A Brechtian Baby and Two Mothers

The Caucasian Chalk Circle, one of Bertolt Brecht’s most acclaimed dramas, provides an excellent example of the difference in Brecht’s theater from that of dramatists before him, or indeed, most of them since. If one expects a “big secret” to be revealed at the end of The Caucasian Chalk Circle—Mom is a morphine addict, Dad’s munitions were faulty—disappointment is inevitable. Brecht’s narrative strain of theater concentrates on instruction.

Chalk Circle, drawn from a Chinese parable and a Biblical one, is divided into two parts. In the first, Grusha (Elizabeth A. Davis), a servant in the house of Georgi Abashvili, the governor of a province in Georgia, in the Caucasus, rescues the governor’s child, whose life is endangered by a civil conflict. The child’s mother, Natella Abashvili, given brassy, bossy life by the inimitable Mary Testa, is obsessed with taking belongings with her in escaping the uprising, and she forgets her child. Grusha endures various challenges in her attempt to ensure the child’s safety. She crosses a dangerous bridge and ends up marrying a dying man to give the babe a stable home, but ultimately she is discovered and the child is taken from her. In the second half, she goes to court to fight for parental rights, although Natella wants her son back. Rendering judgment is the cynical Azdak (Christopher Lloyd), a former peasant and philosopher who takes bribes and often delivers unexpected verdicts. Which of the two women has the right to be the mother?

Brian Kulick’s production takes un-Brechtian liberties with the translation by Brian and Tania Stern. The realism advocated by Brecht is liberally sprinkled with symbolism—a chair, bed headboard, red rocking horse and other objects hang from the flies, and characters frequently break the fourth wall, sometimes for interactivity, which is currently a mini-mania on New York stages. Whether Brecht would have approved of audience members getting on stage to enact a wedding party is uncertain, but, fortunately, most of Kulick’s gimmicks don’t sabotage the playwright. The “alienation effect” advocated by Brecht—an insistence on keeping the audience aloof so that their emotional investment in the characters doesn’t trump their absorbing the political and social comment of the plays—is enhanced by the meddling.

Moreover, some of Kulick’s inventions provide a rough magic. The suitcases piled up by Natella in an early scene (though not in any way “trunks,” as the text has it) are later reconfigured to become the rotted slats of a footbridge that Grusha has to cross, and later still to become a stream separating Grusha from the man who loves her, Simon Chachava. A simple moment of Lloyd, who doubles as the Singer/narrator, sprinkling snowflakes over Grusha is as effective as Matt Kraus’s sound design for a scene when the snows melt and Grusha is about to be turned out of her brother’s home. The plinks of drops falling into buckets as ice melts becomes deafening as the brother (Tom Riis Farrell, in the best performance of several roles he has) tells her she must leave when spring comes.

Tony Straiges’ set design is equally impressive: the back walls are painted with Soviet-style murals of outsize workers and Cyrillic lettering (Kulick has re-set the play from the 1930s to after the 1989 fall of Communism). A huge statue of Lenin upstage is broken apart early on with ropes from the flies, and its ruins make an impressive backdrop to subsequent events. And Spring Awakening composer Duncan Sheik has composed impressively apt, folk-tinged music for the songs (lyrics by W.H. Auden) interspersed in the play.

Davis makes a resourceful, feisty Grusha, and Alex Hurt as the lovelorn, bashful Simon delivers the most nuanced performance. The other actors have their moments, but often play in broad strokes. Testa is as officious as a peasant mother as she is as Natella; she barks and snarls intimidatingly. Farrell as a corporal gives his yelling voice a workout as well. Among the others, Deb Radloff is particularly amusing as Ludovica, a young woman charging rape who appears before Azdak, though his judgment will garner more revulsion nowadays than laughter.

Azdak, however, is a tough role, and Lloyd is hampered by a guttural voice that’s not always pleasant to listen to, especially in a long monologue at the top of Act II. He works hard at making Azdak humorous, growling and leering persuasively, and goggling his eyes, but neither the actor’s efforts nor Kulick’s goosing prevent one of Brecht’s sunnier pieces from being grimmer than necessary. At the climax, at least, Lloyd has an amusing byplay with audience members that lightens the tone. Though there’s a lot of un-Brechtian ornamentation in this production, the play still works.


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Mike Bartlett’s Bull is subtitled The Bullfight Play, but the four characters in Clare Lizzimore’s production clash for 55 minutes in what appears to be a boxing ring, with a water cooler in one corner. Outside the ring, audience members stand (there are also seats around the room). As Bartlett’s characters confront each other, it gradually becomes clear that Sam Troughton’s bespectacled, apprehensive Thomas has been singled out for slaughter, and his office mates are the picadors in the process.

Unlike the colorful participants in a bullfight, the three men and one woman are all dressed in gray or charcoal (costumes and sets are by Soutra Gilmour), but what ensues in this businesslike atmosphere is nevertheless blood sport, as Thomas has his worst fears confirmed: his co-workers Tony (Adam James) and Isobel (Eleanor Matsuura)  are ganging up on him to have him removed from their “team”—Tony is team leader. They have located his weaknesses and exploited them; they have also sabotaged him by withholding information for an important meeting with their superior.

Isobel has a go at him first, softening him up by implying Thomas is unprepared: He has something on his face, his suit doesn’t look good, he’s unprepared to meet the boss, Carter, who is expected shortly. When James’s smooth, boisterous Tony joins her, he underlines her criticisms. To Thomas, though, it’s clear that they are in league against him. Their mind games are ruthless, careering from apparent camaraderie and beneficence to outright belittlement. “You’re like any physically odd man," says Isobel, "talking too much, strange gestures, yapping away, does get annoying, but essentially you're harmless." Or, "You know you can get stuff for hair loss?" She also suggests that his aversion to drinking will certainly hurt him with Carter (Neil Stuke). 

Indeed, Isobel is as ruthless and nasty as any Strindbergian female. When she claims to have been abused by her father, it’s never clear if she really was abused: she may have invented the story to exploit the moment or not. She radiates a certain cold-bloodedness. It's easy to believe that she would use actual sexual abuse to her competitive advantage to undermine Thomas’s confidence. The stakes are ratcheted higher as Tony and Isobel lure Thomas into touching Tony's bare chest—Isobel puts her head against it first—in a homoerotic moment that, in Troughton’s performance of ache and desperation, is obviously humiliating. James is equally superb as the bristlingly confident and ruthless Tony, smiling broadly as he enjoys the game.

