Profoundly Moving CHESTER BAILEY at Contemporary American Theater Festival

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Profoundly Moving CHESTER BAILEY at Contemporary American Theater Festival

Reed Birney, Ephraim Birney

Posted on July 11, 2019

Structurally, plays don’t come much simpler than Joseph Dougherty‘s Chester Bailey, now in what appears to be its second production, at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown (the first having been in 2016 at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco). The play consists mostly of two monologues delivered in alternating segments. There are a few interpolations where the characters address each other and at one point get into a physical tussle, but that’s all. And that’s all that’s necessary; the two intertwined stories don’t require much more dramatization than that.

One is the tale of the eponymous Chester Bailey (Ephraim Birney), a Brooklyn Naval Yard worker 23 years old in November 1944, at the time of the incident that profoundly injures him and sets up the action. The other is the tale of Dr. Philip Cotton (Reed Birney), Chester’s treating physician, charged with reconciling Chester to a life without eyes or hands. (As the reader will have guessed, the two Birneys are related, Reed being Ephraim’s father – and for that matter the husband and the father of actresses as well.)

Dougherty unspools these two stories with novelistic skill. The feeling of truly being in the period never lifts; one senses that Dougherty has done enormous research – much as Jennifer Egan did for her recent World War II Brooklyn Naval Yard-related tale Manhattan Beach, and detailed in the Acknowledgments to that book. Nor does the set by Luciana Stecconi hurt; in addition to there being convincing-looking accoutrements of a period hospital room, the vertical components of the set are girders that greatly resemble the airy trelliswork above the main concourse in the old McKim, Mead & White Pennsylvania Station, where parts of the action (in Chester’s recollection and his fantasy) occur. The windows at the rear also seem to be a reference to that concourse. More importantly, the stories reel us in: Chester’s of the way he deals with his injury, and Cotton’s of hospital life in wartime, with its politics, scandals, and sexual misbehavior.

Not to give too much away, despite the enormous differences, both Chester and Cotton enter and exit the story fundamentally alone. It seems, from what we hear of Chester’s life before his injury, that in that period he had his family and little else. Sent from his home on Long Island to enjoy a day on the town in Manhattan, for instance, he engages with no one except quite briefly with a magazine seller at the Pennsylvania Station newsstand. And shortly thereafter, he is effectively cut off from humanity by the destruction of his eyes and hands. Even his interactions with Cotton are at a distance because he has coped with his losses by refusing to acknowledge them, even to himself, which requires him in turn to refuse to occupy the same reality as Cotton. Chester even puts his own idiosyncratic spin on abuse he suffers in the hospital (not at Cotton’s hands). And while, both for plot reasons and out of empathy, Cotton finds himself at the end giving up his resistance to Chester’s allegiance to his own reality, Cotton cannot go there himself. Nor, divorced from his wife and involved in what seems like an insubstantial affair that cannot lead anywhere, can Cotton be otherwise than on his own.

And yet, despite this sadness and solitude, I suspect most members of the audience will file out asking themselves the same question I did: Is this a tragedy or not? And I suspect most of them, like me, will end up saying the question cannot be answered. En route to that conclusion, one will be greatly moved and saddened, as one would be at a tragedy; yet somehow the pieces taken together do not quite construct a tragedy. Each member of the audience will have to reach his or her own decision on this issue.

The unusual casting of this two-hander makes it a stunt of a sort, but the result entirely justifies it. Each Birney is a pro, and one quickly forgets the real-life relationship between them. Ephraim’s working-class New York accent and boyish charm seem to have nothing to do with the reserved, WASPy-sounding professional tones Reed endows Cotton with. The characters seem exactly like the natives of separate worlds Doughterty’s script calls for. As is usually the case, it is hard to disentangle the contributions of the director, here Ron Lagomarsino, from those of the performers, but the overall show manifests a limpid clarity for which Lagomarsino doubtless deserves considerable credit.

This show is the whole package: a polished, intriguing, thematically-consistent but otherwise dissimilar pair of stories well-told, leaving one profoundly moved. And, oh yes, the period music (including the inimitable Jo Stafford) is a perfect wrapping for the package.

Not to be missed.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo.

Photo credit: Seth Freeman

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Patriarchy Run Rampant: A WELCOME GUEST at Contemporary American Theater Festival

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Patriarchy Run Rampant: A WELCOME GUEST at Contemporary American Theater Festival

Lou Sumrall, Reece Santos, Kate Udall, Sarah Sun Park

Posted on July 11, 2019

Michael Weller‘s new play, A Welcome Guest, now premiering at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, is transparently a critique of patriarchy. That is not what one might expect from reading an interview with Weller in the program, where he describes the play’s origin; there he says it’s an outgrowth of thoughts about Israel and Palestine, which morphed into a tale of “someone taking over someone else’s land.” But in practice, the fight is gender-specific. The only characters in the show who care about territory are the men. They are absurdly obsessed with scriptures and tribes, and willing to risk a local version of Armageddon to prevail in their respective claims. The semi-sensible ones are the women.

At the start, the Brown clan (pictured above), a washed-up former Christian rock singer turned druggie gone semi-straight named McMoley (Lou Sumrall) and his strange derelict family, are inhabiting part of an abandoned factory under an arrangement with the local government, and subsisting by stripping the metal out of the structure and selling it for scrap. Then the government, represented by its functionary Lucius (Michael Rogers), brings in Shimeus (Wade McCollum), a derelict of another sort, whimpering and traumatized by an arson that killed everyone else in his family. Lucius orders the Browns to harbor Shimeus as a guest. Almost immediately, however, Shimeus stops whimpering, and, more importantly, stops behaving like a guest, and more like an invader – well maybe not a declared invader but a lot like a space alien whose intentions toward neighbors aren’t entirely clear but don’t seem encouraging, a la the plant in Little Shop of Horrors. Shimeus is clearly the smartest character (not that any of the Browns are the sharpest tools in the shed), endowed with a talent for escaping the consequences of his arrogance and aggressiveness. He is relentless, constantly expanding and fortifying his share of the space on the stage, enslaving the dim shoplifting son Frizzby (Reece Santos), coopting daughter Zazu (Sarah Sun Park), besting an attempt by mother Shanana (Kate Udall) to poison him, and challenging paterfamilias McMoley to a potentially mutually lethal contest of wills.

Driving both McMoley and Shimeus are scriptures and sexism. McMoley hearkens to the old-time Christian religion, while Shimeus regards himself as an atavar of Shimeus the First, author of the divine Book of Shimeus. Of course, like Christian scripture, the Book of Shimeus is open to interpretation, but Shimeus chooses an interpretation that legitimates and maximizes his claim on the Brown leasehold. And both McMoley and Shimeus try to marginalize or subjugate Zazu and Shanana. The serious business, McMoley keeps insisting without demur by Shimeus, is “between men” – even though it is obvious neither of the women take him seriously, and the commonsense solutions to the standoff come only from the women. Scriptures, on the other hand, supposedly deal in non-negotiable absolutes, not compromise or common sense. Even when a textual ambiguity emerges in the Book of Shimeus that should lead to shared hegemony between the sides, the real patriarchal agendas of the leaders, for which scripture was always only a rationalization and justification, make compromise impossible.

The play is subtitled A Psychotic Fairy Tale, which I’m not sure is a fortunate monicker. Not only are there no fairies; there is no magic, albeit there are some special effects (probably attributable to scenic designer Jesse Dreikosen and technical director Jared Sorenson) that seem almost magical. The characters are not stand-ins for members of a child’s family of origin, as Bruno Bettelheim taught Stephen Sondheim and thus the rest of us to anticipate in true fairy tales. And the wackiness evident in the description above does not rise to level of psychosis, either; this is not a fever dream like for instance the truly psychotic works of Sarah Kane. Instead, this seems like a queasy meditation on the state of our civilization, present and forthcoming. As such, it seems mostly on point, particularly in these times, where the guardrails that prevent our society from growing barbaric are being systematically dismantled.

Weller has stated that his approach in this play was chosen partly in reaction to what he perceived was the failure of Arturo Ui, Brecht’s allegory of the rise of Hitler, to capture the subject. (Washington audiences, incidentally, can see a very good revival for a few more days courtesy of Scena Theatre.) And I think that the story of the Israelis and the Palestinians would be just as challenging to dramatize in directly allegorical fashion. Instead, Weller provides something broader. While this play could reasonably be read to provide a critique of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, it is in no way tethered to that situation, but extends much further. That is a good thing.

Weller has also referred to the play as “surreal slapstick.” There I think he is more on the mark, though at least in this staging the slapstick is not extreme. Instead, the comedy is primarily verbal. To choose but one example, here is the good-natured sexism of McMoley, as he tries to pay compliments to first his daughter, then his wife:

Whereas you – my jewel, my treasure chest – yours is the gift of allurance; you’re a vessel of fertility who will one day attract a god-fearing young man to fill you with children who continue the Brown bloodline. And standing high is the most perfect angel of all. Look how she glows…! If I could shrink her down to Christmas- ornament-size I’d put her on top of that tree and just stare at her through the holiday season.

It’s funny, but it also conveys in a few strokes how patriarchal rhetoric tends to be couched in pompously and inarticulately delivered clichés, betraying with every word how little thought is given to the hearers’ sensibilities. Which is very much the point.

Speaking of points, it needs to be said that the themes and structure of the play came across a lot more clearly on the page than in this performance. I’m not exactly sure why this was, but I know from conversations with other audience members that I was not alone in finding the show as experienced somewhat chaotic. The script was not released until after I’d seen the show and had a chance to reflect on it. Looking back now with the additional aid of the script, the structure and meaning of the play seem clear enough, but during the performance they just didn’t. The problem may simply have been the funhouse quality of the production, which threw a lot of surprising visual and verbal material at the audience without giving us context to orient ourselves. The denouement also did not help much, either, as what looked like an impending catastrophe for the characters was abandoned so that the cast could, as themselves, not their characters, burst into song, a song that teased us on what had been about to happen without making it clear whether or not what the audience had been led to fear had come to pass.

Still, this play is definitely a good way to spend 135 minutes. We should all take a trip to the funhouse from time to time, even if we do find ourselves a bit disoriented. And without this particular trip, we would miss some wonderful performances, led by Kate Udall (whom Festival-goers will remember pleasurably for her one-woman turn in Allison Gregory’s Wild Horses a couple of seasons ago) as the preternaturally cheery Shananana whose loss of marbles is only partial, Lou Sumrall as the bluff cliché machine and macho chest-beater McMoley, and Wade McCollum, who as Shimeus the guest manages to evince a menace that is at once cheerful, sneaky, slightly fey, and a force of nature.


Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo.

Photo credit: Seth Freeman

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You’ll Laugh, You’ll Shiver: WRECKED at Contemporary American Theater Festival

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You’ll Laugh, You’ll Shiver: WRECKED at Contemporary American Theater Festival

Julia Coffey and Chris Thorne

Posted on July 10, 2019

It’s an old trick, but a good one: Set two contrasting dramatic tones (usually domestic comedy and dread) against each other and let them fight it out throughout a play. It’s the trick playwright Greg Kalleres employs to advantage in Wrecked, premiering at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown. The title may refer to the family car of 30s-ish couple Victoria (Julia Coffey) and John (Chris Thorn) after an accident of some sort that has occurred just before the play begins, or to the entire structure of their lives together. Ours to find out.

