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By Glenn Loney, March 1, 2000

Glenn Loney
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
[01] Tom Stoppard's "Invention of Love" at SF ACT
[02] Bayard Rustin & "Civil Sex" at Berkeley Rep
[03] David Hirson's Raging "Wrong Mountain"
[04] Steamed "Lobster Alice" at Playwrights Horizons
[05] "Our Place in Time" on 55th Street
[06] Marsha Norman's "Trudy Blue" Is Truly Blue
[07] Spent Sperm in "Spermegga"
[08] Karin Coonrod Dethrones "King John"
[09] Ben Jonson in the Barrio—CSC's "Alchemist"
[10] Roger Rees' One-Armed "Arms and the Man"
[11] Patrick's Pan Asian "Teahouse"
[12] Boucicault's Ardent "Arrah-na-Pogue"
[13] "Tir Na n'Ong"—The Horse from the Sea
[14] Mae West's Banned "Sex"
[15] Claudia Shear's "Dirty Blonde" Mae West
[16] Bookless, Clueless "Swing"
[17] Yiddish-English "Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln" at LaMaMa
[18] Foreman's Ontological-Hysterical "Bad Boy Nietzsche"
[19] Schumann's "Need Cantata" at New City

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fFor a selection of Glenn Loney's previous 2000 columns, click here.

A View from the [Bay] Bridge—

No Stopping Tom Stoppard at ACT:
Poetry & "The Invention of Love"

"THE INVENTION OF LOVE"—James Cromwell as the poet/professor A. E. Housman. Photo: American Conservatory Theatre.
It's not only the TV and the schoolbooks that are being dumbed-down in New York. So is serious theatre, at least on Broadway.

Even outstanding institutional theatres which do produce new dramas have limited runs, aging audiences, and little potential for longer runs with transfers.

It is a scandal that new plays of one of the most interesting and provocative of British playwrights cannot be seen on the Great White Way.

No, I don't mean David Hare—who inexplicably does get Broadway productions.

It is the wit and wisdom of Tom Stoppard which are being withheld from serious play-goers. To see two of his most recent adventures in dialogue, you had to go to the Geary Theatre in San Francisco.

There, Artistic Director Carey Perloff has recently staged both "The Invention of Love" and "Indian Ink." Since she took over the American Conservatory Theatre—or ACT—Perloff has been striving to raise the level of local theatre-life.

The former Stoppard play—exploring the life and after-life of the poet-professor A. E. Housman—was staged with an inventive economy which should make it relatively inexpensive to tour.

Loy Arcenas' spare but suggestive settings could be even more reduced to save money and scene-shifting. That would be a visual loss, but Stoppard's dialogue and characterizations are the heart of the drama. They would remain powerful and provocative even in a Concert Reading.

But Manhattan audiences are not to have even that. It's reported that there's no appropriate theatre available. Considering what's playing in some Broadway theatres, that is also a scandal.

The distinguished and incisive James Cromwell was excellent as old Professor Housman, looking back with varied regrets on his life as a would-be lover, a passionate poet, and an expert in translating Latin and Greek poetry.

Stoppard even frames Housman's biographical narrative with a classical reference. Old Charon is ferrying the deceased across the River of No Return, the dark, mysterious Styx.

Jason Butler Harner was also excellent—and very affecting—as the young Housman, smitten with classic love poetry and with his athletic schoolmate, Moses John Jackson.

The drama's title refers to Housman's notion that we find the invention of love in Sapphic odes and other classic elegiac poetry. The concept does not occur in earlier texts.

Some of my Bay Area colleagues were put off by the frequent use of Latin and Greek quotations. All of these, however, were prefaced or followed by translations by Housman, shared with the audience—or his unseen students, in the spirit of making the most trenchant and apt comment that the moment required.

This also demonstrates his "donnishness," obviously infuriating to his own colleagues who were not strong in the classics.

When the desperate young Housman declares his love to Moses—and is abruptly rebuffed by this Straight Arrow [Garret Dillahunt]—he begins a long process of withdrawing into himself, his beloved classics, and his own poetical musings.

Although Housman and Oscar Wilde were not old school-chums, Stoppard gives Wilde [Marco Barricelli] an important role in the drama. Despite his tragedies and triumphs, Wilde lived the life he wished to—as far as he could. And he dared to love when and where Society said he should not.

The sad fact is that Housman's poems are today read by few. While the varied works of Oscar Fingal O'Flaherty Wills Wilde—poems, plays, novels, fairytales—are widely known and loved.

Stoppard's contrast of the two effectively asks the audience—and the now passed-over Housman—Who had the better, richer life?

It's suggested that Housman sublimated his passion for Moses—and likely young students—in teaching and in his own poetry and translating that of classic masters.

A Housman expert assures me that the aging pedant—whose poems were preoccupied with early, easeful death—did not live an entirely celibate, sexless life. On the occasional holiday in Paris, he visited special houses of accommodation for men with certain tastes. My source says Housman kept detailed accounts of his adventures.

In the current Gilbert & Sullivan biopic, "Topsy-Turvy," the very eligible bachelor, Sir Arthur Sullivan, is shown enjoying a private show by some luscious naked ladies. This may well have been the case, but he may also have patronized some of Housman's establishments.

Some G&S experts suggest that his great and good American lady-friend was the armor and protection he needed to move in Victorian Society. One researcher insists that he was in fact devoted to his valet—who is certainly devoted to him in the film.

In Bed with Bayard Rustin at Berkeley Rep:

Civil Rights and "Civil Sex"

"CIVIL SEX"—Protest & Sex Activist Bayard Rustin out of the closet. Photo: ©Ken Friedman.
When the Civil Rights activist Bayard Rustin died, it was a big surprise for some passionate older Liberals to learn that he not only a witty and forceful speaker on abuses of Black citizens, but also an acid-tongued and flamboyantly promiscuous homosexual.

