Two Composers Lob Ideas and Tennis Balls in Charlie Barnett’s New Play “12Ness”

So these two composers walk into a bar…well, actually, a tennis court. That’s the premise of a provocative new play, 12Ness, that had a recent run at the Ice House in Bethlehem, PA. Written by composer, producer, musician, (and Easton, PA native) Charlie Barnett, 12Ness was presented by the Crowded Kitchen Players, produced by Ara Barlieb and Pamela McLean Wallace, and directed by George B. Miller.

The two composers are American popular songwriter George Gershwin and Austrian expressionist composer Arnold Schoenberg. (The play’s title refers to the 12-toned chromatic scale Schoenberg favored). The mise en scène is Hollywood, 1936-37, alternating between Ira Gershwin’s private tennis court and Schoenberg’s dining room. In an interesting, site-specific staging choice, the audience physically moves upstairs to the Ice House’s second floor for the dining room scenes. The downstairs set, the tennis court, is quite minimal—with only a couple of benches—while the dining room includes a table, furnishings, and a glowing orb meant to signify a full moon. The movement between the two settings enhances the play’s flow, and the audience seemed to enjoy moving about the rustic décor of the old Ice House. In addition to Gershwin (Ryan MacNamara) and Schoenberg (Robert Salsburg), the cast includes Gershwin’s then-girlfriend, actress Ginger Rogers (Stephanie Gawlas Walsh) and Schoenberg’s attractive, much younger wife Gertrud (Syd Stauffer).

We learn in a program note that 62-year-old Schoenberg had recently arrived in America, escaping the Nazi threat in his native Austria with help from Gershwin, and that Gershwin died of a brain tumor (at age 37) less than a year after the men began their tennis rivalry. (Throughout the play, we see Gershwin suffer from various odd sensory symptoms that tell us not all is well).

The two composers, so divergent in temperament, artistic philosophy and style, and age, engage in an ongoing volley of ideas along with the tennis balls. While both men were musical geniuses in their own right, Schoenberg is formal, structured, and somewhat cranky, while Gershwin, a natural, intuitive talent, is much more sociable and happy-go-lucky. In the opening scene, the younger man scolds his older colleague: “You’ve got a rule for everything.” Schoenberg explains his philosophy: “Structure is everything.” He tells an incredulous Gershwin that his current work in progress has “neither notes nor melody.” Perhaps these artistic differences can be best described in a line from the play: “Schoenberg writes music for himself; Gershwin writes music for an audience.”

Certainly the debate about what is and what is not art is a heady subject for a play. However, as presented through the characters of the two highly individual composers, the topic takes on personal weight and meaning, and the play is quite engaging. Each of the four actors does a fine job inhabiting his or her character: Salsburg portrays Schoenberg with the right combination of intellectual fervor and curmudgeonly crank; MacNamara’s Gershwin is by turns light-hearted and tortured; Gawlas Walsh’s Ginger Rogers is intelligent and warm; and Syd Stauffer shows us Gertrud’s painful struggle between admiration for and duty to her husband and longing for a more exciting, passionate existence.

I spoke to the playwright for some behind-the-scenes insight into 12Ness. The following is an edited excerpt from that interview:

Shari Lifland: What was the inspiration behind 12Ness?

Charlie Barnett: The idea for the play came from a 13-second conversational tidbit. I was talking to my friend Graham Townsley about Gershwin and he told me about a standing tennis match between George Gershwin and Arnold Schoenberg. I can’t imagine two more unlikely people playing tennis. That was it—just the idea that George Gershwin and Arnold Schoenberg were standing 30 feet from each other. They’re the most divergent personalities and music that I could imagine. I couldn’t get it out of my head and I tried to figure out what to do with it. I wondered, “Is this going to make its way into a piece of music?” I didn’t really know. I did a minimum bit of research and found out there was basically nothing documented about what they said to each other, which is great for me, because I’m completely uninterested in a biographical sketch. I was interested in the art of it. So I thought, “Oh, good—I can just make up what they say!” Then I went on vacation (I’m not great on vacationing); and I got up every morning at 5 and I wrote for 4 hours. I wrote the play in a week. Then I spent the next 8 months putting it down, picking it up, editing. I invited 100 people whose opinions really matter to me to a reading, and based on that, I made some fairly decisive changes.

Shari Lifland: What are your next plans/hopes for the piece?