The dread just below the surface of the ordinary and the domestic life was one of Alfred Hitchcock‘s favorite themes. It was also, in rather a different way, the theme of Edward Albee‘s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a play of which this one kept me thinking a lot. (In the program notes, Kalleres is described as an admirer of Albee’s.) As in Virginia Woolf, we meet Victoria and John late at night, returning home from a social gathering (well, in this case one that didn’t come off for reasons we shall soon learn), and we see enough of them to realize they have secret shared understandings and techniques for coping with distress. In this case, whatever happened just before we see them quite evidently caused enough distress to start them coping in their special way. They also rely on their lovingly curated home to serve as their ultimate sanctuary.

But then, as in Virginia Woolf, they are joined by another couple: their dysfunctional friend Lynn (Megan Bartle), rattling on about her “asshole” boyfriend with whom she just broke up, and an apparent policeman (Tom Coiner), who may be trying to uncover truths Victoria and John would rather leave buried. And unfortunately at about this point it becomes impossible to discuss what happens in the play in any detail without dropping intolerable spoilers.

It will have to suffice to say that the resemblances to both Hitchcock and Albee intensify as the play goes on. As to the Hitchcock resemblance, it resides in the difference between a comic, not to say antic, surface (involving among other things the defilement of a giraffe statue guaranteed to bring down the house), and the threat that at any moment what lies beneath that surface may rise and turn the comedy into tragedy.

As to Albee, without describing them, let me say that the final two twists of the play are perhaps too thorough an hommage to the conclusion of Virginia Woolf. In each play, a couple agree to what they understand is a made-up version of reality, but bind themselves to it anyway. Cumulatively, however, the twists in Wrecked defy plausibility, and Wrecked, unlike Albee’s play, is not serious enough at heart to make plausibility unimportant. The twists will send the audience-members out with a slightly bad taste in their mouths.

Do these shortcomings make Wrecked a, um, wreck? Not at all. If one may be pardoned an oxymoron, this is a seriously funny play, the ending notwithstanding. Kalleres has a perceptive eye for the silly minutiae of suburban existence and a keen ear for the amusing things couples say as they negotiate, fight, and struggle through adversity. Nor does it hurt that Coffey, Thorn, Bartle and Coiner make a great ensemble, batting back and forth in spirited fashion total inanities (for example speculations on canine suicidality or the setting of The Jungle Book or how to pronounce “ye olde”) that barely conceal existential anxiety. Coffey, in particular, makes an art of being rattled to the point of near-hysteria.

So, yes, go. You’ll laugh. You’ll occasionally shiver. Good times.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo.

Photo credit: Seth Freeman

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MY LORD, WHAT A NIGHT! at Contemporary American Theater Festival: Clashing Views on Resisting Racism

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MY LORD, WHAT A NIGHT! at Contemporary American Theater Festival: Clashing Views on Resisting Racism

John Leonard Pielmeier, Larry Paulsen, Lizan Mitchell, Angela Wildflower

Posted on July 9, 2019

My Lord, What a Night!, the two-act version of which (there was an earlier one-acter) is currently premiering at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, is based on a kernel of historical fact. On April 16, 1937, African American singer Marian Anderson was refused accommodation at the Nassau Inn in Princeton, N.J., after having given a concert at Princeton University.

Physicist Albert Einstein, who resided in the town of Princeton as an employee of the Institute for Advanced Study, offered her shelter for the night, which she accepted. This led to a lifelong friendship between the two of them. From this seed of fact, Playwright Deborah Brevoort has grown a large fictional bush, including two historical figures who were not part of the original story (Abraham Flexner, the head of the Institute, and Mary Church Terrell, one of the earliest civil rights activists in the modern sense of the word), and fabricating a new history for the genesis of the Marian Anderson concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, 1939.

There is a great tradition of fictionalized history on the stage (see, e.g., Shakespeare, William) and elsewhere. In encountering it, we audiences understand what we’re getting. We anticipate that most plays, movies, TV shows and novels that purport to depict historical figures, no matter how realistic-seeming, will prove to have been largely made up. But in exchange for granting that poetic license, we will generally demand two things. We will want the fiction to be more diverting than the reality for which it substitutes; we’ll ask for it to be more uplifting, relatable, understandable or just interesting. And we’ll want there to be some kind of heightened clarity, ideally both narrative and moral, emerging from the cut corners and composite characters and made-up events. In some sense we ask for the artifice to tell us the truth. My Lord, What a Night! passes this twofold test, and has earned its license.

Adding Flexner and Terrell to the mix gives us some interesting history to chew on. Terrell represents (as Anderson does not) the activism that propelled the black civil rights movement; Terrell the character (portrayed by Lizann Mitchell) is continually suggesting demonstrations, press conferences, and finally the Lincoln Memorial concert. Already an old woman at the time of the action, her sprightly energy and optimism easily surpass Anderson’s passivity and underline in a strange way the potential for self-defeat that Anderson (Angela Wildflower) must overcome. Flexner (Larry Paulsen) makes the opposite sort of dyad with Einstein (John Leonard Pielmeier); in that pair, it is Einstein who is the activist, who sees the depravity of both racism and antisemitism, and is keen to oppose them, while Flexner is cautious – for reasons that are revealed not to be negligible. The Institute is depicted (with what I understand to be only partial accuracy) as having been designed with the primary objective of saving some of the greatest European Jewish scholars from the Holocaust, subsisting on the generosity of donors who might be turned off by some of Einstein’s outspokenness, or by the “scandal” of Einstein hosting the unmarried and African American Anderson for the night. Setting up these two pairs of characters pushing and pulling over the opportunities and dangers of activism makes for lively drama, however historically accurate or not it may all be.

Similarly, Brevoort patently aims to dramatize the way in which racism and antisemitism in the 1930s proceeded from the same roots and adopted the same tactics, and to suggest the ways in which those evils continue to stalk the world today. In a sense, we are far removed from that world; public accommodations like the Nassau Inn can no longer exclude visitors of any race, and no venue can do or seeks to do business like Constitution Hall, which set the stage for Anderson’s concert by adhering to a white-performers-only clause in its contract, and driving Anderson to seek a different site. But Brevoort is surely also seeking to make us aware that we are sliding backward when we have a government normalizing racism by extolling so-called “fine people” among the Charlottesville racists, a counterpoint of sorts to the act of the FBI depicted in the play of labeling Einstein a security risk for opposing racism. When the Flexner character notes (in 1937) that our country allows admission to only a few of the Jews we could save from extermination, it echoes (intentionally, I have no doubt) what we are doing (in 2019) to Central Americans seeking entry to escape comparably dire threats.

This brings us to the first of the criticisms I heard from some of my fellow-theatergoers, i.e. that Brevoort is opportunistically exploiting an easy topicality. I guess my response is: so what? If a resemblance happens to exist between one’s topic and current events, is it wrong to write about it? Would The Crucible (with its echoes of the then-current McCarthy era) not be susceptible to the same complaint? It is not as if My Lord, What a Night! does not stand on its own feet; the correspondence to today’s issues is important, but the drama works.

The drama works because of the intriguing way the characters’ ideas about how to act in response to the two provocative exclusions (first Nassau Inn and then Constitution Hall) shift repeatedly in response to new information, so that consensus is almost impossible to achieve, at least until the play’s very end. Anderson seeks progress through song, unimpeachable behavior and an avoidance of politics; Einstein wants an end to both racism and antisemitism, and by the end is very worried about the Bomb; Terrell embraces confrontation because all else seems to fail; and Flexner tries hard to protect the Institute as a means of keeping the Holocaust from consuming absolutely all Jews, even though he can save only a few. (“I may not be a mathematician like you, Einstein, but I do know that a few are greater than none.“) At least in the show, the owner of the Inn is also a donor to the Institute whom Flexner cannot afford to alienate. These tactical disagreements inevitably trigger larger discussions about the underlying issues in a dramatically urgent way.

This raises another criticism I heard: that it frequently seemed as if there was a black argument and a white argument, confined to one side of the stage or the other, with little cross-fertilization. I also came away with that impression; I went back and looked hard at the script, and see some justice to it, though less than I had initially sensed. But there would be dramatic justification for it in any event; despite the thematic correspondences between the two discussions, some of the tactical disputes are essentially intramural within one of the two respective communities on the stage. What matters more is that as each community’s discussions come to an end, the members of the other get to observe and react in some fashion. It is less like two soliloquies and more like a tennis match, with the argument volleying back and forth.

Along somewhat similar lines, it was also argued to me that the play, which had started life as a one-acter devoted to the events of 1937, was elongated essentially by doubling it without changing the dramatic situation much. Again, I think the tennis match analogy applies; the fact that there is more than one set does not prove that the contest lacks interest. My view is that if you enjoyed Act I, you will enjoy Act II. And I did – and so, quite evidently, did the audience.

Let me, before moving on, mention one other criticism I heard, which is part of a much larger discussion, but which was levelled in my hearing at this particular play. This was a charge of appropriation because the black characters were being written by a white playwright. Whenever this kind of argument is put forward, there is apt to be a practical rejoinder, namely that if (as here) there are characters of more than one race, there would either have to be at least two playwrights collaborating or the play simply must be written by a writer who does not share a racial identity with one or more characters. But setting practicality aside, this argument assumes without much evidence that a writer of one race cannot write intelligently about and empathetically with characters of another. Yes, that exercise may be harder, and yes, proper respect for perspectives of others, particularly when the writer starts in a position of privilege, may fail. There may also be an unfortunate reliance on tropes that have been overworked, like “the white savior” who takes up so much attention that the work loses focus on nonwhite characters. But a blanket rejection of members of a dominant group writing about members of another is hard to accept, especially in an era when opportunities are dramatically opening up for playwrights of previously underrepresented backgrounds. (The databases that list playwright submission opportunities are replete with solicitations that pointedly exclude or discourage members of dominant groups.) And moving from the general to the particular, Brevoort is quoted in the program as repeatedly sharing in her husband’s being harassed by police for driving while black. Her understanding of how the dynamics of race prejudice feel, from the perspective of those made objects of that prejudice, seems not merely theoretical.

Returning briefly to the play at hand, perhaps the most notable performance is Wildflower’s as Anderson. Besides convincingly conveying all the traits one associates with Anderson, such as reserve, courtesy and deliberation, Wildflower is called upon to sing two songs in character. It would take a more educated ear than mine to determine how accurately she is channeling Anderson; the low fidelity of the historical recordings I’ve heard simply does not support an intelligent comparison. But Wildflower has a stunning voice, and riveted the crowd with her performance. I also liked Pielmeier’s Einstein, which I felt conveyed the combination of whimsey and disheveled intellect for which his original was known. I cannot speak in any way to the historical accuracy of Paulsen and Mitchell’s portrayals, but they certainly held the interest. And as usual with David Barber‘s sets, this one (the study of Einstein’s Princeton home) is not only functional but convincing in its detail.

