Posting Letters to The Moon brings a heartfelt performance to the Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters. Compiled by Lucy Fleming, the daughter of British actress Celia Johnson and an actress herself, Posting Letters to The Moon is a reading of letters between her parents during World War II. Johnson, best known for the 1945 David Lean film Brief Encounter, for which she was nominated for an Oscar, was married to Peter Fleming, an accomplished writer and explorer; he was also the brother of Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. Lucy Fleming and her husband, Simon Williams, an actor best known as Mr. Bellamy in Upstairs, Downstairs, read the parts of her parents.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), familial conflict, crucifixions and redemption are at the forefront of family conflict in Master of the Crossroads. Paul Calderon’s play starts off on an elevated note when Yolanda, played by Sarah Kate Jackson, storms into the home of her ex-brother-in-law, Jim-Bo (Obi Abili), to plead with him for help with her husband Cornbread (Nixon Cesar), an aggressive veteran who was deployed to Afghanistan. Cornbread has taken a man hostage whom he has mistakenly thinks is an Arab.
Cornbread exhibits severe symptoms of PTSD, and Cesar (despite a tendency to excessive loudness) captures a range of emotions that one can only imagine a person suffering from this disorder could feel. Cornbread has turned to alcohol and drugs to escape the hauntings in his mind and sees redemption or sacrifice as the only way to move forward. His deterioration is displayed when he explains to his brother that he firmly believes that he has captured an actual Arab:
You tell me he a Spanish Man but no Spanish done spill outta his mouth! Sand Nigga jibber’s what spilling out. Sand nigga jibber! And I know sand nigga jibber when I hear it! Heard it often ‘nuff when I was over widdim and they jibbered and jabbered it till it done near drove me insane, even when some of them jibbering and jabbering were “friendly,” pretended to be on our side. Like this little bugger fucker, couldn’t have been more than twelve if a day. One sec we showing him how to use a broom stick for a baseball bat and the next BOOM!! Done blew hisself and about half dozen of us away with an IED.
The theme of redemption through sacrifice is woven tightly throughout play. The characters have sacrificed their minds and well-being for the sake of their country. Cornbread’s condition is getting worse, and it’s obvious as he plans to “sacrifice” his prisoner. A plot twist occurs with the revelation that Jim-Bo is also suffering from PTSD, and the savior becomes more dangerous. He uses his faith as a source of comfort and a grounding mechanism. As a churchgoing man, Jim-Bo tells Yolanda that Cornbread is “Unwillin’ to understand, that he our Christ!” Abili brings enthusiasm and intensity to Jim-Bo, portraying a scary darkness that has lingered inside his character for who knows how long until he snaps.
His efforts to save the man his brother is holding captive are sidelined as he decides to cleanse the sins of his family through a sacrificial ceremony. Jim-Bo prepares by sawing wood, gathering nails, taking off his clothes, and locking up Cornbread, leading to a climactic, horrific scene as he tries to redeem his family from the demons inside their minds.
The set design by Calderon, who has also directed, is minimalistic, with key symbols displayed on the stage: the American flag, a statue resembling Jesus, and a wooden cross. The props are appropriately violent and intimidating. The lighting by Evan Louison works well with the encompassing theme of the play. It mimics the fog and anxiety associated with PTSD. The music and sounds, also by Louison, are at times terrifying and creepy while at other times meditative and ecclesiastical. With these components working harmoniously, the audience gets a glimpse of what the characters are struggling with day-to-day. Master of the Crossroads is harsh, dark and eerie to make a point about the poor mental health care that American veterans experience.
The Primitive Grace production of Master of the Crossroads plays through Feb. 9 at the Bridge Theater (at Shetler Studios, 244 West 54th St., between Seventh and Eighth Avenues) in Manhattan. Performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday. Tickets are available at primitivegrace.org. Note that this production contains nudity, racist language and graphic violence in an intimate setting.
