Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Possibilities/The After-Dinner Joke

No theatre is offering more bang for your buck--or return on your time--than PTP/NYC with their evening of one acts: The Possibilities, by Howard Barker, and The After-Dinner Joke, by Caryl Churchill. The first consists of four short plays, the second of 66 brief scenes. The shows are smart, thought-provoking, and often fun, and these productions are terrific. Together, they add up to an amazing evening in the theatre.

The Possibilities, from the late 1980s, includes a total of ten plays. I would be quite interested in seeing the six not included in this PTP/NYC evening.

The first play is The Unforeseen Consequences of A Patriotic Act, in which Judith (she of Holofernes' decapitation) refuses to embrace the role of heroine, despite the pleading of a woman (Eliza Renner) who wants Judith to be an example "to women everywhere." This Judith owns her sexuality, and her rage, and has no interest in censoring the blood and lust from her story. The excellent Kathleen Wise as Judith and the equally excellent Renner go head-to-head with great gusto, but, really, you can't mess with Judith and get away with it. It's a fine piece and bizarrely echoes the way that publicists may try to write a personality for a politician or actor that has little to do with the person and much to do with some goal, be it important or not, moral or not.

The Unforeseen Consequences of A Patriotic Act
Eliza Renner, Kathleen Wise, Marianne Tatum
Photo: Stan Barouh 

Next comes Reasons For the Fall of Emperors, in which Alexander of Russia  (the wonderful Jonathan Tindle) turns out to be an old softie, crying at the screams of his soldiers as they die--except that he is the emperor, and he can't really be soft, can he? Or can he? Alexander engages a peasant (Christopher Marshall, quite good but a tad too robust and contemporary for the role) in serious conversation about war, life and death, and power. The peasant is determined to remain obsequious, but his intelligence occasionally gets the better of him. The emperor has power but no perspective; the peasant has tons of perspective but no power.  It's a scary pas de deux; sentimentality in a leader can have a high price for the led. (The play reminds me of all the big shots accused of mistreating women who say things like, to quote Les Moonves, "I have never misused my position to harm or hinder anyone’s career." I bet he believes it too. Completely misreading situations is the luxury of the powerful.)

Reasons For the Fall of Emperors
Christopher Marshall, Jonathan Tindle
Photo: Stan Barough

The third piece is Only Some Can Take the Strain, a gem of a play about an old woman, a bookseller, possibly crazy, whose cart contains some of the last volumes of knowledge left in a repressive society. In a short time this play touches on the importance of information, the meaning of sanity, and life under fascism. The bookseller is beautifully played by Marianne Tatum. (My gratitude goes to director Richard Romagnoli for being willing to cast a woman in a role originally written for a man.)

Only Some Can Take the Strain
Adam Milano, Marianne Tatum
Photo: Stan Barouh 

And then there is She Sees the Argument But, in which a woman is taken to task not only for showing her shapely ankles, but also for enjoying doing so. This odd and intriguing play is particularly timely in these days of #metoo, and it is all the more powerful for not taking a facile or predictable approach to the weird ways that humans may navigate sexuality.

She Sees the Argument But
Kathleen Wise, Madeleine Russell
Photo: Stan Barouh 

All four pieces are smoothly and smartly directed by Romagnoli, and they are well-served by the creative and appropriate design elements (scenic design, Hallie Zieselman; costumes, Annie Ulrich; lighting, Joe Cabrera; sound, Cormac Bluestone).

All by themselves, the four plays of The Possibilities make for an almost head-spinning amount of theatre, full of ideas, arguments, superb acting, and so on. But that's all only Act I.

And then comes Act II: Caryl Churchill's 1978 television play, The After-Dinner Joke. The story of a woman who simply wants to do some good in the world, it dashes through her obstacles (many), her successes (few), and her education as to the ways of the world (painful, but quite funny). The writing is astonishingly efficient. The 66 scenes fly by in fewer minutes, as Churchill economically skewers the worlds of charity and politics.

The After-Dinner Joke
Jonathan Tindle, Tara Giordano, Kathleen Wise
Photo: Stan Barouh 

Tara Giordano is fabulous as the naif, trying desperately to hold on to some optimism and faith in humanity even as she has less and less reason to do so. The rest of the cast is also top-notch: they are Christo Grabowski, Chris Marshall, Jonathan Tindle, Lucy Van Atta, Kathleen Wise, Roxy Adviento, Madeline Ciocci, Noah Liebmiller, Adam Milano, Eliza Renner, and Madeleine Russell.

The production design is also excellent; the credits are the same as above for The Possibilities. Additionally, Kyle Meredith is responsible for the animation projection, which is an integral part of the show. I was particularly fond of the pie-throwing contest, in which politicians have pies thrown at them and later argue about who was targeted the most.

The After-Dinner Joke is directed by Cheryl Faraone with her usual verve, pacing, and clarity. I am a fan.

PTP/NYC did well to pair these works of Barker and Churchill. They echo each other in some ways and support each other in others. The playwrights have similar abilities to combine humor and pathos, and both are open-eyed and razor sharp. As I said above, together, their plays add up to an amazing evening in the theatre.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, 3rd row)
Show-Score Score: 95

No comments: