MIDDLETOWN

By Will Eno.
Directed by Meg Roe.
At the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre.
Till September 10, 2017

Gray Powell (John Dodge) and Moya O’Connell (Mary Swanson) (photo: David Cooper)

Directed by Meg Roe, designed with imaginative economy by Camellia Koo (set), Kevin Lamotte (lighting), and Alessandro Juliani (music and sound), and performed by an excellent cast, Will Eno’s Middletown is thought-provoking and deeply moving. What is it about? Pain, love, and death. Loneliness and joy. Violence and gentleness. Missed connections. The banal and the surreal. The whole damned business, dreaminess, and melancholy of life. Eno probably takes his inspiration from Thornton Wilder’s benign Our Town, and there are several clear similarities between the two plays. Both tales have slices of real life, and both have a prologue: Wilder’s stage-manager is a casual host; Eno’s Public Speaker (different actors play him differently on different nights) is more quizzical, assertive, fundamentally compassionate yet provocative. “Bloated on life, gorged on words,” he presents both real and dream life, populated by emotionally or spiritually injured people. Both plays use mime, symbolic settings, and abstracted characters, but this is probably where the similarities end.

Wilder’s classic shows a palpable human comedy, tracing generations, cutting across childhood, youth, maturity, and old age in a clearly demarcated Grover’s Corner, near New Hampshire. Eno’s contemporary anatomy is of a generalized community rather than a specific geography. Indeed, this point is established in the prologue, where members of the cast draw a map on the gleaming floor, mottled with small stars. Wilder’s classic begins at the beginning of a typical day and carries us into a graveyard and an after-life, whereas Eno starts in the middle of something that, because it knows no ending, cannot establish where that middle is. Middletown is generally quiet, pedestrian, and with a vague history. It may well be the middle earth between outer space (there is a hauntingly beautiful episode of an astronaut floating all alone in the heavens) and the grave.

Eno’s characters are prone to doing weird things—not in any spectacular way but, perhaps, as a result of human nature’s urge to figure things out. His presentational mode is anti-naturalistic, with characters sometimes breaking through the imaginary fourth wall to address the audience. Props (such as windows, stools, a bench, kitchen sink, hospital beds, etc) are brought on and carried off by the actors, who sometimes sit in the audience as if eavesdropping on the action. Indeed, the text is purposefully self-reflexive, meditative, and interrogative—the better to mirror the characters’ curiosities. This makes for a contextual field rather than a clear through-line, but this is part of the rich texture. And director Meg Roe serves up a feast for the eye and ear, with some stunning visual surprises (the astronaut sequence, for example, wonderfully lit as if in an eternal galaxy) and enticing surrealism (the Mechanic serving as a parody angel—more of doom than salvation, though his intended audience of children might not know the difference).

Eno’s cross-section of characters includes a cop (Benedict Campbell), his landscaper brother-in-law (Peter Millard), a librarian (Tara Rosling), tour guide (Sara Topham), tourists (Millard and Claire Jullien), a male and female doctor (Karl Ang and Fiona Byrne), radio hosts (Ang and Natasha Mumba), janitor (Kristopher Bowman), mechanic (Jeff Meadows), a woman on a date (Jullien), and a man (John Dodge) and woman (Mary Swanson) who accidentally meet and have accidental destinies. The central pair, John (Gray Powell) and Mary (Moya O’Connell), have emblematic surnames: his portending a man drifting through life but intent on finding existential gravity beyond his psychological fear; and hers signifying an essential gracefulness of bearing, manner, and feeling. Both are essentially lonely beings. Mary, newly arrived and pregnant, has a husband forever absent from significant moments in her life, is left to her own lonely ache for companionship and love, while John, subject to anxiety attacks, makes desperate attempts to distance himself from emotional pain and devastation. The pair makes gentle, loving contact, but no romance blossoms to fruition. But where John is ultimately doomed, Mary is the maternal source of new life.

