Tuesday, November 10, 2015

"Perfect Arrangement" - Not so perfect for those involved

By Judd Hollander
Photo by James Leynse

Most everyone has a public persona they show to the outside world. One stripped off only in the comfort of one's own home and only to those to whom you are the closest. But when even the slightest slip of the mask can lead to the loss of everything you're worked for, how far would you go to make sure that shield stays securely on? Such is the scenario playwright Topher Payne offers with Perfect Arrangement. Presented by Primary Stages. the show is having its New York premiere at the Duke on 42nd Street.

1950, Washington, D.C. The Cold War is in full swing and the United States Government is rooting out anyone who may have Communist leanings. Among those involved in this process are State Department employees Bob Martindale (Robert Eli) and his associate Norma (Julia Coffey). Bob is married to homemaker Millie (Mikaela Feely-Lehmann), while Norma's spouse is schoolteacher Jim Baxter (Christopher J. Hanke). The two couples are long time best friends and next door neighbors. However both marriages are shames, or in actuality, covers. For it is Bob and Jim who are in love with one another; as are Norma and Millie. The group coming up with this arrangement four years earlier as way to live together in secret while maintaining a public facade that would allow them to continue their careers in a society that by and large condemns them. Their true relationships hidden from prying eyes via a specially built closet that allows them to move from one apartment to the other without anyone outside their circle being the wiser.

Things change when Bob's superior, Theodore Sunderson (Kevin O'Rourke). explains that their new mission is to remove anyone in government whose actions could make them a target of blackmail. In particular anyone doing something of an unusual or "deviant" nature (i.e. homosexuality). While Bob is okay with this new protocol, Norma is somewhat less so. This leading to the first of many cracks in the four's once impervious shield.

More trouble comes the quartet's way in the form of Barbara Grant (Kelly McAndrew), a translator at the State Department, who's now on the chopping block thanks to her "easy" reputation. Though it quickly becomes obvious Barbara is not someone to sit still when threatened. Barbara noting one can't be blackmailed if you don't care who knows your secrets. That attitude being something Bob and the others feel they cannot afford. The irony here is that Bob is the one who created the system by which the State Department roots out its undesirables. Thus throwing other people under the proverbial bus and becoming a rising star in his job, all the while ensuring his own secrets remain secure and not caring about those outside his immediate circle. The question of whose rights are more important in such a situation being the play's ultimate message.

Payne and set designer Neil Patel have done a good job in recreating 1950s mores. The set of Norma and Millie's apartment looking like something you would find in a television series from that era. Nice, neat and with everything in its place. In a way the setting acts as a metaphor for these character's lives. Perfect and calm on the outside; but underneath far more messy, far more fraught with issues and dramatically, far more interesting. The ladies dresses in particular are perfectly divine - good work by costume designer Jennifer Caprio.

Interestingly, it's the dramatic moments that come across far better than the comedic ones. Part of this has to do with the show's underlying message, the two couples being too constrained by their own fears to come across as even unintentionally funny. Other problems occur because of Michael Barakiva's sometimes unfocused direction, which does not allow the characters to get enough into the specific moments to make any of the comic situations as amusing as they could be. Such misfires occur when Millie recognizes Barbara as someone from her past and tries desperately to disguise herself so she won't be recognized. Other moments at levity, such as Bob trying to fake a cold, or just about anything involving Kitty Sunderson (Jennifer Van Dyck), the wife of Bob's boss, all feel somewhat flat. Kitty in particular coming off as more of a parody than anything remotely resembling flesh and blood, at least in the beginning. The play could easily be done as a farce - the groundwork for it is certainly there - if that was the way Payne wanted to go. But the way the work is structured now, the too-real seriousness of the issues presented works against any attempts at levity.

Another problem is the show's ultimate ending. One where both couples must decide whether or not to take the first tentative steps outside the closet - and not the one connecting the two apartments. This particular (and pivotal) sequence begins well enough, but winds up offering what comes off as three separate endings. The final one stacking things a bit too far in one particular direction. Especially considering the time in which this story takes place and the attitude and feelings of the characters up to that point.

The cast is quite good, with Eli the standout as Bob. The one person most desperately trying to keep his personal status quo unchanged, less the gigantic house of cards he has built come crashing down. Coffey works well as Norma, a woman who eventually finds she can't keep being part of a process she despises. Feely-Lehmann is good as Millie, a person who initially finds herself totally appalled by Kitty and all that she represents. Yet in the end finds herself bonding with her in a moment of crises. O'Rourke is fine as Sunderson, a career bureaucrat with a seemingly easygoing manner, yet someone who can also become quite the son of a bitch when necessary. McAndrew is a nice surprise as Barbara. Someone who, like many of the others, keeps her professional and private lives completely separate. But who in reality may be the most honest of all.

One very telling line, used almost as a throwaway here, can be heard when Jim notes that he'd never be able to get a teaching job if his homosexuality became public knowledge. Those words indicating a reality that lasted far past the red and lavender scares of the 1950s, and even long after the gay rights movement burst into full bloom more than a decade later. It's here the power of the play is truly felt as it shows the almost desperate lengths homosexuals would go in order to appear "normal" to the world at large. The alternative being ostracism, unemployment or far worse. 

Offering quite the thought provoking story, Perfect Arrangement doesn't quite reach its full potential, but still packs an emotional punch. One powerful enough to leaving a lasting impression. 

Featuring: Robert Eli (Bob Martindale), Mikaela Feely-Lehmann (Mille Martindale), Julia Coffey (Norma Baxter), Christopher J. Hanke (Jim Baxter), Kevin O'Rourke (Theodore Sunderson), Jennifer Van Dyck (Kitty Sunderson), Kelly McAndrew (Barbara Grant).

Prefect Arrangement

Written by Topher Payne

Set Design: Neil Patel
Costume Design: Jennifer Caprio
Lighting Design: Traci Klainer Polimeni
Sound Design: Ryan Rumery
Wig & Makeup Design: J. Jared Janas
Props Supervisor: Carrie Mossman
Production Stage Manager: Richard A. Hodge
Directed by: Michael Barakiva

Presented by Primary Stages Company
The Duke at 42nd Street
229 West 42nd Street

Closed: November 6, 2015

"Old Times" - A tantalizing journey

By Judd Hollander

Memory can be highly selective. The way one recalls a given event with absolute certainty may not at all be the way it actually happened. Such is the case in Harold Pinter's 1971 work Old Times, which is currently enjoying a sterling Broadway revival as presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre.

Filmmaker Deeley (Clive Owen) and his wife Kate (Kelley Reilly), who live in a converted farmhouse somewhere near the English coast, are awaiting the arrival of Kate's old friend Anna (Eve Best), who is arriving from Sicily for a visit. Anna and Kate shared a London flat together when there were young women recently out of school. Though curiously, Kate has never before mentioned this woman from her past.

