NealsPaper

All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Fasten Seat Belts; Another Blitz — Patsy Cline, Electra, Grounded

  1. Wish me discipline. Other pursuits, mainly a predictable income job to which I am just adjusting, have kept me from the keyboard. “All work…..” as they say.

Catching up is critical, so I will, against my nature and habit, attempt to write short blurbs I can expand upon later. For the possible folly of that, see the “Breaking the Waves” review that was intended to be a snippet.

OK, OK. Keep repeating, “Brevity is the soul of wit.

Brevity is the soul of wit.

Brevity is the soul of wit.

 

 

A CLOSER WALK WITH PATSY CLINE, Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pa. through Sunday, October 15 — Assuming a mass market can be found today for good music, someone should sit down and write a dozen Country tunes for Jessica Wagner to record in the style of Patsy Cline. For the second time in three seasons, Wagner has taken to the Bristol Riverside as the legendary Mrs. Cline, and for the second time, she makes one wonder more seriously about one performer being able to channel another with frightening accuracy while showing traits that are individually her own. Wagner turns “A Closer Walk” from a clichéd narrative that has neither the story, the substance, or the wit of “Always…Patsy Cline,” a triumph for both Wagner and Jenny Lee Stern in recent seasons (not to mention Jo Twiss and Denise Whelan, who I just did mention). In spite of some sharp work by Danny Vaccaro as a deejay and a hambone comedian armed with jokes Methusaleh found corny, and some slick singing by four young men doing tight harmonies as The Jordanaires, Dean Regan’s script for “A Closer Walk” stagnates while Ted Swindley’s for “Always” entertains.

In Bristol, the script doesn’t matter. At some point, Charlie Gilbert, Neil Nemetz, and the band are going to play a familiar intro that gets your anticipation cooking, and Wagner will appear and send you to entertainment Nirvana with her plaintive, sincere singing of ballads, her yodeling wails in up-tempo numbers, and, most of all, that catch in the voice that was Patsy’s trademark. There isn’t much to act in “A Closer Walk.” Wagner is limited to the kind of patter and welcoming talk Patsy might do at a concert. There’s drama in the songs and Wagner’s singing of them. It’s enough to sustain you. Heck, it’s enough to exhilarate you.

Kudos to Danny Vaccaro for infusing as much variety and humor into his stale characters while always staying true to those characters. Vaccaro particular proves his mettle while playing the cornball comedian. Nate Golden, Sean C. White, Christopher J. Perugini, and Jared Calhoun are splendid as The Jordanaires. Susan D. Atkinson keeps all as tight and lively as Regan lets her. You can listen to Gilbert and ensemble on their own. It may have been a better idea just to let them jam between songs rather than do Regan’s book. Linda B. Stocton’s wigs and costumes for Wagner are perfect in terms of style and Patsy’s personal progression of hairdos and ’60s cocktail dresses (the best of any era). Grade: A-

 

ELECTRA, Villanova Theater at Vasey, Lancaster Pike west of Ithan Ave., Closed — So much in terms of exploring multiple themes, making logical cases, and good old straightforward presentation is precisely right in David Cregan’s production of this Sophocles classic, it seems almost caviling to wish that Cregan’s cast had better voices and more attuned sensitivity to line readings that might make Frank McGuinness’s well-crafted rendition of the play sing more sweetly and more powerfully.

No one in his cast disappoints Cregan. Performances are solid. It’s just that trick of the tongue, that emotion in the voice, and knack for hitting a line at its pithiest, most meaningful point that is missing. One admires Kara Krichman for much of what she brings to Electra, but longs to see what Villanova divas of seasons past, such as Rebecca Jane Cureton and Victoria Rose Bonino, would have done with it. Rachel O’Hanlon-Rodriguez impressed with her diction, and it was gratifying to see the leap Dan Cullen has made since last year in bringing magnitude to the stage, but speech, more than anything, kept Villanova’s “Electra” from soaring to the dramatic and thematic heights Cregan and a well-tuned chorus could have taken it.

Enough harping to one element that obviously consumed my attention but did not, in the long run, mar my enjoyment of Cregan’s work.

