Sunday, July 30, 2017

Opening Skinner’s Box - An Interesting Intellectual Voyage

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The theatrical group Improbable takes a look at the struggle to understand the human condition, as well as its strengths, weaknesses and limits in Opening Skinner's Box. Based on Lauren Slater's book of the same name, the show looks at a number of significant psychological experiments undertaken over the years, as well how those experiments, and the guiding forces behind them, have been regarded by the passage of time.

The stage work also uses the character of Slater (Kate Maravan) as a sort of guide through the different studies in question. The show recently having had its North American premiere at the Gerald Lynch Theater as part of the 2017 Lincoln Center Festival.

Of the various experiments discussed, the one which feels most topical today is Leon Festinger's exploration of what he called " cognitive dissonance". A process where a person refuses to change their beliefs on a subject, even when confronted with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They instead codifying those facts to reinforce their own convictions. Put in terms of today's political landscape, with so-called "fake news" abounding, it's where one would prefer to place blame on a conspiracy orchestrated by their opponents, rather than acknowledging that at least some of the problems originate with their own actions and perceptions.

Other issues examined include "diffusion of responsibility". Where the bigger the crowd witnessing a particular incident, the more likely it is those watching will wait for someone else to make the first move in response. Also explored is the almost pathological need people have to feel important, which is why many people continually check their twitter and email accounts, looking for that one message to validate their self-worth. A process B.F. Skinner called "intermittent reinforcement". Also shown is the continual blind trust most folks have for authority figures, particularly when it comes to making decisions. This ceding of power thus removing those following along, at least in their own minds, from any personal responsibility. A point Stanley Milgram proved in his experiments requiring testers to give what they thought were painful electric shocks to their subjects.

Where Opening Skinner's Box really takes off is when it gets away from the nuts and bolts of the different experiments and shows Slater's own attempts to explore the ramifications of these endeavors. Slater, a psychologist and author, providing a fresh perspective on the groundwork that came before. Such as speaking with some of the participants in the Milgram experiment and discovering the emotional scars they still carry. Probably the most riveting section of the entire show is a conversation with Elizabeth Loftus regarding her studies on recovered memory therapy, and how fallible such recollections can actually be. An issue that's still hotly debated today.

At times, Slater also recreates a specific experimental process herself, albeit with her own particular spin. Such as showing how simple it was for her to get prescription medicine, simply by claiming she was hearing voices. This being a variation on an experiment by David Rosenhan, who showed how easy it was to get committed to a mental institute. Ironically, when Slater speaks to one of Rosenhan's critics regarding her findings, he's quick to offer a bit of cognitive dissonance of his own. He dismissing her efforts as unscientific, rather than admit to flaws in the diagnosis process both she and Rosenhan uncovered.

Closely linked with these different studies are questions of moral and ethical boundaries, and what happens when these boundaries are crossed. It's interesting to note that none of those profiled saw their actions as having the potential to cause harm. Yet while many of their methods remain standard practice today, some of these people are now considered pariahs by their peers due to the way they carried out their examinations.

Yet despite all the possibilities Opening Skinner's Box has to offer, the show often feels very dry in its delivery. Interesting to be sure, but one could get just as much information from perusing Slater's book. A choice which might actually be better in this case. For when reading, one is able to absorb information at their own pace. Instead of being shown one experiment after another machine gun style on stage, with no time for the audience to get to know the different characters. Including Slater. Another problem is that each of the experiments depicted here could easily be a play on its own. With at least one of them - The Milgram experiment - having been.

Something else that really doesn't work is when the different actors portray various animals; i.e. monkeys in a cage, or laboratory rats. Their attempts to do so look rather phony on the surface and end up being more of a distraction than anything else. In the same vein, the various pops, bells, whistles, etc. used as sound effects come across more as an annoyance rather than something integral to the story.

The piece is adequately directed by Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson. Unfortunately they're hamstrung by the basic framework of the show, which has them going from point "a" to point "b" and so on, ad infinitum, for each of the experiments shown. It's a process which becomes repetitive all too quickly.

Maravan is good as Slater, a person seeking answers and insights on the various experiments, for reasons both professional and personal. The rest of the characters do well in the various roles, several coming off as almost righteous in defense of their work, while others demonstrating a clear desire to understand a specific aspect of the human psyche. No matter where their findings lead or how people may be affected by them.

