Monday, February 29, 2016

A Rare Look At Two Late Tennessee Williams Plays - Produced by Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company at Walkerspace, 46 Walker Street, TriBeCa

Jade Ziane as Mint
Kate Skinner as Mme. Le Monde
"The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. Le Monde"
Tennessee Williams 1982
The Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company
Walkerspace, 46 Walker Street, TriBeCa
Through March 13th

Even if you are an ardent fan of the works of Tennessee Williams, I would be willing to bet that you have not seen productions of the two one-act plays that are running through March 13 at Walkerspace in TriBeCa.  Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company is offering a provocative pairing of two one-act plays under the umbrella title of "Tennessee Williams 1982."  In that year, Williams wrote "A Recluse And His Guest," as well as "The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. Le Monde."  This is a World Premiere for "Recluse" and a New York Premiere for "Rooming-House."

These late plays by Williams have generally not fared well in critical evaluation as they are compared with his well know masterpieces. Romanian born Director Cosmin Chivu has championed the rehabilitation and re-evaluation of these plays, and it is under his creative direction that these two plays appear now in New York.  Scenic Designer Justin West has created an adaptable space that serves both plays.  The design fits as the home of the eponymous recluse in the first play, and also captures the wild ethos of a Punked-out group of Londoners.  Lighting by John Eckert and flamboyant Costumes by Angela Wendt set the right tone, as does original music by Paul Brantley.

"A Recluse And His Guest" tells the bizarre Scandanavian tale of a hermit who inexplicably takes in an outcast woman, offers her safe haven and even affection, and then throws her back out into the cold.  "The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. Le Monde" is a black comedy, Mint(Jade Ziane), a disabled young man is being kept in the attic of Mme. Le Monde's (Kate Skinner) establishment.  He is being sexually abused by the Madame's son (Declan Eells), and is visited by a former schoolmate, Hall (Patrick Darwin Williams).  Hall is apparently a former adolescent lover of Mint, but is now a very high priced sex worker, and avers that Mint cannot afford him.  Hall spends much of his visit verbally abusing the young man, until Mme. Le Monde appears and escalates the action to an unexpected level. Because of his paralysis, Mint gets around the attic loft by hooking himself into a series of hanging loops that look like mini-nooses. The physicality of Mr. Ziane in negotiating this obstacle course is one of the delights of this production.  In his more well-known works, Williams has certainly dealt with complex issues of sexuality and neurosis, but in this play, he throws all restraint to the wind and offers an outrageous narrative arc that is shocking and nihilistic.

In addition to the actors that make up the cast of "Rooming-House," "Recluse" also features Anne Wechsler, Beau Allen and Ford Austin.

If you are a fan of the work of Tennessee Williams or a student of the history of theater, you will not want to miss this rare sighting of two rare birds from Williams' creative nest.  "Tennessee Williams 1982" will run through March 13.

Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company Website



Boston Ballet Triumphs With The Timeless "Onegin" by John Cranko - Based On The Novel by Alexander Pushkin

Boston has been waiting several years to a triumphal return of John Cranko's timeless adaptation of Pushkin's novel in verse, "Eugene Onegin."  The fast has been broken, and the meal that Boston Ballet serves upon the stage of the Boston Opera House is a feast for the eyes and for the ears. Cranko's choreography is set to the hauntingly beautiful music of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, perfectly rendered by the orchestra under the baton of David Briskin.

If you are not familiar with this beloved and tragic Russian tale, here is a bold stroke outline, taken from the Boston Ballet website:

Based on Alexander Pushkin's narrative poem, John Cranko's emotional ballet is a story of unrequited love. Eugene Onegin, a young and cynical aristocrat, travels to the country to attend a birthday party for Tatiana - the younger sister to his best friend Lensky's fiancé Olga. Tatiana naïvely falls in love with the brooding Onegin and writes him a passionate letter. Onegin rejects her love, tears up her letter, and amuses himself by flirting with Olga. Lensky, enraged by his friend's flirting, challenges Onegin to a duel. Despite pleas from both women, Lensky persists and in a cruel twist of fate, Onegin unintentionally kills his friend. Overcome with remorse, Onegin flees into exile.
The years pass, Tatiana matures into a beautiful woman and marries Prince Gremin. Onegin returns from his self-imposed banishment for a ball at the Prince's lavish palace. He meets Tatiana again and realizes the depth of his mistake in rejecting her all those years ago. In an attempt at redemption, it is now his turn to write a passionate plea to her, begging for her love and forgiveness. Though Tatiana still has feelings for Onegin, she vows to be faithful to her husband and sends Onegin away.