Cregan kept matters simple and direct. Rajiv Shah’s set is the basic columns that connote a Greek august residence or Temple. Other designers had more leeway but showed equal subtlety. Janus Stefanowicz’s costumes are a lesson in how to stay in period while differentiating one character from another. Her dresses for Electra, her sister, Chrysothemis, and their mother, Clytemnestra, tell a full story in themselves. O’Hanlon-Rodriguez, as Chrysothemis wears a simple but beautiful and well-maintained dress befitting a princess from the powerful House of Atrius. Electra is also a princess, but her sorrow, complaints, and calls for justice (revenge) for her father, Agamemnon’s, murder at the hands of her mother and lover, Aegisthus, have put her in displeasure with royal powers and threaten to lead to life in a palace dungeon. For now, she has some leave to walk near the fringes of Clytemnestra’s lair and to talk to the citizens of Mycenae, the chorus. As she broadcasts her numerous troubles, about her father’s death, about her treatment, about her fear and hatred of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, Stefanowicz apparels her in a dress you can see was once just as fine as Chrysothemis’s but that is not worn, tattered, and stained. By tears, but the dust of Electra’s lodgings, and by not being laundered or replaced as Chrysothemis’s garments are. Electra, we see, is not only out of favor, but as neglected and disinherited as she says she is.

Stefanowicz is also creative and showed much respect for the torsos of her male cast by creating a soldier’s uniform, worn by most men in the production, that reveals strong bare chests and shows the lean, lithe figures of the warriors.

Jerold R. Forsyth’s lighting is in kind. Cregan uses it well to create moods, shadows, and standing within the royal house as well as day parts and general stage illumination. No choreographer or movement director is mentioned, but Cregan gives his production liveliness by having the chorus move in geometric patterns in periods of conflict or confusion or to gather closely when a situation is tense and fomenting terror.

Squib or not, I have gone through the back door with this review. Smart, appropriate touches enhancv Cregan’s production and move it solidly from literature and myth to theater than involves us, as Sophocles intended, with human dilemma. It is the depth and variety of the dilemmas that Cregan reveals so clearly and that draw us with full attention to the proceedings on the stage.

Sophocles and McGuinness give every character a case. Electra may elicit ultimate sympathy, if only because her grief and anger are justified, and because Agamemnon is cast as an heroic figure among Greek leasers whereas Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, from Aeschylus on, are regarded as villains.

That doesn’t mean Clytemnestra has no case to make or that Sophocles/McGuinness give her no chance to make it.

Clytemnestra, in a strong performance by Megan Slater, appeals to her daughter woman to woman. She speaks of Agamemnon’s treachery in sacrificing another of their daughters, and Electra’s sister, Iphigenia, to obtain a favorable winds so Greek ships could embark to Troy and war.

Clytemnestra is livid that her daughter, or any woman, could be thought of so lightly. Electra, taking the line ancient Greeks would, defends her father’s choice and says her sister died nobly. Clytemnestra counters her daughter’s life wasn’t worth a battle to revenge the adultery of her sister-in-law, Helen. To her, the war was male vanity and didn’t need to be fought, especially if it meant what she considers the murder of her daughter. Iphigenia for Helen is not a fair trade. McGuinness emphasizes Clytemnestra’s modern point of view.

Does her grief, though, excuse the murder of Agamemnon, or revenge that, by ancient Greek tradition, must lead to other revenge, namely the murder of Aegisthus, and Clytemnestra, by Electra’s brother, Orestes, who is in hiding and rumored dead as “Electra” proceeds.