The cast is beyond reproach, with each player bringing each role (sometimes two or more in each case) to vivid life with sharply observed character traits. Comedy comes to the fore in many instances, but ultimately the play catches us by surprise, making us quiver with sharp recognition of our all too human foibles and frailties. And it is because the cast has Gray Powell as its quaking eccentric, its flawed anti-hero, its emotional desperado and because it has beautifully simple, unaffected Moya O’Connell as its lonely romantic, with all this remarkable actress’s humanist antennae activated, that the play achieves rare heights of soul-shaking truth without ever leaving earth. When Powell’s John, on his clinically morbid deathbed, begs O’Connell’s Mary to hug him, and she responds with direct tender empathy and sensitivity, be prepared to feel a lump in the throat, a catch in the heart. This is not just good acting; it is the best acting because all artificial filters are dropped, and nothing but naked truth is allowed to radiate from the very core of each character.

Like Eda Holmes’s exceptionally brilliant version last season of Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, Meg Roe’s radiant production of Middletown deserves not only a main stage revival but a well-rendered film rendering. Why are we so carelessly casual about our national theatrical treasures?

 

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THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG

By Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields
Directed by Mark Bell
At the Lyceum Theatre
149 West 45th Street, New York. Till September 3, 2017

Though it has now had a theatre life of over 5 years, having begun as a 17-minute improvisation by three English friends, The Play That Goes Wrong capitalizes on impromptu or seemingly impromptu happenings. The pre-show confusion and accidents look spontaneous, though they have been well thought out in advance, even as the supposed stage manager Annie (Nancy Zamit) of the highly (or lowly) amateur Cornely University Drama Society recruits an unsuspecting audience member into serving as a butt for physical farce, involving a recalcitrant ledge over a faux-fireplace, a hammer whose head falls off at an inopportune moment, a door that won’t stay shut, et cetera. The set-up or warm-up is, of course, prologue to a play-within-a-play—The Murder at Haversham Manor, a serious-minded British murder-mystery that devolves into pure farce—a sort of Agatha Christie spoof gone topsy-turvy or haywire. But there’s more to the prologue, for Chris Bean (Director, Designer, Costume Designer, Prop Maker, Dramaturge, Voice Coach, etc. etc. of the afore-mentioned Drama Society, as well as playing Inspector Carter) comes on to explain with awkward modesty about the modesty of the group’s artistic limits. Lacking enough able-bodied actors, instead of Cats or The Three Sisters, it could offer only Cat or The Two Sisters. Henry Shields who plays him, does so with splendidly timed and phrased studied effect, quite at odds with what follows. And what follows is sheer madness, that, though caviar to a general audience unaccustomed to real farce, will be sheer torture in general to those well versed in theatre. Well, not quite sheer, because there are, admittedly, choice moments of inspired lunacy, and the entire cast is expert in their calculated antics.

Good thing too because the script is incredibly goofy, groan-worthy, and hardly ever on the same plane as Noises Off or, even, Jitters (a Canadian theatre farce). Of course, there is the expected collection of English eccentrics, typical of the genre, tweaked to a hysterical state of aggressive comic exaggeration: a male corpse named Charles (Greg Tannahill) that simply can’t stay still while around him is falling apart; a sexy, pulchritudinous fiancée (Charlie Russell) given to ridiculously affected vamp poses; her tweedy, husky brother (Henry Lewis), and best friend of deceased Charles; an old retainer (Jonathan Sayer) who is given to congenital mispronunciation (“fuck-aide” for “façade”); a handsomely duplicitous young man (Dave Hearn) so obviously delighted by any applause he receives for his amateur enthusiasms that he habitually steps out of character for the spontaneous ovations; and an imaginary vicious dog on a metal leash, straining threateningly. But you get the point, by now, though it is important to add that the jokes are given extra theatrical life by their evident sources in theatre itself, for there are lighting and sound cues that frequently go awry because their designer (Rob Falconer) allows himself to be entranced and distracted by the music of Duran Duran; the butler has his cues and lines inscribed on his palms and wrists; the actors sometimes find themselves (expertly) repeating dialogue out of sync and in desperate circles; and the set (Nigel Hook’s marvellously concocted tacky simulacrum of a creepy English manor drawing-room) becomes a star player all its own as it performs hair-raising stunts almost beyond belief.