Slowly but inexorably, Thomas loses control as the story moves straightforwardly to the arrival of Carter, when Isobel and Tony denounce their colleague as incompetent. The plot is not particularly original—the business world and its sharks have been portrayed before in plays like Other People’s Money and Glengarry Glen Ross, though perhaps not quite at this primal, Darwinian level. Still, Bartlett repeatedly refers to school and childishness, and his portrait of the business world suggests the players in it are no more than childish bullies in a playground. "Promise," Isobel and Tony say to reassure Thomas; it's a childish refrain, and and the astute Thomas even responds, "We're not at school."

Lizzimore paces the show adeptly, and the intensity builds as Thomas, like a wounded bull, thrashes around trying to escape his tormenters. Stuke's Carter is equally uncaring about Thomas's ordeals with his colleagues, spouting boilerplate as he's about to can one of them: "When it comes down to it we're people aren't we, all of us, every single one and we should be treated as human beings." But then he can't remember Thomas's name, and when he does address Thomas, obliviously calls him "Tom"—a point that offends Thomas's dignity.

In last season's Cock, also by Bartlett, a similar arena staging was used, and the title was understood to be a shortened form of a gutter term; it's clear as Bull progresses that it's less about a bullfight than about a dehumanizing business atmosphere where offensive matter is callously slung—more than that, where tooth and claw are used to cull the herd. It's not a terribly original social comment, but it's vividly brought to life in this production.

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Women of Will

The punning title of Women of Will might apply to a lecture on Shakespeare’s women as well as a description of strong-headed heroines, but as a rubric for Tina Packer’s two-person exploration of the female characters in Shakespeare’s plays, it gives little hint of her vast knowledge and the remarkable insights in a five-part show—six, if one counts the Overview, which provides less depth but more scope.

To describe Packer’s shows as scenes with interspersed commentary is accurate, but it doesn’t convey the juiciness of either performance or thesis. In all of them, Packer and her cohort Nigel Gore enact scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, and as each unfolds Packer offers a summary of her opinions on Shakespeare’s evolution in portraying his heroines. A Shakespearean completist would want to attend all the segments, but anyone unable to set aside time to view them in order needn’t balk at picking and choosing. A visit to Part 2 alone yielded satisfying performances and interesting insights, and the program includes a note from Packer to explain her intentions.

For the record, Part 2 deals with Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Troilus and Cressida, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Merchant of Venice. Packer, who founded Shakespeare & Company in the Berkshires more than two decades ago, says, “I started to perceive a pattern in the development of Shakespeare’s writing of the female characters when I had directed about twenty-five of the plays…once I had seen it, I couldn’t let it go.” From that discovery the director gradually assembled the shows she is presenting in New York. Anyone who loves either Shakespeare or theater should be enchanted by the result.

Part 2 is entitled “The Sexual Merges with the Spiritual,” and it examines the lovers in the five plays: Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado, of course, and Jessica and Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice, along with the eponymous lovers in the other three plays. Among the questions Packer looks to answer are “How does love endure through loss and shame?”

Following on Shakespeare’s treatment of women in earlier plays—e.g. the Henry VI plays, Richard IIIThe Taming of the Shrew—Packer contends that Juliet is the first heroine to fully merge the two aspects of sexual and spiritual. She and Gore perform the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, and it is both hugely disappointing and brilliantly performed. The disappointment comes from knowing that Packer, who is firmly in middle age, understands the character better than any young actress of 20 or less (Juliet is supposedly 14), and the likelihood of seeing a production with an age-appropriate actress of equal skill is nil. In Packer’s scene Juliet is young, impulsive, passionate, questioning, words spilling out, then her realization: “I am too fond.” There is music in the way she and Gore handle the verse, but there is also a sense of their speaking an everyday language that is poetic, yet not thumpingly metrical. Years of expertise with language, meter, pauses, tempo, and pitch contribute to the colors of their portrayals. It’s all supplemented by an enjoyable rapport between the outspoken Gore and the director in their talk about the women.

Choice tidbits about the plays surface unexpectedly in Packer’s mini-lectures. For instance, Romeo’s jumping over the wall to reach Juliet’s balcony is akin to leaving his sexual nature behind and embracing something spiritual. Monks and nuns, Packer points out, “leaped over a wall” in a figurative way when they undertook the spiritual life.

Some of Packer’s speculations are unfamiliar. She suggests that Shakespeare, away from his wife and children in Stratford, fell in love with the dark woman of the sonnets, whom she believes is Emilia Bassano, a musician from Venice. Gore observes an increased presence of music in the plays from this period that dovetails with such speculation. Emilia, Packer notes, was also the mistress of the Lord Chamberlain, the patron of Shakespeare’s company. Packer discourses equally well on the title of Much Ado About Nothing and its sexual implications. One occasionally wants to hear more, especially when, following a scene from Antony and Cleopatra, Packer comments that “off they go, probably dressed in each other’s clothes.” Although it’s not a full meal, as only a great production of a Shakespeare play can be, Women of Will is a mouth-watering smorgasbord.

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Love Therapy

In an age where every reality TV star thinks he or she is qualified to throw around Freudian terms, psychology and therapy hold a very mainstream place in our culture. Yet what has this inundation of pseudo-psychological information in our lives done to us? Have we lost track of what therapy is really meant to do? This is the central question in Wendy Beckett’s new play Love Therapy, currently playing at the DR2 Theatre near Union Square.

I was first introduced to Australian playwright Wendy Beckett through her play A Charity Case, and quickly realized that she has a lot of fresh ideas. Love Therapy displays a great deal of interesting characters and some nice scenes, though unfortunately the overall arc of the play is not fully satisfying.

Part of this has to do with problems that actually stem from Jo Winiarski’s set design. The stage is a substantial size, but the actors do not have dynamic spaces in which to work, and therefore their blocking often seems un-moored and distracting. This is coupled with the fact that because Jill Nagle’s lighting has taken on some of the work of creating discrete spaces, the actors often necessarily move into darkened spots because of the limited scope of the lights.

When they are lit, Patricia E. Doherty’s costume design has us wondering why a therapist would be wearing an outfit that looks a bit more risqué than one would expect. The shining example on the technical side of the show is Fight Director Brad Lemons, who does an excellent job with some very fantastic fight choreography.

Despite these design problems, the actors do a good job of holding our interest. The supporting actors give solid performances, especially David Bishins’s portrayal of Steven and Janet Zarish’s of Carol and Mary. Margot White plays marriage counselor Colleen Fitzgerald, who believes in a kind of radical love therapy in which genuine emotion takes the place of distant formality.