Opening Skinner's Box contains a wealth of material concerning the practice of scientific analysis, but winds up more intellectual curiosity than engaging theatrical experience. Give this one an "A" for effort, but the entire piece could do with some serious reworking should the show's creators want to take it to the next level.

Featuring: Alan Cox, Stephen Harper, Tyrone Huggins, Morven Macbeth, Kate Maravan, Paschale Straiton.

Opening Skinner's Box

Presented by Improbable
Adapted from the book by Lauren Slater
Directors: Phelim McDermott and Lee Thompson
Set Design: Laura Hopkins
Lighting Design: Nigel Edwards
Sound Design: Adrienne Quartly

Gerard W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College of Criminal Justice
524 West 59th Street

Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission

Presented on July 10-July 12, 2017 as part of Lincoln Center Festival

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Assassins - A musical bulls-eye

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The world has long had a morbid fascination with those who try to kill public figures, while at the same time trying to understand what makes them tick. These elements form the building blocks of the 1990 musical Assassins. The show having recently been given a sterling revival as part of the Encores! Off-Center series at New York City Center.

The story begins in carnival shooting gallery. The Proprietor (Ethan Lipton) of the establishment intoning the truism that "everybody's got the right to their dreams", as well as "to be happy." In this case however, said dreams include the taking the life of a U.S. President. Among those trying their luck in this endeavor are John Wilkes Booth (Steven Pasquale), Charles Guiteau (John Ellison Conlee) and Leon Czolgosz (Shuler Hensley). The respective assassins of Presidents Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley. Also present are such would-be killers as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Erin Markey), Sara Jane Moore (Victoria Clark), Giuseppe Zangara (Alex Brightman) and Samuel Byck (Danny Wolohan). Rounding out the group are John Hinckley, Jr. (Steven Boyer) and Lee Harvey Oswald (Cory Michael Smith).

As the story unfolds, the audience gets to see these people reliving the planning, execution (no pun intended) and aftermath of their various endeavors. Some of the more interesting moments occurring, not in the actual act of assassination itself, but in conversations which take place among the group in a sort of otherworldly waiting area. Where they talk about their lives, why they did what they did, or what they plan to do given the chance.

A common sentiment among the different shooters is how they feel wronged by an uncaring society. They having become fixated on the President, whomever it happens to be at the time, as the embodiment of their situation. Therefore, they see killing the Commander-in-Chief as first, a symbolic action to avenge that wrong; and second, as a way to focus the entire country's attention on their plight.

Yet as the show makes clear, all of the assassins portrayed are complete individuals. Each with their own specific reason for their actions. This feeling of individuality - or aloneness as it were - is helped tremendously by the fact that the folks at Encores! were able to assemble a first-rate cast.

Pasquale makes a stirring and magnetic John Wilkes Booth. A fanatical true believer when it comes to the Confederate cause, Booth also serving as the unofficial spokesman for those present. He being the elder statesman of the group.

Elsewhere, Markey and Clark bring the term "flakey" to a whole new level as Fromme and Moore. Two women who attempted to kill President Gerald Ford (Damien Baldet) in 1975. The ladies' actions are so humorous, Moore in particular having continual problems when handling a gun, that their entire endeavor would be completely comical if the underlying intent wasn't so serious. Also combining elements of humor, drama and denial is Conlee, doing an enjoyable turn as the disgruntled office seeker Guiteau. The character turning into an apparent song and dance man as he heads for the gallows.

Particularly effective is Hensley as Leon Czolgosz, a disillusioned member of the lower class who feels, like so many others, that he has been betrayed by the system. The character striking a poignant note of humanity when he chastises Hinckley for accidentally breaking a bottle. Czolgosz pointing out that he is the one of the people who make such bottles. All while working under very dangers conditions, and for the sum of six cents an hour.

As sobering as Czolgosz's plight happens to be, it becomes all the more striking when one realizes how little things have progressed for those who find themselves outside society's mainstream. Czolgosz's anger and loneliness can also be found in the words of Samuel Byck who, in 1974, planned to fly a plane into the White House in order to kill President Nixon. As Byck sets out on his mission, we hear him rage about people being reduced to living in packing crates, and how both Republicans and Democrats keep pledging to fix problems the other side has caused. Yet, when they do get into positions of power, aren't able to make things any better. Situations that, for many, haven't really changed in the more than fifty years since Byck's actions and which now seem more topical than ever.

Also quite good is a sequence featuring Lee Harvey Oswald, and which reveals perhaps the ultimate goal of all those who pull the trigger. The desire, no matter how frustrating or unremarkable their lives have been thus far, to least be remembered for their final act. Though as some find out, they are not always remembered as how they would have liked.