While Deeley seems eager quite to meet Anna, and thus perhaps get a peek into his wife's life in the time before he knew her, the more introverted Kate is far less enthusiastic. Perhaps preferring to let those heady days of youth and the escapades thereof - all occurring at a time when the future was completely open to her - remain safely buried and forgotten.

Not long after Anna arrives, a not-so-subtle disconnect begins to occur. Deeley and Anna taking up most of the conversations, be they reminiscing, questions, or swapping song lyrics; with Kate becoming a sort of third wheel. Kate at one point remarking how Anna keeps talking at her as if she's dead, even though she's right in front of them. This feeling of exclusion existing not only in terms of the conversations going on, but also in Kate's relationship with her husband. Deeley traveling all over the globe for his work, while Kate seems to prefer the solitude of her present environment. She often taking walks alone, with her only constant companion her thoughts. It's as if she's continually erecting a safe haven for herself. One with ever taller walls. 

It also becomes apparent that Anna and Deeley had a significant, albeit non-verbal encounter during those long-ago London days. Though each has their own interpretation of what may have happened during that meeting. Just as Kate and Anna each have their own interpretation of that time; especially how things finally ended between the two women. This then brings the story back to the idea of selective memories. Where people chose to remember the same instance(s) in different ways. Preferring to recall things they way they wanted them to happen, rather than how they truly did.

Playing hand and hand into premise this is director Douglas Hodge's excellent staging. His firm yet delicate pacing helping to keep the audience fixated on the unfolding story, as well as the slowly increasing sexual tension, as they wait for the explosion, surprise or other clues to solve the mystery of these three people, as well as Anna's ultimate purpose in showing up after all these years. Though those wanting straight answers or a complete linear progression have come to the wrong play; for there are no quick fixes or the neatly tying up of all that has been presented. Rather, Pinter leaves it to each person in the audience to digest and make sense of what they've seen. It's also interesting to note that throughout the play Kate and Anna are often positioned in such a way that they appear to be almost mirrored images of one another. This then begs the question which of them is image and which is real. Or perhaps the question should be which is more image and which is more real? 

Also present is an almost desperate need by Deeley and Kate to maintain their own personal status quos. Deeley continuously trying to keep control of the situation by one-upping Anna during their conversations, while Kate tries not to revisit the past by seemingly ignoring it. Or at least playing it down for as long as she can. Yet in the end, both are threatened with losing the security and stability they desperately covet. For by the end it is Deeley who finds himself being pushed aside, while it's Kate, who has been relatively quiet for most the show, who ultimately finds her voice and seizes control of the narrative.

Acting by the trio is excellent. Especially when one realizes that none of the characters are quite fully formed. Rather they're more bits and pieces of experiences and memories. Yet the material the actors do have to work with and the possibilities therein make the characters completely fascinating to watch. Owen, making his Broadway debut here, cuts an interesting figure as Deeley. Someone a little too self-assured, with a constant need to be in control and wanting to learn as much as he can from Anna. But who in the end, learns that a little knowledge can be very dangerous. Reilly, also making her Broadway debut, is good as Kate. A quiet soul with an almost mousy sort of attitude at points, who eventually shows herself to be the strongest person of all. Best, as Anna has perhaps the more difficult of the three roles. A sort of cipher inside this cipher of a play, as the woman whose presence stirs up things the other two had long forgotten, or at least conveniently suppressed. That is, if any of the memories in question are actually true to begin with.

Christine Jones' set, like the characters, is deliberately incomplete, but comfortable. In another interesting point, the front door almost resembles a huge block of ice. Perhaps indicating how each of the characters is frozen in time in their own way. Or, since if you look through a sheet of ice, everything looks like it's in a million pieces, it could be another reference to the fragmentation of memories distorted by time and distance. Special mention going to the haunting sound design of Clive Goodwin. Its ominous and enveloping mantra fitting perfectly into this story.

Running a brisk 70 minutes, you still feel as if you've been through an emotional marathon by the time the play is finished. Old Times is a gut-wrenching yet at times almost gentle look at the power of memories. All the while showing that if the truth doesn't always set one free, it can certainly mark those who are able to remember it accurately.

Featuring: Clive Owen (Deeley), Kelly Reilly (Kate), Eve Best, (Anna).

Old Times
by Harold Pinter

Set Design: Christine Jones
Costume Design: Constance Hoffman
Lighting Design: Japhy Weideman
Sound Design: Clive Goodwin
Music: Thom Yorke
Hair Design: Amanda Miller
Dialect Coach: Kate Wilson
Production Stage Manager: Nevin Hedley
Stage Manager: Janet Takami
Directed by Douglas Hodge

Presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org
Running Time: 70 Minutes, no intermission

Closes: November 29, 2015

"Antigone" - Where compromise is sadly not an option

By Judd Hollander
Photo by Stephanie Berger

Branches which bend under the force of a raging storm are often able to survive, while those that hold fast and try to resist the oncoming onslaught are eventually snapped off and torn away. It is this premise of being unable to bend in the face of immense outside pressure that sets in motion the ultimate fate of the two main characters in Sophokles' drama Antigone. A production of which, using a new translation by Anne Carson and under the very capable directorial hands of Ivo van Hove, is about to finish a run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

In ancient Thebes, Kreon (Patrick O'Kane), who has recently come to power after a bloody siege of the city, has decreed that the body of the traitor Polyneikes (Nathanial Jackson), who perished in the afore-mentioned struggle, be left above ground to rot. This edict being Kreon’s way of issuing a grisly warning to any who may not be loyal to him. It is also a warning that Polyneikes’ sister Antigone (Juliette Binoche), is resolved to ignore. This despite the desperate pleas from her sister Ismene (Kirsty Bushell) not to disobey Kreon’s commands. Not surprisingly, Kreon does not take the defying of his orders lightly, and it’s not long before Antigone is brought before him to face his wraith. All to the great relief of a Guard (Obi Abili), who was one of those charged with watching the body of Polyneikes in order to make sure Kreon’s orders were being followed. The scenes dealing with the Guard's predicament containing just about the only comedic moments in the entire production.

The events described above basically serve as the set up for the play's ultimate message as the outcome of Kreon’s inflexibility and Antigone’s determination - or is it Kreon’s determination and Antigone’s inflexibility - become evident. The two characters' positions being diametrically opposed, yet born of the same circumstances, and with each person possessing a similar and unyielding resolve. Things becoming even more complicated when one takes into account the familial connections involved. Antigone being Kreon’s niece as well as a daughter of Odipous; she also having lost two brothers in the battle for Thebes, while Kreon lost a son in the same conflict.

Despite Antigone being the title role, the show in actuality centers around the actions of Kreon. Something which becomes evident when he makes clear his position shortly after assuming power. At first offering a sort of conciliatory approach to those who may have opposed him in the past, as a way to attempt to bring together the different factions he now presides over. Yet despite the outwardly initial calm he projects, for him the entire matter has become far too personal. Kreon having not only lost a son during the siege, but also having to face the fact that some of his own family fought against him during the battle. Thus he is resolute in his decision regarding Polyneikes and anyone who dares try to bury him.