(L-R: Jonathan Sayer, Greg Tannahill, Henry Lewis, Dave Hearn, and Charlie Russell) (photo: Jeremy Daniel)

The set was the only thing to earn a Tony nomination and award for this show, so The Play That Goes Wrong can rightly boast that it was the only Broadway show to have a 100% success rate at the Tony’s. Moreover, like many a Broadway mega-musical, it can now boast of audiences hilariously singing the set.

THE VIRGIN TRIAL

By Kate Hennig
Directed by Alan Dilworth
At the Studio Theatre. Till September 30, 2017

Bahia Watson as Bess (photo: Lynda Churilla)

Where Kate Hennig’s The Last Wife presented Katherine Parr as a feminist heroine, her sequel, The Virgin Trial, has no heroine of comparable gravitas. Set in 1549, the sequel sometimes plays like English History for Dummies. It isn’t that Hennig is a bad playwright; it is simply that she over-estimates the power and scope of vulgarizing English history in the cause of popular understanding. Hennig is a wonderful actress; as playwright, she shows a keen theatrical sense but a shallow sense of drama and characterization. The Virgin Trial starts with offstage drama: Thom (Brad Hodder, in black beard and leather as Lord Admiral Thomas Seymour) has invaded the bed-chamber of boy-king Edward VI, possibly because of resentment of the power and authority of his brother Ted (Edward, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector). The only historical fatality is the royal spaniel, but things get very dicey, indeed, for Thom, who is also suspected of carnal relations with young Bess (the future Elizabeth I). He is led to the executioner’s block, while Bess herself faces interrogation because she is suspected of motivating and aiding his treason. The bulk of the play consists of flashbacks to earlier events, and much is made of young Bess’s skill in dealing with her antagonists. She is supposed to be a real heroine, but in Bahia Watson’s trite performance, she never grows beyond shrill teenage petulance and verbal bravado, despite the character’s bold declaration that she is fire and radiation.

Apart from the death of the royal spaniel, there is another fatality: the grain and texture of the script itself. Colloquial and demotic in the extreme, Hennig’s characters commit anachronisms with casual abandon. There are references to Belgian chocolates, bank statements, waterboarding, and electric shock torture—none of which helps illuminate the action. Young Bess’s half-sister Mary (Sara Farb, as Elizabethan Goth as all get out) anticipates the novels of John Braine with nice modern irony in an exchange with Bess: “Welcome to life at the top.” She also cautions Bess: “Don’t fuck it up!” sounding like an English forerunner of Trump henchman Anthony Scaramucci. In a later scene, Bloody Mary observes with remarkable (21st century) perspicacity: “People do weird shit.” Indeed, but not, it seems, as weird as the shit of some theatre professionals.

Alan Dilworth has tried to make the action taut and thrilling with a staccato dramatic rhythm, and there are moments of genuine tension and suspense. His designers (Yannik Larivee for set, Kimberly Purtell for lighting) achieve some remarkable effects with tall plastic sheets and top lighting, while Alexander MacSween’s sound design is also effective. The criss-crossing of past and present sometimes robs the drama of coherence, and the characterizations are not full-scale. Yet, there are some vivid character sketches. Yanna McIntosh’s Eleanor is a venomous henchwoman for Ted, while he (in Nigel Bennett’s performance) is a cool, subtle, and authoritative. Also good (in more limited ways) are Laura Condlln as Ashley and Andre Morin as Parry, Bess’s loyalists and victims of the Lord Protector. But having a Bess who is little more than an average 21st century teenager with no tangible connection to English royal history is a real drag, to echo Mary.

