"OUT-OF-THIS-WORLD SEASON... three superb shows in 2012!"
(for reviews of previous productions, click here)
The New Yorker
|Pictured: Alexis Kelley and Jeff Kline
(photo © Michael Abrams)
However, fortunately, the genius Turai whips up a plan to save the day that is very contrived, very desperate, and so very funny: It involves forcing Ilona and Almady to appear in a fake play that just happens to contain the soupy and idiotic sweet nothings they were muttering to each other, and which just might convince Albert that he didn’t hear what he thought he heard.
In director Peter Dobbins’ beguiling production, the show falls into breezy tropes of romantic operetta, recalling a Preston Sturges-esque mood – which is quite a natural fit, as Molnár provided scripts for a number of Sturges’ movies. It feels like the entire show is a dramatized waltz – and sometimes it is, such as during the scene changes, including a moment in which the play’s hilarious, somewhat disturbingly efficient butler Dvornichev (Spencer Aste) serves a gigantic breakfast with balletic skill. Here, daffiness is the order of the day, from the incredibly silly “play-within-a-play” to sequences of merry feasting and the lovely, assured dialogue, which is almost as bubbly as the tinkling glasses of champagne.
Dobbins whips up a totally artificial but enchanting world, where nothing is more important than whether a young man will solve the problems of his love life and finish an operetta. And that’s not an easy environment to create, considering the theater is located in a kind of a dungeon somewhere beneath the Church of Notre Dame near Columbia.
Performances are as gleefully fluffy as the material. As Turai, Danbusky assays the perfect mix of cunning, brilliance, and pomposity. His line readings, so dry you almost have to squint to make out the fierce underlashings of ironic wit, are devastatingly funny. He’s matched by the Paul Lynde-like neurotic quiverings of Allis’s delightfully tightly wound Mansky. The charm of the pair’s relationship appears to be that the two have mutual contempt for each other’s abilities – but they somehow need each other to complete their work together.
Kelley’s beautifully seductive Ilona seems the charming embodiment of gracious beauty and feminine elegance, but every so often (when her character is up against the wall and fighting for her reputation), the sappiness drops momentarily to reveal the steely cunning of a ferocious street fighter who is only masquerading as a grande dame. As the sleazy lothario, Linden is a scene stealer, particularly when his prissy snobbishness is punctured and he’s subsequently humiliated beyond all range of reason.
Essentially, this is a play about the lies and artificiality that provides the context for the world of theater. There’s almost no moment in the work when the characters speak truth to each other – the brilliant scene in which Turai confronts Ilona and Armady about their wickedness and proposes how he’ll save them is a great, hilarious exception. And, yet, who needs truth when the deceptions are as pretty as this lush and sparkling comedy?
|Pictured: Alexis Kelley and Brian Linden
(photo © Michael Abrams)
There's nothing like a grand romantic gesture, and everyone loves surprises. So, when composer Albert Adam, accompanied by his dramatist collaborators Sandor Turai and Mansky, shows up a day early to meet his fiancé at a castle on the Italian Riviera it seems like a lovely way to start the weekend. But when Albert overhears her in the next room over with another man, even though she kicks him out after a few kisses, he is (understandably) beside himself. This, in turn, leaves Turai and Mansky worried that Albert won't be able to produce the music they need to complete their latest work. What to do? The Play's the Thing!
The title of P.G. Wodehouse's 1926 adaptation of Ferenc Molnar's Jatek a Kastelyban (The Play at the Castle) takes its inspiration from Shakespeare's Hamlet in which the Danish prince declares, “The play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king”, as he plots to use a play in order to expose his uncle's guilt for the murder of his father.
In The Play's the Thing, which receives its latest production from The Storm Theater, the concept is flipped. Turai (Joe Danbusky), eager to cheer Albert (Jeff Kline) up quickly so he can resume composing, decides to convince the boy that he overheard nothing more than the rehearsal of a scene from a play.
Spurning the assistance of his collaborator Mansky (Andy Allis) he stays up through the night writing a script that incorporates all that they heard through the wall. The next morning, he calls in Albert's fiancé Ilona (Alexis Kelley) and her former lover Almady (Brian Linden) to confront them with a choice: perform the play, or deal with the consequences of their actions.
It's a promising premise, and the play doesn't disappoint. It is consistently engaging and entertaining, though it never quite reaches the farcical heights to which it seems to aspire. While the setting, the costumes and the social mores of the play's world are certainly of another time, The Play's The Thing, with its focus on love and theater, has aged well since 1926.
Director Peter Dobbins is to be praised for solid direction across the cast. This is a play in which some characters are simply much better developed than others, but the actors all do their roles justice to the fullest extent allowed to them by the script. The production maintains steady momentum,even at moments when the first two acts seem to exist more in anticipation of the final one than for their own merits.
As Turai, Danbusky is the clear center of the show. He gracefully orchestrates events with a self-assured swagger that charms even while narrowly skirting the outer limits of pomposity. For anyone familiar with the film adaption of the board game Clue, he'll remind them of Tim Curry's character: he is always several steps ahead of the other players in the game, and absolutely knows it.
Turai is also a vital link in connecting several smaller ensembles within the cast. One moment he's reassuring Mansky and Albert, another he's coercing Ilona and Almady. Look again and he's dealing with the castle's staff (Spencer Aste, James Henry Doan, and George Goss). The most captivating scenes center around Ilona and Almady — for example, when Turai confronts them about their rendezvouz or when they perform the play-within-a-play to fulfill Turai's plan.
Kelley and Linden make an especially enjoyable team as Ilona and Almady, with great comic chemistry and a wonderful ability to make fun of actors. Never mind their elaborate deception of Albert with even the moment of their kiss is marked by fakeness and insincerity. As Almady makes advances, Ilona protests that she loves Albert, but he puts on a show of despondency and weeps until she comforts him. That's important, because otherwise the play's central deception would be much crueler and less funny. As it is, Ilona is certainly guilty of a lapse in judgment, but her heart remains pure. While Almady's actions are truly dishonorable, Linden miraculously manages to eke out some sympathy for the character.
Josh Iacovelli's set is sprawling, at least relative to the small Theater of the Church of Notre Dame, which makes for a highly immersive experience. Having the audience arranged around the stage in four small clusters of seats works well. However, it does sometimes makes one so focused on the action in one part of the theater (as during the play-within-a-play) that it's easy to miss out on the reactions of the other performers.
As mentioned earlier, The Play's the Thing's script never quite reaches its intended comedic heights and there are parts that make very little sense when you think about them too much. But, textual gripes notwithstanding, The Storm Theatre offers a well-acted and well-directed production that is highly polished and enjoyable, which makes this Play quite the thing indeed.
Choosing Love or Honor, and Losing Either Way
‘Le Cid’ at the Theater of the Church of Notre Dame
|Jeff Kline, left, and George Taylor star in Corneille’s 1600s play about love and honor, at the Theater of the Church of Notre Dame
(photo © Michael Abrams)
In the 17th-century French tragicomedy LE CID,
honor – not life, happiness or even love – reigns supreme.
So when Rodrigue’s aging father has been insulted, Rodrigue must seek vengeance. Inconveniently, the target of that vengeance happens to be his fiancée’s father. Rodrigue faces a lose-lose situation — or, more academically, a Cornelian dilemma, an ethical choice named for this very play by Pierre Corneille — in which he must choose between honor and love.
Either he kills his nemesis and betrays his betrothed, Chimène, or he stands down for her sake, in which case the shame would make him unfit to marry her. As Rodrigue bewails: “One deed would cause the one I love to mourn,/The other she would scorn.” (The former poet laureate Richard Wilbur has translated Corneille’s verse into English.)
Rodrigue (the cleft-chinned, Disney-princelike Jeff Kline) chooses honor, killing Chimène’s father and flipping the Cornelian hot potato to Chimène herself. Honor requires her to continue the blood feud by beseeching the king to hang her lover.
Interpreted a different way, these face-saving tragic turns could well be performed as farce: so ridiculous are the extremes the characters turn to in the name of propriety that they cease to be proper. But then life is, after all, a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel, to borrow from Horace Walpole.
This production, directed by Peter Dobbins and produced by Storm Theater and Blackfriars Repertory Theater, succeeds more on the thinking than on the feeling side. That is partly thanks to a strong comic performance from Jessica Zinder as the high-strung Infanta of Castile, who also struggles with the dueling demands of desire and duty; and the thoughtful presence of George Taylor as the frail, vicariously pugnacious father to Rodrigue, a sort of stage mother to this budding knight.
|Pictured: Meaghan Bloom Fluitt and Jeff Kline
(photo © Michael Abrams)
"Love vs. Honor" . . ."Sire vs. Mistress" – such dichotomies sum up the conflicts enshrined in
LE CID, along with a slew of other mini-dramas. But, bearing conspicuous resemblance to the Romeo-and-Juliet
tale, in this 17th-century play by the classical French tragedian, Pierre Corneille, it is refreshing to see
that his lovers are more than just star-crossed.
Corneille's couple is stubborn, petulant, and downright cranky – in short, emotionally accessible to a modern sensibility. Thus, when our hero, Don Rodrigue, chooses to defend his father's honor rather than sparing the life of his sweetheart's sire, she is understandably pissed off, and doesn't let him or us forget it. Hence, in large part, the enduring appeal of this famously controversial play. It deals with the themes of how young lovers can overcome their ire, find happiness in each other, and incidentally avoid a grisly Romeo-and-Juliette fate.
As for the controversy surrounding Le Cid's first appearance in 1636, it was not so much the play's content that offended but the gall of the upstart Corneille thumbing a proverbial nose at the L'Academie Francaise. In particular, it was his flouting of L'Academie's dictates governing the unity of time, place and location in classic drama that rankled.
While, I heard about this game-changer of a play as a footnote in theater courses and the like, this has been my first opportunity to see the play performed. Let me say straightaway that I was not disappointed.
The Storm Company has done a splendid job of setting the mood. The makeshift theater which is actually in the gloomy basement of The Church of Notre Dame on 114th Street, is intimate, yet appropriately uninviting, with Gregorian chants filling the small room.
Jeff Kline, playing Le Cid, is a young Hugh Dancy-type, valiant and charming. He and the other actors play off each other well and do a commendable job of using the space effectively.
While I wasn't entirely charmed by her at first, Jessica Zinder, playing the Infanta of Castile has a particularly riveting scene in which she overcomes her own longings and steps aside to let Chimene and Don Rodrigue's love flourish. Her foil, Leonore, (Jessica Levesque) unites an austere presence with a commanding voice in a way that grounds the excitable princess. Ultimately, hers is the most consistent performance in what is, on balance, a strong cast.
Is LE CID beyond its landmark status as a turning point in theatre history, still worth performing? Don't expect to see it mounted on Broadway any time soon. But it is one of the minor glories of New York theater that a production, such as this one by Storm, can render this classic so pleasurably accessible.
Moliere excepted, how many French Renaissance plays get produced in New York City these days?
The British and Spanish playwrights of that period get seen with far more frequency; I can't recall a single
presentation of LE CID by Pierre Corneille in all my ternure at nytheatre.com; and I missed reading it in
high school French (we did Racine instead), so I came to Storm Theatre's revival of this 17th century masterwork
with no prior knowledge or expectation. As usual with a Storm production, what we get here is a clear, faithful
rendering of a play about love, faith, and honor, here with the added bonus of a new Richard Wilbur translation
that (as far as I know) has heretofore not been heard in NYC.
The play, written in 1637, is based on the life of medieval Spanish hero Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, called El Cid (or, in French, Le Cid). In the play, Rodrigue is the son of Don Diegue, a nobleman who is a favorite of the king, and is in love with Chimene, a beautiful, strong-willed, independent woman whose father, a Count, is a rival to Don Diegue. When Don Diegue gets a plum appointment that the Count thinks should have been his, a feud between the two older men ignites. The Count insults Don Diegue, who then urges his son—devotion to the Count's daughter notwithstanding—to fight the Count in a duel. This leads to the central question of the play: does honor (to one's parents, one's family, one's name) trump love? I enjoyed watching the tale and its complexities unfold, so I won't divulge more here; suffice to say that the path toward happiness that Rodrigue and Chimene find themselves forced upon is long and thorny and pushes them again and again to confront that fundamental issue.
In a way, the piece feels like an anti-Romeo & Juliet, with the lovers bound by code and duty to disavow their devotion, while others (notably the king) urge them to follow their romantic stars. The sensibilities of its two heroic leading characters are so opposed to contemporary ideas that it's sometimes hard to credit them, and director Peter Dobbins has wisely recognized this by lightening the play's generally heavy, idea(l)-laden structure where he can.
This production, performed with the audience on two sides of a long, narrow stage area, is sumptuously designed. Sets by Josh Iacovelli are in the style of the story's historical period, while the beautiful and surprisingly lavish (given the indie theater budget) costumes by Courtney Irizarry are in a Renaissance style. This makes for an intriguing tension that serves the piece smartly. Michael Abrams' lighting and Kenneth Goodwin's sound complete the creation of a theatrical world for LE CID that at once feels intimate yet removed from our own.
Jeff Kline, a newcomer to Storm, is a solid, square-jawed, charismatic Rodrigue, who seems completely capable of the heroic feats ascribed to him. As his soulmate Chimene, the stately Meaghan Bloom Fluitt matches him with assurance, tenacity, and dignity. George Taylor and Brian J. Coffey, both frequent Storm actors, portray the two fathers with authority. Spencer Aste brings both gravity and compassion to the role of the king, while Jessica Zinder is dynamic as his daughter, the Infanta, who would love to have Rodrigue for her own. The fine supporting cast includes a particularly meritorious performance by Jessica Levesque as Leonor, the Infanta's lady-in-waiting, who uses her commading presence and diction to excellent effect as by turns she counsels and chides her charge.
In a city where Shakespeare's great tragedies and love stories are trotted out by the dozen on a monthly basis, it's a treat to get to experience some classic theater that's far less famililar. Kudos to the Storm for bringing us LE CID and for providing a production that's engaging and thought-provoking.
Sea Calls, but So Does Love
Marcel Pagnol’s ‘Marius,’ by Storm Theatre Company
|Benjamin Jones and Laura Bozzone in "Marius."
(photo © Michael Abrams)
The warmhearted play MARIUS is a bit short on plot, but this revival,
by the Storm Theatre Company, doesn’t want for talent. Here, affection takes precedence over
action, and the show's deepest pleasures are reserved for those with patience.
In the story, the title character, a wistful 22-year-old Frenchman, yearns for a life at sea. Feeling trapped in 1920s Marseille, he wrestles with his wanderlust as he works in his father's bar and falls in love, reluctantly, with a local beauty.
Other than an easy-to-guess ending, there’s not much else to the tale. The townsfolk sometimes squabble, and the hero's struggles are primarily internal. The script, written by Marcel Pagnol in the late 1920s and recently translated by Zack Rogow, tends toward the Chekhovian in its melancholy and humor. Pagnol's fondness for his characters is always evident.
The greatest joy here comes from watching the actors. This smartly produced show floats along where in other hands it might sink. It’s a light piece, sure, but hardly trivial. Benjamin Jones as Marius and Laura Bozzone as Fanny are well matched as the young lovers, with Ms. Bozzone particularly appealing as she flirts and entices her beau.
The most outstanding performance, however, is given by Ross DeGraw as César, Marius's father. Mr. DeGraw is one of those exceptional actors who can make Off Off Broadway theater a genuine thrill. His mixture of caring father and curmudgeon is impressive when he speaks and affecting when he holds back.
While Peter Dobbins's direction takes a few chances that don’t pay off – an occasional lapse in pacing, a rock song at the curtain that is too incongruent – the show is presented with care.
MARIUS wraps up pretty much as expected, but the play, about two hours, is certainly enjoyable, delivering a large share of smiles rather than loud laughs. Yes, more exciting tales have been told before. But this journey is about the company you keep.
The Storm Theatre presents a charming New York premiere of Marcel Pagnol's MARIUS
translated and adapted from French by Zack Rogow.
French Author Marcel Pagnol (1895 - 1974) was a dramatist, novelist and filmmaker of great renown. American audiences may most likely be familiar with his 1962 novels Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, which were made into popular films in 1986 by Claude Berri. Pagnol was born and raised in the South of France and his writings deal primarily with life and locals of Provence and the colorful characters in the old port of Marseille. Regarded as national treasures Pagnol’s “Marseille trilogy” of plays: Marius, Fanny and César have been performed on stage or made into films continuously since they were written in 1929, 1931, 1936 respectively. In fact, the full trilogy is once again being filmed in France this year. The plays follow the lives and loves of a close-knit group of richly unique individuals. Pagnol has named each script after the character that makes the most pivotal life changing decision during the course of the piece.
In the United States a musical version of the Marseille Trilogy called Fanny played on Broadway from November 1954 to December 1956 but this, according to the program, is the first new English translation of Marius in seventy years. Kudos must be given to Peter Dobbins and The Storm Theatre for choosing to produce this comedic gem. It is often written that there are no villains in Pagnol's work only flawed human beings drawn with deep consideration and understanding.
Marius centers on life in and around the Bar de la Marine on the harbor of the old port of Marseille. The bar is owned by the gruff but lovable César (Ross DeGraw). His son Marius (Benjamin Jones) mans the bar but dreams of the high seas and sailing off to far away places. Young Fanny (Laura Bozzone) sells cockles from a stand in front of the bar and she has loved Marius since they were children. Trouble ensues when Panisse (Gabe Bettito), an older wealthy sail maker and neighbor asks for Fanny’s hand in marriage much to the chagrin of Fanny's mother Honorine (Diánna Martin) and Marius who is torn between his love for Fanny and his deep seated desire to board one of the ships in the harbor and sail around the world. The bar is also populated by some singular and interesting characters: Escartefigue (Gerard Adimando) a ferryboat Captain, his Stoker (Sawyer Mastrandrea), Piquoiseau (Jose Sanchez) a beggar and slightly "touched" lay about, and Monsieur Brun (David Bodenschatz), a friend of Panisse who is a customs inspector and regular customer at the Bar de le Marine.
Director Dobbins has cleverly staged the play with the audience on either side of the playing space. This, in addition to multiple performance levels and open design, gives the smaller theatre a much more expansive and airy feel. The Set design by Josh Iocovelli serves the script well and along with lighting by Michael Abrams and sound by Kenneth Goodwin go a long way to evoking the sights and sounds of the vieux port of Marseille in the late 1920’s.
Dobbins's cast has a number of standouts including; Ross DeGraw - wildly amusing as the temperamental blustering César, Gabe Bettito - endearingly sympathetic as the mild mannered albeit stubborn Panisse, Diánna Martin - positively stealing her scenes as the bruised yet driven Honorine, David Bodenschatz - likable as the buttoned up Monsieur Brun, and Anthony Russo - effective in the small role of the Bosun, his urgency leaves a lasting impression.
Marius stands delightfully on its own as a play. Zack Rogow's translation/adaption does justice to Pagnol's original French. And Rogow has clearly been able to put his personal stamp on the humor and pathos of the proceedings as well. The dialogue is fresh and funny and there were only a few moments when the language felt too contemporary or too "American".
But what a wonderful opportunity for New York audiences to be introduced to Pagnol's affecting and entertaining script. Really, Marius is an appealing play and this production is sure to grow – after seeing the show you may indeed yearn to see what else is in store for Fanny, Marius and their friends and family.
|Pictured: Matthew Waterson and Joe Danbusky in a scene from THE PRESIDENT
(photo © Michael Abrams)
Rich Girl, Poor Guy and a Magical MakeoverImagine “Pygmalion” written by the Marx Brothers. Starring Gordon Gekko from “Wall Street.” On speed.
Where has The President been all my life?
Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar wrote Egy, kettö, három in the late 1920s; Sidney Howard's translation One, Two, Three was presented on Broadway in 1930, and Billy Wilder's 1961 film of that title is in part inspired by it. But otherwise, as far as I know, this glittering diamond of a play has been a buried, forgotten treasure for all these many decades.
So thank goodness for alert artistic director Peter Dobbins of The Storm Theatre Company, who has brought us Molnar's brilliant work—in a new adaptation with a new title by Morwyn Brebner, which premiered at the Shaw Festival in 2008—in a splendid production that may be the finest one ever mounted by this exemplary troupe. Indeed, THE PRESIDENT feels like a pinnacle of this current season, representing indie theater at its absolute finest. As the title character says in somewhat different context, run—do not walk, do not stride—to see this show. It's a delicious, delightful satire with the comic heart of the Marx Brothers and the social consciousness of Bertolt Brecht. (Don't let the Brecht comparison divert you: this is a hilarious, sweet-natured play. And it has perhaps the best closing line of any play I've ever seen.)
The show is all concept, but what a concept! Mr. Norrison is the president of a Gigantic Conglomerate. It is 2:45 on a Tuesday afternoon, and he is wrapping things up so that he can take a much-desired vacation. But his plans are turned upside-down with the arrival of Lydia, the young woman who has been left in his care by her massively wealthy parents. She has, it seems, secretly married a cabdriver who is a member of the Communist Party. Norrison, sensing a catastrophic end to his planned alliance with Lydia's father, does what any sensible man would do: he resolves to transform the young man, whose name is Tony, into the kind of son-in-law that Lydia's parents would like.
Of course her parents are already on a train to this very city, due to arrive at 4pm. Norrison has an hour to turn Tony into a titled aristocrat, diplomat, and captain of industry.
Will he succeed? There was never really any doubt in my mind: Norrison, like the Madwoman of Chaillot, doesn't seem to be governed by the laws of reality (or even gravity) as he singlemindedly sets about on his quixotic task. Indeed Norrison feels like the anti-Madwoman, embracing the principles of her avowed enemies to prove that nothing is impossible when enough money is available.
Molnar's plotting, by way of Brebner's sparking and witty adaptation, is meticulous and smart. The play unfolds in real time; Norrison enlists one of his secretaries to announce the time every ten minutes, which keeps the suspense and action flowing beautifully. In one long scene, Norrison interacts with a variety of underlings, assistants, tradesmen, etc., to achieve his goal, providing Storm's actors with a panoply of eccentric characters to bring to life. Some standouts: Josh Vasquez as a needy tailor, Ashton Crosby as a board member with a bad stomach, Brian J. Coffey as a custodian with a fancy title, Jessica Levesque as a scarily efficient secretary, and Edward Prostak as a doctor with principles (he won't fake a patient's temperature above 102.1 degrees). Spencer Aste and Cheri Paige Fogleman anchor the shenanigans as Norrison's personal secretary and Girl Friday, respectively; Becca Pesce is prettily manipulative as Lydia and Matthew Waterson the game mannequin who is made over as Tony. In the center of the maelstrom, in a stunning performance, is Joe Danbusky as the play's indomitable hero.
The entire piece is staged adeptly by Dobbins, who uses the unusual, intimate space at the Storm's home in the Theatre of the Church of Notre Dame to marvelous effect. The set, which consists mostly of a massive executive desk and chair, is by Ken Larson. The multitudinous costumes (there are 22 characters) are perfectly realized by Meagan Miller-McKeever. Lighting designer Michael Abrams and sound designer Amy Altadonna contribute mightily to the ambiance. And choreographer Tiffany Gulla brings us a charming surprise at the evening's end.
THE PRESIDENT is the most fun I've had in the theatre in a long time. What a joy to discover this intelligent, pertinent satire in such an expert presentation! Just one more conclusive bit of evidence that the best of New York theatre is not always in the obvious place; journey uptown to the Storm and partake of this theatrical treat before it goes away.
|Joe Danbusky, Ashton Crosby, Edward Prostak and David Bodenschatz in a scene from THE PRESIDENT
(photo © Michael Abrams)
Ferenc Molnár was a Hungarian-born playwright best known in his adopted
United States in the early and mid–20th century for such full-length works as
"The Guardsman," a success for the Lunts; "The Swan"; and "Liliom," which became
the basis for Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel." As with so many of his
contemporary writers, Molnár's lesser-known and shorter works have been lost
in the mists of revival purgatory. This production rescues one of his forgotten,
brief charmers, using an adaptation by Morwyn Brebner that debuted four years ago
at Canada's Shaw Festival. What might have been considered a "madcap" comedy in
the 1920s and a "screwball" comedy in the 1940s, THE PRESIDENT has surprising
contemporary relevance, offering a witty, sweetly gentle satire of American
corporate greed and competition while also taking on the overweening importance
of appearances, regardless of the truth. The cast of 22 is largely equal to
extracting the many laughs from this slyly lighthearted life lesson.
The title character (Joe Danbusky) is the head of a bank in post-World War II New York. His young temporary charge (Becca Pesce) has just announced that she has been secretly married to a Communist taxi driver (Matthew Waterson) for four months and is pregnant. The president panics, because he needs her straitlaced father, an Iowa soybean king, to bail out the bank from impending disaster. The young woman's parents are arriving in New York in an hour, which is how long the president has to transform the lowly cabbie into a cultured, wealthy, titled European gentleman. As the play unfolds manically in real time, running a little more than an hour, the president attempts this goal aided by a battery of secretaries and other corporate flunkies, whom he flatters with well-placed "oil" before he orders them about. Outside abettors include a doctor, a tailor, a florist, and a caterer. None of this would work were it not for the splendid believability of Danbusky, Pesce, and Waterson amidst a ridiculously silly situation.
