Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Metamorphosis

Kafka's The Metamorphosis is, for all its terse language, sparse emotional display, and brevity, a tale with some pretty huge themes about family dynamics, the personal and professional world, the nature of routine, and the mind-soul-body connection. Its simple, even flat, prose and its curiously passive main character work to contradict the horror of its central plotline: a profoundly ordinary man who lives a life of deadening routine goes to sleep one night, has some bad dreams, and wakes up a huge bug who can understand but can no longer communicate with the people he comes into contact with. His horrified family locks him into his room, where he remains for most of his slow, sad demise. His sister and mother initially attempt to connect with him in their own ways, while his father, never close to him, spurns him, sometimes violently, and always with rage. Eventually, the entire family tires of him, and his only visitor becomes the family's new charwoman, who suffers no nonsense and barely cleans his increasingly filthy room. Aware of what a burden he has become, he dies, mournfully and alone.

When I read The Metamorphosis in college, I don't remember being able to get past the basic outrageousness of the tale: "Oo, dude's a bug. Gross. His family rejects him. Lame. He dies. Bummer." But now, having re-read it in middle age, I can only see it as a metaphor for serious, incapacitating illness, and its impact not only on the individual but on the extended family and the community. To say, then, that the tale feels realer, scarier, more haunting to me now than it did then is a vast understatement.

A stunning interpretation of The Metamorphosis is being performed at the Joyce through September 29, and if you get the chance--even if, like me, you're typically more confused than you are thrilled by dance--you should rush out to see it. The big picture is worth the price of admission, really: Edward Watson, who plays Gregor, is an astoundingly limber, flexible, intuitive dancer who was clearly born to perform this piece; the supporting cast is excellent, too. The choices the production has made--to update the piece to the 1950s; to imply more overtly than the book does that Gregor's transformation is, indeed, symbolic of some kind of grave illness; to make Grete a dancer instead of a violinist; to gradually cover the stage with oozing, brown muck; to suggest a slightly different (if still devastatingly sad) ending--are daring, but they all worked for me. So too did the strange and appropriate score, played entirely by the multi-instrumentalist Frank Moon, and the bits of humor that frequently lightened the piece (the three boarders were awesome, and the charwoman, hilarious in the book, transferred perfectly to the stage).

But for all the astoundingly limber bodies, the big sounds that emanated from Moon's one-man-band (set up off stage right, and often as fascinating as what was happening on stage), and the jerky movements Watson--an enormous man with a strange, believably insect-like physique--executed throughout the piece, I was moved most frequently by the subtlest of moments. Throughout the piece, various characters haltingly reach out to touch Gregor as a means to connect with him despite his transformation, or look sorrowfully at one another, or stare blankly at the television, the wall, one another. The sorrowful looks only intensify; the attempts to connect with Gregor dissolve into frustration, exhaustion, disgust. It is the touching of hands, and then the absence of such touching, that lingers with me, as does the haunted, sorrowful way that Gregor--bathed in muck, fully isolated, and tucked pitifully into an almost improbably tight fetal position--looks dully up at the light when the charwoman opens his window for him and lets in a little light just prior to his death. Such tiny moments serve as important, if endlessly haunting, reminder of how fragile human connections are, and how devastating their absence can be.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Shakespeare's Sister

In her sweet mash-up Shakespeare's Sister, director/adaptor Irina Brook serves the audience Virginia Woolf, Marguerite Duras, and actual soup.

As the audience enters, five women are already onstage, which is an attractive, fully equipped kitchen. They chop, they stir, they cook, they sing, they dance. And they talk and talk. The words are those of Woolf and Duras, and many are familiar.

In fact, there is a dated-ness to the piece, as though it were the 1970s instead of the 2010s. On the other hand, the content is unfortunately still timely, particularly to Brook, who herself balances the many quotidian and extraordinary responsibilities that are the lot of the female artist. And it is certainly true that most woman still lack a "room of one's own" (as do most men, really).

Beyond reminding us of the intricate pressures of being a woman--and the joys of being women together--it is hard to understand totally what Brook is trying to do here. The dances are fun, but it's not clear why they are there or what they signify. The sexual interlude is downright confusing: is it satire, is it self-expression, is it something else altogether? It feels as though Brook is trying for something deep and expressive, yet the results are more pleasant than hard-hitting.

The quintet of performers are Winsome Brown, Joan Juliet Buck, Nicole Ansari, Yibin Li (who also plays violin), and Sadie Jemmett (who also plays guitar and sings). In many ways, they don't coalesce as a whole--not in tone, talent, personalities, or technique. However, the heterogeneity is part of the charm of the piece. The inviting set design is by Noelle Ginefri.

It is possible that the constant pairing of Brook's name with that of her legendary father, director Peter Brook, does her a disservice, setting inappropriate expectations. I understand the publicity value of this connection, but it's an odd way to sell a piece that is so strongly about women.

