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.