Peter Dobbins has also directed the rest of his large cast to play as if the whole enterprise were perfectly logical. Because every entrance comes from the back of the theater, all the characters and actors get their due, no matter how brief their role in the proceedings. Given the extreme importance of appearances to the plot and the need to root the action in the 1940s, Meagan Miller-McKeever's multiple costumes deserve special mention.
The Storm Theatre Company's production of Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar's
1930 play, THE PRESIDENT, now at The Theatre of the Church of Notre Dame, is a fast-paced and
hilarious farce on privilege, identity, and the transformative power of "true love."
The action of the play is confined to the office of Mr. Norrison (Joe Danbusky), a powerful
bank president who is preparing for a much-needed vacation. An hour before his train is set
to depart, Norrison discovers that Lydia (Becca Pesce), the soybean heiress whose virtue he
has been charged with protecting, has secretly eloped with a communist taxi driver named
Tony Foot (Matthew Waterson) — and the two are expecting a child.
So Norrison pulls out all the stops to transform Foot into Anton Von Schattenburg, an aristocratic corporate insider that any conservative capitalist would be proud to call son-in-law, performing this extreme makeover with the aid of a fevered lawyer (Brian J. Carter), a corrupt doctor (Edward Prostak), and an adoption-selling European Count-turned-janitor (Brian J. Coffey), among others. They parade in and out of Norrison's office, smartly arranged by set designer Ken Larson on a traverse stage that serves as a kind of high-fashion runway for lunacy.
Tight performances from the entire ensemble of 22 performers — who portray a cavalcade of ridiculous characters with cartoonish accents — ensure that there is always something to laugh at and never a dull moment onstage.
Waterson is well cast as Tony, bringing a lot of sexy-but-dumb earnestness to his role. Pecse clearly relishes playing the ingénue Lydia, milking all of the sickening cuteness out of lines like, "I'm not thinking about the future; I'm in love." Danbusky is masterful as Norrison, playing the field marshal to this ludicrous army with unflinching precision and exquisite diction.
As with any successful farce, much credit must be given to the director. Peter Dobbins has left little slack in this 75-minute production and makes sure that the heightened style feels perfectly suited to the text (which was adapted to English in 2008 by Morwyn Brebner).
In the end, THE PRESIDENT is not so much a commentary on the virtues and vices of Capitalism versus Communism, but an observation of the theatrical nature of life. Our clothes, our shoes, our job titles, and even our names all tell a story about us to those around us, regardless of how much bearing these cosmetic things have on our actual characters.
|Jessica Myhr as the prostitute who has Patrick Woodall in her power in this
tragedy by George Lillo at the Theater of the Church of Notre Dame.
(photo © Michael Abrams)
A 1731 Morality Tale That Aged Well, Unlike Its Characters
The long title of the play: "The London Merchant, or the History of George Barnwell."
The short review: excellent.
That’s a simple way to sum up this co-production by the Storm Theater and the Blackfriars Repertory Theater. But there’s no one word to convey the pleasure of discovering an exciting work when you’d been dreading a musty old relic.
"The London Merchant," written by George Lillo and first performed in 1731, was a hit in the 18th century and has mostly vanished since. The tragedy centers on the title character, a young apprentice who falls under the spell of the scheming prostitute Millwood. She soon manipulates Barnwell into embezzling his employer's money, then leads him to contemplate graver crimes.
Considered groundbreaking because of a plot that focused on working-class characters, this morality tale remains deliciously tense and dark; Lillo surely read his Shakespeare, for there are faint echoes of "Macbeth" and "Hamlet." There’s also some fine poetry, and just a bit of stuffiness that betrays the script's age, as does an occasional, and forgivable, didacticism.
As Barnwell, Patrick Woodall has an exceptional presence, particularly in soliloquy. Jessica Myhr, as Millwood, is captivating and coldly wicked. As Millwood’s servants, Michelle Kafel and Spencer Aste supply the welcome humor (with the clever Mr. Aste doubling as Barnwell’s uncle), while Joe Danbusky, Harlan Work and Megan Stern shine in supporting roles. All of the cast, directed on a clean, spare thrust stage by Peter Dobbins, exploit the underlying emotions to full effect, and Michael Abrams’s lighting heightens the foreboding mood.
There are so many surprises in the 2 hours and 10 minutes of "The London Merchant" that you may have to remind yourself that yes, you are in a basement that houses the Theater of the Church of Notre Dame, a space far off the radar of most audiences. That's not a snobbish statement, but rather an acknowledgment that, in New York, out-of-the-way places can produce some first-rate theater.
|Patrick Woodall and Harlan Work in The London Merchant.
(photo © Michael Abrams)
It has been left to the enterprising Storm Theatre, in
collaboration with the Blackfriars Repertory Theatre, to at last introduce the
playwright George Lillo and his 1731 drama THE LONDON MERCHANT to New York.
The play has been called "the first bourgeois tragedy," for instead of presenting
the usual upper strata of English society, it focused on the merchant class,
with characters that were immediately recognizable to a middle-class theatergoing
audience. For Lillo, with his accent on Christian morality, this emerging group
of capitalists was just as worthy of a fall from grace as their supposed betters.
The play gained immediate popularity and became one of the most frequently
performed plays of the 18th century, with its newfound focal point having
considerable influence on later British and Continental playwriting.
So why has it lain hidden all these years? The story is a straightforward one, being a moral treatise on the road to ruin. As such there is little surprise and not a great deal of dramatic tension. Millwood (Jessica Myhr), "a lady of pleasure," has vowed to have her revenge on men. "Women are your universal prey," she observes. She sets her sights on an upright, innocent apprentice, George Barnwell (Patrick Woodall), who lives in the London house of his merchant master, Thorowgood (Joe Danbusky). Also in this house is a second apprentice, Trueman (Harlan Work), who is George's stalwart friend, and Thorowgood's daughter, Maria (Megan Stern), who is in love with George. We witness the respected George drawn into the web of the lovely, unscrupulous Millwood, who is aided in her evil scheme by her two servants, Lucy (Michelle Kafel) and Blunt (Spencer Aste). Soon poor George is awash in "this world of woe."
There is pleasure here in the formality of Lillo's language as he creates a glowing scene of goodness that is surprisingly convincing. But, as ever, it is the serpent in the garden who has the best lines. Lillo's delineation of Millwood's character is the most compelling aspect of the play. He makes her both captivating and complex; at her most devious she dissembles with a cunning grace. Though it was clearly never Lillo's intention, she has the makings of a feminist heroine.
Under the astute direction of Peter Dobbins, the well-spoken production has a pleasing bare-boards simplicity that captures the period. Myhr creates a young, attractive Millwood who is deliciously cool in all circumstances, perhaps too cool in her final damnation of men. Innocence is difficult to convey, but Woodall gives George a shining goodness that speaks well for the actor's future. There's a capable supporting cast, especially Danbusky and Work, while Maria Kousoulos' costumes, Michael Abrams' lighting, and David Thomas' sound design greatly assist this cautionary tale. Any student of dramatic history should hurry to make the acquaintance of Millwood and George and finally give George Lillo a welcome to New York.
|Phil Mills and Nicola Murphy in a scene from Arrah-na-Pogue Or, the Wicklow Wedding.
(photo © Michael Abrams)
Arrah-na-Pogue, Or, the Wicklow Wedding is an old-fashioned Irish romance
dramedy by renowned actor-playwright Dion Boucicault. Set against the backdrop of the Irish
Rebellion of 1798, Arrah-na-Pogue chronicles the misadventures of two Wicklow couples
who are deeply but tumultuously in love. Despite spare design and a slightly slow start, you warm
up to the story as the actors do, and are soon won over.
Arrah-na-Pogue is performed in the theater of the Church of Notre Dame, which is a beautiful venue. Ted McGuiness gets off to a somewhat unsteady start as the dashing main protagonist, Beamish MacCoul, outlaw and rebellion leader, who has returned to his native shore to marry and spirit away longtime love and beautiful heiress, Fanny Power (played by Christine Bullen). However, the action, humor, and accents pick up considerably with the entrance of the humbler peasant couple, Shaun the Post and Arrah Meelish, played with spirit by Phil Mills and Nicola Murphy. From them, the Irish blarney and sentimentality seem more natural, as does their chemistry as a couple about to be wed.
In the famed Boucicault manner, much melodrama unfolds as the four lovers' fates become inextricably intertwined and neither wedding comes off as planned. The plot is thick with Shakespearean/Dickensian machinations of natural and manufactured jealousy, rival lovers, betrayal, self-sacrifice—and a double happy ending at the last.
Despite some belaboring, including unnecessary narration of offstage action, the romance is winning enough that you are ready to cheer when all inevitably comes right in the end. Also charming is the spirit of "Erin go Bragh" (a Gaelic phrase meaning "Ireland Forever") that strongly suffuses the play, as is the parochial Irish wit—one character railing against women by proclaiming "Father Adam, why didn’t you die with all your ribs in your chest!" The plot’s loose ends are perhaps tied up too neatly but there is enough energy and classic theatricality that you can forgive and thoroughly enjoy the show.
|Christine Bullen and Jonathan Blakeley.
(photo © Michael Abrams)
We've been spending a lot of time recently going to Off Off Broadway shows in
the East and West Villages (Iphigenia at Aulis, Besharet, The Hallway Trilogy) but on Friday
we traveled in the opposite direction - all the way up to The Storm Theatre at The Theatre of
the Church of Notre Dame near Columbia University to attend a performance of Arrah-na-Pogue (Arrah of the Kiss) Or, the Wicklow Wedding. And we're really glad that we did. This was one
of the best shows we've seen in a while.
Arrah-na-Pogue, written by Dion Boucicault in 1865, is a wonderfully uplifting entertainment suitable for the entire family that is too infrequently staged in America and deserves to be better known in this country. A joyous, adventurous, romantic Irish comedy-drama, it has all the ingredients one seeks in the theatre and too seldom finds: charming tales of love (requited and unrequited), romance, marriage, honor, fidelity and betrayal; swashbuckling escapades; and causes and relationships that both men and women are willing to die for. It is Damon and Pythias, Robin Hood, Casablanca and King Arthur, all rolled into one, set during the time of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, expressed in the most lyrical language that the Irish seem to have such a flair for, and punctuated at just the right moments by a rollicking performance of an Irish step dance by Jennie McGuinness and a lovely rendition of a "The Wearing of the Green" by Michelle Kafel.
Now being presented by the Storm Theatre at The Theatre of the Church of Notre Dame (a very well-designed thrust-stage theatre in the church’s basement), the play centers around Arrah Meelish (Nicola Murphy), nick-named Arrah-na-Pogue (Arrah of the Kiss) for the kiss she once bestowed upon her sweetheart, Shaun the Post (Phil Mills). Unbeknownst to him, Arrah has been providing sanctuary to Beamish Mac Coul (Jonathan Blakeley), a leader of the Rebellion who is attempting to escape from Ireland with his sweetheart, Fanny Power (Christine Bullen). When Michael Feeny (Paul Nugent), a traitorous, disreputable process server, happens upon Beamish's concealment by Arrah and betrays them both to the British authorities, all hell breaks loose. Beamish escapes, Arrah is questioned, Fanny misconstrues Beamish’s relationship with Arrah, Shaun rises to the occasion, and Colonel Bagenal O'Grady (Ted McGuinness), who also is in love with Fanny, seeks everyone’s salvation with the assistance of the British secretary (Spencer Aste)
The play's success is more a function of the script itself than anything else: it is well written, charmingly plotted (albeit a bit hokey, to be sure), and just a great deal of fun. But having said that, credit must also go to the director, Peter Dobbins, who used the theatre's space in the most imaginative fashion. The entire cast also does a terrific job, especially Murphy and Mills, as the most naive and devoted of lovers who bring not only passion but also comedy to their relationship; Bullen and Blakely, whose more realistic take on life provides a fine contrast to that of Murphy and Mills; McGuinness, whose expression of paternalistic compassion and selflessness is finely tuned; Aste, whose deftly wry depiction of the secretary is just splendid; and Joie Bauer who plays to perfection the role of Major Coffin, a cold-hearted British Officer.
But the most outstanding performance of all is that provided by Nugent who plays the role of the villain, Michael Feeny as if he were a sleazy, serpentine leprechaun-ish creature. He is perfect as the character you love to hate and the production wouldn’t be nearly as much fun without him.
A diverting production of an eloquently written romantic comedy by the prolific
19th-century Dublin-born playwright Dion Boucicault, Arrah-na-Pogue ("Arrah of the Kiss") is
well worth the trek up to 114th Street. The play is presented in a cozy thrust-stage theater
nestled in the basement of the Church of Notre Dame. Located just south of Columbia University,
the church features a magnificent sanctuary that audiences are invited to tour en route to the theater.
Though enhanced by Laura Taber Bacon's splendid period costumes, Michael Abrams' evocative lighting, and the lively direction of Peter Dobbins—who keenly employs the sundry nooks and crannies of the space to establish the play's wide variety of locales and activities—the show's success rests largely on the beauty, ardor, wit, and caustic comedy of Boucicault's script. Telling the tale of a spirited young rustic couple about to be married, in Ireland's County Wicklow in 1798, Boucicault's plot is propelled by the extent to which people will go to protect those they love. While essentially a romance, the story is set within the context of the Irish Rebellion against the English and is most entertaining in its amusing portrayals of the clashes between the rival cultures.
The show's outstanding performers are Paul Nugent, who gives a delightfully leprechaunlike interpretation to his villainous role as a devious process server, and Spencer Aste, who is hilarious as an English governmental secretary. Praise also to singer Michelle Kafel, for her haunting a cappella rendition of "The Wearing of the Green," and to Irish step-dance soloist Jennie McGuinness.
Arran-na-Pogue is fair deuce indeed
Question: What does it take to transform Morningside Heights in 2011 to County Wicklow, Ireland in 1798?
Answer: A talented cast rife with the strength of their creative convictions.
Arrah na Pogue, a classic Irish comedic drama by Dion Boucicault, is playing at The Theatre of the Church of Notre Dame and features two Cornellians. Directed by Peter Dobbins and produced by The Storm Theatre, this love story is filled with intrigue, villains and true Irish lyricism. Written in the 19th century and performed in dialect, in less capable hands this production might not soar as it does here. There is a lightness and joy that negates any tones of melodrama, allowing for the dramatic poignant moments to ring true. Christine Bullen ‘08 is an absolute delight as an extraordinarily convincing Fanny Power (one of the romantic leads.) Philip Mills ‘07 is very appropriately cast as Shaun, the dashing half of the wedding couple, and a joy to watch. The young couples are joined by a myriad of townsfolk, red-coats, step-dancers and balladeers.
See this production and escape to the land of County Wicklow and feel the sun on your face and the lilt in the air.
Arrah-na-Pogue and the Spirit of St. Patrick’s Day
It seems everyone would like to be Irish in the month of March. The celebration of St. Patrick's Day has, with the help of Hallmark and the local pub, become a monthlong event. Even beer and bagels—two things that should never be green—become miraculously emerald in hue around the 17th of March. These practices could arguably be deemed overkill-a commercial attempt to squeeze every drop of Irish blood, however small, out of people who cannot properly pronounce "Slainte." However, Storm Theatre's timely offering of Dion Boucicault’s Arrah-na-Pogue could only be called overkill by the most hardened St. Patrick’s Day cynic.
Set during the Rebellion of 1798, the play, billed as a "classic Irish comedy," is handled skillfully by director Peter Dobbins and his thoroughly entertaining cast, offering the audience a sweet glimpse past March's ever-present "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" t-shirts into a world where love, loyalty and a good joke win the day.
The play opens (as a good Irish romance should) in moonlight at the ruins of St. Kevin's Abbey. Beamish Mac Coul (Jonathan Blakely), a leader in the Rebellion, is fleeing to safety in France, unwilling to put his men in danger. Tall and dashing, the audience soon learns that Beamish has strong attachments to two women.
Fanny Power (Christine Bullen), the well-to-do ward of Colonel O’Grady, is Beamish's long-standing secret fiancé, with whom he intends to elope before leaving for France. The other woman is Arrah Meelish (Nicola Murphy), Beamish's foster sister, who has been secretly sheltering the rebel in a cabin on her farm. Arrah is to marry Shaun the Post (Philip Mills) the very next day, but has been keeping Beamish's presence a secret from Shaun in order to protect him from becoming an accomplice.
As Beamish leaves the ruins that night, he waylays a man named Michael Feeney (Paul Nugent) and robs him of his money. Feeney elicits little sympathy for his plight, for he quickly shows himself to be an opportunistic weasel of a rent collector with an unhealthy obsession with Arrah.
Beamish ends up giving Feeney's money to Arrah as a wedding present and a thank you for all she has done, but when Feeney discovers his bank notes in Arrah's possession, he quickly sees a way to ruin her reputation and win her for himself. As the play progresses and secrets are revealed, the two couples find their relationships tested on a very public stage.
On the whole, the charm and enthusiasm of the cast is infectious. As Shaun the Post, Philip Mills' sincere conveyance of his character's delight in his new bride combines with an impish twinkle in his eyes to make it impossible for the audience not to root for him whole-heartedly. Nicola Murphy rises to the challenge of portraying a woman worthy of such unswerving devotion, giving Arrah an irresistible blend of sweetness, spine, and sense of fun.
Jonathan Blakely portrays Beamish with confidence and humility, compelling the audience to see why the other characters are willing to risk so much for him, and the impressive Irish dancing and singing by Jennie McGuinness and Michelle Kafel, respectively, give the wedding scene just the right combination of spirit and wistfulness. But perhaps most impressive is Paul Nugent's smart use of physicality and tonality-artistic choices that make Michael Feeney instantly dislikeable. From the moment Nugent scampers onstage, he whines and leers until his presence becomes tangibly repulsive.
Arrah-na-Pogue is not an easy show to mount. The tone could very easily slip into schmaltz and lose its charm. But Peter Dobbins' direction allows the audience to tune in to the lyricism of Boucicault's script without over-steeping them in Irish sentimentality. Yes, stereotypes are all there to be found, but the simplicity and sincerity with which they are handled allow the story to unfold as a fable, not a caricature.
The production transforms the Theatre of the Church of Notre Dame from a cold church basement into a dynamic performance space, with the intimate setting forcing the audience to engage with the action onstage. The community that the characters live in is vital to their story, and the staging allows the audience to become a part of the characters' world, witnessing the joy of Arrah and Shaun’s wedding and the tension of Shaun's trial as more than mere outside observers.
The story of Arrah-na-Pogue offers a thoughtful meditation on the nature of love and trust. Arrah and Shaun's unshakeable devotion to each other arises from their mutual belief in the innate good of their beloved and their consequent commitment to putting the other first. This admirable love does not pave an easy road to happiness for the couple, but instead gives them something better-the profound easiness of soul that comes from knowing, absolutely, that you are loved.
Their love has the strength not just to endure adversity, but to blossom in the face of it. Conversely, the lack of faith displayed by Fanny not only threatens her own relationship, but also would have undermined a bond weaker than Arrah and Shaun’s. Fanny and Beamish's chance at a happy ending results from Beamish's ability to forgive her and accept her love even with its flaws.
Arrah-na-Pogue is not without relevance to the contemporary Irish flavor of March, with the character of Fanny Power most closely capturing the modern St. Patrick's Day cynic. Drawn in by the romance and gallantry of Beamish, she is nonetheless unable to believe the promise of what he offers her. It takes Fanny the longest to understand the beauty of Arrah-na-Pogue's message. The kind of love that endures is the love that dares to challenge adversity and come out the other end stronger.
It is the kind of love that is immortalized in Irish ballads and fairy tales, and that requires a great leap of faith to accept. This faith, perhaps more than a draft of good stout or a grinning leprechaun, is what we should focus on during this month of St. Patrick's Days.
The Storm Theatre and Blackfriars Repertory Theatre complete their cycle of plays by Paul Claudel with Noon Divide (Le Partage de Midi). With their previous productions of The Satin Slipper and The Tidings Brought to Mary, this has been an invaluable project, providing New Yorkers with a rare glimpse at the dramatic writing of this noted diplomat, poet, and religious thinker.
|Kate Chamuris and Chris Kipiniak in a scene from Noon Divide.
(photo © Michael Abrams)
As the former French consul in Shanghai and a devout Catholic, it is easy to understand
how the anti-Western, anti-Catholic Boxer Rebellion might horrify playwright Paul Claudel. However,
it was a less than epic event from his own life—namely an illicit affair—that inspired his drama of
rootless French expatriates advancing towards their ill-fate in turn-of-the-century China. Yet, as
is often the case in his work, the worldly take on hidden, cosmic import in Noon Divide, the final
production of the Storm Theatre and Blackfriars Repertory Theatre’s Paul Claudel Project, now
running at the Church of Notre Dame.
The entire notion of love, in any context, is highly problematic in Divide. Mesa, an unremarkable French civil servant, has given up on it completely, renouncing his kinship with his fellow man. For the flirtatious Ysé, it is a dangerous, but effective tool. On the proverbial slow boat to China (for the even more proverbial forty days), Mesa resents her attentions, while hating himself for the feelings they stir. There is definitely something percolating between them, catching the attention of the rakish Almaric, but escaping the notice of her easily manipulated husband De Ciz. Claudel though, is more interested in Mesa’s attempts at abnegation than consummation, finding more drama inherent in the former.
As befitting a Zhivago-like romantic saga, the fate all three men will become intertwined with Ysé as the Boxer Rebellion inexorably boils over. Nevertheless, Claudel almost entirely shuns the macro picture, using the Boxers solely as background noise. Instead, his focus is more intimate and infinitely wider. It is a tricky duality that directors Stephen Logan Day and Peter Dobbins pull off quite nicely.
Granted, Claudel’s dramatic instincts might sound counter-intuitive, but he certainly could write. One is immediately struck by the richness of his language and the effectiveness of the French translation of Divide. His dialogue is heavy with significance, but it never sounds awkward or affected. In fact, it is often quite sharp—witty, even.
Claudel’s words are probably not a little daunting, but the four-handed cast proves quite game. Projecting a malevolent magnetism, Chris Kipiniak is particularly gripping as Almaric. Co-director Dobbins also conveys all the contradictions and uncertainties of Mesa, while still coming across as acutely human.
A deep and challenging production, Divide is a strong conclusion to the Claudel Project. Frankly, it leaves one wondering why Claudel’s work has been so rarely revived. While he addresses faith in sophisticated and uncompromising terms that might not attract the materialistic or shallow, his plays offer much for directors to sink their teeth into. Divide is a case in point. Highly recommended, it plays at the Church of Notre Dame through November 20th.
Storm the Theatre This Weekend
Closing this weekend in New York City is Storm Theatre’s production of Noon Divide, the final installment of their Paul Claudel Project at the Theatre of the Church of Notre Dame. Storm Theatre (particularly their artistic director Peter Dobbins) is to be commended for tackling such a difficult and ambitious project. Claudel, a renowned but sadly neglected French playwright, did not pen easy material.
Rich in dramatic content and written in beautifully dense poetry, his plays explore deeply personal and difficult matters on a grand scale. Man’s relationship with both the human and the divine are explored in intimate detail, and when it works, it works beautifully. Noon Divide might be the weakest of the three plays Storm has tackled (Tidings Brought to Mary and The Satin Slipper were produced in previous seasons), but the material is still sensitively and thoughtfully treated, with wonderfully comic moments sprinkled among the sometimes stagnant soul-searching with which Claudel challenges the actors and directors.
In Noon Divide, Claudel sought to make the previously epic themes explored in The Satin Slipper more intimate. But while he places his characters on a ship heading toward China at the break of the Boxer Rebellion, this dramatic context is no more than a reference point for the audience. The choice could have been an effective one, exploring how the intimate moments of humanity can be as dramatic and life-changing as the external drama the world often provides, but Claudel’s decision to have the plot advance between the acts instead of during them creates a static aura that can be difficult for actors and directors to animate.
The play is well worth seeing despite these challenges. As always, the basement of the Theatre of the Church of Notre Dame is beautifully transformed into an intimate playing space, and the design elements of the production greatly add to its artistic merit. Chris Kipiniak, who plays Amalric, brings a vibrant and restless energy to the stage. Confident, brash and smug, Kipiniak creates the quintessential Man-of-the-Moment character, always wanting more than what he has. Peter Dobbins (who both acts in and codirects the production) gives Mesa, who is based on Claudel himself, the appropriate mix of intellectual severity, awkward shyness, and hidden yearning.
The final two showings of Noon Divide are this Friday, November 19 and Saturday, November 20, both at 7:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at www.smarttix.com and the Theatre of the Church of Notre Dame is located 405 W. 114th St. at the corner of Morningside Drive.
Noon Divide, an intense morality/passion play by French poet, dramatist, and diplomat Paul Claudel (1868-1955), is excellent serious theater. Like ancient Greek drama, it deals with what makes people tick, what drives them on, and what propels them to undo themselves. And also, like Greek drama, a great deal of the action that motivates the characters is offstage, and the audience observes how they live with (and adapt to) the actions that occur prior to the play’s start and between the acts.
|Peter Dobbins Kate Chamuris and in a scene from Noon Divide.
