Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
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In the past week I have seen two theatrical endeavors – both nearing the ends of their runs – which tackle current social issues by looking at the past. In one case, the history is given theatrical flourish, but is fascinating in its poignant accuracy. In the other, an acknowledged incomplete understanding of history gives a playwright license to turn an antique moment in time into something it never was in order to make a point. Both work as pieces of theater, which fascinates me as a long-time teacher of history and a historian, as well as a theatrical critic.
Why use history to make a modern point? When is it essential that the history be true, and when doesn’t it matter that much? It appears it depends on the purpose history is given in the work itself.
The first show up for discussion, closing this Sunday, is “Ladies,” in its premiere run at Boston Court Pasadena. Playwright Kit Steinkellner uses the inspiration of four historical 18th Century intellectual women who formed The Blue Stocking Society, or (as the playwright says) were feminists before that term was invented, to explore the role of women as writers, artists, sexual independents and free spirits. In this case, the rather uninformed assumptions admitted by the play itself make for fuzzy history, but important social commentary.
The second show is the national tour production of Paula Vogel’s Tony-winning Broadway play-with-music, “Indecent.” At the Ahmanson only through July 7, the show essentially chronicles the life of a controversial 1907 play. Developed in the rich artistic world of eastern Europe’s Yiddish theater, where it was acclaimed, the piece ran into a firestorm when it opened much later, in English and heavily adapted, on Broadway. Why the difference, and what happened to those involved becomes a cautionary tale on the American Dream and the rise of authoritarianism.
Whether using historical figures as the poet does (i.e.: with less interest in accuracy than in spirit) to make a contemporary point, or telling a documentable story of increasing intolerance as a cautionary tale about echoes to be found in our society, the use of history is elemental to each production’s impact. That the role of history in one is pretty much the opposite of its role in the other is fascinating, in that they both succeed in placing a current issue in the longer story of human art and intellect.
In “Ladies,” director Jessica Kubzansky has the four Blue Stocking members emerge from a modern base, and revert to the modern narrative simply by putting on glasses. Thus the back-and-forth between a conceived repressive past and a questioning present become seamless and fascinating. The historical figures are real, and did exist. They include a novelist, a painter, a poet, and the woman who has brought these others together to, in this play anyway, advocate for women’s place in the arts.
How much of what results is an accurate look at the women’s lives, and how much is a modern lens clumping together more and less repressive time periods is immaterial to the point of the play. Rather, this is a playwright’s own wrestle with a past once inconceivable: that women rejected docility in favor of artistic expression before the concept of women’s rights was articulated in English culture. It is the wrestling which matters, not the really rather inaccurate sense of the society which created and either supported or rejected the Blue Stockings (a term which eventually morphed into a catch-all designation for academic-minded women in Britain).
Meghan Andrews, Carie Kawa, Jully Lee, and Tracey A. Leigh create the four women plus servants, husbands, and other occupants of their world, then shift to offer commentary not only on those women’s stories, but the playwright’s internal monologue concerning them. Costumes by Ann Closs-Farley allow quick character shifts, and even occasionally become characters all their own. The focus on women as physical beings, and on desires they may have had along the way is universal, and in the end history (such as it is here) becomes a mere tool for a very modern philosophical musing.
On the other hand, “Indecent” is the true story of Sholem Asch’s play “God of Vengeance,” written in Yiddish in 1907, about an oppressive father whose fortune comes from running the brothel downstairs, and his young, innocent daughter who finds true love – to that father’s horror – with one of the prostitutes below. After a long and successful run in Jewish theaters around Europe, with its leads becoming stars of note throughout that world, it heads to America, is a hit in Yiddish circles there, and then – in a bowdlerized version – becomes a scandal on Broadway, with its cast convicted of indecency.
The story is real, and in this case the history is told with considerable accuracy, yet the story itself is not entirely the point. Once again the tale of artistic freedom, embraced in one part of society and yet increasingly rejected by the more powerful as violating societal norms, and the echoes of that increasingly powerful provincialism and intolerance in our modern world, especially toward recent immigrants, give a gravitas beyond what is simply historical. Indeed, there are elements which speak to Carlos Santayana’s famous phrase that “those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it.”
Steeped in the traditions of Jewish Europe, with much of the dialogue in Yiddish (in print and in translation to English on the wall above) there is a strong cultural center to the piece. Yet, at the same time, the openness of an artistic Europe is placed against the rigid rules of decency which infected even the segment of the Jewish population of the US anxious to achieve assimilation: where Yiddish culture is rejected for a shot at the American mainstream. Indeed, much has been written about the freedom of the culturally rich Yiddish art scene in New York in the early 20th century, and how it vanished. This in part because of fears of deportation as exclusionary immigration laws stifled attempts to use the US as escape from the rising terror – the “return to morality” via fascism – overseas.
The intolerance here is both internal and external, with those who cannot abide the loss of freedom returning to a Europe where soon more than freedom will be lost. Still, the moral authority which deems a famous play indecent, the sense of fear surrounding immigration policies, the perceived need to meld into the mainstream to avoid hatred, not to mention the intolerance toward a positive view of lesbian love, sounds a lot like the more judgmental elements of modern America.