The performance I attended featured the same cast as Opening Night, and they were flawless in their execution.  What struck me most poignantly is that these performers are not only consummate dancers, but great actors and story tellers.  Each dancer upon the stage inhabited their character, adding to the choreographed steps idiosyncratic glances and gestures that defined the character and told the story.  I spoke with a member of the corps de ballet who shared with me some of the instructions that had been given to the dancers during rehearsal.  The basic message was this: "You cannot dance this ballet and tell this story without feeling the emotions.  Let the music dictate your steps, and let your steps inform your emotions."  It was clear that the dancers had taken those instructions to heart, and the result was a stunningly beautiful and moving evening of dance and story telling.

Tatiana rejects Onegin's pleas
"Onegin" by John Cranko
Boston Ballet
Boston Opera House
Through March 6th

In the arc of Pushkin's story, Onegin begins as haughty as he humbles Tatiana when he tears up her love letter.  At the end of the story, in counterpoint, it is Onegin who is humbled as Tatiana turns the tables and tears up his letter.  In the performance I witnessed, Lasha Khozashvili danced the role of Onegin to perfection.  In the first act, he was aloof and officious, untouchable.  But as he experienced survivor's guilt and was haunted by the specter of Lensky (Patrik Yocum), he visibly aged, a touch of grey spackling his hair like a second term Obama, ambulating with a slight slouch, and instead of striding with an officious bearing, he is now imploring as he throws himself at Tatiana's feet.  At the other end of the emotional seesaw, Tatiana rises in her moral choice to remain faithful to her husband, despite the fact that she still harbors deep feelings for Onegin.  Petra Conti was luminous and transcendent as Tatiana, her face and affect reflecting the spectrum of emotions that danced in her head and heart. The final tortured pas de deux between Tatiana and Onegin was a highlight - choreography, music and execution of the movement all reinforcing the ambivalence in Tatiana's soul as she is drawn, to Onegin, and then, in the end, rejects him.

Tatiana and Onegin
"Onegin" by John Cranko
Boston Ballet
Boston Opera House
Through March 6th
Also standing out in the performance was Mr,Yocum as Onegin's young protege, Lensky, who ends up challenging his mentor to a duel when Onegin interposes himself between Lensky and his fiancee, Olga, Tatiana's sister.  Olga was danced wonderfully by a very lithe and beautiful Ashley Ellis. Tatiana's eventual husband, Prince Gremin, was danced solidly by the statuesque Bo Busby.

Special mention must go to the corps de ballet and their lively interpretation of Cranko's flowing movements.  One scene stands out in my visual memory.  At the party in St. Petersburg, couples are dancing in wild celebration.  The men are lifting up their dates, who in turn are trusting their arms in the air in ecstatic release.  The overall effect was like watching the dancing fluid waters in the fountains at the Bellagio.

Staging by Agneta Stjernlof-Valcu and Victor Valcu was beautifully wrought. as was the Lighting by Steen Bjarke and the Scenic and Costume Design by Elisabeth Dalton.

This stunning programs runs through this Sunday.  It is Leap Day today, so I implore you to leap at the chance to see Boston's most artistic leapers tell this gorgeous story of unrequited love.

Boston Ballet Website



Saturday, February 27, 2016

"The Convert" by Danai Gurira - Rush To Central Square This Weekend!

Adobuere Ebiama as Jekesai/Ester
and Liana Asim as Mai Tamba
"The Convert"
Underground Railway Theater
Through February 28th
Photo: A. R. Sinclair Photography

Because of my travel schedule, I was only able to catch a performance of "The Convert" near the end of its run.  But I want to alert you that there are still a few more opportunities this weekend to catch this deeply moving and thought-provoking play by Danai Gurira.  Produced by Underground Railway Theater, the play is Directed with great care and insight by Megan Sandberg-Zakian.

