| go to lobby page | more reviews | go to other departments |



By Glenn Loney

SEVEN AGAINST THEBES -- Scott Patton, Gian Marco Lo Forte, Christopher Zorker (Jonathan Slaff photo).
See: Ellen Stewart's Epic "Seven Against Thebes."
[01] Classics Rediscovered at BAM & La MaMa
[02] Peter Brook's New "Hamlet"
[03] Ellen Stewart's Epic "Seven Against Thebes"
[04] José Montalvo's Zany Parisian "Jardin" at BAM
[05] Old Folks Far Away From Home in "Lackawanna Blues"
[06] York Theatre's "IT Girl"
[07] Louisville's Humana Festival 2001
[08] Kopit's Ten-Minute Cop-Out
[09] Jane Martin's "Flaming Guns"
[10] Havana Revisited with Eduardo Machado
[11] SITI & Mee: "Bobrauschenbergamerica"
[12] Serial-Boyfriend-Killer in "Quake"
[13] Snappy Dresser: "Wonderful World"
[14] "Whiteness" & Mac Wellman
[15] Transcendental Michael Roth

You can use your browser's "find" function to skip to articles on any of these topics instead of scrolling down. Click the "FIND" button or drop down the "EDIT" menu and choose "FIND."


Brilliance at BAM & at La MaMa!

What a splendid close to an already astonishing and rewarding New York Theatre Season! Two of the most imaginative and important people working in Avant-Garde Theatre—Peter Brook and Ellen Stewart—have just given New Yorkers the gift of impressive, innovative, and deeply-moving productions of Classics of Western Culture.

Both these fascinating stagings, however, were all too briefly on view. Brook's revision of Shakespeare's Hamlet is on tour.

Stewart's Seven Against Thebes certainly ought to be more widely seen. A European tour for this summer is in formation, as I understand. But touring—especially to those theatre-centers abroad, where Ellen Stewart is almost revered—costs a lot of money.

What culturally-oriented Foundation—or National Agency for Cultural Exchange—will fund this potential tour?

From Paris' Bouffes du Nord to BAM:

Peter Brook's New/Old Vision of HAMLET

HAVE I GOT YOUR ATTENTION?--A tense moment in Peter Brook's "Tragedy of Hamlet," with Adrian Lester as the Danish Prince. Photo: ©P. Victor/2001.
Something astounding happened to me as I perched on BAM's very uncomfortable seating, watching Peter Brook's revision of the Bard's most famous drama, Hamlet.

Can it be—now I am a Senior Citizen-plus—that I am finally Losing It? Losing my Grip, as it were? Losing the Established Cynicism of the Long-time Drama Critic?

After the audience filed out of BAM's Harvey Theatre—deliberately savaged, to resemble Peter Brook's famed Paris venue, the Bouffes du Nord—on the way home I asked myself those questions rhetorically, over and over. As you can see, I am still doing it.

As I watched the open stage, with its bold orange square of carpet, I caught my breath again and again. I had the distinct impression that this was the First Time I was seeing Hamlet, the man, the prince, the enigma, endure & agonize through to the end of his—and Humanity's—essential tragedy.

Much has been written by critics & theorists about the Illusion of the First Time in the theatre. With some powerful new dramas, I have on occasion experienced this sensation.

But—even with greatly gifted actors—I have never had this feeling while watching productions of drama classics. Nor did I expect to experience it in BAM's former Majestic Theatre, with its formidably torturous seating.

Nonetheless, it happened repeatedly, from moment to moment, when Adrian Lester, as the doomed young prince, really seemed to be living an unfolding horror for the very first time.

Hamlet listened—really listened—in astonishment or disgust, reacting either instinctively or with careful calculation. And those about him were equally responsive & reactive. No one seemed to be waiting for his or her turn to speak.

Everything happening on stage seemed of the utmost importance and urgency—as indeed it has always been for these unfortunate characters over the centuries.

Although I have seen more productions of Hamlet than most people—some notable ones now part of Theatre History—Peter Brook's new vision of the drama was, for me, as the First Time.

The possible reasons for this sensation are complex, but, most importantly, concern the Belief & Concentration of Brook's actors in Being & Experiencing.

Although the drama unfolds in the simplified—but somewhat ritualistic—basic framework of Brook's famous "Carpet-Plays," with a few pillows, boxes, and shawls to suggest locales and furnishings, the terrible events involving these Danish Majesties proved immediate and painfully real.

"THE MOUSETRAP" in Peter Brook's "Carpet Play" Version of "Hamlet." Photo: ©P. Victor/2001.
Some critics—and some Bardolators in the audience—were audibly outraged that Brook had reduced a four-hour-plus High Drama to a mere two-hours-plus. But this deliberate verbal diet actually increased the power & impact of the drama, as well as the effect of the subtleties of Shakespeare's now all-too-famous phrases.

As with his stripped-down dramatic version of Prosper Mérimée's Carmen—Brook brought his Hamlet-text Back to Basics. To Essentials. Scenes were shortened, simplified, even elided.

Unlike Carmen, Brook didn't have to strip away a Bizet Score—or a plethora of operatic traditions—to lay bare the essentials of the characters and the action. With Carmen, he returned to Mérimée's original novella, instead of merely reworking the opera-libretto. And he renamed this The Tragedy of Carmen.

Similarly, Brook's lean & mean drama is now The Tragedy of Hamlet.

