Sunday, March 26, 2006

dance of the holy ghosts: a play on memory

Yale Rep's New Theater, a fairly large black box, serves as a fitting home for inventive, imaginative yet rambling "dance of the holy ghosts: a play on memory." Penned by Marcus Gardley, who graduated from Yale School of Drama a couple of years ago, the world premiere allows each member an extraodinary ensemble of African American actors the opportunity to shine.

Gardley (in what is likely semi-autobiographical mode) moves backward from 2005 to the time of his youth and probably twenty years before that. The leading younger character, Marcus G. (Brian Henry) is richly connected to his grandfather Oscar (Chuck Cooper). Henry plays Marcus G. as he must have been at age ten or eleven; and again as a twenty-seven year old man. In terms of storyline, there is much to cover including Oscar's lack of devotion to his wife, Viola (Harriet D. Foy); the death of Marcus G's mother, Darlene (La Tonya Borsay); schoolgirls Precious (Pascale Armand) and Princess (Borsay) who circle and taunt him. There's Tanisha Taylor (Foy) who "gets" Marcus G. when they are in third grade together. Actor Paul J. Medford is, at different moments: affixed to a wooden cross, accomplishing a quick Michael Jackson slide -- glove and all.....

Gardley draws a complex Oscar Clifton, a man who is far from heroic but compelling, human, flawed, and compassionate. In the role, Cooper shows that he can sing while accompanying himself on guitar; or, near the end of the production, by himself center stage.

The women take on multiple roles and each is fluent, funny, able to shift from one emotion to the next in a flash....impressive stuff.

Scott Davenport Richards composed the music for "dance of the holy ghosts," and the variety, including some exquisite three-part harmony, is wonderfully enhancing. And, there's quite a bit of humor. Viola's sweet potato pie, for example, saves Oscar, who has been felled through a diabetic episode.

It's annoying to be seated amidst a couple of theatergoers who laugh boisterously even when the playwright is not attempting to be funny. Gardley did not write "dance of the holy ghosts" as a comedy.

The play jumps all over the lot but once the viewer gets used to this, it isn't terribly difficult to slide backward and forward with the actors. The flow is not smooth but that's probably not Gardley's intent. Seamless transition would have depleted actors' energy levels. Mini-jolts might be essential to infuse the show with fire and heart.

Cooper is asked to play one man who is really many men. Oscar is (during varying moments) kind, oblivious, caring, absent-minded, sweet, self-absorbed and so forth. The actor's performance is strong, seasoned with a knowledge of at least a portion of the territory. This is a terrific turn.

Cooper has said the play reminded him of August Wilson. I don't share that opinion. The profundity and metaphor within those long, long Wilson plays sets him apart. Gardley is at the beginning of his arc as a writer. Wilson did not really emerge until he was in his late thirties and Gardley (I believe) is not yet thirty. Gardley is developing a distinctive style.

"dance of the holy ghosts" is not continually gripping. But, it is moving, even electric at times. The play serves as a fine vehicle for Gardley. Further, the level of talent evidenced by the six person cast is startling in the most postive sense. The fine director, Liz Diamond, frees the actors while providing some important geographic direction for movement.

This one continues through April 8 in New Haven.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

"Othello" - Boston Theatre Works

Jason Slavick, directing a lengthy but rewarding production of "Othello" at Boston Theatre Works, enables actresses Susanna Apgar, as Desdemona, and especially Elizabeth Aspenlieder, whose warm, courageous Emilia steals the show, to demonstrate strength, perception, and friendship to the death.

I attended primarily to watch Jonathan Epstein (Iago) in action; and he does not disappoint. In fact, Epstein's versaility as a dexterous actor is most evident. Iago's the evildoer and Epstein endows him with a cerebral venom throughout. Ever power hungry and sexually jealous, his obsessive zeal and envy mark someone who must be insecure. While it is not possible to sympathize with Iago, Epstein presents a man whose purpose is to ruin Othello. Through voice and physicality, Epstein gives glimpses into Iago's mind -- this is a cunning villain.

Actor Tony Molina does not cut a particularly sympathetic Othello. The protagonist is unsuspecting but he is not portrayed as generous. Convinced that his wife Desdemona has been unfaithful (through the familiar handkerchief story), he becomes hatefully imperceptive. He cannot trust her so he strangles her. Molina, who is credible, races from passivity to extreme emotion without referencing the in-between. He often yells -- and it isn't tough to despise this Othello.

Aspenlieder's Emilia is unfailingly loyal to Desdemona, for whom she is a lady-in-waiting. Silver-tongued, she recongnizes that her own marriage to Iago is a sad one. She admits, even, that she would commit adultery. She defends Desdemona's virtue to Othello and exposes Iago for his malevolent scheming. Hence, Iago kills his wife and, dying, she asks to be positioned next to her friend, Desdemona.