Beyond the basic story of the myth, Cregan conveys power at work, parental and political power. He sets his production so you understand and can takes sides with the nature of revenge. You see totalitarianism at work. Electra cannot just leave the palace and grieve, or plot, in private, She, as a princess, will live in the royal quarters, albeit as a drudge or a prisoner. Clytemnestra will cite a case for wanting to be in charge, for eschewing being the queen to Agamemnon’s king but a ruler in her own right, with Aegisthus, first cousin to Agamemnon and legitimate Atrian heir, as her consort. Orestes will plot to foil his mother and her lover, even at the expense of adding to Electra’s grift. Chrysotemis will be the classic middle child, trying to create logic that will bring peace to her parents, Aegisthus standing in for Agamemnon, and her siblings. She would like Orestes to avenge her father’s death, but until and unless that happens, she doesn’t understand why Electra can’t accept Agamemnon’s murder as a fait d’accompli and live in harmony with the reality that exists instead of mourning and carping and making waves that could lead to her, Electra’s, doom.

Cregan’s production is rich in texture. It illuminates all Sophocles says classically and McGuinness translates with some contemporary slant. This is a thoughtful, thought-provoking production that makes one want to see more ancient Greek plays.

I worry I dismissed Kara Krichman as Electra when my single complaint was range of voice and some misplaced emphasis in line intent (something that is rampant in Philadelphia theater).

Krichman earned your regard and makes a strong, earnest bid for your sympathy as Electra. She manipulates your emotions with her character’s sincerity and patina of goodness. You see Electra’s misery and how it haunts her.

Dan Cullen was a wonderful surprise as Aegisthus. Though he, like much of Cregan’s male ensemble is slight of build, he conveyed size and majesty that eluded him last season as Banquo. Cullen also gave his male castmates a lesson in how to speak in a classic piece. He shed traces of regional accent and spoke in a timbre that suggests power. Grade: B+

 

GROUNDED, InterAct Theatre at the Drake, 15th and Spruce Streets, Philadelphia, through Sunday, October 23 — Kittson O’Neill makes a stunning aria of George Brant’s script, so that even when it flattens and falters, you remain mesmerized by one woman’s immersion into aviation, war, family life, and doubt. In lesser hands, “Grounded” could play as pat or pandering. It certainly takes a banking turn towards the politically correct (in a way the braver movie, “Eye in the Sky,” did not). Given O’Neill’s bravura, exquisitely-timed, inflection-perfect turn, “Grounded” becomes almost immaterial. As said, the woman involved, called The Pilot, although I could swear I heard her referred to by name, becomes the story as the politics, ethics, and realities of war loom in the background.

Kathryn MacMillan’s production is as smart as O’Neill’s performance. It deals beautifully and contrapuntally with the expansive and the claustrophobic, the professional and the personal, duty vs. conscience. Opening scenes are as vivid and vibrant as O’Neill’s paean to the freedom of the sky, “the blue,” against Nick Embree’s evocative set that looks like the framework for a Fuller geodesic dome abbreviated at its first forward arch and constructed of chrome rods that sometimes make O’Neill’s pilot look like a model for da Vinci’s Vitruvian man and that, shrewdly if intentionally, form pentagons to remind us of the military while being able to pass as the bars of a restricted area cage. In dimmer, less exuberant passages, Embree’s magnificent construction can seems as dull as the support beams of a quonset hut, or trailer, such as The Pilot works in for much of “Grounded.”

Brant’s play tells the story of a woman who loved aviation and propulsion from childhood. She is ecstatic with her position as a major in the U.S. Air Force and a fighter pilot, rare among women, is combat areas in Afghanistan or wherever she’s needed. The sky affords an openness, free unlimited space which she can roam solo, completely in charge of her environment and unencumbered by the clutter one finds on land.

Of course, The Pilot is in constant danger. Just as she want to shoot designated enemies, she is an enemy to another army, another side, another cause. Her job is to kill those determined bad guys while staying alive, aircraft intact, to continue doing good.

The Pilot could not be more contented with her job or her reception from male colleagues, with whom she fits and who respect her as a fellow officer and fighter,

Then complications arise. The Pilot falls in love with a great guy. All through Brant’s script, he remains a great guy. Before their inevitable and desired wedding, The Pilot conceives a child. This changes things. She cannot fly, She’s isn’t only precluded from combat missions but all flight. She is decommissioned, grounded.

This does not suit The Pilot, but if reality intervenes, it corrects itself by allowing to fly after a specified post-partum period, and she can be back in the air.