In this new production, only Hamlet & Horatio were discovered on the battlements. The soldiers of the Night Watch, Francisco & Bernardo, were otherwise employed—perhaps in another theatre in another production?

Brook's ensemble of eight able actors were unencumbered by elaborate settings, ornate costumes, or fussy props in telling their story.

For that is exactly what Peter Brook has been doing on stage with his carpets and pillows: Telling a Story.

Whether the audience is sitting in a public space in an African village. Or shifting on the seats at the Harvey… It is all about story-telling through drama, through recreating, re-imagining, reliving.

As is customary now, Jeffery Kissoon was both Ghost & Claudius. But double-casting Laertes & Guildenstern—with Rohan Siva—must be a First. Brook's longtime colleague, Bruce Myers, was two entirely different men as Polonius & the Gravedigger. Naseeruddin Shah also doubled as Rosencrantz & First Player.

Natasha Parry—Mrs. Brook—was very real as Gertrude, and Shantala Shivalingappa was heart-breaking as Ophelia.

The deep bond between Horatio—sensitively embodied by Scott Handy—and Hamlet could be seen to deepen as the action progressed, from horror to horror. In these liberated times of Gay Sensitivity, it was interesting to see a true friendship between men in action, without any physical or emotional overtones of sexual longing.

In the tumultuous Sixties—after Rites of Passage through his Theatre of Cruelty & Theatre of Blood phases at the Royal Shakespeare Company—Brook discovered the importance of stripping away the theatricality of the dramatic-event, to take it back to its human essentials.

His innovative Midsummer Night's Dream production for the RSC was a notable invocation of an essential comedy of human emotional confusions in an Empty Space. An Empty WHITE-BOX Space, as created by designer Sally Jacobs

With Brook's move from Stratford & London to Paris, his experiments with stripping away trivia and trimmings continued with increased concentration and with his development of an international ensemble.

I was fortunate to see the final rehearsal at the pre-Bouffes Gobelins venue of his Conference of the Birds, just before it departed on an American tour. To play to Sioux Indians & Chicano farm-workers, among other alternative audiences.

[At that time, I had brought my manuscript of the Official RSC Production Book of Peter Brook's Midsummer Night's Dream to Paris for Brook's approval. It was soon issued by Dramatic Publishers. And followed by my similar production-book for the Young Vic/Frank Dunlop/Jim Dale Scapino.]

Brook had turned his back on his prior successes in the theatres of the West End & Broadway. Although his innovative new productions drew theatre-addicts to the shabby Bouffes du Nord—and notable ones toured widely—Brook never again courted commercial success.

When he brought new theatre-pieces to New York, they customarily played deliberately short runs at BAM, or even in Ellen Stewart's La MaMa Theatre Annex.

On one memorable occasion—for which I wrote the cover-story for Opera News—Brook intended to offer his Tragedy of Carmen in the old New Amsterdam Roof-Theatre, even as the great theatre below was being restored—eventually to become the Home of Lion Kings.

In the event, it was discovered the flooring could not support the weight of potential audiences. So this virtual carpet-show was shown on the stage of Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre instead.

But Brook's magisterial—and eloquently simple—evocation of the great Hindu Epic, The Mahabharata, was shown at BAM's savaged Majestic when it came to New York.

It's worth noting that this impressive & historic production—although it was a centerpiece of Glasgow's cultural events in its year as European Culture City—never was shown in London.

Is Somebody Important punishing Brook for taking his talent off to Paris?

His old RSC co-director, Sir Peter Hall, has long ago been knighted. Isn't it time for Sir Peter Brook? Or has he already refused such a potentially empty honor?

When Brook came to the CUNY Grad Center to talk to my seminar dealing with his career, I was empowered to offer him a Distinguished Professorship in Theatre.

After his lively interaction with a large student & faculty audience, I sounded him out on the proposal. His joking rejoinder: "Does this mean I'll have to have lunch with your professors?"

He did not accept the offer, but at least our seminar was able to make a book out of our explorations of his career prior to Paris. It's titled: PETER BROOK: Oxford To Orghast, published by Harwood Academic Publishers.

During the Transformative Era of the Sixties, Brook was inspired, not only by Jan Kott's influential Shakespeare Our Contemporary, but also by the concept of a return to theatre's origins in primitive rituals.

His revolutionary production of Seneca's virtually forgotten tragedy of Oedipus, shown at the Old Vic, was truly transformative. It ended with a Dixieland Jazz-Band serenading the audience and a Giant Golden Phallus on stage.

Working with an invented language—Avesta—devised by the late Poet-Laureate, Ted Hughes, Brook's Orghast at Persepolis immediately passed over into the Annals of Theatre. This was an experiment with the idea that the powers of drama & emotion can transcend the limitations of language-comprehension.

Anyone who has ever seen a powerful, imaginative production abroad—in a language completely incomprehensible—knows that this can indeed work, but only up to a point.

What can transcend language, borders, cultures, and centuries, however, is a certain fundamental mimetic Human Truth, almost universally recognizable.

There is also the concept of the Shaman—linked to primitive ritual and still surviving in some uncorrupted native cultures—which has been invoked in theatrical performances.

David Cole has written speculatively about the twinned concepts of Shaman & Ongan. One goes into a trance in order for his spirit to go to that mysterious Place Beyond, where the Ancestors exist eternally. He brings back their messages and wisdom. The Ongan sinks into a trance so that those Ancient Spirits can come into the Now—through possession of his bod—and speak directly to us.

