All Things Entertaining and Cultural
The first two months of Philadelphia’s 2016-17 theater season have been extraordinary.,
Not only was much of quality presented, but variety and creativity have soared. Almost every night in the theater has been a rewarding adventure. Even when plays were lacking, casts picked up the gauntlet and gave you something to watch and savor. Pieces that in some ways were unformed exhilarated nonetheless, Aaron Posner’s “Stupid Bird” being a great example.
I really do have to catch up. Capsules in a blitz is the only way to do it. So here comes Attempt Number in getting every play covered, open or not.
Deep breath. Here goes.
THE BIRDS, Curio Theatre, 48th and Baltimore Avenue, Philadelphia, through October 29 — Horror is difficult on put on stage, but Elizabeth Carlson-Guerin and a cast that plays its parts with disarming naturalism maintain constant intensity and suspense for the intermissionless two hours or so it takes for Conor McPherson’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1952 story about birds suddenly becoming predators and devouring humankind. McPherson takes a different tack from du Maurier and from Alfred Hitchcock, who based a film on this same premise from this same story. As is his wont, McPherson’s rendition is more personal, more hermetic, and even more threatening. He depicts four people among thousands trying to survive both the avian onslaught and their own human natures that test discipline and trust. Du Maurier was writing about the German blitz that peppered London and other British cities with bombs during World War II. She used an attack of nature to represent humans turning in on themselves and, for competitive military advantage, annihilating all that exists. Hitchcock was looking to scare the bejesus out of his audience and make it as wary of birds as it was of showers while “Psycho” was popular. McPherson is less symbolic and more subtle. He is interested in the dynamics that take place when three relative strangers have a job to do, refuge and survival, and seem to undermine each other so the threat and terror of marauding birds is paralleled by the menace that might lurk among a small group in a compact area. The Curio production makes that compact area remarkable. Paul Kuhn’s set is a triumph is both carpentry and stagecraft. As you approach the stage, you see the complete outer structure of a beach house. You enter the playing area by walking through its front door, from which perspective Kuhn’s set says “cozy” and “lived in.” The effect starts by providing comfort and ends in adding to the chill. Then, there’s the performances of Aetna Gallagher, Rich Bradford, and Tessa Kuhn, to keep you hoping for rescue while worrying about their being able to endure living together. The keynote here is the normality with which the actors plays their parts. There’s none of the heightened melodrama you often find in thrillers and mysteries. No one tips a nefarious hand or recoils in unbearable tension or mid-Lantic expression of distress, It is the ordinariness Gallagher, Bradford, and Kuhn project that makes you care about them and go along with McPherson’s story that included possible betrayal and even the suggestion of homicide. To Gallagher and Bradford’s credit, some laugh lines are precisely hit, though neither actor goes for the tart cynicism you might find in another production of McPherson’s opus. Tessa Kuhn creates a lot of anxiety as “the other,” a newcomer to Gallagher and Bradford’s makeshift menage who threatens the balance and keeps you guessing about relationships (until there’s no need to guess). Ken Opdenaker has an effective scene with Gallagher as a neighbor defending himself from the lethal gulls, crows, and sparrow that arrive each day at high tide. Grade: B+
DISGRACED, McCarter Theatre, University Place and College Drive, Princeton, N.J.. Through October 30 — Of the three productions I’ve seen of Ayad Akhtar’s honest, far-reaching play, Marcela Lorca’s staging for Princeton’s McCarter Theatre is the best.
One reason for that is the stirring tour de force performance of Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, already in award contention for his work in another Akhtar piece, Theatre Exile’s “The Invisible Hand.” Ebrahimzadeh thoroughly and humanly shows you the thousand compartmental traits and dimensions that compose his character, Amir Kapoor, an Pakistani Muslim who understands all too well his national, tribal, cultural, and religious heritage and chooses, with clear eyes and less self-hatred than he is accused, to assimilate and put labels, stereotypes, inferences, and expectations behind so he can be an individual pursuing his American dream encumbered with as little baggage as possible. Akhtar’s art and Lorca’s gift at McCarter is to show how every character in the play embarks on a journey similar to Amir’s. The five people we see are thoughtful and represent a bomber crew of ethnicity — WASP, Jewish, African-American, young and searching for identity — who have their own personalities and objectives but are constantly mired in the cultural trappings and attitudes they are presumed by general association with a race or religion to have. The beauty of this production is Lorca and the remarkable cast Ebrahimzadeh leads, show the McCarter audience the complexities of which each character is composed. As in life, no one is one thing. We all battle against parts of our upbringing and our prejudices, taught or acquired, to be sensible, rational people looking to make ourselves comfortable in a world that prefer the easy route of profiling. Raw sensitivities are exposed in this production. You see how nature and nurture confound each other more than they combine towards perfection. You see clear examples of what George Bernard Shaw means in his play, “Heartbreak House,” when he has Hesione Hushabye says humans do not have their vices and virtues in neat little sets but randomly as they come. You see an instance that can easily be blamed on cultural tradition but, via Lorca and her cast, could also be the result of confluence of intense and escalating calamity leading to an emotional reaction that is more a matter of wit’s end than birthright or tradition. Akhtar addresses clearly and boldly what most current playwrights, in their effort to be good and nice, tiptoe around. He shows people in their fullness. He has them talk candidly and openly about who they are, what’s on their minds, and what is happening to them in the real world and in their own. Nothing is simplistic in this play, although other productions of it have aimed for simplicity and one note instead of the sympathy Lorca conducts with Ebrahimzadeh as her