Overall, highly rated.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo.

Photo credit: Seth Freeman

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Brooklyn Is In Him: ANTONIO’S SONG at Contemporary American Theater Festival

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Brooklyn Is In Him: ANTONIO’S SONG at Contemporary American Theater Festival

Antonio Edwards Suarez

Posted on July 8, 2019

At Shepherdstown’s July cultural fixture, the Contemporary American Theater Festival, the performances are almost always excellent, yet the plays themselves are usually the stars. For those who follow the Festival from year to year, some of the actors will become familiar faces, but the majority of the plays there will always be totally new experiences, about which the playgoer will have heard little or nothing. For this reason a critic is apt to focus on the work more than the performers. Antonio’s Song: I Was Dreaming of a Son, however, does not lend itself to any prioritization of work over performer. The Antonio of the title is not only the central character but also the performer, Antonio Edwards Suarez, and the story we are told purports to be that of Mr. Suarez.

This show, then, fits comfortably within the not-unfamiliar format of a single-performer theater piece in which the performer presents his own history – but in this case with a twist: the words here may not be the performer’s own. The wordsmithing is credited to Dael Orlandersmith, probably best known for her play Yellowman. Both on the page and in the ear, the lines come across as poetry, albeit a poetry heavily inflected with the accents and cadences of Suarez’ particular origins as a black and Latino man growing up in Brooklyn. And Orlandersmith’s metier is poetic language inflected with the sound and rhythms of dialect. Hence with this show there will be no practical way to disentangle the contribution of the subject/performer from that of the writer, and no way to determine the extent to which Suarez’ story may have been trimmed or augmented to fit the dramatic structure. So I shall not even try, but will instead provisionally treat the account the play gives of Suarez’ life as accurate, and attribute the choice of words to him as well.

The tale crystallizes early around one incident: Antonio, a teacher, writer and dancer, in a room he has rented for a few hours to serve as a dance and writing studio, finds himself unexpectedly accompanied by his five-year-old son. Trying to remain in his own headspace while crafting dance moves, he quickly comes up against the reality that young children will grow bored and fidgety in such a place, and demand attention. Antonio loses his temper and begins to rough up his son, screaming abuse. His hands are balled up as fists. And then he stops, wants to embrace his son, but realizes that he has become a “monster” to this child whom he adores. “As I hold him / I look down at my hands / I REALLY look down at my hands / These hands that turned to fists/ The same kind of hands like my mother’s/ That / Slapped/ punched MY face / And I think about my voice / My voice that screamed and yelled ‘MOTHERFUCKER’ / And /I hear my mother’s voice/ I NOW have HER voice / My god what did I do? / What the fuck did I do?”

And now of course we are into the story of Antonio’s family of origin, and the world of his origin, which has conditioned him to behave this way, which implicitly and explicitly looks to its men to solve problems with violence. We will hear stories of not only the violent mother but the concerted attack by Antonio and his friends on a gay man, and a gangbang sexual initiation, and an understanding that it was expected that he would beat up or kill a violent boyfriend of his sister’s.

But there is much more, and better. We also learn of the ways his father protected him at times, of his friend Curtis who did not subscribe to the machismo of the streets but blazed a trail to college for Antonio, of the uncle who lifted from Antonio’s shoulders the burden of wreaking vengeance on the sister’s boyfriend. We learn of Antonio’s initiation into the world of academic achievement and advanced study, at Harvard and in Russia. We also come to see Antonio’s story as a tale of intergenerational accumulation of social capital: Antonio’s father was, as the script repeatedly characterizes him and many of the boys around Antonio, “fatherless.” Antonio was not fatherless, and Antonio’s son is not. And Antonio’s father, who may not always have shielded him from the mother’s violence and hostility, nonetheless does do some things to advance Antonio matriculation at Harvard. Even the mother can legitimately claim some credit. On balance, the picture improves over the generations.

And then at the end, the tale circles back to Antonio and his son. All of these things now are in him, both the good and the bad of Brooklyn and the world of learning and achievement far beyond it. He ends by formulating as best he can, in a sort of dream vision, a way of explaining himself and his contradictions and, in the last line, what Antonio’s son should take away from the scary encounter with his imperfect dad.

This is powerful stuff, rendered more powerful by an excellent staging. The set (by Luciana Stecconi) is basic, but it immediately becomes clear that the real function of the set is to provide surfaces for projections by Jared Mezzocchi that are varied, evocative, and thoroughly advance the story. And while a monologue can in the wrong hands begin to pall, Mark Clements‘ direction and the movement direction/choreography by Alexandra Beller (of course there is dance of a sort in this story of a dancer) keep the eye and the attention engaged.

In conversations I had with Festival-goers who had seen this show, it emerged as the consensus favorite in a strong field. It was my favorite too.

A note for those who might conceivably have wondered: the title Antonio’s Song has nothing to do with Michael Franks‘ tribute of the same name to Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo.

Photo credit: Seth Freeman

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Necessity and Realism Prevail Along with Enchantment in LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company

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Necessity and Realism Prevail Along with Enchantment in LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company

Jose Guzman, Jonathan Jacobs, J.C Payne, Alexander Karafakis

Posted on July 1, 2019

In the next-to-last line of Love’s Labour’s Lost, currently being revived by the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in the lovely setting of the ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City, a foolish character speaks truth: “The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo.” In other words, it’s hard to embrace clear-eyed wisdom after one has luxuriated in the poetry of love. The transition is necessary, but it can be jarring. It is the genius of Love’s Labour’s Lost to move from one to the other with extraordinary grace. Indeed, without that shift, audiences might eventually perish from the surfeit of sugar on offer in the play: all the comedy and romance that makes up the first 90% of the text.