Cole posits the interesting idea that—like the Ancestors of the World's Many Peoples—the Great Characters of Myth & Imagination, the Eternal Actors in Classic Fictions & Drama, also exist forever and unchangeable on this same Plane, or in this Dimension.

Over There, Hamlet is always procrastinating. Hedda is always frustrated. Oedipus is always sorry that he ever left his foster-home. Prometheus is always having his liver pecked at—and regretting that he gave Mankind those flames.

In the theatre—so goes the notion—on one of those absolutely inspired evenings, the eternal Hedda or Hamlet comes through and temporarily possesses the actress or actor.

Why not? The universality of great works of the imagination, after all, may reside in the fact that the poets, playwrights, and novelists have themselves been shamans and temporarily made contact with the Eternal Human Stereotypes.

Emerson may have had it right when he insisted, in The Oversoul, that "We are all as great poets as Shakespeare," if only we would surrender ourselves to the inspiration Out There in the Universal Soul or Mind…

Think about it: Hamlet & Hedda, beyond Space & Time! Are Brook & his dedicated actors tapping into the Oversoul?

Ellen Stewart's Impassioned Invocation
Of Greek PreHistory, Myth, & Legend:

Fight & Die Again at La MaMa

"Seven Against Thebes" (Jonathan Slaff photo)
The House of Atreus was not the only ancient Greek dynasty to suffer under a Fatal Curse. The Royal House of Thebes was equally doomed, but with rather different results.

La MaMa's Founder & Guiding Genius, the remarkable Ellen Stewart, has returned to the Sources of the story of that second accursed royal line, spawned by King Laius of Thebes. She has conceived a strongly ritualistic & thoroughly choreographed production—also handsomely costumed—which is essentially the second segment of the Theban Saga.

This mythic-dramatic metaphor demonstrates the disaster that is sure to follow when a Proud Man believes he can outwit Fate through his own Free Will.

Stewart's powerful production—much too briefly on view in the La MaMa Annex—opens with a Prologue, recapping her initial Part I Oedipal staging at La MaMa. This brief but elegant synopsis mimes the substance of Sopohocles' Oedipus Rex.

Mitsunari Sakamoto as Oedipus (Jonathan Slaff photo)
The Oracle of Delphi confirms what was long ago foretold: that Oedipus, the son of Laius & Jocasta, has in blind anger unknowingly killed his father and married his own mother.

Jocasta mimes hanging herself; then Oedipus blinds himself and is led away by King Theseus.

He leaves behind him in Thebes—under his Uncle Creon's regency—his four accursed children who, in his incest, are twice-related to him. His two sons, Eteocles & Polynices, contest for the Theban Crown. Eteocles is chosen.

Furious, Polynices and his friend, Tydeus, go to Argos to win King Adrastus' support in a campaign to win the throne for Polynices. The king complies, and the young but doomed heroes wed the king's daughters to seal the bond.

Final Exam Question: Why were there Seven Against Thebes? Why not more? Or less?

Tradition has it that Thebes was a great walled city with Seven Gates. To surround the city and conquer it, seven great warriors were required.

In the La MaMa production—created with the Great Jones Repertory Company—Stewart is fortunate in having some very athletic young men to do battle. Not only are they graceful in movement, but they are deadly serious, even breath-taking, in combat.

The strong sense of ritual Ellen Stewart has preserved in this detailed production extends even to the fabrication of such stage-props as the Gates of Thebes.

As each of Polynices' comrades approaches the Walls of Thebes, a servant brings in a simple wooden arch, to represent a Theban Gate.

After each champion's decisive defeat, the arch is removed. When another contender appears, the arch is again brought out for him to pass through. Most directors would have been eager to cut costs with only one such arch.

Not Ellen Stewart! As the audience filed out of the auditorium, they could see, over against a wall, not one, but SEVEN arches! Each actor in this almost religious ritual has his very own Portal: a Door to Death, as Fate would have it.

Nor were the seven combats repetitions of each other. Each had its distinctive qualities. One involved a warrior inside a great Wheel.

Stewart's cast chants, sings, and speaks rhythmically & nobly in Greek. The throbbing, haunting musical score is the creation of Elizabeth Swados—one of the early "La MaMa Babies"—and of Genji Ito & Michael Sirotta.

This incantory evocation of Greek recalls the initial La MaMa experiments with classic dramas by Andrei Serban long ago, in which Greek & Latin texts—rather than English translations—were used.

Serban & Stewart were then communicating powerful emotions and complex narratives to their audiences in Dead Languages even before Peter Brook got the idea. He may well have got it from them…

Classic Greek Drama has come a long way at La MaMa from its first mounting of Euripides' & Seneca's Medea's. I was there on that fateful first evening, when we filed downstairs into a dark candle-lit chamber in the basement. Along the wall were benches and blank white masks. Priscilla Smith's ritual rage as Medea threatened to ruin her voice forever.

Fortunately, it did not, and she continued in that hoarse, throaty mode through Serban's La MaMa Trilogy. The Medea, Elektra, & The Trojan Women toured the world, even as affiliated La MaMa's were being established in many theatre-centers abroad.

The Great Jones Rep ensemble is now 29 years old, though some of its members obviously aren't even that old yet.

