David Hare’s dramatic depiction of the Bush administration’s buildup to the war in Iraq is comic, in a dark sort of way, but surely depressing, and often maddening. Here we have laid out in minute detail the circumstances that led to the bombing and occupation of Iraq. Hare has painstakingly used the public record, along with private sources, to document the mind-boggling behind-the-scenes machinations. We watch as the administration argues, rationalizes, cajoles, and ultimately crushes all semblance of dissent not only in the opposition but ultimately its own soul. A speech by a Palestinian academic is the moral and philosophical heart of the play, passionately pointing out a double standard in which a UN resolution legitimizing war on Iraq has to be enforced, but a resolution demanding Israel withdraw to its pre-1967 borders is to be ignored.
Featuring a bewildering cast of 16, portraying dozens of characters, Stuff Happens is gracefully directed by Daniel Sullivan, the actors floating across a stage filled only with executive office chairs as props. As is stated often, power need not negotiate and never truly does, most of the administration’s actions being decidedly and purposely unilateral. This drama looks down the rabbit hole that is Realpolitik.
The title derives from a Donald Rumsfeld retort when asked by reporters to respond to the looting and pillage of Baghdad after the invasion. “Stuff happens,” Rumsfeld says. After two and a half hours of watching Hare’s Bush Administration at work, considering the havoc it has wrought, one can only agree, “It sure does.”
Yussef El Guindi’s Back of the Throat is a sneaky piece of theater, a black comedy far darker than it is funny. It begins as a routine tale of federal agents visiting an Arab-American writer, an amicable “reaching out” to members of the Islamic and Arab communities post-9/11. A U.S. citizen, Khaled is more than willing to help the government with whatever information they think he might be able to offer, though he is nonplussed as to why they’d actually need to visit him. The head investigator, Bartlett, is a forthcoming bureaucrat and almost apologetic that it has become his job to make these kinds of visits.
But at some point the mood changes — Bartlett and his assistant point out some of the books they’ve spied lying around Khaled’s apartment, a few titles concerning “communism,” “guns,” and “rebellion.” Having also found a stash of nudie magazines under the couch, they lecture on “perversity” and what such behavior often runs hand in hand with.
One of the fascinating aspects of this production is the faint sense that Khaled might indeed be guilty of something — not necessarily terrorism, but of deeper sympathies. Brilliantly choreographed dream sequences — possibly flashbacks — feature a dead hijacker whose potential past relationship with Khaled blurs the line between fact and fiction, as do many facets of Khaled’s life over the course of the interrogation. A chilling scene in which a former girlfriend with an axe to grind betrays Khaled brings full circle the mixing of the personal, the political, and the nature of truth.
A unique blend of puppetry, Norwegian theatrical history, catchy sing-song, and black humor, Wakka Wakka’s The Death of Little Ibsen is a phantasmagorical exploration into the life, works, social philosophy, and psychological makeup of famed dramatist Henrik Ibsen. Mapping Ibsen’s life from birth through love affairs, marriage, and successes as a playwright, Little Ibsen finds a charming way to tell a story that is in essence dark, boring biography, with wit and humor.
Utilizing an ugly, expressionistic puppet dubbed “little Ibsen,” not since Basil Twist has a production managed to displace such creative stage ingenuity. I found myself constantly trying to figure out how performers Gwendolyn Warnock, Kirjan Waage and David Arkema managed to generate a half-dozen characters and sound effects simultaneously while shifting props, stage furniture, and various puppets across the stage seamlessly. Reminiscent of Broadway’s Shockheaded Peter, but on a much smaller scale, the production appears child puppetry fare but is in actuality strictly for adults — featuring sex scenes, rambling philosophy, and suicidal dream sequences. When was the last time you laughed out loud at an aging dramatist bemoaning his depressing life? Well picture his subconscious, represented by two puppet “devils,” singing sarcastically at him in unison from the other side of the stage and you just might.
At just under an hour, Little Ibsen wraps the tale up before it has the chance to wear out its welcome, and this is a good thing. No matter how ingenious and funny, there’s just so much one can take of dark Norwegian biography
When I first heard there was a theater production about an “estranged nephew” of Hitler I assumed it was some kind of postmodern theatrical joke. Turns out William Patrick Hitler was a real person straight out of central casting: the only son of Adolf’s older half-brother, “Willy” was born in Dublin and, a notorious playboy, bounced around Europe until he wound up in Germany to take advantage of his estranged uncle’s rise to power. Rumors of a blackmail attempt concerning Jewish lineage supposedly led to a big cash payoff for Willy and either a promise to leave Germany forever or a threat on his life that had him escaping to London, where he became severely critical of his uncle.
Mark Kassen’s imaginative multimedia production consists of a series of monologues, screen projections, and dramatic role-playing performed along with Roxanna Hope. Initially it is impossible to stay grounded — Willy has a deep Irish accent, recites a letter to President Roosevelt, and is simultaneously trying to sell someone a car in a German town. But once the mechanics become apparent Kassen’s work is eloquent performance poetry.
After Willy immigrates to America and joins the U.S. Navy to fight in WWII (and eventually become a citizen living on Long Island), one is amazed by this con-man-turned-Nazi-turned-entrepreneur-turned-American patriot. Projected text about Willy’s three sons and a purprted pact between them never to have children and hence kill off the Hitler bloodline is an amazing ending to a sensational story.
Adam Rapp’s Red Light Winter is not your grandmother’s Off-Broadway theater — it’s a dark, lost-generation tale for modern times. It features full-frontal nudity and the kind of casual off-hand profanity you find flowing out of Williamsburg bars when people have had a little too much to drink.
It’s serious drama though, and a fascinating premise for a play — two American friends holed up in a seedy hotel in Amsterdam’s red light district attempting to escape their lives in New York. They hire a beautiful, mysterious French prostitute for “entertainment” and the three proceed to bounce off one another, their fears and desires slowly revealing themselves. A good deal of talk about literature and the imprecision of language in expressing meaning never manages to divert attention from the purpose for Christina being in the room, and the tension and jealousy turn ugly.
Nothing is as it seems though, and the relationship dynamics shift considerably. When the scene changes to New York’s East Village in the second act you wonder if anyone is who they seem. Lisa Joyce’s portrayal of the mysterious Christina might well be a star-making turn. You find yourself constantly staring at this woman wondering what might be going through her mind as the other characters ramble on about Henry Miller or hash cafés. Rapp has written a tale that speaks about, and to, the generation come of age during the AIDS crisis, the Iraq wars, and the impending 21st century. It’s good stuff.
A tiny theater on the Lower East Side, a dedicated collection of dramaturges with a mandate to present vibrant theater, and a bewildering year-long slate of Sam Shepard productions — The Michael Chekhov Theater Company has set itself the lofty goal of performing Shepard’s entire forty-five play oeuvre. They begin this mammoth undertaking with the seedy 1993 Simpatico, a noir drama overflowing with alcohol fueled guilt and spiritual vacancy.
Inhabiting the underbelly of the dreary Californian desert and Kentucky’s horse racing world, these individuals have no morals, or find them far too late. Performed in repertory with the 1979 Pulitzer Prize winning Buried Child and the twisted backwoods Romeo-Juliet dysfunctional family tale, A Lie Of The Mind, this slate of productions squeezes audiences into MCTC’s tiny theater for alternating nights of Shepard’s ethereal, dark Americana.
Peter Picard battles amicably with businessman Carter’s descent (ascent?) from wealthy, cell phone-toting horse breeder to pathetic, guilt-ridden blood spot. Heather Anthony’s southern femme fatale injects life into the last third of Simpatico, figuring everything out early on, resigning herself to rotting dreams. A Lie Of The Mind is one of Shepard’s most difficult dramas and MCTC struggles with its frequent scene changes and sluggish pace. Nevertheless Thomas Francis Murphy’s masterful rendering of father Baylor and Curtis Nielsen’s physically guttural Jake rise to Shepard’s poetry.
Artistic Director Michael Horn’s undertaking is ambitious. If you respect the work of Shepard, and gutsy theater, make it over to MCTC’s ridiculously small space over the next twenty-two months.
In the early 1990s, Randall David Cook participated in a Japanese cultural exchange program in which English-speaking teachers were recruited to Japan’s schools to teach English and expose students to Western culture. Drawing from his experiences, Cook has crafted a most beguiling narrative about Japanese cultural graces and the double-sided impenetrability of clashing cultures.
Structured around the stories of three foreign teachers in a tiny Japanese village, and two natives, it is an enchanting tale. The hostess and spiritual center of a farewell celebration for the three “gaijin” is a beautiful geisha who speaks only in haiku. Sake flows. Flashbacks look upon each teacher’s bewildering experiences and their reasons for leaving their respective homelands. Lost-in-translation wackiness occurs: a Santa Claus on the cross at Christmas; one teacher wrestling with the Japanese term for being gay, “new half”, which is the cause for much philosophic-sexual contemplation.
Although the press materials discuss a blending with classical Japanese Noh theater, this is a performance firmly entrenched in Western dramatic forms, ghosts and altering characters of focus notwithstanding. The shifting to a Japanese point of view in the last two vignettes never quite makes the affective impression Cook intends, and a litany of mid-90s cultural references throughout unnecessarily robs the play of contemporaneousness. Nevertheless the five-part structure displays an elegance that indeed owes itself to a Noh temperance, and the inventive, flowing staging by Alex Lippard is a wonder to behold.
About to take in a lively production of Euripides’ Hecuba at the East Village’s renowned Pearl Theater Company a few weeks ago, I was primed for a comparison with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production at BAM last summer. But rather than contrasting the grace of Shepard Sobel’s direction for the Pearl and Vanessa Redgrave’s hammy, almost over the top performance at BAM, I was struck by something that had nothing at all to do with Euripides. Of the people filling the theater, only a handful were within ten years of my age, and I am no longer by any means a young man. Damn near 90 percent of the people in the theater had been legally drinking well before I was born.
It’s obvious that very few East Village denizens along St. Marks will be taking in this intriguing rendering of Euripides’ tale, which possesses obvious parallels to our time. Even worse is envisioning the Pearl’s subscription base slowly disappearing every five years or so. Imagining souls that had a short time ago filled seats now empty brought to mind not only my own mortality but also the future of classical theater itself. Broadway producers seem to have attempted to solve this problem by replacing the aging audience with tourists from Middle America in desperate need of watching Disney adaptations or Christina Applegate singing ‘If My Friends Could See Me Now’.
One would have expected the Drama Dept.’s production of Patrick Hamilton’s Rope to be filled with the geriatric but the median age was around 40. Ditto for the Barrow Street production of Orson’s Shadow. The Wooster Group has a creative approach that, though abstruse, speaks more to the so-called MTV generation — video monitors, computers, etc., while translating the works of Eugene O’Neill and Gertrude Stein. Likewise Richard Foreman’s new Zomboid!, Will Eno’s Thom Pain (based on nothing), Young Jean Lee’s Pullman, WA at PS 122, and the wonderful Flea Theater in Tribeca all certainly draw younger theater acolytes.
The Pearl’s Hecuba, with its adherence to the use of masks and performance manners indicative of classic Greek tragedy, was one of the more intriguing, dare I say, palpably post-modern approaches to theater I’ve witnessed in some time. Yet few I would consider contemporaries will see it, and the audience that supports and understands its elegance slowly passes away year after year. It’s an unsettling phenomenon, and surely a conundrum for dramaturges.
“Suppose I were to postulate — that those things that are never under control, are under control backwards.”
Richard Foreman’s work has never been easy to digest, and here he enters the realm of filmed tableaux projected as hallucinatory backdrop to live stage action. Often impenetrable, it more resembles staged performance art than actual “theater.”
Impeccably conceived stage design is framed by planes of ropes cutting across the theater, passageways, windows, and totems, in addition to the immense projection screens that dwarf the stage. This is a performance of constant audio and visual repetition, phrases, sounds, and movement.
Streams of nonsensical, pseudo-political intimations suggest a world gone mad, blindfolds often wrapped around the eyes of both the players in the films and onstage. Symbolic usage of the term “donkey” is everywhere — metaphysical donkeys, worshipped, mistreated, straddled, through imagery, as huge dolls, and multiple references both politically and symbolically suggestive.
What does it all mean? I couldn’t tell you. There are hints of anger with the political, “passing the ball” for an approach at rethinking alternate directions. In a piece published at hotreview.org Foreman states that one approach to “spectator-oriented art” is a style wherein the audience is carried on a rollercoaster through various pre-determined emotional focal points, and another more meditative style where events are slowed up and detached so the spectator can project his or her own depths onto the material. I was continually stimulated by this hodgepodge of imagery and sound, but how any of it really affected is beyond me, perhaps what Foreman intends.
Sarah Jones is a tremendously talented performer. Her uncanny ability to channel dozens of New York oddballs, from an older Jewish woman, to a Dominican six year old, to a Pakistani poet in her lively Bridge & Tunnel, is astounding. Originally rising to prominence in 2000 with her edgier Surface Transit at P.S. 122, Jones hit the jackpot when Meryl Streep became a co-producer and major vocal supporter of Bridge & Tunnel’s successful Off-Broadway run at the Culture Project.
But I’ve often wondered why I don’t warm to Jones’ work. One of the conclusions I’ve come to, is that I never get a strong sense of who “Sarah Jones” is in her work. Richard Pryor had a relationship with the characters he portrayed; they were people he’d known — pimp, his white agent’s family — or facets of his own personality. You feel vividly who Pryor himself is in relation to these people, and the characterizations cut to the bone. It’s something you feel to an extent with Sarah Silverman or even Larry David — their personalities add heft to the material. Often with Jones I feel she is simply mimicking (expertly) the mannerisms and cadences of others. But what does she really think about them, how do they touch her personally? I never really know, and so am rarely moved. Jones is an astounding performer, and this Broadway debut is often very enjoyable. I just wish her talent was used to reach deeper beneath the surface of the fascinating characters she portrays.