Unfortunately, though she exhibits the idealism of the character, White does not seem warm and genuine. She is engaging, but director Evan Bergman has not pushed her to exhibit the kind of strength this character needs to portray throughout her sessions. There are, however, a few shining moments for White where I did get a glimpse of how her character could have been with stronger direction.

Of course, the other stumbling block here is the uneven trajectory of the play itself. Beckett writes excellent and interesting individual scenes, but the overall effect is a bit too choppy. The ending was so abrupt that I did not actually believe the play had ended. Yet something about Beckett’s quirkiness kept me engaged and interested in these characters even when I was unsure where the story was going.

The play's questions are pertinent and complex: how can a therapist help if they are detached? Where is the line between emotional and physical intimacy? Has contemporary life inhibited our ability to connect with each other? The answers seem to hinge on Colleen Fitzgerald’s struggle between her powerful position and her weakened emotional state, yet Bergman has not created enough of a contrast between these two parts of the protagonist for this to be fully effective.

Love Therapy is an interesting but ultimately flawed attempt to look at the power dynamics that result in trying to work on romantic relationships like we would any other business transaction. With the help of a good dramaturg and a different design team, this piece could find some strong footing and be a solid piece of theatre. My hope is that it will do just that. 

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Stand-Up Tragedy

It’s a safe bet that the spare modernist sanctuary at Nativity Church on the Lower East Side hasn’t had break dancing on its floor in a while. Nor is it likely the coarser language in Bill Cain’s Stand-Up Tragedy is customary there, but those elements contribute to the intensity of Nicolas Minas’s energetic, biting revival.

Cain’s 1991 play is every bit as social-minded as the plays of Clifford Odets or Arthur Miller, and was inspired by the neighborhood around the church where, in fact, he worked while writing the play. After more than 20 years, the work shows no signs of creakiness.

In Tragedy, Cain examines a Jesuit school on the Lower East Side—Trinity Mission School—and the attempts of one optimistic teacher, Thomas Griffin (Tom Littman), who dives into deep waters to help Lee, a young Hispanic boy (Carlos Ibarra). Lee has talent as an artist (his style is tagging and street graphics, projected in black light on the church walls) that Griffin wants to foster, but the young teacher is discouraged by Father Ed Larkin (John Mazurek), the cynical principal who accepts the status quo and cautions the eager Griffin to accept “the ecology” of the students’ lives. If Griffin tries to explore their lives outside school and help them, Larkin warns, he will risk upsetting the precarious balance in place. But Griffin takes no heed, and his attempts to encourage Lee lead to ever more convoluted situations.

Cain’s intention is to get to the root of Lee’s problem, and in doing so, the play, like a Russian matryoshka doll, finds a solution only to encounter another problem inside it. The play’s focus shifts each time, as Griffin does, from Lee’s problems to those of his mother—referred to as Señora—then to those of Tyro, Lee’s brutal, simmering older brother, as he tries to pry Lee free of their influence. (Ibarra plays all three family members in a tour de force performance.)

Griffin tries to help each in turn let go of bitterness and violence and find some reason for hope. The sprawling events also include a subplot involving Henry (Sean Carvajal), who falls under the influence of Bryan Pacheco’s Ramon, a dropout  who leads him into theft and an assault on another of the teachers.

Although overlong, Minas’s staging of Tragedy is visually and physically kinetic. The cast of young actors playing the students dance explosively to choreography by Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie. There’s break dancing in the aisles between the pews and on stage, as well as a reenacted basketball game and the use of choral repetition and rap. It’s a wild cocktail, but it works. At times one actor plays the chorus, at other times several speak in unison (and the actors speak with exceptionally crisp diction). There are interior monologues, assisted by Austin Smith’s varied lighting, and black lights reveal Lee’s paintings on the rear walls.

Ibarra tackles his triple duty deftly, switching on a dime from Lee to Señora to Tyro. Though he’s diminutive, he conveys the rage and power of Tyro’s fury as well as Lee’s disappointment in Griffin.

Littman is a likable hero, charting Tom’s initial optimism and his frustration as he struggles to alter the situation he has encountered, and finally his despair. Although the tension between Griffin and Larkin is the primary one, Griffin struggles with his colleagues to overcome their jadedness. Charles Baran as the nerdy but snarky teacher Kendall, who wears a bow tie, has some fight left in him. He advocates sex education, to no avail. When Kendall asks Larkin for reconsideration of the birth control issue, Larkin responds, “Do we need it?” Kendall answers: “Jose Ortiz is taking birth control pills—you tell me.” As the third teacher, Goran Ivanovski is a dour presence who finds strength in a flask to keep going.

Ultimately, Cain indicts the entire society for its failure to lift the lowest up. Griffin’s help is useless, and in a late speech, having place Señora in a shelter to protect her from Tyro, he rants despairingly against the system: “That shelter, man. It’s a human garbage dump. And it's BIG! I took one look at it and I thought, Jesus, there ought to be a government program—and then I realized: This is the government program. It’s our version of the final solution. You were right from the start, Ed. It’s the police, the federal government, Japan, us—we want it this way.” Even without firsthand knowledge of government aid programs, one suspects those words are still true.

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Rest and Reconciliation

David Harrower’s elliptical two-character drama Good With People takes place in 24 hours in the Scottish town of Helensburgh (seemingly pronounced “Hillsborough”), a destination known for its tourism—it sits on a firth—and for local protests years before against Britain’s nuclear outfitting of a naval base there. The protagonists, innkeeper Helen and returning native Evan, embody both political and personal differences. Helen (Blythe Duff) has lived all her life in Helensburgh, and she recognizes Evan (Andrew Scott-Ramsay) as he checks into the hotel where she works; in childhood, Evan was among a group of bullies who humiliated her son Jack in an embarrassing, cruel  incident. That wound has not healed, in spite of Evan’s apology at the time, partly because of social tensions between the families at the nuclear base, where Evan’s father worked, and the resident families. The townspeople looked down on the base families, in Evan’s estimation, and Helen resented the fact that Evan’s mother never said a word to her to indicate remorse over the bullying.

Now Evan has come back for the remarriage of his mother and father—they divorced and then got back together, a situation that somewhat parallels Evan’s departure for Pakistan, where he worked as a nurse for the Red Cross in Quetta, and his return to where he has roots.