Director Ivo van Hove, who has reimagined more than one classic work over the years, (I particularly remember a version of Hedda Gabler he directed at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2004), goes the subtle route here to get his point across. Or at least as subtle as you can get considering the circumstances involved. The piece presented as a sort of warning against being too unyielding, no matter the position you take. At the same time, the story, for all of its dramatic punch, has a sort of detached feeling to it. One finding oneself applauding the strong characterizations, yet at the same time observing the entire production with more a spectator’s eye rather than the feeling of being right in the middle of the action. The audience thus also becoming in a way, a part of the chorus who ultimately passes judgment on what is unfolding before their eyes.

It’s also interesting to note how the issues surrounding the events presented, although not the events themselves, could easily be translated into numerous aspects of modern life. Kreon’s assuming control of the city could easily be re-imagined as a corporate takeover, with his initial encounter with some of the city's citizens easily taking place in a corporate boardroom of just about any Fortune 500 company. An effect helped in no small part by the cast being clad in modern dress for this production. The show also makes good use of various projections and images to give the impression that there are other elements involved than those physically seen on stage, and that we’re all part of something bigger than what we actually may see and understand.

As Kreon, O'Kane turns in a very strong and commanding performance. Whether the character makes a proclamation, threat or simple comment, there's no doubt he means exactly what he says. The actor presenting a firm and controlled presence with Kreon's movements, one often pressing down on a torrent of emotions he holds inside. This attitude thus making the character itself, as well as his ultimate fate, all the more believable. Ironically, Kreon is also the one person who learns the most during the course of the play. Though this knowledge comes with a heavy price.

Binoche does very well as Antigone. A person whom, even when she is off-stage, is talked about throughout. The character does come off as a little off-putting at first. This mainly because her first scene, where she forcefully declares her intentions to her sister, sets up everything that is to follow and with Antigone basically pushing herself right into audience's collective face. Despite all this early posturing, it is Binoche's later scenes which carry far more emotional weight. Including where she faces off against Kreon, as well as another pivotal sequence - which contains no actual dialogue. 

Carlson's translation comes off as surprisingly clean and simple as these things go, the text quite neatly putting the underlying message front and center. Carson's words going hand in hand with van Hove’s directorial efforts, both of which achieve their desired results without any flourishes or eccentricities. Just a story nicely told. The result is one quite fulfilling, both intellectually and emotionally.

Also in the cast are Samuel Edward-Cook, Finbar Lynch and Kathryn Pogson.

Featuring: Juliette Binoche (Antigone), Obi Abili (Guard/Chorus), Kirsty Bushell (Ismene/Chorus), Samuel Edward-Cook (Haimon/Chorus), Finbar Lynch (Teiresias/Chorus), Patrick O'Kane (Kreon), Kathryn Pogson (Eurydike/Chorus), Nathanial Jackson (Body of Polyneikes/Boy).

By Sophokles
In a new translation by Anne Carson
Barbican and Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg

Set Design and Lighting: Jan Versweyveld
Costume Design: An d'Huys
Video Design: Tal Yarden
Dramaturgy by Peter van Kraaij
Composition and Sound Design: Daniel Freitag

Directed by Ivo van Hove

BAM Harvey Theatre
651 Fulton Street

Closed: October 4, 2014

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

"A Murder Mystery Karaoke Show" - I Know What You Sang Last Summer

By Byrne Harrison

I will admit that I really enjoy karaoke.  I also really enjoy watching self-absorbed teenagers get picked off one by one in a good slasher movie.  It never occurred to me, however, that you could combine the two.

Luckily, it did occur to John Paolillo, the creator and director of "A Murder Mystery Karaoke Show," currently playing every Thursday night in October at the Stonewall Inn's upstairs stage.  The result is less Miss Marple and more Scooby Doo.  Less slasher and more Thriller (Paolillo is a choreographer, after all, so moves get busted).  Less Freddy Krueger and more Rocky Horror.  Less Cabin in the Woods and more Miss Scarlet in the library with a lead pipe.

Well, you get the picture.

"Murder Mystery" uses familiar tropes - an unexpected invitation, a night to be spent in a creepy house on Asylum Island, a prize to whomever can spend the night, a mysterious benefactor, and of course, lots of murders.  The characters are, unsurprisingly, a cross-section of every teen movie ever - jock (Trevor Livingston), cheerleader (Andrea Levinsky), gay boy (Danni Vitorino), goth chick (Rachel Hering), overenthusiastic nerds (Kristen D.J. Robinson and Molly Heller), and the black guy (Gavin Juckette) that everyone expects to be killed next (the fact that this particular black guy is white and somehow keeps surviving is a running joke throughout the show).

The hows and whys of the murders, the unmasking of the killer (who no doubt would have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for those meddling kids…), the surprise twist ending, the other surprise twist ending… well, really it's all just window dressing.  The show is meant to be lighthearted, silly fun.  It's a chance to go out with some friends, grab some drinks, and sing along (loudly, and in different keys) with some great karaoke music, all while watching good-looking teens get gruesomely murdered.  Is there a better way to spend a Thursday night?  I don't think so.

So a few things to know.  As an audience member, you are a ghost on or around Asylum Island.  You will have things that you are supposed to say (and sing).  If you sit close to the stage, chances are good that you will be a featured singer (the night I saw it, two of the folks in the first row were called onstage to sing - both of them reveled in their spotlight moments, with surprising and delightful results).  Even if you don't sit near the stage, chances are you will have a microphone put in front of your face at some point.  But don't worry if you don't sing well, at least you won't end up dead like the rest of the cast.

And speaking of the cast, they are a lot of fun and each actor gets a moment to shine (either in song, or in a really fun death scene - often both - or creatively trying to get a microphone back from an audience member).  Standout moments include Levinsky's death scene, sung to probably the most ironic of the night's karaoke numbers, Hering's offstage death scene and the bits of her that make it back onstage, and a great costume reveal (which I won't spoil) by Vitorino at the climax of the play.

So if you like karaoke, murder and drinking, you may have found the show you didn't even know you've been waiting for.

"A Murder Mystery Karaoke Show"
Written and directed by John Paolillo
Lights, music and special effects by Chauncey Dandridge
Produced by Nancy Jane Productions

Featuring: Trevor Livingston, Andrea Levinsky, Danni Vitorino, Rachel Hering, Kristen D.J. Robinson, Molly Heller and Gavin Juckette.

Stonewall Inn
53 Christopher Street
Thursday nights in October
Doors open at 8:00 PM; show starts at 8:30 PM
$15, plus 2-drink minimum

Tales Told Way Out of School - Verna Gillis' "Tales From Geriassic Park: On the Verge of Extinction"

By Byrne Harrison

Verna Gillis
It's generally agreed that there is a shortage of good roles for women, especially those of a certain age.  If only everyone could meet that challenge by writing a piece as funny and moving as Verna Gillis' "Tales From Geriassic Park: On the Verge of Extinction."  This autobiographical, solo show (winner of last year's United Solo Theater Festival Best Comedic Script Award) is built on a lifetime of work, some of it pleasant, some of it hard, all of it interesting.

"I don’t have enough time left to spend it reflecting on how it was; how it is is much more compelling and requires all the attention I can give  it."

Gillis is a wordsmith, and an ethnomusicologist, as well, so it is no surprise that her script and her performance style has a musicality and an innate sense of rhythm about it.  As she talks of such diverse subjects as managing not to pee before her pants are down, a grandmother lost to the Holocaust, her immigrant parents who met in the States, finding and losing love, the difficulties of living with another person, cancer, eating disorders, and of course, old age, she softly spins her words like a quiet slam poet, drawing the audience in with vivid images and sprightly, comedic wordplay.

Sadly, "Tales" had a one-night only run at this year's United Solo Theater Festival, so you may not have another chance to see it for a while.  But hopefully the show, and Gillis, will keep coming back.

"Tales From Geriassic Park: On the Verge of Extinction"
Written and performed by Verna Gillis
Stage and lighting technician: Timothy Soyk
Associate Producer: Sarah Taylor

United Solo Theater Festival
Sunday, September 27th

Friday, October 2, 2015

"The Christians" - Whose faith is it anyway?

Reviewed by Judd Hollander
Photos by Joan Marcus

Preaching the world of God is a great responsibility. For what you say in that respect affects not only how you see yourself, but how you are seen by the very people you hope to reach. It's a point strongly brought home in Lucas Hnath's very powerful and compelling drama The Christians, now playing off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons.

Paul (Andrew Garman) is a well respected pastor who has, over the last twenty years seen his church grow from services in a storefront to a thriving mega-complex. Yet of late his soul is deeply troubled. A story he heard at a religious conference affecting him so deeply, he's announced his intention of taking the church in a new direction. One with the idea that all are saved through Christ, even those who do not believe in him, and which also abandons the concepts of Satan and Hell.

Paul's decision, which he announces during one of his sermons, immediately causes a division in both the church hierarchy and its membership. The first to publicly say that he cannot agree with this new perspective is Associate Pastor Joshua (Larry Powell). Joshua quickly departs his position, and takes about 50 members of the congregation with him.

As time goes on, Paul finds his decision repeatedly questioned. This despite his continual explanations and reasoning, all of which seem perfectly clear to him. (Kind of like Hilary Clinton and her email troubles.) Paul's wife (Linda Powell), for example wants to know why he didn't talk to her first before making his feelings public; while others, such as Jenny (Emily Donahoe), a member of the congregation, wondering why Paul waited until the church celebrated finally being free from years of debt before taking this stand. A debt which was paid in no small part by the church members themselves. Paul's response to this last query being particularly telling. Not that it takes anything away from his belief in what he is doing, but it does serve to point out how in religion, just like in politics, timing can be everything. In the end Paul finds his decision may cost him more than he ever thought possible.

The Christians takes a hard look at the power of faith and what happens when people with differing viewpoints, each of whom firmly believe they are in the right, are unable to accept the other's position. One such confrontation played out with Paul and Joshua via dueling bible verses, though Paul does have the advantage here. He having prepared himself for this situation beforehand. Yet while the playwright has provided a religious framework for the story (and a quite convincing one at that), it could easily be translated to many other situations. Just as it is said the how the Devil can quote the scriptures for his own ends, focusing on specific writings to buttress a certain argument is quite common in all walks of life, regardless of whatever the subject of dispute happens to be. Indeed, many decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court have fallen into this category. The Justices charged with interpreting the law, with many of their decisions turning on the meaning of particular word or phrase or intent thereof.

To his credit, Hnath pulls no punches with his tale, never questioning Paul's convictions, nor the viewpoints of those who disagree with him. The story refreshingly avoiding any stereotypical or cliché-like dialogue, with characters feeling fully three-dimensional and completely real.

Scenic designer Dane Laffrey has done an excellent job here, creating a set which calls to mind a Sunday morning religious television program. Complete with a very enthusiastic 20-person choir. A particularly nice touch were the projected messages about refraining from texting during the program. It's also interesting to note how the atmosphere the show projected took hold even before the play began. Often when people are in a church they involuntary talk in whispers, which was also the case here. The normal pre-show chatter of the audience as they were getting settled being markedly absent.

Garman comes off well as a genial, middle of the road sort of pastor. One whose belief in what he is doing never alters, despite all that happens around him. Kudos must also go to Linda Powell, who basically does nothing for most of the play, other than looking supportive and wincing when Paul mentions the pants suit she was wearing when they first met 22 years earlier. That is, until a pivotal scene where she reveals to her husband her own personal beliefs and just how important they are to her. Also doing a particularly nice job is Philip Kerr as Jay, a church elder and one of those responsible for the financial health of the church. Jay being someone who strives to find a middle ground where everyone can exist. Something that is not always an option when it comes to matters of belief.

As The Christians clearly shows, faith can be a demanding mistress. Especially when it threatens to take away everything you hold dear. For while it may indeed be able to move mountains, it can also point to a path where you find yourself walking completely alone.

Featuring: Andrew Garman (Paul, a pastor), Linda Powell (Elizabeth, his wife), Larry Powell (Joshua, the associate pastor), Philip Kerr (Jay, a church elder), Emily Donahoe (Jenny, a church congregant).

The Christians
Written by Lucas Hnath
Scenic Design: Dane Laffrey
Costume Design: Connie Furr Soloman
Lighting Design: Ben Stanton
Sound Design: Jake Rodriguez
Production Stage Manager: Marisa Levy
Assistant Stage Managers: Erin Gioia Albrecht; Joseph Fernandez, Jr.
Music Supervisor: David Dabbon
Music Director/Pianist: Karen Dryer

Directed by Les Waters

Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com
Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission

Closes: October 25

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

"Mercury Fur" - Where Denial is Not a River in Egypt

Reviewed by Judd Hollander
Photos by Monique Carboni

In 1988 there was an off-Broadway show that featured, as one of its segments, two actors in a talk show setting discussing how to deal with issues plaguing the world at the time. The solution: to pretend that everything is happening somewhere far away and not in their own back yard. But denial only goes so far and when one is forced to come face to face with the reality they're been desperately avoiding, it's an altogether different story. Such is the case in Philip Ridley's very sobering drama Mercury Fur, presented by the New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

Jack DiFalco and Zane Pais
Ridley sets his story in a dystopian New York City, one not that far removed from the present day. Riots and crime have become commonplace, while weather patterns have gone crazy - bringing with them sand from the dessert and a strange breed of hallucinogenic butterflies, the current drug of choice. Those on the fringes of what's left of society surviving by their wits and on the back and bodies of those less fortunate than themselves. 

Doing a brisk business in the butterfly trade, along with other questionable activities is Elliot (Zane Pais), a no-nonsense sort who, with his mentally-challenged brother Darren (Jack DiFalco), has commandeered an apartment in an supposedly abandoned building for a very special party. They getting help some unexpected aid in this endeavor from Naz (Tony Revolori), a squatter from down the hall.

However this is not simply a party with liquor and drugs. Rather, what is being set up is a scene where the soon-to-arrive Party Guest (Peter Mark Kendall) will be acting out a rather dark fantasy. One where he will be in complete control over a person's life and death. Said person, the Party Piece (Bradley Fong), in actuality a young boy kidnapped by Elliot's crew sometime earlier and kept in a drugged stupor in preparation for this moment. Other members of the team including Spinx (Sea McHale), the liaison between Elliot and the Party Guest, and Elliot's lover Lola (Paul Iacono). This fantasy being one the group has apparently set up many times before.

Running hand in hand with the bleakness that’s everywhere one turns - thanks to a great set by Derek McLane - is the ever-present feeling on denial where no one wants to admit what they're actually doing. Lola, for example has no intention being present at the party under any circumstances; and also doesn't want the Party Favor awake enough to speak during the party preparations. Preparations which include Lola making up the Party Piece properly for the scene which is to follow. Additionally, the Party Favor is referred to in this manner because the others don't want to think of him as an actual human being. Something made abundantly clear when Elliot cuts off any attempt by Naz to learn the Party Favor's real name.

While it's easier for most people to play down things that aren't happening right in front of them, it's something else entirely when they're forced to confront evidence of such a situation, either virtually or in actuality. The uproar following the release of the Abu Ghraib photographs being one such example. It's the same reason why, if most meat eaters knew how their meat was slaughtered, a good portion of them would become vegetarians. There being numerous things society, as a whole, simply does not want to know about or be reminded of.

Elliot and Darren find themselves forced into their own reality confrontation with the sudden appearance of the Duchess (Emily Cass McDonnell), whose presence brings up memories both brothers have tried desperately to forget, or at least severely compartmentalize. Though giving too much information in regard to this character turns out to be one of the few weak spots in the play. The author spoon feeding the audience answers when it's better to let them draw their own conclusions. Eventually when this particular party starts to deviate from the planned script, Elliott and the rest of his family, which is basically what the group has become, find themselves forced to switch from dispassionate observers to active participants. And in doing so, must take a stand on the right and wrong of what they've set in motion.

Zane Pais, Jack DiFalco
Bradley Fong, Tony Revolori
Acting is very good, the various characters often taking on the role of symbols in the world the playwright has created. The Party Guest, for example representing both money and someone who's interested in his own pleasures rather than trying to make a difference. Ridley also has him working on Wall Street - a bit of a dig at the "one percenters" of the world. Elliot meanwhile, probably sees himself as a businessman supplying a need, doing what he has to in order for him and his family to survive, and who can't afford to worry about where he gets the materials he uses - such as the Party Favor - for his various ventures. Elliot is also dependant on those with connections, such as Spinx, to enable his business to continue. Direction by Scott Elliot is very strong, keeping the tension between the characters rising from one minute to the next, the audience never quite sure just who to root for in the scenarios presented. The aforementioned set by McLane makes the audience feel as if they were right in the middle of the action, with no way out for anybody involved.

Often hard to watch, Mercury Fur does an excellent job in showing just how adaptable human beings have become at hiding from the truth; and the not-so-pretty-sight that can follow when denial is no longer an option.

Featuring: Jack DiFalco (Darren), Bradley Fong (Party Piece), Paul Iacono (Lola), Peter Mark Kendall (Party Guest), Emily Cass McDonnell (Duchess), Sea McHale (Spinx), Zane Pais (Elliot) Tony Revolori (Naz)

Mercury Fur
by Philip Ridley

Scenic Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Susan Hilferty
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design: M.L. Dogg
Sound Effects Design: Jeremy Chernick
Fight Direction: UnkleDave's Fight-House
Production Supervisor: PRF Productions
Production Stage Manager: Valerie A. Peterson
Director: Scott Elliott

The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or www.thenewgroup.org
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes no intermission
Closes: September 27

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Isle of Klezbos

By Byrne Harrison
Photo by Angela Jimenez

One of the best things about going to downtown theatre venues (in this case, Dixon Place) is the opportunity to browse the postcards for upcoming shows and events.

Tonight, a postcard for Isle of Klezbos caught my eye. One, I love klezmer music.  Two, it's a great name for a band.

They have a couple of performances coming up - September 1st at El Sol Brillante community garden, and the one I'm thinking of attending, September 25th at 54 Below.

Here is a little info about the band from their website.

"NYC-based ISLE of KLEZBOS approaches tradition with irreverence and respect. The soulful, fun-loving powerhouse all-women’s klezmer sextet has toured from Vienna to Vancouver since 1998. Band repertoire ranges from rambunctious to entrancing: neo-traditional folk dance, mystical melodies,Yiddish swing & retro tango, late Soviet-era Jewish drinking song, re-grooved standards, and genre-defying originals. ISLE of KLEZBOS concert footage has been broadcast internationally on CBS Sunday Morning, CNN World- Beat, and PBS In The Life, and the band’s live and studio recordings have also been heard on The L Word (Showtime), WFMU, Northeast Public Radio (Live at the Linda), and film soundtracks for Grace Paley: Collected Shorts, Esther Broner: A Weave of Women, and I Guess I’m Not Going to Get toVegas, among others. The band has also been commissioned to create a concert for artist Kiki Smith and studio recordings of Klezbos arrangements for multi-platinum, Grammy-nominated Scissor Sisters."

Has anyone checked out Isle of Klezbos?  Let me know what you think of them.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Astoria Bookshop Storytelling Show

By Byrne Harrison

Although I have become a regular at this monthly event, it has been a while since I've written about The Astoria Bookshop Storytelling Show hosted by the talented David Lawson.  I attended tonight's show, and as usual, had a great time.

Lawson's show is a great opportunity for local writers and performers to showcase their work, and for those who are particularly good extemporaneous speakers, just to get up and tell a story.  Tonight's show was a jumbled bag of goodies.  The first included a nightmare involving an ex-girlfriend (and an even more fascinating one, briefly mentioned, involving being eaten alive by the Wizard of Oz flying monkeys).  This was followed by a tale of a crime spree used to finance dreams of becoming a public access star.  Celebrities made appearances in stories involving bonding with Harold Ramis over Star Trek: Insurrection, sneaking into a lecture by Stephen Hawking and having a perfect Seinfeld moment with Seinfeld himself.  Sex was included in pieces showcasing awkward matchmaking, awkward three-ways, and awkward (and painful) STD checks.  Other topics included pyrophobia and a fireworks fail, pranking a foul-mouthed aunt, burying a grandmother at Walmart (no, really) or dealing with a mentally ill parent.

The Astoria Bookshop continues to be an amazing community resource, with events for adults and kids and a great selection of books.  Lawson's Storytelling Show is an excellent showcase for the incredibly vibrant theatre and storytelling scene in Astoria.

