Monday, May 30, 2016

Random roundup: The Father, Turn Me Loose, The Crucible

The Father, Florian Zeller's very good play (in very good translation by Christopher Hampton) is worth seeing both for the tricks it plays on the audience and for Frank Langella's riveting, pitch-perfect performance. Often, plays about dementia don't just tug but rip at the heartstrings--about three years ago, Sharr White's The Other Place , which also ran at the Friedman Theater, hit me so hard that I found myself openly sobbing at the curtain call, which I can assure you doesn't happen all that often with me. Oh, except as a kid, I remember having about the same reaction to Driving Miss Daisy. 

I've had my fair share of experience with dementia: it afflicted both my grandmothers, one of whom lived with and gradually declined from the disease for the better part of a decade. Several extended family members had it, and my father-in-law has the honor now. I'm sure I'm hardly atypical in this respect, but anyway, plays about the subject almost always set me off. So while I was eager to see Langella onstage for once, I steeled myself for The Father to hit me hard--but it didn't. This is not a play that seems written or directed to kick one's emotions in the groin. Rather, The Father struck me as a remarkably accurate, almost clinical examination of Alzheimer's, which allows the audience to ponder the ways the disease works from the perspective of the afflicted. I very much appreciated the ways the production plunged the audience into the kinds of anxiety and confusion the titular character, named Andre, experiences over the course of 90 engaging minutes. I don't want to give any of the gimmicks away, but they are all creative, subtle, well-executed and appropriately disorienting. The Father doesn't aim to make clean, straightforward narrative sense; I remain unsure who some of the characters were, or whether they even existed beyond the fragmented mind of Andre, who, like many people with dementia, frequently shift rapidly between different time periods or exist in several at once, confusing one person or place or thing for another. The strengths of the production and its performances thus don't lie in character development and plot trajectory, but that doesn't mean there isn't an abundance of strengths to be found.

Dick Gregory, a pioneering black comedian who in the 1950s and '60s was one of the first to break from the brand of standup borne of blackface minstrelsy, is the central subject of Turn Me Loose, a terrific show at the Westside Theater featuring the exceptional Joe Morton as Gregory at various points in his long, staggeringly diverse career as a standup comic, writer, activist, nutritionist and entrepreneur. I'll admit I expected the show to be 90 minutes of Morton as Gregory doing old standup bits, but it's more of a biographical survey. Biographical surveys can be flat and boring sometimes, but this one does a--er--standup job of covering many of the remarkable directions Gregory has gone in his remarkable life with humor, depth, and intelligence.

Morton makes a very hard role look easy. He captures Gregory's warmth and relaxed, conversational style as a comic, and his steely determination and levelheadedness as a Civil Rights activist. Over the course of the performance, Morton ages several times, and shifts regularly from one extreme mood to another: crushing disappointment to lighthearted glee, frustrated bemusement to blind fury. Morton is nicely aided by John Carlin, who plays a series of hecklers, comics, and one hilariously glib radio personality. See this show while you can, and then treat yourself to some of Gregory's old, hilarious standup albums, many of which are available on your favorite streaming service.

Ivo Van Hove has been working in New York City for a while, but this year, he seems to have gone into overdrive. I've liked many of his past productions. His version of The Little Foxes at New York Theater Workshop in 2010 kicked my ass (along with that of many of the actors, who spent ample time during each performance beating the shit out of one another), and made me an instant devotee. His Roman Tragedies at BAM in 2012 was funny, thrilling, and innovative, and loads more fun than any six-hour show performed entirely in Dutch should have the right to be. I loved his View from the Bridge earlier this season, and while his version of The Crucible has, like Bridge, been enormously celebrated by critics and many people who have gone to see it, I wasn't quite as taken by it. At least, not as immediately, anyway.

Many of Van Hove's directorial flourishes are on offer here: The Crucible is performed on one cleanly designed and lit set (a schoolhouse becomes a home becomes a courtroom). The play has been stripped of its historical associations and thus features a cast not in 17th century garb but in duds that might've been selected from an Eileen Fisher catalogue. Incidental music by Philip Glass, which ranges in volume from nearly painful to barely audible accompanies the action most of the time, and while there are fewer projections than I've come to expect from this director, the images on the chalkboard, set upstage center, do start squirming around from time to time. Moments of sudden, surprisingly intense physicality frequently punctuate the four talky acts. And there are some genuinely stunning images and brilliant bits of direction: levitating bodies, jerking bodies, ruined bodies. In one of the most brilliant bits of direction I've seen lately, the girls' faux possession in act III is mirrored by a sequence in which the men in charge of the witch trials dart about the stage in a tight, mindless cluster, like a herd of especially purposeful sheep.

But something about this particular imaginging of The Crucible struck me as curiously divorced from the text. I got, and certainly appreciate, the allusions not only to McCarthyism but to the current political climate, but I felt throughout the production as if I were missing out on some of the more nuanced passages of dialogue, which was made secondary to the visual aspects. Van Hove rarely overdoes it with spectacle for spectacle's sake, but here, I could have done without some of the more fanciful moments: maybe one less glaring light or sudden burst of steam..Also, while the cast is consistently strong, I was a little disappointed at times by what felt like a lack of clear motivation for some of the characters (an exception was Sophie Okonedo, who is stirringly grounded throughout).

Or, hell, maybe I'm being overly critical, considering the weird headspace I've been in lately. I suppose I can always pick up a copy of The Crucible and read it closely if I want to immerse myself in the language; steam or no steam, I admit that some of the more spectacular images in Van Hove's rendering were unsettling enough that have stayed with me, popping up with no warning ever since. It's entirely possible that this production, with its horror-story imagery and depictions of American mass hysteria, struck me as just a little too close to our current reality for comfort.

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