Lea Fridman

Days of Rage

Days of Rage

Steven Levenson’s fast-paced and hilarious play, Days of Rage, opens in October 1969. America is riven. The war in Vietnam has taken more than 30,000 American lives. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy have been assassinated. Twenty thousand mostly young people turned out to protest the war in Vietnam at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and police are assigned to contain and control the crowd at all costs. Eight of the protesters, later known as the Chicago Eight, were put on trial in late August 1969. Word goes out to bus protesters to the trial. Both the protesters and the Chicago Eight see the case as a way to put the nation itself, its racism and unjust war, on trial. Levenson’s powerful play focuses a sharp gaze at politics and the hidden volatility that can tip over into violence and the spilling of blood.

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Strange Interlude

Strange Interlude

Strange Interlude, one of four Eugene O’Neill plays to have won a Pulitzer Prize, is brilliant, magisterial, and provocative. How then, does one actor, David Greenspan, take the complex story of Nina Leeds and the four men in her life, a play that is written in nine acts and spans five hours in the telling, and deliver the highs and the lows, the strange twists of fate, the loves, and the schemes of its characters? Dressed in a dapper three-piece suit, Greenspan is alternately Nina, Charles, Ned and Sam (and three minor characters as well), maintaining an energetic, staccato presence while shifting, sometimes with gunfire rapidity, among these characters. Who would have imagined that this 1928 whale of a play could be acted as a one-man show to riveting effect? Greenspan is extraordinary, and he brings to life an extraordinary play. 

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Life Is for Living

Life Is for Living

He was a jack of all trades artistic and master of them all. Trendsetter and admired cultural icon, Noel Coward was a British actor, playwright, dancer, composer and lyricist of songs, musicals and operettas, screenwriter and director, painter, novelist, and diarist, whose style, rapier wit, and intellect dominated the worlds of British theater and entertainment throughout the 1930’s, ’40s, and ’50s. Coward is the larger-than-life subject of Simon Green and David Shrubsole’s intimate evening Life Is for Living: Conversations with Coward at 59E59 Theaters. The presentation, the newest in a series of this British team’s collaborations devoted to Coward, uses Coward’s songs with excerpts from his diaries, verse, and letters, to offer us a glimpse into the breadth, artistry, life, and wit of the Master.

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The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

It’s a turning point in American history when a candidate for President suggests, ominously, that should the election not go his way, he will not go quietly into the good night of a peaceful transition of power. Bertolt Brecht’s sprawling farce The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is a piercing look at the rise of a thug and petty tyrant whose lessons will not be lost on viewers in this election season. Written in a mere three weeks in 1941, the play is Brecht’s effort to radically deflate the mystique, worship, and awe that despots typically inspire. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, viewed his creation of the myth of the Führer as his greatest achievement, an achievement that made possible Adolf Hitler’s consolidation of power even as he was curtailing civil liberties and murdering real and perceived threats to his power. Brecht’s weapon of choice: humor!

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Consequences of Our Actions

Can a trial change history?  What happens when standards of behavior are violated and not brought to public reckoning? The Trial of an American President is a courtroom drama of a trial that will never take place, of legal arguments that will not be made, and finally, of a verdict that will also not happen, except perhaps in the court of public opinion, if the writer has his way  In his new and first play, Dick Tarlow (with contributing writer and researcher Bill Smith) puts George W. Bush, our 43rd President, on trial for knowingly violating international law: when invading Iraq in the hunt for non-existent weapons of mass destruction; for the unnecessary killing of civilians in an occupation; and for the use of torture.

Michael Rogers is a Prosecutor at the International Court and Tony Carlin is George W. Bush in  The Trial of an American President . Top: Carlin as Bush backed by video imagery during the play.

Michael Rogers is a Prosecutor at the International Court and Tony Carlin is George W. Bush in The Trial of an American President. Top: Carlin as Bush backed by video imagery during the play.