But they have the talent, the physical strength & stamina, the serious focus, and the dedication to recall those great days of the Birth of Tragedy, some 2500 years ago, when ritually re-enacting the powerful stories of Oedipus, Electra, Agamemnon, & Antigone was a religious experience.

And also an unforgettable Warning to Greek audiences about the Wrath of the Gods and the Folly of Trying to Thwart Fate.

Seven Against Thebes closes with the mutual slaying of the two hot-headed brothers—as proudly angry as their unfortunate father, Oedipus.

Eteocles is royally buried, but Creon decrees the rebel Polynices shall have no rites, no grave, no respect, no mourning. His loving sister, Antigone, herself a passionately proud rebel, disobeys, strewing symbolic dust over his corpse, chanting his dirge.

And what about the sequel, known to modern audiences as Euripides' tragedy of Antigone? Well, Ellen Stewart explains that the continuation of the Curse is more complicated than is shown in that drama.

In its full ritual magnificence & horror, it will be Part III of Stewart's own Greek Trilogy. But first she has wants to ensure that Part II gets the wide exposure it so greatly deserves.

That will cost money, of course. And Part III will—judging by the handsome outfitting of the current production—cost even more. It will also require a great deal of planning, rehearsal-time, and concentration.

That the One & Only Original La MaMa, Ellen Stewart, can even consider the possibility of staging her own ritual Antigone in the future should give all theatre-people hope!

Many a much-admired New York Off-off-Broadway theatre-ensemble has burnt itself out after only a decade: Ten long, hard years of fighting for funding, battling wealthy but ignorant boards, begging for media-coverage, and desperately trying to fill its seats…

La MaMa has been doing all this for 40 years now, always with Hope & Faith that something wonderful can & will happen. Ellen Stewart still shows no signs of Theatre Fatigue. Nor does she seem at all interested in Retirement—or Passing on the Torch!

I've been blessed to be on hand for most of the major productions—from the very first. There have been more Theatre Epiphanies at La MaMa, way down on East 4th Street, than on most major stages in the world!

Peter Brook & Ellen Stewart long ago became Living Legends. Each season, they only add to their luster as adventurous innovators in the theatre. They have been, and remain, virtual Beacons of Hope, Fountains of Inspiration, to countless masses of theatre-people and to audiences worldwide.

I have also been reporting on their productions & achievements for 40 years, so it gives me hope as well that I still have some years left to savor theatre and to report on it.

They used to say that LIFE BEGINS AT FORTY. But that was because most people—old before their time in the Depression Era—really were worn out in their Forties.

Soon, looking at Brook and Stewart, we may be saying: LIFE BEGINS AT EIGHTY!

Back at BAM: Compagnie Montalvo-Hervieu—

Fun, Frolics, Cinemontages: Le Jardin io io ito ito

VIDEO & SHADOW-PLAY AT BAM--Montalvo's "Jardin" from Paris. Photo: ©Laurent Philippe/2001.
Last year, I saw Stones in His Pockets in London for a second time. Because I had already forgotten I'd seen it at the Edinburgh Festival months before. But I didn't regret seeing it again. In fact, I liked it so much I looked forward to my third exposure to the show on Broadway. I enjoyed it even more.

That also proved the case with José Montalvo's totally zany, delightful, and power-packed Jardin io io ito ito, shown too briefly—for only three performances—at BAM.

When I saw the first ostrich with human legs striding across the rear-projection screen upstage, it suddenly came to me: I SAW THESE WONDERFUL CRAZY DANCERS AT THE EDINBURGH FESTIVAL!

In the course of my summer-festival explorations, I often see a major opera, dance, or theatre production every night—and some matinées, as well. Yes, I take notes—and my reports are often more detailed than some web-scanners would like.

But one cannot remember so much, seen in such a short time. You can see it, but you cannot digest or assimilate it all. Or is this just a case of Too Much Too Soon?

What made the Montalvo-Hervieu ensemble's performance in Edinburgh less exciting, less memorable, than at BAM was its disastrous venue, the dreadfully dark and dooming Playhouse Theatre.

The BAM Opera House is also large, but it is not absolutely cavernous and echoing, as is Edinburgh's Playhouse—which seems to swallow up performers on its stage. The fact that the orchestra-seating is three flights—no elevators—down from street-level also creates the unpleasant effect of a Descent into Hades even before the show starts.

Fortunately, at BAM, the Howard Gilman Opera House seems just right for the company. And, judging from the rapturous reception the amazing dancers were accorded by the SRO audience, they should be invited back next season for a much longer engagement.

José Montalvo's Digital-Video-Pranks—live dancers interacting with themselves on the screen, or with dancing ostriches, scorpions with human heads, or swimming goldfish similarly equipped—may seem a bit too avant-garde, cute, or precious for popular audiences.

But the wild energy, great good humor, fantastic virtuosity, unusual specialties, and lively contrasts of his very diversely talented troupe actually offer something of Riverdance, Cirque du Soliel's Dralion, The Peking Acrobats, and Ballet Theatre all rolled up into one colorful kaleidoscopic package.

One of my favorite moments in this eclectic show features an elegant Flamenco Dancer, castanets all a-clatter, reacting & responding to two frenetic African dancers. The company is, in fact, a little United Nations of dance styles & specialties.

And then there are Montalvo's insane sight-gags: A Christmas Tree which toddles on upstage, just stands there—No Dancing—but does consent to Light Up. Later, there's a projection of the Tree.

Even later, the Christmas Tree again sidles on stage, this time down front. Spraying itself with white-snow from two aerosol-cans, it genially sings "Silent Night."