Wisely, other than a few tweaks here and there to allow for the Encores! staging, there were no major changes made to John Weidman's text. One which makes no mention of the current U.S. administration. Though lines about the country going in the wrong direction and about a madman coming along did provoke a large amount of laughter from the audience. The score by Stephen Sondheim is both enjoyable and probing. The opening song, “Everybody’s Got the Right” being one of the more ominously ironic numbers in the Sondheim canon. Also quite memorable is the haunting “Something Just Broke”, which shows how most of us remember exactly where we were, and what we were doing, when we heard the news of a president being shot.

Anne Kauffman's direction is very strong, allowing each of the actors to hold their own when their characters take their turn in the spotlight. They all eloquently pleading their cases to the audience, no matter how misguided or deluded they may actually be. The show also avoids the problem of becoming too repetitive in the different sequences, by continually altering the tone of the various assassination attempts. These ranging from fanatical to comic, and from acts of retribution to ones of hopeless desperation. The changes in mood are also helped by Clifton Duncan's efforts as the Balladeer. This character helping to inject some of the lighter elements of the Sondheim score into the tale while the more serious issues are played out around him.

As timely and topical now as when it first appeared, Assassins takes a thoughtful look at those disenfranchised souls who try to make a real difference by upsetting the status quo. A difference at least, in their own minds. Hands-down, this one was a winner. Broadway revival anyone?

Featuring: Ethan Lipton (Proprietor), Shuler Hensley (Leon Czolgosz), Steven Boyer (John Hinckley), John Ellison Conlee (Charles Guiteau), Alex Brightman (Giuseppe Zangara), Danny Wolohan (Samuel Byck), Erin Markey (Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme), Victoria Clark (Sara Jane Moore), Steven Pasquale (John Wilkes Booth), Clinton Duncan (Balladeer), Andrew Durand (David Herold/Ensemble), Pearl Sun (Emma Goldman/Ensemble), Eddie Cooper (James Blaine/Ensemble), Hudson Loverro (Billy/Ensemble), Damian Baldet (President Gerald Ford/Ensemble), Cory Michael Smith (Lee Harvey Oswald), Eryn LeCory (Ensemble).

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman

Assassins is based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr.

Orchestrations by Michael Starobin

Scenic Designer: Donyale Werle
Costume Designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting Designer: Mark Barton
Sound Designer: Leon Rothenberg
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Encores! Off-Center Artistic Associate: Sam Pinkleton
Production Stage Manager: Adam John Hunter
Casting by Carrie Gardner, C.S.A./Stephen Kopel, C.S.A.

Choreography by Lorin Latarro
Music Director and Conductor: Chris Fenwick

Associate Music Director: Greg Jarrett
Assistant Music Director: Josh Clayton

Directed by Anne Kaufman

Presented by New York Center Encores! Off-Center
131 West 55th Street

Closed: July 15, 2017

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Measure for Measure - A Probing Look at Hypocrisy

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

What you sew, so shall you eventually reap. A warning that could easily apply to William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, currently being given an enjoyable revival by Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center.

In Vienna, the practice of morality has, for a good portion of the populace, long since gone by the wayside. Much of the area having become a place where prostitution, fornication, drinking, thievery and other such vices hold sway. In an attempt to stem this tide of sin, the Duke (Jonathan Cake), who has been unable to make any such changes himself, decides to temporarily cede his power to the one man he trusts implicitly, the pious nobleman Angelo (Thomas Jay Ryan). The Duke announcing that he must leave on some private business, but in reality plans to remain in the city in the robes of a humble friar so he can walk unnoticed among his subjects and observe first-hand Angelo's actions and their effects.

Taking his new position to heart, Angelo quickly begins a puritanical crackdown. He ordering the destruction of houses of ill-repute in the surrounding countryside, while sending violators of these now vigorously enforced decrees to prison. Among those jailed is Claudio (Leland Fowler), condemned to death for fathering a child out of wedlock. Although Claudio and Juliet (Sam Morales), the woman in question, are deeply in love and have plans to marry, this does not sway Angelo's decision. He seeing Claudio's death as a necessary example to discourage others from this practice.