(photo © Michael Abrams)
Peter Dobbins knows what it's like to be thrown overboard and to spend time in the
belly of a whale, at least figuratively speaking.
He is the artistic director of The Storm Theatre, an "off-off-Broadway" nonprofit company in New York City. Dobbins' career, however, was not always so successful. In fact, 25 years ago he was kicked out of theater school. Soon thereafter Dobbins—who was raised Catholic but fell away from the faith during college—stumbled upon G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy. "It almost felt like a bomb went off in my head," he said. Dobbins not only returned to the faith, but began to dream of using his artistic talents to pass on the truth and beauty he had rediscovered.
The idea, however, remained dormant for more than a decade. "It was like Jonah when he's talked to by God: He runs away and is swallowed by a whale," Dobbins said. "You know you're supposed to do this, but you're afraid of it."
Twelve years later—in 1997—he joined a group of colleagues to create The Storm Theatre. Dobbins admits the initial partnership consisted of primarily lapsed Catholics looking to counteract the increasingly "director-centric" nature of theater at the time. "The founding principle was that the script was sort of sacred," he said. "So often somebody tries to make a name for themselves by giving a bizarre twist to the script. We wanted to put the actors at the center." Although Dobbins' associates didn't necessarily share his thirst for exploring Christian texts, they didn't oppose it either.
Storm's first production featured Murder in the Cathedral: The Passion and Martyrdom of Thomas Becket by T.S. Eliot. Subsequent shows included a wide range: from the plays of William Shakespeare to a musical adaptation of the 1984 science-fiction adventure film The Last Starfighter. Storm later presented The Jeweler's Shop and other lesser-known works by Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II). Dobbins said Storm has attracted additional Catholic artists over the years, but he considers a mix of personalities and backgrounds crucial to its success. Likewise, while the company's productions tend to feature religious themes, he said they are rarely overtly Catholic. "I don't want to scare anybody away," Dobbins said. "If you're Catholic, you can't miss it, but if you're not, you'd think, Hey, this is interesting."
For Monica Weigel, a graduate of New York University with a master's in educational theater, who is an occasional theater critic for First Things, this approach works well. "Because they don't present material in a preachy kind of way, it continues to draw not just the 'Catholic audience,' but audiences of all different backgrounds who are treated to material that doesn't hit them over the head with Catholic doctrine," she said.
Weigel noted a very thin line between art and propaganda, an issue which she said all theaters need to be careful of and Storm handles well. "They have a wonderful way of finding the deeper spiritual themes in a production and treating them very sensitively … in a way that's artistic and thought-provoking," she said.
Storm's spiritual awareness, however, in no way avoids the harsh realities of life. For example, coming in October, Storm will partner with Blackfriars Repertory Theatre, an off-Broadway company sponsored by the Dominican Province of St. Joseph, to produce the final play in a three-part series from French poet Paul Claudel: Claudel's "Noon Divide" tells the story of the playwright's own extramarital affair. "[Claudel] did not question the sinfulness of that," Dobbins said, "but he believed that somehow God had put her in his path to lead Claudel to him." All of Claudel's plays explore what Dobbins called "the mechanics of grace," the mysterious ways that God draws men and women to himself. "Ultimately, they're about 'crazy love,' which is what grace is," Dobbins said. "That's what God's love is."
When choosing which plays to direct, Dobbins rejects the idea of producing a poorly written play merely to convey a particular message. Instead, he looks for artistic "celebrations" of both love and life. "Every play is a prayer of thanksgiving for being alive," he said, comparing the entire process—from first rehearsal to final curtain—to a two-month party. "Doing a play is like giving that perfect Christmas gift," Dobbins said. Even though a friend may ask for a particular item, he said, "what's the most fun is to have something that you love but you know they're going to love, and they'll be surprised by it." Dobbins hopes theatergoers will come away from a show with a greater perspective on their own lives. "You ask yourself, Could this in some way lead somebody to heaven—in a really fun way?" he said.
Dobbins' passion for life, theater and God drew Dominican Father Peter John Cameron, founding artistic director of Blackfriars Repertory Theatre, to collaborate with Storm on several shows in the past two years. Due to the expensive nature of theater, Father Cameron said that pooling resources just makes sense. But, that's not all. "We have a shared vision for the good that theater can provide for culture," Father Cameron said.
For Michelle Kafel, an occasional Storm actor, stage manager and assistant director, this potential for good hit close to home when her boyfriend—who is a nonbeliever—came to watch her perform in Claudel's "The Satin Slipper" last spring. "He was so completely blown away by the depth of human experience that this play went into that it moved him almost to tears," Kafel said. "These works may be difficult to get into sometimes because they are so full, but they make people think, and not just accept the status quo." A native of upstate New York and a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Kafel said she also finds plentiful opportunities to share her faith with fellow cast members.
Dinh Doan, an actor from California, appreciates the unique atmosphere Storm Theatre provides to discuss matters of faith and even to attend Mass together on occasion. "As artists and actors, we think we're on the edge of liberalism — anything goes and it's all right because we're 'artists,'" Doan said. "Around other actors, it's hard to talk about being Catholic, because it's old-fashioned." Doan said that performing with The Storm Theatre, however, grounds him in his identity as a Christian and provides examples of how to incorporate faith into a successful acting career.
For Dobbins, such experiences of the cast and crew are just as crucial as the impact on the audience. "It's like the idea of a storm," Dobbins said. "It can be powerful and scary, but it also regenerates."
The current forecast predicts the next "Storm" to hit the Church of Notre Dame in Manhattan on Oct. 29.
In 1997, a group of arts enthusiasts established The Storm Theatre
in New York City to focus on work that explores what it means to be human. Over the years,
its repertoire has ranged from classical Shakespeare to Karol Wojtyla’s obscure plays to
modern works reflecting life today.
Zoe Romanowsky talked to Artistic Director Peter Dobbins about the theater's mission and its latest endeavor, the Paul Claudel Project. In conjunction with the Blackfriars Repertory Theatre, Claudel’s Noon Divide is now playing at the Church of Notre Dame until November 20, 2010.
Zoe Romanowsky: Tell me first about the name -- The Storm. Where did it come from?
Peter Dobbins: Well, I get really bored with names like Public, or Civic, etc. I was going after something more beautiful, romantic, and elemental like the Elizabetheans . . . The Globe, The Swan, The Rose . . . I think a storm is a great metaphor for theater. They're beautiful, potentially violent, but also can be regenerative.
Perhaps most truthfully, it came from a woman who inspired me while at a crossroads. She was beautiful, and her face reminded me of a storm.
I notice a strong Catholic tone to The Storm's mission. Is it correct to say you are a Catholic or Christian theater company? Or is there another way of describing what you're trying to do?
I am Catholic, and I am the artistic director. Yes, I think it's safe to say we're a Catholic theater company, although not everyone is Catholic or even Christian. I am choosing the material that reaches the audience. You're always trying to tell the truth as an artist, and my belief in what is "true" has been deeply influenced by my faith. I believe that our work, therefore, will stand in stark contrast to much of contemporary dramatic art.
How do you choose the plays you present each season?
There are many factors: Will people come? Will this get reviewed? But really, I try to love as intensely as possible in making a gift of myself and others to the audience. I hope that makes sense. Plays choose me, not vice versa. You read something and it won't let you go. They keep calling you until you do them. You seek material that you really love and believe that other people will as well. And it's not enough for it to be just you or just them that loves it -- the potential experience is filled with such a longing or expectation that it allows you to give the most of yourself to your audience.
Which plays have most resonated with your audiences and why?
The most romantic ones . . . ARRAH NA POGUE by Dion Bouicicault; AS YOU LIKE IT by William Shakespeare; THE JEWELER's SHOP by Karol Wojtyla; THE SATIN SLIPPER; and our current show, NOON DIVIDE, by Paul Claudel. Everyone responds to romance instinctively, as we are all deeply involved in our own cosmic romance with God in which all elements of creation play a part.
In previous seasons, you ran a "Karol Wojtyla Theater Festival," where you presented four of the late pope's plays -- THE JEWELER's SHOP, JOB, JEREMIAH, and OUR GOD'S BROTHER. Many people are only familiar with the first. What themes in the plays speak most to what it means to be human?
OUR GOD'S BROTHER deals with vocation and how one chooses what to devote one's life to. The playwright believes you should choose the path -- in whatever profession -- that will allow you to love most completely. For some that might be the priesthood, for some the arts, for others something else.
JOB and JEREMIAH were written during the Nazi occupation and focus on faith under extreme duress. They deal with Poland and its role in God's Divine plan. Both are constantly asking why the suffering has happened, but always looking beyond to see the possible answers.
Let's talk about the Paul Claudel Project. You've presented three plays as part of this festival, and the last one -- NOON DIVIDE -- is showing until November 20th. What is it about Paul Claudel's work that you find so compelling?
That he is maybe the only great playwright that really goes to the core of human existence. What is the purpose? Salvation. He sees and tries to illuminate the vast architecture of salvation and the mechanics of grace. It's about the crazy love of God for His creation and how He will do whatever it takes to bring us closer to Him.
The other two Claudel plays you presented were THE TIDINGS BROUGHT TO MARY and THE SATIN SLIPPER. How did you decide in which order to show them?
It just seemed the natural order. Tidings was perhaps the least complicated to stage, thus the easiest way to start. Satin Slipper is considered his "great masterpiece." That became the perfect way to open our new 114th Street space.
Will this be the end of the Paul Claudel Project, or do you plan to keep it going?
That's it for now. I would love to tour the three of them in rep around the country. That's a hope and a dream, anyway.
As the artistic director, are there playwrights you would like to feature or new work you want to bring to audiences?
I would love to do even more Boucicault, Claudel, and Shakespeare. But beyond that, I'd love to do a Eduardo de Filippo festival. He was a wonderful Italian playwright. I definitely need to find new work as well -- perhaps adapt some of the great Catholic novels to the stage, like Brideshead Revisited or the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy.
As a former stage actor, I'm curious about your actors. Do they audition simply to land another job, or do most of them have a personal interest in your mission and selections?
You get both. The best person for the role is who gets the part -- or the person who I think is best is probably more accurate. Some very much want to be part of what we're doing; they've been looking for a place like this. Others, really, just want to act.
The casts are usually a mix of practicing Catholics/lapsed Catholics, other faiths, or no faith at all. I think this is a great way to have a group of people think about ideas they may not have otherwise.
What can we expect at The Storm in 2011?
Possibly a new staging of Dion Bouicicault's ARRAH NA POGUE, which we originally staged in January 2000. Also perhaps a new translation of Marcel Pagnol's MARIUS, the first part of the Fanny trilogy, as well as some more Shakespeare with A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM.
When does NOON DIVIDE show, and how does one obtain a ticket? This is the final weekend, right?
Yes, there are two more performances: on Friday, November 19, and Saturday, November 20, at 7:30 p.m., and we close November 20th. We perform at the Theatre at the Church of Notre Dame at 114th street and Morningside Drive West.
|Erin Teresa Beirnard and Mauricio Tafur Salgado in a scene from As You Like It.
(photo © Michael Abrams)
The reason to see a Storm Theatre production of one of Shakespeare's comedy/romances is because
Peter Dobbins, the Storm's artistic director, consistently cuts through the ribaldry and theatricks on the
play's surface and hones in on the beating poetic heart at its center. Come see his current show, As You Like It,
not for clowning or reinterpretation but solely to appreciate the earnest themes of love, faith, and goodwill that anchor
the familiar story. Dobbins revels in Elizabethan trappings, and so he gives us lots of song and dance and an epilogue
delivered without so much as a wink by the actress who plays Rosalind. And, in a heartfelt nod to the city where he works,
he gives us an ensemble that truly looks like New York, blending the diversity of many cultures to celebrate what's universal
in one of Western Drama's most enduring works.
The storytelling in this As You Like It takes its time, focusing us on what's actually at stake for the principal characters before they all meet up and frolic in the Forest of Arden. We meet the two brothers Oliver and Orlando first, the former inexplicably an enemy to the latter; Orlando, as portrayed with palpable passion by Mauricio Tafur Salgado, yearning to grow into himself, and Oliver, incarnated by Harlan Work, fueled by equal parts hatred and self-awareness. Oliver meets with Charles, wrestler to Duke Frederick, and arranges for him to defeat his younger brother in a wrestling match at the duke's palace.
We next encounter the duke's daughter Celia and her cousin Rosalind, who are closer than sisters and whose dependency on one another has increased since Celia's father banished his brother (Rosalind's father) to the forest. Laura Bozzone (Celia) and Erin Teresa Beirnard (Rosalind) make these young women very different from one another, with Celia both more reserved and more dutiful than her more adventurous and impetuous cousin. The two girls attend the wrestling match, where two earth-shaking events occur: first, Rosalind and Orlando lay eyes upon one another and fall instantly in love; and second, Charles is defeated by Orlando, which immediately turns Orlando into an enemy of the dukedom. Soon both he and Rosalind will flee to Arden, the one for his safety, the other on the duke's orders, and in the company of her cousin Celia and the court fool, Touchstone.
Dobbins makes it clear that the flight to Arden is no walk in the park but rather a scary undertaking full of risk and unknowns. Salgado, Bozzone, and Beirnard are all convincingly youthfulwe believe that they're teenagers who are genuinely fearful about what will happen next, but nonetheless bound to do the right thing for themselves and others as they leave the security they've always known. And Salgado and Beirnard, in their brief moments together before and after the wrestling match, give us two young people irretrievably in love. We're fully immersed in their story as they head off, unbeknownst to each other, to the forest and the heart of the play.
The mood lightens, of course, and the play turns mellower as the characters move further away from the villainous Duke Frederick and Oliver. We meet the shepherds Corin and Silvius, here portrayed with jolly simplicity by Jose Sanchez and Robert Carroll, respectively; and, in the formidable person of Christine Bullen, we meet the somewhat shrewish maid that Silvius is determined to woo and wed, Phebe. And of course we encounter Duke Senor (Rosalind's father) and his melancholy courtier Jaques, portrayed here with the world-weary sagacity that a permanently broken heart affords by director Dobbins, who renders the play's most famous soliloquy (the one that begins "All the world's a stage") with simple eloquence. Joe Danbusky plays both Duke Frederick and Duke Senor and makes them into such different men that I had to force myself to remember that he was just one actor.
A highlight of this production is the wrestling scene, which is both longer and more exciting than I've seen in previous productions of the play, thanks to the contributions of fight choreographer Michael Engberg (who, Dobbins told me, is a wrestler himself) and Jimmy Gary, Jr., the ex-NFL player who portrays Charles.
Ken Larson's simple set, Michael Abrams's evocative lighting, and Laura Taber Bacon's costumes, which conjure 17th century New Spain (where Dobbins has set his production) all work together beautifully to build the visible world of the play. And Dobbins and his company mine the spirit and soul of Shakespeare's story and words to build the inner world within it.
This is not an As You Like It with a gimmick or with an attitude: it's one where the power of love, pure and simple, defeats the wicked forces around it.
William Shakespeare's As You Like It has been long serenaded in print as well as celebrated on stage with all the stops pulled out. But The Storm Theatre and Blackfriars Repertory Theatre (at the Theatre of the Church of Notre Dame) fresh rendering of the classic is a production of a different stripe. Set in the early 17th century, somewhere in the Spanish colonies of the New World, it is distinctive for its pristine simplicity. Many recent revivals (like Sam Mendes's As You Like It at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this season) have been staged on a large scale with imposing settings. But this current revival reduces the stagecraft to a bare minimum and the actors don't have to compete with the scenery.
|Erin Teresa Beirnard and Christine Bullen in a scene from As You Like It.
(photo © Michael Abrams)
Entertaining Shakespeare: The Storm Theatre's As You Like It
|Erin Teresa Beirnard and Laura Bozzone in a scene from As You Like It.
(photo © Michael Abrams)
|Meredith Napolitano and Christopher Tucco in a scene from The Satin Slipper.
(photo © Michael Abrams)
The Storm Theatre and Blackfriars Repertory Theatre are giving
New York its first look at Paul Claudel's The Satin Slipper, an epic drama of
the spirit written more than 80 years ago. Claudel was one of those polymath
intellectuals that don't seem to exist so much nowadays, prominent as a diplomat,
poet, and dramatist whose work was informed by his deep Catholic faith; he was
also the brother of artist Camille Claudel. Peter Dobbins, director of The Satin
Slipper, told me that the play was originally written to be performed over a
four-day period, spanning around 12 hours of playing time. Dobbins has pared it down
considerably, to just under three hours in length. His production, which inaugurates
a lovely and welcome new Manhattan theatre space in the basement of the Church of
Notre Dame, challenges audiences to absorb and attend to the wide-ranging ideas and
plot points that Claudel brings to his sometimes undisciplined script. In introducing
us to an authentic lost masterwork of the last century, and in its ultimate, stark
message of redemption through pure and unconditional love, The Satin Slipper is
absolutely worth your time.
The play takes place in Spain and all over the world, at the turn of the 17th century or thereabouts. (I do not know how true to actual history Claudel is or intends to be.) The story of The Satin Slipper revolves around Dona Prouheze, the young wife of a Spanish nobleman/official, Don Pelagio. Pelagio is much older than Prouheze and has few illusions about her love for him, but he expects fidelity. Prouheze is in fact in love with the dashing Don Rodrigo (and he with her); she is being wooed by the adventurer Don Camillo. The plot is complicated and, during the largely expository first act, dense and sometimes hard to parse. What transpires, though, is that the King of Spain orders Don Rodrigo to become master of his domains in America and Don Pelagio sends his wife to look after his own interests in Morocco, at least in part to keep her away from Rodrigo. Don Camillo turns up in Morocco. Over decades and across an ocean, the sacred love of Prouheze and Rodrigo is tested.
Claudel crowds the play with incident and characters; the story becomes much more straightforward as the focus falls more steadily on the two lovers and what occurs around them evolves more and more into counterpoint and commentary on the course of their love. Supernatural and spiritual entities abound: Dona Prouheze's Guardian Angel makes two pivotal appearances during the piece; we also meet and hear from Don Rodrigo's saintly brother (dying while rigged to the mast of a sinking ship), Saint James (as a constellation of stars), and the Moon. Saint Teresa of Avila frames the playboth the prologue and epilogue are given over to her in sung prayer. Many other personages, from the King of Spain to a Gleaner Nun, inhabit the story as well.
Dobbins provides a brisk pace and a deep compassion in his staging, moving us rapidly through the (abridged) play's 27 scenes. A few set pieces appear now and then to help anchor us to a particular location; mostly he relies on us to listen and imagine as he moves his actors on and off a long, narrow stage that splits the audience in too, sweeping us through the story in a kind of Shakespearean style. A map of the world dominates the set, which is designed by Ken Larson. Beautiful and plentiful period costumes by Laura Tabor Bacon adorn the cast, while evocative theatrical lighting by Michael Abrams completes the visual environment.
There are 16 actors employed here, including Storm regulars Ross McGraw, expansive and commanding as Don Pelagio, and Dan Berkey, who brings strength and clarity to the role of the Guardian Angel, Don Rodrigo's brother, and a few other characters. Meredith Napolitano takes the demanding role of Donna Prouheze and holds us captivated throughout. Harlan Work is Don Rodrigo; his character is absent for most of the first half of the play (though he is indeed the protagonist of the story); when he finally emerges as the anchor of the second half he holds the stage brilliantly. Christopher Tocco, from the West Coast, is enormously effective as Don Camillo and as occasional narrator of the playhe is blessed with a charismatic presence and a deep sonorous voice, and I hope I will see him on stage again in the future.
Erin Teresa Beirnard, who had the lead in Storm Theatre's first Claudel show, The Tidings Brought to Mary, has three lovely cameos here, as Dona Musica (a friend to Dona Prouheze), the Moon, and the Gleaner Nun. Cherly Burek sings Saint Teresa's role beautifully. Completing the noteworthy cast are Dinh Q. Doan, Merel Julia, Gabe Bettio, Michelle Kafel, Maury Miller, Joshua Dixon, Anthony Russo, Cassandra Palacio, and nine-year-old Megan Doyle, most of whom take several roles during the evening.
At once a sprawling epic and a staggeringly intimate love story, The Satin Slipper conveys the simple, powerful message of living by following the example of Jesus Christ. Claudel's moral clarity, and his interest in exploring the nature of his moral position from every angle, distinguish The Satin Slipper from just about any contemporary drama that I can think of. I am grateful to the folks at the Storm and Blackfriars Repertory Theatres for giving us a chance to witness it first-hand.
"A Drama of Heart and Soul "
I don't follow the theater world very much at all, but I recently discovered quite by accident that a local theatre group was doing a production of the French Catholic poet/diplomat Paul Claudel's play The Satin Slipper. I've been curious about this epic for many years: It's said to be nearly impossible to stage, running some 12 hours and set on three continents (and then some). Director Peter Dobbins, of the Storm Theatre and Blackfriars Repertory Theatre, has put together a three-hour version, and I decided to trek up to the Columbia University neighborhood this evening to give it a try. It was enormously rewarding, and I recommend it to anyone in the NYC area interested in religious drama – performances will continue until February 6. Set in Golden Age Spain of the late 16th century, the play is a romantic/marital drama, and a historical reflection on the colonization of the New World, but – most important of all – a story of the finding of purpose that comes only on the other side of the death of self. I was warned ahead of time that the first half of the play was difficult, and this was quite true; but the emotional payoff in the second half was immense, a convincing acting-out of the truth expressed in Psalm 51: "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise."
The venue is small - the basement of Notre Dame Catholic Church - and the production is not opulent. But the cast are excellent, and the bare-bones staging helps them create a genuinely engrossing reality. This is an excellent dramatic achievement, about the joy that lives within and beyond tears.
|Meredith Napolitano and Christopher Tocco in a scene from The Satin Slipper.
(photo © Michael Abrams)
|Harlan Work and Meredith Napolitano in a scene from The Satin Slipper.
(photo © Michael Abrams)
|Meredith Napolitano and Christopher Tucco in a scene from The Satin Slipper.
(photo © Michael Abrams)
|Harlan Work and Meredith Napolitano in a scene from The Satin Slipper.
(photo © Michael Abrams)
"A Universe-Sized Script"
The original script ran about 10 hours long and had 52 scenes and some 4 dozen characters, but the enormity of Paul Claudel's The Satin Slipper does not faze Storm Theatre artistic director Peter Dobbins, whose slimmed-down revival opens Jan. 8 as part two of a three-play Claudel Project produced in partnership with the Catholic Blackfriars Repertory Company.
The Satin Slipper takes place in Renaissance Spain and deals with frustrated romances and thorny religious debates. Dobbins, who is working on cutting the running time to about three hours, says the play explores "the deepest yearning of human existence—the desire for the infinite, and perhaps more uniquely, the infinite's restless desire for us."
Dobbins came upon Claudel's works while rummaging around at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. At the heart of what a director wants from any playwright is to say, "Give me everything," says Dobbins, but in this case, "Claudel proved generous to a fault—it is great to be dealing with something the size of the universe."
Although The Satin Slipper appears to be an epic tragedy, Dobbins seeks to mount it "as a divine comedy, illustrating the mechanics of grace and the architecture of salvation." Convinced that the late French playwright (a diplomat who died in 1955) would approve of his new take, Dobbins says, "I'm sure Claudel would take it as the happiest of endings."
|Ross DeGraw and Erin Beirnard in a scene from The Tidings Brought to Mary.
(photo © Michael Abrams)
With The Tidings Brought
to Mary, The Storm Theatre and Blackfriars Repertory Theatre give New
York audiences it first look at a Paul Claudel play in more than 20 years.
Claudel (brother of the artist Camille Claudel) was a prolific and often
adventurous playwright whose work spans the first half of the 20th
century. He's regarded as a "Roman Catholic playwright" (that's a direct
quote from Siegfried Melchinger's Concise Encyclopedia of Modern Drama;
see this Wikipedia article also). Peter Dobbins,
director of this production, has told me he considers it a modern Miracle
The Tidings Brought to Mary takes place in the early 15th century in France (events of the play happen concurrently with the rise and fall of Joan of Arc). Violaine is the elder daughter of a wealthy French estate owner. In the long prologue that begins the play, we see her with a leper, Pierre De Craon, who has tried to rape her. She forgives him and the scene ends with her kissing him on the mouth.
In the next scenes of the play, we learn that Violaine's father has decided to leave his family to join a crusade in the Holy Land, and that it is his wish that a fine and strapping young man named Jacques Hurey should take over as head of the estate, and marry Violaine. Mara, Violaine's younger sister—as pragmatic as Violaine is spiritual—is in love with Jacques. What develops in Acts I and II is that Violaine lets Jacques know that she has become exposed to leprosy. He drives her away and takes Mara for his bride instead.
The second part of the play (Acts III and IV) take turns that feel surprising—perhaps less so if you fully appreciate that Violaine has, in Melchinger's words, had her annunciation and sanctification as a result of her pity for Pierre and her renunciation of Jacques.
I feel certain that Claudel wants audiences to find in this play an expression of his deep Catholic faith: we are to believe that a miracle occurs. I am personally more inclined to read the piece's themes in a more general way: that sacrifice and devotion and love are necessary for human survival.
Dobbins's realization of this sometimes difficult work is commendable. The simple set, by Czerton Lim, is eloquent and beautiful and serves the piece well. Michael Abrams's lighting equally contributes to the tone.