Not that that 90% lacks substance. It may be silly, but it is a learned, thought-through silliness, much of it devoted to opposing two appealing but ultimately unsatisfying traditions: monasticism and courtly love. The hero, Ferdinand, King of Navarre (Jonathan Jacobs), and three of his male courtiers, Berowne (Jose Guzman), Longaville (JC Payne) and Dumain (Alexander Kafarakis), begin the play with an embrace of monastic devotion to “study,” pledging mutually to abjure the company of women for three years while they pursue it. What exactly they are about to study Shakespeare does not even bother to specify, probably because the effort to study that way is absurd, though it chimes well with various conventions of European culture at the time. (Think the lives of certain monks, misogynistic attitudes well-typified in the dialogue of certain of Chaucer’s pilgrims and the writings of St. Augustine, and for that matter the Boccaccian and Platonic notion of elevated dialogue conducted in sequestration by members of the elite.) It is absurd because, as Berowne gloomily foresees: “Necessity will make us all forsworn / Three thousand times within this three year’s space.” And by “necessity” we can be sure he means not simply the logistical necessity of dealing with women but what we might call Jurassic Park Necessity: Life finds a way. As Shakespeare himself wrote in a similar context: “The world must be peopled.” And for peopling, you need relations between the sexes.

Both logistical and Jurassic Park necessity instantly present themselves in the form of the Princess of France (Lauren Davis), who has business with the King that must be conducted face-to-face (something incomprehensible about reimbursement of funds and possession of Aquitaine). With her come three ladies in waiting: Rosaline (Elana Michelle), Maria (Micaela Mannix) and Katherine (Hilary Morrow), each of whom already happens (by sheerest coincidence, of course) to be smitten with one of the King’s three companions. Obviously, the sequestration of the four noble alleged students will not end well. The prompt disintegration of the barriers they have erected around themselves takes the form of individual covert defections conducted in compliance with one of the prime conventions of courtly love: sending of epistolary love poetry. The covert part of it does not all go according to plan, however, leading to a mutual unmasking of the defections among the “students.” When they have all gotten over their chagrin, they plan joint visits to the encampment of the French ladies. For various reasons, the courtly love rituals come across nearly as absurdly as those attending the abortive attempt to live the monastic life.

As is customary in Shakespeare’s plays, there is an elaborate low comedy world parallel to the world of the highborn lovers, in which there are various distorted echoes or contradictions of what is happening in the world of their betters. The central figure in this world is Don Armado, played by Michael Boynton with an over-the-top Spanish accent, handlebar moustache, twirling rapier and indefatigable self-esteem, attended by his put-upon page Moth (Catherine Anne Gilbert). Other denizens of this world include (but are not limited to) a swain named Costard (Danny Beason) who goes around with one overall strap perpetually unbuttoned and a similarly slack-jawed approach to life, Armado’s and apparently also Costard’s love interest, dairy-maid Jaquenetta (Emily Karol), and a pair of pedants: curate Sir Nathaniel (Quincy Vicks) and schoolmaster Holofernes (who, despite the male name is played, apparently as a schoolmarm, by Karen V. Lawrence). Also worthy of mention in this connection, though he inhabits the highborn world, is Boyet, a noble attending the French ladies. As Gregory Michael Atkin portrays him, Boyet is nothing like the “elderly lord” noted in the Dramatis Personae of my Signet Classic edition, but rather a much younger and supremely campy observer of the follies of the straight young ladies he advises with a kind of jaundiced enthusiasm. There is absolutely nothing I can see in the text which suggests the character may be gay, but the choice works well; among other things, it provides some context for his arch and theatrical reactions to the lovers, legitimating for the audience a different perspective.

I have mentioned some, not even all, of these parallel comic characters not so much to explore how they are used, though one could write a book about that (and some scholar doubtless has), but to emphasize what a rich comic world Shakespeare has embedded his principal characters in. There is something and someone to laugh at nearly every moment.

This rendering has also increased the mirth by going mostly Roaring Twenties in setting and costume. Scholars tell us that Shakespeare was counting on his audience understanding certain then-topical references to what was going on in France and Navarre, but needless to say, that frame of reference is irretrievable now. The substitution of boaters, frocks, and two-toned spectator shoes for doublets and hose works well, as does the easy integration of early 20th-century Great American Songbook music into the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s traditional pre-show and intermission musical performances, and also into the show itself. Get there in time to catch the first pre-show number, In the Good Old Summertime, sung by the performers who will be the King and his comrades, all in period costume in a tight barbershop quartet (pictured above), and get back from your intermission break in time to catch their female counterparts providing a just-as-tightly-arranged By the Light of the Silvery Moon. A tip of the skimmer to costume designer Heather C. Jackson for her outfits for both ensembles, as well as some hilarious Russian outfits (you’ll find out why when you go).

Thus far I have been addressing only the comic richness of the show. There is another element, however. My companion noted it to me as we were leaving: the initially somewhat inexplicable coldness of the ladies, especially the Princess, that he only came to grasp in the later going. The ladies of the French court are certainly Ready to Play and flirt with the Navarrans. But they never seem fully on board with the purpose of the men’s advances, which is of course marriage. Something happens at the end to Take That question off the table for at least a year, and at that point the Princess states what would in real life have been plain to all concerned, that the courtship we have seen is “a time … too short to make a world-without-end bargain in.” Everyone needs to reset while the Frenchwomen go home to take care of a sudden demand on their time and attention, leaving behind a conditional promise to return, the condition being, generally speaking, that the men clean up their acts in various ways. We are in Mercury time now, not Apollo time any more. And in Mercury time, marriage is a serious business worthy of serious preparation.

