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by Lucy Komisar

Sinead Cusack in "Sligo"
Contents: May 5, 2000:
(1)"Our Lady of Sligo" at the Irish Repertory Theatre
(2)"The Waverly Gallery
(3)"Yard Gal" at the MCC
(4)"Edward II" at the Jean Cocteau Repertory
(5)"Ojagi" at La MaMa ETC
(6)"Rooms" La MaMa ETC

"Our Lady of Sligo"
by Sebastian Barry, directed by Max Stafford-Clark
Produced by the Irish Repertory Theatre with Out of Joint and the Royal National Theatre
132 West 22 Street
Opened April 20, 2000
Closes May 21, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar April 22, 2000
Sinead (pronounced shuh-NAY-ed) Cusak gives a stunning, chilling performance as Mai, the cancer-ridden woman reviewing her life from her hospital bed in Dublin. Playwright Sebastian Barry has written lines of prose that sound like lilting poetry.

The central facts of Mai's life were her desperate boredom at being in "the provincial death grip" of Sligo and the alcoholic-soaked fights that dominated her marriage to Jack (Jarlath Conroy). Barry based the play on the life of his grandmother.

Flashbacks, done mostly as monologues, go from 1953 to 1945 to 1935. Mai was "the belle of Galway University;" she had ideas, sight-read music, played tennis. After she married Jack, an engineer, she had a taste of the world, traveling with him to Africa in 1929. Then, she recalls bitterly, "he continued to roam the earth, but I was fixed like a nail to Sligo."

Disappointment, fear, joy, anger alternate in Cusak's eyes and in her subtle, evocative voice. Her performance at London's Royal National Theater in 1998 won the Critics' Circle Award and an Evening Standard prize for best actress.

Mai's distraught, resentful daughter, Joanie (Melinda Page Hamilton), is also bitter about the past. She recalls growing up in a wretched menage of shouting and madness.

Husband Jack is unsure how to behave; he is helpless, but clearly concerned. It's apparent that he and Mai were bound together, even through a lifetime of battling.

Sinead Colreavy is excellent and earthy as Maria, the stolid farm woman who gives Mai heartfelt advice.

The only false note is the extremely awkward bath scene in which the nurse disrobes Cusak from the waist up to daub at her with a wash cloth, then pushes and tugs at her to get to her bottom parts under a sheet. If the director wanted realism, the patient would be totally nude. The only purpose of this exercise seems to have been, "Now stop the show so we can look at Sinead's breasts."

"The Waverly Gallery"
by Kenneth Lonergan, directed by Scott Ellis
Produced by Anita Waxman, Elizabeth Williams, Randall L. Wreghitt, Peggy Lieber, Eric Lieber in association with Second Stage Theatre
Promenade Theatre, 2162 Broadway at 76 Street
Opened March 22, 2000
Closes May 21, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar April 11, 2000
Eileen Heckart's Gladys Green is a feisty lady of about 80 when we meet her in the Waverly Gallery in Greenwich Village. She's chattering to her grandson, Daniel (Josh Hamilton): "I was a member of the American Labor Party." But she's already told him that. She already told him everything else she's going to tell him, which is why he is beginning to avoid visiting. Gladys, whom he dearly loves, is beginning to lose her memory and act oddly.

Kenneth Lonergan's affectionate portrait depicts with honesty and humor what affect an old person's growing mental frailty has on a loving family. It's comic and a little sad and is enriched both by Eileen Heckart's impeccable acting, Lonergan's pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, and Scott Ellis's sympathetic direction.

The gallery, around the corner from her apartment, doesn't have patrons; it hardly has art, but it's a place for Gladys to go. In spite of her family's attentions, Gladys is lonely. She is delighted when Don Bowman (Anthony Arkin), a young man from Boston (with a pronounced Brooklyn accent) who can't find anyone to show his work, walks through the door. She not only welcomes his pictures, but gives him the back room to sack out in. Arkin is a perfect foil, good-natured, if a little simple, with squinty eyes and exaggerated body language.

Lonergan reflects a serious concern about a kind of racism born of alienation. "The whole neighborhood is changing," Gladys complains. "And they're a lot of people here from South Korea. Now, the whole bench is black. I know it's what we wanted, what we fought for all these years. But you go in there, and they don't talk to you."

Whether she is present at their Upper West Side apartment or only talking on the phone, Gladys makes dinnertime impossible for her daughter Ellen (excellently portrayed by Maureen Anderman) and her second husband Howard (Mark Blum), to the point where the distraught, harried Ellen declares, "I'm gonna blow my brains out!"

Once a lawyer, Gladys keeps talking about getting a job. Daniel muses, "Her mind was going, her mind was smashed to pieces, but the pieces were still her pieces."

