. The central question around Sally Bowles is whether she is indomitable or merely elusive: is her power to captivate or to ingratiate? In a scene that culminates with Nazi Youth breaking into a triumphant performance of the patriotic anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” our eyes turn to Sally, who is watching them with rapt fascination: their politics may be ugly, but their music is terrific. For the deracinated Sally Bowles, whose only home is in a song, this may be too much to resist. By the end of the show, when Germany’s grim future has been amply foreshadowed, Bowles has returned to the Kit Kat Club. She has lost a lover, aborted her pregnancy, and resolved to live in a doomed country; her final song, “Life is a Cabaret,” is a surrender phrased in the language of defiance. Warren, her voice loud, lusty, and lovely, achingly expresses this ambivalence. It is a thrilling moment of theater because it is a perfect crystallization of a complex character.

If only anything else in the show were as refractive as Sally Bowles; instead, we get dull-edged characterization and rubbed-smooth sentiment. The show is about Clifford Bradshaw (Mauro Hantman), an American writer who comes to Berlin for inspiration but who ends up, prosaically, giving English lessons instead. (Writers tend to make bad main characters: as stand-ins for the authors of shows, who wish to be neither self-aggrandizing nor self-incriminating, they are usually saddled with insipid goodness and passive natures. So it is with Bradshaw: he is a blank, but crisp, sheet of paper.) His lover is (inexplicably) Sally Bowles; his pupil is a Nazi named Ernst (Stephen Thorne); his landlady, the starchy Fraulein Schneider (Phyllis Kay), has a soft spot for his neighbor, a timid Jewish grocer named Herr Shultz (Stephen Berenson); another neighbor, Fraulein Kost (Janice DeClos), entertains young sailors in her apartment. It is not clear what world these characters are supposed to represent, except that of the Musical. Certainly there is nothing in this production to evoke the cultural schizophrenia of the era, the competing voices of trauma and arousal, the physical and spiritual disfigurement that made places like the Kit Kat Club necessary palliatives.

Berlin, I imagine, was a seething, pustular city—hence the makeup and make-believe at the cabaret. But Trinity’s Berlin has been treated with an antiseptic: sure, it’s a little wan, but you’d never know how sick it really was. Only Sally Bowles has the desperate vitality of the plague victim. Without a clearer picture of the city’s disease, the Kit Kat Club is just another saloon, its Emcee just another cross-dresser (although, to be fair, Joe Wilson, Jr. makes a hell of a cross-dresser). Director Curt Columbus has brought a cottony humanism to all of this work with Trinity, but that might not be the right texture for Cabaret, which cries out for a telling less merciful. The show is not without its delights; what it needs is more degradation.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Cool Nights; Drying Leaves; Theater Resumes...'s Fall in Providence.

I didn't see much theater this summer--just Hugging the Shoulder (presented by Theater of Thought) and Noises Off (present by Contemporary Theater Company). As I wrote in Motif, Hugging the Shoulder is a crude show, both vulgar and unsophisticated, though not, by extension, unenjoyable. The performance by ToT, in a crumbling parking lot behind Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket, treated the subject of infection and decay with a violent current, a sort of moral cautery. But the show, and our reaction to it, was all reflex and no reflection. Theater of Thought should be commended for bringing contemporary and unsettling theater to Providence and for keeping audiences on their toes through strident staging. They have great energy (which is not meant to be euphemistic: energy matters); now they need great scripts.

Striving for a completely different breed of theater experience, the Contemporary Theater Company brought Nosies Off, the riotous farce about theater, to URI's Kingston campus in late July. The show is not particularly contemporary (certainly not compared with Hugging the Shoulder, which was first produced at the NYC Fringe Festival in 2006) but the performance was immediate and gratifying.

This weekend brings previews to both Trinity Rep and Gamm Theatre. Trinity is showing Cabaret; Gamm is starting its season with Much Ado About Nothing, which they will perform in repertory with another play you may have heard of, Romeo and Juliet (opening September 22). Second Story begins its season later this month with the one-man show I Am My Own Wife. And Elemental Theatre Collective opens Amadeus on November 5.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Final Weekend at Trinity Rep: Shapeshifter

With the world premiere of Shapeshifter, Trinity Rep’s 2008-2009 season comes to an end. Actually, one feels on leaving the theatre that it has come to the edge of a bending horizon and disappeared only from sight: the play, and the season, end wistfully, with the promise of further adventures bunched and blurred like a distant and indistinct silhouette. But the prospect of a fulfilling future is no match, as drama at least, for the realization of something meaningful and passionate now, and what Shapeshifter lacks is a moment, a present, in which life is frozen and shown in exultant detail. This is not to say that there are no great moments in the play—there are—but that the play itself only describes, and does not evoke, a long moment of crisis, and so the decision with which it ends is noisy but spurious. More interested in surfaces than depths, in action than in introspection, the show has a shape but no spirit.

It is not for lack of trying. Laura Schellhardt wrote her play around the perplexing and life-long question of identity—which, really, is what most art is about—and she has set it in a magical milieu: the Orkney Islands, off the northern coast of Scotland, which are nestled in mist and enthralled by the inscrutable behavior of shapeshifters, supernatural beings who can assume animal and human form. Midge, a young girl whose erratic behavior since her mother’s death worries her father (Fred Sullivan, Jr.) and her caretakers, the loving and gently teasing Fierson (Brian McEleney) and Maude (Anne Scurria), has a strong connection to the water and its spirits—and, somehow, we know, to the shapeshifters as well. She senses her difference from the others in her small fishing village but cannot express it. Fierson nurtures her incipient awareness of who she is in the dark loam of the stories he tells her about shapeshifters and transformation and love and sacrifice; to Maude, however, these tales are just arid fantasy: life is a series of practical challenges, like keeping one’s house clean and family fed.