At the center of the play are the sisters, both expertly performed here by Erin Beirnard (Violaine) and Laura Bozzone (Mara). Beirnard is especially memorable in the second part of the play, conveying Violaine's extraordinary goodness (saintliness?) without affect or comment. Harlan Work offers strong support as the oft-conflicted Jacques. Fine work is also offered by Ross DeGraw and Jenny D. Green as Violaine and Mara's parents.
Storm and Blackfriars promise more Claudel next season. For students of modern drama, The Tidings Brought to Mary and its successors in this "mini-festival" will expose them to eclectic, interesting work that is rarely attempted on stage.
|Erin Beirnard and Laura Bozzone in The Tidings Brought to Mary.
(photo © Michael Abrams)
The Tidings Brought to
Mary is 20th-century French dramatist Paul Claudel's take ons medieval
mystery plays, which were based on Biblical readings, and originally
performed by clergy until a papal writ in 1210 forbade them and guilds
took their place, earning these plays the name "misterium," Latin for
occupation. Within the limitations of this form, Claudel's poetic language
and the cast's energetic and heartfelt performances make what could be a
dull recitation of religious maxims an affecting drama. If The Tidings
Brought to Mary sometimes feels like a relic, perhaps its message will
appeal to an audience living in a world of turmoil. For Claudel, the
solution for a society in which the center does not hold is simple: the
center is the cross - redemption and eternal glory through devotion and
Set in 15th-century France on a farm in the Champagne region, the play opens with a moment of tension: Pierre De Craon, the town's master builder, who is erecting a cathedral, suffers incredible desire for a young peasant girl, Violaine, which impels him to try to rape the girl. She foils his attempt, and it's after this encounter that we enter the story. De Craon is shaken to the core, unhappy about both his desires and his inability to fulfill them, saying, "What man who loves does not want all he loves?" He believes his impure thoughts have marked him with leprosy (a commonly held conception in medieval Europe), which he conceals by wearing a robe.
Rather than criticize and spurn De Craon, Violaine feels deep compassion for him. She wants to share in his joy and grief, but he is overwhelmed by her empathy and happiness. After they circle each other with increasing tension, Violaine gives herself to Pierre, and kisses the leper, thereby sealing her terrible (here, a good thing) fate. Further complicating the narrative, this forbidden kiss is witnessed by Mara, Violaine's jealous sister.
The nocturnal meeting between De Craon and Violaine, and most of the play's action, take place in a space made to look like a stable. The biblical implications of every arrangement and set piece are thoughtfully executed in the Storm Theatre's production. In particular, the lighting design stunningly renders the day's changing light. We are made to feel that the farm's humble spaces are as filled with God's presence as a church. At times, the soft lighting can even make certain scenes look like works of religious art.
Fortunately Mara is there to spice things up, incorporating shame, guilt, and the deviousness of a wicked sister. As Mara, Laura Bozzone flies into the play with exciting fury, and the huffiness and whine of a modern teenager. Such modern touches make the play feel more relevant and vibrant. Jenny D. Green's performance as Elizabeth Vercors achieves a similar feat: she draws on familiar caricatures of shrewish wives, but also incorporates the self-aware nagging of modern comediennes.
Yet there is beauty in simplicity. As in many religious stories, good triumphs over evil: Violaine dies happily, her sister realizes the error of her ways, and the prodigal father is restored to his family. This production honors the play's uncomplicated beauty with an earnest rendering.
Paul Claudel's The
Tidings Brought to Mary, which hasn't been seen in New York since
1923, has been given an elegant and thought-provoking production by the
Storm Theatre and Blackfriars Repertory Theatre.
Although it is billed as a mystery play, Claudel's poetic drama achieves its spiritual resonance by focusing on the private lives of one family in medieval France. The main theme of Paul Claudel's play is sacrifice. The story revolves around two sisters, Mara and Violaine Vercors. While the younger sister, Mara, is scrupulously honest, she is bitter about the advantages her sweet-tempered elder sister possesses: the love of family and friends, the inheritance of the best portions of the family property, and a promising fiancé. Nineteen-year-old Violaine sees only happiness before her, despite the political and religious upheaval which is tearing her homeland apart. In a moment of empathy for another's suffering, Violaine kisses a leper and contracts the disease herself. Forced to leave home and give up her earthly goods and fiancé to Mara, Violaine transforms into an almost holy figure who can give life to others while she has none of her own. In The Tidings Brought to Mary, existence is not about living: it's "not a question of building the cross, but hanging from it and giving what we have joyfully."
|Harlan Work, Laura Bozzone in The Tidings Brought to Mary.
(photo © Michael Abrams)
Director Peter Dobbins stages the play with
restraint and simplicity. The opening scene between Violaine (Erin
Beirnard) and her former suitor, leper Pierre De Craon (Douglas Taurel),
is particularly effective. The scenes between the Vercors family members
which make up the majority of the play are strong and frequently touching.
Unfortunately, the only crowd scene in the play lacks the focused polish
of the rest; the performances cannot conceal the scene's clunky
Dobbins and his company have focused on finding a classical, clear performance style, finding the humanity in the play's poetry. Beirnard, with her melodious voice, is a standout, as is Taurel. Jenny D. Green gives a touching performance as mother Elizabeth Vercors, who struggles and fails to keep her family intact. Laura Bozzone as Mara has a strong stage presence and an always-expressive face. Harlan Work is appealing as Jacques, Violaine's fiancé.
Czerton Lim's minimalistic set blends the rough brick walls of the Paradise Factory with a heavy wood-framed structure and soil-and-sawdust-strewn floor, evoking both the medieval world of the Vercours family and Christ's birthplace. The set design is complemented by Michael Abrams' simple, elegant lighting. Jessica Toby Lustig creates attractive, colorful period garb for the cast. Particularly notable is Mara's first act costume, a blue dress with metallic red threading which glows almost diabolically.
Despite its few rough spots, The Tidings Brought to Mary is a well-produced and thought-provoking production of a rarely-seen play.
Say "Claudel" and you might think of Camille
Claudel, Rodin's mistress and the subject of the 1988 movie Camille
Claudel. But Paul Claudel (1868-1955), her younger brother, is considered
one of the great playwright-poets of the last century. Critic George
Steiner put the Frenchman, who was also a diplomat, on par with Brecht.
Yet Claudel's plays are rarely professionally produced in this
countrypossibly due to some of his work's spectacular requirements
(1928's The Satin Slipper is 12 hours long,
with over 50 characters), the difficulty of verse translation, and the
dramas' overtly religious themes. But now, during the Lenten season, Storm
Theatre is collaborating with Blackfriars Repertory Theatre, a company
made up of priests and laypeople, on the ambitious "Paul Claudel Project,"
which will produce three of his greatest plays over the next year—beginning
with the 1912 medieval drama The Tidings
Brought to Mary, a miracle play about two sisters, one jealous, one
saintly, set in 15th-century France. The Satin
Slipper and the 1906 Break of Noon will
Storm has produced plays on religious subjects before—in 2006-07, they mounted four plays by Karol Wojtyla, a/k/a Pope John Paul II—but they're also known for their excellent productions of 19th-century Irish melodramatist Dion Boucicault and other large-cast classics. This past fall, artistic director Peter Dobbins helmed a snappy revival of Saroyan's The Time of Your Life. For the Claudel collaboration, Storm leaves its home in an Episcopal church on West 46th Street for the Paradise Factory on East 4th Street, the run starting March 13.
"In times of great crisis, people ask questions that they might not normally ask—questions that go to the heart of questions like, 'Why are we here?' " says Dobbins, discussing the impetus for the Claudel Project. "This world is just where we work things out. Advertising tells us heaven can be on earth, but it can't be." Dobbins is rehearsing at the Church of Notre Dame on Morningside Drive. A large sign outside reminds us of Jesus' fast.
For Dobbins, Violaine, the virtuous sister in Tidings, who contracts leprosy through a merciful kiss, is a kind of Christ figure—she shows her materialistic sister and faithless fiancé the meaning of grace. Leprosy doesn't seem like a happy ending, but "it's all about crazy love," he says. Speaking by phone from a ministry in Ohio, Father John Cameron—who founded Blackfriars Repertory in 1998, as a revival of the Blackfriars Company (1940-72)—stresses love, too, calling the play "an astounding statement about the possibility of love transforming a person's life. Why should I settle for anything less than the infinite?" He and Dobbins assert that the play is not meant just for Catholics, but for everyone—although their notion of love is a Catholic one. The way these men defend the play's theology both annoys and fascinates, a reaction audience members might also have to Claudel's frustrating, compelling play.
Says Professor Tom Bishop, director of the Center for French Civilization & Culture at New York University: "The Tidings Brought to Mary is probably the most limited to believers of all of his plays—it's difficult to get into. Nevertheless, I'm struck by the powerful poetry and poetic vision, even in this play which is too Catholic for me." For him, The Satin Slipper, with its gorgeous pageantry, and Break of Noon, about an adulterous relationship, deal with the "relationship of man and the universe, and can attract anybody."
In rehearsal, the director gives actions, not sermons, to his cast—who play venal, human characters. But Dobbins's faith may underscore Tidings' mystery—and help it reach beyond the choir.
|Matthew DeCapua and Michael Mendiola in The Time of Your Life.
(photo © Michael Abrams)
Looking for some wisdom for these distressing days? Sample this:
"We're crazy, that's why. We're no good any more. All the corruption everywhere. The poor kids selling themselves. A couple of years ago they were in grammar school. Everybody trying to get a lot of money in a hurry. Everybody betting the horses. Nobody going quietly for a little walk to the ocean. Nobody taking things easy and not wanting to make some kind of a killing."
The speaker of these words is Krupp, an honest
cop, one of the denizens of Nick's Pacific Street Saloon, at the end of
the Embarcadero in San Francisco. The author is William Saroyan, and
thanks to the Storm Theatre, New Yorkers have a rare opportunity to meet
Krupp and his compatriots in this beautiful, resonant play. The Storm's
artistic director, Peter Dobbins, has realized the play magnificently in a
production that's filled with warmth, humor, and humanity. It unfolds on
Todd Edward Ivins's miraculously detailed barroom setthere's a jukebox in
one corner of the room, a piano on a pedestal nearby, and even a working
pinball machine along the back wall. Here, some two dozen actorsdressed
in period style by costumer Cheryl McCarronbring Saroyan's cockeyed
creations to life, abetted by evocative lighting and sound, courtesy of
Michael Abrams and Scott O'Brien, respectively.
At 20 dollars a ticket, it's the best theatre bargain in New York.
Here are some of the remarkable ordinary people we meet at Nick's, in addition to Krupp the Cop. There's McCarthy, Krupp's lifelong friend, a longshoreman who ought to be a professor; Wesley, a young black man who needs a job and turns out to have a penchant for playing piano; Harry, a lost soul trying to find himself in comedy and hoofing; Dudley, a young man hovering around Nick's phone, praying that his girl Elsie will call; Willie, a young fellow determined to beat the pinball machine; and of course Nick himself, proprietor of this establishment that would be the end of the road for its inhabitants were it not for his own infectious and life-affirming hope.
There's also an older fellow who introduces himself as Murphy (though Nick dubs him "Kit Carson") and then regales anybody who will listen and/or stake him to another drink with a string of tall tales that remind us upon just what blend of guts, bluff, and good cheer our nation managed to build itself.
At the center of it all, omnipresent through most of the play, is Joe, a man with a lot of money and apparently nowhere else to be. During the course of The Time of Your Life, as the private wanderings and wonderings of the various barflies and visitors swirl about him, Joe engineers a romance between Tom, his rudderless but good-hearted errand-boy, and Kitty Duval, a whore who Joe knows deserves a better life, whether her heart is made of gold or some lesser metal.
There's also a troublemaker, the snitch/blackmailer Blick, who threatens more than once to erase the good spirits that somehow manage to pervade Nick's saloon: his raw, undisguised malevolence is the only real enemy to the unflagging optimism of Saroyan's other characters (neither the lingering Great Depression nor the looming war against the Nazis can knock these folks down, but pure cruelty against a fellow human is another thing).
I love these people and love the sometimes naive, sometimes rough-and-tumble, sometimes fantastical world that Saroyan puts them in. I love the way Dobbins and his company show us these characters' isolation and their inspiring joie-de-vivre (pausing, for example, to hear the local newsboy sing "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling"); and how they can all be brought up short, just for a minute, when the subject of money (and lack thereof) looms its ugly head. I love that Saroyan's individuals are not just preserved but celebrated here; this is a roomful of vibrant souls, not onerous archetypes.
I love best of all that Dobbins and the Storm have the grace and audacity to put on this show about standing up to life's harshness against the odds...against the odds. An indie theater production with a spectacular realistic set and a cast of 25 feels impossible just now, but here is The Time of Your Life, proving that theatre is always at its best when it's teaching us about possibilities.
You may favor different actors and characters depending upon your own personal proclivities; I am cherishing having spent time with Ken Trammell's Kit Carson and Josh Vasquez's Willie, both endlessly resilient though at different ends of straitened lives; Ted McGuinness's McCarthy and Joe Danbusky's Krupp, showing us the true wisdom of the working man; Matthew Weschler's spunky newsboy; Daniela Mastropietro's innately elegant Kitty and Matthew DeCapua's blustery but good-hearted Tom; Jenny D. Green as the tragic Lorene, and Ross DeGraw's gruff but generous Nick. Dan Berkey is almost terrifying as the insidious Blick, while Michael Mendiola anchors the play as the fish-out-of-water Joe.
Dobbins has told me that he believes the play offers a microcosm of America, then (1939, when it was written) and now. Saroyan simply said, in a kind of introductory note to the published text, "In the time of your life, live-so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it." With so much misery and sorrow available for the asking, I can only gently urge you to enjoy this respite from it: see Storm's Time of Your Life and remember again what theatre can do, and what people can do.
|Matthew DeCapua and Daniela Mastropietro in The Time of Your Life.
(photo © Michael Abrams)
The time is right for The Time of Your Life, William Saryoyan's 1939
Pulitzer Prize-winning play about little people struggling to keep hope
and faith alive. The mood resonates in today's dire economic climate.
Saroyan's generosity of spirit, imagination and sheer theatricality are a
welcome abundance compared to sparse contemporary offerings. Twenty-seven
characters pass through Nick's Pacific Street Saloon in San Francisco's
Embarcadero waterfront bar, precisely detailed by set designer Todd Edward
Ivins. Immersing yourself in this world feels as comforting as a warm
Not that the play is tame. It takes on themes of responsibility, poverty, remorse, class stratification and anti-fascism. It asks the audience, who are we, what are we going to be? A question worth posing this election year.
The main story involves Joe (Michael Mendiola), a mysteriously wealthy young man who longs to live "a life that can't hurt another life." His altruistic philosophy affects all around him. Tom (Matthew DeCapua), a young man whose life Joe once saved, loves Kitty Duval (Daniela Mastropietro). This tough-but-tender hooker broods over small-town memories which break her heart. Barowner Nick (Ross DeGraw) gruffly presides. Other denizens include a starving African-American (Geoffrey Barnes) who plays a mean honky-tonk piano, a kind-hearted outsider (Jenny D. Green), an unhappy but poetic beauty (Kate Chamuris) and Kit Carson (Ken Trammel), an old Indian hunter whose tall tales hold frontier truth. Blick (Dan Berkey), a bullying cop, threatens the peace of this easygoing environment.
Mendiola injects feeling and humor into every line. His long, haunted face suggests a depressed Robert Kennedy. Mastropietro's perky neediness charms, and DeCapua's eager puppy dog energy amuses. DeGraw and Berkey add needed weight. Director Peter Dobbins, also the Storm Theatre's artistic airector, manages the material with grace and pace.
The Time of Your
Life, William Saroyan's 1940 drama about the near-impossibility of
finding happiness and the necessity of dreams, is a sentimental
masterpiece. Sprawling and occasionally self-indulgent, sure, but also
moving, inspiring and wise.
Most of the 27 characters who spend their time drinking in Nick's Pacific Street Saloon, a honky-tonk "in the worst part" of San Francisco, are balanced precariously somewhere between delusion and despair. Joe, the "well-heeled loafer" at the center of the story, spends his days - and his mysterious fortune - ensuring that delusion at least has a fighting chance.
That may not seem like a great deal to aim for, but given the crushing disappointments and humiliations that most of these marginal people have already survived and the way society has stacked the deck against them, it winds up being quite a bit. Like Blanche Dubois, Joe and the lost souls he takes pity on don't want reality; they want magic.
Ross DeGraw is terrific as Nick, the long-suffering, good-hearted proprietor of the place. DeGraw gives Nick exactly the right combination of macho bluff and tender-hearted goodness. (Joe Danbusky as Krupp, the beat cop with a conscience, also acts with integrity, and Kate Chamuris is interesting in the small role of Mary, "an unhappy woman of quality and great beauty.")
Michael Mendiola and Matthew DeCapua in The Time of Your Life.
(photo © Michael Abrams)
Three wonderful moments stand out as pure
Saroyan: During a gum-chewing contest deep in act two, Michael Mendiola
(Joe) perks up and Matthew DeCapua (his sidekick, Tom) calms down and the
two of them actually look like they're having some fun; so is the
audience. When 10-year-old Matthew Wechsler stands on a chair and sings
"When Irish Eyes are Smiling," the theater is temporarily transformed into
the magical place that The Time of Your Life needs it to be. And Degraw's
quiet toast to Nick's dead wife is heart-breakingly beautiful.
The cast still has time to discover more of Saroyan's bittersweet wonder. As Joe says, "Living is an art. It's not bookkeeping. It takes a lot of rehearsing for a man to learn how to be himself."
The same can be said for theater.
|Kris Kling and Mia Perry in The Shaughraun, at the Storm Theatre through
(photo © Michael Abrams)
Decades before Wilde and Shaw revitalized
English theater with their Irish wit and wisdom, there was Dion
Boucicault, a far less celebrated but nonetheless prodigiously talented
Irish dramatist who had his first hit play with London Assurance in 1841, and who then went on to
write over 150 plays and travel to America.
Boucicault's theatrical career took off in the mid 19th century when he made the intelligent decision to pander shamelessly to melodramatic tastes of that time. The Shaughraun is typical Boucicault fare and perhaps the only Irish play of the Victorian era where an English soldier is the hero. If that doesn't tip you off to the fact that you're watching a fairytale then nothing will.
There is a villain to hiss at, a beautiful damsel in distress, her wrongly accused brother, an endearingly out of his depth English soldier, a kindly priest who can never tell a lie, a scheming informer and, of course, the handsome Shaughraun himself, a sharp witted acrobat who loves whisky, women and poaching in equal measure.
Boucicault almost single-handedly invented the tradition of the charming but thoroughly unreliable stage Irishman as we now know him a broth of a boy with a song in his hear and a fiddle by his side, a half lay-about, half Hermes. What other Irish play or playwright of the 19th century would have dared to depict the English Red Coat soldiers as a benign and welcome force?
As the play opens Captain Molineaux, pitch perfectly acted by Kris Kling, is a kindly and dashing English soldier who impresses all who encounter him. Hats are doffed, blessings are muttered and there's even some surprising and unironic talk about the quality.
On the Irish side of the equation Father Dolan, played selflessly by Joe Sullivan, is both the conscience and it is made clear the force of law in the community of Suil-a-beg. But between these two poles reside the anarchic, free wheeling Irish themselves, and of course there's the Shaughraun, the living embodiment of the Irish sense of fun.
Boucicault was no trailblazer. It's not the colonial forces but the Irish themselves who are both the heroes and villains of this tale.
Corry Kinchela, the scheming Irish squire who double crosses everyone in his path, is a well-known native of the town, and in his determination to acquire new properties and the beautiful women who live on them, he stops at nothing.
Worse, we learn that the lamentable squire has sent the young woman's brother to a penal colony in Australia, and then confiscated his estate. Ross DeGraw plays this everyday monster with a persuasive degree of rage and narcissism, and he even manages to wring real pathos and menace from an otherwise thoroughly contrived script.
Other standouts in this lively romp include Clodagh Bowyer, the Shaungraun's longsuffering but indulgent mother. Glenn Peters gives a spirited performance as Harvey Duff, the slippery rogue who'd stop at nothing to further his own ends.
But the play belongs to the gifted Chris Keveney, an inspired choice as the beguiling title character.
Storm's 'Shaughraun' is magical
Irish American playwright Dion Boucicault wrote The Shaughraun in 1874 as a vehicle for himself
to star in. At age fifty-four, he assigned himself the role of a
free-spirited rural vagabond, Conn O'Kelly, a charming, roughish lad of
perhaps twenty-two summers.
Conn is known as a 'Shaughraun,' a term that translates loosely as 'vagabond,' or 'scoundrel.' An unapologetic melodrama, the play conforms to a style which was extremely popular in Boucicault's day. It's packed with the conventions of popular 19th century melodrama, ranging from mistaken identities and thwarted romances to devious villainies and heartfelt reunions.
The Shaughraun is one of three works which are often referred to collectively as the playwright's "Irish plays," the others being The Colleen Bawn and Arrah-na-Pogue. Much of the trilogy's great popularity was due to the fact that Boucicault's talented actress wife, Agnes Robertson, starred in the first productions of all three plays.
None of them, however, appears to have been as close to Boucicault's heart as The Shaughraun, probably because of the size and richness of the part he'd written for himself to play. And play it he did, well into the final phase of his career, by which time he was ludicrously overage for the role.
Conn, whose elderly mother loves him but despairs of his seemingly reckless comings and goings, is usually involved in some dangerous and misunderstood adventure, most of which turn out to have been acts of utter selflessness in which he'd managed to put himself at extreme risk in the service of others.
There is an almost defiant shamelessness about The Shaughraun, which Peter Dobbins has handled successfully, acknowledging that Boucicault's play is a gallivanting pleasure machine, loaded with characters who deliver their asides into the very face of the audience.
Director Dobbins has been extremely fortunate with his casting. The agile and engaging Chris Keveney, who plays Conn, conveys just how much fun he's having portraying a character described as "the soul of every fair" and "the life of every funeral." Keveney fits the bill to perfection, lighting up every scene he's in.
Just as fine is Clodagh Bowyer as Conn's hard-pressed old mother, steadfastly loyal and loving. Kris Kling is a stalwart Captain Molineaux, while Mia Perry is a standout as Claire, the Sligo girl who loves him. Tim Seib is solid as the wrongfully convicted Robert and Daniela Mastropietro shines as his undaunted beloved, Arte O'Neal.
Laura Bozzone registers strongly as Moya, Conn's girlfriend, and Joe Sullivan scores as her uncle, the local priest. Ross DeGraw is memorable as the land-hungry villain Corry Kinchela.
|Pictured: Tim Seib and Chris Keveney in a scene
from The Shaughraun
(photo © Michael Abrams)
There's theatrical magic going on at The Storm
Theatre this month, of a pure and rare variety. Director Peter Dobbins has
got his hands once again on Dion Boucicault's charmer of a melodrama, The Shaughraun, and he's brought it to life in all
its pixilated, blarney-spouting glory, just as it ought to be seen. If
you're ready to spend a full hour (i.e., the play's second act) at the
edge of your seat, to relish some fast-paced adventure and some sweet if
improbable romancing that just might bring a tear to your sentimental eye,
well, then I advise you to purchase tickets to this play forthwith.
This is Storm's second experience with The Shaughraun, and after ten years it's a pleasure to see this still little-known work back on stage. Written about 140 years ago, it takes place in a small town in Ireland called Suil-a-beg, where a remarkably convoluted tale unfolds. It centers around Robert Ffolliott, a young Irish gentleman who sometime before the play begins was framed as a Fenian and sent to prison in Australia. His sister, Claire, and her friend, Arte O'Neal, have been victimized by the evil Corry Kinchela during Robert's absence; they are just a few weeks away from losing their home to Kinchela, and Artein love with Robertis being wooed by Kinchela as well.
As the play commences, Claire meets and falls in love at first sight with a noble British captain, Harry Molineux, who has arrived in this remote Irish locale with his regiment to track down an escaped convict, who (of course) turns out to be Robert. It must be noted that Molineux falls in love with Claire in even more head-over-heels fashion that she with him.
Conn, the village Shaughraun (who, according to the playbill, is "the soul of every fair, the life of every funeral"in short, the kind of fellow that everyone wants to know but that few would trust their daughters or their property with), has helped Robert with his escape and now conspires with Claire, Arte, and Robert's guardian Father Dolan to keep Robert away from the clutches of Molineux and his men. When Kinchela and his henchman Harvey Duff find out what's afoot, they get into the fray as well.
I told you it was complicated. But it plays out smoothly and seamlessly under Dobbins's oh-so-steady directorial hand, so that by the first act curtain you'll likely be fully in tune with all of these delightful characters and, as already noted, you may well spend most of the second act breathlessly reveling in Boucicault's neatly plotted developments. There are chase scenes, secret meetings, faked deaths, double-crosses, and a hilarious Irish wake (Boucicault is liberal with his satire of his fellow Irish). And through it all, there's the forbidden love between Claire and her arch-enemy, the English soldier Molineuxa love, of course, whose eventual happy outcome is never for one second in doubt. The Shaughraun is that kind of play.