The play touches on class issues and nuclear protests unique to British history that surely carry more weight with its native audience (references to Oddbins and the nuclear protests may be opaque to anyone who doesn’t know Britain and followed its politics). Harrower, in 55 minutes, delineates two lives in stark contrast. Evan’s rootlessness is a result of his parents’ moving around, and is reflected by their divorce and remarriage. As they flounder, so does he. In contrast, Helen is a fount of stability. Her son has benefited from her fierce loyalty; he has grown up, moved on and settled down with a girlfriend, and he carries no psychological scars. Although Helen is stern, she is not altogether unbending, and ultimate she finds sympathy for the young man she has resented for so long.

As slim as the story is, George Perrin’s staging turns it into a striking visual and aural experience. Using minimal scenery (by Ben Stones), he has created many memorable flourishes—there’s dancing, and at one point the strapping Scott-Ramsay upturns a bottle over his head, and sand pours out.

Harrower uses a cinematic structure, jump-cutting from scene to scene, as Helen and Evan meet at check-in and run into each other during the day and evening of the wedding.  At one moment Evan is heading to the wedding; in the next scene he has returned. Tim Deiling has contributed stark film noir lighting, and Scott Twynholm, an intricate sound design (although the ever-present background drone of a bagpipe can become irritating to unaccustomed ears).

Gradually the ice thaws between the pair. Helen seems at times to become a surrogate mother, disapproving at first of Evan’s old behavior, but then slowly relating to him as an adult. Duff charts Helen’s attitudes from accusatory and condescending to motherly (she ties his tie for him before he leaves for the wedding), to curious and caring as a friend.

Scott-Ramsay is well-cast for his physique—one can believe the strapping actor would have had the stature as a teenager to bully a smaller child—but the actor also suggests a temperament held in check. Yet he also reveals the damage of his life. The Taliban captured him and made him eat earth—echoing the symbolism of the bottle of dirt, and his wanderings reflect a man who has not found himself.

The play specifically rebukes the British class system, which may not resonate with a foreign audience, but it carries enough weight for one to extrapolate the lesson that people are individuals and not cemented into the roles that popular attitudes may hold toward them. Harrower ultimately delivers an optimistic message: two people, separated by age, sex, political beliefs, personal prejudices, can still learn to become friends by talking together and trying to understand each other.

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I Want a Cool Fist Pump

For most people, the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons does not summon images of people who commit armed robbery. Yet Lynn Rosen’s new play, Goldor $ Mythyka: A Hero is Born, is based on the case of Roger Dillon and Nicole Boyd, “a nice young couple enamored of fantasy role-playing games,” who an armored car of $7.4 million dollars. This is the second play to be produced by the New Georges special initiative known as The Germ Project, which basically asked writers to make plays of “scope and imagination.” G$M certainly qualifies, and the creative visual style of the play makes for an exciting audience experience of an odd story to be sure. Upon entering the New Ohio Theatre, the DJ -- who will be our dungeon master on this journey -- is already on stage spinning some tracks. Bobby Moreno’s DJ is not a bad concept, but it is unfortunate that this is the way that the piece begins, as it is the weakest aspect of the structure in a lot of ways. Director and co-developer Shana Gold seems unsure of what to do with this figure, a DJ/rapper who seems out of place in the world of the play.

Luckily, the other characters, including our “heroes,” Garrett Neergaard’s Bart/Goldor and Jenny Seastone Stern’s Holly/Mythyka, are particularly well cast and utilized. We watch as these two overlooked individuals come alive through the world of Dungeons & Dragons, and their mutual passion for the game becomes a passion for each other. This eventually culminates in their idea of robbing the money transport company for which they both work. The play also projects into the future to imagine what might become of this “Goth Bonnie and Clyde” and their son.

In the midst of this, our dungeon master DJ cuts, spins, and mixes the stories together with the media elements to create a story that not only resembles D&D, but also mimics the experience of being on the internet. I believe that Moreno’s DJ is supposed to invite us into the play, but his persona seemed forced in a way none of the other characters did.

The characters move with ease through the various locations created on Nick Francone’s minimalistic set, which brings to mind a basement, though it also transforms into homes, restaurants, and other places through various moving set pieces. Lenore Doxsee’s lighting design and Tristan Raines’s costume design also continue this aspect of less-is-more conceptualization, and though there are a lot of design elements in the show, they never seem overwhelming.

The show's multimedia structure is impressive; there is an interesting device of projection and live action that reminds me of having many windows open on a single screen at the same time. This engaged approach to the media, designed by Piama Habibullah and Jared Mezzochi, is closely linked to the sound design by Shane Rettig, both of which add to this idea of making the Internet experience a theatrical one. It is a very successful and interesting concept.

Of course, like any new piece, there are a few aspects of this piece that need a bit more attention. Melissa Riker’s choreography was interesting for actors like Stern who clearly have had movement training. Unfortunately, when dealing with actors who look like they can play D&D and who sit in front of their computers a lot, it is quite a challenge to find people who can move gracefully. This made the dance moments less successful than they could have been.

I also had a few questions about the play in general. The most important is this: what are we supposed to think of our heroes? The play vacillates between casting them as glorious underdogs who get revenge and the frightening loners who spend too much time in a fantasy world and eventually snap. I think it’s great that the play doesn’t shirk this complicated balance, but if you’re looking for a play with easy answers, this isn’t it. I do think that this is a very creative piece and one worth watching, especially if you have any knowledge of D&D, LARP, or any other kind of role-playing game. As the Federal Agent says at one point in the show, “I want a cool fist pump,” and if that describes you, then this is one not to miss.

Photo: Garrett Neergaard Jenny Seastone Stern and Bobby Moreno Photo Credit: Jim-Baldassare

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Sweet and Lowdown

F#%king Up Everything, an indie-rock musical with a split personality, has a lot of energy and talented performers giving their all in a plot that’s old hat. The complication of lovers pining for the wrong people was familiar when Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and As You Like It premiered. Sam Forman and David Eric Davis's book addresses the trite situations with a mix of genuine wit and unexpected vulgarity. The overall impression is of young talents who just haven't harnessed their abilities quite yet, and director Jen Wineman hasn’t found a consistent tone for the show. The hero, a nerdy puppeteer “at an alternative preschool,” meets and falls for a sweet young woman, who is pursued by a rakish frontman for an indie rock band. A secondary plot involves a bespectacled young woman who yearns to be noticed by the band’s bleach-blond, pot-puffing guitarist, though she is best friends with the frontman.