Brian Freeman's "Civil Sex," staged by him for the Berkeley Repertory, focuses more on that side of his life than on his Public Persona and achievements. That the play—in its earlier and shorter version—was first produced by DC's Woolly Mammoth Theatre and in San Francisco by Afro Pomo Homos at the intimate Marsh Theatre, may explain this orientation.

The dynamic young actor Duane Boutté is fascinating to watch as Rustin, whom he shows as equally dynamic in the cause of Civil Rights and in seduction.

Playwright Freeman is also a member of the ensemble of five actors—who are all virtuosos in a variety of roles, including amusing gender-switches.

While there are some confrontational scenes, Bayard's bio is largely filled-in by what appear to be re-enactments of recorded interviews with friends and colleagues who knew him when.

Some of them seem to have rather imperfect recollections—or speech-problems. Q-&-A interviews are often horrendously dull to read. Especially in academic theatre-magazines.

The result is that time is wasted with uninteresting information or rehashing personal problems which do not advance the drama.

It would have been provocative—even if no one ever thought to interview Dr. Martin Luther King in depth about Rustin and his sex-life—to have presented King discussing just that.

Some very successful quasi-historians seem to have no problem with inventing dialogue for Thomas Jefferson or Eleanor Roosevelt.

Meanwhile, on the Other Coast—

New-ish Plays & Dramas:

Over on West 49th Street—and it may be gone by the time you are able to have a look—there is a most apt and amusing comment on the two dramas advertised on the two theatre-marquees.

On the uptown side of the street, there's a glowing sign for "The Ride Down Mount Morgan." On the downtown side, that marquee sign says: "Wrong Mountain."

Arthur Miller's late-in-life pot-boiler about a man who has two wives won the Best New American Play Award of the American Theatre Critics Association recently. As I had already seen it almost a decade ago in London, at Wyndham's Theatre, I found this odd. But it had just had its first American production when the award was made. So…

Now it bows on Broadway, just in time for Tony Nominations! I saw it with Tom Conti in a hospital-bed, his body in a cast up to his neck.

As he also looked like that in "Whose Life Is It Anyway?," I thought Miller's play could be subtitled "Whose Wife Is It Anyway?"

Hell Hath No Fury Like
"Wrong Mountain"—The Rage of David Hirson [**]

"WRONG MOUNTAIN"—Rallying round Goddess LITHIA. Photo: ©Carol Rosegg.
This production came to Broadway from San Francisco's ACT. Would that they had sent their "Invention of Love" instead.

In the program, immediately under the title, "Wrong Mountain," it is described as "A new play by David Hirson." That seemed odd for it bore the marks of an Old Play by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Molière.

Hirson's first new play on Broadway was called "La Bête." It was distinguished by the fantastic settings of Brit designer Richard Hudson.

And by an extremely long, but virtuoso, Tirade, or Rant. I loved this, as well as Hirson's effective use of rhymed couplets throughout the play.

His debt to Molière was obvious, and this play seemed an extension of Molière's own problems catering to the whims of royal patrons.

Unfortunately, major critics excoriated the drama, if they did not simply announce they didn't understand it. Newsweek's Jack Kroll tells me he had a big argument with Robert Brustein, who thought it a work of genius.

Jack and most of his peers certainly did not. So its life was brief on Broadway, but fiercely supported by its admirers.

I saw it revived later in Ashland, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Even minus its elegantly breathtaking Broadway sets & costumes, it still played very well.

But David Hirson must have been offended or annoyed by the production it received there. He has chosen a venue very like Ashland for his New Drama Contest—which is going to be won by an furiously disappointed poet and academic.

When a huge statue of LITHIA is shown on the grounds of this provincial theatre-festival, the Ashland Connection is immediate. Ashland's "First American Elizabethan Theatre" is backed by the flowing waters of Lithia Creek.

The phony and flamboyant Festival Director—who loves the poet's play—may be partly inspired by a former Ashland Artistic Director. But these are inside-jokes, as my guest—an actress whom I'd encouraged to go to Ashland two summers previous—didn't even remember the name Lithia. Or its significance: Lithia is a Muse of Something.

The Festival Theatre is named for its donors, the Hirschorns. I'm assuming this may be a European variant of Hirson?

Hirson and his alter-ego protagonist, Henry Dennett [Ron Rifkin], are both full of anger, even furious rage, at the way their work has been received.

Poets, even when they are inspired, have to expect this in a time and country where few people are now interested in what passes for poetry.

But ingenious, intelligent, amusing, provocative playwrights can be forgiven for believing there's still a theatre-loving, theatre-going public out there who would gladly welcome a thought-provoking new drama.

What galls Henry Dennett is that his ex-wife has taken up with a fantastically successful Broadway playwright, for whose work and person he has bottomless contempt.

Unfortunately, this rage and contempt dominate the play, making its anti-hero very hard to take for long. Only Rifkin's dynamic incarnation of rage kept things moving—when the play was still on view.

Unfortunately, there are many things in the apparently "realistic" narrative which are not believable—even as satire.

That Dennett's drama, written in angry haste in a spirit of complete contempt for the theatre, should promptly be declared—by the Broadway comedy-master, no less—as a "Masterpiece" is simply unbelievable.

Dennett has only two first-time-playwright competitors for the award. One is a ditzy lady, the other an overworked student, much given to quotations.

As the Broadway audience is not permitted to have exposure to any of the scripts in performance—they are merely satirically described—it could well be that they were all rotten.

It was not a good idea to flaunt an example of Dennett's own leaden poetry on stage. If that's his best, then he'd better stick to writing contemptible plays out of contempt.

Hirson's debt to Molière shows in many guises in this play. Not least in Dennett's family, who would find themselves right at home with Orgon and Tartuffe.

Henry Dennett, I fear, is really Molière's Misanthrope in modern threads. Jean-Baptiste dressed his anti-heroes rather better. And put more consequentially satiric dialogue in their mouths.

Back to the drawing-board!