Directed by Stephen Eich, this fictional trial takes place in the International Criminal Court of the Hague. Because the United States, unlike 124 other countries, is not a party to the ICC, our actions cannot be prosecuted except if called for by the UN Security Council, where the United States has veto power. George W. Bush appears at his trial voluntarily and against the advice of family and friends. In a gray suit, red tie, and blue shirt, Tony Carlin plays an earnest former President who is convinced of his righteousness but not arrogant or prideful, a Bush who listens empathically and with humility to an American mother who has lost her son and to the stories of torture and of the unprovoked massacre of Iraqis by American troops. Brilliant use of video, allowing for footage of the conflict and for individual Iraqis to tell their stories, also humanizes the destruction wrought by decisions made by Bush, in all his rumpled sincerity, with Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney at his side.

The play is documentary in style, grounded in historical evidence, legal argument, and reference to international treaties and conventions. Tall and stately in his black robes with blue trim, Michael Rogers, as the Prosecutor, is imposing. Mahira Kakkar, playing the Narrator, gives the audience context and spells out the larger implications of the American invasion of Iraq: turmoil across the Middle East, the shift of regional power in favor of Iran, the rise of Isis, and the creation of the largest refugee crisis since World War II, one that now threatens European states and the European Union itself.

Although the verdict, left up to the audience, is pretty much a foregone conclusion, it is the detail that is finally so impressive: the playing out of a war that that follows from Bush officials, a number of whom are quoted: “Bomb Iraq…. There aren’t any good targets in Afghanistan,” and “If you don’t violate some human rights, you probably aren’t doing your job.” Or, the White House counsel who ruled that war against terrorism renders obsolete any of the Geneva conventions about questioning enemy prisoners.

Bush listens to charges from the judge. Photographs by Ken Nahoum
Bush listens to charges from the judge. Photographs by Ken Nahoum

From those statements come the falsifications that accompanied the American invasion in the first place and the occupation of Fallujah, with a cutoff of food, water and medical supplies to civilians and painful examples of unprovoked shootings by American troops into schools and homes in striking defiance of military advice to rely upon surgical strikes and not upon an occupation. And there is Bush’s approval of extraordinary rendition and six new interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, often administered with dubious and little evidence. Matters are complicated when the Narrator asks members of the audience if they would violate laws on torture if they thought the information would save their child. “I would,” she says.

Some might say The Trial of an American President is a beautifully dramatized trial and not theater at all. At the play’s end, the viewer will ponder the consequences of our votes as well as the actions of our leaders on the wide canvas they deserve. If those actions inspire fear and pity, as Aristotle recommended in the writing of tragedy, the tragedy here is not the gouged-out eyes of an Oedipus but rather entire regions of the world upturned, lives decimated, and chaos that threatens the world order and has energized forces of intolerance. And the “recognition” Aristotle recommends to the tragedian, is not that of our protagonist, George W. Bush—who, at the end of the play, remains deeply convinced of the rightness of his decisions—but ours.

The Trial of an American President is at the Lion Theater, 412 West 42nd, through Oct. 15.

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Looking for God and Love

Serious pianists love to study the great composers in order to explore and channel the music they are to perform. Hershey Felder, the writer and star of the solo show Maestro, is a serious pianist and composer in his own right. He is also a gifted and highly successful singer, director, and producer. His one-man show is the natural rumination of one serious musician about another. A revelatory moment as Hershey Felder playing Leonard Bernstein demonstrates Dimitri Mitropoulos’s conducting style. Top: Felder, a virtuoso pianist, plays a nine- foot Steinway center stage as Bernstein.

Maestro is the story of the larger-than-life phenomenon that was Leonard Bernstein: conductor of the celebrated New York Philharmonic and orchestras worldwide; the second most performed classical composer in the United States, who also wrote the scores for the hit West Side Story and other Broadway shows; the creator of 53 Young People’s Concerts and proselytizer on behalf of the classical music tradition to the millions he reached on TV and in lectures all over the world. In this and other plays, Felder has created a piece of biographical theater. His one-man plays about Gershwin, Chopin, Beethoven, Liszt, Irving Berlin, and now Bernstein, use story, song, and music to probe the lives of great musicians and deepen our understanding of music itself.