The whole enterprise plays out on a lovely unit set created by Ken Larson that, as lit masterfully by Michael Abrams, evokes the many interior and exterior locations required by the sprawling story. Joanne M. Haas's costumes similarly suit the period and the respective classes/stations of each of the many characters.
The cast, of general fine quality, features two exemplary performances. In the title role, there's Chris Keveney, who seems to be having a splendid time as the irrepressible Conn, bounding about the stage as if the rooms were all too small to hold him properly. One exaggeratedly goofy exit of his in particular reminded me of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon character giving chase. As Captain Molineux, Kris Kling is nothing short of superb, giving what may turn out to be the best comic romantic performance of the season. His utter conviction as the play's besotted hero is inspiring and infectious, and his British accent and attitude are unwaveringly correct. Kling, who made his Storm debut last season in The Jeweler's Shop, is a major find.
Offering strong support in the company of 16 are Glenn Peters, who makes Harvey Duff not simply the villainous comic relief that he could be, but a complex, thoroughly rotten coward and knave; Laura Bozzone, who plays Father Dolan's niece, Moya (who is also Conn's love interest) with vivacity and spirit; and Tim Seib as the earnest and forthright young Robert Ffolliott, making him a worthy focal point for all the shenanigans that fill this outsized yarn.
It is, in sum, a show that reminds you why the theatre is where we go to fill ourselves with awe and wonder, where the most ordinary eventfalling in love, saycan become gloriously extraordinary. Dobbins and company are making this singular miracle happen on stage at the Storm. If you're ready for an evening of old-fashioned, unabashed charm, The Shaughraun may be just the fellow you seek.
Dion Boucicault's 1874 comic melodrama, set in rural County Sligo, gets an energetic production at the Storm, complete with pennywhistle music, the liberal use of asides, and a hero who poaches, drinks, and plays the fiddle. The elaborate plot concerns a scheme by a squire and his henchman to cheat Robert Ffolliott (Tim Seib), his sister, Claire (Mia Perry), and his fiancée, Arte (Daniela Mastropietro), out of their inheritance by imprisoning Ffolliott for being an Irish nationalist; it's up to Conn (Chris Keveney), the local shaughraun, or rogue, to save the day. The cast, under the direction of Peter Dobbins, delivers likable, admirably low-shtick performances that keep things more entertaining than corny.
For those who think Irish playwriting consists
largely of boozers gabbing blarney, enlighten yourself with The Shaughraun (pronounced "shok-RUN") at the
Storm Theatre. This exciting 1874 melodrama by Irish playwright and
subsequent New Yorker Dion Boucicault speeds along from event to event.
Fair play to the Storm Theatre (as the Dublin expression goes) for
producing it again (with a different cast), 10 years after The Shaughraun was the company's first production
in its inaugural year. Boucicault wrote over 150 plays, including a
trilogy of Irish dramas as well as The Octoroon and The Corsican Brothers, and was hugely
influential Shaw's The Devil's Disciple (currently on view at Irish Rep) probably could not have existed had The Shaughraun not come along 20 years earlier.
Still, productions today are rare, so it's a treat to see this excellent
Director Peter Dobbins, also the company's artistic director, has a sure hand that shines despite limited resources (there's no rolling panorama turning the fourth wall inside out, as in the original Broadway production). The characters' asides are consistently clear, and the plot thickens appropriately.
Set against the aborted Fenian uprising of 1866 (the nationalist Fenian Brotherhood was a society formed in America by Irishman John O'Mahony), the story concerns Robert Ffolliott (Tim Seib), a convicted rebel who has escaped from a penal colony in Australia thanks to the wiles of his friend Conn the shaughraun (shaughraun is Gaelic for wanderer, vagabond). Double-dealing landlord Corry Kinchela (Ross DeGraw) tries to hide the queen's pardon of the Fenians (wishful thinking on Boucicault's part) from Ffolliott and marry Robert's sweetheart, Arte O'Neal (Daniela Mastropietro), whose family estate he has swindled away. Meanwhile, Captain Molineux (Kris Kling), assigned to patrol the shore for signs of the fugitive, falls for Robert's sister Claire (Mia Perry). Typically for Boucicault, those Irish who are collaborators are even worse than the English.
Clodagh Bowyer as Conn's mother, Mastropietro as the noble ingénue, Joe Sullivan as a patriotic priest, Laura Bozzone as Moya, Conn's winsome sweetheart, and DeGraw, who makes Kinchela a thorough bad'un, bring wit to their roles. As Harvey Duff, Kinchela's henchman, Glenn Peters hits every note of humor and malice. But Kling's gallant English straight man, hilariously out of his depth among the Irish, whose wakes he calls "melancholy entertainments," steals the show.
|Mia Perry as Claire Fflolliott & Kris Kling
as Captain Molineux.
(photo © Michael Abrams)
Molineux: "Is this place called Swillabeg?"
Claire: "No, it is called Suil-a-beg."
Molineux: "Beg pardon, your Irish names are so unpronounceable. You see, I'm an Englishman."
Claire: "I remarked your misfortune. Poor creature, you couldn't help it."
later. . .
Claire: "What's your name again - Mulligrubs?"
Molineux: "No; Molineux."
Claire: "I ax your pardon. You see, I'm Irish, and the English names are so unpronounceable."
The Storm Theatre is celebrating its tenth
anniversary by resurrecting Dion Boucicault's The
Shaughraun from its inaugural season ten years ago. Resurrect is a
carefully chosen word here for Boucicault, as successful a playwright and
actor as he was in his time, even deemed the "Irish Shakespeare," is
rarely produced now. The Storm Theatre's initial production was the first
in New York in over a century, something of an irony since the 1874 New
York premiere of this Irish play, written by an Irish playwright, starring
an Irish actor and featuring uniquely Irish situations was a smash hit
when it premiered in America - an example of the symbiotic relationship
between Dublin and New York culture.
The Shaughraun (pronounced shok-run and meaning scoundrel or rascal) is an important piece of theater history since it represents a change in dramatic style and was part of a body of work which had a profound effect on George Bernard Shaw and John Synge. Though Shaw was fond of criticizing Boucicault's crowd-pleasing melodramas, he actually owed a great deal to Boucicault's innovations in characterization which was especially apparent in his lone Irish play, John Bull's Other Island. The narrative revolves around a dispossessed Irish family; the brother is in prison and his sister and fiancee live in poverty. A vaudevillian villain, in disguise as a family friend, has robbed the family of their estate and now attempts to thwart the return of the master of the house and take the bride for his own.
Conn, the Shaughraun, is played with athletic charm by Chris Keveny. Ross DeGraw as the evil Corry Kinchela has great fun with his role and easily handles the many asides needed to keep the audience abreast to his wicked plans. Another actor who seems to enjoy his monstrous character is Glenn Peters as Harvey Duff, informant and sidekick. These characters are broadly drawn, yet Boucicault is more subtle than his toothless widows and mustache swirling villains would at first lead us to believe. Playing against cliche, one of its heros is a Captain in the Queen's army. Captain Molineux (Kris Kling) is a precursor to Brian Friel's Lieutenant Yolland in Translations. He is a young British soldier who falls in love with an Irish girl and symbolically with the unhappy island itself. The irony here is that Molineux as a name seems more Gallic than Gaelic. Those remembering their Irish history will think of a time when Ireland looked to France to save it from England. France disappointed. Will Molineux disappoint Claire now?
The play may belong at heart to the Shaughraun ("the soul of every fair, the life of every funeral, the first fiddle at all weddings and patterns"), yet every time the young soldier comes on stage, with his one eye on decorum and the other on Claire Fflolliott (Mia Perry), comic energy rises. Captain Molineux may indeed be "not a man but a trophy"", but he does have the advantage of having some of the evening's best dialogue. He is infatuated despite his rank. She is infatuated despite her patriotism. At odds with each other and themselves, the Captain and Claire's dialogue is the classic humor of misunderstanding; for example this interchange when Claire needs to light a beacon fire to aid in the escape of her wrongly convicted brother and must cajole the clueless captain into aiding her.
Molineux: "I have said or done something to offend you. Tell
me what it is. It will afford me much pleasure to plead for pardon for
what I have done."
Claire: "You want to know what ails me?"
Claire: "Do you see that tar-barrel?"
Molineux: "Good gracious! What has a tar-barrel have to do with my offense?"
Claire: "Nothing but it has everything to do with mine."
Molineux: (Aside, after a pause) "I wonder if there is madness in the family?"
Claire: "Do you see that tar barrel?"
Molineux: "I see something like a tar barrel in that pile of brushwood."
Claire: "Will you oblige me with a match?"
Molineux: "Certainly. (Aside) There's no doubt about it. So lovely, and yet so afflicted! I feel even more tenderly towards her than I did!"
Claire: "If I were to ask you to light that bonfire, would you do it?"
Molineux: "With pleasure. (Aside) It is the moon that affects her. I wish I had an umbrella."
Mr. Kling makes great use of the inherent
comedy of confusion. Captain Molineux is all uniform and quiet emotional
upheaval. His direct appeals to the audience do not break from character
but add to it. These asides, so much part of the melodrama with a wink and
sometimes a symbolic twirling of the mustache, are mocked from a safe
distance from 21st century seats, but they can be irresistible. Think of
John Cusack in High Fidelity. Who can resist his constant direct appeal to
Ultimately, The Shaughraun is a comic melodrama with more comedy than drama, but that doesn't mean that Boucicault didn't have some serious issues hiding among the pratfalls. Ireland's Home Rule Movement was organized the same year as the play made its appearance. The charismatic Charles Stewart Parnell, a bit of a Shaughraun himself, was a key force behind the Home Rule movement. It is no small matter that Robert Ffolliott (Tim Seib) has been imprisoned for being a Fenian, a rebel against British imperialism in Ireland. His being sent to Australia for plotting against England underscores the new nationalism in Ireland at this time. Mrs. O'Kelly (Clodagh Bowyer), Conn's widowed mother, has an unfortunate physical appearance in comic contrast to the beauty of the young girls around her, but her shawl made of rags reminds of the poverty of rural Ireland. The play, produced in 1874, is only one generation removed from the millions that died in the famine of 1847-48. The severe economic depression in Ireland throughout the 19th century is illustrated by the loss of land and house. None of these issues come across as sermon but as comedy as the audience laughs over the Captain's bewilderment over the emotional impact of 5 golden pounds on Mrs. O' Kelly's demeanor.
The many scene changes and relatively large cast present difficulties for the small theatre company which are ably dealt with by director Peter Dobbins. The cast is enthusiastic and willing to chew up the scenery as the genre demands. Laura Bozzone as Moya, the Shaughraun's love interest. is a standout and Joe Sullivan as Father Dolan effectively defies the usual stage Irish concept.
As I write this, the Golden Globes ceremony is disguised as a press conference. The writers on strike should be putting aside a placard in honor of Dion Boucicault. His most influential role in theater today is neither as playwright nor actor, but as an ambitious advocate for authors' rights. Tired of receiving initial fixed payment for his successful plays as was customary at the time, Boucicault helped a copyright law through Congress that enabled writers to derive percentage revenue from the profits of their plays. It changed the economics of the theater; writing became a much more profitable career. Even G. B. Shaw couldn't find fault with that.
|Dan Cozzens as Elihu (L) and Tim Smallwood as
Job (R) in Karol Wojtyla's play "Job" where suffering provides the
means for salvation.
(photo © Michael Abrams)
Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II,
wrote the play Job in 1940; he was studying theatre at university and had
not yet even entered the seminary. He wrote of it, "I have written a new
drama, Greek in form, Christian in spirit, eternal in substance."
His description is accurate, and thanks to the Storm Theatre we have the rare opportunity to see this play, an early product of one of the most influential minds of the 20th century. Job is indeed Greek in formthough it is based on the story from the Old Testament, it is presented in the style of a Greek tragedy, with limited interactions among its characters, exposition provided mostly by a series of messengers, and a large chorus that comments on events and on Job's reactions to them.
Wojtyla explicitly links the suffering of Job with that of Christ: the conclusion of the play, offered by the prophet Elihu, essentially posits that Job's tribulations and Christ's both presage redemption. The playwright then connects this idea to the situation of the people of Poland, who had just undergone invasion by the Nazis and Soviets, while seemingly none of their allies lifted a finger to help them. The play ultimately offers hope, indicating that just as the crucifixion inexorably led to the resurrection, so too will the fall of Poland eventually lead to its even greater renaissance in the future.
Director John Regis and his collaborators at the Storm have worked hard to provide context for a play that, on its own, feels far more sober and unyielding than a well-made play ought; Wojtyla's Job is more pageant than drama. Regis has created a framing device for the piece that works quite well: he's set the play in Warsaw in late 1944, after the uprising in which the Poles rebelled against their Nazi oppressors. It takes place in a bombed-out church (stirringly realized by set designer Ken Larson) where a priest and a small band of resistance fighters are enacting this play for survivors who have gathered here for comfort and security amidst grave peril. The priest frequently (and helpfully, for the contemporary American audience) interrupts the proceedings to provide information about the staggering losses that Poland experienced during the War; the "actors" portraying the characters in Job often do so in ways that comment on these experiences as well, as when they transform Job's neighbors into Poland's three "allies" at the beginning of the War (i.e., Great Britain, France, and Russia).
Regis and the Storm have cast the piece expertly. Timothy Smallwood is a very sympathetic, human Job; Dan Cozzens is gently stolid as the prophet Elihu. Joseph P. Sullivan grounds the entire play as the priest who serves as Wojtyla's alter ego. The remaining actors function as the chorus and other characters; particularly memorable is Brooke Evans, who gives Job perhaps its most luminous moment, singing (beautifully) an accompaniment to one of Job's laments.
The Storm revived two other Wojtyla plays last spring and they're going to give us the fourth, Jeremiah, later this month. Like its predecessors, Job makes for challenging and unfamiliar theatre. But its real value is in providing remarkable insight into the character of a man whose historical significance would prove to be enormouswhat a gift, even in hindsight, these stagings of John Paul II's plays are.
Through suffering there can be salvation,
Polish playwright Karol Wojtyla tells his anguished countrymen in Job,
written in 1940, some six months after Germany invaded Poland.
Wojtyla, of course, is best known as Pope John Paul II, and his writing vibrates with expected religious fervor. It tells the story of righteous Job, whose allegiance to God is severely tested by the twists of fate destroying his family and wealth. The play is tied indelibly to its time and place, but in this thoughtful production by the Storm Theatre, it emerges as a vivid example of religious drama aiming to instruct and inspire. It's part of Storm's ongoing festival dedicated to the plays of Wojtyla, who as a young man aimed at a career in theatre, acting and writing.
Deepening historical resonances, director John Regis stages Job as a play within a play, setting the production in 1944 during the failed Warsaw uprising against the Nazis. Underground warriors gather in a ruined church to enact the play as an offering to their occupied country, both as "a prayer and a protest." As it progresses, a priest interpolates grim data of the Nazi occupation, and the events in Job's story are linked to the tragedies happening in Poland. For example, when a servant tells Job of the destruction of his sheep by fire from the sky, the sound of overhead planes is heard. It lends suspense and tension to the proceedings.
The 10-person cast functions well as an ensemble. As Job, Timothy Smallwood achieves powerful moments as he questions God's treatment. Dan Cozzens makes an impassioned Elihu, the prophet who finally brings Job -- and by inference the Poles -- a message of hope and promise of redemption that will come through Christ and his suffering.
NEW YORK—The playwright's identity alone should
be enough to garner interest. For Karol Wojtyla, author of the play Job being presented by the Off-Broadway Storm
Theatre, went on to become Bishop of Krakow and later Pope John Paul II.
Job is set in Warsaw, Poland, during the Uprising of 1944, the grim 63-day struggle that culminated in the razing of that city by the Nazis. It is a play within a play, for the story unfolds as some members of the Polish Home Army secretly enter a ruined church to present the play Job, as bombs burst outside the church from time to time, and the players must dive for cover.
The story of Job, as presented here, is a metaphor for the sufferings of the Polish people during the Nazi occupation. Job, an innocent and deep believer in Jehovah, who suffered deprivation after deprivationfirst, the loss of his sheep and cows, then the deaths of all his sons and daughterscannot understand why the innocent must suffer. This is a question he repeats often. Job finally comes to the conclusion that Jehovah must be trusted in all He does.
Led by Father Stanislaw (Stach) Malecki, S.J., the players, attired in fighters' garb, some carrying weapons, swiftly take on the other roles assigned to them. Particularly effective in their portrayals are Timothy Smallwood as Jozef and Job, Nina Covalesky as both Ewa and Job's wife, Joseph P. Sullivan as Father Stach and Dan Cozzens as Maciek and Elihu.
The stark and simple set by Ken Larsen, representing a burned-out church, adds to the effect, as does the lighting designed by Michael Abrams.
Although the play-within-a-play is somewhat repetitive, the force of the actors, under the astute direction of John Regis, overcomes the limitations of the writing. Interestingly, Wojtyla had a profound interest in theatre as a young man, first as an actor, then later as a playwright. In fact, this play has autobiographical roots, for Wojtyla worked with various theatre groups in Warsaw that performed clandestinely during the Nazi occupation as a way of preserving their national literature.
|Pictured: Karen Eke and Chris Keveny in a scene
from The Jeweler's Shop
(photo © Kelleigh Miller)
The Storm Theatre is producing two of the plays
that John Paul II wrote before he became Pope. The first to be presented
is the second chronologically: The Jeweler's
Shop was written in 1960, when Karol Wojtyla was Bishop of Krakow (and
It's a stark, intellectual play, in three short acts (performed here without an intermission, with total running time of about an hour and a half). The first segment is about a man and woman who have decided to get married. Through interwoven monologues that represent their thoughts as they gaze into the window of the jeweler's shop where they're going to buy their wedding rings, they contemplate the history of their relationship and its evolving nature; they also consider what is signified by the rings they're about to purchase. It's far-ranging, conceptual, analytical, and precise; the monologue form makes it come across as talkier and more remote than it might otherwise feel. But there's a lot of content, and for a while I was struck by how much Wojtyla's play felt like those of T.S. Eliot. (The language, translated here by Boleslaw Taborski, is less beautiful, perhaps, but in terms of sheer density there's a real kinship between the two.)
The second and third scenes, though, take us somewhere very different. The form of the play starts to vary just a bit, introducing interactions that usually involve an enigmatic man named Adam who is a patriarchal (but sexless!) teacher figure. In Act Two he counsels an unhappily married woman named Anne that she should not abandon the husband in whom she has lost interest (the feeling appears to be mutual). In Act Three he attends the wedding of two young people, 20 years later, who happen to be the son of the first couple and the daughter of the second. Through/to them Wojtyla makes his message absolutely plain: love and marriage are a divine gift from God, to be neither questioned nor squandered.
If, when the College of Cardinals were choosing the successor to John Paul I back in 1978, they had studied The Jeweler's Shop, they'd have begun to get a very clear picture of the kind of Pope they would get in Karol Wojtyla. Viewed today, with his legacy well understood, the ideas of the manat least with regard to the institution of marriageare painstakingly and clearly laid out. Is it a great play?no, I don't think so; but it's a great demonstration of Wojtyla's faith in the Word of God and his service to it. Fascinating, no doubt about it.
Peter Dobbins and Robert W. McMaster have staged the play with enormous respect and simplicity, allowing its powerful ideas to speak for themselves. It's performed on Todd Edward Ivins's set, which consists of what looks like the base of a fountain surrounded by four canvaslike drops that frame the action; the eponymous jeweler's shop is never seen but is clearly defined downstage left. Lighting by Michael Abrams, sound by Scott O'Brien, and costumes by Jessica Lustig are evocative in terms of mood and period (the play's action runs from the 1930s in Act One through the 1960s in Act Three).
Dobbins himself anchors the play with a solid, thoughtful performance as Adam. Six other actors play the three couples (and serve as members of two different choruses); particularly effective among them are Kristopher Kling as Andrew, the husband-to-be in Act One, and Chris Keveney as his son, who is the groom in Act Three.
The Storm Theatre is giving Karol Wojtyla's
dense, symbolist-inspired drama The Jeweler's
Shop a sterling production with a terrific, spartan set and some
inspired acting. The play itself is a slow, crypto-Catholic affair
incorporating symbolism from Christ's lesser-known parables and some truly
odd character development reminiscent of nothing so much as a G.K.
Chesterton novel. Still, the actors demonstrate such a layered
understanding of the text that the play ends up being compelling, even
with Wojtyla's obfuscations.
To be fair, if you're at all interested in Christianity, those obfuscations can be fascinating. A meditation mostly on marriage, the play follows two couples who produce children, with those children eventually becoming a third couple. There is also a mediating figure who steps in to help the most troubled couple of the three. He is named Adam (played by Peter Dobbins, the company's artistic director) and is a kind of Jesus stand-in who reveals to Anna (a wonderful Karen Eke) how to reinvigorate her failing marriage. Christ is referred to as the second Adam in New Testament theology, and the language Adam uses is almost exclusively biblical, though it's culled from parts of the Bible used seldom enough to keep the references from being intrusive.
Wojtyla himself ranks as a character as interesting as any of his creations. A Polish seminary student in the "underground seminary" during World War II, Wojtyla went on to become Pope John Paul II. The process of his life and sometimes-controversial career as a church official certainly makes for interesting reading, but it made for interesting writing as well. Wojtyla's modestly titled work (the subtitle is "A Meditation on the Sacrament of Matrimony, Passing on Occasion Into a Drama") reveals an understanding of character that is admirably realized in the Storm Theatre's production.
Playwrights Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter
needn't worry about their names being usurped in posterity's annals by
Karol Wojtyla, the archbishop of Krakow, Poland, who became Pope John Paul
II. But there is much to admire in the late pope's drama, "The Jeweler's
Shop," currently on view in New York, courtesy of the Storm Theatre, the
first in an ambitious and praiseworthy series of all his major works.
The 1960 play is probably the best-known title (if any can truly be considered well-known) of the former actor's theatrical work. There was a movie with Burt Lancaster and Olivia Hussey in 1988.
On stage, in Boleslaw Taborski's translation of the original Polish, the definition of "play" is stretched to the limit. The playwright himself slyly subtitled it "A Meditation on the Sacrament of Matrimony, Passing on Occasion Into a Drama" when it was first published, as if to acknowledge the lack of dramatic incident. Still, it's a fascinating piece.
In the first of three acts, Andrew (Kristopher Kling) proposes to Teresa (Elizabeth Wirth), and they stand transfixed before the titular shop window (the unseen jeweler being a God figure), ruminating on their union and future as exemplified by the rings. In the second, unhappy wife Anna (Karen Eke) bemoans the sorry state of her marriage to the distant Stefan (Anthony Russo) and concerned Adam (Peter Dobbins) counsels the unhappy woman who might be contemplating infidelity. And finally the son of the first couple, Christopher (Chris Keveny), and Monica (Lara Theodos), the daughter of the second, proclaim their love, despite the latter's dysfunctional childhood and the former's insecurities about growing up without a father, who was killed in the war. The play ends on a conciliatory note for Anna and Stefan.
The author seems most concerned with setting forth his ideas on the nature of love and marriage, and the role of ego as a hindrance to true love, insights later expanded in his theology of the body.
Wirth is outstanding among a cast that succeeds to a remarkable degree in speaking the impossibly poetic dialogue with naturalistic cadences, but she plays with particular sincerity. So, too, production elements are simple but first-rate, including Dobbins' and Robert W. McMaster's sensitive joint staging, Todd Ivins' workable set, Michael Abrams' atmospheric lighting, Jennifer Lustig's period costumes (spanning the 1930s through the '60s), and sound designer Scott O'Brien's occasional background music.
Next up is the 1949 play, "Our God's Brother" (June 1-17) about Albertine Brother Adam Chmielowski (aka Brother Albert), a freedom fighter and painter canonized in 1989. In the fall, there are promised readings of "Jeremiah," "Job," "Reflections on Fatherhood" and "Radiation of Fatherhood."
This worthy festival demonstrates that even after his early acting days Pope John Paul remained a true man of the theater. Despite talkiness, the work's insights into humanity ring unerringly true. And though technically off-Broadway, the Times Square locale puts the late pontiff practically on the Great White Way, an extraordinary circumstance that would no doubt please him.
|Pictured: Eric Thorne in Our God's Brother
(photo © Michael Abrams)
Our God's Brother is
a fascinating theatrical curiosity. Written by the young Pope John Paul
II, back when he was known only as Karol Wojtyla, it tells the story of a
man torn asunder by his struggle to choose between art and faith. There
are apparent hints of autobiographyWojtyla pursued a career in the
theatre in his early days. But, what may strike some as moving and
cathartic might strike others as insular and dramatically static.
The protagonist, Adam Chmielowski, is a former freedom fighter who has now seriously turned to painting. But, he constantly feels the pull of a higher calling: to help the poor and embrace God in a larger sense. Even though he seeks counsel from friends and has some heated discussions with the denizens of the poorhouse about charity and service, Adam's internal battle takes up the lion's share of Our God's Brother.