Tell me this won't work on Broadway! I think Le Jardin would bloom on the Great White Way.

But Montalvo's show-title isn't exactly commercial. It is inspired, as are the videos, by a Max Ernst Collage featuring those words.

Still, after all these years, Max Ernst—and Montalvo—just might turn out to be Box-Office after all!

The fact that José Montalvo has recently been chosen to direct Paris' celebrated Théâtre de Chaillot—noted for its Musical-Theatre productions—indicates that Those In The Know also have spotted his talent for commercial entertainments. And he will be a welcome change from the formerly innovative Jérôme Savary, who has recently disgraced himself there with repetition & mediocrity.

At the Public with Guitar & Harmonica—

Getting Down with Lackawanna Blues

It's too late to nominate Ruben Santiago-Hudson for BEST SOLO PERFORMER of the season. Nominations are closed for the Outer Critics Circle & the Drama Desk Awards. The ballots have been counted.

And the Public Theatre is so far away from Midtown Broadway that its Lafayette Street stagings couldn't hope for a Tony Nomination.

But, were Santiago-Hudson put up against the likes of Sandra Bernhard, Lily Tomlin, and even Dame Edna, he still should win a Tony Award for stunning Solo Performance.

But there is a very big—and very human—difference between his character-riffs in Lackawanna Blues and the edgy, often acerbic, comedy of those three Illustrious Ladies.

The utterly unassuming and casual Santiago-Hudson opens with some chords on his harmonica, backed on guitar by Bill Sims Jr. He seems both friendly and earnest, wanting very much to share some curious little stories about some wonderful—and some badly beaten-up or even appalling—Black folks up in Lackawanna, New York, near the Canadian Border.

This astonishing monologue is all his own material, in which he shifts in a flash from a violent woman-abuser to his defeated victim. This is not just a matter of having a variety of "voices," like Lily Tomlin.

His body, his face, his gestures suddenly take on the attitudes, habits, & cares of his character-of-the-moment. That amazing Irish Duo in Stones in His Pockets are not more gifted as mimes than the astonishing Ruben.

He serves as the Narrator, introducing the astoundingly resourceful humanitarian, Miss Rachel Crosby, or "Nanny." But she is no nationally-known dispenser of Charity & Good Deeds.

Nanny is the harbor, anchor, and last-resort for a virtual Rogues Gallery of Lackawannans—who lack a lot in their lives. Most of them are Southern Blacks who have emigrated North in search of jobs and a better life.

Nanny helps them get settled-in, usually in one of her rooming-houses. She gets them jobs and drives them to work in her own car-shuttle. She feeds the starving, tides over the jobless, comforts the abandoned.

She is a great cook and a Great Heart. She even keeps the local police away from an epic crap-game on her premises.

Among the rogues, rascals, saints, & sinners of Lackawanna Blues are Ol' Po' Carl, Numb Finger Pete, Small Paul, Ricky, Lottie, Junior, Melvin Earthman, Norma & Gerald, Mr. Lucious, and Sweet Tooth Sam.

My favorite among Santiago-Hudson's many characters is the gent who has been overwhelmed by his exposure to New York City. He enthuses about the "Statue Delivery" & the "Entire State Building."

Something like: "The French, they made this statue, and then there was this Statue Delivery to New York!" Or: "They got this big old Entire State Building. It's so big, it's big enough for the entire State!"

No matter how hard, even horrible, life can get, Nanny never loses hope—and she keeps the hopes of those around her afloat as well. She is a wonderful portrait of love, generosity, and humanity.


At the York: Cloning The Boyfriend?

A New/Old Musical: The IT Girl

Janet Hayes Walker's York Theatre made its reputation when she was alive with handsome, if small-scale, revivals of forgotten or failed musicals. Even Stephen Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle received a respectful Second Exposure at the York.

For some unjustly neglected shows, the York's careful attention to their previously unappreciated attractions gave them new life elsewhere. Others merely demonstrated why they had initially failed to attract audiences.

This season, the York—under Artistic Director James Morgan—has concentrated instead on showcasing new musicals. For the record, I did not much like either Fermat's Last Tango, or the more recent and rather Mall-Derivative Suburb.

Nor was I alone among critics in my lack of enthusiasm. That has not, however, prevented Fermat from achieving its very own CD, with one for Suburb surely soon on the way.

Introducing the York's new/old musical, The IT Girl, Morgan noted that plans for productions of both previous shows are in the works beyond the Hudson. This merely goes to show how much basically unsophisticated theatre-goers enjoy old-fashioned musicals.

So they should be overjoyed with The IT Girl —who is NOT Clara Bow, unfortunately.

This is, instead, a musical masquerading as a silent black-&-white movie, featuring the kind of Flapper Era story & role that Clara Bow made famous.

The show is mildly attractive, owing to sets, costumes, and make-up all rendered in a white-gray-black spectrum. But this becomes visually limiting after a while, as does the forced cuteness of the Silent-Movie-Titles.

The ensemble works very hard to keep their performances from looking as gray as some of the scenes and rear-projections of shabby Old New York.

Although the show is cute enough—and there are some amusing rhymes in director BT McNicholl's lyrics—the entire effect is of a pastiche of a Princess Musical. But affectionate parodies of vintage Twenties or Thirties Musicals—both The Boyfriend and Dames at Sea—already have done this much more effectively.