The play is set in Rhodesia - what is now known as Zimbabwe - during colonial times.  The Roman Catholic Church has been aggressively evangelizing among the Shona and Ndebele tribesman, to bring them out of their "pagan darkness into the light of Christian faith."  The action concerns Jekerai, who is renamed Ester (Adobuere Ebiama).  In a nod to George Bernard Shaw and his play "Pygmalion," Ester is an African version of Eliza Doolittle in the hands of her own African Henry Higgins - her spiritual guide and master, Chilford (Maurice Emmanuel Parent), who seeks to remake her from a simple girl of the bush into his polished protege and fellow evangelizer. In order to please her new master, she must be willing to forsake her family of origin, her language, and her animist beliefs and practices to embrace fully her new adopted faith.

Equiano Mosieri as Chancellor
and Maurice Parent as Chilford
"The Convert"
Underground Railway Theater
Through February 28th

Photo: A. R. Sinclair Photography

The playwright, who has lived both in the U.S. and Zimbabwe, dives deeply into many layers of complications of the impact of colonial rule and exploitation.  Like the African men who are forced to work the mines, she burrows deeply into these themes to allow us to ask the question: "What did the colonizers and missionaries give, and how much more did they take away?" The play is a depiction of the sociological and anthropological effects of colonial rule, but it is also an examination of the results of proselytizing for the Christian faith.  The action is set at a time when a revolt on the part of the indigenous population leads to violence, and to deep divisions among the people and the characters of this play.

The cast is fleshed out powerfully by a strong ensemble.  There is Mai Tamba (Liana Asim), Chilford's housekeeper who secretly implores the spirits to protect the home, hiding amulets and talismans in the furniture and under the rugs.  Ester's cousin, Tamba (Ricardy Charles Fabre) is a young leader of the rebellion.  He ends up in a climactic confrontation with the philandering Chancellor (Equiano Mosieri).  Chancellor is engaged to be married to Prudence (Nehassaiu DeGannes), a brilliant and refined woman who has mastered the colonist's language, but has not swallowed their world view.  On the surface, she is refined and appears coopted by the white rulers, but when she speaks from the heart, she is a powerful advocate for her people.  Tamba's father, Uncle (Paul S. Benford Bruce) had tried to sell Jekesa to a man as one of his many wives, but she has fled to Chilford for safe haven and protection.

Maurice Emmanuel Parent as Chilford
and Nehassaiu DeGannes as Prudence

"The Convert"
Underground Railway Theater
Through February 28th
Photo: A. R. Sinclair Photography

The playwright offers up a cast of characters who represent a colorful spectrum covering extremes of complete assimilation into the world of the oppressor on the one hand and outright rebellion on the other hand - and several shades of gray in between.  The play, although set in a time long past, remains timely and relevant in terms of our current struggles with immigration policies and attitudes.

The telling of this complex tale is greatly enhanced by an evocative set by Jenna McFarland-Lord, Costumes by Miranda Kau Giurleo, Lighting by Devorah Kengmana, Sound by Nathan Leigh and Fight Direction by Andrew Kenneth Moss.  Dialect Coach Christine Hamel has added a valuable layer of authenticity by allowing the actors to reflect speech patterns of that part of the world.

This is a story of missionaries, mayhem, mercy, mining and marginalization.  Along the way, the playwrights asks us to consider what it takes to be a strong men and a strong woman under the duress and oppressive thumb of a conqueror.

If you have flexibility in your weekend schedule, head to Central Square for one of the final performances of this powerful play.  Saturday at 2:00 and 7:30 and Sunday at 2:00 at Central Square Theater.

Central Square Theater Website



Review of "Compelling People" by John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut - The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential

I found this book to be well researched and well written.  It builds upon the basic premise that we make instantaneous and subconscious decisions about people we meet.  In the first few seconds, our brains make a quick calculation about whether a person is strong or lacking in strength, and about whether the person is warm and well-intentioned or not.  As a result, we place individuals in one of four categories: strong and warm, strong and cold, weak and warm, or weak and cold.  It is in this first category -  the rare combination of strength and warmth - that we find people who are charismatic influencers. People like Oprah Winfrey or Bill Clinton.