But Midge is not the only one in the village transfixed by the power of the shapeshifters: her caretakers’ son, Tom (Stephen Thorne), rescues one from the ocean, falls in love with her, and marries her—all this in spite of her inability to speak English, though her whale is quite good—while other villagers have their own encounters with members of this mystical species. (Rachael Warren plays all of the shapeshifters, finding distinguishing physical mannerisms in each.) These scenes, episodic and elliptical, are animated not by the breath of character but by the machinery of caricature. Douglas (Joe Wilson, Jr.), for example, captures a shapeshifter, imprisons her, and tries to force her to marry him. What accounts for his ugly rapacity we never learn; his prehensile lust is merely a cynical contrast to Tom’s innocent affection. It’s not that the story needs more exposition or supposed psychological realism, but that its emotions need more mass. They are colorful and large, but they are hollow. Douglas is not a compelling character if he simply hates shapeshifters: what is his real quarrel with himself or with the world? What wrong does he mean to avenge, what imbalance does he mean to right, by dominating and demoralizing this shapeshifter? The audience learns as much about him as we might about a neighbor whose windows we walk past in the evening.

The play’s perfunctory characterization may be a function of its debt to the oral storytelling tradition. Plaited through the show is a fantastical story that Midge co-authors with Fierson and that changes direction as Midge herself changes. To reinforce this connection between Midge and the story she tells, Schellhardt has her watching action onstage even when she is not a part of it. These scenes, unfortunately, replicate the play’s problem: it all feels diffused and distorted, as though observed through the murky medium of a child’s avid and unrefined curiosity. There’s nothing recognizable in any of the characters—except for what we recognize from other plays and movies we’ve seen. Like Midge, who thinks that she can find the perfect name for someone by asking what he loves and what he hates, Schellhardt seems to believe that personality can be determined by two-question survey. So: Fierson is sweet-natured and imaginative but casually dismissive of his wife. Maude seems at first merely long-suffering and hard-headed, until she shows Midge a box containing artifacts from her youth—the skin she changed out of, but could not discard, when she married Fierson. Tom is love-struck and naïve, and Douglas is an unrepentant brute. Even Midge, the sympathetic center of the show, is a cipher, although she is rendered excitedly by Miriam Silverman.

Schellhardt thinks that shapeshifters can act as an illuminating metaphor for the story of any person’s maturation, which is a process of expansion and compromise, of fluidity and assertion, but she has worked backwards from this thesis to a play. As evidentiary drama, as Theatre of the Sincere, Shapeshifter is perfectly crafted; it presents its ideas efficiently, persuasively, even attractively. But it should not be mistaken for a show about actual people.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Trinity Rep's "The Secret Rapture"

In contemporary usage, rapture has come to refer to an ecstasy, to a joy, often sexual or sacred, beyond words; but its Latin root is raptus, the past participle of the verb rapere—to seize, to take away—which has multiplied over the centuries into rapt, and raptor, and rape. Rapture, then, is not just speechless happiness, but a sensation before which one is powerless: it steals you from the moment, the self, and, in religious tradition, the world. It is, in short, a joy to fear. David Hare’s The Secret Rapture, now at Trinity Rep, has plenty of feeling, but little fear and joy; its characters believe themselves more pragmatic than that. The play begins and ends with death, and the life illustrated in between is profoundly mitigated by it. Which is not to say that there is no levity or lightness at all in the show—just that it feels more like a tenuous reprieve than a state of rest. What’s natural, Hare suggests, is for us to drift toward jealousy and conflict: even silence, however introverted, however rapt, is a sign of guilt or reproach. Who can be bothered with rapture, whatever it is—awe or terror or transformation or consummation—when life, with all of its mortification, is hard enough?

If this were all that The Secret Rapture were about, we might expect it to feel circular, its ending determined by its beginning and its meaning neatly enclosed within. But the play’s final line includes both a valediction and a summons—“We’re just beginning”—that prevents us from drawing simple conclusions. That line is uttered by Marion (Phyllis Kay), a Junior Minister in Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government, who has seemed pathologically incapable of sympathy; her sister, Isobel, by contrast, suffers from the gift of too much feeling. The impetus of the play is the death of their father, but its drama begins when Marion takes back the ring she had given him while he was still alive. Isobel (Rachael Warren), who had assumed care-taking responsibilities and was with their father when he died, watches silently as Marion reclaims the ring from a bedside table, a transgression she justifies too vehemently by insisting that their opportunistic stepmother, Katherine (Anne Scurria), would have taken it herself and sold it for vodka. Marion’s husband, Tom (Fred Sullivan, Jr.), a born-again Christian entrepreneur, bumbles into the scene and proves comically indifferent to moral struggles—the assurance of Christ’s custody has given him a chipper insouciance—and Marion, shamed by Isobel’s equanimity, storms out. The pieces of the show, if not their jigsaw relationships, are suggested immediately: inward calm and furtive busy-ness; the terrible power of silence to rebuke; the possibility of salvation through another person.

The play’s course is tragic; we can, from that first scene, foresee Isobel’s indignities rising like distant mountains. Katherine, a self-loathing and fractious alcoholic, has nowhere to go after her husband’s death, so Isobel takes her on at her small design firm in London. But her disruptive and destructive impulsiveness is too much for Isobel’s colleague and boyfriend, Irwin (Stephen Thorne), who, failing to persuade Isobel to fire her, demands that she leave himself. Isobel runs after her and hires her back. Later, Marion and Tom offer to buy Isobel’s firm, move it to a more comfortable and spacious office, and run it like an investment—with an eye ever on profit. This arrangement, which Isobel never wanted but which she is unable to prevent, proves toxic to her: her relationship with Irwin sickens, her business dries up, and she herself withers. It is hard to convey the ineluctable tectonic movement of the show, which results in the subduction of Isobel’s personality—“No one can remember now, but the big joke is, by temperament, I’m actually an extremely cheerful girl,” she says to Irwin in the second act—and which generates so much heat. If we are horrified by Marion’s, Tom’s, and Katherine’s power to manipulate Isobel, we are also exasperated by her own misguided sense of responsibility that makes her so malleable. Her capacity to empathize—which Marion later calls the effort “to understand everything”—is tested, exploited, and turned against her by those who are supposed to love her the most. The play ends in a setting we know well—Marion’s and Isobel’s father’s house—but its tone is newly desperate. Isobel’s search for peace has itself become a kind of poison: it has made Irwin mad with grief; Marion simply mad; and Tom almost agnostic. Only Katherine, we think, remains unmoved by it.

The Secret Rapture is a steely work, forged in the unforgiving language and the awful silences of the day-to-day. For all of the script’s toughness, the acting is often quite fine. At the tragic center of the show, and subject to all of its unrelenting pressures, is Rachael Warren, who finds Isobel’s familiar qualities—her reluctance to embarrass anyone else, her eagerness to please, her tendency to self-dramatize—and rescues them from bathos or banality. Isobel is a strange character, too: she’s wise enough to recognize the connivance of her family, but not canny enough to resist it. I suppose this is what idealism is, after all, and Warren gives Isobel’s a quality of practicality rather than perfection. She is like a real person, only more so, and we cringe with recognition. Phyllis Kay gives conservatism a bad name (or, rather, an even worse one) as the coldly calculative Marion. To be fair, Marion doesn’t plot Isobel’s downfall; as in the best tragedy, she is only an instrument of a much larger force. Kay’s performance is pitched just right for a politician: she disgusts us not with the extravagance of her nihilism but with the poverty of her affection. And Anne Scurria, who has single-handedly made several Trinity Rep shows worth seeing, is as energetic and believable as ever.

There are problems with the show’s casting, however. The first is that Fred Sullivan, Jr., plays Tom, a sincere evangelist, with a decorative and distracting irony. The script is clear about Isobel’s and Marion’s distrust of religious fervor, but we have to believe that Tom believes himself. As it is, his growing doubt about the efficacy of God’s planning doesn’t touch or sadden us, because Sullivan has played him all along as though in on a joke with the audience. We should be discomfited by Tom’s religious interruptions, not merely amused by them; if we laugh at him, it is at our own peril. Then there is the problem of the characters’ ages. The script calls for Marion and Tom to be in their late thirties, and for Isobel and Katherine to be in their early thirties: Marion is older than her stepmother. Despite impressive performances from Kay, Scurria, and Warren, this tension in their relationship cannot be stretched: Scurria has tremendous youthful vitality, but she is not the same age as Rachael Warren. The casting of older actors bleaches the play of some of its strangeness and energy. When Scurria, as Katherine, worries that she has nowhere to go after the death of her husband, we don’t think twice about it; her concern seems as credible as anyone’s on entering a job market cornered by the young, the unbowed, and the technologically savvy. Imagine a woman hardly older than a child, but already so fatalistic and defeated: to be young and desperate, though still untouched by the fires of experience, is to represent a raw sort of danger. Part of the shame here is that, in Angela Brazil, Trinity may have just the actress for Katherine’s childish impertinence. I can’t help wondering what Brazil’s exuberance would look like, dulled by drink and soured with envy. It might, in fact, be rapturous.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Notes on Trinity Rep's "The Secret Rapture"

We saw David Hare's The Secret Rapture at Trinity Rep Wednesday night. It is about a father's death and a family's splintering: it is also about the death of an idea, or an ideal, and our efforts to outgrow it or grow into it. The play works on its audience subtly, only gradually revealing the terms of its tragedy. What makes it so rich, I think, is that its rapture is a secret not only to its characters but also to us--and even, I suspect, to Hare himself: despite its building momentum and urgency, the play never feels prescribed. It does feel patiently observed, and it is out of the equivocations and epiphanies of the everyday that Hare builds his drama. There is silence there, too, which acts as mortar or magma, depending on the temperature of the scene. The show is, for the most part, honestly acted--the three female leads are terrific; only Fred Sullivan, Jr., as an evangelical entrepreneur, feels like shorthand--and it is directed with real conviction and sincerity by Trinity Rep Artistic Director Curt Columbus. If conviction and sincerity sound like measures of faith rather than tragedy, it's because the show is about conflicts of belief--in politics, in God, in decency--which is the secret we can't help sharing.

I'll have a review posted soon.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Perishable Theatre's "Bad Money"

I don’t want to be presumptuous, but it seems likely that Bad Money, currently enjoying its world premiere at Perishable Theatre, is the funniest play about currency depreciation you will see all year. In a dissipated former Soviet state, the local currency, known simply as the Purple, might best be understood as a vast ocean, swelling and receding in response to invisible, indomitable forces; Agnetta, our hero, not only floats on these waves but can also predict them. Blessed, or cursed, with a nose for monetary fluctuation, Agnetta returns to her Motherland after several years away—called, perhaps, by the strange scent of the Purple. She has, in fact, returned as an investment banker, and her first client is Mansur, a “small-time potatoes” restaurateur who hopes to buy a vast oil field with his identical twin cousins (from different sides of the family), Magsud and Mahmud. Agnetta’s colleague Joe, as charming and steadfast as a balsa wood bridge, scoots around the office on his three-wheeled chair and neglects to give Agnetta flowers for Women’s Day—even though he has given the surly secretary, Gulnara, a flamboyant bouquet. And drifting at the play’s periphery like a ghost is Agnetta’s Auntie, who has not forgiven a terrible treachery perpetrated by an unwitting Agnetta decades before and which she threatens to replicate as an adult.