Bernstein’s overarching passion was to compose. In Lenny’s voice, Felder explains what lies behind the works he composes: “and in every one of these pieces, I am busy looking for God. And for love. Because as composers, that’s what we’re always doing.” This desire, the desire to compose and all it encompasses, is the spine of Felder’s play. Will Bernstein find God? Will he find love? Will he write the great works he so badly wants to write?

Felder takes on Lenny, the controversies about his life and his music, and looks for the truth behind the noise of his fame. He shows us a man whose betrayal of his marriage and loss of his wife to cancer upended his life. And he shows us a man who, for all of his achievements as a composer, was never embraced by the classical composing establishment, which rigidly favored atonalism. Bernstein not only believed that tonality and melody were at the heart of all great classical music, he wrote successful musicals; brought classical impulses into his popular music; brought popular idioms into his serious classical compositions; and was just too populist in every way to win the seal of approval of that elite club whose tenets he rejected. He paid a heavy price.

Felder as Bernstein on a television set. Photos by xxxxxxxx.

Beautifully directed by Joel Zwick, the work uses projection and lighting (Christopher Ashe) as well as audio (Eric Carstensen) in striking, even brilliant ways. Does Felder do justice to Bernstein? Do we know the man more deeply after the play than we did before? These are questions that theatergoers will answer for themselves. But in bringing us a character whose passion and achievements were in music, Felder’s own musicianship, his teaching moments riffing on music that occur throughout the play, and his prowess at the keyboard, bring us more deeply into the soul of Bernstein than this genre might have otherwise permitted.

A solo show is a special feat for any actor. Maestro runs one hour and 45 minutes and includes challenging work at the keyboard, some of it while also singing or speaking. At the same time, is it mean-spirited to say there is a bit too much West Side Story and that, if the final song were cut, the play would end on the more tragic note intended by Felder, without sentimentality? Interestingly, as a baritone, Felder sings in a soft and lilting popular style and also in a steelier, more trained classical style, sometimes combining both, just as Bernstein was forever migrating from one style to the next in unexpected ways. Vocally this usually works—but not always.

Did Bernstein find God and love in his composing and in his life? In the most powerful moment at the end of the play—better experienced than described here—Bernstein combatively turns and asks questions of the audience. Then he recites a poem Bernstein wrote in which he sums up how he views his life in the face of his approaching death. Did Bernstein find God and love in his composing? No, Felder says, not in Bernstein’s eyes. And yes, Felder says, in the eyes and hearts of all of us who listen to his story and, even more important, to the maverick genius and passionate heart of the music that beats beneath it.

Maestro runs through Oct. 23 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tues.–Thurs. and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. (Additional performances are at 2 p.m. Sept. 29 and Oct. 13. There are no performances on Sept. 24 or Oct. 11 or at 7 p.m. Oct. 2.) Tickets are $25–$70. For more information, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org.

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A Civic Jewel—and Free!

There is something appropriate about offering Shakespeare for free in the parks of New York City. Like the great rivers and mountains of the earth or the stars and planetary system—which charge no admission for us to admire them—Shakespeare is a force of Nature that belongs to us all.

Artistic Director Stephen Burdman has made it the mission of the New York Classical Theatre to bring free Shakespeare productions to various parks during the summer: following this year’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the late romance The Winter’s Tale, brilliantly conceived, acted, and deeply moving, to boot. 

The Winter’s Tale, first performed 405 years ago in 1611, is about the fallout of a king’s jealousy when the ruler, Leontes, wrongly imagines that his devoted wife, Hermione, has consorted with his best friend, King Polixenes, and that the child she is to bear him is not his. Only after the death of Leontes’ young son and sole heir, Mamillius (Peyton Lusk is delightful in the role), followed by the death of his faithful queen, does the king awaken from his madness and see his foul crimes for what they are.