So why not return to Janet Hayes Walker's original concept and revive some of the real winners from the 1920's? Or even the 1930's? How about another look at, say, The Five O'Clock Girl?

Watching The IT Girl only reminded me once again of Lehman Engel & the BMI Musical Workshop. With all those earnest & often ageing would-be composers, lyricists, & book-authors, desperately trying to recreate The Musical of Yesterday. I say "again," for A Class Act has just forcefully reminded me of dear old Lehman, his Acolytes, and the Musical Preservation Society.

Jean Louisa Kelly is almost manic in her determination to BE the IT Girl. And to hold the York's venerable old audience in her thrall—as well as to snare the Scion of the Waltham Department Store Empire in the Bonds of Holy Matrimony.

Surely there must be more interesting—even more important—subjects, stereotypes, & scenes for a new musical than this?

If a songfest about those poor deformed Chernobyl Children—who are dying by degrees—doesn't seem a topical crowd-pleaser, how about a lively contemporary satirical Manhattan-based musical based on Mayor Rudy's new Decency Panel?

That, at least, ought to provoke some originality—even some humor—from all these Musical Comedy Wannabees. You could call it Gracie Mansion Smut-Smiters? Or how about: See No Brooklyn Museum, Hear No Eminem, & Speak No Evil Against Catholic Voters!

Actors Theatre/Louisville—


NEO-CLASSIC LOUISVILLE ELEGANCE--Sarah Shallenberger Brown Lobby of Actors Theatre. Photo: ©Richard Trigg/2001.
This spring saw the first Humana Festival without the dynamic Jon Jory. Now elevated to the lofty summits of the Theatre Hall of Fame—and removed to Seattle for a New Life in the Theatre, but this time as a Professor—Jory had, during his tenure, revitalized the Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Even more important for Theatre in the United States, however, was his pivotal role in developing the Humana Festival of New American Plays. New scripts—once they had been accepted for production—achieved almost instantly the status of Dramaturgical Canonization.

After all, every new production at the Humana is a World Premiere!

Major main-stage productions were often accorded semi-reverential respect by regional theatre directors. They are always on the lookout for fresh material to tempt the jaded palates of subscription-audiences in minor & major American cities.

Even problematic or shaky drafts would be looked on with favor by adventurous artistic directors of cutting-edge avant-garde theatre-spaces. As well as by optimistic managers & directors of militantly Not-for-Profit Theatres: "If you are really willing to work on this with us in rehearsals, maybe we can develop this into something…"

To be performed at the Humana Festival—as with productions, and even staged-readings, at the O'Neill Center in Connecticut—was to give a new play a Good-Theatre-Keeping Seal of Approval.

Those diligent New York critics who made annual pilgrimages to play-productions in either location came to realize that an exposure there to a new script—no matter how indifferent or inadequate—was surely not the last time they would ever see or hear of it.

This new season, 2000-2001, is the first for Actors Theatre's new Artistic Director, Marc Masterson, formerly Producing Director of Pittsburgh's City Theatre—for 19 long years!

Obviously, choices were made and projects set in motion well before he came on the scene. So my perception that the dramas chosen for the recent Festival were generally less interesting, less challenging, less imaginative than in recent seasons may have something to do with Changes of the Guard.

Nonetheless, this spring most of the scripts were not as good as last year's, or the year before. As usual, however, the performances and production-values were first-rate!

The Ten-Minute Kopit Cop-Out One special disappointment was the loss of the Ten-Minute Plays, in which some already-established American dramatists have previously demonstrated their often amazing ability to provide a complete theatre-experience in one-sixth of an hour. Some of these playwrights, on the other hand, find it difficult to do that in two hours.

HAVE YOU AN HMO CARD?--Arthur Kopit's "Chad Curtiss, Lost Again" at the Humana Festival. Photo: ©Richard Trigg/2001.
Instead, the 10-minute time-slots were pre-empted by three non-sequential segments of a fantastical parody of one of those old Saturday-Movie-Matinée Serials. This was Arthur Kopit's Chad Curtiss, Lost Again. Crammed with blood & gore, sex & violence, and total improbability, Chad's Saga was amusing enough—especially as designed & performed by the Actors Theatre ensemble.

But it was conceived & written on the level of a Sophomore Farce. If you want sophomoric parodies, leave them to Christopher Durang, who can be counted on for a bluntly Satiric Message as well.

The customary Phone Plays are usually less rewarding than the Ten-Minute specials, for obvious reasons. Not least having to stand in line to get to the pay-phones on which they can be heard.

This year's electronics-entrants in this Invisible Drama Sweepstakes may have become confused by all those changes in corporate names: Bell-Atlantic/Verizon/NYNEX, etc. But they apparently gave it their Best Shot. Among the anointed Phone-Players: Sterling Houston, Greg Allen, Erin Courtney, Rachel Claff, and Jennifer L. Nelson.

Usually, the Apprentice Monologue Showcase is a festival feature which not only spotlights attractive new talents, but also provides some interesting character-material—to think about & react to. It can be either free-standing or extracted from earlier works by the likes of Rebecca Gilman, William Mastrosimone, Alice Tuan, Robert Alexander, Keith Glover, and the mysterious & unknown Jane Martin!

HEAVEN AND HELL ONSTAGE--Actors Theatre Louisville Apprentices on Parade. Photo: ©Richard Trigg/2001.
This year, it was titled: Heaven and Hell (On Earth): A Divine Comedy. But some of the set-pieces seemed forced: their monologists could not make them work, alas. Less than Divine, and not very Comedic.