"Yard Gal"
by Rebecca Prichard, directed by Gemma Bodinetz
Produced by MCC Theater
120 West 28 Street
Opened April 26, 2000
Closes May 21, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar April 23, 2000
They giggle, they roll a "john," they dance, they hug, they slash with knives. The girl gang members in Rebecca Prichard's tough play are tender, hard, innocent, amoral, sad, lonely lost children. Director Gemma Bodinetz keeps that contradiction as the girls alternate between seeming to be school chum-style buddies and juvenile delinquents.

They arrive playfully on a plain stage where the fourth wall has been removed and they tell and act out their stories to the audience. The only set is four light boxes from which they retrieve various bits of clothing and paraphernalia. The two friends play all the roles in their stories -- gang members, drug dealers, police -- but the tales become as gripping as if they were fully staged. (You get a glossary for the East London slang.)

It's not that you don't know the facts of 17 and 18-year-olds living in abandoned apartments, taking cocaine and pills, sniffing glue, drinking liquor. (Strobes simulate how they feel.) It's understood that they shoplift, sell or barter sex, have gang fights, get pregnant, go to prison. But the quality that catches one off guard is their utter self-consciousness and awareness of the empty desperation of their dangerous lives. They're pulled to belong to the gang, but they long for escape.

Boo -- for Bukola, it's Nigerian -- (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) is 18 and stays in a youth home when she's not on the street. Marie (Amelia Lowdell) lives with an abusive father, whom she generally avoids by camping out with Boo in an abandoned building. The playful teens wear warm-up suits. When they go out, they change to hot pants and short skirt. Even then, incongruity intrudes. One of their gang fights with her feet in order not to mess her hair.

Duncan-Brewster and Lowdell are engaging delinquents, rapping, dancing, shifting accents and demeanor. They have extraordinary energy and verve.

The play moves at a high pitch, then half way through the lightly connected episodes, there's a sense of repetition, of the play being bogged down in their lives as much as they are. Perhaps the 90 minutes (without intermission) could have been cut.

Prichard got the 1998 London Critics Circle Award for the play, which was staged at the Royal Court Theatre. It was commissioned by England's CleanBreak Theatre Company, started by two former inmates to give a voice to female prisoners and ex-offenders.

"Edward II"
by Bertolt Brecht; English version by Eric Bentley, directed by Karen Lordi
Produced by Jean Cocteau Repertory
Bouwerie Lane Theatre, 330 Bowery
Opened January 23, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar February 18, 2000
Bertolt Brecht translated and adapted Christopher Marlow's play "Edward II" for the Munich theater in 1924, not long after World War I. He used it to narrate an anti-war message. It's the 1300's. King Edward (Harris Berlinksy) is besotted with Gaveston (Jason Crowl), a 27-year old butcher's son, who has been banished by the parliament. Through conflict with his nobles over the affair, which distracts him from his duties as well as his wife Queen Anne (Elise Stone), Edward provokes a series of wars that last 13 years and wreak destruction on the country.

Brecht compares those wars to the ten-year Greek and Trojan war fought over Helen, another sexual object. Earl Roger Mortimer (Craig Smith), the opportunistic philosopher villain, recounts how "the human ear of reason was stopped up. Troy would still be standing; it would not have been destroyed. A whole race of men would not have died out." But, he quips, "In that case we would not have had the Iliad."

The stupidity of war is demonstrated by the killing of brothers, the burning of villages. It's gory and brutal with lots of shouting. The king plays games while the country suffers.

Events in history are told by placards that introduce the vignettes as a history lesson. But the production is choppy, without subtlety, and the pace drags. It would have been better played abstractly, so that when characters dipped their hands in blood it didn't seem so ludicrous and out of place.

Mortimer, called "the eel," plots the king's downfall; the queen, given her husband's predilections, is a willing co-conspirator. Director Karen Lordi suggests she is innately whorish by dressing her from the beginning in a clinging slip dress cut down to her bellybutton.

Everyone seems to have rationalizations for betrayal. When the king's next lover, Baldock (Marc Diraison), sells him out to Mortimer. He asks rhetorically, "Why did Judas sell out Jesus?" "Well, were you ever poor my friend?" His mother was sick, lay dying; a medicine could save her.

When they drag Edward away gagged, Kent (Angela Madden) shouts at him, 'Did you abdicate?'" The king refuses, but that seems largely a result of a selfish desire to retain his power and office. He is an odd heroic figure. After all, the man never seemed devoted to anything other than his pleasures. After his fate is sealed, the Archbishop (Jolie Garrett) says, "The church went the way god went, with the winner."

Harris Berlinsky is admirable as the clownish, fey king who becomes increasingly nutty. It's hard to take his character seriously other than as a simpleton who is an argument against inherited power.

(Jason Crowl starts out excellently as Gaveston, the cool slightly cynical butcher's son who sees his main chance as the concubine of the king. His attitude and speech have the tones of a pretty street hustler.

The rest of the acting is uneven. Some actors are casual, other project a theatrical presence. When the king tells his wife nastily, "I don't like you," she doesn't react." The evil Mortimer has an almost casual demeanor.