Here is a feast of self-deception, delusion and jealousy for Shakespeare to plumb in all of the pity and horror his majestic language can inspire before the play resolves, after an improbable leap of 16 years in time, on happier notes: the reunion of the two friends, Leontes and Polixenes; the forthcoming marriage of their children, Florizel and Perdita; and most ridiculously wondrous of all, the revelation that the statue of the long-dead queen is really a living and breathing Hermione, now returned to the bosom of her husband and family. If the question is whether or to what extent a particular performance of The Winter’s Tale allows the audience to utterly suspend their disbelief when confronted by such leaps in time and “happy” endings, the production did very well indeed.

Brad Fraizer in his beautifully acted role as Leontes carries the emotional sweep of the play from his increasingly insane jealousy to the extremes and horror of recognition of his crimes, and from there to the reconciliations wrought by Time and Chance. It is a challenging role.

David Heron as his beloved childhood friend, King Polixenes, is commanding and passionate in his role. Hermione, so profoundly wronged by her husband, is portrayed by Mairin Lee with a queenly elegance, dignity and sensitivity. Mark August, who plays the clown, Autolycus, is extraordinary and deserves special mention for his comic brilliance and gifts. So, too, does the stirring performance of Lisa Tharp as Paulina, maid in waiting to the Queen, whose impassioned rebuke to Leontes for his treatment of his wife is heart-piercing. For all of the loveliness of the outdoor setting, it also places special demands in clearly projecting Shakespeare’s language, to which the cast rose magnificently.  

As the play moves from Act II to Act III, the audience also moves—from Clinton Castle (Leontes’ court in Sicilia) to a lawn overlooking the Hudson River (the shores of Bohemia). Burdman calls this his “panoramic” technique, a method by which the audience is less a witness to the actions before it than at the center of those actions. It is as if the viewers were really accompanying the courtier Antigonus, sent by the mad Leontes to abandon his own newborn daughter, Perdita. Over the Hudson, just in front of the audience, is a real cloud-flecked sky with real birdsong mixing with the sounds of the city in the background. Scene iii of the next act takes place on a different lawn (another location in Bohemia) to which the actors, again, lead the audience. The scene is one of a sheep shearing and, as evening gathers, the audience sits amid trees and grass exactly as they might at a real sheep shearing.

In Burdman’s “panoramic” approach, the entire park is our stage. There are no sets. Scenes are acted in different areas of the park with the audience sitting on the ground or grass, and the staff, in the first row of the audience, shining flashlights on the characters once it has become dark. Shakespeare’s language and his dramatic exploration of human character and heart fill the entirety of the space with no theatrical paraphernalia to draw off attention. And the effect is simply stunning, as less proves so much more! There is no lovelier way to spend an evening than to allow Shakespeare’s magic to sizzle and cast a net over you and over the city itself. 

Meet outside Castle Clinton in Battery Park at 7 p.m. nightly (except Thursdays) through Aug. 7 (via 1 train to South Ferry or the 4/5 to Bowling Green). The Winter’s Tale will then move to Brooklyn Bridge Park from Aug. 9-14 (take F train to York, 2/3 to Clark or A/C to High), also at 7 p.m. There will be no performance on Aug. 11.

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Hats for Free!

It’s rare to see anything remotely like Torry Bend’s The Paper Hat Game: a seamless and brilliant performance collage of live puppets, small-scale set models, a variety of video modalities, intricate soundscape, and more. The delicacy, virtuosity, and utter freshness of this avant-garde theater work at the 3LD Art & Technology Center will delight you long after you’ve left the theater. Unselfconsciously Dada, surrealist, naturalist and psychodrama by turns, it is also none of those things: something utterly new. And, if you are a New Yorker, it will evoke the urban details and sounds that you never noticed make up your own life in the same way that you didn’t quite notice your childhood as you lived through it.  

The story of The Paper Hat Game is based on Scotti Iseri, who would ride the trains in Chicago, making and giving out paper hats to fellow riders, mostly to their enchantment. Bend, creator and director of this extraordinary show, was among those who saw the real Iseri on the Chicago train day after day when she was a graduate student. At one point, she decided to also make and distribute paper hats on her train ride, but was never greeted with the same openness that Iseri, an app developer, inspired. The show is both a fascinating tribute to Iseri, but also to the vitality, the life, the people, the humdrum and the magic of a great city.   