Charlie Barnett: It’s pretty clear to me that I’m going to make some changes structurally to it after seeing it this round. I’m going to work with Ara (Barlieb). He’s sharp at this stuff and sees this play with brand new eyes. There’s one big argument in this play—process vs. inspiration— and I have to figure out when enough is enough: when they audience finally gets it, vs. when they’re sick of it. It’s a fine line. Certainly in the play, all the best arguments are for process; there’s no really good argument for being inspired. How do you do it? Either you are or you aren’t.

Shari Lifland: In the play, Gershwin is put on the spot to defend inspiration, which is the only way he knows how to create. Is that fair? Is his art less valuable than Schoenberg’s?

Charlie Barnett: They were both certifiable geniuses in their own spheres, and that stands. There’s a good case to be made on both sides. Maybe I feel for them both equally. As a playwright, I just love the argument. As a composer, I’m probably ambivalent. I sit down to write a piece of orchestral music and it just comes. I’ve written a million pieces without a plan at all. I don’t have a plan like Schoenberg had a plan. I sit down and think, “Hmm. What would the audience like to hear? I’ll write that.” So much of what the characters in the play say is unsurprisingly what I would say.

For news about upcoming productions of 12Ness, visit www.charliebarnett.com

For information about the Crowded Kitchen Players, visit www.ckplayers.com

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me (What’s Not to Love)?

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me

What do a struggling, 21st century single mom musician/composer and a long-dead early 20th century explorer have in common? In a word: courage. Courage in the face of seemingly overwhelming adversity is the message of Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, a hugely entertaining and powerfully uplifting 90-minute “epic musical adventure” now playing at the Tony Kiser Theatre.

The musician is Kat (energetically and winningly played by electric violinist extraordinaire Val Vigoda, who also penned the show’s lyrics), who has been awake and multi-tasking for 36 hours in her freezing apartment: working on her music while trying to attend to her off-stage crying baby. The explorer is Ernest Shackleton (portrayed with irrepressibly engaging charm by Wade McCollum), who led three treacherous expeditions to the Antarctic—most famously in 1914-17, when he traveled over 800 miles in an open boat seeking help that would lead to the nearly miraculous rescue of 22 stranded crewmen.

When we first meet Kat, she is surviving as best as she can, despite her rather bleak situation. Her baby daddy (McCollum again) has left her to tour with a Journey cover band. She’s making ends meet thanks to a gig writing a soundtrack for a video game called “Star Blasters,” until she’s unceremoniously replaced by a high school senior. Things start looking up when she receives a very long distance phone call—a response to her profile on a pessimistic-sounding dating site called “Cupid’s Leftover’s.com”. Who’s calling? It’s Ernest S., who heroically travels through time and space (fittingly arriving from the Antarctic via Kat’s rime-enveloped fridge), just to meet her. Shackleton was a true swashbuckler, a “full-fledged optimist” who brought a banjo along on his expeditions to keep his crew entertained. His message to Kat, who is hovering on the brink of despair, is “Optimism is a form of true moral courage.” He declares that Kat is his muse—flattering, flirting, and encouraging her through an irresistible mix of confidence and charm. McCollum’s portrayal is so incredibly winning that it would seem impossible not to be swept away by Shackleton’s positivity and can-do enthusiasm.

As Kat works with Shackleton to accomplish the daring rescue, she and Ernest form a bond that drifts between friendship and love. Together, they save all 22 of Shackleton’s men, along with Kat’s faith in her art, herself, and the prospect of a brighter future. The action is heightened by accompanying video projections showing actual footage of Shackleton’s expedition and rescue operation. Kat is deeply inspired by her time spent with her intrepid visitor, a man who “Always came through and never gave up, never gave in.” She promises her infant son that she’ll always be there for him, singing, “I’ll be your Ernest.” When her boyfriend returns from his Journey journey, expecting that Kat will welcome him back and allow him to pick up where they left off, she finds the courage to stand up to him, embracing Shackleton’s advice to “Be your own beacon of hope.”

Overall, Vigoda’s lyrics are more interesting than the music (composed by Brendan Milburn), which tends to be somewhat repetitive. The individual songs aren’t listed in the Playbill, so it’s difficult to identify individual tunes. However, one song that stands out as both an emotional and musical highlight is “In the Eye of the Storm,” a sweet lullaby that Shackleton sings to calm Kat’s fussy baby: “Don’t regret what has been. Be the calm in the eye of the storm—sound advice for anyone. Vigoda’s electric violin is nothing short of amazing; it’s even further enhanced through the creative use of electronic playback, allowing to layer her virtuosity.

