Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Tag Archives: Stephanie Kerley Schwartz
At a time when the entire concept of white privilege is under a microscope, it becomes especially fascinating to explore the larger concepts of European/American imperialism and what that process has done to the world we now live in. Most particularly, what has been lost as several centuries of the practice interfered with the natural self-development of the peoples of the earth.
Which proves foundational to Aditi Brennan Kapil’s “Shiv,” now receiving its west coast premiere run at The Theatre at Boston Court. As the best introspective plays often are, this tale can be approached on a number of levels, but at its core it examines what is left behind when foundational cultures clash with dominant ones. It does so through the engaging story of one immigrant family from India.
Shiv is the daughter of a small-town Indian family. Her father was, back home, a celebrated anti-imperialist modernist poet. He raises his daughter on the stories of his upbringing in the home gifted to his family by local royalty. There his competitive nature had full sway, and his pride of place brought him to prominence.
Now he has come to the US, supposedly to give his daughter advantages in the western-controlled world, but at great cost to himself. His poetry does not translate well, and his daughter is left adrift, as both her father’s representative in this new world and the reminder of what he himself cannot do within it. All of this is seen through Shiv’s eyes, as she searches for the missing pieces of her father’s American narrative at the site of what were once a private publisher’s symposiums of Indian writers.
Which, of course, is only one level of the play. Symbolism proves key, and the mystical elements of Indian belief and culture mesh with motifs of light and power in ways which make the show a full-body experience. Unpacking these deeper elements may take a while, but the work is worth it.
Monika Jolly is Shiv, shifting back and forth from youth to adulthood with a seamlessness which underscores the central themes of the character’s struggles to balance the two parts of her life. Dileep Rao, as her father, manages to offer up external charm and internal desperation in the same breath, radiating hope toward his daughter at the same time as his own is evaporating in favor of cultural submission.
As the operator of the country estate once a center for supposed cultural awareness, James Wagner displays an openness which allows Shiv to move forward in her own explorations of her cultural identities. In balance to this, Leonard Kelly-Young speaks as the gut-wrenchingly absolute imperialist, deciding with western eyes what to value of eastern art, as the professor who owns this estate, where Shiv works and searches for answers to her father’s mysteries. Indeed, it is Kelly-Young’s powerful albeit brief performance which underlines all the ugliness toward which the play has built.
Under the direction of Emilie Beck, the production’s beautifully stark feel allows the many layered elements of this piece to coalesce. Stephanie Kerley-Schwartz’s imaginative setting allows Shiv’s character to float in her own imagination, tied only when she wants to be to the physical realities of the world around her. Tom Ontiveros’ integral video design fills the imagination and underscores the ethereal in the piece.
By the end one cannot help but wonder, as the characters do, what India or any other nation absorbed by western empire would have been like if left to mature on its own. Indeed one symbol near the end sticks in the mind as a visual of the disconnect between east and west: a snow globe holding a miniature Taj Mahal. As Shiv notes, why would there ever be snow on the Taj Mahal?
This, as with all things in this play, says many things at once. Yet, all of it proves engrossing from start to finish, and definitely worth the work of pondering after the fact. Go see “Shiv,” then take it home with you and let it steep awhile. The results will disturb the overly-confortable, but will voice what the modern world – American and otherwise – needs to hear.
What: “Shiv” When: Through August 9, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34 general, $29 seniors (62+)/students Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.bostoncourt.com
It is fascinating how a play can become so familiar one can forget where it came from. Certainly, everyone knows that they know George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” but mostly because most have seen “My Fair Lady,” the highly romanticized musical (later film) based on the play. Yet, the original play was not about romance, but about societal equality and intellectual independence. Now, at the Pasadena Playhouse, one can experience a profound and polished production of Shaw’s original play, as originally written. For those sure they are familiar with the piece, this can prove revelatory.
Of course the play – whose name comes from the Greek myth of a sculptor who falls in love with his own creation – has a general plot which needs little explanation. The obnoxiously spoiled, and rather childish linguistics expert Henry Higgins, aided by the somewhat fusty Col. Pickering, takes on the task of transforming one Eliza Doolittle, a cockney street vendor, into a young lady who can pass as a duchess at a society event. What he doesn’t count on is Eliza’s intellect and free will, and her determination not to be seen as an object. In the end, the play becomes a condemnation of the image of women in late Victorian society – one which resonates remarkably clearly into the 21st Century.
Director Jessica Kubzansky has chosen to go back to the original script, leaving off later additions of embassy balls and semi-romantic returns. This is, frankly, extremely satisfying, as I have personally rebelled against the ending given in “My Fair Lady” since I first saw it on stage as a pre-teen. Shaw’s best works are often intellectual discussions with a plot, and here the complex and immensely satisfying battle of wits between Eliza and Higgins gets to stand on its own, making the point Shaw was actually out to make. That makes the play important again.
Paige Lindsey White makes a convincing Eliza. Her body language changes subtly as she matures, and her beauty proves equally subtle: a sharpness softened by care and carriage. This makes the transformation particularly satisfying, and (despite an English professor long ago who claimed it impossible) quite convincing. Bruce Turk makes Higgins both articulately intellectual and ridiculously childish – more a brat than a hermit. It works wonderfully well, adding a layer of comedy a more grounded character could not. Stan Egi gives Col. Pickering a decidedly unaware feel, as if he exists mostly on manners rather than intellectual rigor. All three give a lovely balance to the entire production.
Also worthy of high praise are Ellen Crawford, far less shockable and far more fatalistically practical than usual as Higgins’ housekeeper. Time Winters makes Eliza’s father less goofy and far more disturbed by his change of fortunes, and it works. Most particularly, Mary Anne McGarry gives an aura of wisdom and worry – the articulate view of a woman with a deep understanding of the limitations of womanhood – as Higgins’ mother. Alex Knox and Carolyn Ratteray each have deeply comic moments as Freddy Eynsford-Hill and his sister Clara, while Lynn Milgrim, as their mother, becomes symbolic of the comparatively piteous condition of a poor and widowed society woman.
Still, the unifying force and the significant vision are Kubzansky’s. She takes characters which can easily become prosy, and meshes them into an interesting blend of attitudes and desires one can truly connect with. Pacing and understanding flow easily – and that’s saying something when one speaks of Shavian works.
Stephanie Kerley Schwartz has created an elemental set which moves swiftly from scene to scene, allowing the flow of what is essentially an episodic tale to become remarkably even. Leah Piehl’s costuming holds fairly true to the period, and provides subtle personality clues along the way.
In short, this “Pygmalion” gets it right, start to finish. This play rarely has a chance to stand on its own, and project the message Shaw was trying to get across. This time, it does, and that is pure delight for anyone who loves a good intellectual argument.
What: “Pygmalion” When: Through April 12, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $30 – $75, with premium seating at $125.00 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org
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