Except times have changed. As Winston Churchill — where is he when we so desperately need him? — said prior to World War I, combat has changed because instead of soldiers heading to a battlefield, aviation has made it possible for a war to come anywhere, including civilian sites and urban areas. War can no longer be contained to a limited, agreed-upon space away from mass population.

In a 21st century advancement that affects The Pilot, a soldier can go to war from ten thousand miles away. Humanly unoccupied drone aircraft with cameras that can beam targets anywhere and have their weapons deployed from remote locations take Churchill’s warning one step closer to a device of mass destruction in every home. Wshen The Pilot is redeployed, it isn’t to a battle site in a Mesopotamian desert, it’s to an American desert, Las Vegas, where from a control in a parking lot trailer she can steer a drone, see what it sees, and drop the necessary bombs, Video games made real and serious.

And tedious. O’Neill’s character misses the blue. She wants the greatest outdoors around her. Instead, she works 12-hour shifts in what amounts to a bunker and does her duty from a distance.

The adjustment is hard. Concentration is different and has to be rebuilt. The private world The Pilot enjoyed in the air is shared with other pilots flying other drones and support personnel, such as the 19-year-old that serves as a focuser who bears into sites and people scheduled for obliteration.

Via the 19-year-old’s camera, The Pilot sees something she never encountered from the blue. Faces. The faces of soldiers fighting their war as well as faces of civilians, children included, who can be collateral damage.

The indoor setting, marriage, motherhood, and an altered understanding of war affect The Pilot. We see her transitions and disintegrations. We come to hope she can be restored to her happy self by hearing AC/DC riffs on her way home and receiving her family’s love while there.

The Pilot changes as fast as her situation, and O’Neill gift, as an actress and to us, is to make this fascinating! What verbal skill and timing she has in telling The Pilot’s story. How she makes her understand all The Pilot perceives, considers, and digests! O’Neill’s is acting as its finest, a performance so concise, complete, and artistic, it’s difficult to think it can be paralleled.

O’Neill literally saves Brant’s play from self-destruction. At 85 minutes, Brant doesn’t have material enough to cover the time. He doesn’t repeat as much as he lingers. There are long, dry, inert patches in his script that made palatable only by O’Neill’s absorbing talent.

O’Neill keeps “Grounded,” at least as presented by InterAct, from being overly and cloyingly political. You see a woman’s dilemma, not one that necessarily translates to anyone is her situation or with her changing perceptions.

Sure, Brant might prefer is the political correctness of his script prevailed, if we see The Pilot tortured into humanity from a rigid sense of duty by realizing people are her targets, and victims. But that part of “Grounded” doesn’t wash, even with Kittson O’Neill playing The Pilot. O’Neill makes the last 15 minutes of “Grounded” watchable, interesting, and personally important. She does not make us believe that what happens to The Pilot is likely or inevitable. As one woman’s story, “Grouhded” works and earns praise. When it tries to suit current political fashion towards war, it falters and becomes one among the dozen that want to put heart so far beyond head, any real point is jerry-rigged, confused, and goody-goody past mattering.

“Grounded” is a decent play. It obviously provides the possibility for an actress to wring a tour de force from it. It is not a great or especially astute play. Except for its knowledge of human behavior. What happens to The Pilot could happen, and undoubtedly does — I can site a case from a cousin’s life in which combat regret led to suicide — but it isn’t the only or only plausible choice. As I said, even in the midst of O’Neill’s brilliance, I didn’t believe her character’s total breakdown. Probably because I saw Brant’s manipulation, setting his audience up for something emotional at the expense of considering whether it fully fits with the character he’s drawn to date. Brant wants to make a statement, a populist one, and he so by mitigating what he was doing so well before he fiddled panderingly with his success.

             Kudos to Marsha Tsimring for making so much of Embree’s set and creating such color and atmosphere with her lighting. Grade: B, Grade for Kittson O’Neill: So off the charts, it’s doesn’t have a symbol to represent it.

 

Failure!!!  I know!  But more is coming.  Just decided to publish what is complete so far.

 

 

 

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