In desperation, Claudio beseeches his friend Lucio (Haynes Thigpen), to seek out his sister, the beautiful and virtuous Isabella (Cara Ricketts) and have her plead his case. Struck by the young woman's exquisite beauty, Angelo finds himself weakening to the needs of the flesh. As shown via a well-delivered inner monologue where he debates the pros and cons of the situation. Angelo eventually surrendering to his desires and telling Isabella that if she spends the night in his bed, he will spare her brother. Visiting her Claudio in prison, the distraught Isabella relates Angelo’s demands. Her tale overheard by the disguised Duke, who hatches his own scheme to resolve the matter.

A nicely pointed morality tale, and long regarded as one of the Bard's so-called "problem plays", party due to the difficultly of melding the piece’s comedic and dramatic tones, there is much to like in this production. The show having as its ultimate message that only those who are totally without sin should cast the first stone. Isabella being the only person in the play who actually fits that description. For not only is Angelo trying to retain his position of power following his temporary moral slippage, there is also another incident in his past involving a woman. One which he would very much like to forget.

The Duke is no saint either, though to the character's credit, he never aspires to be. Having been unable to stop the vice and corruption that has run rampant in his city for 14 years, he basically tosses his entire failed legacy to Angelo, and to a lesser degree Lord Escala (January Lavoy), who acts as Angelo’s second-in-command. There's an interesting political element present here with the Duke, who is apparently much loved by the people, being able to swoop down and change things to his liking, and then appear to look all the better for it, at least in the eyes of his subjects.

Others with questionable moral attitudes include the condemned Claudio, who is at first quite willing for his sister to sacrifice her honor and virginity to Angelo so he might be saved from the gallows. There’s also Thigpen’s wonderfully winning performance as Lucio, a reprobate and rogue who follows the axiom of never telling the truth when a lie will do. He continually trying to turn every situation to his own advantage. Especially enjoyable in this regard are the Duke’s slow burns when he catches Lucio spouting one untruth after another. However due to his attempts to conceal his identity, he is unable to do anything about it, at least for the moment.

The play also takes pot-shots at the ineffectuality of the criminal justice system, as seen via Barnardine (Zachary Fine), a long-time prisoner who simply refuses be executed when the time calls for it. There's also a legal examination that turns into a hilarious comic free-for-all, thanks to the continual mangling of words by Constable Elbow (Fine) during Angelo and Escala’s questioning of several accused violators of the law.

Cake does a good job as the well-meaning but somewhat ineffectual Duke, who finally comes up with a way to address the problems that afflict his city. Ryan is excellent as the outwardly stern, inwardly all-too-human Angelo. Zachary does a nice comic turn as Elbow and Thigpen is a genuine hoot as Lucio. Director Simon Godwin nicely guides the story and performers through the different elements of the tale, and the sets and costumes by Paul Wills – the play done in modern dress - all work well.

The only sequence that really doesn’t work is a somewhat extraneous bit which takes place in a nightclub – complete with songs. While it does serve to introduce a key character, leaving in the dialogue while cutting out the musical numbers, and the resulting audience interaction, would cut out approximately fifteen unneeded minutes from the show.

Well presented, while taking pains not to hit the audience over the head with its message, this production of Measure for Measure is quite the satisfying treat.

Featuring: Oberon K.A. Adjepong (Provost), Jonathan Cake (Vincentio, the Duke), Kenneth De Abrew (Froth/Abhorson/Friar Peter), Zachary Fine (Friar Thomas/Elbow/Barnardine/Gentle), Leland Fowler (Claudio), Merritt Janson (Marina), January Lavoy (Mistress Overdone/Escala/Francisca), Christopher Michael McFarland (Pompey), Sam Morales (Juliet), Cara Ricketts (Isabella), Thomas Jay Ryan (Angelo), Haynes Thigpen (Lucio)

Musicians: Drew Bastian, Robert Cowie, Osei Essed

Scenic & Costume Design: Paul Wills
Lighting Designer: Matthew Richards
Composer & Sound Designer: Jane Shaw
Voice & Text Coach: Alison Bomber
Properties Supervision: Eric Reynolds
Hair & Makeup Design: Cooke Jordan
Dramaturg: Jonathan Kalb
Casting: Deborah Brown
Production Stage Manager: Megan Schwarz Dickert
Assistant Stage Manager: Rachel Gross
General Manager: Michael Page
Press Representative: Blank Zidell & Associates
Choreographer: Brian Brooks
Directed by Simon Godwin

Theatre for a New Audience
Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Place
Tickets: 866-811-4111 or
Running Time: 2 Hours, 55 Minutes, one intermission

Closes: July 16, 2017