Still, what matters in a musical is the score, and Davis’s music and lyrics deliver pleasing melodies in a variety of genres—from torch song to love ballad to a Cole Porterish list song. (One notable exception is the opening number, which, in line with the title, sets a crass tone that belies much of the warmth and sweetness that follows). The book spans both high- and lowbrow humor, often winningly. Typical of the show’s split personality is that Christian’s puppets are all intellectuals: Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Cornel West. There’s an amusing joke about the puppet versions of Susan Sontag and Annie Liebovitz that manages to be both high-falutin’ and hilariously lewd, and a ballad about Arielle's anatomy that revels in tastelessness.

FUE’s biggest asset is a young cast of talented newcomers, though some, like Max Crumm, who plays the hero, Christian Mohamed Schwarzelberg, and was in the revival of Grease, are better known than others.

Crumm makes for an oddball leading man. As the lovelorn puppeteer, he has charm aplenty, and yet the character’s goofiness and insecurity are odd for a leading role. Of pretty girls who go after lead singers, he laments, “Why don’t they want a sweet, neurotic guy who makes his living doing puppet shows for small children?” Christian's comic persona is reinforced by the color and style combination in his clownish costumes (by Melissa Trn): one is hospital green slacks, a checked shirt, and blue pullover T. Although Crumm's role feels like that of a hapless sidekick, it's a pleasant surprise that he's the top banana, and he gives a performance that is physically agile and comically precise. He also sings well, notably in the love ballad “Juliana.”

That song is directed to a pretty young woman, Juliana (Katherine Cozumel), a new housemate to Ivy, who’s in a sort of relationship with the diffident Tony, a member of the rock band Ironic Maiden. Juliana and Christian bond over the fact that both were straights majoring in queer theory at their colleges—Sarah Lawrence and Bard, respectively—and the cute, puppy-dog intellectualism in their opening scene sets the predominant tone for their relationship. Crumm and Cozumel have a genuine chemistry, and their mutual attraction is believable if unusual. And Cozumel exhibits a nice, relaxed quality as Juliana; she also plays the ukulele and has a lovely singing voice.

The "cool" rebel who gives off the classic leading man air, however, is Jason Gotay as Jake, the Ironic Maiden frontman. Gotay finds the right balance of arrogance and egotism without ever being despicable. And then there’s Ivy, the bespectacled girlfriend of Tony, the drummer. She keeps trying to hook up with him, but he keeps putting her off with slacker aplomb. Douglas Widick makes the most of the hoary role of a drug-addled stoner, and George Salazar matches him as an even goofier presence in the band. Rounding out the cast is Lisa Birnbaum as Arielle, a tall vamp with an outsize libido and the power to make the band famous.

Wineman, who also choreographed, keeps the pace moving along smoothly, and in "Juliana" cleverly stages the attractive Cozumel as if she were a manipulated Barbie doll. Still, most of the surprises come in the melodically inventive score and the skillfully wrought lyrics. The cast makes the most of them and, with the occasional exception of Birnbaum, whose delivery is sometimes unclear, does them justice.

Deb O's set—a “hipster dive bar with wasted liberal arts grads,” as Christian calls it, is decorated with colored Christmas lights, hubcaps and various license plates. It's an inviting place, and a visit there will boost your spirits.

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Canadian Gold

The notes for Canadian playwright Michael Healey in the program of The Drawer Boy state that his play was “the fourth most-produced play in the United States during the first decade of the 21st century.” That may make the play sound like it’s straining foolishly for some kind of record, but its merits are so solid that the factoid doesn’t do it justice. The excellent production by the Oberon Theatre Ensemble demonstrates that Healey has written an affecting drama with plenty of surprises and dry as well as rollicking humor. Directed by Alexander Dinelaris, the story builds carefully as it follows a young actor who volunteers to work on a farm because his thespian consortium is putting together a drama about farmers. In the manner of the actors who interviewed and assembled The Laramie Project, he is supposed to live among farmers, collect data, and create a piece to contribute to their finished work.

The actor, Miles (Alex Fast), stumbles into the home of two bachelor farmers, Morgan (Brad Fryman) and Angus (William Laney). Though it’s not certain initially that they will permit his presence in their home (the first scene ends in a comic limbo), they do. Miles learns that Angus is mentally handicapped as a result of an incident in London in World War II, when he and Miles served together. Rather like the situation in the film Memento, Angus cannot remember anything for more than a few minutes at a time. He needs to be reintroduced each morning to Miles, and sometimes more often than that.

As Miles records the daily lives of the two men and tries his hand ineptly at milking cows and driving a tractor, he learns about the hard lives of those who provide food for the table: the cost to produce milk, beef and eggs and the slim profit that comes from them. Still, when Miles begins to spout communist rhetoric, the laconic Morgan halts him curtly. One of the virtues Healey’s play celebrates, and Fryman’s performance underlines, is the stoicism of farmers, and, by extension, the working class: Morgan, though beset with financial worries, is at ease with himself and the choices he has made.

But then Miles overhears Morgan tell Angus a story about two men who went off to war. It is a ritual tale about two friends, and one was a drawer of buildings—an architect. They met and married two British women and brought them back to the States. Unfortunately, Miles, desperate for inspiration for his theater project, decides he can use the material for a playlet, without Morgan’s permission.

Miles invites Morgan and Angus to the dress rehearsal, and the event, in a nifty tribute to the power of theater, transforms Angus. Morgan is furious at seeing his story made public and wants Miles to leave, but Angus suddenly knows who Miles is when he sees the young man. Moreover, Angus recognizes that the theater piece is the story of his and Morgan’s lives. Without revealing more, the story takes unexpected turns from there.

Dinelaris directs with skill and little flash, but it’s unnecessary anyway, because Healey has a strong story to tell and has furnished it with comedy, surprise and sadness. Rebecca Lord-Surratt has provided an evocative rural kitchen, with a grassy area outside; the only questionable element is a high wooden privacy fence that seems out of place on a farm where the owners would be more concerned to have a clear view of their property.  The most interesting element is uncredited: the smell of baking bread during Morgan’s first-act monologue, a tour de force for Fryman. (Another in the second act is almost as arresting.) The baking bread is a smell that Angus cherishes and that rises into the audience to astonish the nostrils.

