Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Review of "The Boys Who Woke Up Early" by A.D. Hopkins - A Brilliant First Novel

In creating his intriguing first novel "The Boys Who Woke Up Early,"A.D. Hopkins has drawn from the deep well of his memories of growing up in Appalachia at the end of the Eisenhower era.  The title has a wonderful double meaning. Stony and Jack were two friends living in the southwest Virginia town of Early. While still in high school, they teamed up to form a private detective practice. I think of this work as The Hardy Boys meet "To Kill A Mockingbird," with a dash of "Tom Sawyer." The boys volunteered to help at the short-staffed sheriffs office. Through that lens, they saw the underbelly of the Jim Crow South, and eventually played a role in changing the nature of racial tensions and race relations in their corner of the world. So, in that sense, they helped to wake up the town of Early. And in another sense, they became "woke" to the realities of discrimination and prejudice at an early age.

As told through a series of adventures and misadventures, we see Stony and Jack learning to find their place in a backwoods world that was mired in old ways of thinking while the world around them was changing. This is a coming of age story - both for these two young men and for the town that they called home.

The narrative is full of tales of comradeship, moonshine, hunting, bullying, Klan rallies, domestic violence, political corruption, puppy love, and a feud that rivals that of the Hatfields and McCoys. The author has created characters that are both believable and relatable. I came to care about each of them.

This is a book worth reading. I look forward to the author's next offerings.



Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Classic Stage Company Presents August Strindberg Retrospective - "The Dance of Death" and "Mies Julie" In Repertory

August Strindberg
Classic Stage Company is staging an impressive look back at two of August Strindberg's best known plays. "The Dance of Death" and "Mies Julie" are running in repertory through March 10 in the East Village - 136 E. 13th Street.

"The Dance of Death" being presented is a new version by Conor McPherson and Directed by Victoria Clark. The title of the play has multiple meanings. Protagonist, Swedish Army Captain Edgar (Richard Topol), and his wife, Alice (Cassie Beck) are about to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. Yet it is clear from the opening montage that love has no place in this relationship, and the Silver Anniversary is tarnished. Edgar is literally dancing with death as his heart is giving out. And it becomes clear that the playwright (thrice divorced himself) sees dysfunctional marriage as a figurative dance of death. As the action of the play progresses, that figurative dance almost becomes literal as swordplay enters the arena. The cast of characters is filled out by Kurt (Christopher Innvar), a former lover of Alice and newly appointed Head of the Quarantine Station at the remote island outpost to which Edgar and Alice have been posted The addition of Kurt to the mix throws additional light and shade on the complex relationships among the three.

Set Design is by David L. Arsenault, Costumes by Tricia Barsamian, impressive Lighting Design by Stacey Derosier, Sound Design by Quentin Chiappetta, and Original Music by Jeff Blumenkrantz.

Running in repertory is Yael Farber's adaptation of Strindberg's "Mies Julie." The play is set in South Africa on the eve of the annual celebration of Freedom Day. The characters in the play are anything but free. Julie (Elisa Kibler) is the daughter of a Boer farmer. She was raised lovingly by the housekeeper, Christine (Patrice Johnson Chevannes). Christine's son, John (James Udom), and Julie played together as children and became friends. But as they became young adults, their expected roles were solidified - John as farm laborer, Julie as the untouchable daughter of the white land owner. Yet their passion thoughtlessly breaks through those taboos and they enter into a night of passion that fuels a desperate love/hate Dance of Death.

James Udom as John
Elisa Kibler as Julie
"Mies Julie" by Yael Farber
Adapted from the play by August Strindberg
Classic Stage Company
Through March 10th
Photo by Joan Marcus

The play examines the deep wounds of the policies of colonialism and dispossession. The farmhouse is built over the graves of Christine's ancestor's, represented by the ghostly figure of Ukhokho (Vinie Burrows), who glides silently through the action as a reminder that the racist policies and actions of the Boers haunt the present generation.

The play is sensitively Directed by Shariffa Ali, who was born in Kenya and lived in South Africa before relocating to the U.S. She infuses into this production her sensibilities to the complexities of social structures and strictures. The creative team include Set Design by David L. Arsenault, Costumes by Ntokozo Fuzanina Kunene and Andrew Moerdyk, Lighting Design by Stacey Derosier, Sound Design by Quentin Chiappetta, and Original Music by Andrew Orkin.

Strindberg plumbs dark depths in his plays. In each of these two works, it becomes clear that as individuals struggle to find their place in the world and within relationships, they fight forces within themselves and outside of themselves in their culture. Although the actions of these two plays are set in Sweden and in Africa, the lessons are applicable to the struggles we face in America in this century.

Make your way to the East Village between now and March 10th and see both of these fine productions.