The next Storytelling Show will be held August 11th from 7:00-8:00 PM at the Astoria Bookshop (31-29 31st Street in Astoria).  There is no theme to the shows; performers can tell a 5 minute story based on something from their life.  There is no fee (but be a mensch and buy a book or two from the shop).  Names are chosen at random from a bowl, and usually most performers are called (but there are no guarantees if it is crowded).

Here are some photos from tonight's show.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

"Dr. Faustus" - One Man Who Went Too Far

By Judd Hollander
Photo by Joan Marcus

Playwright Christopher Marlowe looks at man's quest for ultimate power and knowledge, and the pitfalls that come with it in his work Doctor Faustus. An interesting though not always satisfying production of which is being presented by Classic Stage Company.

Doctor Faustus (Christopher Noth), a renown and respected man of learning, has been uneasy of late. His accomplishments limited by the bounds of human understanding, as well as the restrictions of society when it comes to the expansion of that understanding. Determined to move past these blockades, he disavows such practices as philosophy and religion and turns instead to Satanism, demonology and other forms of the dark arts. Faustus is helped in this endeavor by Valdes (Carmen M. Herlihy) and Cornelius (Geoffrey Owen); two acquaintances already familiar with these subjects.

Quickly taking to these unsavory practices, it's not long before Faustus is able to summon up the demon Mephistopheles (Zach Grenier). A being so horrible in appearance, the first sight of him causes Faustus to fall to the ground in terror. Faustus proceeding to offer up his soul to Mephistopheles' master Lucifer in exchange for unbridled power for the next twenty four years; during which time Mephistopheles will become Faustus' faithful servant. It's a deal quickly accepted with the contract signed in blood.

From that moment on, Faustus' power and influence begins to grow. Alternately feared and revered, he finds himself much in demand for the miracles he can perform. Miracles which include being able to raise the dead - both those long gone and those killed only moments before - and which lead to vast rewards after he accomplishes his tasks. 

Yet as time goes on Faustus finds himself growing more and more weary. He finding satisfaction in his power, and contempt towards those for whom he demonstrates it, but never attaining any true personal happiness. Part of this situation coming from a sort of caveat in the contract Faustus signed. A caveat forbidding him from taking part in anything that involves holy rites. A point Mephistopheles explains when denying Faustus' request for a wife. As a result, Faustus must content himself with women of easier virtue, all of which Mephistopheles happy supplies. Faustus also having his pick of ladies from history, such as the beautiful Helen of Tory (Marina Lazzaretto), should he so desire.

The above-mentioned caveat also serving as a sort of warning which runs through the entire story. A warning to "let the buyer beware". Or, to put it another way, if you make a deal with the Devil, don't be surprised if he only lives up the letter of the agreement, rather than its sprit. For while Faustus' quest for power is seemingly fulfilled, his thirst for knowledge is not. Mephistopheles often answering the questions Faustus puts to him with circular replies - especially when it comes to the realties of heaven, hell and what happens once one is dammed. Faustus thus learning only what Lucifer and Mephistopheles decide to tell him, rather than what he actually wants to know.

The play has some very interesting points to make, with certain scenes coming across so powerfully one can hear a pin drop as they play out. Especially when Faustus makes his unholy bargain. Where the show runs into problems however, is in the uneven mix of humor and drama. As Faustus' power increases, his servant Wagner (Walker Jones) decides he needs a servant of his own and recruits the street beggar Robin (Lucas Caleb Rooney) for that purpose. Robin soon after chancing upon one of Faustus' forbidden books and, with his friend Dick (Ken Cheeseman), plans to use the magic contained therein for his own ends. Robin & Dick's scenes, played for laughs and having very little depth, only serve to distract from the central characters and plot of the story. While the idea here may have been to show how power corrupts and how absolute power corrupts absolutely, when the characters involved in such a scenario aren't really that interesting, their presence becomes more annoying than anything else. A good portion of this misfire must fall on director Andrei Belgrader who, along with David Bridel, adapted the Marlowe tale for this production. The two being unable to make the different elements in the story come together as they should. Indeed, at points it almost felt like one was watching two completely different plays.

In a delicious bit of irony, it's Mephistopheles who turns out to be the most honest entity in the piece. The demon making no denials as to who and what he is and talking with great fervor of his and his master's long-ago time in heaven. In contrast, Faustus and his various servants are all trying, by any means necessary, to become something more than they actually are. Also shown briefly are two scholars (Jeffrey Binder, Cheeseman) who quote liberally from what they have read in books, but when presented with something they cannot understand, proceed to bluster, stammer and turn into a pair of fools. They being seemingly helpless to transfer what they've learned into the world around them. Which may be Marlowe's way of saying that book learning isn't everything. Rather, how one applies that learning is far more important.

Noth does a great job as the driven, mostly decisive Faustus, while Grenier makes a perfect foil for him as the deceptively quiet, yet full of rage Mephistopheles. The rest of the cast works well in their various roles, though other than Jones as Walker, none really make a lasting impression.

Nicely atmospheric, with a final scene that's wonderfully executed, there's a lot to like about this production of Doctor Faustus. However as whole, the show fails to live up to its full potential - especially considering the subject matter involved.

Featuring: Jeffrey Binder (Scholar/Evil Angel/Lucifer/Knight/Duke/Ensemble), Ken Cheeseman (Scholar/Dick/Ensemble), Zach Grenier (Mephistopheles), Carmen M. Herlihy (Vadles/Good Angel/Cardinal/Duchess/Ensemble), Walker Jones (Wagner/Ensemble), Marina Lazzaretto (Helen of Troy/Ensemble), Chris Noth (Doctor Faustus), Geoffrey Owens (Cornelius/Pope/Emperor/Old Man/Ensemble), Lucas Caleb Rooney (Robin/Alexander The Great/Ensemble)

Doctor Faustus
Adapted by David Bridel & Andrei Belgrader
From the play by Christopher Marlowe

Scenic Design: Tony Straiges
Costume Design: Rita Ryack & Martin Schnellinger
Lighting Design: Jason Lyons
Original Music & Sound Design: Fabian Obispo
Production Stage Manager: Terri K. Kohler
Movement Specialist: David Bridel
Production Supervisor: Production Core
Production Manager: Amber Mathis
General Manager: John C. Hume
Assistant Stage Manager: Heather Englander
Casting: Calleri Casting
Press Representative: The Publicity Office
Directed by Andrei Belgrader

Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
Tickets: 212-352-3101 or www.classicstage.org
Running time: Two hours, 20 minutes, one intermission

Closes: July 12

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

"The Immortal Coil" - Revenge with a flourish

By Byrne Harrison
Photos by Derek Barbanti

Erasmus Bernstein (John Michalski) is a playwright who was the voice of his generation.  A Salinger-like personage, he has finally written his next play, a sequel to his earlier work, and he's ready to unveil it to the world.  All he needs is a young actor who can hit his marks and recite his lines.  Erasmus doesn't really seem to like actors that much, especially the ones who want to know what their motivations are and to understand the inner workings of the characters they are portraying.