There are those who might feel this is discordant, and some kind of loss of comic momentum. To me, though, it works better, at least in this play, than the more conventionally Shakespearean multiple marriages conducted on the spot would have been. In Shakespeare’s other comedies where that sort of thing occurs, we’ve had the opportunity to observe the couples going through some things together; their infatuations each have a basis. The Navarran suitors, by contrast, have done very little other than dance with the Frenchwomen, send them love tokens, and flirt with them a bit. Before we as an audience are going to buy fully into the notion of these characters all getting married, we (like the Frenchwomen themselves) would want to see them get better acquainted.

It’s not always possible for a reviewer to disentangle the directorial contribution from those of the performers and other creative spirits, but here (in part because of her program notes) it’s possible to discern pretty clearly the hand of director Erin Bone Steel. This highly variegated show nonetheless reflects a single vision, and it is one, I think, well-honed to bring out the best of the play: the limits that realism, especially the realism of women, should and can impose on either of the two more historically male ideals, monastic living or courtly love, that might impede more fruitful relationships between men and women.

As always when reviewing Chesapeake Shakespeare Company performances at the Ruins, it is well also to mention the family-friendly pleasures of spending a summer night watching a play in the open air, with access to picnic tables (you can bring your own food or buy snacks there), and some ability to spread blankets, or to rely on management-supplied seating. It’s a perfect way to introduce kids to the riches of Shakespeare.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo.

Photo credit: Brandon W. Vernon

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Topical and Mostly Sure-Footed Rendering Of ARTURO UI from Scena

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Topical and Mostly Sure-Footed Rendering Of ARTURO UI from Scena

Robert Sheire, Anne Nottage

Posted on June 18, 2019

It would be tough to identify a more currently topical older play than Bertolt Brecht‘s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, now being presented by Washington’s Scena Theatre. A thinly-disguised parable of the ascendancy of Adolf Hitler, it may have been written in 1941, but it may as well have been addressed directly to Americans of 2019. Brecht’s closing verses (in George Tabori‘s translation from the German) lay the terrible universality of Hitlerism right before us:

If we could learn to look instead of gawking,

We’d see the horror in the heart of farce.

If only we could act instead of talking,

We wouldn’t always end up on our arse.

That was the thing that nearly had us mastered.

So let’s not drop our guard too quickly then:

Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard

The bitch that bore him is in heat again.

As indeed she is, all over the world and, most importantly, here.

That said, there is much validity to the criticism of Alexandra Schwartz, in a New Yorker review of last year’s New York revival of the play, that Brecht failed to pay enough attention to hate. Brecht may have shown Hitler’s avatar, Chicago gangster Arturo Ui, to be an expert in intimidation, lying, cooptation of the press, etc., but he fails to present “demonized Jews, an oversight that feels particularly stark at our inflamed moment.” That shortcoming may be an inevitable consequence of the allegory Brecht chose, recasting Hitler as a petty hood racketeering in Chicago’s wholesale vegetable trade in the early years of the last century. With such a starting point, the allegory necessarily becomes an exercise in comparing small things to great. And there simply was no easy parallel in Brecht’s diminished allegorical framework to the Jews in Hitler’s world, or for that matter, Muslims and Central Americans in ours. Yet without such a parallel, the primary engine of the horror is lost to view; inflaming such hatreds is precisely what gives demagogues their greatest power.

It’s all very well to say, as Brecht does in his title and in the quoted counsel that “If only we could act instead of talking,/ We wouldn’t end up on our arse.” And certainly the passivity of the more benevolent and civic-minded citizenry helped explain the successes of Hitler and his modern analogues, but cannot fully account for them. The political might of hatred may be enough to overwhelm even “act[ing] instead of talking.” The challenge of Hitlerism is largely that of finding ways to defuse hatred, not an easy, maybe not even a feasible task.

There is less validity to scholar J. P. Sterne’s reported criticism of Brecht’s choice (and also Charlie Chaplin‘s in The Great Dictator), to use satire as a means of attack. The fact that the historical Hitler was far more deadly and vicious than Arturo Ui does not make him less susceptible to takedown in this mode. C.S. Lewis appropriately justified a comic treatment of the Devil in The Screwtape Letters with an epigraph from St. Thomas More: “The devil … [that] prowde spirit cannot endure to be mocked.” We can look at the political impact of comedy in our own society to be reminded how potent it is.

In any case, farce and satire are Brecht’s weapons of choice. He starts out with a most unimpressive Ui (Robert Sheire), down on his luck, terrifying no one, so awkward a speaker that he needs to hire an actor (Scena’s founder and artistic director Robert McNamara nicely over the top for a couple of minutes) to instruct him in the basics of elocution. Indeed, the diction of almost all the characters owes much to Damon Runyon and Guys and Dolls, a sound we associate with aspirations toward toughness but nonetheless also with a degree of ineptitude as well. It marries magically with the quasi-Shakespearean sound of translator Tabori’s iambic pentameter. Consider Ui’s initial lament:

Gee, how I’d like a judge inside my pocket

By putting something in his pocket first.

Buy me a judge, or else I got no rights

And every time I feel like holding up a bank,

Some cheesy cop can shoot me full of holes.

It is important to remember that many tyrants started out like young Herr Schicklgruber (an Austrian watercolor painter down on his luck). Starting out as a mope doesn’t guarantee you won’t end up bestriding the narrow world like a colossus.