THE CHANGELING

By Thomas Middleton and William Rowley
Directed by Jackie Maxwell
At the Tom Patterson. Till September 23, 2017

Mikaela Davies (Beatrice-Joanna) and Ben Carlson (De Flores) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Thomas Middleton (with an important assist from his collaborator William Rowley) was never one to turn away from psychological extremes or deviant behaviour. He was not famous for cascading poetry of mighty lines, yet his dramas caused immense anxiety for censor and public because the violence and psycho-sexual darkness were too bold, too raw. He dramatized incest, prostitution, male impotence, gender-bending.  The Changeling was probably his greatest play, coming into much greater favour in our present century, perhaps because its sordid, macabre grain is closer to our age of candid pornography and mendacity. The main fable of a woman (Beatrice-Joanna) in love with a man (Alsemero) but betrothed to another spirals into chaos when the stakes turn deadly. She becomes trapped in a web of lust and deceit after she is seduced by the very murderer (De Flores) she has hired to kill her unwanted fiancé, and the horrible sequence of events (including a sub-plot where a male servant feigns madness to seduce an asylum-keeper’s wife) is stuffed with horror and enough moral darkness to elicit chills and revulsion. It is too easy to turn this drama into a banquet of mad depravity and murder, but it is more difficult to confront its black passions head-on though without losing scale or credibility. It is no exaggeration to state that Jackie Maxwell’s version (updated to Spain, 1938, towards the end of the Spanish Civil War) succeeds on almost every count.

Her production is strong on naturalism, but this naturalism (like Middleton’s) reveals characters at the mercy of their feelings and instincts. Middleton’s text has ironic black comedy layered over something truly ugly. In other words, the surface ripples with dark, disturbing undercurrents. Camellia Koo’s set design is clever yet simple: a row of Moorish arches, their tops of painted plaster and rock, their trunks turned to see-through skeleton metal. In addition to being able to frame various settings (church, asylum, garden, or ghastly cellar), and providing freedom to Bonnie Beecher’s lighting (with candles, torches, and moonlight) to filter through and achieve some stunning chiaroscuro or dramatic effects, the design becomes a visual emblem of Middleton’s skill in x-raying perverse human relationships: what you see at first is only a fragment of what lies beneath first sight. Composer and sound designer Debashis Sinha adds to the dramatic allure, but it is Maxwell’s direction and her cast’s general excellence that shines forth.

Members of the company in ‘The Changeling’ (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Without over-exploiting the Spanish Civil War setting, Maxwell knows how to use the politics for dramatic colour and scale. A giant puppet Franco wanders around the stage like a grotesque reminder of tyranny, and the rogues, vagabonds, and mad inmates of the asylum are mainly heard offstage rather than allowed to litter the stage with exaggerated lunacy. Keeping the movement fluent but freezing the ensemble when a key character has a monologue or aside, Maxwell’s assured direction elicits sharp performances, especially from Gareth Potter as Antonio (the duplicitous servant who lusts after Jessica B. Hill’s Isabella), Ijeoma Emesowum’s Diaphanta, Cyrus Lane’s Alsemero (dashing but vulnerable), and Tim Campbell’s Lollio (huskily intimidating). As for the two central characters, Mikaela Davies is beautifully silken in appearance as Beatrice-Joanna and it is easy to see how she could be a magnet for several men. She also suggests the woman’s hypocrisy and conflicted feelings towards the man who becomes the agent of her doom. However, her performance does not have enough weight or depth to go beyond the surface, and her pain and suffering in her death scene her sounds seem unmoored to any real devastation. She seems shallow beside Ben Carlson’s outstanding De Flores, his face disfigured, his soul inflamed, his wary suspicion evolving into an ecstasy of expectation and then into sheer psychosexual bravado and ugliness, especially in his exchanges with Beatrice, “the deed’s creature” whose illicit love has turned her coldly evil. Carlson’s De Flores is more chilling, however, in his ironic tones, but also in his silences. It is a vivid portrait at the centre of Maxwell’s well-wrought production, one that shows our present turbulent, rancid era facets of its own grimace.