The book is full of reports from recent research, as well as anecdotes about how we evaluate others, and how we can best present ourselves so that others will evaluate us in the best possible light. The proof of the pudding is that since reading this book, I find myself consciously checking the strength/warmth equation of people I meet, as well as monitoring whether I am intentionally giving off signals of strength and warmth.

I found the book to be intellectually provocative, and a practical guide to how to be perceived as a person of influence.  It would be a valuable addition to the library of anyone who is a leader or who aspires to a leadership role.



Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Huntington Theatre Company Presents "Milk Like Sugar" by Kirsten Greenidge - Through February 27th

Playwright Kirsten Greenidge has taken a story inspired by true events that happened in Gloucester, Massachusetts and translated them into the language and ethos of the streets of Boston. The dialogue among the three main characters - Talisha, Annie, and Margie - reminded me of conversations I have overhead on the Red Line traveling from Ashmont to Park Street.  Under the firm hand of Director M. Bevin O'Gara, these three actors and the rest of the company translate Ms. Greenidge's words into memorable action.

The premise of the play is that each of these young women have grown up in situation in which there has been a lack or nurture and dependable love, so they set out to get pregnant to assure themselves that they will have someone to love them.   Over the course of the play, they learn that the reality of pregnancy and single parenthood is not as glamorous as the newest iPhone or Coach handbag.

The relationships among Talisha (Shazi Raja), Annie (Jasmine Carmichael), and Margie (Carolina Sanchez) are fleshed out as they interact with one another at a tattoo parlor.  Annie juggles her conflicted feelings for two men, Malik (Marc Pierre), a high school senior with big dreams for his future, and Antwoine (Matthew J. Harris), an aspiring tattoo artist who practices both his art and his wooing skills on Annie.  He leaves an indelible impression on both fronts.  The very able cast is rounded out by Ramona Lisa Alexander as Myrna and Shanae Burch as Keera.

Carolina Sanchez as Margie,
Jasmine Carmichael as Annie,
and Shazi Raja as Talisha

"Milk Like Sugar"
Huntington Theatre Company
Through February 27th
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

An important element of the story is the telescope that Malik brings to his meetings with Annie.  She has decided that he would make a great father for her longed-for baby, so she sets up an assignation for them to meet more earthly concerns, and even knocks over the telescope.  The image of looking up to the sky becomes a theme for Malik and for Annie. Another theme in this play is the title: "Milk Like Sugar."  The three friends talk about the sugary powdered milk that many of them became addicted to that did not provide real nourishment.  It is a telling metaphor for the empty emotional calories that they all have been fed by their less than nurturing parents.

This play, which won an Obie when it was produced in New York.  This production features a Set by Christina Tedesco, Costumes by Junghyun Georgia Lee, Lighting by Wen-Ling Liao and Sound by M.L. Dogg.  The play runs through this Saturday at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA.

Huntington Theatre Website



Monday, February 22, 2016

A.R.T. Presents "1984" by George Orwell - A New Adaptation by Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan

I read "1984" many years ago, but I have indelible recollections of the impact that this iconic novel had on me as a young reader trying to understand how the world works.  Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillanhave adapted the book to the stage in a production that is eerily relevant to the current political climate in America.  This current version, which comes to the A.R.T. after a successful run in London's West End, is gripping theater.

Each aspect of the drama that highlights aspects of totalitarianism and mind control kept causing me to reflect on Donald Trump's current Quixotic run for the presidency. He seems to have invented his own brand of Newspeak while Unpersoning Mexicans  and Muslims in ways that would have made Big Brother smirk with delight.   The beauty and genius of Orwell's work is that in painting a bleak picture of a dystopia in whichIgnorance Is Strength, he incorporates elements from historical totalitarian regimes on the Left and the Right.  Questions and issues that the author raised when he first penned the novel are still relevant today: the ethics and efficacy of torture, the role of the state vs. individual freedoms, the use of propaganda, the question of how to test a source of information to judge its accuracy, the nature of history, the value of the person.