There is never any doubt that Wojtyla is writing about something he cares about deeply. For him, Adam's struggle is very real, and he investigates it exhaustively in several lengthy scenes: with the disenfranchised members of society Adam has sworn to protect; with an abrasive stranger who locks ideological horns with Adam and challenges him; and, most notably, in several scenes where Adam talks directly to the disembodied voice of God Herself (that's right: the Lord's voice belongs to a womana nice touch). These scenes all burn with the fire of personal conviction.
However, Our God's Brother often feels like a conversation between the author and himself more than anything else. I never once doubted that Adam's heart belonged to God, and that he would abandon his art for the priesthood. The question that kept nagging me was: why is he taking so long to come around? Our God's Brother makes his path clear from the start, and I couldn't understand why he didn't see that.
The play gets a top-notch production from The Storm Theatre, though. Directors Peter Dobbins and Michelle Kafel and a dedicated cast work overtime to activate this text. Eric Thorne and Dan Berkey are especially good as Adam and the Stranger, respectively. Their scenes together provide the kind of visceral engagement that the rest of the play could use more of.
Certainly, the appearance of Our God's Brother on the New York stage qualifies as an event. It's not every day that theatergoers get the chance to see a play written by a former Pope. Audiences may be able to discern some further insight into this great figure of modern history.
|Pictured: Peter Dobbins and Josh Vasquez in a
scene from 'Ross'
(photo © Kelleigh Miller)
Two years before David Lean brought Lawrence of
Arabia to the screen, British playwright Terrence Rattigan put him on the
stage, in a fascinating drama called 'Ross'.
Storm Theatre is presenting the first New York revival of this play (it
was on Broadway back in 1961), and it's a privilege to see it. Park your
memories of majestic camels crossing wide sun-bleached deserts, and open
yourself up for this very different treatment of one of history's most
enigmatic figures. In its way, 'Ross' is every
bit as epic as Lean's film. It is, certainly, huge: two long acts spanning
nearly three hours of running time, with about two dozen characters. Most
of the play takes place in Arabia between the years 1916 and 1918, when
T.E. Lawrence burst more or less out of nowhere and transformed himself
from an obscure mapmaker to the charismatic leader of Arab tribes, united
under his direction and by his will to fight their common enemy, the
Ottoman Turks. We watch him prove himself with a series of terrorist
attacks on Turkish targets; we eavesdrop on his first meeting with British
General Allenby, whom he plays skillfully in order to wrest official
sanction for his activities from the military; and we see him apply his
massive powers of persuasion to an Arab chieftain named Auda Abu Tayi,
whom he succeeds in winning over from the Turkish side, thus effecting his
first significant victory at the town of Aqaba.
But the incidents of Lawrence's astonishing life are really only incidental in 'Ross': what Rattigan is really interested in, and what he makes tantalizing to us in the audience, is the nature of this extraordinary man. Who was T.E. Lawrence? When we meet him at the beginning of the play, it's 1922, and he's going under the name Ross; he's enlisted in the Royal Air Force under this pseudonym, hoping not to be detected despite his enormous fame. This is what really happened; what Rattigan wants to uncover in Ross is why it happened. No one, of course, can ever know for sure. But the play offers us acres of intriguing information to help us start to figure it out.
What contradictions exist in this man! He's astoundingly and arrogantly fearless, but we frequently see moments of what he himself would call flinching cowardice: he's fashioned himself into a soldier, but he can't bear to kill anyone. He's not a proud man; indeed, his immense self-doubt manifests itself in a kind of self-flagellation, even self-destruction. But he's vain: he loves looking at himself in the mirror. He's a masterful manipulator of men, using his sharp intellect and passion to drive others to his will. But can he ever work that magic on himself?
Or is all the public humility just a pose, put on and then cast aside as it suits his purpose?
Rattigan shows us where it might be, and shows us where it resolutely, painfully could not be. That's the power of this remarkable play.
As a character study, 'Ross' is dazzlingly potent and devastating. If nothing else, it will make you hungry to learn more about this enigmatic man.
Storm Theatre's decision to tackle this enormous play suggests some of the audacity of Lawrence himself. It pays off, though: given the resources available to an indie theater company, this production is solid. Artistic director Peter Dobbins takes on the mammoth role of Ross, and he gives a fine reading of Rattigan's protagonist, full of nuance and psychological complexity; he nails the man's loneliness, which may be the most important thing we finally understand about him here. A large ensemble, often double-cast, portrays the many characters with whom Lawrence comes in contact; especially memorable are George Taylor as General Allenby (so comfortable in the role that he feels like he just stepped out of a vintage British war film); Tim Smallwood, Gabe Levey, and Matthew Waterson as three of Ross's colleagues in the RAF, and Seán Gormley as his Flight Sergeant; Storm regular Josh Vasquez as Hamed, Lawrence's Arab bodyguard; and Edward Prostak as the by-the-book Colonel Barrington, who is briefly Lawrence's nemesis.
Stephen Logan Day keeps the long play moving briskly, and manages its complexity with apparent ease; it's a confident, sensitive staging that holds us riveted from its startling opening scenes to its surprisingly touching close.
'Ross' is one of those big, under-the-radar, potentially unwieldy plays that is unlikely to ever see Broadway again; it just wouldn't be economically viable, even if a major star committed to it. So we're lucky that indie companies like the Storm are ready and able to show us a terrific piece of theatre that's vital and vibrant storytelling and baldly pertinent to boot. There's another story of Lawrence of Arabia besides the one we know from the film; it's absolutely worth checking out.
The Storm Theatre's production of 'Ross' is notably ambitious. With a cast of 21 on
a big billowy set and a 3 hour playing time, director Stephen Logan Day
takes on this complex play by Terrence Rattigan in which Lawrence of
Arabia, seeking anonymity as Aircraftsman Ross in the RAF, recalls his
past during a night of malaria- induced fever.
T.E. Lawrence's life is quite rightly the subject of awe and scrutiny for his involvement as British Military liaison to the Arab Revolt during the First World War. But his subsequent withdrawal from the public eye is perhaps what is most fascinating. That period is what bookends Rattigan's play and is more intriguing in this production than the bulk of the piece which reflects on his time spent abroad.
Though timely in subject and interesting in scope, the first hurdle to be jumped is Rattigan's sometimes pat dialogue which lends itself to being overly dear, as in ". . .I'm afraid you've got it wrong. It was just that-suddenly-for the first time in five years I'd remembered what it was to feel life worth living." The cast as a whole is quite gifted. Peter Dobbins, who as T.E. Lawrence/Ross must handle most of the stilted language, manages to create an honest portrayal.
The action of the play taking place at the Royal Air Force Depot comes to life more readily than the scenes those set in the Middle East, perhaps because it is squarely set in real time. Tim Smallwood, Gabe Levey, & Matthew Waterson are lively and inventive as Aircraftmen Parsons, Nolan, & Dickinson respectively, and Gabriel Vaughan as Flight Lieutenant Stoker & Sean Gormley as Flight Sergeant Thompson are well matched.
Josh Zangen's set evokes vast desert terrain with sharp dunes rising up on all sides, and draping overhangs. Steven Logan Day's division and use of the space by employing clear traffic patterns was distinctive, and Bill Sheehan created some beautiful washes with the transition to T.E.'s dream as a standout sequence employing bold and eerie lighting.
The parallel between T.E. Lawrence's story and current U.S. military activity in the Middle East is striking, bringing to bear the nature of history repeating. Lawrence's accomplishments as liason were great, but his difficulty reconciling himself to how he achieved them is a striking example of winners losing. Because of its relevance, this production is well-timed.
|Sor winners: Jessica Myhr, Gabriel Vaughan
(photo © Kelleigh Miller)
|Paul Anthony McGrane, left, and David Little in
"The Salvage Shop."
(photo © Kelleigh Miller)
|David Little (left) and Paul Anthony McGrane in
"The Salvage Shop."
(photo © Kelleigh Miller)
Review by Martin Denton
O Time, thou must untangle this, not I;Time does its bit, abetted by Sebastian's sudden arrival in Illyria; he has been rescued by a smuggler named Antonio who, though wanted in Illyria, agrees to help his young friend find his way there. Sebastian looks almost exactly like the disguised Viola, and so when Olivia lays eyes upon him, she thinks he's her beloved Cesario. Sebastian is confused, but not unwilling to accept her advances. Complications ensue.
It is too hard a know for me t'untie.
Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday, first performed in 1600, hasn't received a major New York production since 1937, when Orson Welles staged it for his Mercury Theatre. Now it's being presented by the Storm Theatre, a tiny troupe of which I'd never heard until its press release popped up in my mailbox a couple of weeks ago (the company performs in a black-box theater a block from Broadway). The only reason I bothered to go was because I'd never seen Dekker's most popular play on stage.
Well, guess what? It's a peach. Peter Dobbins, artistic director of the Storm Theatre, strikes a perfect balance between bawdiness and deep feeling, something that Welles' heavily cut, coarsely comic staging failed by all accounts to do. Dekker's prithee-put-a-sock-in-it-old-codswallop dialogue is played to the hilt, especially by Hugh Brandon Kelly, the shoemaker-turned-sheriff (I'd kill for a big bass voice like that), and shameless scene-stealing is the order of the day (Amanda Cronk makes the funniest faces imaginable). Yet the serious parts are given full value, too, and Kelleigh Miller moved me all the way to tears as Jane Damport, who wrongly supposes that her husband has been killed in battle and comes perilously close to marrying again.
"The Shoemaker's Holiday" plays on Thursdays, Fridays and weekends through Feb. 26th. Take a chance on it. You won't be sorry.
|Gabriel Vaughan and Julia Motyka rehearse a
scene from THE SHOEMAKER'S HOLIDAY
(photo © Kelleigh Miller)
I count on Peter Dobbins and his Storm Theatre to uncover buried dramatic treasure, revealing hidden gems that should be part of the so-called canon but, for one reason or another, are not. I refer you to, for example, Andre Obey's Noah and Stewart Parker's Spokesong, two exquisite works that Storm mounted recently which, I suspect, no other company would have given a second thought to; each proved to be something of a masterpiece yet had faded into a kind of undeserved obscurity. This time around, Dobbins has dug much further back to reveal to us Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday, a British Renaissance comedy from the late 1590s that is as delightful as it is pertinent. I highly recommend a trip to the Storm's headquarters on 46th Street to catch this sprightly, touching Elizabethan "valentine."
Dekker, a contemporary of Shakespeare, is not the poet that the Bard of Avon was; but he seems to have been not so much the snob, either, which makes Shoemaker deliciously refreshing. Instead of relegating to the background the working people who were, more and more, becoming the heart and soul of English society (as happens in, say, Midsummer Night's Dream), Dekker places them front and center in this comedy, which is about, as much as anything, the glory of earning an honest living and the pride and power of the rising middle class. I was surprised at how "American" this English play seems to be, celebrating as it does the values of hard work, harder play, egalitarianism, and freedom of opportunity.
But lest I suggest that Shoemaker is anything other than a romp, let me assure you now that this is, for all its sociopolitical subtext, a very pleasing, very sweet, and frequently rowdy good time of a play, brought lovingly and vividly to life by Dobbins and his high-energy cast. At its center is newcomer Gabriel Vaughan who is very appealing as handsome and romantic young Rowland Lacy, nephew to the Earl of Lincoln, so in love with pretty Rose Oateley that he buys himself out of serving in King Henry V's army in France, in order to disguise himself as a shoemaker and be near his beloved. The Earl opposes the match because Rose lacks noble bloodshe is the daughter of Sir Roger Oateley, a member of the middle class who is now Lord Mayor of London. Sir Roger's reverse snobbery stands as an obstacle as well. But Rowland, fortunately skilled in the "gentle craft" of shoemaking, is undaunted: donning more modest garb and a garbled Dutch accent, he assumes the role of a Flemish craftsman called Hans Meulter and finds work in the prosperous house of Simon Eyre.
And it's here that the play really takes off. Simon is unabashedly common folk; he's the Ralph Kramden of 16th century shoemakers, with a tart-tongued wife named Margery who refuses to be cowed by his blustery insults. Simon's staff consists of the earnest foreman Hodge, a hearty boy apprentice, and a journeyman named Firk who finds himself constantly and comically in the thick of, well, everything: Norton to Simon's Ralph; or, much more accuratelyespecially in the person of the remarkably nimble young actor Josh VasquezDaffy Duck to Simon's Porky Pig.
Together, Simon's men abet Hans/Rowland in his cause (the happy ending is never in doubt), and they also help another of their number, Ralph Damport, reunite with his wife Jane after he returns from the wars in France. Dobbins doesn't ease over the implications of Ralph's having to fight in the bloody conflict that our hero Rowland has bought his way out of; the play becomes unexpectedly sorrowful and profound in a few places as the weight of this inequity is allowed to register. But most of the time, Dobbins keeps the tone lighter than air and giddily joyful. There's a scene near the end, at a pancake breakfast being given the shoemakers by Simon Eyre, who by now has (somewhat inexplicably) been made Lord Mayor himself, in which Dobbins lets out all the stops, having his relatively small ensemble cavort like mad children all over the playing area, creating the very satisfying illusion of a cast of thousands. This staging definitely ranks among Dobbins' very best work.
I've already mentioned a few of the actors; let me stop here to acknowledge the rest, including Hugh Brandon Kelly, ingratiatingly commanding and just a wee bit foolish as Simon Eyre; Elizabeth Roby, seemingly having a blast in a fat suit as his much-maligned bride Margery; Jose Sanchez, plausibly proletarian as Hodge; Julia Motyka, lovely and appealing as Rose; Amanda Cronk, playing the wily soubrette as her maid Sybil; Ashton Crosby, suitably supercilious as Sir Roger; and Paul Jackel, entirely insufferable as Lincoln. Rounding out the large company are Jason Adams, Kevin Prowse, Kelleigh Miller, Greg Jackson, Travis Walters, and Brad Coolidge, many of whom are double- or even triple-cast, all to fine effect. They're all well-served by Erin Murphy's excellent costumes, which allow the actors to transform themselves nearly instantaneously from one character to another while preserving the world of the play. Michael Abrams's lighting is invaluable in setting mood and establishing time/place on Paul Hudson's lovely but spare set, which is framed by a trio of intersecting hearts.
The hearts are completely apropos, of course: love conquers all in The Shoemaker's Holidaynot just romantic love, but love for one's vocation, in this case, the making of shoes. Dekker and Dobbins have indeed collaborated to create a valentine for the audience here, and the timingjust a week before Valentine's Dayis propitious. A 1599 verse comedy as date play?Why not! Take your sweetheart to The Shoemaker's Holiday, and have a ball.
|Julia Motyka and Gabriel Vaughan in THE SHOEMAKER'S HOLIDAY.|
|Photo: Kelleigh Miller|
In the summer of 2003, playwright Matt Pepper gave New York theatergoers a look behind the pomp and pageantry of Shakespeare's Henry V, with Matt Pepper's St. Crispin's Day a farcical look at some of the common soldiers who would be integral to King Henry's victory at Agincourt. A more contemporary "back story" to Henry's wars with France is currently on the stage of the Storm Theatre right now, Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday.
Dating from 1599, "Shoemaker" looks at some of the men (and their wives and lovers) who do not go into battle namely Rowland Lacy, nephew to Sir Hugh. Rowland has fallen in love with a mere citizen, Rose, the daughter of London's Lord Mayor. Rowland's uncle has arranged for him to lead troops in France simply to prevent his nephew from pursuing his romance.
Unwilling to be parted from the woman he loves, Rowland convinces a cousin to lead his men to France, and stays behind disguising himself as a Dutch shoemaker (a trade he learned after spending a small part of his uncle's fortune on the continent). Rowland goes to work for Simon Eyre, an ambitious craftsman, whose son-in-law Ralph, has been conscripted to serve in France.
Ralph leaves behind a wife, Jane, who soon after his departure leaves her family to grieve his absence. At the same time, Rowland (now known as the Dutchman Hans) meets secretly with Rose, who has spurned the attentions of Master Hammond. This man soon meets Jane in a linens shop where she has gone to work to support herself, and to secure Jane's agreement to marry him, he produces a letter that lists the men killed in action in France. One of them is Ralph.
To further complicate matters in "Shoemaker" an investment Simon Eyre makes in a shipping venture suddenly provides him with vast wealth, and he becomes an alderman of London and later the city's Mayor. Ralph suddenly reappears just as Jane heads to the altar with Lord Hammond. King Henry V himself appears to pardon Rowland and Rose for having married without their guardians' permission, just as a Simon and his wife, Margery, host a huge celebration for shoemakers throughout London.
As these characters seek happiness during wartime, it is a credit to director Peter Dobbins that Dekker's complex story remains perfectly accessible for today's audiences. As the production unfolds on Paul Hudson's Tudor courtyard of a set, where archways sinuously coalesce into giant hearts, "Shoemaker" seems like nothing less than an Elizabethan screwball comedy, with all of that genre's "types" from arrogant "haves" to pratfalling but much more sensible "have nots."
From his 16 person ensemble, Dobbins has elicited a wide range of performances. Among the most successful are Paul Jackel's stiffly proper Sir Hugh, Amanda Cronk's grandly mischievous turn as Rose's maid, Sybil, and Hugh Brandon Kelly as the garrulous Simon Eyre. As the play's leading couple, Gabriel Vaughan and Julia Motyka do not generate much heat when their romance is at the play's fore; however, they both shine when trying to outwit their elders. (Vaughan also makes Rowland's Hans a comic highlight alongside Joshua Vasquez's humorously kinetic Firk, an apprentice in the shoemaker's shop.)
Audiences will find that accents (although varied) and styles seem simultaneously period and contemporary. These choices underscore the class system that fuels much of the conflict in "Shoemaker." Erin Murphy's Renaissance costume choices for the large company more than aptly capture period and class on what one assumes must have been a very limited budget.
For a company such as the Storm to use its resources to bring this little-known "slice-of-life" confection about life at home during King Henry's foreign military campaigns is admirable. That the production succeeds so frequently is even more impressive. One hopes that the theater will continue to revisit such works by Shakespeare's contemporaries, giving audiences the chance to sample other such plays.
Review by William Shunn
The Last Starfighter is a new off-Broadway musical based on the 1984 film. It opens at the Starlite Starbrite, an idyllic little trailer park in rural California—idyllic, that is, to all of its residents but Alex Rogan (Charlie Pollock). Alex's mother manages the trailer park and moonlights as a waitress, which makes Alex the de-facto handyman. He spends his days battling an endless succession of blown fuses, leaky pipes and clogged toilets, never finishing in time to join his girlfriend, Maggie (Julia Motyka), for summer fun at the nearby lakeshore. Worse, his loan application for college has just been turned down, crushing his dreams of ever escaping to a better life.
All this changes one evening when Alex breaks the high score on Starfighter, an arcade game next to the trailer-park office. A fast-talking stranger named Centauri (Joseph Kolinski) soon shows up, claiming to be the inventor of Starfighter. He convinces Alex to leave with him, for what Alex assumes will be a video-game endorsement deal. Instead, Centauri's car turns out to be a spaceship, and Centauri a scaly alien creature. Before he knows it, Alex has been whisked away through hyperspace to the planet Rylos. Here he is greeted as a gifted Starfighter and recruited into an interstellar war against the tyrant Zur (Bernardo De Paula) that threatens not just the worlds of the Star League, but Earth as well.
Even as Alex protests his conscription, his place on Earth is filled by a beta unit—a robot double programmed by Centauri to decoy Zur's Zandozan assassin (Paul Jackel) away from the real Alex. The hapless beta unit struggles against the Zandozan while at the same time trying to keep Alex's job and not ruin things with Maggie. And Alex himself, fighting feelings of inadequacy, must at last decide whether to retreat to the cold safety of home or take his rightful place in battle as the last Starfighter.
Star power hits the stage
Even to its ardent defenders, the movie version of The Last Starfighter has always played like a low-rent version of Star Wars, with a thinner, more maudlin story, inferior special effects and a production design no more convincing than the original Star Trek's. The genius of this new adaptation lies in its recognition that these apparent weaknesses are really strengths when translated to the musical stage. It's easier, for instance, to accept that all the trailer park's residents will show up to cheer a kid playing an arcade game when they're singing a musical number.
The book, by Fred Landau, retains a good deal of dialogue from the movie while streamlining the story in ways that improve upon the original. What's more, most of the supporting players are given fine moments in which to shine, the best being "Zandozan," the showstopping act-one finale in which Alex's younger brother Louis (Travis Walters) bawdily recounts the story of how his nighttime dreams were interrupted by an assassin from outer space.
Director Peter Dobbins takes full advantage of his enthusiastic cast, spare sets and limited props to created a world where classic Broadway and space opera collide. A delirious array of aliens are suggested using no more than gloves, headgear and jumpsuits. Skillful lighting and sound effects combine to evoke everything from the illusion of a fiery car crash to spaceships flying at high speeds through a field of stars. And most of the songs by Skip Kennon can hold their own with anything playing around the corner on Broadway.
At nearly two hours, the show does bog down in a few spots, and is not without other problems. Charlie Pollock at times plays Alex with more swagger than seems appropriate, and Joseph Kolinski's relatively tame Centauri can't equal the snake-oily smarm Robert Preston brought to the role on screen. But overall, charming, energetic performances and genuinely thrilling staging make this an evening at the theater that gives "star power" a whole new meaning.
Review by Jason Scott
Geekdom, extreme geekdom, does not just have depths, my friends; it has heights.
I have attended an off-broadway musical based on The Last Starfighter.
For two precious weeks, already down 3 performances, the Storm Theatre in New York City, just next to Times Square, is playing host to The Last Starfighter, a musical based on the film of the same name. If spoilers do not interest you, if you only want the simplest of directions and want to make the next right move, then heed these words:
If you live within driving, walking, bus or train distance of New York City, see this musical.
Within the Storm Theatre's well-worn but proud walls, up several flights of stairs and in one of a few dozen seats, you will join an elite and unique crowd who have seen this musical put forth on its debut run.
Hardcore followers of the original movie will notice a number of changes in the musical that diverge from what they might expect. Grig, previously Alex's close companion on the ship, is now merely Centauri's brother and quickly disabled in the battle. The Death Blossom, which was once untested and dangerous to the ship, is but a smart bomb and a second, more devastating weapon might be fatal to Alex and Centauri as they use it for the first time. Most of these changes make sense, as they allow Centauri to have a more complete presence in several song numbers, and they allow additional pacing in the battle and other sequences.
For these changes, other important details stay in; the video game still blares out "Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited..." and the last words of the Ko-Dan empire remain the immortal "What do we do now?" "We die."
It is difficult to describe the feelings as one sits through this production. For vital minutes at the beginning of the show, your mind reels, over and over: "I am watching a musical production of The Last Starfighter. I am watching a musical production of The Last Starfighter". This said, however, I found my half-smirk and wide eyes quickly overcome with the poignant, powerful song sung by Zur to his estranged parent, "Father to Son". It speaks of his rightful place, his hereditary throne denied him, his pain at being left in the cold and lost without meaning, which is why he now intends to destroy the very world he was rejected from. It is strong. It is touching. It is, at the end, a very real song delivered by a very real performer.
So too, the three weathered but smiling ladies who sing to the young Maggie in "Love is Like Water". Their voices circle each other, dancing among the playful rhymes and naughty asides. As they speak of love's power, so too does Maggie, her head resting in a caring lap, learn the wisdom of the generations before her.
Two other numbers stand out.
"Reach Out", the song of two lovers who wish for each other's hearts across a galaxy, is what one expects it to be: moving, caring, and sung with grace. "Caves of the Heart (The Battle)" both accurately evokes the feelings of the original film's fight sequences but brings its own special quality as cast members sing along of the war being waged from both sides.
This is not to say there aren't a dozen other moments that spoke out to me. Certainly, "A Hero"'s evoking of "little teacher named Scopes" and many other historical names was special, as well as the clever echoing in 'Spring Break" as the Beta android mimics Blake's sleazy lines to his girl. Lyricist/Musician Skip Kennon, who has a good list of credits to his name (he wrote music for The Hunchback of Notre Dame Part II, and before you snicker, Disney doesn't generally hire hacks), has peppered the score with many clever themes ("Go Alex, Go Alex" is repeated in many situations) and at no point do you feel cheated or that there is any lack of effort in the music or performing.
And this is the magic of this event, of my driving from Boston to New York City and back in one day, to be there to witness the performance. I was a part of something, a time when my geekdom and fandom broke new ground, proud ground, something I will carry forever.
While waiting for the doors to open, I struck up a conversation with another attendee. We discussed where we had come from to see it. I was proud I'd just driven 150 miles to attend.
He had flown in from Denver.
For the day.
To see this musical.
Sometimes, we think we have achieved the pinnacle, and then, slowly, we glance upward and see we have even farther to climb. See this musical. See it.
Review by Martin Denton
I first encountered A Midsummer Night's Dream when I was a very little boy, on the TV cartoon series Mister Magoo. During his last year on TV, Magoo appeared in half-hour adaptations of classic works, sort of like Classics Illustrated with a near-sighted character actor taking some of the literary/dramatic canon's great roles; I don't remember who he played in Midsummer (Bottom?), but I do remember the very foolish version of "Pyramus and Thisbe" (Peter Quince whistled whenever he said "s," which made the title hilarious all by itself). And I remember really liking the fairy Puck, and thinking in my child's mind how interesting was his pronouncement: "Lord, what fools these mortals be!"