Exquisita Agonía (Exquisite Agony) is a thought-provoking and entertaining new work by Nilo Cruz, the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright of Anna in the Tropics. The unusual premise of Exquisita Agonía centers on the unsaid, the unfinished and what is known as cellular memory.
How deep can one hide the truth? Gabriel Jason Dean’s Terminus centers on the search for the “true true”—a phrase spoken by a few of the characters. It captures the essence of this well-written, thought-provoking play, the second in a seven-play cycle called The Attapulgus Elegies. The collection chronicles the lives of the residents of Attapulgus, Ga., over the course of the last two decades as the town slowly dwindles away.
Bromance, an acrobatic show from London that has opened at the New Victory Theater, offers strength-defying acts and acrobatics. Geared towards a younger audience, the creation by Charlie Wheeller, Louis Gift and Beren D’Amico includes hand-to-hand feats, the cyr wheel and various types of dancing. They incorporate humorous gestures and silly body movements that are choreographed to draw infectious laughs from children.
Director Whitney Aronson’s approach to August Strindberg’s rarely produced Crimes and Crimes is to streamline and bring out the dark comedy that the play encompasses. Her adaptation of the Swedish playwright’s work has been updated to present-day New York City. She has taken the attitude that the realism and harsh events that occur in the original version undermine the notion of it as a comedy. For her adaptation, she says in a note, she wanted the audience to see and understand Strindberg’s play. Aronson’s version begins with Jean (Ivette Dumeng) and her show dog Maid Marian (played by actress Katie Ostrowski), a Hungarian sheepdog, frolicking in the park, enjoying their time as they wait for Jean’s husband, Maurice (Randall Rodriguez). Emile, Jean’s brother, later joins them, and they discuss Jean’s concern that Maurice is planning to leave her. (Aronson doesn’t explain why these residents of New York should have French names.)
Jean is afraid that she will not be able to afford Maid Marian’s dog show expenses if Maurice divorces her. Emile and Jean speak of how Maurice, an author, rarely takes her on his book tours or to social affairs. She tells Emile, “I don’t know, but I have a feeling that something dreadful is in store for me.” Suddenly Maurice appears and begins caressing Maid Marian, whom he clearly loves. He also gives the impression that he loves Jean and enjoys her company and physicality. In fact, he invites her to the opening of one of his plays and she refuses. She tells him she will be better at home with Maid Marian. They part ways, and the play begins to unfold the “something dreadful” that Jean fears.
Maurice goes off to meet and start an affair with Henriette (Christina Toth), who is in a lesbian relationship with his close friend (a man plays the friend in Strindberg’s original). The tension increases: Maurice must now decide if he stays with his wife or goes with his new lover. As he contemplates his decision and how difficult it would be to see Maid Marian if he divorces Jean, the dog mysteriously dies.
One of Aronson’s most radical changes to Strindberg’s original text is that Maid Marian is a replacement for the mistress’s daughter. She writes that she made this choice because she wanted the play to be more believable: “I actually did it because in the original, the child dies and nobody really cares.”
Although there’s a logic behind Aronson’s choice, it may not resonate with the same intensity as Strindberg’s. “I thought that the audience would not be able to forgive anyone in the play for so easily moving on from the death of a human child. A treasured animal’s death, though tragic and upsetting, is more consistent with the general reaction and behavior that Strindberg’s characters demonstrate.”
But even though the change from child to animal does lighten the mood and makes Maurice’s actions somewhat more forgivable, some of the plot stretches credibility. After the dog’s death, animal law enforcement appears to investigate the crime. As serious a crime as animal abuse is, it seems rather fantastical that a Broadway-type play would be pulled because of animal abuse. In any case, Maurice is charged as the main suspect, but he is eventually exonerated. Within hours of his release, Maurice’s reputation is ruined, and his play is pulled.
Whether the choice to change the daughter to a sheepdog is fully justified or not, it does not take away from the lightness of the play. It does, however, make the circumstance melodramatic and absurd, which brings out the humor in the play.
