Saturday, October 13, 2018

Theatre in Troubled Times - "Eight Tales of Pedro" and "Nazis and Me"

By Byrne Harrison

Art is a product of its time, and for many artists, now is a particularly difficult one.  In the era of Trump values, artists, especially those from traditionally marginalized groups, are responding with a message of hope and a reminder that things can and will someday get better.

Playwright Mark-Eugene Garcia draws on his Latinx background (while also acknowledging his non-Spanish speaking suburban upbringing) in his "Eight Tales of Pedro."  Based on the folk tales of Pedro Urdamales and Juan Bobo, Garcia creates a play that emphasizes the commonality of those of Latinx heritage, even though each nation has a slightly different version of Pedro and his stories, and the resilience of those facing terrible obstacles.

"Eight Tales of Pedro" is built around a framing device of a group of people being deported to Mexico.  To pass the time and keep their spirits up, they take turns telling the tales of Pedro and Juan, each tale shedding a little light on the lives of people acting out the stories, while entertaining their fellow travelers.  Drawing on a framework familiar to those who've read The Canterbury Tales or One Thousand and One Nights, the stories are humorous and poignant, while touching on a variety of topics, especially, as one would expect, that of racism and the value of people who are different.

Ably directed on a nearly bare stage by Rodrigo Bolaños, the play lets the actors shine, as they bring to life both their characters and those in the Pedro and Juan Bobo tales.  Of particular note are Germainne Lebron, who takes on the crafty Pedro, and Stephen Santana, who plays the naive Juan Bobo.  The rest of the cast is outstanding, and features Kat Peña, Richard E. Calvache, Laura Aguinaga and Federico Mallet.  The play also features live music performed by Luis D'Elias, a perfect complement to the show.

David Lawson's latest one-man show, "Nazis and Me," also deals with Trump and the normalization of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., in the current climate.  Drawing on his experiences dealing with antisemitism as a youth (including bomb threats and vandalism at his local JCC) to his more recent attacks from incels, the alt-right, and random bigots who find him through online media, Lawson's show doesn't let us off the hook by saying that the past was so much better than today, but shows that while the far-right rage may be bubbling to the surface, it has always been there.  Given the subject matter, Lawson's show could have been a heavy political screed, but he is a deft writer and performer, who above all else, manages to find the humor in even the darkest situations.

"Eight Tales of Pedro" ends with some uncertainty, as the characters, buoyed by the tales of Pedro and Juan Bobo, still face a future that they can't imagine in a country that for some of them has never been home, "Nazis and Me" ends with an uplifting wedding with guests who under the current climate are being told to hate each other, but instead find a common humanity that brings them together.  But in both cases, the playwrights are making an appeal to us to find the things that bring us together, and to remember them when the struggle seems to be too much.

"Eight Tales of Pedro" runs through October 14 at The Secret Theatre, 44-02 23rd Street, Long Island City.

“Nazis and Me” will be performed October 16, November 6, and November 13, 2018 at Under St. Marks Theatre, 94 St. Marks Place. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur - Settling for what you can get


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

A feeling of despair lurks just below the surface in A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur. This seldom-seem Tennessee Williams drama, which had its initial New York run in 1979, now being given a sturdy revival Off-Broadway by La Femme Theatre Productions.

It's the late spring of 1937 in St. Louis, Missouri, and Dorothea (Jean Lichty) is a high school teacher approaching that nebulous age bracket for what used to be called an unmarried spinster. Dotty, as she is known to all, making great efforts to keep that perception at bay. Undertaking a series of daily exercises, dressing like a person ten years her junior, and continually keeping her eyes out for romantic prospects. Of late she has reason to be hopeful in the marriage department, having recently caught the attention of the well-to-do T. Ralph Ellis. On this particular Sunday morning, Dotty is anxiously waiting for his promised phone call and instructs her roommate Bodey (Kristine Nielsen) to keep the telephone line clear.

Bodey, a single woman who, as later pointed out, will never see forty again, is working overtime to arrange a match for Dotty and her brother, Buddy. Bodey giving her sibling continual advice on how to act in that regard. Dotty however, sees Buddy as someone not at all her type and has long since become annoyed at Bodey's matchmaking efforts. Dotty also making clear that she will definitely not be joining the two today on a picnic at Creve Coeur; a local lakeside area not too far from the end of the streetcar line.