Almost forty years later (!), here's another Midsummer, from The Storm Theatre, to delight the child that still lives somewhere inside me; a Midsummer to remind us all, with its disarming blend of wonder, wisdom, and guileless glee, what fools we mortals so often are. Director Peter Dobbins keeps the story timeless by leaving it in an ancient Athens that never was, and he keeps it magical by conjoining its twin universes of mischievously supernatural sprites and dedicatedly lovesick humans into a fairy-tale forest where the course of true love collides with something netherworldly that might be destiny or might be magic.
Driving Dobbins' Dream is the most pixilated Puck I've ever seen since the cartoon one who first made an impression on me. Portrayedno, inhabitedby the remarkable young actor Joshua Vasquez, this is a Puck who can't stay still and, can't wait for his next adventure in service of his beloved master Oberon, King of the Fairies. Vasquez bounds and leaps all over the stage so lithely and enthusiastically that he just about convinces us he really can fly; I can only wonder what fun it must be for Ethan Flower, who plays Oberon, to have this spirited young fellow literally leap over him night after night. Never arch or knowing and without a mean bone in his body (or, it appears, any bones at all), this Puck is, well, puckish: the guiding spirit of this lighter-than-air production.
It is he, after all, who puts a love potion into the wrong Athenian's eyes, thus creating (and eventually resolving) the intersecting romantic triangles which comprise the play's human love story. Demetrius and Lysander are both in love with Hermia, Demetrius being her father's choice and Lysander being her own. Hermia's father's opposition to Lysander forces that couple to flee into the woods, pursued by Demetrius and by Helena, who loves Demetrius even as he ignores her. Puck's boss Oberon gets wind of the situation and tries to fix it by making Demetrius fall in love with Helena, but Puck accidentally enchants Lysander instead. When the error is discovered, he works the spell on Demetrius as well, so that for a brief but hilarious instant, Helena rather than Hermia is the object of both men's affection, much to her disbelief and consternation. This whole deliciously foolish roundelay is played out to perfection by Jo Benincasa (Lysander), Adriane Erdos (Hermia), Bernardo de Paula (Demetrius), and Kate Shindle (Helena), who bring the full force of their prodigious talents to show us the terrible agony that each of these passionate souls has fallen into. We, with Puck, get to laugh at their folly.
And we chuckle broadly, too, at the fellow that Puck picks out to be lover-for-a-night to Oberon's queen Titania: a weaver named Bottom who is full of himself (for no one else would be). Heading the cast of a very makeshift production of "Pyramus and Thisbe" intended to be performed at the King of Athens' wedding, Bottom finds his rehearsal interrupted when Puck turns him into the jackass that he already seems to be; and then Puck uses the aforementioned magical love portion, per Oberon's orders, to make Titania fall in love with the now- transfigured mortal, a lover's sweet revenge for a perceived indiscretion. Former football great John Riggins is spectacularly good as Bottom, a swaggering innocent whose overblown ways can't quite infuriate for their naive simple-mindedness.
Eventually, Bottom is restored to his natural state and the show goes on as planned, with fellow "rude mechanicals" making a mess out of the Romeo and Juliet-like tragedy. But here again, Dobbins' gentleness triumphs: this is undeniably an awful "Pyramus and Thisbe," but the players' impulse to make theatre is celebrated with sweetness rather than cynicism. As Bottom's co-stars, Hugh Brandon Kelly (Peter Quince), Geoffrey Warren Barnes II (Flute), Jose Sanchez (Snout), Eamon Montgomery (Snug), and Joel C. Roman (Starveling) are appealing and splendidly funny.
And of course Oberon and Titania are reconciled, too. Kelleigh Miller is a lovely fairy queen, while Ethan Flower gives us a pensive and heartfelt Oberon. If Vasquez's Puck is the propeller of this Dream, Flower's mature, melancholy spirit is its engineand its heart and soul.
Dobbins' staging is unfailingly charming, on a simple unit set by Paul Hudson that is eloquently lit by Michael Abrams and enhanced by Skip Kennon's ethereal score. Pamela Snyder-Gallagher's witty costumes deserve special mention: among other things, she's given Bottom a character-defining big, floppy hat and Demetrius and Lysander Grecian underpants that make us smile the first time we catch a glimpse of them. This is, in every department, a most satisfying Midsummer Night's Dream. Only the most foolish of mortals would pass it up.
Read the complete NYTheatre.com review here.
The IRISH ECHO
Review by Joseph Hurley
Stewart Parker's "Spokesong" ranks among the most inexplicably neglected plays of the last half-century.
... The playwright's eloquently raffish, resoundingly original "Spokesong" debuted at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1975 and then transferred to London. Its first American staging took place at New Haven's Long Wharf Theater in 1978 in a production that subsequently moved to the Circle-in-the-Square in New York.
Now "Spokesong" is briefly back in town, in an inspired production of the Storm Theatre directed by the group's artistic director, Peter Dobbins.
Parker's clean-limbed, eloquent play is part romance, part blithe-spirited social history lesson, part musical, and, not least of all, part lament for the religious and economic strife that has torn Ireland apart for so many years.
"Spokesong" takes place on several time levels, the primary "present tense" being 1973, with the main "flashback" set in "the 1890s." Other scenes capture moments, to quote the printed program, "ranging from the 1890s to the 1940s."
The location, as the title might suggest, is a hardscrabble Belfast bicycle shop, trying to stay alive, not to say solvent, while the city crumbles and shatters beyond its doorway.
The owner of the shop, Frank Stock, chats with the audience, takes part in the action, recalls his paternal grandfather, Francis Stock, who founded the business, and even sings a little.
The success of any production of "Spokesong" depends rather heavily on the casting of Frank, a character played at Long Wharf and then at Circle-in-the-Square by John Lithgow.
Director Dobbins has been exceedingly fortunate in finding a little-known singer and actor, Michael Mendiola, for the role. Graceful, affable, personable and musically adroit, Mendiola guides the audience through the show with style and generosity.
The actor, who appears to have done a spat of musicals in regional theaters, the most recent being the Boston production of off-Broadway's "Bat Boy the Musical," is someone to watch. Lean and long-faced, he possesses much of the skill and charm that made a star of James Stewart some seven decades back.
The Storm's six-actor cast is uniformly fine, from Robin Haynes's sympathetic work as Frank's grandfather to Ethan Flower's portrait of his somewhat sinister adoptive "brother," Julian.
As Kitty Carberry and Daisy Bell, the Belfast girls who love, respectively, Frank and Francis, Colleen Crawford and Jill Anderson are standouts.
As the character known only as the "Trick Cyclist,"
... Paul Jackel sings well.
... Francis's betrothed, Kitty, is a liberal thinker who refers to Ireland ironically as "West Britain," a term employed, half-a-century earlier, by a free-thinking female character in James Joyce's great story "The Dead."
Frank's vis-à-vis, Daisy, is a teacher who, defeated by the loathing and violence that have become daily fare in Belfast, wants to escape and relocate to London, at least until she meets the shopowner when she brings her bicycle in for a repair job.
Dobbins' "Spokesong" declares itself as a secure work and a valuable experience before a single word is spoken....
Paul Hudson's set design, evocative and lovely, is all the more commendable for having been accomplished on a tiny budget. The same can be said for the costumes designed by E. Shura Pollatsek....
The cast ... sings well, with ample credit due to the musical direction by Broadway composer Skip Kennon, who also did the ... appealing arrangements.
... Despite his productivity, and a loyal, albeit somewhat limited following, Stewart Parker remains largely unknown. The Storm Theatre's lovely production of "Spokesong" should do at least a little bit to rectify that sad situation.
Review by Martin Denton
Spokesong takes place in a Victorian bicycle shop, which has been beautifully rendered by set designer Paul Hudson. Its ambiancethe high wooden worktable covered with miscellaneous hardware; the old-fashioned cash register; the front door, outfitted with a live bell that rings whenever someone goes in or out; above all, the bicyclesof every shape, size, color, and descriptionhanging from racks on the ceilingpromises something special, even before the lights have gone down for the first act.
And indeed Spokesong proves very special. Stewart Parker wrote it in the mid-70s, as a reaction to the recurrent "troubles" in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where the age-old hatred between the Catholics and Protestants is manifested in bombings that relentlessly and systematically destroy the city from the ground up, building by building, person by person. Parker's story plays out in Frank Stock's bicycle shop, where the 39-year-old proprietor faces down his community's anonymous bullying enemies by living and working among these emblems of the past. An equally imminent threat to his security comes from a local planning board that wants to knock down his shop to build a highway; Frank counters with a topsy-turvy plan to eliminate automobiles and replace them with bicycles50,000 of them!to be offered to the populace free of charge.
Frank knows that his notions are quixotic, and the arc of the playwhich is defined by his sweetly low-key romance of an embittered schoolteacher named Daisy Belldepicts a reconciliation of his romantic inclinations with the hard facts of reality. Frank's journey away from tilting at windmills and toward authentic self-preservation is abetted, in addition to Daisy, by his brother Julian, who appears on the scene unexpectedly after years away. Julian is a London-based photojournalist whose cynical outlook starkly contrasts with Frank's sunny disposition; each learns something from the other by the time Spokesong ends.
Parker's script is as defiantly unconventional as its protagonist, with diverse theatrical elements stitched-in, delivered mostly by a ghostly Music Hall character called The Trick Cyclist who is Frank's alter ego/conscience. Spokesong has songs, magic tricks, choreographed bicycle routines (including one on a unicycle), and a series of charmingly stylized flashbacks ranging from sepia-toned sequences depicting Frank's slightly pixilated grandfather (the shop's founder) to a broadly satirical sketch about a bike-mounted unit in World War I that might have come right out of Monty Python's Flying Circus. The hodgepodge oughtn't to work, but it does: Spokesong becomes a feast for the imagination, as it takes us to the corners of Frank's active mind, showing us aspects of his personality that would be impossible for him to put into words on his own.
The Storm Theatre is doing perhaps its finest work ever here, under the firm but sensitive guidance of director Peter Dobbins, to tell Frank's story with affection, humor, and grace. In addition to Hudson, the production's excellent designers are E. Shura Pollatsek (costumes), Charles Cameron (lighting), and Tucker Howard (sound). The cast is terrific, led by Michael Mendiola as the thoughtful, solidly appealing Frank; he's warm, ingratiating, and has a beautiful, full-throated singing voice that fills the theatre; you'd expect to see him starring in a Broadway musical, yet here he is, delivering this impressive performance in an off-off-Broadway house. Mendiola's co-stars are fine as well: Ethan Flower is compellingly edgy as Julian; Robin Haynes and Jill Anderson are delightful as Frank's grandparents, seen in the flashbacks; and Colleen Crawford gets the complexities of Daisy's character just right. Paul Jackel pops up as The Trick Cyclist in all manner of guises, singing, dancing, cycling, and clowning with a gallantry that conjures the gentleness that goes with nostalgia.
That's appropriate, because Spokesong is, in part, about embracing the past, and finding what's important about it to help us through our lives today. It's also about finding the courage inside ourselves to resist barbarism described as progress: Frank's stand against modernity feels quaint and absurd to us, but there's authentic wisdom and profundity in it. Daisy asks him at one point what he thinks will happen to his shop; he replies, "If the bombers don't get it, the planners will. Between the devil and the deep. Two kinds of madness."
Somewhere within all this, there has to be a balance: Spokesong helps us reclaim it.
Review by Macey Levin
As the audience enters the intimate Storm Theatre it is greeted with a medley of Irish folk songs and 70's rock music intermixed with descriptions of killings on the streets of Belfast. Lettered on the walls in graffiti style are various slogans, i.e. Welcome to Free Belfast; Rule Britannia; No popery here; and God Save our Pope.
Despite the torment of the Irish troubles that lies beneath the plot, Spokesong is a sweet play. Written by Stewart Parker, with music by Jimmy Kennedy and lyrics by Parker, the show, which had a run off-Broadway in the late '70's, is an olio of comedy and drama, with a sprinkling of vaudeville entertainments.
Belfast 1973. Frank Stock owns a bicycle repair shop inherited from his grandparents. Though violence seethes around him, he is concerned with a project to raze his neighborhood to allow new highway construction. Frank lives in the sheltered world his store provides him. Through a series of flashbacks, we see that his grandparents, Francis and Kitty, lived a similar life, though he served in World War I and she was a suffragette.
Bicycles have been the focus of their lives. Expert on the history and construction of bicycles, Frank and Francis defend their use as economical, safe and versatile. Little by little the civil war creeps into Frank's shop until he must confront its probable destruction by bomb or bulldozer. His romance with Daisy, an elementary school teacher, and the return of his scheming adopted brother Julian facilitates the entrance of the war into his life and exacerbates his dilemmas.
A character known as "The Trick Cyclist," portrayed by Paul Jackel, sings the majority of the songs in the slight score that comment upon the action and character relationships; he also plays several different characters. It is a tried and true device that is used well and lends an energetic theatrical tone to the show....
Jackel's singing and dancing bring us back to the old British music halls and his instant transformations into his various characters are tight and effective. Michael Mendiola as Frank exudes great charm. There is an endearing winsomeness that flashes through his eyes and smile that belies Frank's strength and idealism. His cynical revelation presaging the ending is unexpected yet logical.
Robin Haynes and Jill Anderson as the Grandparent Stocks age gracefully and realistically. The sweetness of their relationship is a contrast to the intensity of that between Frank and Daisy, portrayed by Colleen Crawford.
... Director Peter Dobbins, who is also the producing artistic director of the Storm Theatre, keeps the play moving well. His staging, including the constant riding of bicycles through the story and the set, is efficient and confident. The tone of the simple and open set designed by Paul Hudson is enhanced by the subtle and effective lighting by Charles Cameron.
Review by Martin Denton
When the story of Noah is retoldI'm thinking of Clifford Odets' The Flowering Peach, or even Bill Cosby's classic comedy sketchthe focus is usually on the tired old man who is suddenly commanded by God to do something that everyone around him thinks is nutty. The subtext is about how one man's unwavering faith gets him through a very human sort of crisis, enabling him to persevere and do what he thinks is right in the face of rigorous opposition and derision from friends and family.
In Andre Obey's Noah, however, the old man is first of all not so oldhe's in vigorous middle age, with three strapping sons still in their teens. And when we first meet him, the ark is already built; except for a brief preliminary scene in which one of Noah's suspicious neighbors threatens to kill him, the building process has gone, as far as we can tell, rather smoothly. Noah's sons Sem, Cham, and Japheth, and his loving wife, all view him as an inspired genius and are both curious and supportive of his latest project.
In accord with Nature, the animals arrive instinctively and, minding Noah, board the ark. In accord with some sort of divine power, three young womenAda, Sella, and Noemaarrive spontaneously and they board the ark as well. And then the real issues of Obey's play start to surface: how do these people survive their voyage as they come to realize the real gravity of their situationthat indeed they are the only living creatures left on earth? And how, after a long, uncomfortable transition (while waiting for the flood waters to recede) will they repopulate and recolonize their renascent planet?
They must grapple with other, deeper questions: Is Noah right to wait for instructions from God on how to proceed; or is his rebellious son Chem right to force the issue, as he tries to catch one of the "chosen fish" or add mast, sail, and rudder to the stalled ark? Is God ever going to answer Noah's prayers for guidance; or has God forsaken his children?
The strength of Obey's play, in this loose but lucid translation by Judith Suther and Earl Clowney, and as staged here with enormous clarity and balance by Peter Dobbins, is that the answers to the above questions are neither obvious nor unambiguous. Noah becomes a vehicle for us to think about our notions of faith and free will, of our duty to the earth, to nature, to each other, and to a Supreme Being. The journey that Dobbins and his actors ultimately take us on is funny and familiar, yet thought-provoking and surprisingly challenging as our assumptions and preconceived ideas are flaunted and flouted.
Dobbins' designers have created a gorgeous, spare environment for the piece, with Mary Houston's set consisting of nothing but a few strategically placed curtains, illuminated, with the stage, by Kevin J. Hardy's stunning lighting (the moment when the sun comes out after the flood is particularly lovely). Arin Arbus' colorful costumes provide happy contrast to the golden earth tones of their surroundings.
The large cast (15 actors) do a fine job bringing Obey's parable to life. In the title role, Timothy Roselle shows us Noah's fundamental good nature and unwavering faith, though he's perhaps less commanding than he might be, especially in the scenes with Chem. Bernardo De Paula, Damon Noland, and Matt Schuneman acquit themselves nicely as Sem, Cham, and Japheth, while Jennifer Curfman, Marisa Lee, and Sharon Freedman are effective in the somewhat smaller roles of the three young women who will become their wives. Stacey Gladstone is especially moving as Mrs. Noah, letting us see both her unconditional love for her husband and her pragmatic concern for him when it appears that his God may have become permanently out of touch.
The Storm Theatre, as they have so often in the past, give us here a vivid, thoughtful reading of a play that has undeservedly been abandoned by theatregoers. I can find only one New York production of Noah in the past thirty years; but this is a play that ought to be done again and again, forcing us, as it does, to confront some of the most fundamental issues of human existence. So bravo to Dobbins and his Storm colleagues for rescuing Noah from obscurity. Hopefully their excellent production will inspire others.
Review by Martin Denton
Octave has fallen desperately in love with the winsome and beautiful Hyacinte, and he has married her in secret even though he's betrothed to the daughter of miserly old Geronte. His buddy Leandre (who is Geronte's son) has gotten mixed up with the giggly, bubbly Zerbinette, who is about to be carried off by gypsy marauders. Both young men quake at the thought of what their fathers will do when they learn of these romantic liaisons.
Luckily, Leandre's wily servant Scapin is on hand to save the day. In the course of Moliere's timelessly improbable play, Scapin swindles both Geronte and Octave's father Argante out of the money needed to abet the sons' schemes; he also manages to play a deviously dirty trick on Geronte that enables him to beat his master rather soundly with his own walking stick. By play's end, both sets of young lovers are headed to the altar (suitable social status for each lady having been fortuitously supplied); the general happiness is such that Geronte even forgives Scapin for his beating.
Familiar as all of this is, the Storm Theatre's current production of Scapin is undeniably welcome; do we ever tire of this lovable, anarchic rogue, who has been a staple of comedy from Plautus through Bugs Bunny? This revival features a contemporary, conversational translation by Jack Clay, and is directed with suitably antic attitude by Stephen Logan Day on a simple, whimsical set by Mary Houston that evokes the Roman Comedy roots of Moliere's play. The program informs us with disarming precision that we are in Naples in 1671, and so E. Shura Pollatsek's costumes reflect that time and place, with the aristocratic gentlemen clad in elaborate cloaks and buckles and sporting foolish, frilly wigs, and the ladies outfitted in simple but brightly colored period gowns.
One of the delights of this Scapin is seeing some actors who usually play serious drama letting loose with the high-energy comedy that's called for here. I'm thinking particularly of Hugh Brandon Kelly, who is constantly amiable as Octave's fretful servant Silvestre, and nearly stops the show in the scene when he is called upon to scare Argante by pretending to be a bellowing bully. Adriane Erdos proves similarly delightful as Zerbinette, especially as she giddily (and unknowand unknowingly) recounts the story of Scapin's swindle of Geronte to none other than Geronte himself.
In the title role, Shay Ansari makes a good effort,
but he's arch rather than broad, which dilutes the comic potential.
Stephen Logan Day and Ashton Crosby are invaluable as the old men, the
unwitting butts of just about every joke. Tim Roberts is mooing petulance
personified as Octave; Maury Miller is an effective if not so distinctive
Leandre. Kelleigh Miller is glowing and good-natured as the guileless
Reviewed by Victor Gluck
Presented by and at The Storm Theatre, 145 W. 46 St. NYC, Feb. 8-March 2, in rotating repertory with "The Tempest."
Dramatized in 1956 by Denis Cannan and Pierre Bost, Graham Greene's masterpiece, "The Power and the Glory," has just received its first New York revival. Stephen Logan Day's trenchant production for the Storm Theatre had all the advantages and disadvantages of a novel dramatized for the stage.
Set in the Mexican state of Tabasco in 1934, the story recounts the plight of the last Catholic priest under the socialist laws that had outlawed the church. Told in 12 scenes, the dramatization, faithful to the novel, was extremely episodic and long, requiring many lighting and set changes. Performing on a thrust stage with the audience on either side of the playing area made the action very immediate, but necessitated some unfortunate sight lines.
Nevertheless, the ordeals of this little-known episode of religious persecution mounted in power, with some later scenes riveting in their tension. The large cast, playing as many as three roles each, acquitted themselves well as both peasants and patricians. In the central role of the alcoholic and lecherous priest who is eventually martyred, Timothy Roselle was convincing as a drowning man whose training has not left him. Although he did not seem Mexican, this may have been intentional, as the character is unnamed.
As the harsh lieutenant searching for the last priest,
Bernardo De Paula was excellent at conveying a man motivated entirely by
his principles. Adriane Erdos gave a strong performance as the mother of
the priest's child, a woman who believes in survival above all things. The
evening was almost stolen by the slimy, insidious performance of Rob
DeRosa as the street beggar who becomes the priest's Judas. And Carter
Inskeep, as a dentist who seems to be a weak man but still has the
strength to go against the authorities, gave a portrait worthy of Donald
Review by Martin Denton · February 23, 2003
The Storm Theatre must, first of all, be commended for its enormous, audacious vision this season. In successfully reviving Shakespeare's Tempest and Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory in repertory on an off_off_Broadway budget (and charging theatregoers off_off_Broadway prices), they have proved that fine theatre can be had whenever there's a worthwhile story to tell and sufficient commitment, imagination, and intelligence to tell it.
That said, let it be noted that The Power and the Glory is not the timeless classic that The Tempest undeniably is, and as a result the experience of this play, though entirely compelling, is not so substantial. What we have here is a taut, intriguing tale about a self_described "bad priest" who is also, due to the peculiar circumstances of the remote province in Revolutionary Mexico where the story takes place, the last priest, all the others having been driven away or killed by an atheistic state that has outlawed the Catholic Church.
The Priest travels about the countryside, fighting for his own survival and performing the sacraments of the Churchat great peril to himself and otherson the rare occasions when he can. He winds up in jail after a fruitless attempt to procure some wine (also illegal); then a miracle of sorts happens when a rigorously righteous and idealistic Lieutenant frees him, unaware of his true identity. We meet the Priest next in a town across the border, restored to the pulpit and sanctimoniously overcharging his impoverished parishioners for baptisms. (He said he was a bad priest.)
But love for humanity and absolute devotion to God eventually lead the Priest toward martyrdom and, presumably, salvation. It makes for a powerful second act curtain, but the transformation is largely unrealized by actor Timothy Roselle, who failed to convince me that the protagonist had journeyed beyond the exposed hypocrisies of his character.
Elsewhere, the play works well. There are commanding
performances by Bernardo De Paula as the Lieutenant and Rob DeRosa as an
unnamed Mestizo who serves as catalyst for the Priest's fall and
subsequent redemption. And director Stephen Logan Day manages the enormous
company (by off_off_Broadway standards) ably, and keeps the action moving
liquidly within Martin T. Lopez's skillfully designed set.
Review by Alexis Soloski
A few hundred miles south of California, a whiskey priest dodges state-sponsored persecution in Dennis Cannan and Pierre Bost's adaptation of Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory (the Storm Theatre). During the 1920s and '30s, the Mexican government attempted to eradicate the Catholic church. The last priest in the Tabasco region (Timothy Roselle) tries to survive long enough to get across the border and say a few masses along the way. A drinker and fornicator, he's no man-of-the-cloth poster boy, and his visits to villages usually result in the execution of a few peasants. In other words, the play's a typical Greene mélange of overseas landscapes and seedy morality. Unfortunately, the adaptation's rather dreadful; shrill and reductive, it intercuts each major scene with a wordless one of quotidian oppression. First-time director Stephen Logan Day treats his actors generously, but never establishes a sense of place or urgency. However, he and set designer Martin T. Lopez should be congratulated for tracking down an antiquated dentist's chaireasily the niftiest prop of the week.
American Theatre Web
The final entry in a trio of stage adaptations of great literary works currently onstage in New York is the Storm Theater's production of Graham Greene's The Power and The Glory, adapted by Dennis Cannan and Pierre Bost. This work does not fall prey to the problems of the works reviewed on ATW previously, namely length or misguided conception. However, the production still does not fully satisfy as a theatrical experience.
Set in Mexico in the 1930s, The Power and the Glory unfolds as the country's Socialist leaders are persecuting Catholics. It is forbidden to say mass, prohibition has been imposed to ensure that communion cannot be taken, and violators are summarily executed. In the center of this is one alcoholic priest, a fallen angel of sorts who has fathered a child, and is torn between doing the right thing and saving his own skin, although he has even given up on living.
The priest's dilemma becomes the evening's focal point and the drama continues episodically as he, like Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, tries to stay one step ahead of the law while also sabotaging his own efforts.
As the priest, Timothy Roselle finds the character's inherent contradictions and seems to revel in them. Watching the actor snivel as the priest, only to, moments later, display extreme arrogance is a marvel. Roselle's dark eyes serve him well, often belying the character's seeming goodness.
In one of the play's most interesting sequences, the priest enlists the aid of Mestizo, a streetwise operator, to secure wine on the black market. What makes the episode telling is the duality of the priest's goal. He claims the wine is for surreptitious masses, all the while seeming to want it strictly for personal consumption.