Playwrights Horizons' Steamed "Lobster Alice" [*]

Steve Martin's fantasy about Picasso and other artistic luminaries at the Lapin Agile—or as the proprietor puts it, Lapin à Gilles—was wonderfully inventive and amusing.

Unfortunately, Kira Obolensky lacks Martin's antic imagination, ironic wit, and love of low comedy. She has tried to imagine what might have happened when the Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dali came to Hollywood to devise a ballet for a cartoon-animation of a popular song.

She gives him an anal-retentive, uninteresting, and unimaginative animator, John Finch, to work with. Finch's thoughts are concentrated on designing Alice in Wonderland.

The collaboration doesn't work out. Nor does this play. It was performed without intermission—which needs no explanation.

Maria Mileaf directed.

Another Women's Project:

"Our Place in Time" on West 55th Street [**]

Woman's playwright Clare Coss has devised eleven politically-oriented vignettes. Well, actually they seemed rather more oriented to the annoying popular songs of their respective places in time

The political events are peripheral, but serve to demonstrate a series of annoying characters in uninteresting relationships to each other: "Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas?" That kind of thing.

With so many very good young actors in New York, it's surprising that they weren't able to cast the roles more strongly. Does this have anything to do with the fact that this was a Woman's Project production?

There was an intermission. I took advantage of it. But with some sense of guilt, as the director is a former student of mine—whose work I have previously much admired.

Another Woman's & Cancer Play at MCC:

Marsha Norman's "Trudy Blue" Is Truly Blue[*]

Did Robert LuPone and Bernard Telsey hope that another cancer-play would repeat their critical and public success with "Wit"?

If so, "Trudy Blue" is not that play.

The fact that Broadway producers were not fighting for the rights means nothing, of course. Even with previous big-time successes, playwrights like Marsha Norman and Beth Henley are best-served initially by intelligent productions mounted by such capable institutional theatres as Manhattan Theatre Club, Playwrights Horizons, and Primary Stages.

And, in fact, MCC gave "Trudy Blue" a very professional, tautly staged, dynamically acted production.

The drama's problems are two-fold: Its narrative is too fractured, too intercut, to follow without frustration or loss of interest. And its self-pitying heroine—constantly attacked, upset, and undermined by a bad-girl inner-self—is unsympathetic.

Not only that, especially for older audiences—which constitute the majority of serious theatre-goers now—quasi-comic routines about X-rays and medical procedures are not all that riveting, no matter how stylish and satirical.

This drama was commissioned by the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Where a mass migration of American Theatre Critics will be going end of March for more New American Plays! Your scribe included.

Spent Sperm in "Spermegga" [*]

In the early days of the Negro Ensemble Company—which seems to have faded away imperceptibly—the apparently clueless, but deeply sly, humor of Clarice Taylor was for me a constant delight.

Taylor, as with so many other NEC veterans, has gone on to have interesting and important roles in films and TV.

Her "Spermegga"—although she performs or suggests all eight characters—is not quite a monologue. Nor yet again a Concert Reading.

Taylor also offers interpretations of Spermegga at two-weeks, six-years, and as a teenager. This unfortunate black child is being raised by her grandmother, hardly a novel situation in many homes today.

Because she performs in a realistic home setting, it is a little disorienting to watch Taylor try to shift from one character to another, especially in animated conversation. Fortunately there isn't much of that to contend with.

Spermegga's story would have come to life much more effectively, had Taylor either cast real actors in the roles—keeping Granmommy for herself—or performed her script at a podium, using different angles and voices to suggest her dramatis personae.

The format she cobbled together really doesn't work. It is too confusing. And much of the dialogue was unclear. More precise articulation and increased volume would have helped. Sometimes, Taylor seemed to be talking to herself.

Raising Dead & Dormant Classics:

Karin Coonrod's "King John" [***]

The first of the History or Chronicle Plays, "King John" is commonly attributed to William Shakespeare. Director Karin Coonrod, however, has attempted to make it her own.

This is not her first grappling with the Bard. Her "Henry VI" at the Public Theatre was even more idiosyncratic. Neither drama is major, so no great poetry was savaged. Nor were any great iconic characters entirely reduced to clowns.

Frankly, although some colleagues despised Coonrod's Henry, I was often amazed at her daring. And often entertained with her dramatic & character conceits.

In "King John," however, she has at least one important iconic character, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, though Shakespeare did not make her central to the drama. Fortunately, Myra Carter's silences are as potent as her regal interferences.

The rapidly shifting alliances made and unmade to claim the Throne of England—and the reasons for them—are made very clear in this production.

Notable—in the person of Nick Kepros as the powerful and meddling Papal Legate—is the interest and power of the Catholic Church both on the battlefield and in courtly councils. Shakespeare was writing for a nominally Protestant Public and a certainly non-Catholic Queen, so his clerical portrait is all the more interesting as a species of political propaganda.

Especially good in this production is Derek Smith as the dynamic Bastard Falconbridge. He's both inside and outside the action, an observer, a commentator. As the bastard son of the late king, Richard the Lionhearted, he has no hope of the crown, so he can afford to be detached—even if he lends his considerable energy and charisma to King John's faction.

The metal mesh armor—modern substitutes for chain-mail—was heavy and awkward. So also would authentic armor have been, but these characters are on a stage, not a battlefield.

A girl Herald—dragging a long baroque swag of cloth after her—looked like a 13th century Fashion Victim. P. K. Wish designed the costumes, but one could have wished for more striking and playable results.

Barry Edelstein's Chem-Lab "The Alchemist" [***]

"THE ALCHEMIST"—Three rogues prepare to gull, rob, & shame easy marks. Photo: ©Dixie Sheridan.
Ben Jonson's reputation is still safe. He is the titular author of "The Alchemist," but director Barry Edelstein has fortunately not been able to make the satirical comedy entirely his own.

The play opens in the thrust-stage arena of the Classic Stage Company. Designer Adrienne Lobel has created a wretched basement with doors enough for a French Farce. The street—or, rather, alley—entrance is on the rear upper level. The downstairs rumpus-room and Chem Lab is reached by precipitous metal stairs.