(press ticket; 8th row on the aisle)

Philip Goes Forth

George Kelly's Philip Goes Forth at the Mint is an uneven production of an uneven play that nevertheless entertains and satisfies. Written in 1931, Philip Goes Forth treads familiar ground with its story of a young man, the titular Philip, who chooses to become a playwright rather than go into his father's business, much to his father's dismay and anger. Philip ends up at a boardinghouse with the customary artists and eccentrics, each of whom represents a way of going for your dream: living it, faking it, failing at it, letting it go. Philip becomes friends with them, gets a day job, and works on his plays at night.

Rachel Moulton
Photo: Rahav Segev
In some ways, Philip Goes Forth seems to be in the tradition of Holiday (1928), the movie version of  Stage Door (1936), and You Can't Take It With You (1936), but it has a pragmatic underpinning that those lack. It is a tribute to working toward one's dreams, but only as long as one has the drive and the talent to achieve them.  Where Holiday has the famous, "If he wants to come back and sell peanuts, Lord how I'll believe in those peanuts," Philip Goes Forth would have, "If he wants to come back and sell peanuts, we'll have to see if he's any good at selecting the best peanuts, setting up a stand, and making it work."
Or, as the landlady says,
You know, there are millions of people all over the world that are spoiling their lives regretting that they didn't do something, or take up something, or keep on with something; when it's the blessing of God that the majority of them did just what they did; for they'd have only found out what you are finding out—that liking a thing, or talking a lot about it, is not an ability to do it.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Women or Nothing

I went to see Ethan Coen's Women or Nothing with some misgivings due to its tagline: "Women or Nothing is a play about two women so desperate to have a child that one of them will even sleep with a man." Stories written by men about lesbians sleeping with men tend to be tedious and/or annoying and very much about the men, with the lesbians almost as props rather than people.

As it turns out, Women or Nothing is so bad and so pointless that for it to be annoying in that way would have been a step up.

Here are some of the problems with Women or Nothing--with spoilers, I suppose, but how can you spoil something that is no good to begin with?
  • The title makes no sense.
  • The premise--that a woman, Gretchen, would push her partner, Laura, to sleep with her coworker Chuck because she mistrusts the genes that might come with anonymous sperm--is dumb.
  • The many reasons that Gretchen gives Laura to get her to sleep with Chuck are unconvincing, pointless, and stupid.
  • That Laura would succumb, when she doesn't want to sleep with Chuck and has never slept with a man, is ridiculous.
  • Although we are supposed to believe that Gretchen and Laura are a much-in-love couple, there is nothing in the writing or acting to support this.
  • The couple--Halley Feiffer as Gretchen and Susan Pourfar as Laura--have no chemistry, which further makes their relationship unconvincing.
  • Chuck does not know that Laura is Gretchen's significant other or that Gretchen is gay. It seems unlikely to me that Gretchen would be closeted at work, but, okay, I'll accept that one.
  • Laura does indeed have sex with Chuck, after telling him that she is a "gold star lesbian" (i.e., that she has never slept with a man).
  • The all-important discussion between her telling them that and their ending up in bed is missing. Wouldn't he find it weird that she wanted to go to bed with him after knowing him 45 minutes or so? Wouldn't he find it strange to have sex with her in what he has been led to believe is Gretchen's apartment and bed? Wouldn't he put on a condom????
  • If they did have unsafe sex, wouldn't he wonder what's going on, since it's unlikely that a gold star lesbian would be on the pill or have a diaphragm?
  • Doesn't it occur to Laura--and Gretchen--that although that Chuck is a nice guy, he still might unknowingly have one of the many sexually transmitted diseases that can be symptom-less in men?
  • Why are Gretchen and Laura so sure that Laura will become pregnant? Laura is 40, an age at which many women do not easily conceive.
  • Why is Dorene, Laura's mother, even in the play? And how could Coen, a person at least partially responsible for the brilliant Fargo, write such a one-dimensional, sitcom version of a human being? Dorene comes across as a Neil Simon character trying to be edgy. It is not a pretty picture.
  • And why would Chuck have decided not to father a child with his (now ex-) wife because there's depression in his family? Choosing to have your wife use anonymous sperm instead of your own is a great big deal. Depression can be awful and devastating, but enough to have a stranger father your child? In order for me personally to buy this reasoning, there would have to have been depression and the breast cancer gene and serial murderers in Chuck's family. (Obviously, Coen is seeking irony, since we know that Gretchen has chosen Chuck because she thinks his daughter is wonderful and wants Laura's child to have those genes. But, really!)
  • And why would Chuck put Dorene's wet umbrella in the closet of what he believes to be Gretchen's home? (Other than Coen wanting him to see some photos that are stashed there?) Who even opens the closet door of an apartment they've never been in?
  • And, once Chuck has seen the photos, which presumably reveal that Getchen and Laura are a couple, why does he not react? Here's a man who doesn't want to father his own child; wouldn't he be pissed that he possibly just fathered someone else's?
  • And wouldn't Gretchen show the teeniest-tiniest bit of jealousy when she learns that Chuck and Laura had sex more than once?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

You Never Can Tell

Watching the delightful production of George Bernard Shaw's You Never Can Tell being presented by the Pearl Theatre Company and the Gingold Theatrical Group, I had to periodically remind myself that I was not watching a play by Oscar Wilde. Following The Importance of Being Earnest by two years, You Never Can Tell shares its cheerful skewering of societal mores, its witty dialogue, and even a character declaiming fervently, "On my honor I am in earnest." The Importance of Being Earnest is probably the better play; You Never Can Tell has occasional languors, and Shaw's laugh/minute ratio doesn't quite equal Wilde's (whose does?). On the other hand, Shaw's politics are more interesting; for example, written in 1897, You Never Can Tell both teases and respects feminism.