(L-R) Kristine Nielsen and Jean Lichty) in A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur. Photo by Joan Marcus

Dotty and Bodey's various plans for the day are suddenly interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Helena (Annette O'Toole). A forceful, no-nonsense type who teaches at the same school as Dotty, she has come to discuss some important matters. Dotty having previously agreed to move in with Helena in a more fashionable area of the city. A location not at all convenient to Dotty's place of work, but a much more socially acceptable section of town than where she lives now.

Dotty and Helena's plans were completely unknown to Bodey until this moment. The apartment's already tense atmosphere becoming even more so with Helena and Bodey's caustic comments to one another. Dotty, whose health is not always the best, finding herself caught between them while desperately trying to maintain her own sense of equilibrium and emotional sanity.

It’s strange that A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur is not performed more often, as the Williams text offers a richly layered work. One which also offers some powerful acting opportunities for the cast. In many ways the play recalls A Streetcar Named Desire, with Dotty in the Blanche DuBois role of a fading Southern belle. Dotty, like Blanche, trying to create a fantasy world of how she feels her life should be. Which is one reason why she buys the type of clothes she wears. Others being to attract a eligible man, and to prove to herself that she's still desirable to the opposite sex.

Also present in the play is a painful air of resignation as the characters are forced to accept the crumbs life has to offer, rather than anything more substantial. A telling conversation in this vein being when Bodey continually reiterates her desire for Dotty and Buddy to end up together. Yet while Bodey clearly wants to help her brother in this endeavor, it's also clear that she desperately needs something else such a relationship can provide. Specifically, the presence of children. Then she can get to play the loving aunt and not be alone in the years to come.

In an interesting bit of irony, the characters of Bodey and Helena - the two mixing like oil and water in their conversations and worldviews - are more alike than either will admit. Though to be fair, one is better dressed. Helena making clear how she refuses to wind up as part of a gaggle of unmarried women with only their gossip to keep them company. Yet her plan to move into a building with the more fashionable set, where one's duties include playing bridge with the right kind of people, reveals the same need as Bodey of not ending up alone.

(L-R) Jean Lichty, Annette O'Toole, Kristine Nielsen and Polly McKie in A Lovely Sunday for Creve Cour. Photo by Joan Marcus

Lichty, Nielsen and O'Toole are all excellent here. Each bringing their role to life with the stories and scenarios their characters have created for themselves in an attempt to make their dreams come true. Nicely rounding out the cast is Polly McKie as Miss Gluck; a lonely and elderly neighbor to whom Bodey has opened her door. Both Dotty and Helena bound and determined to avoid Miss Gluck's fate of depending on the kindness of strangers.

Austin Pendleton's direction is well done, though a bit awkward at times. Especially in the early stages of the play, which is rather talky and takes too much time to get where it’s going. Harry Feiner's set offers a nice lived-in and claustrophobic feel, and his lighting design also works well. Beth Goldenberg's costumes are very good. The standout being the outfit worn by O’Toole.

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur present a picture where hope brutally collides with harsh realty - both from within and without. The different characters in the end, inevitably sadder but wiser by what they have been forced to face.

Featuring: Jean Lichty (Dorothea), Kristine Nielsen (Bodey), Annette O’Toole (Helena), Polly McKie (Miss Gluck).

A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur

By Tennessee Williams

Scenic & Lighting Design: Harry Feiner
Costume Design: Beth Goldenberg
Original Music & Sound Design: Ryan Rumery
Wig & Hair Design: Leah Loukas
Dialect Design & Dramaturgy: Amy Stroller
Fight Director: Ron Piretti
Casting: Stephanie Klapper Casting
Movement Consultant: Shelley Senter
Assistant Director: Jonathan Mann
Production Stage Manager: Marci Skolnick
Assistant Stage Manager: Will Chaloner
Production Manager: Gary Levinson
General Management: LDK Productions
Advertising & Marketing: Red Rising Marketing
Press Representative: JT Public Relations
Directed by Austin Pendleton

Presented by La Femme Theatre Productions
Theatre at St. Clement's
423 West 46th Street
Tickets: 866-811-4111 or LaFemmeTheatreProductions.org
Running Time: 1 Hour, 50 Minutes, no intermission
Closes: October 21, 2018
                                                                                
Please note: the theatre is not wheelchair accessible