It is this throbbing, ever-shifting cityscape, its sounds, the screech of train wheels on tracks, recorded messages of all sorts, buildings, tunnels, windows, and most of all, trains, that The Paper Hat Game brings us, from behind a puppet stage whose height and width are a few feet in each direction. As the show unfolds, the city we no longer taste, smell, or hear rears up phantasmagorically and from every angle possible. At one point we find ourselves looking down on the head of a boy sitting in the subway; at another we are inside a subway car peering into the faces of passengers. Sizes of familiar objects shift and change. And for an instant suspended in time, a paper hat that flies out a window hangs in a huge space of sky, a glorious city, now tiny and spread out before it.  All this as our paper hat-making hero weaves his way in and out of view. 

The 50-minute production is visually and acoustically dense—exquisitely so. There are few words and just a small amount of dialogue that punctuate the soundscape. In this way, Colbert Davis and Matt Hubbs' sound design brings to our attention the vast world of urban sound we work so hard to push away, ignore, disregard. Yes, there are cellos thrown into the mix at several points and some violin ensemble work as well, but overwhelmingly this sound team has choreographed the bell of the trains we ride just before the train doors close, the mechanized announcements of train stations, the varieties of chugs and screeches of the iron monster, and so much more  of the recognizable cityscape into a music that is suddenly foregrounded, heard, and, if only for a short magical space of time, no longer in the background.    

Bend’s creative team from co-producers The Tank and 3-Legged Dog includes the amazing video designer, Raquel Salvatella de Prada, the haunting light design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, the fantastical puppet designer, Aaron Haskell, and five puppeteers:  Angela Olson, Drina Dunlap, Steve Ackerman, Yolo Myoi, and Alex Young. The exquisite detail involved on the part of the team in coordinating multiple effects within the performance is astonishing: puppets and video with photo-in-motion and set pieces with soundscape and light.   

Is this work, so grounded in an urban poetic, the harbinger of a new urban American transcendentalism? Like Scotti Iseri himself, The Paper Hat Game brings a childlike sense of wonder to the mundane. It lifts up the dross and detail that is the DNA of daily urban life so that we might see our city with fresh eyes, our lives with a new heart, and listen to our urban world with fresh ears.  

Performances of The Paper Hat Game continue through July 17 at 3LD Art and Technology Center (80 Greenwich St., at Rector, in lower Manhattan). Performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Tickets are $25 ($15 for students with valid student ID) and may be purchased by calling Brown Paper Tickets at 800-838-3006 or by visiting www.3ldnyc.org.

 

 

 

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It’s War

The juxtaposition of two masterpieces by two giants of modern theater on opposite sides of the ever more relevant and explosive issue of gender is a New York theatrical event. Theater for a New Audience has paired Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House with the lesser-known The Father, by August Strindberg, a play written partially in response to the Ibsen play.

Director Arin Arbus and her creative team brilliantly use the same actors in similar roles in both plays and configure the theater at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in traverse with the audience on two sides of a fairly narrow but long stage. A Doll’s House, first produced in 1887, follows the 1937 Thornton Wilder adaptation. The Father, written in 1887, boasts a newly commissioned translation of from writer and director David Greig.

Both plays tell the story of a marriage that falls apart when a woman takes action on behalf of a husband or child in a world in which the society upholds male prerogatives. The law denies both women scope of action on critical matters in their lives. In The Father, it would deprive Laura (Maggie Lacey), the wife of Captain Adolf, the title character, of any say in the future of her child. In A Doll’s House, it turns Nora’s saving of her husband Thorwald’s life into a criminal act. What will Laura do when the Captain (John Douglas Thompson), her husband, announces his irrevocable decision to send their daughter away to school to become a teacher when she wants Bertha (Kimber Monroe) to remain home and study art? What will happen to Nora when her forgery of a promissory note on a loan is revealed to him just as, inconveniently, he is about to start a new job as the head of a bank?