At the outset, the three main conspirators in a series of satiric Elizabethan con-operations rush screaming and ranting down the stairs. This vocal and physical thrusting toward the astonished audience does not augur well for Jonson's wit and highly articulated dialogue.

It is all too clear that Edelstein has decided to overcome Jonson's various archaisms by modernizing the place, time, costumes, movement, and social rituals.

Unfortunately, the styles of speech Jonson has provided for various strongly contrasting characters—including some apposite Elizabethan images—do not up-date.

Indeed, some of the actors have to work hard to articulate the speeches, let along give them a strong sense of satiric character.

To update a raw—but wealthy—Elizabethan Roaring Boy from the country to a boisterous Hip-hop teenager is amusing, but the problems begin with what he has to say and do regarding his rich widowed younger sister.

And impersonating a dashing Puerto Rican—or Latin—Lover, to catch the con-artists at their own game would work, did not Jonson require this character to wear a period disguise, complete with ruff!

What really saves the day for Jonson, the play, and the audience are the antic performances of Jeremy Shamos as Face and Dan Castellaneta as Subtle.

Invisible but lovable as Dad in "The Simpsons," Castellaneta is marvelous in a variety of guises, convincing a series of greedy idiots he can see into the future, guarantee luck & fortune, and turn lead into gold.

Edelstein could have presented him as a modern Dot.Com stock-broker!

Roger Rees' One-Armed "Arms and the Man" [***]

"ARMS AND THE MAN"—Bulgarian Passion. Photo: ©Joan Marcus.
The relative roughness of Bulgarian life in the late 1880s suggests itself in the bumptiousness of the current revival at the Roundabout's 23rd Street venue.

Bulgarians had endured Turkish rule for some 500 years, freeing their enslaved nation only in 1878. So the men were unaccustomed to taking charge, and the women were somewhat unsophisticated.

Shaw capitalized on what the English thought they understood about this state of affairs, having a good laugh at the Bulgarians' expense. One of his visual jokes backfired, however.

The lovely Raina Petkoff and her mother make much of their Library, the largest in Bulgaria. Shaw indicated that it should consist of a few books on a wall-shelf.

This got a hearty laugh—it still does—but the Bulgarian Ambassador felt compelled to lodge a protest with Her Majesty's Foreign Office. Bulgarian libraries, even in private homes, had more than merely a handful of books.

Roger Rees, of "Nicholas Nickelby" fame, has staged the show broadly enough. But some of the subtleties get lost in the shuffle.

Katie Finneran, as Raina, and Robin Weigert, as Louka, are very pert and attractive as the two maidens zeroing in on a mate. Louka, confident she can rise above her station, knows how to manipulate men to her advantage.

Raina, the Romantic, has to have a sudden, shocking brush with reality to recognize what she really wants and needs in a husband.

The eventual—and Shavianly logical couplings—would be more convincing, even more amusing, if Henry Czerny, as the Swiss mercenary officer, Bluntschli, and Paul Michael Valley, as Sergius, had more charisma.

Neil Patel's ovoid surround for the various scenes has a map of Bulgaria with place-names printed in Latin letters. This must be a special service for audience recognition, for they would be in Cyrillic in Bulgaria.

John Patrick's "Teahouse of the August Moon" [**]

How very naive and uncomplicated we must have been way back when. I can remember being charmed by Burgess Meredith as Sakini, when the road-show of "Teahouse of the August Moon" came to San Francisco in 1954.

It was really cute to see the well-intentioned American Occupation Officers trying earnestly to help the Okinawan natives learn about Democracy and become economically self-supporting.

And, of course, the unwillingness of most of the natives to abandon age-old customs for new and alien ways was both a source of dramatic conflict and comedy. With the wily Sakini as a middle-man.

This slight but very successful play—adapted from a popular novel by Vern Sneider—passed through most of the usual permutations: from page to stage to screen—in 1956. And then it was made into a Broadway musical in 1970: "Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen."

This did not quite have the resonance of the play—or perhaps Americans had matured a bit? But it did not prosper. Its Sakini, Kenneth Nelson, went to London to continue his career.

Recently, the Pan Asian Repertory—in its new home at the Jewish Repertory on East 91st Street—revived the play, with Ernest Abuba as a very engaging Sakini.

Everyone worked very hard on this production. But it may have been the move to the new, unfamiliar theatre that made it look a bit improvised. Some of the Okinawan villagers unfortunately seemed to think they were doing community theatre.

The Pan Asian Rep has an excellent record of introducing New York to new plays that would otherwise not be shown here. And of presenting them in a very professional way.

Their production of Noël Coward's "Private Lives," for example, was an admirable exercise in style, both in the performances and in the charming Art Deco set.

Not having seen—or even thought about—John Patrick's "Teahouse of the August Moon"—for almost half a century, I was a bit embarrassed that I had such fond, if dim, memories of it in San Francisco.

Seeing it on stage in the Pan Asian Rep production, I finally realized how naive and stereotypical its attitudes, situations, and characters are.

American theatre audiences—it's to be hoped—have come a long way since the 1950s, in awareness of other peoples and cultures—not to forget those who are ardently Politically Correct.

The British critic, Kenneth Tynan, periodically excoriated Rodgers & Hammerstein for what he considered their patronizing, simplistic, and uninformed portrayals of Asians and Asian Cultures in their musicals. He was especially sharp—and amusing—in reviewing "Flower Drum Song."

But he also had reservations about "South Pacific" and "The King and I." The latter narrative is still causing trouble. Even without the sensibilities of Rodgers & Hammerstein and their music.

Recently, the Kingdom of Thailand banned the Jodie Foster movie, based on Anna Leonowens' original book and Margaret Landon's retelling of Anna's adventures in Siam. The King—or his vigilant Ministers—insisted the film was not accurate or truthful.

So why did Artistic Director Tisa Chang decide to reopen this definitely dated "Teahouse"?