The show’s dazzling and innovative high-tech imagery and sound (production design is by Alexander V. Nichols; music direction, orchestrations, and additional music by Ryan O’Connell; sound design by Robert Kaplowitz (Tony winner for Fela!) and Ahren Buhmann), plays such a key role in the performance that it almost becomes a third character. The designers have turned the stage into a fake snow-filled polar expanse, incongruously backed by Kat’s array of computers and digital imaging equipment. Tied together by Joe DiPietro’s (Tony Award winner for Memphis) witty book and Obie and Lortel Award-winner Lisa Peterson’s laser-sharp direction, the divergent worlds of modern day musician/mom and early 20th century polar explorer somehow believably and seamlessly mesh together—including that whacky refrigerator entrance.

Did the monumental meeting between Kat and Shackleton really take place? Well, as Shackleton says, “Strange things happen when you haven’t slept in 36 hours.” No matter. The show leaves Kat and the audience much richer for the experience.

The moral can be summed up in a song lyric: “We might hit some really rough seas now and then, but we’ve braved them before and we’ll brave them again.” With so much of Off Broadway focusing on the darker side of life, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me’s message of optimism, hope, and self reliance is a most welcome one, adding up to an original and delightful 90-minute theatrical adventure.

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me plays at the Tony Kiser Theatre (305 W. 43rd St.) through June 11. For ticket information: http://ernestshackletonlovesme.com/

Theatre Review: Judith Light in Neil LaBute’s “All the Ways to Say I Love You”

judith-light

“What is the weight of a lie?” That’s the opening line and key question of Neil LaBute’s new one act/one character play now playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Although the question—posed by high school English teacher/guidance counselor Mrs. Johnson (Tony, Drama Desk, and Emmy Award winner Judith Light, currently starring in the Golden Globe winning TV series “Transparent”)—seems theoretical, one hour later, when the play (really a monologue) ends, we learn that the answer is in fact, quite literal.

Mrs. Johnson first pondered the question many years before, when a student, inspired by something the teacher mentioned in passing about the “weight of the soul” asked it in class. Mrs. Johnson tells us, “For once, I didn’t have an answer. The teacher’s job is to put forth answers. It doesn’t have to be the right one…We work together to find the answer. And the truth in the end may surprise us all—even me.”

The question about the weight of a lie provides the foundation for the play. Mrs. Johnson is living with the consequences of a very big lie: she violated the #1 law of teacher/student relationships and slept with one of her students, a “second year senior” named Tommy. And that’s not her worst transgression: she became pregnant (she and her husband had tried and failed to conceive a child) and deceived her husband into believing the child was his. Now, years later, she struggles with the guilt of her actions while attempting to somehow rationalize them as acceptable. One thing she knows with absolute certainty: the weight of her particular lie is exactly 6 pounds, 3 ounces.

Ms. Light, an accomplished, respected, and much-loved multiple award-winning actress, gives a breathtakingly watchable performance, covering a wide swath of emotional territory within the short time span of the play. Her Mrs. Johnson is by turns contrite, unrepentant, lascivious, and tortured. Light transitions seamlessly through each of these disparate facets of her character—a master’s class in acting. At the end, we’re left to wonder if Mrs. Johnson is crazy—driven mad by the basic inescapable wrongness of her actions and the resulting guilt that goes along with bearing the weight of the lies she has created to cover up her wrongs.

Leigh Silverman (Violet, Well, LaBute’s The Way We Get By, and the upcoming Sweet Charity with Sutton Foster) provides able direction to Ms. Light and Rachel Hauck’s realistic, somewhat claustrophobic set design of Mrs. Johnson’s guidance office creates just the right atmosphere. But ultimately, the play’s the thing, and in this case, things don’t really add up.

All the Ways to Say I Love You isn’t very effective or satisfying, for several reasons. First, it’s never clear to whom Mrs. Johnson is speaking. Yes, she’s addressing us, the audience, but as stand-ins for whom? A jury? God? Her husband? Herself? The lack of context is confusing and off-putting. Second, it’s difficult to feel much (if any) empathy for Mrs. Johnson. Although she says she loves her husband, she betrayed him—along with her professional ethics—by turning to an impressionable boy in an attempt to fill the void in her passionless marriage. When she speaks graphically (and rhapsodically) about her erotic adventures with Tommy, it’s difficult to suppress the “ick” factor. And the fact that Mrs. Johnson believes that her student benefited from the inappropriate liaison (“I pushed him to go to college; he is successful because of me”) doesn’t help her cause. True, LaBute loves to make us squirm by forcing us to confront the most unattractive, odious parts of ourselves. (He has said, “We humans are fairly barbarous bunch.”). But because he shows us nothing of Mrs. Johnson’s better nature, she remains distant from us, at arm’s length, to be regarded as more of a curiosity than as a fellow human being.

