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.