Possibly because she, as a performer, has very fond memories of the story. She was in the musical version!

Irish Fantasy Melodramas Old & New—

Dion Boucicault's "Arrah-na-Pogue" [***]

"ARRAGH-NA-POGUE"—Irish lasses in bad times under the British. Photo: ©Kyra Kverno.
The Irish playwright, Dion Boucicault, was one of the most popular and prolific of 19th century melodramatists. He had successes in Dublin, London, Paris, and ultimately, New York City, where he became an admired actor, director, and author.

One of his most successful dramas, "London Assurance," is still frequently revived. It is wonderfully in the tradition of the social comedies of Sheridan and Congreve.

He also wrote a very serviceable play which changed its title in different cities. The Poor of London or Paris could just as easily be refitted as the Poor of New York.

But New York also had a large Irish emigrant theatre-public who thronged to plays about the land they left behind them. And about the reasons why they left: The Famine and The British. One of these devised by Boucicault was: "The Colleen Bawn."

Recently, Charlene Moore staged a charming revival of another—Boucicault's "Conn, the Shaugraun"—at the Irish Rep. Even more recently, his "Arragh-na-Pogue" has been lovingly revived by a large—and largely Irish—cast at the Studio Theatre.

There are comedy and rascality galore in both melodramas. And dangerous situations, which pit native Irish against the colonizing English, as well.

"Arrah-of-the-Kiss," as the Celtic title translates, is far more serious, because a simple peasant lad is willing to die at the hands of the British, rather than betray the Chieftain of his Sett or Clan.

He and his bride—who concealed the fugitive leader—are saved at the very last minute by the brave action of the Chief giving himself up to the British Commander.

Complete with haunting and lilting traditional Irish songs—and a lot of vigorous step-dancing—this show really had more to offer than "Riverdance," which doesn't have a book by Dion Boucicault.

The Riverdancers, of course, are thoroughly professional and commercial. Which these players are not, though some are Equity members.

But their joy and energy in bringing this neglected Irish drama back to life was so infectious that even spectators of English descent could be delighted and entertained.

Traveling Light's "Tir Na n'Og" [*****]

"TIR NA n'OG"—Ally and her brother ride the magic horse. Photo: ©Ted Giffords.
Much more professional and polished is the ensemble production of "Tir Na n'Og," performed by three actors and two musicians of Bristol's Traveling Light Theatre.

This was all too briefly on view at the New Victory on the 42nd Street Theatre-Block. The New Victory specializes in shows which will appeal primarily to kids, but also speak to their parents as well.

Unfortunately, the engagements are often limited to a matter of days or weeks. The British production of "Shock-Headed Peter," shown last fall, was so outstanding and innovative that it would win the Tony Award hands down, if it were only being played in a long-run.

This stunning and quaintly bizarre production is finishing the subscription season of San Francisco's ACT, or American Conservatory Theatre. It should be brought back to New York immediately after!

And when they complete their current American tour, the Traveling Light troupe should also return for a much longer stay. With "Tir Na n'Og," their wonderfully rich evocation of a modern Irish fairytale about Death, Loss, Despair, and Rebirth.

All the characters are played by Cerianne Roberts, David Annen, and Craig Edwards. The set is only a few scaffold-pipes bolted together. The script—which requires various characters to narrate transitions between lively and lyrical action-scenes—is in the tradition of Story Theatre.

But the highly charged and deeply moving performances of this super-talented trio go far beyond the customary cuteness of most Story Theatre shows.

As I watched—transfixed both by the tragi-comic tale and the energy and delight of the actors in retelling it—my guest exclaimed: "This was a movie! I saw it! I remember it now!"

At the close of the show—with a bittersweet happy-ending—my guest decided that this version was every bit as good as the film, "Into the West." But different, because different dramatic means were used to tell the tale.

Director Greg Banks adapted Jim Sheridan's filmscript and wisely made no attempt to evoke the actual urban, rural, and seacoast locales of the motion-picture.

Briefly, young Ally's mother has died in childbirth. When the amazing horse, Tir Na n'Og—whom Ally and her older brother Finn have tried to keep in a high-rise welfare-apartment—leads Ally to her mother's grave, the girl is puzzled to find that the death-day on the tombstone is the same as her birthday.

The horse, of course, is really Ally's mother, come back from the mysterious land under the sea off the western coast of Ireland, because Ally so longs to see the mother she has never known.

Ally's alcoholic Dad was a Traveler and a tinker—one of the Irish gypsies—but he had no heart for life in a caravan when his Mary died. So he settled in the Dublin suburbs and began to drink. And neglect his two kids.

Unfortunately for Ally, her fierce longing to see her mother nearly brings about her own death, as her mysterious horse leaps into the sea with her.

This show is, in that sense, a real cliff-hanger. And both kids and adults were on the edges of their seats during the performance. At the close, they were on their feet in noisy ovations.

Bring back this wonderful show!


Two intriguing new productions should have extended runs at theatres near each other. Or be promoted with dual ticketing, because they both evoke the image and special genius of Mae West.

"SEX"—A Play by Mae West [****]

Those who know about Mae West's astonishing film-career may have heard that she also wrote and starred in plays back in New York before she conquered Hollywood.

That's very true, but West was interested in showing the theatre-public what the seamier side of life was really like. Polite Social Comedy was not her forte: "Is that your pistol in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?"

For Mae West, marrying for money and preserving the social facade of a gracious lady did not really make Mrs. Gotrocks all that different from show-girls, gold-diggers, or street-walkers.

The hypocrisy of Society—concerning sexual desires and kinks, as well as who "belonged" and who did not—was something Mae West was able to expose with both songs and scenes—and a lot of low comedy.

The recent small-scale but big-hearted revival of "Sex" not only lets modern audiences see and hear what appalled the City's vigilant Moral Censors way back in 1926, but it also puts the performance in the context of that time and the trial which sent Mae West to jail.

Given the recent moralist fulminations of the Mayor about "obscene" art-exhibitions—and other offenses against Decency and Religion—this production has a special resonance.