Though the play relies on a tried-and-true structure of “big secrets” that have to be revealed, some twists are unexpected. And there's warmth in the comedy. One scene has Miles telling his life story to Angus—except it’s the story of Hamlet, as if Miles were the Danish prince. “You yelled at your mother?” asks an incredulous Angus. (One of the few quibbles is that Angus doesn’t bother to ask what an “arras” is when Miles describes killing Polonius; still, the scene is delightful.) William Laney is  powerful as the gentle Angus, who's akin to the gentle giant Lenny in Of Mice and Men, but Angus is given to outbursts of fury because of a metal plate in his head. His frenzy is usually calmed by Morgan’s giving him teaspoons of tap water. In such moments of kindness Healey underlines their affection.

The Drawer Boy is an impressive calling card for a playwright whose future work, one hopes, will be equally as good and better known.

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The Lunacy of Racism

Honky, in spite of its almost quaint name, is a fizzy new comedy of rare perception: witty, sharp and troubling. Playwright Greg Kalleres has a keen eye for the niceties of language and the nature of prejudice. Although the play is primarily about blacks and whites, mentally and physically disabled people also prove apt targets, with the occasional nod to Asians and Hispanics.

The central conceit is that a popular shoe among “urban” (i.e. black) youth has been the source of a young black man’s killing. From that event emerge several characters  drawn together by their connection to the sneaker company, whose latest model, the Sky Max 16, is the lethally fashionable footwear. All the connections come close to seeming overly contrived; on the other hand, you might as easily say that Kalleres has plotted his play as tightly as Ibsen.

Davis Tallison, a white marketing executive (Philip Callen), is skeptical that the newest prototype, the 18, a multicolored sneaker designed by Thomas Hodge (Anthony Gaskins), who is black, will be a hit with urban youth. (The basketball sneaker, presumably designed by costumer Sarah Thea Swafford, is like a brightly colored map on one’s feet.) Meanwhile, though, Davis wants to market the Sky Max 16 to white suburban youth who identify with black urban youth because it’s cool—and because they are steeped in white guilt. The shooting is a setback that he needs to overcome.

Kalleres then shifts focus to Thomas’s sister Emilia (Arie Bianca Thompson), a psychotherapist who is treating Peter Trammell, the creator of the ad for the sneakers. In Dave Droxler’s masterful performance, Trammell is a bundle of frayed nerves whose emotions rise and fall with tsunami force from guilt at the killing, because he invented the company’s catch phrase for the sneaker, “’Sup?”: the byword was allegedly spoken by the shooter. Peter slices and dices meanings in every word someone utters, and anguishes over perceived or possible traces of prejudice in himself and others.

Kalleres’ sense of nonsense is sublime. In a session with his shrink, Peter tries to impress Emilia with an intellectual quotation. “‘The most monstrous monster is the monster with noble feelings,’” says Peter. “Faulkner.” “Dostoevsky,” says Emilia, correcting him. “I was close,” says Peter. “I knew it was someone I’d never read.” Peter’s constant straining to show his racial bona fides leads him into ridiculous situations. He claims that his mother marched with Dr. King, though in fact she overslept and missed the event. Meanwhile, his fiancée Andie puts up with to his hilariously self-flagellatory tirades, and Danielle Faitelson makes her character an ideal foil for them.

Kalleres doesn’t shy away from the “N” word or any other uncomfortable observations about race, including the stereotyping of black teenagers, the touchiness of interracial personal relations, and the absurdity of white guilt. “You want to talk about stereotypes?” Davis asks a mealy-mouthed psychotherapist (Scott Barrow). “We pay a premium for them. They’re called demographics.”

Barrow plays a variety of roles from a gun-toting Abraham Lincoln to one Dr. Driscoll, who has, crucially, invented a cure for all the rampant racism and prejudice on both sides of the color line. It’s a pill called Driscotol, and it numbs the racist part of the brain. “I don’t think I’m a racist,” Davis tells Driscoll in an exchange that might be from Joseph Heller. “Of course you don’t,” says Driscoll. “That’s precisely why you are one.” It’s a catch-22, of course, but it’s also symptomatic of the way both races often talk about the issue. Actors Chris Myers and Reynaldo Piniella take on various young black male characters, whose encounters with, variously, Peter and Davis, yield differing results.

As problems escalate, so does Kalleres’ wry satire. A group of white youths shoot a Greenwich, Conn., teenager to get his Sky Max 16s, and a news anchor notes that all of them “were wearing crooked baseball caps, extra large shirts, and baggy jeans. Some of the clothes were actually being worn backwards.”

Director Luke Harlan keeps the pace up (though scene changes are sometimes a bit awkward), but the play feels just a little long. And the inclusion of parallel plots involving interracial love seems overly schematic. It’s also too bad that Kalleres doesn’t offer any solution, but he sends up so many stereotypes so adroitly that the play sets one to thinking, at least, about this crucial hot topic. That easily makes it worthwhile.








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Math Accident

It’s never a good sign when a production makes you wonder why a Pulitzer Prize-winning play won any award, but that’s the effect of the awkward mounting of David Auburn's Proof at the Gene Frankel Theatre. At least the set displays the invention that a good shoestring production needs. The back yard of a Chicago home has obviously been decorated by George Hoffman and Greg Kozatek on a tight budget, yet it looks just right, with a porch and steps to a yard area, and a white trellis to the side.

The title of Auburn’s play derives from mathematics. Catherine (Leonarda Bosch), the daughter of a brilliant math professor at the university, has followed him into the field, but without achieving his success. Indeed, she has stalled her career deliberately to take care of him as a ravaging mental illness took its toll. Apart from nine lucid months in the midst of an affliction that lasted several years, Robert, her father, wrote gibberish. But in those lucid months, did he come up with a brilliant solution to a famous and thorny math problem?

After his death, Robert (Andre J. Langton) appears to Catherine as a ghost (the play also includes a flashback scene to his lucid period), and he urges her to pull herself together—she has been drinking heavily and loafing in bed. Her recuperation is sparked by the arrival of Hal (Reid Prebenda), a former student and admirer of her father’s who urges Catherine to let him sort the professor’s papers in case something valuable lies there, especially from the lucid period. The fourth character is Claire, Catherine’s sister, who lives in New York but arrives for the funeral with some unwelcome news.

Auburn is especially good at conveying the sexism underlying the mathematics discipline, and the sacrifices a caretaker in a family makes when looking after an ill parent, and the resulting resentments it can spark with other family members. Unfortunately, S. Quincy Beard’s production suffers from a slackness, with pockets of air. There's a sporadic hesitancy in the delivery, as if the actors are unsure of their lines, and sometimes how to physicalize them. Hal at one point says he was “this close” to quitting, but provides no accompanying gesture. Other lapses are baffling. When Hal leaves immediately after Catherine has caught him with a purloined notebook of her father’s, he says, “I can let myself out,” then walks up the steps and enters the house, presumably to exit through the front door. Later, however, he arrives in the back yard simply by coming around the side of the house. Why would he have needed to go through the house rather than around it in the earlier scene?