The sequence is also notable for bringing Rob DeRosa to the stage as Mestizo. DeRosa, at first seems to be a playing a caricature, speaking in a thick Spanish accent that reminds one of the cartoon character Speedy Gonzalez. DeRosa's body language also speaks only of oily servitude, so it comes as an extraordinary surprise when the actor erupts with violent anger and strength.
These dualities are seen throughout the play and herein lies the work's primary flaw. Greene has carefully laid out his plot and characterization so that one knows that they are seeing one side of a character that will later be contradicted. On the page, and for literary scholars, this uniform and tidy construction undoubtedly makes for rich debate, but on the stage, the neatness plays as if one is watching a treatise on religion with a strong plot.
Martin T. Lopez' atmospheric scenic design, which puts the audience on two sides of the stage looking down into a kind of pit for the action, enhances this feeling of distance from the action and emotional disconnection.
Reviewed by Victor Gluck
Making his Off-Broadway debut, NFL Hall of Famer and 1983 Super Bowl MVP John Riggins has chosen an excellent role to showcase his talents. As Mickey Hollister in the New York premiere of William Hauptman's "Gillette," he is totally believable as the hard-drinking, hard-living drifter who has learned many of life's lessons. Riggins commands the stage in his every scene.
Hauptman's drama takes place in Gillette, Wyo., which in 1981 was a boomtown due to the decontrol of oil prices. To this mecca comes Mickey with young hitchhiker Bobby Nobis, an aspiring country music star, in tow. In his late 40s, Mickey has a dream to move to Alaska and buy a fishing boat. The men set out to work on the dangerous but lucrative oil rigs and save enough to move to Alaska. However, Mickey must play mentor to the innocent Bobby, and when both men fall in love, their plans become complicated.
Peter Dobbins' fast-paced production makes Hauptman's realistic, gritty dialogue tell the slight story. Michelle Malavet's unit set makes nice use of the space, combining elements of the local bar, the Wyoming plains (painted by Pamela Noftsinger), and various locations in Gillette. The music, composed by Jeremiah Lockwood and performed by him and The Quiet, Evocative Coyotes (Eric Thorne, Derek T. Bell, and Paul A. Burns II), sets the perfect mood for a western boomtown.
The supporting case is equally believable. As young
Bobby, Eric Alperin has the required innocence, while Colleen Crawford and
Shaula Chambliss as the two hookers the men take up with have just the
right degree of cynicism. Kevin Villers makes the oil rig foreman, Booger
McCoy, into a brutal adversary. Kristin Mauritz's world-weary bartender
makes an interesting contrast to Genia Michaela's 19-year-old abused
TOWN & VILLAGE
"Football hero proves he's got the mettle"
Some people have all the luck, and their luck is all bad. That's the way it is with the characters in William Hauptman's 1980 play, "Gillette," now being revived by The Storm Theatre, 145 W 46th Street through March 2.
But the most noteworthy thing about this production is the acting performance of the National Football League's Hall of Fame running back, John Riggins, in his New York theatrical debut. He is a very fine actor in a role that suits him to a "T."
Mickey, the Riggins' role, is a good ol' boy down on his luck. He has a dream of making enough money to go to Alaska and buy a fishing boat. He has taken under his wing a sad, weak, lonely kid named Bobby (Eric Alperin, who also gives a fine performance) who has lost his parents.
They arrive at the oil boomtown of Gillette, Wyoming, to work as roughnecks and get jobs with the tough oil field foreman, Booger (Kevin Villers).
Mickey finds love with Brenda (Shaula Chambliss), one of two good-hearted, unlucky prostitutes; and Bobby finds love with a poor soul who can't break loose from a sadistic ex-con.
To add to the excitement, they get their money stolen, get rained on in the desert, lose their jobs and engage in arm-wrestling and bar fights.
"Gillette" is neatly directed by Peter Dobbins and Michelle Malavet's set design works well in reflecting the seven different locations where the action takes place.
All in all, "Gillette" us a lot of fun, and John
Riggins is a revalation.
Review by Elyse Sommer
We've grown accustomed to film and television stars on stage. Now, adding to the celebrity-on-stage mix we have two ex-football players both opening within a few weeks of each other in Off-Broadway plays. Bob Eason, who played in the National Football League for four years, scripted his own stage debut, a semi-autobiographical peek into an athlete's life called Runt of the Litter (Our Review). Now NFL Hall of Fame legend John Riggins has taken on the lead role in William Hauptman's play about a Wyoming boom town. Riggins is a relaxed performer who emanates some charm. Unlike Eason, he doesn't have to carry the ball alone.
Gillette, besides providing a New York stage debut for Riggins, marks a departure of sorts for the four-year old Storm Theatre Company. Most of their previous productions focused on the works of dead authors -- John Synge (Playboy of the Western World), Dion Bouccicaault (The Shaughraun and Arragh-ne-Pogue), Edward Bulwer-Lytton (Money -- reviewed at CurtainUp). William Hauptman is not only alive but, like Riggins, has a good deal of name recognition by virtue of his Tony Award winning musical Big River. Since Gillette is seventeen years old and has only had one brief run in California, however, it fits the company's mission of giving New York audiences a chance to see plays they would not otherwise have an opportunity to see.
Hauptman's aim of depicting the pull towards realization on one hand, and financial success on the other hand through a group of colorful characters that includes drifters and prostitutes is valid enough. The once sleepy little town that now has "Cinema One, Two and Trhee" is an apt background for the story of forty-year-old Mickey Hollister (Riggins). Mickey has come to Gillette by way of Texas in order to earn enough money to buy his dream fishing boat in Alaska.
The Silver Dollar Lounge where we first meet Mickey and his innocent-abroad sidekick Bobby Nobis (Eric Alperin) seems straight out of a dozen grade B movies. The same is true of Mickey and Bobby and the whole quirky equally quaintly named cast of characters: the tough-as-nail waitreess-bartender Doreen (Kristin Mauritz); the former athlete turned oil rig boss Bouger McCoy (Kevin Villers) and his aide-de-camp Poot (Derek T. Bell); two entrepreneurial hookers Cathy (Colleen Crawford) and Brenda (Shaula Chamblss) who turns out to be the love of Mickey's life. There's also a hapless dumbbell (Genia Michaels) for Bobby, who must break free of her nasty biker boyfriend (Eric Thorne) and, of course, a sheriffr (Paul A. Burns II).
The script does have some sharp dialogue, especially from Doreen (her rejection of Bobby will stand for all: " I hate tell you Romeo, but there's something like fourteen thousand other guys who got here first . . .Know how they say Bo Derek's supposed to be the only perfect ten? Well every girl in Gillette's a five just by being here -- even if she's on Medicare."). Ms. Moritz's Doreen and Colleen Crawford's Cathy, the hooker, are among the better performances.
Like all small companies the Storm Theatre is to be commended for putting on large cast productions with a small budget -- and for daring to act on the challenge of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus: "Now is the time to storm; why art thou still?"
"This is a play that says what is says...with handsome
period costumes by E. Shura Pollatsek...the actors display a comfort and
competence with the Victorian mode of behavior and diction."
-Bruce Weber, NYTimes
by Martin Denton
May 12, 2000
With Eurydice: Legend of Lovers, The Storm Theatre once again brings a lesser-known dramatic treasure to vivid, theatrical life. Earlier this season they brought Dion Boucicault's tale of love and honor, Arrah-na-Pogue, to the New York stage for the first time in probably a century. Now they're working their magic on this early play by Jean Anouilh, which premiered on Broadway in the early '50s and hasn't been seen here much since. Interestingly, Eurydice touches on some of the same themes as the Boucicault work, but it's almost the converse of that play: Anouilh's vision, informed by the storm clouds of World War II spreading across Europe and, I am told, the recent break-up of his own marriage, has none of the sweet simplicity or joyous optimism of Boucicault's. This is a stark, melancholy work, devoid of any sentiment: the pure, despairing outpouring of a romantic soul confronted with the harsh realities of an unromantic world.
Anouilh's Eurydice follows, in broad outline, the classic legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. Here, Orpheus is a young street musician, a fine accordionist who makes his living traveling with his blustery, ne'er-do-well father from town to town. While waiting to board the train to their next destination, Orpheus encounters Eurydice, a beautiful and mysterious young woman who is traveling with a theatrical troupe. They instantly fall in love and plot to run off together. In Act Two, the young lovers, having spent a euphoric night together, find they must deal with Eurydice's past, about which she has heretofore been less than forthcoming; will Orpheus be able to cast aside jealousy and suspicion, and trust--and love--Eurydice unconditionally? Suddenly word comes that Eurydice has been killed. A mysterious man called Monsieur Henri appears and offers Orpheus the chance to spend eternity with Eurydice, in exchange for his own life.
Anouilh's hero makes the same choice as his mythological namesake; but if you don't know the story I won't spoil it for you here. Suffice to say that the decision that Anouilh's Orpheus has to make--idealized romantic love versus earthly care and responsibility--is at once (and paradoxically) the most important decision in the world and the most trivially simple: such are the stakes in a world where things seem to mean, alarmingly, less and less. Anouilh provides a beautiful penultimate scene in which M. Henri and Orpheus's father ruminate about the nature and value of human existence. Hearing this, it would seem that Orpheus almost has no choice to make at all.
Eurydice is a very special, very delicate play, that has thankfully been placed in the hands of a splendid director, John Regis, whose staging of the piece is near-perfect. Anouilh has filled the tale with numerous stylized, atmospheric touches that are realized beautifully by Regis: there's the shadowy silent restaurant cashier, for example, played here by the willowy Kim Bendheim as if she had just popped out of a Lautrec painting; and the two waiters, one noble and one suspect, played with admirable economy by Larry Picard. These characters create a netherworldly, carnival-esque theatricality that informs the world of Orpheus and Eurydice's love story and of the play itself: there's nothing real here, save the deep and honest passion of the two young people. Certainly the pragmatic prattling of Orpheus's father and the hyperbolic blathering of Eurydice's grandiose mother are all to be discounted as lacking substance or heart.
Or are they?: Regis and Anouilh keep us blissfully off-balance in Eurydice. Regis begins and ends the play with a pair of dancers who look and move like marionettes, enacting a timeless pas de deux of love and romance. (Maryanne Chaney and Peter Mantia, who devised and perform this lovely choreography, are excellent, by the way.) But who's holding the strings?
The company is generally fine, with several standout performances worthy of mention. Jeremy Johnson is wonderful as Orpheus's foolish old father, conjuring in places memories of the suave and assured devil-may-care of a Maurice Chevalier as he chats up a lovely young passerby or recalls a long-ago rendezvous with wine and/or women. Lesleh Donaldson and Stephen Thomas Kaiser are delightfully over-the-top as Eurydice's hyper-theatrical mother and her valiant, though perhaps slightly over-the-hill lover, Vincent. Stephen Logan Day plays the villain Dulac with his customary relish. Christian Conn is a touching and appealing Orpheus; Tiffany Weigel has the requisite gamine look for Eurydice but at the performance reviewed seemed too contemporary to be entirely convincing.
Perhaps the most invaluable member of the company, though, is Peter Soave, who provides glorious and virtuosic accompaniment on accordion and bandoneon. This music provides a perfect, moodily restless milieu for Eurydice, at once as specific and as timeless as the concerns--both monumental and intimate--of this play.
You might think there's little entertainment to be found in Dion Boucicault's 19th - century drama about 18th - century Ireland, an epic narrative set against the backdrop of the Irish rebellion of 1798. You'd be wrong. Boasting an exceptionally fine cast (every actor in the 21-member ensemble is terrific) and masterful direction by Peter Dobbins, "Arrah" is quite simply the warmest, surest antidote to the Arctic blasts of a New York winter.
Boucicault's sweeping saga depicts a world where the personal and political are inextricably linked. Beamish McCoul loves Fanny Power, but he is first and foremost a rebel nationalist, a dangerous occupation that sends him into hiding at the home of Arrah and Shaun (on their wedding day, no less). Though spiced with a cappella renditions of songs like The Wearin' of the Green and complex, thrilling step dance sequences, the Storm Theater production never takes the low road toward Irish kitsch. Utterly engrossing yet surprisingly fun, Arrah confirms Storm's status as a company swiftly on the rise. - Scott Vogel
Dion Boucicault's Arrah-na-Pogue is a captivating, funny, romantic melodrama, filled with passion and joy and a charmed innocence that has all but disappeared from contemporary theatre. This show has everything: a gorgeous love story, complete with betrayal and self-sacrifice, told in graceful, poetic language; sensational and exciting adventure, featuring more narrow escapes and fortuitous coincidences than an old-time movie serial; broadly entertaining comic set pieces; even some plaintively lovely folk singing and some impressive Irish step dancing. Originally written in 1864, Arrah-na-Pogue, which takes place in Ireland in 1798, during an uprising against the British, has probably not been seen in New York in a century or more. So The Storm Theatre, who have revived this lost gem, are to be thanked for finding it; more, they are to be congratulated, for they have given Boucicault's beautiful play a lovely, heartfelt production, one that reminds us that romance can never really go out of style.
"...this highly entertaining play features bawdy comedy, overheated romance and chest-pounding melodrama. There's never an undramatic moment, and when the action seems to be winding down, director Peter Dobbins throws in a high-stepping Irish dance that would wow Michael Flatley."
THE PROLIFIC Irish-born playwright Dion Boucicault, who died toward the end of the 19th Century, has been enjoying an exuberant revival as the 20th Century cycles into the 21st. The author of some 200 plays, Boucicault was popular in his day and influenced such writers as Shaw, Wilde and Synge. But he hasn't exactly become a household name.
In 1997, the Roundabout Theatre mounted his early farce, "London Assurance," on Broadway. A year later, the tiny Storm Theatre presented "The Shaughraun," a later play that was a commercial success in its New York debut in 1874. Last year, the Irish Repertory Theater resurrected "The Shaughraun," to great acclaim.
Director Peter Dobbins is at his best in the scenes that mix a palpable sense of danger with the more lighthearted buffoonery. During a party scene, someone calls for the song "Wearin' of the Green," and it becomes clear from the precautions and the silence surrounding the rendition why this declaration of nationalism was considered seditious. In the course of this celebration, dancers John Aherne and Moira Rogers show off their steps in a fierce dance contest.
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How delightful that The Storm Theatre Company has brought old-fashioned craftsmanship back to the stage! There is nothing ambiguous-or muddled-about "Arrah-na-Pogue" ("Arrah of the Kiss"), now at the Studio. No matter that cast members' brogues are unintelligible at times, when carried away by passions. The story itself never lacks clarity. The company makes the most of this 19th - century melodrama by Dion Boucicault, with its own professionalism much in evidence. This fresh young troupe is bringing a new vitality to the classics, not only with this and other productions, but with Boucicault's "The Shaughraun" of a few seasons ago.
This spirited tale has all the elements of melodrama-the virtuous hero and heroine beset by trials, the series of misunderstandings, and the ultimate triumph of true love. It all takes place in an Irish village during an early rebellion against British domination.
Under the direction of Peter Dobbins (Storm's artistic director), "Arrah" is fast paced and absorbing. And his skilled cast of 23 brings the characters to life, not only through word, but through music and dance. Music, dance, and crowd scenes appear to have spontaneity, but are, in fact, carefully choreographed. Irish step-dances and tunes (thanks to Honor Finnegan and John Aherne) enrich the scene.
As to the performers: Kate Brennan and Conn Horgan, with their tender, impassioned love scenes, are delicious young lovers. Horgan has the look of a young Liam Neeson, but puts his own stamp on the role. Bernard Smith creates a memorable character as the sleazy, obsequious Michael Feeny, hat in hand and plea on his tongue. Laurence Drozd gives a polished performance as the rebel leader, and Marian Tomas Griffin is somewhat overwrought, but often touching, as his lady love. Kudos too to J. J. Reap for a fine performance as the rejected lover.
In all, a welcome addition to the Off-Broadway scene.
....[Con] Horgan, who along with Kate Brennan (in the title role of Arrah), starred in The Shaughraun last year, once again finds with his costar the sincere, simple humanity within the play's central couple, allowing us to share in the innocence that intervening centuries have challenged. A large cast contributes charming portrayals of supporting characters, such as J. J. Reap as The O'Grady, a philosophical Irish magistrate who has some of the play's best lines, and Marian Thomas Griffin as the morally troubled Fanny Power.
The play offers all the essential elements of good 19th Century entertainment, sparking at the close of the first act with a rousing Irish wedding celebration, including a vigorous step dance accompanied by live fiddle, and a beautiful treatment of Irish song by Honor Finnegan.
Another piece of good news is that The Storm has found a permanent home on 145 46th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue, providing a convenient location from which to observe their progress in a city full of small theater companies. Hopefully, their ambition and willingness to take risks will only increase.
Things were simpler and saner in the mid 19th century, when the theater had to offer you a decent portion of something, and the heartiest meals were served up by Dion Boucicault's mixes of melodrama and comedy.
Dion Boucicault didn't exactly create the stereotypical character known as the "stage Irishman," but he did something vastly more significant. He turned the stock Hibernian character, developed by English writers as a way of deriding and diminishing the Irish, into a hero, possessing great courage, particularly under fire, and capable of valorous acts requiring daring and imagination.
The role for which Boucicault is probably best known is the title role in 1875's "The Shaughraun," seen in two productions locally within the last two seasons, but an almost equally emphatic example of the "stage Irishman" as hero is contained in a play the playwright had created 11 years earlier, "Arrah-na-Pogue."
That 1864 comedy adventure, which translates literally as "Arrah of the Kiss," and is sometimes known as "The Wicklow Wedding," is back on a New York stage for the first time in many seasons in an appealing, spirited production by the Storm Theatre, the troupe responsible for the first of the two recent stagings of "The Shaughraun."
Once again, as in Storm's "Shaughraun," the role made famous by the author is undertaken by Conn Horgan, who seems to have something of special understanding of Boucicault's initially buffoonish, ultimately triumphant rural stalwarts.
Backstage, May 98:
"Dion Boucicault's The Shaughraun may not have been presented in New York since 1919, but the Storm Theatre has brought it winningly back to life. In fact, Peter Dobbins' production is more successful than the recent Broadway revival of the author's better-known "London Assurance" (At the Roundabout). --Victor Gluck
"A Shaughraun, according to the programme, is 'the soul of every fair, the life of every funeral, the first fiddle at all weddings.' Now that I have seen one, I have to agree. Conn Horgan, who starts as the Shaughraun in The Storm Theatre's wonderful production of this gem of a play, is all this and more. This is the first New York production of this choice Irish-American melodrama in more than a hundred years. It's also one of the finest and most delightful shows to reach New York this season.
The two and a half hours fly by pleasurably. The second half, in particular, has any number of exciting highpoints, including two wonderfully choreographed fights and a gloriously comic wake. Peter Dobbins' staging is excellent throughout, not least because he lets the play stand on its own. Sure it's naive, sure it's (old) fashioned, but the innocence and sweetness are the keys to its charm. Mr. Dobbins has wisely directed it with respect and love, never making fun of it, never going for cheap laughs.
The company he has assembled is extraordinary. Standouts in the terrific ensemble including Laurence Drozd, perfect as the gentle, befuddled British captain; John Regis, broadly, hissably villainous as Kinchela; and Kate Brennan, Colleen Crawford and Dee Ann Newkirk all three spirited and lovely as Moya, Claire and Arte respectively. Stephen Logan Day, as Kinchela's bumbling lieutenant, and Joani O'Keefe, as the most enthusiastic mourner at the wake, have wonderful comic moments. Best of all is the superb Mr. Horgan, who brings the title character to vivid, captivating life. Mr. Horgan, who as far as I could tell worked principally in daytime TV drama, is a true find: with grand comic brio, perfect timing, and a strong charismatic presence, he embodies the tale-telling, dream spinning hero from his thick Irish brogue to his dirty worn boots.
...so waste no time and hurry to The Shaughraun, which, by the way, is exactly the antidote to all of those dark, brooding Irish tragicomedies now dotting the New York theatre scene. It wants nothing more than to entertain and that it does, joyously and eagerly." -- Martin Denton
The Irish Echo, April 29th,
"The Shaughraun, produced by The Storm Theatre and running at the Looking Glass Theatre, could be said to resemble the moustache - twirling melodramas revived every summer in theatres in onetime mining towns in the Old West, but if approached with skill and sincerity, as it has been in the new production, it comes through as a subtler play than most of the old war wagons. The plays The Shaughraun most resembles, in fact, are Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt and, most especially, Brian Friel's magnificent Translations.
Dobbins and his Storm Theatre colleagues, by taking the play seriously, have come up with a version of The Shaughraun that's well worth the effort." --Joe Hurley
The American Reporter, May 29th, 1998:
"..This is a showcase for some very talented actors, especially Laurence Drozd, who gives a winning performance as the British Officer, Molineau. Conn Horgan is appealing and comic as The Shaughraun." --Lucy Komisar
"Stavrogin's Confession is a thoroughly difficult and disturbing hour of theatre; it's the kind of piece that provokes post-show discussions that last longer than the show itself. John Regis has adapted this fascinating three-character drama from a story by Dostoyevsky that was so upsetting in its time that it was censored. It still has the capacity to upset: it's about a rich and handsome Russian nobleman named Nikolai Stavrogin who comes to a remote monastery seeking counsel from Bishop Tikhon, a worldly and inquisitive priest in self-imposed exile. Stavrogin has brought the priest a long written confession, detailing numerous affronts to humanity that Stavrogin says he has committed. Many are so trivial as to be banal; but one is terrible and awful: he has, according to the confession, raped a 12-year-old girl; she later committed suicide. At once remorseless and paralyzed with guilt, Stavrogin has decided to publish his confession as an act of cynical repentance. But the punishment he really desires is more severe and more sensational than mere public humiliation.
Stavrogin's Confession is, as they say, a mystery wrapped in an enigma. The mystery, central to our understanding of the plot, is whether Stavrogin has actually done the heinous crimes he claims. The enigma, essential to our understanding of the play, is whether Stavrogin is in fact guilty of something more serious. Whatever the content -- or veracity -- of his confession, Stavrogin's atonement is designed to take in all of the sins of mankind. In his assumption of this Christ-like sentence, Stavrogin's greatest sin may be the sin of hubris.
That, at least, is where I landed after pondering Mr. Regis's work for a while, and for the second time, too; I first saw Stavrogin in an earlier, sketchier version at last summer's New York International Fringe Festival. Mr. Regis and his director Peter Dobbins have done much to clarify the play; at the same time they have deepened the quagmire of disturbing uncertainty that it leads its audience through.
Laurence Drozd is commanding and charismatic as the driven Stavrogin, reenacting his story with equal parts relish and repulsion. Mr. Drozd is well-matched by Dan Berkey as the magnetic Bishop Tikhon, reacting to the appalling revelations of the confession with eerie stillness. (Both Mr. Drozd and Mr. Berkey are re-creating roles they played at the Fringe last year; both were excellent then and are even better now). Frances Vargas gives a haunting performance as the play's only other character, the sad serving girl Matryosha who is betrayed so cruelly by our brutal, bitter protagonist.
Or is she? We can't know for sure; Stavrogin's Confession derives a good deal of its power from its ambiguity. This is a play about questions that cannot be answered; relentless and harrowing, it nevertheless holds our attention for the long hushed hour of its running time and for hours more afterward.
Stavrogin's Confession is preceded by a short curtain-raiser, The Brute by Anton Chekhov. This 'joke in one act,' as its author billed it, gives us a glimpse of another Russian writer whom we think of as dour in a playful mood telling the story of a cash-poor landowner who calls on the young widow of one of his creditors and finds himself head-over-heels in love. Mr. Regis, author of Stavrogin's Confession, stars as this outsized young man and delivers a broad, energetic turn in the role; his co-star Frances Anderson is fine as a sort of Masha-in-training, coaxed out of mourning for her life by this vigorous and thoroughly startling suitor. All in all, an appropriate contrast to the main event, and a pleasant start to a thoroughly interesting evening of theatre." --Martin Denton, May 15, 1999
More of this review at http://www.nytheatre.com/nytheatre/stav.htm
The American Reporter, August 30th, 1998
"Playwright John Regis has taken a central piece of Dostoyevsky's The Demons (also known as The Possessed and The Devils) written in the early 1870's, and turned it into an imaginative and fascinating three-character play about evil, morality, religion and guilt. The play is based on a chapter that, because of the allusions to the sexual abuse of children, was not published while Dostoyevsky lived.
Laurence Drozd gives a polished and riveting performance as Nikolai Stavrogin, the debauched, nihilistic Russian aristocrat who gets pleasure from doing harm, whether it be robbing a poor civil servant of his pay or raping a young girl. His depravity is made even more shocking by the fact that he enjoys humiliating himself as well as others and revels in contemplating his own baseness.
"Regis addresses with clarity and intellectual gravity the conflicts and complexities of this evil character in the dialogue between Stavrogin and Tikhon and in the monologue of Stavrogin's confession... Director Peter Dobbins, helped by Charles Cameron's effective lighting .....adroitly evokes the psychological and moral dilemma of the play without resorting to sentimentalism or melodrama." --Lucy Komisar