What's most important is that You Never Can Tell is great fun. It includes romance, a family reunion, a costume ball, dentistry, and an entirely satisfying denouement, courtesy of an attorney-ex-machina. As directed (and lightly adapted) by David Staller, it moves along at a good clip (except for those languors) and lands its laughs with joyful precision. Some parts are a little overdirected and cutesy, but it's a small fault, and Staller's use of music and dance to sail through scenery changes is charming. (The scenery itself is a fabulous example of the wonders that a smart and tasteful designer, Harry Feiner in this case, can create on a limited budget.)

A show like this relies heavily on its cast to navigate that thin line between heightened acting and overacting. Under Staller's leadership, the Pearl stalwarts and non-Pearl-ians all acquit themselves energetically, earnestly (!), and with excellent timing. Particularly impressive are Sean McNail (who is always particularly impressive), Amelia Pedlow (who brings a sincerity to her role of reluctant lover that adds poignancy to the humor), and Zachary Spicer (who is perfect in a small but pivotal role).

I've said this before, and I hope I get the opportunity to say this again: The aptly named Pearl is a shining jewel in the New York theatre scene.

(2nd row center; press ticket)

Friday, September 13, 2013

A User's Guide to Hell Featuring Bernard Madoff

While watching Lee Blessing's mediocre A User's Guide to Hell Featuring Bernard Madoff, I found myself writing Caster's Rules of Satire.

General Rules

Rule 1: A satire should be entertaining.

Rule 2: A satire should reveal new truths or present old truths in such a way that they feel new.

Rule 3: A satire should have the courage of its convictions and not cop out at the end.


Tenet 1: If a satire uses a character such as Mengele or Mohammed Atta for humor, the depiction had damned well better be funny.

Tenet 2: Arguments about God and religion must actually be interesting

Tenet 3: Blue-collar men with New York accents are not automatically entertaining

Tenet 4: Anal rape is not by definition a laugh riot and treating it as such is lazy writing.

So, anyway, Bernie Madoff (the serviceable Edward James Hyland) is in hell. His guide is Verge, a blue-collar New Yorker, played with little personality by David Deblinger. All the other characters are played by the excellent Eric Sutton and even better Erika Rose, the show's two redeeming features. The direction, by Michole Biancosino is uninteresting.

The program features a note from the playwright that begins, "Hell is funny." I don't know if that's true, but I do know that the version of hell depicted in  A User's Guide to Hell Featuring Bernard Madoff is tedious.

(press ticket; 5th row)

Fetch Clay, Make Man

What does a playwright owe a living person on whom he or she bases a character? What does a playwright owe the audience who comes to see a play "based on actual events"? Some people argue that the playwright owes nothing to either the person or the audience; the playwright needs to be true to his or her personal vision. And I understand their point; I think I may even agree with it, intellectually.
Ray Fisher, K. Todd Freeman
Photo: Joan Marcus
Emotionally, however, I find bioplays--e.g., Buyer and Cellar, The Audience, and Fetch Clay, Make Man, the focus of this review--distasteful. The playwrights piggyback on the fame and accomplishments of another person and present their fantasies of the person's life as art.

Another problem with bioplays is that wondering what is true and what isn't takes me out of the play. In Fetch Clay, Make Man, Muhammad Ali invites Stepin Fetchit to his training camp before his repeat bout with Sonny Liston. Ali attacks Fetchit, calling him a coon and threatening to beat him. This turns out to be a joking hazing, mostly. Did it happen? If so, Ali is pretty creepy. If not, playwright Will Power is possibly doing Ali a great injustice; the scene is ugly.

Later, Fetchit tells Ali's wife that she should discard her all-white, body-and-hair covering abaya and dress as the vibrant woman Fetchit knows her to be. And she does! We next see her looking impressively hot in heels, make-up, and a short, form-fitting dress. Did this actually happen? If so, did Ali really respond in such a low-key manner?

There are dozens of other questions of this sort, and even the trivial ones are distracting.

Putting these complaints aside, Fetch Clay, Make Man has the assets of energy and creative staging, along with some vibrant acting. Ray Fisher is a completely convincing Muhammad Ali. K. Todd Freeman as Stepin Fetchit effectively depicts a man trying to hold on to a dignity he is not 100% sure he deserves. And Power's exploration of what it has meant to be a black man in America is intermittently stirring.

The direction is by Des McAnuff. The projection design, which adds a great deal of energy but subtracts some clarity, is by Peter Nigrini.

Fetch Clay, Make Man ultimately left me with this question: I know what Power got by co-opting Ali's and Fetchit's lives, but what did he give in return?

(second row, press ticket)