It has been performed—and extended several times—on a tiny stage in a tiny room of the Gershwin Hotel on East 27th Street. This is not the Gershwin Theatre or Condos. It is a functioning hotel with an extremely funky lobby decor.

The ingenious concept of the production—and the charm and energy of the players—have made this one of he more enjoyable theatre-evenings of the season.

Carolyn Baeumler, in West's starring role, is a vampish delight. But the entire cast, each in his or her own style, is great fun to watch.

Now perhaps someone will revive Mae West's "Pleasure Man," in which she put limp-wristed, simpering Drag-Queens on stage? This play was even more offensive, for obvious reasons.

Even more transgressive of Moral Values back in the Jazz Age was Mae's drama "Drag." She just wouldn't give up in her attempts to confront theatre-goers with real truths about how some theatre-folk lived—not to mention some of the formally-dressed "Stage-Door Johnnies" in the audience.

Just before the Age of the Great Depression, in the era of Flappers and the Charleston, New York City passed the Wales Padlock Law to close down theatres purveying immorality and smut.

Mayor Giulilani might want to check if this law is still on the books? He could extend it to museums as well. How about a big fat Padlock on the Brooklyn Museum of Art?

Over a decade ago, the trio of talents who run Glasgow's Citizens' Theatre asked me to get them a copy of "Sex." They wanted to produce it as part of their brilliantly eclectic repertory.

Over a decade ago, the trio of talents who run Glasgow's Citizens' Theatre asked me to get them a copy of "Sex." They wanted to produce it as part of their brilliantly eclectic repertory.

I found it impossible to get a copy of the script. Nor were performance rights available.

When I was advising Dr. Richard Helfer on his CUNY PhD Dissertation research—for a study of West and her banned plays—we found it impossible even to quote lines from the plays.

The Mae West Estate must have had a recent change of heart.

Claudia Shear in "Dirty Blonde" [****]

"DIRTY BLONDE"—Claudia Shear IS Mae West. Photo: ©Joan Marcus.
Ms. Shear had quite a success Off-Broadway with her autobiographical monologue, "Blown Sideways Through Life."

Critics who admired her talent and her spirit wondered what she could do to top that. It has been a bit of a wait, but well worth it.

"Dirty Blonde," the entertainment she and director James Lapine have devised, has a kind of Siamese-Connection with the current production of "Sex." Not that the New York Theatre Workshop—Shear & Lapine's producer—has anything to do with the Gershwin Hotel or that show.

Shear's play, however, is all about Mae West, her plays, her songs, her films, her wigs & gowns, her acting-style, and her troubles with censors.

Shear's dramatic induction ingeniously brings two rather forlorn, lonely fans—Jo & Charlie—to the cemetery to pay their respects. They've never met before, but West proves a bond for them.

Kevin Chamberlain, as the fact-filled film-librarian, Charlie, tells Jo about a trip to Hollywood as a teenager, standing outside West's hotel, desperately hoping for her to appear and give him her autograph.

He's invited to Come Up and see her, not once, but a number of times.

Eventually, West asks him to put on one of her fabulous Schiaparelli gowns, a flowing blonde wig, and a big wide-brimmed hat.

West wants to give her many fans on the Homes of the Stars tour-buses a real treat. Charlie will stand in the shadow of the hedge and wave.

Bob Stillman plays the piano and other characters in Mae's life—including one of her favorite gays who goes with her to Hollywood to help her maintain the Goddess Image.

Musicals Old & New:

Is the distinctive American Musical already dead—or only dying a slow death? I don't get reviewer-tickets for the City Center "Encores," so I cannot tell you how wonderful these may be.

But a few performances of old musicals isn't exactly a revival. Despite the worldwide success of the Encores mounting of "Chicago"—which profited from the bare-bones, quasi-concert staging—no other revival has made such a triumphant transfer.

Where are the new Cole Porters, the Jerome Kerns, even the Irving Berlins? The Lerners & Loewes, the Rodgers & Hammersteins?

Where is Charlie Strouse? Kander & Ebb?

Is it too early to bring back "Steel Pier"?

Stephen Sondheim is supposedly waiting-in-the-wings. But if I have to wait as long as I did after the opening of "Swing," you may be reading about the new Wagner Ring in July in Bayreuth in this column first.

I did not get to see "Putting It Together" at all, as there were apparently no more press-tickets. So, alas, I cannot nominate it for an Outer Critics Circle Award.

As for "Contact," the Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center was just too small to accommodate all those reviewers who wanted to see the show. It is moving to the Beaumont soon, however, to fill the void left by "Marie Christine."

Bookless, Clueless "Swing" [***]

I finally got press-tickets for "Swing," at the St. James, on a Tuesday evening. Spectators seemed a bit sparse at first—hardly unusual on the first performance-day of a new week.

By curtain-time, however, every seat was filled. Some were even over-filled: fat people in fat winter coats.

The audience loved every minute of this anthology of popular songs of the heyday of Swing. I must be totally out of the loop for I did not recognize one of the names of the featured performers: Everett Bradley, Laura Benanti, or Ann Hampton Callaway.

Not that they weren't just great. They were indeed, as were the supporting singer/dancers and the band—the Gotham City Gates.

Thomas Lynch's set evoked a shabby hotel-ballroom—a bit less trashy than that where "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" is playing. Fortunately, at the close, when it was time to do some Stompin' at the Savoy, the side-wings revolved to create a dazzling Art Deco dance-palace.

Other scenes were simply set with symbolic-props flown overhead. A USO banner and some WAC costumes—along with sailors and soldiers—set the stage for World War II.

Ever on the watch for neglect of Political Correctness, I was disappointed that there had been no Asian performers up to that point. Nor were there any at the USO.

When they appeared in the following sets, I realized how Historically Correct production-supervisor Jerry Zaks and director-choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett have been.

Of course there were no Orientals in the USO during World War II!