At first, the eager young Benji seems like he might fit the bill.  Awestruck and thrilled to be working with Bernstein, he has a chance to play a character he idolized in his youth.  But an actor's training will come through, and Benji starts asking questions.  And for a "stand there and say my lines" playwright, that's just too much.

Needless to say, the collaboration is short-lived and disastrous.

Years later, Benjamin, now a movie star about to direct a play he's written about the encounter, gets to reframe that meeting with Bernstein, and not surprisingly, he casts himself in the hero's role.

But Bernstein, or rather, his ghost, isn't about to let him get away with that without a fight.

Deftly and humorously written by J.B. Heaps, "The Immortal Coil" shines a light on the theatre and the egos that inhabit it, while also questioning the nature of art and life (and, I suppose, afterlife).  Heaps' dialog is crisp, with an insider's view of some of the follies of theatrical endeavors.

Eric Kuehnemann makes a wonderful Benji.  His monologue at the beginning of the play is equal parts bravado and nervous self-doubt.  As the older and much more successful Benjamin, he is all ego and smarm.

John Michalski cuts an imposing figure at the cantankerous Bernstein.  An odd mix of modesty and contempt, his Bernstein is a man whose work you'd love the see, but you probably wouldn't want to hang out with him afterwards.

The two have good chemistry, and spark off each other during the more dramatic moments.  Though occasionally their timing seems a bit off (it could have been opening night jitters), when they mesh, they mesh well.

Tony Del Bono and Spencer Wilson, who play the actors cast in Benjamin's play as the ersatz Bernstein and Benji, are amusingly catty and do a great job showing their characters' slavish devotion to their movie star boss.  When Benjamin begins interacting with the (to them) unseen and unheard Bernstein, the two actors assume it is an exercise of some sort, allowing Del Bono and Wilson to show off their comic chops.

Direction by Stephen Jobes is strong, especially in the second act.  At times the earlier scenes feel like they need a little tightening up, though again, it was opening night.

The play is light on design elements; it takes place in a black box theatre and doesn't need much in the way of sets or props.  Annie R. Such creates an efficient lighting design, and Kevin Hastings and Bill Lacey do quite well with the sound design (the play starts in darkness with a critical recording that is referenced throughout the play).

Heaps' play is a humorous rumination on life and theatre, with interesting characters, and well worth checking out.

The Immortal Coil
By J.B. Heaps
Directed by Stephen Jobes
Associate Producer/Lighting: Annie R. Such
Stage Manager: Mary Linehan
Public Relations: Andrea Alton
Sound Specialists: Kevin Hastings and Bill Lacey
Graphics/Props: Rudy James
Featuring: Tony Del Bono, Eric Kuehnemann, John Michalski and Spencer Wilson

Monday, June 15, 2015

"'Tis Pity She's a Whore" - When Loves Goes Far Astray

By Judd Hollander
Photo by Richard Termine

What if Romeo & Juliet were in fact brother and sister? So it asks in the press materials for Red Bull Theater's absolutely brilliant production of John Ford's drama 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (circa 1630). A play which shows all too clearly how love and infatuation can very quickly turn to jealous obsession; and when the taboo of incest is inserted into the mix, the results can be very bloody indeed.

In the Italian town of Parma, Annabella (Amelia Pedlow) the beautiful daughter to Floiro (Philip Goodwin) is wood by many suitors. Among them nobleman Soranzo (Clifton Duncan) and Roman soldier Grimaldi (Tramwell Tillman). However the one who loves Annabella most passionately is much closer to home. Specifically, her stalwart brother Giovanni (Matthew Amendt). It is also a passion that has Giovanni in the grip of despair. For his love is not one a brother would normally have for a sister, but rather a wife and a lover. Friar Bonaventura (Christopher Innvar), horrified at Giovanni's confession to him as to these feelings, orders the young man to pray for forgiveness while begging God to remove these yearnings from his soul. 

Yet though Giovanni indeed tries to purge himself of these desires, he finds he cannot. He also finds himself wondering why this love he feels for his sister, one he is certain is so good and pure that God himself must have put it there in the first place, can be so wrong. It's a question neither the Friar nor anyone else can answer, other than by expressing their own disgust and that of society's, toward the issue. Responses which do nothing to discourage Giovanni in the slightest. When Giovanni learns Annabella feels the same love for him he does for her, his despair quickly turns to joy. However problems occur soon after when Annabella finds herself pregnant, a situation requiring her immediate marriage to another. Something Giovanni does not like in the least.

This plotline alone makes for great drama, while offering an interesting take regarding the condemnation of incest. Especially since there are so many other instances of tolerated hypocrisy in the play - ones in regard to religion, the application of the law, and infidelity, among others. There's also the character of Hippolita (Kelly Curran), a widow and former lover of Soranzo who, in response to Soranzo's spurning of her, plots to have him killed. Her accomplice in this plan being Sorzano's servant Vasques (Derek Smith). Curran and Smith's scenes together coming off as rather hot and full of passion; more so in fact than any of Pedlow and Amendt's moments together in that regard.

Also lurking about is Hippolita's supposedly dead husband (Marc Vietor), who also figures into the story, as does his niece Philotis (Auden Thornton). The latter finding a love of her own amidst the various plotting and scheming. Leavening out the story with some very welcome and much needed humor is Bergetto (Ryan Garbayo), a foppish fool whose mincing and over the top antics sets the audience to roaring with glee. Especially when Bergetto, at his uncle's Donado's (Everett Quinton) urging, tries to pen a note of love to Annabella. The older man doing a wonderful series of slow burns in response to his nephew's attempts in that direction.

Jesse Berger's direction is top notch here, giving equal weight to the various plots lines. The result being that they all come through strongly. What ultimately emerges is a vehicle that's basically a soap opera about star crossed lovers and those in their orbit. The mood of the piece changing continuously from sensual to humorous to dramatic, with undercurrents of dangers and tragedy throughout. It's also important to note that nothing presented here feels overlong. Each point being central to either the plot or to the audience's involvement with the story.

Along with the play's moral message about "forbidden love", there's also a warning about going against the conventions of society. The play noting even though certain hypocrisies may be accepted as givens, i.e. corruption in the church, there are some instances where forgiveness is not permitted. Not only towards those who commit such crimes, but also towards those who know the truth about such circumstances and then attempt to conceal them.

Amendt does a great job as the love-afflicted Giovanni, trying vainly to find a path to salvation but who is able to conquer neither his own desires nor a certainty that what he feels for his sister is in any way wrong. Pedlow is very good as Annabella, a woman with a quiet sensuality about her and whose own love for Giovanni turns to fear when she realizes the ramifications of what she has done. Smith cuts a strong figure as Vasques, one of those people who plays his cards close to the vest, so you never know exactly what he is planning, or on which side he's actually on. Curran is excellent Hippolita, a person not afraid to use her feminine wiles to get what she wants. Garbayo is great fun as Bergetto, and Quinton quite good as the well-meaning yet rather hapless Donado, at least where matters of his nephew are concerned. The rest of the cast is just as strong, and includes good performances from Innvar as Friar Bonaventura, Franchelle Stewart Dorn as Putana, tutoress to Annabella, and Rocco Sisto as The Cardinal.