Bad Money is by Meg Miroshnik, who has a winningly whimsical take on post-Communism: think of it as Agnetta in Wonderland. Avarice has not produced violent gangs, and old resentments have not been channeled into neo-Stalinism; instead, greed has created extravagant rascals—Mansur, in orange-tinted sunglasses and a matching leather jacket, throws his arms back and exclaims, “I am ambition!”—and the cultural divide is not between apparatchik and dissidents but between those who get it and those who don’t. So there is a melancholy to the play but no real menace. Contributing to the moon-bounce mood of the show is Sara Ossana’s set, which is simple and ingenious: a single backdrop of blown-up bills, printed on a huge wall of foam board into which are cut doors and windows. What this lacks in impact—doors closed violently shut with an emasculating breeze—it makes up for in depth and adaptability. It’s a constant reminder of the characters' obsession with cash, but it also works practically: one never wonders why an investment banking office, a chain restaurant called Fat Belly’s, and an old widow’s apartment should all have money-themed wallpaper. That this set works is one of the mysteries of theatre.

If the show’s set and staging, which is equally fluid and flexible, operate subliminally, the acting is decidedly supraliminal. Beth Alianiello is drier than day-old rye bread as a number of characters in the service industry, Jo-án Peralta, as both Magsud and Mahmud (distinguished only by the inverted crescent of their mustaches), is limber and ludicrous, and Josh Short plays Joe with a brittle charm and perfect timing. But it is Alexander Platt as Mansur and Patricia Thomas as Aunti who steal the show. Platt’s Mansur is all brio and Borat, and Thomas’s Auntie, addled but resilient, evokes the play’s only real human feeling. It is feeling, real or otherwise, that is missing from Nicole Soras’s portrayal of Agnetta. As she follows her nose through the stink of oil fields and rotting money, we hope for something more from her: a sign of anguish, or rapacity; some kind of heightened emotional state; or something like irony. We lose interest in the show when Auntie and Mansur are offstage, because Agnetta, as written or performed, seems so vaporous. She is the chaste center of the show, so she needs to attract or repel the audience, but in the end, we don’t know if we are supposed to fear or pity her. I left with a vague sense of affinity, but I also left wanting to know more about the further adventures of Auntie and Mansur.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Weekend Theatre

Once again you find yourself at the edge of a weekend. You wonder, What can I do in the next two days that will supplant the week's indignities in my memory? You say, Why don't I go to a show? There must be a show in town.

There is.

At the Black Rep, catch Charles Mulekwa's A Time of Fire, starring the ever-pyretic Raidge as a tremulous thief, Cedric Lily (from last Fall's Bug) as a thuggish soldier, and Jonathan Dent as a devout student; they meet in the middle of a civil war in an unnamed African country. It's Saturday night at 7, and Sunday--which is a pay-what-you-can matinee--at 3pm.

Trinity Rep's A Raisin in the Sun has garnered some of the highest praise of any recent show in Providence; it is all deserved. See it Friday and Saturday night at 7:30, and Sunday at 2pm and 7:30.

Trinity is also beginning previews of David Hare's The Secret Rapture. The play may be a distorted reflection of Margaret Thatcher's England, but it is also a clear-eyed and contemporary look at money and morality. Hare fits this epic subject to the scale of the quotidian--an inherited house, a small graphic design firm, a bureaucrat's ambition--and scores it with intelligent, though exquisitely imperfect, language. Performances are Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday at 7:30pm.

Perishable Theatre is hosting the world premiere of Bad Money; previews are Saturday night at 8:00 and Sunday at 3:00, and opening night is Monday the 23rd.

Meanwhile, 2nd Story Theatre's The Front Page is sold out but I suspect you can call the box office for availability. And the Gamm is quiet for the next couple of weeks before opening Grace for previews on March 12th. Its run is short--only four weekends, including previews--so get your tickets now.

Also, you can go to the movies. Cable Car's French Film Festival is in full flower this weekend.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Trinity Rep's A Raisin in the Sun

What happens to a play preserved? Does it soak and swell in the anxieties of the generations it outlasts? Or does it rush like the Heraclitean river in which we submerge ourselves occasionally, both our changing bodies and the rushing waters encountering each other for the first time, each time? Does it soften and rot, or does it harden into a mask of its fine qualities? (And, in any case, which is the worse fate: to decay or to petrify?) Or does the play preserve us? Does a historical play, a social play, keep our aspirations alive through decades of frustration or complacency? We call productions of old plays “revivals” because we believe we are waking something from sleep, or death; but is it also the actors and the audience who, touched by the play, walk again? I don’t know. I don’t know how theatre works—how a company that performs only new works might have a different relationship to its audience than a company that, like Trinity Rep, performs contemporary, original, and classic works; or how plays, actors, and audiences collaborate nightly in the secular miracle of insurrection, each raising the other up against the claims of indifference. But I do know that despite my skepticism, and despite my persistent reservations, Trinity Rep’s production of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun does work some kind of miracle. This miracle, I think, is not specifically related to the realization of equality in a crudely hierarchical country, or to a so-perfect production of the play that it sends us into the world, changed forever. It is rather the insistence that art itself can be enough—that water need not be turned to wine, that a dream deferred is better than no dream at all.