The cast of eight are extraordinarily effective in creating the chilling atmosphere that Orwell envisioned.  They are:

Simon Coates as Parsons
Tim Dutton as O'Brien
Stephen Fewell as Charrington
Christopher Patrick Nolan as Martin
Ben Porter as Syme
Matthew Spencer as Winston
Mandi Symonds as Mrs. Parsons
Hara Yannas as Julia
Addison Oken as Child
Cast of "1984"
Through March 6
Photo by Ben Gibbs

The Set by Chloe Lamford is integral to the telling of the story, and it undergoes dramatic changes as Martin and Julia are confronted by the state and accused of Thought Crimes.  Equally crucial are the Lighting Design of Natasha Chivers, Sound Design of Tom Gibbons and Video by Tim Reid.

The current controversy that has erupted between Apple vs. the FBI over issues of cybersecurity are additional echoes of Orwell's theme that "Big Brother is watching." The play is not pleasant to watch, with graphic depictions of violence and torture, but it is bold in its ruthless examination of these timely and crucial issues.  Throughout the run of the play, which extends through March 6, A.R.T. will partner with Harvard Kennedy School's Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation to offer a series of post-performance discussions.

Come and find out at the end of this play if you still believe that 2+2=4!
American Repertory Theater Website

Sunday, February 07, 2016

"American Dervish" by Ayad Akhtar - A Wonderful Companion Piece To The Author's Play "Disgraced"

I found this debut novel by Ayad Akhtar to be a wonderful companion piece to the author's play "Disgraced."

White Rhino Report Review of "Disgraced"

In both works, Akhtar wrestles autobiographically with his evolving views of the Muslim religion and of the Pakistani culture into which he was born. The title, "American Dervish," needs some explication.  For most of us, the only kind of dervish with which we are familiar are the legendary "whirling dervishes." But there are also dervishes who chant, and those who renounce all earthly pleasures -  ascetics who seek to abnegate any sense of selfhood, and who aspire to make themselves indistinguishable from the dust in the ground.  This spiritual stance and world view are the polar opposites of the American cults of personality and individualism.  In this novel, two characters demonstrate aspects of dervish behavior: the protagonist, Hayat, and his enchanting young aunt, Mina. Does Mina allow herself to be ground into dust, or is she fulfilling her destiny or her choices in life?  Is her embrace of Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man" mentality a free choice or has she been conditioned to accept whatever the men in her life dish out?  How does Hayat deal with the lingering guilt from acts of betrayal that he committed in the heat of adolescent hyper faith and fundamentalistic judgmentalism?

It is clear from this novel, from "Disgraced," and from interviews that the author has granted, that he struggles with coming to grips with aspects of traditional fundamentalist Muslim doctrine that he sees as atavistic, misogynistic and paternalistic.  His intellectual journey reminds me of that of Roger L. Martin of the University of Toronto, in his seminal work "Opposable Mind."  

White Rhino Report Review of "Opposable "Mind"

In "Opposable Mind" the author rejects false dichotomies, and posits that the best leaders and the best thinkers do not settle for imperfect Choice A vs. imperfect Choice B, but dig deeper to discover an integrative less imperfect Choice C or beyond.  In this sense, Hayat's journey, and that of Mr. Akhtar, represent a form of Hegelian dialectic, moving from the thesis of fundamentalism to the antithesis of atheism to the synthesis of some form of reasoned spirituality.  During the journeys that Hayat and Mina take, the author treats issues of anti-semitism, the paternalistic roots of the three Abrahamic faiths, the role of women in Islam and in America, the many routes one may choose on the way to self-discovery, the sacrifices one may choose to make to protect those we love.

It is the default setting of this provocative author not to offer facile answers, but to pose a series of "more beautiful questions" that cause the reader to pause, to consider, to ruminate, and to begin to see things in a new light.

I am off to order another one of Mr. Akhtar's thrilling works of art.