On paper, All the Ways to Say I Love You isn’t one of LaBute’s weightier works; it doesn’t hold its own compared to In the Company of Men, Reasons to be Pretty, Fat Pig, and his other, more substantial plays. Without the luminous Ms. Light inhabiting the tortured, lustful soul of Mrs. Johnson, the play would no doubt be a good deal less effective, the tale much less engaging. But the opportunity to experience Ms. Light’s incandescent acting magic up close and personal in the intimate space of the Lortel adds infinite heft to the lightweight material. As one of the premier actresses of her generation, working across television, film, and thankfully, live theater mediums, Judith Light never brings us anything less than her “A” game. Through her work and commitment to her craft, she repeatedly shows her audiences “all the ways to say I love you”.

All the Ways to Say I Love You is at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St., through October 23. For ticket information: www.mcctheater.org

Too Blondes: Resident Millennials at the Metropolitan Room

Too BlondesIt’s not always easy being blonde—we’ve all heard the jokes. But like iconic blonde megastar Dolly Parton—who once quipped: “I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes, because I know I’m not dumb and I know I’m not blonde”—performers Savannah Brown and Chase O’Donnell know they’re not dumb, either. As evidenced by their delightful appearance at the Metropolitan Room on July 29 (their last in a series of shows at the venue over the past year), they’ve masterfully learned how to make blondeness work for them.

Performing as Too Blondes, Brown and Chase simultaneously spoofed and celebrated the blonde stereotype in an original show of song, dance, and banter that showcased their musical and comic talents. Written by Ms. O’Donnell and directed by Ms. Brown, the Too Blondes were ably backed up by musical director Sheridan Stevens on piano and Oliver Switzer on guitar and cajon.

The theme of the show, we learned, was “Life in the 20’s.” Brown, resplendent in a shimmery turquoise flapper dress accessorized by a silvery headband, has done her homework (via Yahoo Answers), and she proudly shared a wealth of information about the Roaring 20’s. There was just one teensy problem: the show’s title refers to life in one’s 20’s (both performers are 25), not the 20’s. No matter. Like another set of pals, Patsy and Edina of “Ab Fab” fame, the Too Blondes support each other, no matter what. Even in the face of Brown’s most egregiously hysterical dumb blondisms (i.e., mistakenly believing they’re playing the Metropolitan Opera instead of the Metropolitan Room), O’Donnell had her back, and vice versa. The obvious affection and support between their two characters is endearing, cleverly upending the dumb blonde shtick and turning it into a feminist statement.

The show gave both women opportunities to shine, individually and together. Some highlights included a 90’s/20’s mash up medley, where each blonde sang selections from “the classics.” For Ms. O’Donnell that meant the hip hop song “I’m Blue,” as counterpoint to Ms. Brown’s more traditional “Blue Skies” —a clever way to acknowledge their youth while paying homage to the cabaret tradition they embrace. (Ms. Brown’s mother is MAC Award-winning performer Stacy Sullivan). In her original composition “Turning 22,” Ms. O’Donnell described the frustrations of a young performer eager to make it in show business before it’s too late. She lamented, “21, I was fine. 22, past my prime. I’m running out of time to be famous. I should be famous.” Her blonde pal reassured her that everything will be OK: “When you don’t know what’s next, drink champagne!”

To bring the proceedings back to a lighter note, Ms. Brown’s ditzy character decided to write and perform a song on the spot. Grabbing Mr. Switzer’s guitar, she came up with a tune that sounded a lot like (actually, exactly like) Cindy Lauper’s hit “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” which while not original, could be the Too Blondes’ anthem. In the “Audition Bit,” the Blondes auditioned for the part of “white Diana Ross” for an all-white version of the Supremes. This number, along with another, “Dance Versatility,” provided a showcase for the pair’s dancing talents, from tap to ballet to Fosse-esque.