In both plays the man is the provider, and the husband complains about his wife’s spending his hard-earned money (no concept of an economic partnership here!). Both women must connive to make their marriages work and get what they want, be it the nibble of a macaroon or the destiny of a child. In both, wives get in the way of their husbands’ careers, Laura in misdirecting her husband’s scientific letters detailing hard-won discoveries, and Nora in forging her father’s signature and potentially placing her husband in a compromised situation at his bank. Is it coincidence that the dramatic turning point of each play depends on an act of male violence? In The Father, Captain Adolf throws a lamp at his wife and the resulting fire is a tour de force of staging by Arbus with Riccardo Hernandez’s scenic design. Matters for the Captain devolve from there. In A Doll’s House, the violence is verbal. Thorwald’s berating of Nora when he feels his career and social standing are threatened fires Nora’s decision to leave the confinement of her “doll’s house.” The overlap of the two plays could hardly be more striking.

But that overlap is indeed the point, and it throws the different human, gender, and theatrical visions of the plays into far sharper relief. A Doll’s House is, of course, not just the dramatic rendering and canny analysis of the woman’s situation in the late 19th century; it is a manifesto that speaks boldly even today. When Nora’s husband, Thorwald, defends himself to his wife, saying, “No man sacrifices his honor even for the woman he loves,” and Nora responds, “Millions of women have done it,” the audience at the Polonsky erupted in applause. With humiliating clarity, Nora comes to understand how living in homes run by men has stunted her growth as a human being. “I’ve been living like a beggar, by performing tricks for you!” she tells Thorwald. “You and my father are responsible. It’s your fault my life has been wasted.” Maggie Lacey is commendable in both wife roles, and does especially well with the lighter shades of Nora’s passionate character.

In The Father, the Captain’s human growth has been stunted too, and in a manner parallel to Nora’s, since it is his profound and early attachments to women, plumbed to extraordinary depths in the play and in the harrowing and magnificent performance by Thompson, that undermine and doom him. Thompson’s performances as the husbands are powerful, but the Strindberg provides him with a role of rare emotional range in which he, along with the audience watching him, absolutely revels. The Father is a cri de coeur on behalf of husbands and breadwinners everywhere and the sacrifices that come with that role. At the heart of this painful play is not a heroic vision of manhood but rather a disturbing vision of male weakness. It is out of weakness that the Captain reaches to the law and social norms of male prerogative to counter the will of his determined wife.

At the same time, staging the plays in repertory works to Strindberg’s advantage. The tight construction of The Father, in which the suspicions his wife plants about whether he is Bertha’s father or not drive the Captain to insanity, makes the Ibsen work feel, at moments, contrived, as when Nora’s friend and foil, Mrs. Linden, makes the shocking decision to allow Thorwald to find the damning letter that will reveal Nora’s forgery. The psychological contradictions and depths of Strindberg’s portrayal of the Captain makes Ibsen’s portrayal of Nora's final resolve to leave her husband and two children appear less powerfully motivated by comparison. 

At the end of A Doll’s House, there is hope beyond the confines of the performance itself. Nora, who was courageous enough to undertake an extraordinary scheme to save a husband’s life, will surely succeed now that she has made the decision to save her own life.  And in the aftermath of battle, there is the possibility of a new woman and new man that will emerge from this process. The same is not true for the more despairing vision of Strindberg, in which the male is fundamentally powerless, and the entire family a rubble of destruction. Tellingly, it is the Captain’s own nanny, Margaret, beautifully played with unexampled tenderness by Laurie Kennedy, who tricks him into the actual straitjacket to which his madness has led him. For the noble Captain, there is no exit. Strindberg’s vision is as dark as Ibsen’s is radical.

Arbus and her marvelous casts invite us to place these plays beside each other and, in so doing, come away with a new understanding, not only of these works, not only of these playwrights, but of ourselves. Can great theater do more?

Theater for a New Audience presents August Strindberg's The Father and Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House in repertory at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center (262 Ashland Place) in Brooklyn through June 12. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, call Ovationtix at (866) 811-4111 or visit www.tfana.org.