When A Raisin in the Sun opens, the Younger family, a working-class black family on Chicago's South Side, is beginning a new day—except that they’re not: it’s the same day they have been living for generations. While her mother-in-law sleeps, Ruth Younger (Lynette Freeman) rouses her son, Travis, for school, and, with equal difficulty, her husband, Walter (Joe Wilson, Jr.), for work. Even after Walter wakes up, dreams still rattle around in his head; his first substantive line—about the life insurance check the Youngers are waiting for after the death of Walter’s father—shows that he lives in a world of fantastic expectation. Walter, a chauffeur, hopes to use the $10,000 dollar check to purchase part of a liquor store with his friends Bobo and Willy. Ruth disapproves of these friends but doesn’t know how to replace their callow encouragement with her own form of succor; his mother, Mama (Barbara Meek), disapproves of the liquor store, but hasn’t yet determined how the money should be spent. When the check arrives and Mama puts a down payment on a house with it, Walter twists into a tighter knot of fury; a tangle of dreams and deprecations, Walter all but disappears to his family and the world. How he comes back suggests that the play is not so much about waking up to the real world as sorting out which dreams are worth chasing and which dreams, perhaps, can wait.

Walter’s inarticulate, impatient rage is set off against his sister Beneatha’s intellectualized sense of grievance. She is in college, studying to be a doctor, but she has also been politicized by her experiences on campus. If Walter’s distinction is his headlong rush into an uncertain future—“a big looming blank space—full of nothing”—Beneatha’s is her idealization of her African roots, which she discusses with her Nigerian suitor, Asagai. Underyling her buzzwords is a deep insecurity, a spectacular naïveté: she holds her tempestuous brother beneath contempt—“there is nothing left to love,” she bristles—but her own yearnings are just as impulsive and subjective. It is to Lorraine Hansberry’s credit that A Raisin in the Sun is not a contest but a collage of ideas. She clearly condemns our avaricious culture, but doesn’t ridicule Walter for wanting to be a part of it. And if Hansberry seems generous in her sympathy towards Beneatha, she also burdens her with lines too serious for any audience to take entirely seriously. This is not to say that the play is indecisive or compromising, but rather that its conclusion is almost radically modest. The Langston Hughes poem from which Hansberry took her title asks if a dream deferred explodes; her answer, it seems, is that all dreams are deferred, so we approach the elusive good life asymptotically. The play begins with a waking up and ends wistfully: “We don’t want to make no trouble for nobody or fight no causes, and we will try to be good neighbors,” Walter says in the last scene, hopeful that life can be a series of smaller and smaller dreams.

Hansberry maps the path to this hope through a nightmare; she follows Walter as he drives himself mad with insatiable want. Walter dreams big, and with all the nuance of a child. He is a bundle of contradictions: a self-destructive dynamo. Joe Wilson, Jr.’s performance is a sometimes shocking evocation of this suicidal energy. It is, in short, annihilating. Wilson, who said in an interview with the Boston Globe that he spent less time developing this role before rehearsals than he usually does, seems to be still prodding and stretching his characterization as we watch. He must show us the depths to which Walter sinks before rising up again, and he has decided to do this without reserving any special dignity, any performative pride, for himself. Walter has no stoic strength, no particular, ennobling resolve: so Wilson gives us a performance that trembles with weakness and sputters impotently. He does not merely act pathetic, but shows the audience what a desperate man can be reduced to. He risks us rejecting his performance, which is an act of almost incredible vulnerability. Wilson gives us Walter’s debasement through the surrender of his own agency: as if mirroring, and not just impersonating, Walter's self-hatred, Wilson challenges us to judge him. Acting like this is brave, but we don’t recognize it as such until the show is over. Simply put, we don’t envy Walter's humiliation. To an audience, vivid depredation has a faintly glowing beauty—it is suffering for our sins—but Joe Wilson wrings the light out of his performance. He, like Walter, suffers in a darkness of his own making.

But he does not do this alone. His fellow actors comprise one of the most impressive ensembles you will see on a Rhode Island stage this year. Barbara Meek as Mama, shaken but still strong, is the show’s empathetic center. Meek suffuses Mama’s bewilderment at the world’s corrosive meanness and her own children’s dissolution with determination and yearning. Mama’s daughter-in-law, Ruth, meets the world’s challenges with pragmatic resignation; if Walter overestimates his abilities and aptitudes, Ruth underestimates hers. Hansberry’s depiction of Ruth is strangely reductive—Walter accuses her of smallness, and the script doesn’t do much to disprove him—but Lynette Freeman gives her size and depth by exploring the limits of her affection and disappointment. And Angela Thomas makes a strident and stubborn—but not humorless—Beneatha. We think we know how their story ends—dream realized; happiness abundant—but we don’t; and they don’t either. It’s not a sad ending, but it’s not exactly victorious either. Our country has been through a nightmare, but perhaps now, in an era lit by the bright words change and hope, we are finally ready, all of us, to try to be good neighbors.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Notes on Trinity Rep's Rasin in the Sun

Last night we went to Trinity Rep to see Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, which runs through March 8th. The show is not flawless--director Brian McEleney repeatedly interrupts its flow and undermines its realism by having characters address their monologues, like closing statements, to the audience--but its cumulative effect is adamantine. On the page, the play feels expansive, full of stirring rhetorical gestures; in performance, lead actors Joe Wilson, Jr., Lynette Freeman, Barbara Meek, and Angela Thomas, rein in Hansberry's more precious, precocious moments: they have found the personal in the poetical. Credit for the show's success must go to the entire cast--indeed, they set a standard for ensemble acting that other local stages will be hard-pressed to match--but Joe Wilson, Jr.'s, depiction of Walter Younger, a man chasing himself to exhaustion, is so athletic, so fierce, and so volatile, that it leaves us dazed.

