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

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Interview with Aubrie Therrien, Artistic Director of DreamStreet Theatre Company

By Byrne Harrison
Company photos by Kendra Heisler

This weekend, DreamStreet Theatre Company, which was founded by Karuna and Len Heisler to bring the joy of theatre to special needs performers, will present Midsummer Night's Dreamin' a twist on William Shakespeare's tale of runaway brides, funky fairies and tinkers with talent.  The show will run June 12th and 13th at 7:30 at Symphony Space at Broadway and 95th Street.

DreamStreet is an important creative resource in the special needs community, and its live performances attempt to break down stereotypes so audiences can witness the talent of the performers and not simply see a face of disability.

I spoke with Artistic Director Aubrie Therrien about the company and Midsummer Night's Dreamin'. 

First, it's nice to meet you. To start of with, tell me a little bit about yourself.  I know you're the Artistic Director of DreamStreet, but what is your theatrical background?

Nice to meet you as well and thanks for your questions!  I started out similar to many persons in the industry. I wanted to be either an actor or a zoo keeper when I grew up, and somehow, the former was more appealing to me.  I went to college at Longwood University in Virginia, a small liberal arts school with a great theatre department, and studied performance.  Shortly after I worked regionally around the country doing the out-door drama circuits and working with a variety of other theaters including the amazing Lexington Children's Theatre, where I learned so much about organizing a theatre machine for the greater good. I also did repertoire shows with The National Players out of DC, where I continued to nurture my love of the classics.  When my tour was finished, I threw everything I owned in my car and moved to New York City. In New York, I performed off-off Broadway in classic, modern and original works. I also continued working with regional theaters in the metro area. I wore a lot of hats during my performance days and decided I wanted to take more control of my artistic career and my life by going back to school. I recently graduated from NYU with a Master's Degree in Public Health and now, with my work at DreamStreet, I am lucky enough to combine my two passions: Theatre and helping disadvantaged populations.

When did you get involved with DreamStreet?

I got involved with DreamStreet during the summer of 2013.

And how did that come about?

Len Heisler, the co-founder of DreamStreet, reached out to me after his current artistic director announced she was moving on.  Lenny had heard of me from a client/friend of mine who knew of my experience in the theatre world and work with unique populations.  I immediately jumped at the chance to be a part of this inspiring organization.  I had always believed in the power the arts played in encouraging self-confidence and growth in various communities; this was my chance to apply it.

Tell me a little about the Dream Team that runs the company.  Who helps create these productions?

Oh wow, I have to say, I am so lucky to be surrounded by such a passionate and dedicated group of like-minded individuals who make up our Dream Team.  Our Co-Founder, Lenny, and our Co-Producing Director Kendra Heisler, act as such a support for the programming and truly believe in the mission of the company. My Teaching Artists are an absolute integral part of this community as well. Kevin Percival and Samantha Evans came into this company so willingly and enthusiastically that their passion and talent becomes contagious to our cast members.  Miriam Wasmund, our Choreographer, generously donated her time to us from day one to help weave modern movement into our pieces to make them contemporary and classy. Our behind the scenes team, like our amazing PR/Marketing squad, our volunteers and our cast members families have all rallied in some way to make productions that break stereotypes and also entertain broad audiences. Even our cast themselves has stepped up to take on challenges that no one has ever asked of them before; and met them with grace and professionalism.  I know that I ask my staff to wear a zillion hats; which they do, pretty effortlessly. And by doing so, our productions come together as a seamless collaboration between cast members and teaching artists. 

And where do your performers come from?

Our performers come from all walks of life.  Most are from Brooklyn, however, we have a few members that travel to us from New Jersey, Long Island, Queens and Manhattan.  We are proud to have a very diverse cast with different ages, races and genders well represented.  Many of our performers hear about us through the differently-abled community grape-vine as well as through other resources such as advocacy meetings, social media, YAI or HeartShare.

Your next production, Midsummer Night's Dreamin' is next week.  Clearly it's based on the Shakespeare play, but what are you doing to make it your and your cast's own?

Doing a classical piece that has been continually done is a challenge in itself for any organization. For our purposes, we have re-worked an abridged version that approaches the text with a contemporary twist in which each of our members can be individually highlighted. This also enables them to comprehend the story line and subject matter a little more and give a really unique, hilarious performance. I like to say we are doing, "The Muppets Take A Midsummer Night's Dream," because our cast functions very much like the muppets; they love each other tremendously and also have this very silly humor that somehow resonates to many different persons. You can see that in the show.

What can the audience expect from this production?

Definitely humor! And a lot of joy.  These guys are totally inspiring. I expect (and hope to see) people leaving with their mouths hurting from smiling so much. It's just like watching an episode of the Muppet Show. You have a very unique cast of characters who love to be on stage and enjoy bantering with one another. I think the audience should also expect a change of perspective; many people have a certain vision in their head of what they expect when they see a differently-abled cast production. I would say to throw those expectations away. Our cast is completely capable of giving moving, sincere and hilarious performances. And they have done just that.

If you could say anything to the people out there who would love to be part of a DreamStreet production but who are afraid, what would it be?

I think it's only natural to be afraid of something that could potentially be a very exciting change in your life.  At DreamStreet, it's about pushing through your fears and growing as a person and as a performer. That is when the magic happens.  We will always, always encourage anyone who works with us in a positive and nurturing way to achieve whatever it is their creative ambitions may be; this goes for teaching artists and cast members alike. Everyone has a dream.

What is coming up next for DreamStreet in 2015?  And are there any long-term plans for the company?

We are really excited to host our first summer workshop series this July at New York City Live Arts.  This is a two-week introduction for all those who want to get to know DreamStreet.  We are working with our performers on improvisation skills, voice and movement, and musical theatre production.  Each week will culminate in a performance for friends, family and care-takers.  We will also be performing our annual musical revue in the December of 2015 and our first DreamStreet Benefit in October.  In the spring, we hope to present an original re-remake of the beloved classic, "Charlotte's Web."

Long-term we hope to open more classes that help enrich the lives of our performers and the differently abled community such as dance, Pilates, yoga, acting, scene study, visual arts and photography classes. We want to be an overall, awesome arts collective!