We were Remembering Pearl Harbor. And fighting the Japs to the death on Bataan, Guam, Eniwetok, and Okinawa!

The Chinese and the Koreans—as well as the Filipinos and most other Asians—were under brutal Japanese Occupation.

Periodically, both the performers and the band-members changed costumes to suggest the passage of time, changes of venue, and the shifting sands of taste in popular costume.

For a Country-and-Western segment, a large Texaco sign—with some rusty bullet-holes—descended from the flies.

These sum up the production values. The songs are performed and danced with enthusiasm and even athleticism.

But this is finally only a glitzy concert, an anthology of pop-song nostalgia from the great era when Swing Was King.

For such a show, a book—or even a narrative—is considered unnecessary. Such cost-cutting methods will surely be the death-knell of real musicals on Broadway.

At least "Smokey Joe's Cafe"—which is also an anthology—has mini-dramas created out of many of its songs.

Such scenarios are not necessarily obvious in most popular lyrics. But clever singers and ingenious directors & choreographers can make something quite wonderful out of such elemental sentiments as: I Love You, I Love You, I Love You.

Or "Don't Sit Under the Appletree."

The closest we came to something like that was "Cry Me a River," with a "talking-trombone" stepping out from the band, answering the plaintive wails of an abandoned lady.

Boogie-Woogie on bungee-cords was amusing to watch, but that's a long way off from "Sweeney Todd" or "Lion King."

LaMaMa's Yiddish-English
"Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln" [****]

Here's a highly original work of Music Theatre. With lyrics in both English and Yiddish already!

Among the songs—with music & lyrics by Adrienne Cooper & Frank London—are such set-pieces as "The Ballad of How the Jews Got to Europe" and "Glückel's Ballad of Mother Love."

Then there's a curiosity attributed to a notorious Medieval Anti-Semite: "Martin Luther's Love Song to the Jews." Cooper's lyrics in that song may be shocking to some, but they represent vicious and bizarre beliefs about Jews held by both Protestants and Catholics in that ignorant age.

Initially, when Luther was beginning his campaign of Reform of a corrupted Roman Catholic Church—he didn't start out to be a Protestant—he spoke kindly of the persecuted Jews.

But when they rejected his offers of Conversion and Salvation, he turned on them with fury and invective. But then, this is the man who threw an ink-pot at the Devil!

Using the Bread & Puppet Theatre image-style in set-props and costumes, Jenny Romaine has created some very strong stage-pictures.

Although the songs are inspired by a variety of historical and modern modes and influences, the effect in performance is rather like a Brecht-Weill collaboration in service of education through entertainment.

Glückel was a real person, born 1648, during the Thirty Years War. So she was still a girl when Mother Courage was dragging her goods-wagon around the battle-fields and trying to protect her children.

Married at 14, she bore 12 children before she was widowed at 44. She was not a Rothschild, but she was able to marry her children off so that there were branches of the family in various major trade cities.

In an age when women—including Jewish women—were not supposed to be educated, Glückel proved herself intelligent and clever. She paid off ruinous debts incurred by her husband and went on to prosper in business.

Her Memoir was written for the benefit of her children and grand-children, but now it is an important record of family and economic life in an age when few women were diarists of the spirit and insight of Glückel.

Her story, and that of her family, is told in a performance-mode of her times: That of the Bänkelsang, in which a singer mounted a bench before a cloth with illustrations on it. These were explained, interpreted, in dialogue or in ballads.

This is a show which should have a real run, if not at LaMaMa Annex, where it now is, but in an Off-Broadway theatre. It is also designed so that it can tour easily. Just as the Bench-Singer four centuries ago could roll up the picture-cloth, pick up the bench, and move on to the next street, town-square, or county-fair.

First, F. Scott Fitzgerald—Next, Sean O'Casey—

After "The Great Gatsby" Opera,
Now "The Silver Tassie" Sings!

This is just a headline teaser for a Coming Event. I'm off to London for the World Premiere of a new opera composed by Mark-Anthony Turnage. It's based on Sean O'Casey's bitter drama of Post World War I disillusionment, "The Silver Tassie."

Amanda Holden has adapted the play for the English National Opera. Director Bill Bryden is staging the new work for ENO. It has been designed by William Dudley, whose British warship set for the Met's "Billy Budd" continues to astound.

Other Entertainments:

Richard Foreman's "Bad Boy Nietzsche" [***]

"BAD BOY NEITZSCHE"—Gary Wilmes & Juliana Francis in Ontological-Hysterial Theatre Mode. Photo: ©Paula Court.
No New York Alternative-Theatre season would be complete without the annual inauguration of a Richard Foreman Ontological-Hysterical production down at St. Marks-in-the-Bouwerie.

Well, actually upstairs, in the back, in what used to be Theatre Genesis. Down in the churchyard, the ghosts of Peter Stuyvesant and other founding worthies still linger.

For the Millennium Year, Foreman has for the first time used a real historical personage as his inspiration and dramatic fulcrum. Not the Dutch Governor of New Amsterdam, however. That may be a future treat.

No, Friedrich Nietzsche is his lodestone. If you do not already know about Nietzsche's life and work, this frenetic production won't reveal much to you. Breaking with the composer Richard Wagner—whose works he initially admired—is not explored here.

Nor is Nietzsche's great treatise on drama, "The Birth of Tragedy," considered.

Instead, Foreman has been inspired by a brief incident in Turin, where Nietzsche saw a horse being whipped. It is suggested that this triggered his descent into madness.

In the program, Foreman includes some curious quotes from Nietzsche. These indicate that he was already grappling with inner demons and insoluble philosophical conundrums before he saw that Turin Whip in action.

Foreman knows only too well that Bad Boys must be punished.

Foreman's obsessive visual art has its own kind of madness—and method in its madness. There are two horse-head effigies which are tossed about and caressed.

Nietzsche cries out for his "Chinese Horse." Foreman explains that he has, in this play, fantasized about walking upside down in China.

Two immense legs are shown walking in a kind of shooting-gallery, with a large phallic fish moving up and down between them.

