Friday, July 20, 2018

East Lynn

Between 1860 and 1861, Ellen Wood (writing as "Mrs. Henry Wood") published her serialized novel East Lynn. The next year stage adaptations of the play began flooding theatres, creating one of the dramatic sensations of the latter nineteenth century.

Though the novel takes place in England, the first stage adaptation was actually in the U.S., premiering at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on January 26, 1862. The adaptation was anonymous, and it closely followed both the plot and the language of the original.

The story surrounds Lady Isabel, an earl's daughter who marries the rising lawyer Archibald Carlyle. Isabel grows jealous, suspecting her husband is in love with another woman, Barbara Hare. 

The play weaves together this jealousy plot with a murder mystery. Barbara's brother Richard must stay in hiding because he has been falsely accused of murder. He suspects the real killer to be a man he knows only as Thorn.

In the second act, Isabel sees her husband arm in arm with Barbara Hare, not realizing Archibald is actually trying to help exonerate her brother. Her jealousy becomes so intense, that she agrees to run off with a scoundrel named Sir Francis Levison just to revenge herself on her husband. She regrets her decision in the very next act, though, sending Levison away and refusing to take money from him or from her own relatives.

Typically, the climax of a melodrama was in the fourth act. This is where Isabel disguises herself as "Madame Vine" to get a position caring for her own children. We have to suspend disbelief to accept that Archibald doesn't recognize his own wife, but the dramatic payoff is worth it. Isabel is forced to watch her own sickly son slowly die, but is unable to tell him she is his mother. Many adaptations had her utter something along the lines of: "Dead! And never called me mother." That line doesn't appear in the book, though, nor is it in the first stage adaptation.

The fifth act wraps up the action, with Richard Hare being cleared of the charges against him, and Levison (who was actually the mysterious "Thorn") being convicted of murder. Isabel, of course, has already been tainted, so she ends up dying amid tears of repentance.

East Lynn might seem clunky by today’s standards, but Victorian audiences loved it, and it was even made into a successful film in 1931. Ellen Wood knew how to please her readers, and her adapters spun her tale into theatrical gold.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

English Mystic Live Onstage!

Last night I saw John Wulp's play The Saintliness of Margery Kempe at the Duke on 42nd Street. The play tells the story of the medieval English mystic who dictated what is considered to be the first autobiography in the English language.

The fact Kempe holds that distinction is all the more remarkable given that she was not a canoness or nun, nor a queen or noblewoman. In fact, she had to dictate the book because she herself could neither read nor write, but was simply the wife of a town official and the owner of a brewery.

In this production directed by Austin Pendleton, Andrus Nichols portrays the remarkable Kempe. A co-founder of the Bedlam theatre company, Nichols has distinguished herself playing such roles as Gertrude in Hamlet and Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. She does an equally fine job as Kempe, but the script makes her take some interesting turns with the character.

In Creature, Heidi Schreck's dramatization of Kempe's life, the mystic is portrayed as well... a mystic. A woman who really is different from other people and has visions she cannot explain. Wulp gives us a much more worldly Kempe, a woman who appears to fabricate a religious vision as an excuse to not have sex with her husband. (Kempe really did turn to a celibate marriage, but only after having 14 children, not the mere six portrayed in the play.)

At first the play seems to be making fun of Kempe, but in the second act it gets us to question whether she might be someone special after all. In a dubious miracle, she is struck by a rock and beam in a collapsing church, but when she calls out to Jesus, her pain disappears. She dresses in white and goes on a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands, but spends so much time weeping emotionally that the authorities ban her from Jerusalem.

Both sinner and saint, Wulp's Kempe is neither entirely admirable, nor someone we can completely condemn. While Schreck ends her play with Kempe's visit to fellow mystic Julian of Norwich, Wulp has her instead witness the canonization of Bridget of Sweden, another mystic who like Kemp was a middle-class wife and mother (though from a better family and more adept at staying out of trouble).

If you want to see The Saintliness of Margery Kempe, it's running until August 26th.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Antigone in Harlem

Last night I saw Classical Theatre of Harlem's production of Antigone, which sets the classic Sophocles play in an urban wasteland of the near future.