Who Is Jane, Who Is She, That All Our Swains Give Her Awards? The Humana Festival's Annual Main-Event is the production of a new play by Jane Martin, winner of many awards—but never present to accept them. This spring, Ms. Martin—whom some believe to be Jon Jory himself—won $15,000 for her/his Anton in Show Business, premiered last season at the Festival.

That money can buy a lot of salmon in Seattle. Whoever is the real author of Anton, he or she can be justly proud to have written an hysterical farce about staging Chekhov's Three Sisters in an especially culturally-deprived Texas regional theatre. Theatre-pros and audiences all over the nation can recognize the characters & situations—including the critics, who are also lampooned.

With the title of The 2001 American Theatre Critics/Steinberg New Play Award, the citation that goes with the money is almost as long as the play.

THE COWBOY & THE KOOK--Dense duo in Jane Martin's "Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage." Photo: ©Richard Trigg/2001.
The strain of packing up & leaving Louisville—if Jane/Jory is the true author—must be part of the reason this year's Martin manuscript seemed a bit slapdash. Its author titled it: Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage.

This Wild West Rodeo Rider parody—though not as parodic as Kopit's movie-serial—had its hilarious moments. But its characters seemed drawn out of the Beth Henley Stereotype-Box, with its plotting inspired by Sam Shepard—and selected TV shows.

Nonetheless, Phyllis Somerville, as "Big 8," was tough and amusing as a Rodeo Queen whose days of glory are over. Leo Kittay, as Rob Bob, a brittle-boned would-be bronco-rider, boyishly complemented her needy sexuality.

This comedy's director seems to have a special facility with Jane Martin's plays. Flaming Guns proved to be knockabout farce on stage, thanks to Jon Jory's vision of the script. While this play breaks no new barriers in unleashing the Comic Spirit, it broke some bones & noses in action. And it is sure to have many productions around the country. It makes no great demands on acting-abilities.

Eduardo Machado's Habañera Not a great admirer of the playwriting skills of Eduardo Machado, I was not looking forward to his new drama, When the Sea Drowns in Sand. As the production progressed, some of my colleagues nearby were actively hating it.

Oddly enough—despite all its manifest authorial self-indulgences—I found an affecting core of emotional truth & understandable human reaction in what seems a fictionalized version of an autobiographical experience. Machado clearly did not have an Elian-Experience as a child in Miami.

Machado's central character, Federico, is a displaced Cubano—sent off to Florida as a child—now returned to rediscover a past that cannot be recaptured. His anger and frustration—both as written and as portrayed by Joseph Urla—seem generated out of longing and a strangely out-of-place Sense of Entitlement.

He is manifestly gay, but is accompanied & supported by his dear friend & best-buddy, Fred [Ed Vasallo], who stubbornly insists he is not gay. They are Just Good Friends.

Ernesto [Felix Solis], the resourceful, opportunistic, & thoroughly Macho driver who shows them around Havana—as it is after years of neglect under Fidel Castro—is clearly irritated by, even uncomprehending of, Federico's occasionally effeminate outbursts.

This was the aspect of the play and performance which most annoyed—even alienated—some of my critic-colleagues. One insisted that Machado was writing two plays and didn't know it.

Or that he had at least two agendas: One about being robbed of one's Childhood & Heritage. The other about the problems of being a Gay Latino, whether in Maricon-Hating Cuba or in Gay-Bashing America.

Michael John Garcés—who is himself a very talented performer—staged sparely, with much being left to the audiences' imaginations.

Mee, Too: Bobrauschenbergamerica

SITI GOES WILD--Manic moment in Charles Mee's "bobrauschenbergamerica," staged by Anne Bogart. Photo: ©Richard Trigg/2001.
Charles L. Mee's Humana drama, Big Love—a Big Hit last year—was a $5,000 citation runner-up in the American Theatre Critics New Play competition this spring. But Mee was also represented in performance by the antic, free-associational, militantly nonsensical, and thoroughly, subversively Aleatory Bobrauschenbergamerica.

Anyone who could have remembered the very first New York "Happenings"—in which Bob Rauschenberg, John Cage, and other ardent avant-gardists were involved—would have recognized some of the images in this unusual evocation of Americana and some Usual & Unusual Americans.

This fascinating theatre-piece was created by the multi-talented SITI Company. And it was directed by Anne Bogart, who has just received the Edwin Booth Award from the CUNY Graduate Center. Bogart & SITI go back a long way with Actors Theatre Louisville.

SITI performance-works previously produced at the Humana Festival have included Cabin Pressure and War of the Worlds. Both of these were big hits at the Edinburgh Festival last summer.

QUAKE: Female Serial-Boyfriend-Killer
BAD-DREAM BEAUTY-CONTEST--Surreal scene in Melanie Marnich's "Quake" at the Humana Festival. Photo: ©Richard Trigg/2001.
It's only a matter of time before Melanie Marnich's Quake gets a well-deserved New York production. It is certainly far more interesting than Manhattan Theatre Club's recent Boy Gets Girl, in which a male-stalker almost succeeds in totaling a failed Blind Date.

Marnich, however, turns the tables by creating a femme fatale stalker, That Woman [Luisa Strus]. She is a brilliant astrophysicist on a deadly search for the Perfect Man. Those who fail the test are worse than Toast. They end as corpses.