virtuoso. Important, elemental things are said and done on the McCarter stage. Each character, even eventually Amir’s WASP wife, Emily, addresses what they go through because of the way people see them as opposed to who they are. Each reveals how segments of his or her culture continue to influence thought and action even though much of the tribal and religious has been put in perspective and comes out in proportion. Lorca and company go past surface emotion and the red herring Akhtar plants to give his play some pivot, Amir’s fortunes descending when an incompetent New York Times reporter misrepresents his involvement in a legal case that puts him in Dutch with the managing partners of the swanky Manhattan law firm to which he aspires to become a partner. Akhtar addresses situations of ethnic identity that have currency but are also woven into the American fabric. As a teenager, I always wondered why I had to be Jewish or care about places my grandparents fled at saber-point when I wanted only be to Neal who happens to be Jewish and will take or leave what he likes from it. I thought about the same things when I realized I was gay. The yen I saw to be Jewish-American, Irish-American, Italian-American, African-American, or even WASP as opposed to American in whatever equation of influences you chose for your life stymied me. To me, all of the crap or tradition is part of me, but Neal the American supersedes it. In knowing myself, I see what Amir, and even his nephew, Hussein, a.k.a. Abe, wants (although I don’t know how Akhtar thought Amir was a generic name.) Amir’s plight, as expressed by Ebrahimzadeh, spoke to me in significant ways. I think he, Akhtar, Lorca, and fellow actor Austene Van, as a African-American colleague of Amir’s, put the current, and ongoing, American dilemma about cultural identity in a nutshell. Mainly because Ebrahimzadeh and Van could play such complete people while reverting in some primitive way to their ethnic roots. Ebrahimzadeh makes you empathetic to Amir’s breakdown even while your horrified, and even appalled, by it. It is this multi-layered expression and understanding that theater should aim for, and Lorca and her cast at McCarter are providing it. The Broadway production on “Disgraced” was good but took a more specific course than Lorca’s. The Philadelphia Theatre Company’s staging is woefully shallow in comparison to McCarter’s, and it had its power. Lorca’s production lets you a broad, knowing, and disturbing picture. Disturbing on several levels, one being that Amir cannot go about his life on his own terms, even when he says things that sound outrageous but are honest and true on some level, another being that a life can be altered by a reporter’s stupid mistake and other people taking that mistake to heart, a third being that we do hear the voices, even if we regard them sarcastically, of people indoctrinating us with tradition. We live in a hair-trigger world. Sensitivity is so out of proportion, it is fashionable to take offense at the inconsequential or lightly meant. We all face a McCarthyesque Inquisition by the new Puritans, the politically correct who have all the humor of a bypass patient during the operation. “Disgraced” addresses all of this and it does so in an intelligent and telling way. The play invites all kinds of productions. I’m told Akhtar’s piece is especially popular in Germany and has been staged in numerous ways with numerous emphases. The McCarter production, en route later this season to Minneapolis and The Guthrie, is divinely thorough. It delineates the important, keeps all dramatic, and lets you see the multiple permutations at work as we try to exist as individuals today. Maboud Ebrahimzadeh is an actor of super-tactile sensitivity and honest emotion. He refuses to make Amir monolithic and fearless broaches subjects that make Amir controversial before and after the damaging New York Times piece comes out. Austene Van is right behind Ebrahimzadeh in showing a woman who is proud of her heritage but conquers stereotypes until her marriage is threatened and her attempt to be a friend in questioned. Adit Dileep strikes all of the right notes as Amir’s confused teenage nephew who struggles yet with the borders of individuality and tradition and who may be pushed closer to Hussein than Abe by the treatment he receives when a friend of his, also Muslim, makes a flippant remark, pregnant but truly meaningless, in public. Caroline Kaplan and Kevin Isola round out the excellent cast. Kudos to designer James Youmans for creating a sharp, sophisticated New York apartment that reflects Amir and Emily in taste, opulence, and clarity. Ana Kuzmanic does an equally fine job with the costumes. Grade: A++
THE MOUNTAINTOP, People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road (Routes 30 and 401), Malvern, Pa. through October 30 — Katori Hall’s muddle of a play tries to borrow poignancy and significance by featuring an iconic figure in American history and setting the story she chooses to tell on the last night of his life. The person is Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the place is Memphis’s Lorraine Motel where he will be killed on April 4, 1968, a day that begins as Hall’s play ends, and the problem is Hall prefers giving voice to platitude, putting her own thoughts in a character’s mouth, and relying on fantasy, or magical realism, to make her play sing. It never does. I’ve seen the piece three times in three vastly different productions, and it never rises above its pedestrian beginnings. Worse, as Hall’s primary theater trick is revealed “Mountaintop” becomes ludicrous. You say. “Oh, brother” more than “Oh, boy.” If the lead character of this piece wasn’t Martin Luther King, this play would not be done anywhere. It’s twaddle with little redemption and insults its audience more than enchanting it with its literary quackery. All of that said, :Mountaintop” gives two actors a chance to give great performances. Neither Bowman Wright nor Patrese D. McClain rise to greatness, but they keep matters between them interesting enough to hold you through Hall’s nonsense. McClain, in particular, offers an unusual take on her character, a motel worker who comes to deliver Dr. King’s coffee and stays, on various pretexts, including Dr. King’s invitation, to help him accept whatever fate may befall him and encourage to pass the baton of leadership to others. Hall’s play is a smear job from beginning to end. There may be a few minutes, when Wright as Dr. King shares some ideas for the future, that you pay strict attention, but mostly it’s a cat-and-mouse game that fails in its attempt to show Dr. King as a man within an icon, and shows little variety or depth.