 

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On Puppets, Music and Race

In standing publicly and personally for the contribution of black spirituals and melodies to the future of American music, 19th-century European composer Antonín Dvorák took up arms against a sea of racism that did not subside with the ending of the Civil War. The New World Symphony: Dvorák in America, produced by the storied Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre, uses the little-known visit of the composer to our shores only 27 years after the Civil War to take a bold, bracing and exuberant swipe at American racism of the past and its echoes up through our current presidential elections. The production, which combines puppets with human actors, is nothing if not wildly imaginative and, at the same time, deeply serious and grounded in the historical record of Dvorák’s sojourn in the United States. Written and brilliantly directed by Vit Horejs, it is playing at the La Mama Experimental Theatre Club. 

From 1893­-95 the unassuming, prolific and famous Dvorák was the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America, based in New York, a brainchild of the philanthropist Jeanette Meyers Thurber. A woman far ahead of her time, Thurber sought out musical talent among “female, minority, and physically disabled” students, and in 1893—at the height of Jim Crow and of lynchings across the South­—she and Dvorák initiated a tuition-free policy for black students. It was during his residency as director of the school that Dvorák composed arguably his finest and most beloved work, the New World Symphony. Among other pieces written in his “American” period, it was music influenced by the “Negro melodies” Dvorák so deeply admired.

At one point Dvorák remarks that “the future music of this country … must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.” The statement, like many of the lines in the play, is drawn verbatim from writings by and interviews of Dvorák and contemporaries. While Dvorák’s prescient vision of the development of an American musical idiom within a deeply hostile and racist context is the overpowering theme of the play, the lively portrait of the period, wrapped, as it were, in the candy of broken violin parts, puppets, and theatrical slapstick, includes Prohibition, labor unrest, Tammany Hall, the Haymarket Riots and, importantly, the Columbian World Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893, in which the black Paul Lawrence Dunbar makes his appearance. 

Horejs’s production includes both period and modern costumes at the same time that a fair number of lines of its text also wander from their strict historical period, as when Nazi Reichsminister Josef Goebbels says: “If by jazz we mean Judeo-Negroid music that is based on rhythm and entirely ignores melody, why then we can only keep the lower race responsible….” Another voice later declares, “I am now calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” The connections between racism old and new, and, in fact, Old World and New World, could not be clearer.

In the play, as in life, we see Dvorák take black and Native American talent under his wing: Harry Burleigh and Will Marion Cook, black musicians and teachers who would deeply influence their students and the development of black musical forms, are two who appear in the play. Chief Big Moon from the Hunkpapa Tribe is another student of Dvorák who impressively lectures on arcane language issues on stage. The play ends with music that sweeps from gospel to jazz and to rock. Surely Dvorák’s prognostications about the black musical genius and its centrality for American music proved accurate.

As a composer known for bringing folk themes from his native Bohemia into his music, Dvorák would surely have been pleased to have his life rendered in the theater tradition of puppetry so dear to the hearts of Czechs. Ben Watts made for a Dvorák of boundless energy and verve. The rest of the cast was terrific.

In organizing the script in Dvorák’s actual footsteps rather than around a conflict or obstacle faced by the composer, Horejs perhaps sacrifices dramatic power for his historical purpose. No matter. The fun and slapstick of the production itself, its underlying serious ideas, and the concert quality of the music made up for any weaknesses. James Brandon Lewis on sax, Luke Stewart on bass and Warren Trae Crudup III on drums were simply outstanding. Harlem Lafayette, who played the black musician Harry Burleigh, has the voice of an angel, as does Valois Mickies who played a black female singer. Original music not composed by Dvorák, was composed by James Brandon Lewis.

The Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre production of The New World Symphony: Dvorák in America runs through March 27 at the La Mama Experimental Theater Club, 66 East 4th St. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; matinees are Sundays at 4 p.m. Tickets are $25. Seniors and students are $20. Ten $10 tickets are available for every performance on a first-come, first -served basis. For tickets, call the box office at 646-430-5374 or visit www.czechmarionettes.org.

 

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