I'll have a review posted soon.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Dreams Deferred

Trinity Rep brings Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun back to the stage this February. It's in previews until Wednesday, when it opens officially; we'll see if the play is an old chestnut, a raisin, or some other organic edible. But if there's any doubt about the show's vintage--about the power and range of its emotion--take a look at Mark Turek's production photo above, in which Joe Wilson, Jr., appears to have aged fifteen years from the last time we saw him as the lead in a show, and, in the back, Barbara Meek looks as though she's practically holding on to the kitchen counter to project durability and dignity. Wilson's Walter, storm-tossed and vacant, looks desperately offstage for somewhere to plant his idea of a dream. Ms. Meek has been acting in Providence for a long time--practically since A Raisin in the Sun's New York debut in 1959--so it's fitting that she is playing Mama, a woman as enduring and capacious as an oak.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Looking Ahead: Theatre in the Week to Come

Even as the economy cools, local theatre continues to cook:

Elemental Theatre Collective's Deca-Go-Go returns to Perishable Theatre tomorrow evening at 8:00PM. It runs through Sunday afternoon.

Gamm Theatre's Awake and Sing! begins its second full week tonight.

At 2nd Story Theatre, catch Ben Hecht's Front Page Thursday through Sunday.

Finally, Trinity Rep opens A Raisin in the Sun for preview this Friday night (January 30th). It runs through the weekend and opens officially next Wednesday.

And that Thursday (February 5th), the Providence Black Rep begins previews of the U.S. premiere of Charles Mulekwa's A Time of Fire.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

All This Can Be Filed Under: Only the Gold Remains

Check out my write-up of Elemental Theatre Collective's Deca-Go-Go, an energetic and implausibly emotional show at Perishable Theatre this weekend and next, on the IndieArtsRI blog.

This "write-up" is not a review. I see IndieArts as a promotional, rather than critical, organ, and I make no claims to objectivity in my pieces for it; that said, I never expect to deceive. Everything I wrote, for example, about Brown/Trinity's Full Circle felt true; it just wasn't the complete truth. I put as much work into my (sporadic) writing for IndieArts as I do here, but I pass it through something like a prospector's seived basin: only the gold (Or is it pyrite?) remains. I have no moral inhibitions about doing this; we all need a little help from our friends.

Sometimes I will promote on IndieArts and critique here, but this isn't one of those times. I'm friends with people attached to Elemental Theatre and I'm not interested in negotiating the dangerous zone between helpful feedback and objective observation; I choose unencumbered friendship every time. In a way it's a shame, because reviewing theatre like that created by the ETC ought to be one of the pleasures of being engaged with local arts, not to mention that the meaningfulness of one's praise is proportional to the integrity of one's criticism--pointing out a show's flaws confirms that it is worth thinking about, which is the highest praise. But it was fun going to a show knowing that I only had to enjoy it--that I was free to nurture, and not vet, my first impressions--and I hope that Messrs. Platt and Rabinow, the cast and crew of Deca-Go-Go, and the potential theatre-goers of Providence, know that this show is at least as good as I said it was.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Trinty Rep at the Oscars

Former Trinity Rep actor and artistic director Richard Jenkins has been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his role in The Visitor. It's a great choice by, um, whoever makes it. My review is here, but don't take my word for it; just google the movie to read the unanimously admiring consideration of the movie and Jenkins's performance in it. And then, if you didn't catch it at the Avon, rent it.

(While we're on the subject, make plans now to catch possible future Academy Award-winning actors and actresses in the upcoming Trinity performance of A Raisin in the Sun. Previews start Friday, January 30th and the show opens Wednesday, February 4th.)

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Notes on Gamm Theatre's "Awake and Sing!"

In 1935 Clifford Odets wrote Awake and Sing!, which is about the fissures that split the Berger family as they cope with the turmoil of the Great Depression; it was a tremendous success in times not so unlike our own, but Odets's star has fallen in the decades since. On Sunday night we went to the Gamm Theatre to watch a revival of the show, considered by many to be his best work. It is a fascinating piece, demonstrating at once a virtuosic command of language and a servitude to ideology. The play reaches awesome peaks of intensity, sometimes despite itself, thanks to the cool guidance of director Fred Sullivan, Jr. and the brute muscle of the cast, especially veteran Sam Babbitt and recent Brown/Trinity Consortium alumna Diana Buirski. Babbitt plays Jacob, a rimy but resilient radical now living with his daughter and son-in-law, and their two nearly grown children, in a small New York apartment. Buirski plays his granddaughter Hennie, who is alternately feckless and fierce; her swings between resignation and rage provide the play's most interesting weather. Between one and the other, we melt or freeze. Her brother, Ralph (Marc Dante Mancini) can barely conceal his contempt for his mild father, and bridles under his mother's sanctimony and small dreams. This sort of dysfunction may be a hallmark of the American family drama, but I suspect that many audience members left, as I did, wanting to have felt more than emotional extremes; we missed the gradual hardening of resolve, the slow thaw of forgiveness, that mark the path to self-realization. What we get instead is event. The whole feels less than the sum of its parts--which is an awkward conclusion to draw from a play that ends with such pro-union fervor.