This production of 'Tis Pity She's A Whore is anything but a pity and a brilliant example of how a nearly 500 year-old drama can be made to feel fresh, alive and new.

Featuring: Amelia Pedlow (Annabella), Matthew Amendt (Giovanni), Philip Goodwin (Signor Florio), Franchelle Stewart Dorn (Putana), Christopher Innvar (Friar Bonaventura), Clifton Duncan (Lord Soranzo), Derek Smith (Vasques), Tramell Tillman (Grimaldi), Everett Quinton (Signor Donado), Ryan Garbayo (Bergetto), Ryan Farley (Poggio), Kelley Curran (Hippolita), Marc Vietor (Richardetto, Auden Thornton (Philotis), Rocco Sisto (The Cardinal)

'Tis Pity She's a Whore
By John Ford
Scenic Designer: David M. Barber
Costume Designer: Sara Jean Tosetti
Lighting Designer: Peter West
Composer: Adam Wernick
Sound Designer: John D. Ivy
Fight Directors: Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet
Hair & Make-Up Designer: Dave Bova
Production Stage Manager: April Ann Kline
Production Manager: BD White
General Manager: Adam Fitzgerald
Casting Directors: Stuart Howard & Paul Hardt
Publicist: David Gersten & Associates
Directed by Jesse Berger

Presented by Red Bull Theater
The Duke at 42nd Street
229 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 646-223-3010
Information: www.redbulltheatre.com
Running Time: two hours, 20 minutes, no intermission

Closed: May 16

"A Human Being Died That Night" - Putting a Face on Evil

By Judd Hollander
Photo by Richard Termine

When it comes to war criminals and those responsible for mass killings, there's a tendency to think of them as inhuman monsters because it's far more terrifying to realize they're just flesh and blood human beings. A realization which makes their actions all the more horrible, as it begs the question how could one person deliberately act that way toward others. It's a question one woman tries to answer in Nicholas Wright's intimate and powerful drama, A Human Being Died That Night, based on the book by psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, now at the Fishman Space at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

In 1996, Gobodo-Madikizela (Noma Dumezweni), a former resident of South Africa, then living in the United States returns to her native land to serve on the Human Rights Violation Committee, part of the government's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an organization trying to help put right the wrongs of the nation's apartheid era. As Pumla listens to testimony from the numerous victims of that time, many of whom still bear the scars of what happened, she quickly learns must she not get emotionally involved or she will not be able to properly do her job. It's a promise she's able to keep until she has a series of interviews with Eugene de Kock (Matthew Marsh), dubbed "Prime Evil" by the media and formerly a major figure in the South African military. When the two first meet, de Kock is in prison serving two consecutive life sentences, plus 212 years. Gobodo-Madikizela's purpose of these meetings is to try to learn what makes a man do the things for which de Kock was convicted, all of which he has freely admitted. In fact, de Kock previously testified at the TRC hearings, which is where Gobodo-Madikizela first became intrigued by him.

However Gobodo-Madikizela quickly realizes that getting to the heart of the matter is not as easy as turning on a tape recorder and hearing the truth spill out. As de Kock notes early on "you must dig in the dirt with me [and] feel the evil". A process that requires Gobodo-Madikizela to get to know the man behind the atrocites while walking in his footsteps as he descibes what happened and why.

What makes the story so involving is that the various incidents described, as well as the reasons behind them are sadly quite relatable to other situations around the world, both past and present. de Kock seeing himself as a sort of crusader in the name of national security, joining the army at an early age and quickly becoming indoctrinated to the so-called dangers from segments of the black majority. He also recalls the continual pressure from his superiors to produce results in order to please the politicians; even if they had to invent an enemy or make them a bigger threat than they actually were. Also brought forth is the general apathy of people who simply want to feel safe in their lives and lifestyles. People who really don't much care how that is accomplished, so long as they can feel safe at night. 
Also present in the story is a continuing theme about the power of forgiveness and the need to let go of the past in order to move forward. Though as the show makes clear, it's easier to forgive the sins of others then to forgive oneself. de Kock still tormented by some of his past deeds and Gobodo-Madikizela recalling all too well her own actions when witnessing events in connection with an attempted military coup in 1990. Actions which then seemed celebratory, but for which she is now ashamed.

Marsh portrayal of de Kock is top notch, initially answering questions in a quiet and somewhat roundabout way, with occasional outbursts of emotion, before getting to at least the surface of the truth; and finally showing the human being he once was, how he became the man he is today and most poignant of all, why he didn't change his course when he had the chance. Marsh's manner is so controlled and informative as to be almost intoxicating. So much so that no matter how repulsed one may feel toward the character, one can't help be drawn into the tale. Also present in Marsh's performance is the ever-present anger de Kock feels at those higher up in his command chain who denied their involvement in his crimes, trying to whitewash themselves, no pun intended, in order to save their own skins. As he notes, it was this continual denial from so many quarters that initially prompted him to volunteer to testify at the TRC hearings

Dumezweni works well as Gobodo-Madikizela, though she has the less showy role, basically a reacting one to Marsh's de Kock. The actress presenting a strong portrait of a woman initially trying to have no preconceptions whatsoever about her subject, yet becomes far closer to him and what he represents then she ever thought possible. While using the de Kock encounters a sort of sounding board for her inner thoughts, Gobodo-Madikizela also shows herself to be someone trying to come to terms with her own past actions, as well as being able to let go of the pains of injustice and stigmatization that still exists in her home country and towards those that perpetuate it.

Jonathan Munby's directorial work is very strong here, operating in tandem with Paul Wills' nicely claustrophobic prison cell setting where the interviews are conducted. All of which allows the story to unfold in an almost leisurely way in the beginning, while getting more intense and focused as what's revealed becomes darker and more painful. Helping to add to this oppressive and emotionally charged atmosphere is the excellent lighting work by Tim Mitchell and sound design by Tim Shutt. Both of which feel at times jarringly unforgiving.

Rivetingly told from start to finish, A Human Being Died That Night delves into the soul of a man who did terrible things in the name of his country and shows how deep down, he's not that different from your next-door neighbor, or perhaps at certain moments, even yourself.

Featuring: Noma Dumezweni (Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela), Matthew Marsh (Eugene de Kock), Motell Foster (Prison Guard).

A Human Being Died That Night
by Nicholas Wright
based on the book by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
Design: Paul Wills
Lighting Design: Tim Mitchell
Sound Design: Christopher Shutt
Stage Manager: Julia Slienger
Associate Director: Greg Karvellas
American Stage Manager: R. Michael Blanco
Directed by Jonathan Munby

The Fugard Theatre and Eric Abraham
Brooklyn Academy of Music
BAM Fishman Space
321 Ashland Place
Tickets: 718-636-4100 or www.BAM.org
Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission

Closes: June 21, 2015