BAKKHAI

By Euripedes
New Version by Anne Carson
Directed by Jillian Keiley
At the Tom Patterson Theatre. Till September 23, 2017

Lucy Peacock as Agave (photo: Lynda Churilla)

Mac Fyfe’s Dionysos (also called Bromios, Bakkhos, and Lydian Stranger) is slim, sinuous, long-haired, bare-footed, and androgynous. “I set all Asia dancing,” he announces proudly, adding that he has come to Thebes to thrill the people. His words are addressed to the Bakkhai or maenads (madwomen), his female acolytes who have more than just a streak of radical feminism. On a blood-red floor with a red vine-leaf at centre (designed by Shawn Kerwin and expressively lit by Cimerron Meyer), they wear dressed rippling white robes with red stains spreading upwards from the hem like wine or blood stains, they carry pine-cone tipped thyrsi that they wield like spears, portending violence. They dance to music composed by Veda Hille, and though there is at first an unmistakable note of eerie strangeness, the sounds devolve into a disconcertingly cabaret mode, with lyrics that would do Celine Dion proud. Of course, this is a modern version, and, of course, Carson’s text, rife with contemporary colloquialisms, phrases, and references, is intended to revitalize an ancient classic for modern audiences. Also modern but apt in this theatrical re-versioning are the Kadmos of Nigel Bennett and the Teiresias of Graham Abbey, both finely nuanced and both capable of sounding contemporary without sacrificing links to their Greek source.

Bakkhai Dance (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

This production, as director Jillian Keiley explains in her program notes, is offered as “a public dream: sometimes illogical, sometimes erotic, sometimes operating under the constraint of linear time, sometimes not.” At the Patterson, it is a dream in the round, where the background context is strikingly and antagonistically patriarchal. Pentheus, arrogant yet childish, rational yet gullible, exerts his political power with vengeance against all women who dare to threaten traditional order. Hence the feminist bakkhai and their wild, orgiastic behaviour—though the pre-show warning about “explicit scenes of eroticism” is hardly necessary, because apart from mimed lesbian cunnilingus and couplings, and a scene where Dionysus fondles and assaults a transvestite Pentheus, there is little sexual matter to shock even boy scouts of today. Gordon S. Miller’s Pentheus is a little uncertain in high heels and woman’s dress, but he is good in the scenes where his domineering masculinity comes to the fore.

From Left: Gordon S. Miller (Pentheus), Laura Condlln (member of the Bakkhai), Mac Fyfe (Dionysos), and Brad Hodder (Guard) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

What is particularly good about Keiley’s staging is the reminder that Greek tragedy is short, taut, and bloody. It is also a reminder of essential dichotomies in the ancient genre: calamity (grand and mundane) as a product of domestic antagonism. Family problems, intermixed with religious blasphemies, are at the root of all the conflicts. Dionysos plots against Theban ruler Pentheus (to whom he is related by blood-lines) for casting doubt that he is, in fact, the son of Zeus and for banning all public worship of his cult. How Dionysos achieves his bloody revenge is the stuff of a drama, whose gory climax arrives when Pentheus’s mother, Agave, and the maenads (drunk and mad) tear Pentheus to pieces, whom they mistake for a lion. Most of the spectacular supernatural upheavals and bloody actions occur offstage, yet the sight of Lucy Peacock’s mad Agave carrying the head of her son like a trophy is thrillingly grisly and powerful. A sight that becomes toweringly awesome when Agave realizes that she has unwittingly killed her own son. Peacock gives Dionysos’s acolytes their strongest bond with the primitive, the raw, and the psychically deranged, almost single-handedly rescuing them from kitsch.

 

TREASURE ISLAND

By Robert Louis Stevenson
Adapted by Nicolas Billon
Directed by Mitchell Cushman
At the Avon Theatre. Till October 22, 2017

Juan Chioran (Long John Silver) and Thomas Mitchell Barnet (James/Jim Hawkins) (photo: Lynda Churilla)

The pity of it all. Despite excellent scenic design by Douglas Paraschuk, costumes by Charlotte Dean, atmospheric lighting by Kevin Fraser (especially for the wild areas of an island), and some zestful acting, this production can’t quite settle on a consistent style. Nicolas Billon’s adaptation has occasional flashes of rudimentary word-play (“Gold’s not for you, Silver”) and broad jocular allusions to Hamlet and Lord of the Flies (that may elude many in the audience), and there are robust, colourful character sketches by Bruce Hunter as hard-drinking, paranoid Billy Bones, Sarah Dodd as gender-bending Dr. Livesey, and Juan Chioran in his dual roles as Jim’s father and peg-legged Silver. There is also a very broad sketch by Gordon Patrick White as Black Dog and a more dignified one by Randy Hughson as Squire Trelawny. Thomas Mitchell Barnet gives an open-hearted performance as the boy James who turns into Jim Hawkins, caught in a growth-spurt, though the actor’s physique is far too tall to be visually convincing as a boy.