An ocean-liner sinks. Young ladies appear with breasts naked, their nipples rouged. Nietzsche is periodically admonished, scolded even, by a small boyish man in short-pants—who a century later could have been a Hitler Youth.

The customary Foreman masks and stray alphabet letters adorn various surfaces. Nature abhors a vacuum, but Foreman hates a blank space. Every surface boasts some form of decoration.

But I promised myself that this year I was not again going to describe what I saw. Certain images are typical of Foreman's vision every season.

You really have to see for yourself. Anyone who is interested in avant-garde adventures in theatre—but who has not yet seen a Foreman production—has missed something unique and important, if not entirely explicable.

As for Foreman's Nietzsche dialogue—some of which was certainly directly inspired by fragments from the philosopher's writings—Foreman notes that he constantly scribbles fragments of speeches in his notebooks, later adapting some for his public exhibitions of his Private World.

Now he has posted some 15 years of his notebooks on-line. He is providing their contents, royalty-free, as "raw material for plays." Check out: www.ontological.com

It may seem limiting for other playwrights to use the concepts, musings, visions, images, nightmares, and verbal formulations of one individual—a highly individual Individual.

But Foreman's actors have been doing it for years. No one is encouraged to hunt for subtexts or Build a Character in the manner of a Stanislavski actor.

Foreman's performers are his flesh-and-blood puppets.

Schumann's "The Need Cantata" [*]

GIANTS ON PARADE—Bread & Puppet Theatre take to the fields. Photo: ©Ron Simon.
Peter Schumann's visible performers are largely large facial and body masks, animated by devoted young acolytes. Sometimes a real person is glimpsed. But—as seen in the current rituals of "The Need Cantata & Insurrection Mass and Funeral Marches for Rotten Ideas"—their movement seems rather ragged and characterless.

Where Richard Foreman's productions are structured, designed, and rehearsed within an inch of their artistic lives, those of Peter Schumann's Bread & Puppet Theatre seem haphazard, almost impromptu. In recent visits to New York, they have certainly appeared off-hand and under-rehearsed.

But Schumann's youngsters, like Foreman's, are dedicated, obviously following the outlines of his scenarios and moving his masks and papier-maché moldings of large figures more or less on cue to his promptings.

From their founding in 1962 on the Lower East Side, the Bread & Puppeteers have established a strong visual style. This is primarily owing to Schumann's very powerful bold black-line drawings for programs, posters, banners, masks, curtains, and set-props.

I have loved and collected Schumann's vividly colored wood or lino-block fabric prints over the years. Right now, I'm looking at St, Joan's Horse on its way to Heaven and a field of Babushkas raking among Great Yellow Stars. In the kitchen is Schumann's BREAD —with the heads of some stalks of wheat. And another print of a big bold Teapot on a red ground! His art is eminently collectible. And these fabric-prints and posters used to cost only a few dollars!

The new show is a double-bill, with the Cantata dealing with the Seven Basic Needs. Among these are the Need to Be Good and the Need to Be Bad. If you thought the major needs were Food, Shelter, etc., how wrong you were!

This work involves two "populations," one of cardboard, the other of papier-maché. One group is naked, the other formally dressed. Among the mysterious figures which shuffle around an empty space in The Theatre for the New City are a Woman, Her Mother, a Bison—in a 3-D body-mask, and a Demon.

Above this dimly lit assemblage are two papier-maché legs. These are made to "walk" with cables controlled from one side of the arena by the highly visible Schumann. His hair is rumpled over his eyes and his clothes look like everyday wear out in the barn in Glover, Vermont, where the B&P has long been at home.

As a creator, producer, and performer, Schumann seems completely oblivious to his appearance and to the visual effect of his somewhat bumbling way of "conducting" his show. He's a kind of narrator, stage-manager, MC, and Circus Ringmaster—but without the top-hat, red coat, and whip.

As a longtime foe of Capitalism, whips are the last thing Schumann would use on his co-workers. Although he and his productions, over the years, have always been against Materialism, Selfishness, Greed, Power, Fascism, Repression, Cruelty, and Evil, he seldom has seemed to be propagandizing for Socialism.

That would require some organization and program. The Bread & Puppet Theatre is more about personal and public Anarchy in spirit. That may well be why the current production—and the one previously at New City—seems so sloppy and unfocused.

For the record: "The Insurrection Mass is a nonreligious service in the presence of some Gods. The Rotten Idea which gets explained and buried is usually derived from some recent political-economical event or idea which deserves burial. This Mass comes complete with secular scripture-readings, a fiddle-sermon, and hymns."

The Rotten Idea buried the night I saw the show was, according to Schumann: "Tickling people to make them obedient."

Is this what Schumann means by the Need to Be Bad? Or does that refer to this production?

Schumann actually devises some unusual musical instruments. But he can make an ordinary fiddle or trumpet sound quite unusual as well. What's more—as he now demonstrates at New City—he can blow two trumpets at the same time.

Anyone who wants to work with Schumann and his sober puppeteers—they really looked gloomy, moving mechanically through the show—can do so on the B&P farm in Vermont's "Northeast Kingdom."

Peter Schumann emphasizes: "We are not a school. We do not conduct classes in different styles of puppetry… Whatever you want to learn about puppetry, you pick up from being engaged in different aspects of Bread & Puppet show production…"

These are characterized by Schumann as: "…compositions of sculpture and junk and music and noise in the service of a compelling political and philosophical theme."

Unfortunately these themes are not nearly so compelling as they were in the 1960s and 1970s. There was much more drama, outrage, and joy in the performances then. Even the graphics Schumann designed had a raw power and clarity which seems to have drained from recent imagery.

Perhaps the Fall of the Berlin Wall has robbed Schumann's messages of some of their previous urgency? Social Protests may be violent—even on stage—but they should never be unfocused, de-energized, or casual. [Loney]

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Copyright © Glenn Loney 2000. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: jslaff@nytheatre-wire.com.

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