Among the actors, the more seasoned Langton fares best. He displays an energy that his colleagues often lack. He manages to imbue his dialogue with gravitas and uses his voice well. The varying pitch, volume, and pacing, one suspects, come more from greater acting experience than from directorial help, since the younger actors generally have less nuance in their delivery. (It’s noteworthy that when he talks about “touching the old jackets,” he finds an appropriate gesture.)

His three colleagues have their moments, but their disparate emotions never seem to belong to a single person. As Catherine, Bosch veers from whiny and annoying to sympathetic, but the elements don’t add up to the feeling of a real person. Her best scene is near the end, as she reads her father’s latest work, realizes it’s gibberish, and slowly tears up.

In their scenes together, the actresses seem to be in a race to be more unsympathetic. Natasha R. Brown plays Claire as a clueless bully rather than a meddling sibling whose overbearing nature may hold some consideration for her sister's feelings. She has one brief success, conveying the amusing effects of a hangover, but she is crude in every sentient moment, literally rubbing her chin to convey thinking.

Prebenda displays a gaucheness and charm in Hal that work for the character of a math geek; he also looks more athletic than most nerds, and he comes across as a young man with a physical life as well as an intellectual one. He has a nice reaction to his older teacher’s jokes, but there’s no real chemistry between Hal and Catherine, making Auburn’s last scene feel bogus. In fact, too much of this production does no service to the playwright.

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Big-Top Horror

Don’t be fooled by the title: The Pilo Family Circus is by no means a show for children. It’s based on a novel of horror fiction by Australian Will Elliott. Whether Matt Pelfrey’s stage adaptation is faithful, only those who’ve read the book can judge. But if you think of “family” in the title as referring to a mob organization, and you throw in comic-book characters—not those featuring Donald or Daffy Duck, but the dark, sinister kind, with distorted visages and evil cackling—you’ll have an approximation of the tone of the Godlight Theatre Company production. The story might be lifted from—and belongs in—a comic book, in spite of higher-brow references to Tod Browning’s Freaks and Robert Louis Stevenson. An earnest and likable Nick Paglino as Jamie, a meek and aimless guy in his 20s, begins the tale, relating that he was found wandering the streets in a clown costume. Pretty quickly his adventures are seen in flashback. Jamie, along with his roommate, the overbearing Steve (Craig Peterson), was kidnapped in a home invasion by circus clowns (in distinctive, differentiating costumes, by Orli Nativ, and masks, by Brendan Yi-Fu Tay).

The ringleader of the clowns is the green-haired Gonko, played by Lawrence Jansen with a voice that starts as Ed Wynn and modulates to Jimmy Durante and then adds a layer of thug. Gonko and his cohorts (Chris Cipriano, Jarrod Zayas, and Michael Shimkin) are only minions to the Pilo brothers, who own the circus. The Pilos are George, suited but menacing, and played by a marionette (skillfully operated and voiced by Brett Glass), and Kurt, played by Gregory Kondow on stilts in a black cassock that apparently comes from Big and Tall, Taller, Tallest. He holds a very high wooden cross.

But even the Pilos aren’t in charge. “Spooky powers” are the ones who really run things, and “they live in a very hot place.” And what do the circus acts get for their obedience? The use of “wish powder,” which grants almost anything they want, if it’s OK with the spooky powers.

Jamie hopes to escape, but can’t, according to fortune teller Shalice, because he’s “in another dimension.” Or, as Steve puts it, “It’s like Alice in Wonderland, bro, only way more twisted.” Jamie is slowly pulled into a nightmare. Trapped in the circus, he attends a clown wedding, discovers a splinter rebellion against the Pilos, and, most important, battles himself. When greasepaint is applied to half his face, his personality splits à la Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: half of him becomes the evil clown JJ.

Directed with verve by Joe Tantalo, the show is designed within an inch of its life—and frequently several yards beyond. Maruti Evans creates some spectacular lighting, especially with backlights and bulbs on four strings descending from the flies. Using primarily white and red, he achieves the garishness of film noir with ease, from the opening moments when Paglino stands in a pool of light amid smoke and silhouette, throughout the wearying story. (To be sure, there are a few glimmers of humor, as when Gonko declares that the resistant Jamie is a clown. Jamie protests, “That’s just it. I’m not! I’m a concierge. I have a BA in theater.”)

Neither the script nor the sound design, however, helps the actors. Broadly played, the characters growl, snarl, whoop, guffaw, shriek, and shout at one another. When, at the last, Paglino stands and recites his prelude a second time, it’s a relief to hear a normal voice. One longs to see Paglino as a real character rather than a cartoon. It’s possible the other actors playing clowns hold as much promise—at least they manage to distinguish their characters vocally—but it’s impossible to know.

Ien Denio’s sound design starts well enough, incorporating such appropriate sources as a midway pinball machine, calliope, and even a brief passage from Franz von Suppé’s “Poet and Peasant Overture,” de rigueur for a circus show. But as the evening barrels on, it becomes relentless. It seems every line is punctuated by a percussive bang, zing, clang, or dong, or some other noise. When Shalice holds up an imaginary crystal ball for Jamie to see his grim future, in an echo of It’s a Wonderful Life, we hear the sound of a balloon squeaking. The sum effect is of being trapped inside a funhouse, with precious little fun.

Photos by Sean Dooley

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Facing the Great Beyond

The actor Hamish Linklater, perhaps best known for playing the brother of Julia Louis-Dreyfus on the CBS series The New Adventures of Old Christine, makes an impressive debut as a playwright with The Vandal. In a mere 70 minutes he makes a persuasive case that he has a promising career to fall back on if acting fails him. The play opens at a bus stop in Kingston, N.Y., on a frigid night. A middle-aged woman (Deirdre O’Connell), huddling in layers of clothing and looking weary, sits on an exposed bench. A teenager (Noah Robbins) approaches her and tries to engage her in conversation, explaining that he’s been in the nearby cemetery cleaning the grave of a friend who died. There’s something not quite right about him—is he a robber? A molester? Eventually, he wheedles her into going to a nearby liquor store and buying him some beer. But that’s not all he’s hoping for.