BTW performs the show in a black box theater, the stage thrust to three sides, and there is a small, low platform/mini-stage which serves to focus the action. The dying women are placed there as the performance concludes.

Carol Thomas Neely, in her essay written in 1978, supports Emilia as a potential mediator but no man (on stage) will listen to Emelia. She is not a jealous individual but one who sees what is occurring around her. When faced with a choice, she favors the lovely Desdemona as opposed to her brutal, overbearing husband, Iago. Emilia is the anti-Iago. She is wonderfully selfless and gracious.

Aspenlieder has been featured in many roles with Lenox-based Shakespeare&Company. As Emilia, she performs with confidence -- as if she knows and feels the character's motives. This summer, she appears in S&Co's "The Merry Wives of Windsor."

Epstein was, for years, a powerhouse actor with S&Co. He will soon be featured as Vincent van Gogh in Romantic Century's "Van Gogh's Ear." This summer, appears in "Amadeus," with the Stockbridge-based Berkshire Theater Festival; later in the season, he performs, on the Unicorn Stage, in "Via Dolorosa." If you have not yet seen Epstein, make it a point to watch this superb performer. Immensely talented, he has most often appeared on the regional stage.

Here's a nod toward Artistic Director Jason Southerland for choosing "Othello." It's a play which centers upon domestic issues and violence rather than kings and queens as in some of the other tragedies. It is impossible to escape the inevitable conclusion. This is an intimate, confined theater, without any subplot, a viewer might feel claustrophobia coming on.

If "Othello" examines love's possibility, only that between Emilia and Desdemona survives. I saw that through Slavick's direction. Otherwise, hostility and conflict become far too intrusive.
Slavick does not neglect these engaging women. That, in itself, is a significant statement.

BTW runs this show through Saturday, March 11th.

Monday, March 06, 2006

after the earthquake

"after the earthquake" is unique -- each production element is pristine. Continuing at Long Wharf Theater in New Haven through Mar. 19th, we visit Japan, in 1995, after the Kobe quake. Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater premiered the piece five months ago. The creative team has had the time to sculpt and perfect. Haruki Murakami's two short stories provide the material for director Frank Galati to blend distinctively into masterful, moving, lyrical theater.

Unless my eyes betray me, it seems that translator Jay Rubin has been slighted. I could not find his name in the playbill. Rubin takes Murakami's script and transforms it, with grace and substance, into the English language. Without Rubin, theatergoers lose.

Two stories interface: "Honey Pie" tells of a former athlete Takatsuki (Andrew Pang) who couples with Sayoko (Aiko Nakasone). The third person (and out of the intimate loop) is author Junpei (Hanson Tse) -- until.....the end of the play.
Takatsuki and Sayoko do split up which allows Junpei to emerge anew. Her daughter, Sala (Big Klein at the performance I saw) could not be more precious.
"Honey Pie" also features bears.

The more outrageous tale, called "Super-frog Saves Tokyo," finds Katagiri (Pang, once again) cast as a courageous yet undervalued man from a bank who interfaces with a large frog/man (Keong Sim) who wears bright green gloves, socks, and eyeglasses. The bad egg, in this case, is a worm. Within the culture, according to Beatrice Basso (LW dramaturg and literary associate), who facilitated an enlightening talk back session, the worm symbolizes a catfish which can cause earthquakes by moving its tale. Terrible events might occur and people must cope. The worm, underground, is not visible but it is potentially most destructive.

The Frog references Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, and Conrad. This might distract some theatergoers who will wonder that even momentary digression alters the storyline. I am partial to the quick-witted allusions which add spice and dimension.

Jeff Wichmann plays koto, a stringed instrument dating to seventh century Japan. Jason McDermott, beside him, is on cello. The live music includes Franz Schubert's "Trout," "You Light up My Life" (remember Debby Boone?), and John Lennon's "Norwegian Wood" (visualize the cover of "Rubber Soul" if you will).

I gather that Murakami's fiction is filled with some monstrous images. Maybe so. "after the quake," however, is most poetic and personal. The actors are relaxed but still quite fresh in performance. And the writer, Murakami, is not one to watch this play. Rubin, the forgotten man, will be there to discuss the production after the upcoming, March 12th, matinee -- at 3:30 or so. Someone should shake his hand and/or give him a neat, little round of applause.

One could classify "after the quake" as existential. After all, individuals, here, must struggle with destructive forces in the world. These phenomenons may be gargantuan or indecipherable. How does one find love, find meaning when threatened?

See New Orleans, see the Middle East, see "after the earthquake."