Matthew Hampton and Holly Albrach’s costuming of the characters is impeccable: fashionable and in line with the current New York scene. They employ an approach to the Hungarian sheepdog that seems to draw inspiration from puppet theater. It was entertaining and just simply delightful to the eye.
The sound design by Andy Evan Cohen makes the transition between scenes lively, using instrumentals of popular pop songs. They are played with a classical twist, so the audience is left to try and identify the familiar tune.
Aronson has accomplished her goal. The play has witty moments and comic scenes. The absurdism makes for great melodramatic humor as well. The revision keeps the audience focused on its entertaining and engaging story for the entire duration.
Crimes and Crimes plays through Aug. 20 at the Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond St., in Manhattan. For tickets, call (212) 868-4444 or visit www.strindbergrep.com.
What would happen if technology rebelled against us? One possibility is explored in Mac Rogers’ Universal Robots, a science-fiction play set in Czechoslovakia after World War I. It is inspired by the 1921 sci-fi drama R.U.R., by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek. Čapek’s play, whose initials stand for “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” introduced the word “robot” to the English language and was instrumental in establishing the robot as a character.
Rogers expands upon Čapek’s world and creates his own universe filled with wired beings. The play eases into the realm of human-like robots in the first act. It begins with the gathering of the ensemble of robots (of which the audience is not aware) chanting of how they tell their story to remember. Remember what? This chant will surface again and connect many dots for the audience of whose story they are truly telling.
As the play opens, the characters are gathered at their local watering hole in Prague. The café is frequented by a playwright, Karel (Jorge Cordova), his sister, Jo (Hanna Cheek), who is a sculptor, and their barrage of friends. Here, they drink, laugh and discuss many of society’s conundrums. Life is good. Helena (Brittany N. Williams) enters the café, pushing a wheelchair containing an automaton, and introduces them to the object that will change their world. She asks them to come see the lab where the human-like robot was created. Their intrigue and fear grow, yet they ultimately agree to go with Helena to visit the plant and meet the automaton’s creator, Helena’s mother, Rossum (Tandy Cronyn).
After their visit, the world they know changes. They decide to embark on a mass production of automatons. They fear the loss of human employment and self-efficiency but establish ground rules to keep their creations in balance. They all agree to an established set of boundaries, and a union is formed. The robot production begins.
As the play progresses, Hitler is on the rise and a representative from the United States visits the President of the Czech Republic (Sara Thigpen), who is one of the major people in charge of the automaton project. Up to this point the group had decided that the automatons would not be used for war or programmed to kill, and now they are faced with saving millions of people or going against their values. They choose humanity—or do they?
Rogers outlines the deterioration of many of the close-knit human relationships from the beginning of the play. The pressure and guilt of programing the robots to kill prove to be too much to handle for some. One relationship with a sweet, sad dynamic is that of Jo (Hanna Cheek) and the robot Radius (Jason Howard), who was a human waiter, Radosh, who passed away and is later reincarnated as the face of the lead automatons. Radius is no longer human, but the physical association and emotions that tie Jo to Radius are very human. It brings up the question of where does humanity live, in the flesh or the soul? Howard shows versatility as he skillfully switches from human to robot with his diction and physicality. In his scenes with Jo he is able to capture the softness of a human yet parallel it with the sterility of a robot.
Rogers does a fantastic job of posing such deeply rooted questions that force the audience to really think about choices, good, evil and humanity as a whole. Rogers delves deeply into these complex themes and creation questions. He poses a hypothetical where choosing the lesser of two evils could be at the expense of humanity. Although the play deals with relevant issues, at times it feels as if he might be trying to tackle too many deep questions for one sitting.
Director Jordana Willams has put together a diverse cast of 10 in Universal Robots, a powerful, thought-provoking play that should be appreciated not only by sci-fi enthusiasts but anyone who is interested in thinking about the world’s “what ifs.”
Universal Robots runs through June 26 at the Sheen Center (145 6th Ave.; entrance on Dominick Street). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. tonight and Wednesday through Saturday; there is also a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday. Tickets are $25 for general admission and $18 for students and may be purchased online at web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/957321.