Under the guiding hand of Tony-winning director Rebecca Taichman a remarkably versatile cast – Richard Topol, Elizabeth A. Davis, Joby Earle, Harry Groener, Mimi Lieber, Steven Rattazzi, and Adina Version, with musicians (who also are active characters) Matt Darriali, Patrick Farrell and Lisa Gutkin – sing, play, and dance as an elemental expression of culture. They create a myriad of parts to flesh out the story of the play, and its author who wrote only stories and novels, leaving his own play in a dust his actors could not, and the performers whose lives were forever changed by the parts they played. It is a powerful picture of disconnects, fears, and foundational beliefs.
In the end, it is striking to what extent each play’s historical context proves essential to the playwright’s point. Whether that arc of history is deeply, affectingly accurate as in “Indecent,” or almost an artifice, as in “Ladies,” giving a sense of the long arc of history provides a needed underpinning to talking about the world in which we currently live. And that, to some extent, is why history remains important: we are still human beings capable of making the same mistakes those before us did, or learning how not to, by looking back to look forward.
What: “Ladies” When: this production’s last two performances, Saturday June 29 and Sunday, June 30, are both sold out Where: Boston Court Pasadena, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena
What: “Indecent” When: through August 7, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles. How Much: $30 – $155. Info: 213-972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
Now at Boston Court Pasadena, Hare’s play looks instead at Wilde and the man whose relationship with him caused his downfall: Lord Alfred Douglas, son of the Marquis of Queensbury, commonly called “Bosie.” The petulant and self-absorbed Bosie’s hold over the older Wilde, pushing him (among other things) to try to sue the Marquis for libel and thus to open himself to prosecution for homosexuality, becomes a framework with which to study how relationships can turn manipulative and eventually destructive to the person manipulated.
There seems ample evidence for Bosie’s petulance and opportunism. Most certainly, the destructive effect on Wilde’s life and fortunes is undeniable. What Hare’s play does, however, is look at how this manipulation worked. Bosie pushes Wilde one way, Wilde’s friend and former lover (and eventual executor of his literary estate) Robert Ross tries to reason him into another, and Wilde makes disastrous decisions in the name of love.
Rob Nagle gives Wilde the right combination of flamboyance and deep insecurity, ready to lean on a young man who never has an interest at heart except his own. Even with the elaborate language and gesture, this is a romantic caught in that time-old trap of allowing blind love to push him away from those who actually have his best interests at heart. As Bosie, Colin Bates radiates immaturity, self-obsession, and obliviousness as he drags Wilde to shame and bankruptcy.
Darius De La Cruz makes a worried, earnest and frustrated friend as Robert Ross, giving a gravitas to the disaster his character is trying to help his former lover avoid. Matthew Campbell Dowling, Maria Klein and Kurt Kanazawa provide a backdrop of lasciviousness which was the secret underpinning of Victorian society, as does Will Dixon as the hotel manager busy keeping his clients’ secrets.
Director Michael Michetti has kept the production spare, allowing the larger-than-life Wilde a central place, seeming increasingly pure and victimized as all around him exude a sensuality he seems to have eschewed for what he sees as a more spiritual connection. That contrast alone says a great deal about what set him up for disaster.
Se Hyun Oh’s set hints at both opulence and penury consecutively, and Dianne K. Graebner’s costumes give color to these colorful lives. Still, the net result is a fine writer’s ruin. To see in that antique echoes writ large of modern romantic disasters is a point of the play all its own.
The play includes nudity and sexual situations, and is recommended for children and adults 17 years old and up. Children under 13 will not be admitted.
What: “The Judas Kiss” When: through March 24, 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, with an added performance at 8 p.m. Monday, March 18. Where: Boston Court Pasadena, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena. How Much: $39 adult, $34 senior, $20 student Info: http://www.bostoncourtpasadena.org or 626-683-6801
Thus, it is not really a surprise that she would embrace directing the world premiere of Sarah B. Mantell’s “Everything That Never Happened.” A sideways look at “The Merchant of Venice” from the perspective of Shylock and Jessica, it becomes a discussion of culture, erasure, revenge, and the normalization of inequality which offers a countermeasure to the antisemitic overtones of the Bard’s original.
In “Everything…” Mantell has eschewed the Elizabethan language as she propels us into the world of Jessica, the Jewish daughter of moneylender Shylock, who is being wooed by the Christian Lorenzo. As their non-Jewish servant, Gobbo, looks on and occasionally collaborates, Jessica must figure out what matters to her most.
What she sees in Lorenzo is freedom, not only from the oppression of being a Jew in Venice, but from the rigid limitations her faith places on her behaviors. Shylock, on the other hand, finds his pride in his culture – a buffer against a larger community which puts his people in a ghetto and spits upon him even as they beg for the money he lends. What will remain, and what be washed away, as these strong personalities pull apart?