"All The Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr - A Magnificently Told Story That Richly Deserved Its Pulitzer Prize

The Pulitzer Prize jury certainly got it right when they awarded the coveted prize to Anthony Doerr's magnificent novel.  Set primarily during WWII and the years leading up to it, the narrative weaves together the stories of Marie-Laure, a young blind girl living in France with the saga of Werner, a frail engineering prodigy in Germany. Their paths cross briefly during the final days of the siege of Saint-Malo in Brittany as the American forces bomb the occupying Germans into oblivion.

Author Doerr is a masterful story teller and magnificent wielder of metaphor.  The surface narrative deals with electrons, snail and whelk shells, birds on the wing, museum as mausoleum, a rare diamond, blindness, and light - always light or its profound absence.  These plot elements propel the surface stories forward, but they also serve to suggest metaphysical questions: "Are we like electrons, destined to follow a pre-determined path, or can we choose to veer into other orbits?  What shells do we secrete to protect ourselves?  What subtle flaws and fault lines lie beneath the surface facets of our lives? Are the shelves and storage bins of our memories museums or mausoleums?"  Like the acclaimed play, "Copenhagen," this book asks the question of how a brilliant scientist may choose to use or withhold his esoteric knowledge in the service of his nation when the use of that knowledge may lead to death and destruction.

Werner, the German wunderkind, learns to follow the flow of electrons and thereby masters electricity and electronics at an early age.  The Third Reich recognizes his genius and tries to turn him into a robotic weapon, searching out Resistance radio broadcasts across the Eastern and Western fronts.  He reaches a point of moral crossroads as he is ordered to discover a transmitter high in the chimneys of Saint-Malo.  Memories of childhood short wave broadcasts that he would listen to with his young sister help him to make a difficult choice.  That choice involves him briefly - and forever - in the life of Marie-Laure.

As Mr. Doerr weaves together characters and places that are indelibly limned through his descriptions of their textures, smells, tastes, soundscapes, he opens windows into the kinds of individual suffering that spared few people during WWII, whether their political leaders were aligned with the Axis or the Allies.  War as hell is depicted with unblinking detail.  Each character, whether prominent or minor, suffers some form of deep loss during the war and its lingering aftermath.

"All The Light We Cannot See" is a book that is eye-opening, heart-rending and soul-searing, and is a MUST READ.



Thursday, February 04, 2016

Magnificent Bastards Presents "Shit-faced Shakespeare - Much Ado About Nothing" at Davis Square Theatre

Several months ago, I was inaugurated into the unique pleasures of a Magnificent Bastards production of "Shit-Faced Shakespeare - A Midsummer Night's Dream."  I was as enchanted as any mythical forest.

White Rhino Report Review of "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

When I learned that this same intrepid troupe of actors were now also tackling "Much Ado About Nothing," I knew that I had to return to Davis Square to see how they would handle this tale of tangled intentions, affections and disaffections. In the performance that I witnessed, the actor who had been chosen to appear in a state of inebriation was one Marcus Sandor Hunter in the role of Claudio.  He was hilarious and totally unhinged and uninhibited.

Marcus Sandor Hunter
Drunk or Sober?
You decide
Peace Out!
Shit-faced Shakespeare
Magnificent Bastards Productions
Davis Square Theatre

Even though this was not Hamlet, being in the presence of the Bard's brilliance caused me to wonder just how I should approach describing my evening of mirth and merriment at "Shit-faced Shakespeare."  Should I "B" or not "B"?  I opt for B!  So, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, here is what you may expect when you make your way to the Davis Square Theatre:
  • Benedick and Beatrice Belligerent, Befuddled and Bespoke
  • Bride-to-be Hero Besmirched and Betrayed
  • Bounteous Bosomy Beauties
  • Buried Bride Bursts forth
  • Benighted Bridegroom-to-be Claudio Bellicose in Berating Blubbering Bride-to-be
  • Beery Bridegroom Bestride a Banana
  • Bountiful Bottles of Brew
  • Bugle Beckoning that Claudio Betake more Beer
  • Bawdy Bedroom Balletics
  • Beastly Betrayal by Don Jon Burdens Claudio with Burgeoning Bad vibes
  • Bathos and Buffoonery
  • Belly laughs by the Bunch!
Any Questions?

Betake thyself Betimes to Davis Square.