While the Blondes stepped offstage for a costume change, Sheridan Stevens kept things going with his original ballad “Leader of ISIS,” an offbeat tune that sounded like a Cole Porter classic with modern, twisted lyrics: “If I were the leader of ISIS, I’d proclaim I’m a prophet, then claim all the profit to buy nice things for you.” Stevens, along with Brown and O’Donnell, is an example of the wealth of young, gifted performers working in New York today. In addition to Stevens’ original song, four of the 15 musical numbers in the show were written by Ms. O’Donnell: “Mamma Misled Me,” “Turning 22,” “Going Dark,” and “Dating Song.”

What’s next for the Too Blondes? In an interview after their performance, the performers gave COTA an advance scoop: their next show is already in the works. Just in time for the presidential election, Too Blondes: Red, Blonde, and Blue will debut October 2 at the Triad Theatre.  Chase O’Donnell told COTA: “Every week we post a new political sketch, so we’ve decided to do a political show. We’ll be running for president, the two of us.” While the Too Blondes wouldn’t divulge where their political sympathies lie, they did share that they’ll be running on the “Dependent” party ticket, because they’re “dependent on their parents for money.” And they say they got some terrific Tiffany Trump material while watching the Republican convention. So stay tuned.

For more information, visit http://www.tooblondes.com

Shari & Too Blondes

The Last Five Years

Last 5 Years

The Last Five Years: Pioneer Productions Company at the Art House, Jersey City

Some Background

The Last Five Years is the most famous Broadway musical never to appear on Broadway. Written by 3-time Tony winner Jason Robert Brown (Parade, The Bridges of Madison County, Honeymoon in Vegas), the show had its premiere at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre in 2001, then played Off Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theatre in 2002 and at Second Stage (with Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe) in 2013. The 2015 film adaptation starred Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick. Although it is performed often in venues around the world (as a two-hander, it’s a natural for regional theatre companies looking to keep budgets low), it has yet to make its way to the Main Stem.

 The Story

The story line is a classic he said/she said tale of love found and lost. But there’s a twist: the two characters, Jamie Wellerstein, an up-and-coming writer (Daniel Peter Vissers) and struggling actress Cathy Hiatt (Shanna Levine-Phelps) relate their tale through alternating songs, with Cathy starting in the present, when the marriage ends, and Jamie beginning in the past, when he and Cathy first meet. We witness the joy, uncertainty, and heartbreak, from their two perspectives, backwards and forward through time. Because of the play’s unique structure, Cathy and Jamie sing together only once, at the close of Act 1, when their stories cross paths on their wedding day (“The Next 10 Minutes”).

The show is sung through, with very little dialogue. The opening tune, “Still Hurting,” introduces Cathy at the moment she realizes her marriage is over. She sings, “I’m still hurting…I’m covered with scars I did nothing to earn,” then she slips off her wedding ring and places it on the table where Jamie has already left his. In contrast, Jamie’s first song, “Shiksa Goddess” (one of the show’s best as well as best-known) is an exuberant, hysterical ode to the Irish Catholic lass Jamie has just met and instantly fallen for. Cathy is the polar opposite of a suitable match for a nice Jewish boy—and that’s exactly what makes her so completely irresistible. Jamie imagines the havoc his unorthodox choice in a mate will provoke:

“I’m breaking my mother’s heart;

The JCC of Spring Valley is shaking and crumbling to the ground.

And my grandfather’s rolling in his grave.”

So enamored of her total goyishness is he that nothing about Cathy can dampen his ardor. Among the clever and uproarious characteristics that Jamie vows he would accept of his Shiksa Goddess:

“If you had a pierced tongue, that wouldn’t matter.

If you once were in jail or you once were a man,

If your mother and your brother had ‘relations’ with each other,

And your father was connected to the Gotti clan,

I’d say, ‘Well, nobody’s perfect.’

It’s tragic but it’s true:

I’d say, “Hey! Hey! Shiksa goddess!

I’ve been waiting for someone like you.”

The Production

Both Shanna Levine-Phelps and Daniel Peter Vissers are strong, confident performers and trained, capable singers. Vissers, like any actor playing Jamie, has the advantage in The Last Five Years, as his character is the more sympathetic of the two. After all, Brown based the show on his own life, drawing heavily from his failed marriage to actress Theresa O’Neill. So it’s not surprising that Jamie’s character is more relatable (and gets the best songs). Because the character of Cathy starts out weepy and spends most of the show in a funk, the lion’s share of the fun and laughs go to Jamie. Other than Cathy’s breezy “A Summer in Ohio,” where she laments the life of an actress paying her dues Off, Off, Off, Off Broadway (where she is “Slowly going batty, 40 miles east of Cincinnati”), and her final number, where she sings the sunny counterpart to “Goodbye Until Tomorrow,” most of the tunes in her repertoire are weepy and angst-ridden. Any actress playing Cathy has a tough assignment, as Brown has stacked the deck in favor of his alter ego, Jamie. And it’s difficult not to notice that, while Ms. Levine-Phelps is a lovely young actress, she doesn’t look much like a “Shiksa Goddess” (although artistically, she is more than up to the role’s demands).

