Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Tag Archives: Arye Gross
This show has now been extended through August 10
Playing with classics has become part of the theatrical landscape. One can either go for staging, say, Shakespeare or Moliere or Sophocles in an alternate time period or social reference, or one can take the conceptual theme of the original, and the main characters, and turn the play on its ear. For example, several years ago The Theatre at Boston Court produced Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” reset (with distinct cultural adaptation) in a China on the verge of revolution – a shift which worked startlingly well.
Now, once again at The Theatre at Boston Court, this time in concert with Circle X Theatre Company, one finds a revision of another Chekhov classic, “The Seagull.” “Sort of adapted” by Aaron Posner, the play “Stupid Fucking Bird” highlight’s Chekhov’s essential ethos – the idea that people who become so wrapped up in themselves create their own tragedies – and places it in a modern framework. It works, absolutely, and for several reasons: Chekhov’s theme was an essential human one which transcends time, the adaptation is clever, concise and passionate, and the direction and performance are done with complete conviction and absolute craft.
The script trims down and adapts the character list, but the story is still the traditional angsty knot. Conrad, the bitter son of actress Emma Arkadina, is a creator of dubious performance art his family belittles. He lives on his mother’s estate, working with and worshiping a young actress named Nina, who does not return his affections, while the woman who runs the house, Mash, holds her grand passion for Conrad close to her despairing heart. Dev, the slightly dim, good-hearted friend of Conrad’s, adores Mash but knows he has little chance there. Emma fears encroaching age, and fights it off by keeping famed author Doyle Trigorin on a short leash, at least until he notices Nina. All the while, aging uncle Dr. Sorn, watches with a combination of kindness and frustration. And so it begins.
If all of this sounds like a soap opera, you are correct, except for the essential Chekhovian concept that all of this internal wrangling, despair and high feeling is elementally ridiculous – a product of each of the characters’ emotional myopia. In the hands of director Michael Michetti, that rings through all the drama, as it plays out in a tight production with a strong and engaging cast. Add to this the extra thrill of Posner’s Thornton Wilder-style dissolving of the fourth wall, including actors stepping into and out of character, and you’re looking at something compelling and genuinely fun.
Will Bradley leads the cast in every way as Conrad, vibrating with intensity and a kind of emotional impotence. In both energy and engagingly dark approach he is matched by Charlotte Gulezian’s habitually depressed Mash. Adam Silver creates Mash’s and Conrad’s ultimate foil in the easy-going, upbeat, pleasantly dim Dev. Amy Pietz gives Emma a gentle undercurrent of desperation, and a grasping need which proves visceral.
Matthew Floyd Miller’s calm, detached, even opportunistic Doyle becomes physically and emotionally above all the petty commitments at his feet, while Zarah Mahler’s aura of fragility places Nina distinctly in both Doyle’s and Conrad’s crosshairs. Arye Gross gives the good doctor the air of a man weighed down by his own desire to be empathetic to these folk, like a huge, human sigh.
Under Michetti, this all moves quite rapidly, allowing no time for the dismalness to settle, and shifting in and out of the play’s supposed setting with the efficiency of a light switch. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s modular set pieces prove both realistic and representational, allowing for quick shifts in scene and mood. Sean Cawelti’s projections often provide that mood, and flesh out settings artfully.
In short, “Stupid Fucking Bird” brings the essential Chekhovian message to a new era, a new language, and a new immediacy without losing those elements which give it something to say about the human condition: finely tuned characters wrestling with stunted emotions doing melodramatic things which get them nowhere, held up to a mirror that makes them look somewhat silly. Thus it proves both wrenching and humorous, visceral and cerebral. If you love to watch people play with classic themes, you’ll find this one engrossing.
One word of warning: as the name may suggest, this show is not for children, deserving at least an “R” rating on the standard scale for both language and nudity. Still, for most adults, i.e.: those willing to take that as integral to context, it is most certainly a show to see.
What: “Stupid Fucking Bird” When: Through July 27, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, with added performances 8 p.m. Wednesday July 16 and 23 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34, with senior and group discounts available Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.BostonCourt.org
The fact that playwright Bernard Weinraub spent most of his life working at prestigious newspapers obviously informs his work in the theater. Indeed, although nominated for awards in its off-Broadway run, his first play, “Accomplices,” met with mixed emotions among critics. Ostensibly detailing the U.S. government’s thwarting of attempts to rescue Jews from Europe as World War II began, it was hailed by some, but was labeled by other critics as more of a lecture or an expose´ than a play. Now his second work, “Above the Fold” hits closer to his personal and long-time professional home. Yet, there is the same sense of mixed emotions.
Now at the Pasadena Playhouse, “Above the Fold” examines the modern ethics of journalism in a time of shrinking print venues. It speaks to the value of a good story, over a right or balanced one. Such discussions have happened before, in books, in films as far back as the 50s (an example would be “Ace in the Hole”), and in examinations of modern media. The message of journalism and journalists as tools of the powerful is a recurring theme in modern times as well, as anyone knows who ever watched “The West Wing,” much less anyone paying attention to politics these days.
That which may be new in this play is more a matter of style and acting skill than some shocking revelation, or some great message of doom or hope we have not yet heard.
The story appears loosely based on the case of those Duke University LaCrosse players in 2006 wrongly accused of attacking a local African-American girl. It centers on Jane, a young New York Times writer sent to cover the story of three white fraternity brothers accused of raping the stripper engaged to perform at a frat party. Jane, anxious to get the more choice overseas assignments, plows into the middle of the tale when she arrives to cover the candidacy of a young southern district attorney. He hands her exclusive information about this potentially explosive rape story, and she is quick to run with it.
Jane ends up with a series of front page articles which feed the stereotype: rich white boys filled with entitlement, young and struggling African-American single mother abused by them, righteous district attorney determined to defend the local community against the university outsiders, etc. That she is African-American herself may make her even more ready to believe it all. Certainly, she gains a great deal from the notoriety of the story, as it grows. But the closer she looks at the situation, the more she begins to wonder about that story itself. Soon, she is faced with tough personal and professional choices.
The characters, except perhaps Jane herself, prove comparatively predictable. Still, they are played with fervor and care. Mark Hildreth’s earnest district attorney, soft-spoken, charming, and apparently without guile, gives plausibility to the reporter’s eagerness. Kristopher Higgins, Joe Massingill, and particularly Seamus Mulcahy make the three young men both suspicious frat boys and sympathetic human beings at turns. Kristy Johnson does what she can to develop the boys’ victim, with her erratic attention shifts and aura of addiction, beyond the elements of either two-dimensionality or stereotype. Arye Gross hits all the right notes as he plays the classic newspaper editor, nurturing to young talent while responsible to the publisher upstairs.
Still, what makes this play worth watching, predictability, and stereotypical situations and characters notwithstanding, is Taraji P. Henson as Jane. Her ethical wrestlings prove very real, as does her outrage as the story she is telling slips out of her grasp and becomes larger than she can possibly control. Watching the character’s move from what she at least sees as detached professionalism to passionate care, to angry disillusion keeps the audience’s focus and brings a certain gravitas to what might otherwise be a Movie of the Week.
“Above the Fold” may not be a great play, but it has performances worth watching. Director Steven Robman keeps the intensity at a heightened level, and – in concert with Jeffery P. Eisenmann’s fascinating set pieces – intensely immediate. Costumer Dana Rebecca Woods provides instant definition for each character. It’s all done in grand style. Just don’t go expecting to learn something you did not know, and you’re fine.
What: “Above the Fold” When: Through February 23, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave in Pasadena How Much: $38 – $72 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org