Alexandra King plays the title character, who refuses to compromise on the burial of her brother, Polynices. She isn't afraid to tell others exactly what she thinks, whether by insulting her sister Ismene (played by Ava McCoy) or spitting into the face of her uncle, King Creon.

In many ways, Creon is the protagonist of the play, not Antigone. Ty Jones (the company's founder who also played the title role in CTH's production of Macbeth in 2016) plays Creon with a fitting stateliness. We believe his growing rage both when he speaks to Antigone, and when he addresses his own son Haemon (played by Avon Haughton), who timidly tries to get his father to change his mind.

Though CTH does not credit an adaptor or translator, their website claims the piece was inspired by the adaptation by Paul Roche. Occasionally, the production introduces anachronisms, including some rather hysterical references to contemporary Harlem, but for the most part it sticks close to the original. One exception is that Creon's wife Eurydice (played by Adaku Okpi) has a slightly expanded role. This was a welcome change, given the gravitas Okpi brought to each of her scenes, and I would have liked to have seen even more of her.

It's great to see Greek drama performed outdoors the way it was intended, so come out to the Richard Rogers Amphitheater where the show is playing for free until July 30th.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018


Last night I saw Sam Kahn's new play Chatter at The Tank. The Tank now resides in the space that formerly housed the Abingdon Theatre Company, an institution whose fall has been a major blow to the New York theatre scene.

Of course, a shell of a company still calls itself the Abingdon and occasionally performs around the city in other spaces, but it's only a shadow of what it used to be. The Tank, with its grey walls, is not a theatre company per se, but a space in which artists can come together and present their own work. The heart that once beat in that space is gone, which is why it's fitting that Chatter deals so much with the struggle to find something authentic in our hyper-mediated world.

Once upon a time, off-off-Broadway was filled with tiny theatre companies that inhabited holes in the walls. These were dank caverns you entered through metal doors covered with fliers before climbing several flights of stairs until you found the obscure, un-air-conditioned black box where you sat on uncomfortable seats and watched shows performed on shoe-string budgets that still managed to somehow change your life. The doors to The Tank are polished glass now, without a cheap flier to be seen, and visitors are politely asked not to take the stairs, but rather ride in a comfy elevator. With all this convenience of modern-day New York, have we lost something?

Chatter seems to say, yes, we have! The play agonizes over an authenticity that its characters are never able to find. In the first scene, the main character, Claire (played by Roxanna Kadyrova), stares down a shaft in an apartment building she's thinking of moving into. She can see people passing by, and a smoker's corner and a tattoo parlor. This is real-life New York City. The view is magical to her, but while she spends the rest of the play chasing down that ideal of authentic New York life, she's never able to quite reach it. Her life remains mediated though cell phones and dating apps and the opinions of people who don't genuinely care about her.

If there is a chance for human connection, it's with her roommate, Mary Ellen, played wonderfully by Stacey Weckstein. Mary Ellen is fascinated with Claire because she's beautiful and exotic. (She's actually just from Quebec, but to Mary Ellen that might as well be Narnia.) Unfortunately, Mary Ellen can't get out from under the shadow of the more confident and successful Deborah (played by Whitney Harris) who has apparently been bullying her since middle school. Deborah urges Claire to join the dating scene rather than just sitting at home binge-watching T.V. with Mary Ellen.

As the years fly by, Claire eventually relents and begins a relationship with the wealthy and dashing Blake (played by Derek Stratton), who immediately starts displaying red flags. He brags about the long hours he works and the money he makes, and he makes sexist blanket statements about women. Chatter gets the audience to revisit Blake's character, though, by repeating sections of the play, showing Blake first as a stereotypical jerk, but then as a sensitive, self-aware human being, saying the same lines, but with an emotional authenticity that connects with Claire. Is he really authentic, though, or just a sham, pretending to be sensitive when he actually is that jerk-ball stereotype?

The play never really lets us know. It gives us various alternatives, but continually makes us aware of the fact that we're watching a play. In the second half, the play's director (Alexandra Dashevskaya) and the playwright both appear in video footage, commenting on the action as the actors continue their scenes. In the world of Chatter it isn't just the characters who are searching for an authentic New York experience. We see the director and playwright similarly wandering through New York streets, occasionally with iconic landmarks in the background, telling us they don't know what to do or how to tell the story.