It is not for nothing that this play is not part of the Brechet canon that is frequently staged. The author ultimately disavowed the play.

written and directed by Ping Chong
Produced by LaMaMa e.t.c. in association with Ping Chong & Company
66 East 4th Street
Opened February 24, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar March 3, 2000

Ping Chong's theater piece tells several thousands years of Korean myth and history in ironic narrative, Chinese opera movements, American sign language and pantomime. It looks at a society built on domestic patriarchy and authoritarianism and foreign domination by Japan and the U.S. As the stories are told, strips of words are attached to the front edge of a lighted table: assassination, intervention, World War I.

Esther Chae and C.S. Lee wear masks and white pajamas, the color of Shamans. They wave sticks with white strips as the sounds of the ocean tossing a ship in a storm are heard. The piece is simply but elegantly staged. Chae and Lee tell the stories with only their expressive voices, their looks and simple movements, helped by Brian Hallas' sound effects.

For most of the play, they sit at either ends of the table. They begin with the she-bear and she-tiger a myth of the origin of Korea. They tell of the first iron clad "turtle" ship in the 1500's, and we hear the sound of a gun canon fusillade against the Japanese. There are many comic invidious comparisons with Chinese and Japanese. They describe early contacts with the West, a first via a 16th century Dutch shipwreck.

This is a history lesson as play documentary, and it has strong politics. Writer Ping Chong tells of the status of women a half millennium ago. Held in inferior positions, cloistered prisoners in their husbands' houses and denied right of inheritance, they would leave their homes at night, covered in white, hiding their faces, and lit by tiny paper lanterns held by slaves. Slaves who in 1600 made up 30 percent of the population, were owned privately and by the state, with their prices set by the government.

The horror of the time is set off by vaudeville satire: "You're the top, you're a Coliseum! Let them eat rice cake! The peasants owe us a living! I'll have my slave call your slave!"

We hear a parody of an imperialistic speech by an American naval officer in 1882. And some interesting history: Col. Dean Rusk, (the secretary of state who helped Lyndon Johnson pursue the war against Vietnam), and another colonel, both from the National Oceanographic Service, were given 30 minutes by the American Assistant Secretary of War, John J.McCloy, to divide Korea after World War II.

What did that mean for Koreans? The actors depict American and Russian occupiers telling Koreans what to do and think. "Pojagi" was performed last New Year's Eve ten minutes from the DMZ, as part of eight hours of festivities presented by some American companies. They'd like Koreans on both sides of the border to begin thinking differently.

written and directed by Elia Schneider
Produced by LaMaMa e.t.c. in association with Teatro Dramma-Caracas
La MaMa E.T.C., 74 East 4 Street
Opened March 10, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar March 19, 2000
This stylized performance piece, with simple repetitive movements and occasional dialogue, is a theater of pointillism, with very small bits of business together creating a fascinating totality. At the end, you are imbued with a sense of the numbing sterility and boredom of the protagonists' lives. They are all women, but the commentary could be about anyone. Elia Schneider's work is inspired by Kafka.

The place is gray -- a gray wood box, metal chicken-wire fences surrounding gray everyday objects -- toilets, tin pails, steel tables, shelves of fabric, a chuck of meat and bone hanging from a hook. The women wear a gray wraparound dress, gray pants and plastic apron, a black shift. In the background are eerie pulsating synthesizer sounds.

All gestures are robotic -- fixing hair, putting on socks, putting away laundry. A housecleaner (Dad Dager) makes coffee; she plunges a plunger into a toilet. "No, it can't be done," she says, as she enumerates the tasks completed: 822, 823, 824. She speaks in Spanish: "No, es imposible." Furiously brushing her hair, she offers a hint of repressed humanity.

At a kitchen counter, another (Ricarda Klingenhoefer) gathers a huge chunk of meat to her chest. She smacks it with a mallet. In an amusing diversion, she puts an aluminum dog together and takes it for a walk.

A third (Bettina Grand) dips cloth in a metal pail, irons as if her arm were attached to a machine.

The three women move as automatons. Their only communication is with a flashing television. The sound turns to the music of a funereal church organ.

These woman can move only in their orbits. They run back and forth, walk with exaggerated steps, in circles or back and forth. Yet you get the sense of repressed longing in sudden gestures and smiles and looks. Can they get away? One moves frantically toward a suitcase, but the gaze of the others pulls her back.

"For we are like tree trunks in the snow, in appearance they lie sleekly and a big push should be enough to set them rolling. No it cant be done, for they are firmly wedded to the ground tied. But see, even that is only appearance." The Trees, Franz Kafka. [Komisar]

Theater critic Lucy Komisar gives pre-show briefings and post-show discussions for theater parties to enrich playgoers' experiences. She'll also help find an appropriate show and make or advise on arrangements. Interested parties may telephone (212) 929-1610 for information.

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