Awake and Sing!
is grounded in prophecy--its title is from the Book of Isaiah, but its real energy is from Das Kapital--and Odets seems to have adopted his antecedents' priorities: like them, he is more impressed by forces than by people. Or, perhaps, he is interested in individuals only insofar as they constitute, or are swept up by, forces larger than themselves. The problem with watching Awake and Sing! today is that it is not clear what these forces are. Odets, writing in the thick of the Great Depression and just fifteen years after Eugene Debs earned over six percent of the popular vote as the Socialist candidate for President, did not have to describe the vitiating pressures of capitalism or the putative restorative powers of socialism. The evidence of the one and faith in the other were abundant. Today we have the first but we lack the second; our indignation is, or has been, directed towards unscrupulous individuals and unregulated industries, not the operating ethics of capitalism itself. We are skeptical of revolution in this country, even in a winter of discontent.

It is not beyond Odets's power to awaken in us a revolutionary anger, but a whisper directly in our ear might make a better alarm than a clarion song. As it is, much of Awake and Sing! vibrates violently and at unfamiliar frequencies. The play begins loudly and gets louder, even while the menace of the world outside the Berger's apartment remains abstract. The audience, I think, needs to be welcomed into the 1930s more warmly; we have to be seduced, or lured, with character, into a trap of conscience. There is much to admire about the play, and much to enjoy in this interpretation of it, but I hope its exclamatory title does not continually lead it towards the intemperate, or the hyperventilative. What the show needs is not to be modernized but merely modulated; the actors must stir bewilderment into their boiling anger, in part because that is what we are feeling now, about our own times (What does this mean? we ask; How long can it go on?), in part because the audience will feel more comfortable with the show's conclusion when it seems contingent (i.e., the result of personal inquiry) rather than foreordained. (We might also hear more of Odets's idiosyncratic language, which must itself feel personal rather than inevitable; Odets unleashed an irreversible force on the American stage: urban, Jewish idiom.) The struggle to reproduce the breathlessness of the 1930s is a losing one--we know too well how the rush to form a Marxist state ends; the struggle to understand the tenor of those times and the dramatic expression of their energies might be more rewarding. The performance on Sunday was just a preview, and I'm sure as the show develops through its run a different music will emerge from it. But as long as Mr. Babbitt does not lose his wistful good humor, and Ms. Buirski does not lose her inarticulate intensity, the show has a ruminative melody and a discordant descant. This counterpoint alone makes the song worth hearing.


It's another busy week of theater in and around Providence:

Today at the Gamm at 5:00, Susan Quinn, author of Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times, will be talking about the Federal Theatre Project, which, from 1935 to 1939, funded plays across the country to keep actors, directors, writers, and stage-crews busy. If the project galvanized visionary theatre--its propitious climate gave rise to literary giant Arthur Miller and just plain giant Orson Welles--it also provided a stage for Manichean melodrama: Congress, outraged by the leftist slant of the works funded by the FTP, voted to terminate funding
in June 1939. (Apparently, 16th-century playwright Christopher Marlowe, whose plays were revived and funded by the FTP, was a Communist.) In short, the dinosaurs won this round, but the small mammals, forced to scrape by on the periphery, adapted and survived. Quinn's talk, which itself is bound to be fascinating, precedes a preview of Clifford Odets's Awake and Sing! The Gamm website says this evening's show is sold out, but it also encourages you to call the box offce (723-4266) to check for availability.

On Thursday of this week, Elemental Theatre brings Deca-Go-Go to Perishable Theatre. I'm not sure what to say about this, even--or especially--after looking at the show's website. If the play is as anarchically ridiculous as the promotional materials, it'll be a well-spent $15.

And next weekend, the Manton Avenue Project brings There's A Couple'A Ways This Could End: A Conflict Resolution Play to The Media Arts Center at Met Public. Written by seven kid playwrights, shaped for the stage by seven dramaturgues, and performed by nearly two dozen local actors, the show is collaborative at every level: it is the result of a partnership between MAP and The Institute for the Study and Practice of Non-Violence, and is, appropriately, about the escalation and defusing of violence. (For more information, check out the January issue of Providence Monthly; Molly Lederer's article is a great read because she sees the playwrighting experience through the wide-open eyes of one of the project participants.)

Also next week, Gamm and 2nd Story officially open their first plays of 2009.
Gamm, as noted already, is putting on a Depression-era classic; 2nd Story is showing Ben Hecht's and Charles MacArthur's The Front Page. Visit their websites and purchase your tickets.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Back from the Brink

Theater at the Black Rep is back. After a vigorous, ad hoc fund-raising effort over the autumn of 2008, the theater has raised enough money to proceed with its two-show spring season. It starts on February 5th with the U.S. premiere of Brown graduate student Charles Mulekwa's A Time of Fire. The show may be new to audiences here, but Mulekwa himself is no novice; he has written over ten plays, many about political and social issues in his native Uganda, and has received considerable international recognition. The text of A Time of Fire is online here. Its language snaps at irregular angles and charts strange trajectories; it is also nervously, desperately funny. There is more biographical information available here and here.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Blacktop Sky at Black Rep

Last night, at the Black Rep, four actors performed a public reading of Christina Anderson's new play, Blacktop Sky. It was the first reading I had ever attended, and I was relieved that the experience did nothing to undermine the thrill of theater; it is not, in short, like seeing a magician practice his tricks. It was humbling to be reminded that most plays are born on the page, nursed in readings, ushered through childhood in rehearsal, and unveiled in something like maturity on opening night. Blacktop Sky, like its protagonist, Ida, is somewhere in its adolescence still--dreamy and passionate, but unresolved. It is full of feeling and purpose but uncertain of its direction.