But Marnich's Serial-Boyfriend-Killer is more than balanced by her major focus-character, Lucy [Tracey Maloney], who is also looking for Mr. Right. But lonely Lucy doesn't kill the men who disappoint her. She dumps them and moves on, ranging the entire United States in her futile quest.

What Marnich achieves is not only a really zany and satirical Woman's Play, but also a Rogues Gallery of American Male Stereotypes. This should prove a crowd-pleaser nation-wide.

Wonderful World: Snappy Dresser! The most effective, most professional, most commercial drama of this year's festival was unquestionably Richard Dresser's Wonderful World. The title is in every sense Ironic.

It is Molière Made Modern, the tale of two mis-matched brothers—Max & Barry—and their problems with women. Unmarried, even infantile, Max is reluctant to Commit. Barry—married to the TV-Producer-Wife-from-Hell, is on the verge of being committed. Their mother [Rosemary Prinz] is fading away with Alzheimer's.

This has been described as a Savage Comedy with reason. But it has an undercurrent of humanity and tenderness, despite all its hysterically horrendous plot twists and turns.

Dresser had bad luck in New York with the Playwrights' Horizons production of his Humana Festival hit, Gun Shy. That remains an effective modern comedy of family relationships, waiting for the right director & ensemble.

It's greatly to be hoped that Wonderful World finds those crucial ingredients, for the play-text itself needs no improvements.

At the Humana Festival, it was brilliantly staged by the new Artistic Director, Marc Masterson. Clearly, this major American Theatre Festival is in good hands! Let's hope it will uncover some distinctive new talents—and some strong new plays—next season!

White Wellman/Transcendendal Roth!
SQUARING THE CIRCLE--Mac Wellman's "Allegory of Whiteness" in Louisville. Photo: ©Richard Trigg/2001.
I'm on record in this column as being a great admirer of the imaginative & innovative talents of composer Michael Roth. At the Humana Festival, he created very interesting, even provocative, music for Mac Wellman's theatrical oddity, Description Beggared; or the Allegory of WHITENESS.

Wellman appropriately teaches playwriting in the English—not the Theatre—Department at Brooklyn College. Jack Gelber—author of The Connection—preceded him in that venue. He has based his unusual new word-puzzle & dramatic-event in part on Arthur Machen's The White People and on August Strindberg's The Ghost Sonata.

The production was very very WHITE, but this by no means symbolized Clarity of any sort. Playful Semantic Obfuscation is more the rule in a Wellman script. It's my contention that an appetite for Wellman's pretentious wordplay is an acquired taste, now fully developed at Major Cultural Foundations.

Perhaps a character description will suggest the tone: "Aunt Bianca, a sort of human Blank, perhaps a parrot." Or: "Uncle Fraser, Fraser Outermost Ring, a damnable marplot."

Roth—who, by his own testimony, seems to have immensely enjoyed the experience of working with Wellman—composed for a raffish & unpaid band what the playwright describes in his text as: "Transcendental Music and Bad Jazz."

Roth's admirable music was "Purveyed" in the setting of: "A vast, metaphysical Rhode Island. Late Summer. The turn of this century, or perhaps the last."

Well, you get the idea…

For the record, I'd like to reprise some comments on Roth's previous theatre-adventure:

Michael Roth's Their Thought and Back Again Gertrude Stein's zany opera-librettos are wonderfully echoed in a terrific new opera-theatre-dance work by composer Michael Roth: Their Thought and Back Again.

In fact, this brilliant work has been critically compared with Stein's Four Saints! As well as with Weill & Brecht's Mahagonny and Bernstein's Wonderful Town. Other comparisons include Eric Satie, Elliott Carter, John Cage, and John Adams.

This San Diego-based composer studied with William Bolcom, who has had his share of theatre-oriented musical experiments. So Roth could hardly have avoided being drawn to the world of music-theatre.

Roth's song-texts are antically concocted from the cut-up & collaged clichés of advertising, want-ads, how-to-use instructions, and the ubiquity of TV verbal garbage. Wouldn't Stein be delighted with: "press the sleep button/while the repair your/just up and down can"?

That is from "The Dance of Television." But what about this lyric fragment from "In Fourteen Hundred Ninety You (Took Him to the River)": "somebody borrowed fare in Spain/a business on the bounding Maine/somebody"?

Roth's eclectic—but not really derivative—music is exhilarating to hear. I must say I enjoy hearing Their Thought and Back Again again and again. In a way that I do not really savor Thomas Ades' Powder Her Face, though it is also fascinating.

Here's the CD Synopsis of Roth's unusual work: "Two women, singing in a language of their own invention, arrive in an interesting town. They seek their places in the community, make new acquaintances, tell stories, reminisce, dream, and dispense advice. Finally, after a time, they settle down there themselves."

Roth composed music for the current Off-Broadway production of Dinner with Friends, also premiered at the Humana Festival! He created music for the San Francisco ACT staging of Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love, as well.

If you want a copy of Their Thought and Back Again for yourself—or would like to stock it in bulk in your shop—contact Michael Roth at: Rothmusik@aol.com

I look forward to Roth's next break-through musical creation for the Humana Festival!


Return to top of page.

Copyright © Glenn Loney, 2001. 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.

Return to Theatre Wire Index

| home | reviews | cue-to-cue | welcome |
| museums | recordings | coupons | publications | classified |