Playroom Theater Presents "God Shows Up" by Peter Filicia - A TV Evangelist Feels the Wrath of God!

Lou Liberatore, Maggie Bofill, Christopher Sutton
"God Shows Up" by Peter Filichia
Playroom Theater - 151 W. 46th St.
Through February 21st
Photo by Andy Evan Cohen
Playwright Peter Filicia has perfectly captured the bizarre and profane world of TV evangelists, using an effective blend of gallows humor and well-placed righteous indignity. In "God Shows Up," evangelist Dr. Thomas Isaac Rehan (Christopher Sutton) invites his viewing audience to pay close attention to his next guest - none other than The Almighty Himself (Lou Liberatore). In the Beginning, God shows up dressed like a lumber jack, and engages in light banter with Rehan about the weather and other topics. But The Omnipotent One eventually brings the focus of his questions to His real agenda - unmasking the hypocrisy of Rehan and his ilk.

Every few minutes, Rehan interrupts the dialogue to hawk the latest holy tchotchke that viewers can receive for a donation to the ministry. As God - also presented in female form by Maggie Bofill - continues His/Her questioning, we learn of Rehan's expensive limousines, designer clothing, extravagant homes, body guards, child labor in the developing world making trinkets for pennies a day, sexual impropriety,etc.

While appearing over the top, this portrayal of the prototypical TV evangelist hit close to home. I recently fell asleep with my TV turned on. When I awoke at 3:00 AM, there was an evangelist I had not seen before, promising blessings galore if viewers would send $58.00 to unleash God's bounty upon them. There was the Prosperity Gospel in all of its ugliness and bad theology.

The trinity of actors are effective in telling the story, and are well directed by Christopher Scott. The action is helped by excellent Projection and Sound by Andy Evan Cohen, Lights by Joan Racho-Jansen, Costumes by Michael Platkowski, and Set by Josh Iacovelli.

The play runs through February 21st at the Playroom Theater, 151 W. 46th Street.

This play is worth seeing. And that is the Gospel truth!



Saturday, February 02, 2019

"Barefoot" by Kate Billingsley & Thomas G. Waites - by Black Rose Productions at the Gene Frankel Theatre - Through February 9th

"Barefoot" is a fascinating study of a love quadrangle - soon to become almost a pentagon when the Pizza Delivery Man (Trent Cox) is baked into the narrative - that at its core is an existential exploration of the meaning of life. The play opens with Sylvia (Playwright Kate Billingsley) arriving home, drenched from a downpour, and clearly verklempt. This quintessential Jewish American Princess dourly surveys her domain, which is filled with elegantly wrapped wedding gifts that have arrived in advance of her approaching nuptials.Before she has had a chance to collect herself, a knock is heard at the door, announcing the arrival of equally soaked Teddy (Elissa Klie). It seems that Sylvia has just caught Teddy kissing the groom-to-be, Robert (Judah Tobias), and Teddy wants to apologize and explain.

It is clear from the dual entrances of the protagonist and antagonist that the playwrights are showing us that "into every life a little rain must fall."  As the narrative develops, it becomes clear that this deluge of existential rainfall includes betrayal, obsessive compulsive behavior, mistrust, abuse of drugs and alcohol, clashes over socio-economic status, and verbal and psychological abuse.

Things take an interesting turn when the next knock on the door brings Robert and Marc (Will Rosenfelt) into the mix. Marc is Teddy's cuckolded finance, and he is not too pleased to learn that she has been fooling around with Robert. The playwrights do a commendable job of demonstrating the biblical principle of "straining at gnats and swallowing camels." A sign inside the front door commands those entering to remove their shoes and go barefoot in the home. Sylvia is trying to keep specks of dirt from marring her perfect world, but has no trouble later in the play trashing her own place by allowing cocaine to be snorted from her coffee table, and throwing and smashing fine china dishes in a fit of pique. Likewise, Sylvia and Robert's need to control is shown by their assiduous insistence on pronouncing February as "Feb-roo-ary," Perhaps they can control the enunciation of their tongues, but not much else.

The interplay among these four as they act out what happened during the betrayal is both hilarious and heart-breaking. The arrival of hipster Pizza Man adds a new element of homoerotic tension to the mix.

Co-playwright, Thomas G. Waites directs this quintet of actors with a deft touch, allowing each to establish a distinct persona. The actors are uniformly convincing in their roles. Despite their various peccadilloes, these are characters we come to care about, seeing through the fog of their ennui and nihilism. Several of the characters explicitly express the underlying theme of this play:"Does this existence of living, loving, betrayal, fighting, and dying ultimately have any meaning?"

Produced by Black Rose Productions, "Barefoot" runs through February 9th at the Gene Frankel Theatre at 24 Bond Street.