Vissers makes the most of his character’s most favored status. He equally conveys the humor in “Shiksa Goddess,” the youthful enthusiasm of “Moving Too Fast,” and the touching pathos of “Nobody Needs to Know” and “Goodbye Until Tomorrow.” He is a gifted, winning performer who truly shines in the role.

The Pioneer production includes a spare but effective set: a bed, a chair, and a clock on the wall flanked by two candles—one looking back, and the other looking forward, mimicking the structure of the show. The incredibly talented (and incredibly young) 5-piece band, under the direction of pianist Sean Cameron, does a superb job backing up the actors, serving as a valuable third performer in the production. Lighting design by John Latona, Jr. and technical direction by Lance A. Michel add to the production’s effectiveness.

The Last Five Years is at Art House, 136 Magnolia Avenue in Jersey City.

Performance schedule: Fridays & Saturdays, July 8, 9, 15, 16, 22, & 23 @8pm;

Sundays, July 10, 17, & 24 @3pm

For ticket information visit http://www.pioneerproductionscompany.org

 

 

Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed on Broadway

Eclipsed

Eclipsed, Danai Gurira’s seering play about 4 women living in captivity during Liberia’s second civil war, is ultimately about power: those who have it, those who don’t, and those who will do anything to get it. It’s a brilliantly written and acted ensemble production that shines a light on important international human rights issues—well worth checking out before it ends its Broadway run on June 19 at the Golden Theatre on 45th Street. The 5-woman cast, performing together in productions both Off-and on Broadway, are a seamless unit of talent, power, and grace.

When the play begins we find 2 women living in squalor in a barely furnished, bullet-riddled hut. We learn they have been kept in captivity, as sexual and domestic slaves, for so long that the maternal older woman known simply as “Wife #1” (Saycon Sengbloh), has no idea how long she’s been there or exactly how old she is. Wife #3 (Pascale Armand), heavily pregnant, is clearly the second banana in this circumscribed world—the less powerful among the powerless. Then, a surprise: a third woman (understudy Ayesha Jordan, at the performance I saw, in for the Tony-nominated, Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o) appears from under a large wash tub. She is a gangly 15-year-old girl, kept hidden by the other women to prevent her from falling victim to their fate of sexual servitude to the (offstage) man they refer to as the “C.O.” However, their efforts prove futile: once the girl steps outside the safety of the hut to urinate, she is immediately grabbed and raped by the C.O., becoming Wife #4. The Girl, who grew up in the city, is different from the other women. She has had the benefit of an education and knows how to read and write. Having been forced from her home only recently, she is still able to dream of a life as a constitutional lawyer.

Anyone paying attention will wonder what became of Wife #2. Where is she? Wife #1 speaks of her scornfully. Wife #3 defends her as much as she dares. Our questions are answered when Wife #2 (Zainab Jah) shows up at the hut with an offering: a huge bag of rice for the women. Despite Wife #3’s entreaties, Wife #1 wants no part of either Wife #2 or the rice. We learn that Wife #2 has chosen the only available route out of her sexual enslavement: she has become a fighter in the rebel army. Taut, jittery, and wiry, dressed in fashionable jeans, a machine gun slung across her body, she is all swagger and tough-girl posturing.

As the action unfolds, we see that each character has her own definition of power. For Wife #1, power means being top dog in the small compound, where she rules the roost (or at least Wife #3). Wife #3 gains power by being the C.O.’s favorite sexual plaything and by carrying his unborn child. Wife #2, who now uses the fighter name “Disgruntled,” finds her power by acting like the brutal men who captured and abused her. She convinces The Girl to reclaim her own power by joining her in battle. The Girl realizes too late that to avoid being a victim, she must now become the victimizer, capturing other young girls for the rebel men to use and abuse. Wife #2 rationalizes the brutality, telling her: “The men are beasts and beasts demand to be fed. It’s either you or them.” At the play’s end, The Girl stands frozen, bearing two radically different symbols of power: a gun in one hand, a book in the other. Which will she choose?