Leo Marks gives a gravitas to Shylock, quietly strong and innately sure of his direction – a stance which gives Jessica’s eventual betrayal the aspect of an inner earthquake: subtle and devastating. As Jessica, Erika Soto moves from romantic dreamer to shaken realist in incremental steps grounded in identity and a gradual realization of the cost of her dreams.
Paul Culos gives Lorenzo the casual command of a man unaware of the extent of his unearned privilege: romantic, somewhat devious, and sure he will get his way. Dylan Saunders’ Gobbo is a truly Shakespearean servant, observant and protective in practical ways uncluttered by the cultural frameworks he stands firmly between.
Kubzansky gets these people, and the literal undercurrent of the play, as rivers and canals flow by, an echo of the passage of time and of the things which can overwhelm us. Francois-Pierre Couture’s minimalist set creates a sense of space, storage for quickly shifting scenic elements, and even waterways where there are none. Jaymi Lee Smith’s lighting delineates space and time, and John Nobori’s sound design, sometimes intentionally overwhelming, hints at great tides to come.
Still, it is the play itself, which manages to be linear and nonlinear all at once, that underscores the points Shakespeare didn’t bother to make: the locked gates of the ghettos, the dangers of revenge in a world suspicious of closed societies, the entire undercurrent of otherness which made Shylock at once an easy target and an unacknowledged tragedy.
“Everything…” happens fast. The play is only an hour and 25 minutes long. Still, within that time there are the seeds of awareness, and by the time the Kaddish is sung, what has been lost by the events of that other play happening in their background has a rich profundity.
What: “Everything That Never Happened” When: through November 4, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays How Much: $20 – $39 Info: 626-683-6801 or http://www.BostonCourtPasadena.org
The topic of immigration is on everyone’s front burner these days, for often very sad reasons. For many, the interest, or the threat, of immigration comes from the effects any group of immigrants at any time have had on what one considers the dominant American culture. It has always been this way, sadly, whether it is disquiet over the Irish, the Chinese, the Eastern European Jews, the Italians or Polish, the Cubans, or the Vietnamese boat people, to name just a few.
Still, there is another aspect to being (as we are, whether we admit it or not) a nation of immigrants: the difference between those who have by practice or generation, regardless of how much they honor their original culture, become Americanized, and those who carry the original culture because it is still theirs. It is this which is explored in Mfoniso Udofia’s “Her Portmanteau,” now receiving its west coast premiere at Boston Court Pasadena. Here three steps on that assimilation scale look at what is shared, and what separates a “foreigner” from a part of our American ethnocultural tossed salad.
Iniabasi Ekpeyong has just arrived from Nigeria. Though born in the US she has been raised by her late father back on the family compound. Now she is in New York to meet the mother and half sister she hasn’t laid eyes on since childhood. Her mother Abasiama Ufot, and her half-sister Adiaha Ufot are unfamiliar in more ways than one might expect, as language and culture and a disorienting distance between expectation and reality create barriers and end-run openings for the three women.
This work is part of Udofia’s 9-part cycle of plays documenting the Ufot family, but stands well on its own. In it, the entire idea of the US as a paradise is placed up against the friction between traditional family roles and hierarchies, traditional modes of hospitality, even traditional and adapted foods, and how such things can hamper even well-intentioned attempts at understanding. What one runs from and what one runs toward become the ways in which these people balance the bonds of blood and the differences of experience, like a portmanteau, an old fashioned style of suitcase built with two distinct sides one fills separately and then brings together to fasten. Only then do they touch.
Dele Ogundiran is Iniabasi, expecting reunion traditions unfamiliar here, and anxious in many directions at the end of an interminable flight. Watching her severity and fear gradually unbend gives weight and humanity to the awkwardness of difference where one expects to find sameness. Omoze Idehenre, as the American-raised daughter Adiaha, brings to the obligatory balance of inherited traditions and American-centered cultural frameworks a sense of exasperation and kindness which lay the groundwork the play develops. Joyce Guy gives the mother of the two other women, Abasiama, a palpable aura of apology, for distance and for difference, gradually laying out her own burdens, and gradually absorbing those her daughters face.
Director Gregg T. Daniel gives this word-rich play a sense of activity and interwoven characters which keeps it from devolving into a kind of panel discussion. This is particularly important as significant sections of the piece are at least partially in Ibibio, one of Nigeria’s traditional languages which is spoken here laced with occasional English words and phrases. That Iniabasi speaks it as first language, her mother Abasiama can return to it willingly, but – though she understands it well enough – Adiaha chooses to only use English is shorthand for the transitions which are at the core of the play. Daniel makes this work.
A note of praise also for Tesshi Nakagawa’s set design for the cramped Inwood apartment in NYC, for Jeff Gardner’s subtle but essential sound design, and for Erin Walley’s props, so evocative of the cultural interplay so necessary in telling this tale.
Yes, unless you speak Ibibio, you will not understand every word. That is, one assumes, a point – a rich conversation and interaction which is in itself isolating here, though communal somewhere else. Take that in, as part of “Her Portmanteau”: part of what these characters carry with them as they bump into being American.