The problems are depth and delay. Hall needs time to get to her big moment, one is which McClain’s maid, Camae, reveals herself to be more than a hotel domestic. She spends it in banal badinage that, at People’s Light, is mildly entertaining because McClain is so broad and decidedly comic in her approach, but really goes nowhere in terms of establishing drama or expressing much of value. Hall depends on surprise for that, and while her gimmick is a stunner, it remains a gimmick and loses theatrical steam quickly.
Wright works to give Dr. King magnitude while also conveying he is a man who likes some whisky, coffee, cigarettes, and women after the arduous days he spends articulating the need for improved civil rights in the U.S. and his struggle to recruit people to his cause. We learns lots about Dr. King but Hall’s dialogues plays as much like a textbook as it does of conversation, and the information doesn’t register as important. It’s small things, like Dr. King savoring his wife, Coretta’s, egg sandwiches or his relationship with his youngest child, that rouses some feeling towards Wright’s Dr. King.
Camae can be played in various ways, and McClain chooses the most bombastic. She is a high-spirited Southern woman with little polish who is almost stereotypical in her approach to her part. You certainly don’t see Mc Clain’s Camae as a match, even to fill a lonely night, for Wright’s Dr. King. She’s too loud and common. She practically fawns when she sees Dr. King and shows a fan’s unbridled enthusiasm rather an a respectful admirer’s awe.
Byplay is weak if diverting. When Hall gets into serious business, and we are aware that Dr. King knows he is spending his last night on Earth, “Mountaintop” shows some promises, but it loses it by going over the same ground again and again.
“Miountaintop” depends on Martin Luther King to give it any credence, and on this occasion, through no fault of Bowman Wright or director Steve H. Broadnax III, the good doctor and revered civil rights leader is not enough. Even his cause and ideas are treated too lightly to matter.
I have visited the Lorraine Hotel, now a Civil Rights museum, and set designer Tony Cisek did a wonderful job constructing a roadside motel setting from the ’60’s. Grade: B- for production; D for Hall’s play.
NOTES OF A NATIVE SON, Wilma Theatre during Fringe Arts Festival, Closed — Stew is a genius. And peppers his braininess with wit, sometimes even spontaneous, such as when he whistles the echo to the “Good, Bad, and Ugly” theme as a one-time commentary on one of his own compositions. “Notes of a Native Son” reflects on the career and writing of James Baldwin, who Stew suggests is a questionable icon because he lived a life and often wrote in a way that negated his roots as an African-American and gay male. As Stew’s title implies, the composer-performer compares Baldwin to Richard Wright, whose book is more seminal and treats on subjects Baldwin doesn’t touch on as incisively. Stew is a man with opinions he expresses in his patter and his music, particularly in the lyrics He is not interested in whether or not you agree with all he says. After making a remark about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, he tells the audience anyone who is offended by him telling what he thinks can leave. The point about Stew’s work goes far past agreement or validation. You don’t have to buy every premise or conclusion to see how well-considered Stew’s declaration are and how much thought and perspective went into them. The difference between Stew and other performers is he may have a point of view but he reveals as a witty intellectual rather than as a flinty ideologue. What Stew has to say about James Baldwin, or even Richard Wright and other black writers, is worth hearing, worth thinking about, and worth discussing. Nothing is canned in Stew’s pieces. Better yet, nothing is cant. You enjoy hearing his argument, his take, his perspective. It’s fresh. It’s smart. It evokes and provokes, Best if all, it’s individual. Stew is no parrot. You hear his thoughts, share his takes. He neither lauds nor excoriates. He knows how to separate the art of writing from the idea of being a spokesperson for or chronicler of a people and their history. It’s the cool-eyed, coolly expressed completeness that made “Notes of a Native Son” so rich and satisfying.
One cannot praise Stew without sending accolades for musical composition to his long-time collaborator, Heidi R0dewald. She was on hand as a musician and added grace notes to the overall performers, as did the superb band members — Mike McGinnis, Marty Beller, and Damian Lamar Hudson. Kudos also to Joan Grossman for her work with smart, commentating video projections. Grade: A
More to come. Stay tuned for “The Legend of Georgia McBride” and “When the Rain Stops Falling” among others.