A fifth woman, Rita (Akosua Busia), makes occasional visits to the rebel compound. She is a cultured, educated women dressed all in white who is part of a group of women peace activists dedicated to ending the violence. In one of the play’s most heartbreaking scenes, Rita tries to convince Wife #1 that a better life awaits her. She asks Wife #1 about her past, but the memories of her previous life are too painful for Wife #1 to contemplate; she cannot bear even to speak her real name aloud. After much prodding, she finally whispers it to Rita, who shows the illiterate Wife #1 how to spell it out using a stick in the dirt. “Think about what you can be,” she urges. Wife #1 responds despairingly: “I don’t know who I am.” The contrast between the 2 women is striking: Rita’s power lies in her ability to envision a better future through her peacekeeping work, while Wife #1 believes her only power lies in her place within the compound hierarchy.

During her time as a soldier, The Girl takes the name “Mother’s Blessing,” in memory of her own mother—ironic since she is now responsible for wrenching daughters away from their mothers, condemning them to live under unspeakable tyranny. The significance and importance of one’s name is a recurring theme in Eclipsed. As Rita tells Wife #1: “You must never lose your name.” To illustrate the power of names, the cast dedicates each performance to the abducted schoolgirls in Northern Nigeria and to all abducted girls around the world (#knowhername). At the end of the show cast members (and sometimes guests, who have included Nancy Pelosi and Gloria Steinem) announce the names of 2 missing girls and ask the audience to repeat the names out loud. It is a powerful and chilling moment that brings home the reality that the events depicted in Eclipsed continue today, even as the audience sits comfortably in their seats at the Golden Theatre. It is a prime example of how theatre can not only entertain, but be a call to action.

Zimbabwean playwright (Familiar, In the Continuum) and actress (known for her role on AMC’s “The Walking Dead”) Gurira developed Eclipsed at the Wooly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC. The play was later staged at New York’s Public Theater in 2015 before moving to Broadway. The production will move to the Curran Theatre in San Francisco, California for a limited engagement in Spring 2017. With powerful direction by award-winning South African Liesl Tommy, Eclipsed is the first Broadway production with an all-female cast, director, writer, and production team (except for set & costume designer Clint Ramos).

Eclipsed was nominated for 6 Tony Awards, including Best Play. On June 12, 2016, Clint Ramos won the Tony for Best Costume Design for his work on the play.

Eclipsed continues at the Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th St. through June 19.
Opening night: March 6, 2016; first preview: February 23, 2016.

For more information: http://www.eclipsedbroadway.com/

Backstage after the show!

Eclipsed & Shari

Theatre Review: Arthur Miller’s The Crucible with Saoirse Ronan and Ben Whishaw

Crucible Playbill

It’s said that when The Crucible was first performed on Broadway, in late January 1953 at the Martin Beck Theater, Arthur Miller deemed the production “too stylized and cold.” One wonders what the playwright would make of his work’s newest incarnation, now in a limited run at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Directed by the much-lauded Dutch theatre/opera director Ivo Van Hove (who also helmed the recent hit Broadway revival of Miller’s A View from the Bridge) this stark and stripped down Crucible is certainly stylized—Jan Versweyveld’s sparse set represents no specific place or time—and perhaps a bit cold as well. But the realistic, bone-chilling performances, underscored by Philip Glass’s ominous original score, create an unforgettably powerful and disturbing theatrical experience. Miller’s cautionary tale of evildoing in the guise of piety remains as potent and relevant today as when The Crucible made its debut over 60 years ago (especially given the current presidential election cycle, where talk of “bringing America back” and fear of immigrants and religious minorities dominates the debates).

The curtain rises on a prelude of sorts: a group of schoolgirls, dressed in matching uniforms, sit in a classroom, their backs to the audience. We hear children’s voices singing. The curtain closes on this glimpse of normalcy, then quickly rises again to reveal a different scene, where young Betty Parris (Elizabeth Teeter) lies ill and immobile. We learn that another girl, Ruth Putnam, is similarly afflicted. From this point on, the normal, rational world no longer exists. Betty’s father, the local Reverend (Jason Butler Harner) is worried. He came upon Betty and some other girls dancing (a sin) in the woods (perhaps naked, an even greater sin) and he fears witchcraft may be to blame. He has summoned another preacher, John Hale (an excellent Bill Camp), an expert in demonic possession, to help make a proper diagnosis. A voice of reason, the elderly, highly respected Rebecca Nurse (a heart-breakingly effective Brenda Wehle), tries to rein in his fears, before things get out of hand, warning Reverend Parris, “There is prodigious danger in the seeking of loose spirits. I fear it, I fear it. Let us rather blame ourselves.” But it’s too late: the game’s afoot; the witch hunt is irrevocably under way.