The much-bruited father-son theme gets very little clarity or justification, apart from Jim’s father metamorphosing into Silver, and even at that, how is a one-legged, well-spoken con man a model for an adventurous boy? The radical tampering with Stevenson is entertaining for many moments, with the cast eagerly engaging in interaction with the kids in the audience by asking directions to buried treasure or the ship, or where a large paper parrot in flight serves as Silver’s GPS device. Stevenson’s adventure story generated by the imagination of young Jim Hawkins (who sees and hears things that adults do not) begins, in Billon’s curious adaptation, with a lot of buckle and some swash at first, evolves into a dazzling circus aerial act by Katelyn McCulloch as the unlikeliest Ben Gunn imaginable (gender-changed and turned into a sort of rhyming Puck, with hardly any contact with Stevenson’s story), and when the show tries to become a musical with very few songs (hardly any memorable), the cast is caught with their pantos down. Ross Petty Productions do it much better.

PERMANENCE

By Cyd Casados
Directed by Hannah Price
A Libby Brodie Production at the Tarragon Extraspace
July 21-August 6, 2017

Ludovic Hughes (Steve) and Samantha Michelle (Rebecca) (photo: Lyon Smith)

The opening is literally a heavy-breathing sex act with frontal nudity for the bearded male in very tight quarters—a cramped studio apartment that is designed with palpable authenticity by Echo Zhou who is also responsible for costumes, though, to tell the truth, there’s very little need of clothing in what becomes a sequence of foreplay, intercourse, and aftermath. The coupling duo are Rebecca, an unabashedly carnal young doctor, and Steve, a painter. After the orgasm, things don’t go the usual route. “You smell like a girl,” she remarks, and what makes it worse is that she doesn’t know his name yet. Her carnality and the sex increase scene by scene, with her apparent amusement that she could be his nursing muse, despite having a relationship with another man. She is very much in the modern mode—or is it post-post-modern because she doesn’t regard sex as particularly complicated? He, however, is judgmental about her sexuality, especially when they become chronic lovers. She doesn’t really care, asserting that she likes sex when it comes with no expectations of anything else. “What do you want from me, anyway?” she asks. “I want to know more about you,” he declares, demanding that she be real with him. There is clearly a disconnect along the way because each one seems to be in a different zone of reality.

Cyd Casados’s ironically entitled 65-minute two-hander has a grainy, edgy texture and raw sexuality, and the short scenes give the play a sense of almost cinematic cuts. But all the gropings and undressings don’t ultimately yield much beyond a trite story of a relationship that goes wrong. Her text sometimes shows snappy wit (especially from Rebecca) but it moves into very familiar television territory, with sudden sensational complications (one involving Rebecca’s fucking a young patient with severe psychological problems), and an emotional fall-out that leaves Steve wracked with doubt, Rebecca without her job, and an ultimate conclusion that has her walking out of the relationship and Steve annihilating her painting of a butterfly with emblematic connotations.

Ludovic Hughes (Steve) and Samantha Michelle (Rebecca) (photo: Hannah Price)

Chris Malkowski’s lighting design relies on harsh top lighting to increase the rawness, just as Lyon Smith’s sound design makes bold connections with contemporary pop music. Hannah Price’s direction maintains a staccato rhythm but the acting sometimes suffers from a lack of subtlety or measured layering. Ludovic Hughes makes Steve credibly conflicted, and his acting seems to have more vocal and emotional range than Samantha Michelle’s as Rebecca, who sometimes appears to be on rhetorical and emotional auto-pilot.