While Chatter could have turned into a self-indulgent piece of millennial navel-gazing, the second half of the play does more than just complain about how hard it is to be young in the 2010s. The play projects forward into the future lives of the characters in the coming decade, as well as the future life of New York City. Claire is now married to David (played by Michael Tyler), whom she met on a meditation retreat, and the two of them attend a dinner party at the home of Blake and Deborah, who are now married. The couple have gutted the old apartment Claire once shared with Mary Ellen, and now have lots of space, but nothing to put inside it.

Even when discussing the loss of authenticity, however, the characters can only talk about it in terms of fictional versions of New York, rather than the city as it actually was. Mary Ellen views her old apartment through the lens of Sex and the City rather than her actual memories of it. When she fanaticizes about an ideal life, it isn't actually living life, but watching it on Netflix. The characters in the play watch each other, watch themselves, and watch the city deteriorate into an empty box of nothing, but they seem unable to experience life directly for themselves.

Chatter diagnoses the ailments of our current society, but it never figures out how we can break from our present path and find a way back to authentic human experience. Maybe we need to find that special view of the shaft outside our apartments. Or maybe we just need to be allowed to skip the elevator and take the stairs for a change.

Unfortunately, Chatter is only playing until July 8th, so if you want to see it, get your tickets soon!  

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Immigrant Dramatists

Today there were protests all across the United States in support of immigrants, so I wanted to blog about some of the great American dramatists who were immigrants:

Dion Boucicault - Born in Ireland, Dion Boucicault moved to England where he rose to fame with his play London Assurance, which Madame Vestris produced at Covent Garden. After a string of hits in London, he moved to New York, where he conquered Broadway with his melodrama The Poor of New York. The play was actual adapted from a French work, but Boucicault went on to write the quintessentially American play The Octoroon, which Branden Jacobs-Jenkins recently adapted for the 21st century. Boucicault is perhaps the first truly great American playwright. (Though you could argue for the French-born Anna Cora Mowatt.) And, of course, he was an immigrant.

Kurt Weill - Don't you love "Mack the Knife," "September Song," and "The Saga of Jenny"? All of those hit Broadway songs were written by the German immigrant Kurt Weill. "Mack the Knife" of course came from The Threepenny Opera, which Weill originally wrote in Berlin with Bertolt Brecht and Elizabeth Hauptmann. Being as he was a gay Jewish leftist, Weill had to flee Hitler's Germany, first to Paris, then London, and eventually New York. That's where he collaborated with Maxwell Anderson on Knickerbocker Holiday, which gave us the jazz standard "September Song." "The Saga of Jenny" comes from Lady in the Dark, and featured lyrics by the all-American Ira Gershwin, who was--incidentally--the son of immigrants.

Maria Irene Fornes - Born in Cuba, Maria Irene Fornes moved to New York in the 1950s. Her play Fefu and Her Friends has become a modern classic. I've always been a fan of her brutal one-act play The Conduct of Life, and spoke about it when she received the 2015 Edwin Booth Award. Recently, the Signature Theatre produced her short play Drowning, which reimagined a story by Anton Chekhov, but was told from the point of view of aliens from outer space. Fornes wasn't from outer space, but she was once an alien to this country, before become one of America's great playwrights of the 20th century.

Nilo Cruz - Speaking of Cuban-American playwrights, Nilo Cruz, who won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for his drama Anna in the Tropics, was born in Matanzas in Cuba, but immigrated to Miami as a child when his parents fled communism. Cruz's play Sotto Voce tells the story of a woman mourning the failure of both Cuba and the United States to take in Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. As a former refugee himself, Cruz certainly knows the importance of showing compassion to those who arrive on your borders.

Martyna Majok - And who won the most recent Pulitzer Prize for drama? That would be Polish-born playwright Martyna Majok. I haven't seen The Cost of Living, which garnered her the award, but her play Ironbound is wonderful, and deals quite poignantly with coming of age in urban America.

So thank you, immigrants. You make America great!