Inside the liquor store one learns the woman’s identity as she attempts to make the purchase. She is Margaret Cotter, and the owner, Dan, gives her an inordinate amount of difficulty, but with reasons that are slowly revealed. In an explosive scene, we learn Margaret’s story, and O’Connell gets to cover a lot of emotional bases—fear, desperation, pain and sadness among them.

The boy’s identity, Robert, is also known to Dan. He has been sending people in on a regular basis to buy beer for him. Though Dan has occasionally gone out to look for him, he has failed repeatedly. Oonce Margaret delivers the beer to the boy, they open up to each other. The final scene takes place in the cemetery, after Robert and Margaret have left the bus stop to go drinking there and have become separated. As a drunken Margaret searches and yells for Robert among the gravestones, she runs once again into Dan.

Those are the bare bones of the plot, and you don’t want to know more, because there are nifty surprises all along the way, handled with both daring and assurance. The Vandal is about grief and the ways in which people cope with it, and how it can seize you and immobilize you until you become deadened to life.

The Flea Theater production, directed by Jim Simpson, is beautifully judged and splendidly cast. Linklater provides vivid, poetic imagery for his actors, and they all rise to the occasion. Even so, O’Connell is riveting in her silence, reacting minimally as Robbins natters on, yet she conveys volumes with a sidelong glance. Claudia Brown’s costume for her incorporates layers of fabric, from a T-shirt to pullovers and a scarf; they are both appropriate for the weather and serve as visual parallels to the many layers of defense Margaret has in her misery. And when Margaret lets loose emotionally, she’s frightening and pathetic.

Meanwhile, Robbins tries to find out why Margaret isn’t using her car; he describes his love of French and his teacher’s obsession with another student; and he guesses that she has been to the hospital across the street (represented in David M. Barber’s spare set simply by an Emergency sign on the wall). Noah Robbins is engaging, irritating, and fascinating in the part, as well as a bit snarky at times, providing welcome humor.

As the liquor store owner, Zach Grenier is an irritating foil for Margaret, provoking her with his questions and asides and a demand for identification, though she is clearly past the threshold age for a purchase of alcohol. Although he knows Robert has sent her in, his reluctance to make it an easy buy for her goes beyond safe business practices. He’s weary, too, and beset by personal trauma, which he gradually reveals.

Occasionally a question arises: Do teenagers really clean off their friends’ graves? Why does Robert lounge with his jacket and shirt open, seemingly unaffected by the cold that had made him shiver minutes earlier? But Linklater ties up those loose ends nimbly. The Vandal isn’t a “big” play, in spite of its themes and the listing of the characters as Man, Woman, Boy to indicate intentions of universality. It’s better to think of it as a sterling novella, a harbinger of bigger things to come.

Photos by Joan Marcus

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A Stendhal Misstep

Adaptations of great novels for the theater have a pretty spotty record. Among big-budget, nonmusical successes, only Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Steppenwolf’s The Grapes of Wrath come easily to mind. However, in the last decade Moby-Dick and The Turn of the Screw had imaginative, shoestring productions Off-Off-Broadway, and director Deloss Brown, in staging Stendhal’s great novel, The Red and the Black, has chosen the bare-bones approach for his own script, using only several chairs, a cloth backdrop, and a minimum of props. The unwieldy result suggests that Stendhal's novel isn't a natural for the stage. The story follows Julien Sorel, a young man of 19 who worships Napoleon, but in secret. In 1826 France, with the royalists back in power under conservative King Charles X, any mention of Napoleon may mean arrest and imprisonment. “Under the Emperor, a man could make his way by his talents,” explains Julien ardently. “Napoleon—poor—with no friends—made himself master of the world with his sword. But nowadays the army’s for the rich, and a priest makes three times as much money as one of Napoleon’s generals.” Thus Julien, whose father and brothers beat him for his love of learning, has determined that becoming a cleric will give him the means to escape his horrid family. Before Julien takes his vows, though, his mentor, Father Chélan (Jeremy Johnson), arranges for him to become a tutor to the de Rênal family.

M. de Rênal (Brian Linden) has little interest in whether Julien can educate his child, but he hires the young man because of a bitter social rivalry with M. Valenod (Keith Herron). Valenod, a crass lecher, has some fancy horses that give him cachet among the aristocracy, but, exults de Rênal, “His new Norman horses won’t matter. His children don’t have a tutor!”

Once installed as a trophy instructor, the 19-year-old Julien soon discovers that de Rênal’s wife, Louise, who is ten years older than he, is attracted to him. Eventually, Julien decides he should have experience of a worldly kind, namely an affair with Louise. Happily, the strikingly youthful Lucas Wells conveys Julien’s confidence, apprehension, and philosophical observations, along with a sly rakishness, in a measured and well-spoken performance, and one follows the hero eagerly when he is on stage.

Unfortunately, most of the other performers seem to struggle with their parts. Brown relies on the actors to narrate large chunks of the story in an abundance of monologues. Two or three characters in succession will have a monologue, then a scene will follow, often brief, sometimes not. At times actors enter to deliver a single line, or swerve in and out of a scene to speak to the audience. The dizzying staging adds an air of desperation: it's no wonder many of the actors veer toward Dickensian caricature, particularly Linden and Krista Adams Santilli as the cuckolded husband and neglected wife.

As the peremptory, snippy de Rênal, Linden is, according to the situation, appalled or comically grateful that Julien, “a servant,” has his way. (The vaguely Edwardian costumes of Lux Haac manage to convey the social backgrounds of the characters effectively, though the maid’s above-the-knee outfit seems ill-judged.) Santilli as Louise displays little sense of period movement or grace. She might have stepped out of Sex and the City, and she makes Louise so whiny and mercurial that you wonder why Julien doesn’t just take a vow of celibacy on the spot.

When the play works best, as in a garden scene with Louise, Julien, and Louise’s cousin Marie (embodied by Jessica Myhr with poise and intelligence), it allows some breathing space and a build-up of dramatic momentum. But then the rapid-fire pace resumes.

In spite of the haste, the show exceeds the posted running time by at least ten minutes. One suspects that the chief problem is that Brown is loath to cut his own script. Hypocrisy, Voltaire, wealth, aristocracy, and politics—in spite of assurances by Stendhal and his editor (Herron and Linden, respectively) at the outset that politics will be kept to a minimum—are  touched on rather more frequently than seems necessary. An amusing remark de Rênal makes about women as machines is quite funny the first time; the second time, not so much; the fourth time, it thuds. A different director might have done a better job in helping Brown condense the novel. In this case, however, The Red and the Black more aptly applies to a checkered production.

Photo by Hunter Canning

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