Ida longs to escape the projects where she lives but her boyfriend, Wynn, ten years her senior, offers her only a bourgeois vision of freedom. She is intrigued by Klass, a young homeless man who sets up his stuff in the projects' courtyard and, like the pigeons whom he is said to resemble in his over-sized coat, occasionally rises above the grasping shadows of his orphan, urban life. Ida and Klass share a comfort with silence and a hope in transcendence that threaten Wynn. The complicated affection among these three--the idea of a "love triangle" seems too comic for relationships as tentative and inarticulate as these--is the orbiting action of the play; there is not much else.

Indeed, the universe of the projects is a sort of vacuum. The only other characters we meet are themselves characters in anecdotes, whispered or disputed, until the cops, who are hardly characters at all, show up at the end to deal with Klass. This means that Ida, Wynn, and Klass make the story their own, but it also means that the terms--the limits and the pressures--of their lives are unclear. What is it like to live in the projects? Why does Ida want so desperately to get out, and why do Wynn's assurances that he can help her escape feel so specious? (Are the projects different from Siddartha Gautama's palace, or Mick Kelly's Georgia town?) What does Klass offer Ida that Wynn doesn't? How is Klass a threat to Wynn? How is Klass-or-Wynn even a choice, and what is it a choice between? Why doesn't it feel like a terrible choosing by play's end? What has all this meant, not symbolically, but actually? What has it done to Ida? What could it mean? I hope that Ms. Anderson continues to develop Ida further, not by thrusting a more detailed back-story on her but by letting her speak for herself: we need her, as an insider and an outsider--an exile, in other words--to judge the projects. We need her to show us why Klass is so compelling. We need her to hold our gaze; and then we need her to tell us where, and how, to look.

(Christina Anderson's new play, Inked Baby, will receive its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons in March.)

Friday, January 9, 2009

Next Week in Preview

Theater in this town is like water simmering: there it is, whispering and bubbling, until you turn away and it comes to a vigorous boil. Here is what a city's theater looks like when it's over a hot flame:

This Sunday, at 2:00PM, Perishable Theatre hosts LaVoce: Theatre That Speaks, a new company "that gives voice to works that promote social change by creating dialogue." Their first show in Providence is Madeleine George's The Most Massive Woman Wins.
(This video is particularly engaging, in part for the sensitive interpretation of the lines, in part for the eerily numinous glow of the actresses in the scene's background, in part for the obvious efforts of the cinematographer not to cry.) George's biography reads like a bildungsroman in progress; it should embolden even the most reluctant theatre-goer or--better still--the most trepidant would-be writer.

On Monday the 12th, at 7:00PM, Megan Sandberg-Zakian directs a reading of Christina Anderson's new play Blacktop Sky, at the Black Rep. This is exciting for several reasons. First, it's a reading of a new play by a young artist who seems primed (not destined, but fully prepared) for something great. Second, tickets are just 5 freakin bucks--though, if you're feeling flush, you can always donate more. And third, it's a sign of the Black Rep theater's resilience. Reports of its demise were, we hope, greatly exaggerated.

Next week both 2nd Story Theatre and the Gamm Theatre begin previews for their first shows of 2009. 2nd Story is showing Ben Hecht's screwball comedy The Front Page, a scheduling change after recent events sort of took all the irreverent fun out of Death of a Salesman. (It's an artistic decision that provokes the question, When is relevant too relevant?) Previews are next Friday and Saturday evening at 8:00, and the show runs Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday through February 15th.

Gamm is going ahead with Clifford Odets's depression-era classic, Awake and Sing! Odets is known as a strident voice for the underdog, but his work is also idiosyncratic and humane. Gamm previews the show next weekend (January 15th, 16th, and 17th at 8:00; Sunday, January 18th at 7:00.) and opens it officially on Thursday the 22nd. Here's the calendar of performances.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Two Tens Gets You Tickets to Trinity

This from the Trinity Rep:
Trinity Repertory Company is pleased to announce that it plans to continue its tradition of making a night at the theater affordable for all by making 5,000 $20 tickets available for the rest of its 2008-2009 season. These $20 tickets will be available for select seats in every performance of every show – from classics like Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest to newer works like The Secret Rapture by David Hare and the world premiere of Shapeshifter by Laura Schellhard.
(More information here.)

I know that many of us have been wondering how Trinity would respond to the "economic crisis," especially given that, like lobster or a second yacht, theater seems distinctly like a luxury these days. But theater is only a luxury in proportion to its triviality, and this spring season is anything but trivial. Let me clarify that: for all of my animadversion, the fall season was itself no lightweight. Curt Columbus and the actors at Trinity Rep have tried to give Providence a theater that is both accessible and subversive; I appreciate that recent shows, though far from flawless, were presented as sincere challenges to complacency and compartmentalization. Does it make a difference that I thought these imperfect plays were nobly motivated? Are they better plays because they have the weight of principle behind them? In short, the plays may not be better but the experience of seeing them, now, is. That is what the theater is for: to be seen, now.

So I am excited about Trinity trying to be more affordable: the conversation that it hopes to provoke will be livelier because it will involve more, and perhaps more different, people. Kudos to Trinity and congratulations to all the theater-goers who might otherwise, but for the responsiveness of Trinity Rep, have missed a slate of really terrific shows. If you have wanted to go to Trinity but have been intimidated by the (presumptive) austerity of the experience or dissuaded by the price, now's your chance.