As the ringleader of the girls, Parriss’s niece Abigail Williams, Saoirse Ronan is a terrifying piece of work. Slender, blonde, and pretty, she is a prime example of the perils of judging a book by its cover: this outwardly sweet young thing is the embodiment of a persuasive, sinister evil. The truth is that Abigail had the girls accompany her to the woods, along with the Barbadian servant Tituba (Jenny Jules) to participate in a ceremony that she hoped would bring about the death of Elizabeth Proctor (the brilliant Sophie Okonedo, who last graced Broadway in her Tony-winning performance in the terrific revival of A Raisin in the Sun). Young Abigail had a brief affair with Elizabeth’s husband John (British star Ben Whishaw, in an impressive Broadway debut) while working in their home, and in true “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” fashion, Abigail is determined to take Elizabeth’s place. Lest any of the girls consider divulging the truth, Abigail bullies them into silence, threatening Mercy Lewis (Erin Wilhelmi) and Mary Warren (Tavi Gevinson, a terrific young actress last seen on Broadway in This Is Our Youth): “Let either of you breathe a word, or the edge of a word, about the other things, and I will come to you in the black of some terrible night and I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you. And you know I can do it; I saw Indians smash my dear parents’ heads on the pillow next to mine, and I have seen some reddish work done at night, and I can make you wish you had never seen the sun go down!”

What makes this production of The Crucible so affecting is the cast—all top-notch. While the whip-thin Whishaw is not the robust physical type usually cast in the role of John Proctor, the choice seems especially apt in the final scene, when Proctor appears after having spent months in prison. He is filthy, abused, and starved. His scrawny bare back is bloody from torture. As he huddles with his beloved wife, (also filthy; also quite thin), he is a stand in for the ultimate man, Christ, headed toward his martyrdom. Whishaw is a fine, nuanced actor, best known in the UK for his West End stage appearances and in the U.S. for his roles in the James Bond film “Spectre” and TV’s “Criminal Justice.” The scenes between him and the luminous Okonedo are especially poignant. Special mention must also go to Ciarán Hinds’s frighteningly and self-righteously deluded Deputy Governor Danforth (truly chilling), Bill Camp’s evolving turn as the Reverend John Hale, who too late realizes his error in sanctioning the proceedings, and Tavi Gevinson’s wispy, mousy, ill at ease Mary Warren, a downtrodden lass who tries to stand up to the authorities and to Abigail, only to realize that she is no match for any of them.

Although The Crucible is based on real-life characters and events that took place during the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, Miller wrote the play as a commentary on a more recent—but no less abominable—American witch hunt (one which he personally experienced), the anti-communist “Red Scare” of the 1950s. Like the actors, writers, and others accused of anti-American activity under McCarthyism, the characters in The Crucible are at the mercy of their accusers. Any person may find himself suddenly accused. And anyone who refuses to “name names” is summarily condemned. Ironically, the only means of survival in the play is to admit one’s “sin” (even though innocent) and to accuse others. In both cases—Salem and the Red Scare—we see a world gone mad, driven by an irrational mob mentality and a perversion of morality as an excuse for barbarism.

In truth, the accusatory characters in The Crucible are driven by base, rather than pious, motives. Abigail lusts after John Proctor and will commit murder to have him. Ann Putnam (Tina Benko) accuses Rebecca Nurse, an upright pillar of the community, of witchcraft because she envies her many healthy children and grandchildren. And Ann’s husband, Thomas (Thomas Jay Ryan) wants Rebecca Nurse’s husband (veteran actor Jim Norton) out of the way so that he can take his land. Lust, envy, and greed—all in the name of piety!

In the final moments of The Crucible, Miller sends a powerful message via John Proctor. Just before he is to be pointlessly put to death, Proctor rails at the imperious judge who has condemned him, along with so many other innocents: “I hear the boot of Lucifer, I see his filthy face! And it is my face, and yours, Danforth!” As Miller reminds us, the Devil has always walked among us; he’s still here. And he looks a lot like us.

The Crucible plays at the Walter Kerr Theatre through July 17.
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This review originally appeared on Center on the Aisle.