Besides, comedy excuses the shamelessness of Brecht’s theft from Shakespeare, both Mark Antony’s funeral oration in Julius Caesar and all sorts of things from Richard III, including a courtship (of sorts) of a widow over her husband’s very casket (pictured above). If you’re trying to demonstrate that your antihero is one treacherous, antisocial dude, comparing him forcefully to Antony and Richard III are excellent ways to go about it, and the comparison of small things to great just makes it funnier, in a bitter way.

This production, staged in a black box theater with a cast of only thirteen (to fill approximately thirty roles, plus ensemble ones) flies into certain inevitable headwinds. For one thing, few of us are as familiar with the rise of the Third Reich as Brecht was. (Brecht had decamped from Germany after the Reichstag fire which solidified Hitler’s rule, and the play was written while Brecht was in exile in Finland, awaiting a U.S. visa.) There are projections (partially obscured where I sat) of what amount to headnotes summarizing what in Hitler’s timeline was equivalent to the events we witness in Ui’s, but they are necessarily too brief to fill us in if we don’t already know the stories. And the relentless doubling makes it hard to keep the characters straight. Brecht renders that fundamental task harder by insisting on naming most of his characters unmemorably (e.g. Sheet, Flake, Ragg, Fish). One comes away far from confident one has understood all aspects of the plot – though the main thematic points are drilled home with didactic glee and in no danger of going misunderstood.

One thing that will therefore be clear to everyone: The annexation of the greengrocer business in Cicero (Chicago’s neighbor to the south) is the equivalent of Germany’s annexation of Austria (the nation to the south), the Anschluss. The play stops dead when Ui stands in triumph after his Anschluss, proclaiming his morgen die Welt plan to install his protection racket in “many other towns: in Washington, Milwaukee! Tulsa! Pittsburgh! Cincinnati!” and others. Exactly how Ui got there may be a little hazy in its outlines, but we certainly understand where he’s arrived.

Brecht also knows there is no need to show Ui’s undoing as Shakespeare needed to show Richard’s. Brecht simply refers to it in passing in the epilogue speech quoted at this review’s outset, which follows hard on the heels of Ui’s proclamation of his plans to expand his empire. (No spoiler alerts needed here; the end of the play was announced at the play’s beginning.)

Having said, as I have, that this Hitler avatar, Mr. Ui, starts out small and without much confidence is not really getting at what is surprising about this reading of the part. What surprised me more was that at the end, even making the morgen die Welt speech, this Ui lacks Hitler’s menace. There is no attempt I could discern to give him a physical resemblance to pictures of the Fuehrer. He still looks as he sounds, like a character out of Damon Runyon (rather than, say, William L. Shirer). It would have been nice to get more menace throughout but especially there, right at the end. Brecht does, after all, want to frighten us into activism against whoever “the bitch’s” progeny may be at whatever date the play is performed. This particular son of the bitch would be more likely to inspire the theatergoer to go out and vote for a tough-on-crime DA. We get it that Hitler, and the Hitlers of this world, are all punks at heart. But by the time they do serious damage, those hearts are encrusted with the gravitas of real power (even if with nothing else), and that gravitas is what makes them legitimately scary. And this point can be conveyed without losing all the satire and laughter.

I suspect this presentation of Ui is the result of directorial choices, which are otherwise sound. McNamara elicits outstanding performances from the rest of the ensemble. It seems unfair to single out individuals, but Anne Nottage was certainly memorable as the widow Ui seeks to bury the hatchet with, Caroline Johnson sparkled in an assortment of very different parts, Joe Palka brought to the role of Dogsborough, the Hindenburg analog from whom Ui wrests leadership, a note of confusion, dismay and ultimately pathos, and Lee Ordeman made much of the role of Roma, a senior Ui henchman.

Like so much else that I’ve seen over the years presented by Scena, this is a challenging experience, but one audiences will find well worth grappling with. Highly recommended.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo.

Photo credit: Jae Yi Photography.

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The Songs May Not Stick, But the Happiness Will in Iron Crow’s Production of A NEW BRAIN

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The Songs May Not Stick, But the Happiness Will in Iron Crow’s Production of A NEW BRAIN

Charles Johnson and Brian Ott

Posted on June 3, 2019

I’ve seen William Finn‘s A New Brain before – just on the screen and with a different ending, and then it was called All That Jazz. Okay, that’s not entirely fair, but I kept thinking how the basic idea and treatment was the same: each heavily autobiographical piece recounts, through song and dance, the creator’s brush with a potentially fatal condition. Each lays heavy emphasis on the regrets of the creator, after the onset of the medical crisis, for both the life he’s led and all the showbiz he didn’t get to create and may never get to create. It’s a powerful theme, well-conveyed in the new Iron Crow Theatre revival of A New Brain (which first appeared at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre in Lincoln Center in 1998).

And of course there are differences. Bob Fosse, the creator of All That Jazz, was flagrantly and promiscuously heterosexual, and his primary medium was dance, and his movie ends with his imagined death. William Finn, the creator of A New Brain, is gay, and, at least as depicted in the show, happily monogamous, his primary medium is song, and his musical ends differently. It gives little away to say that A New Brain, as the title suggests, reaches a happy ending. But there is the same tough, cynical, and showbiz-centric outlook underlying both pieces.

William Finn is best known for the Falsettos musicals, but this is likely to be the audience’s first encounter with A New Brain (it was mine). It’s an odd piece, not only dramatically but musically, a sung-through musical which often swings harmonically for fences the ear does not anticipate, with varied results in terms of singability. One could sense the cast members still getting comfortable with some of the notes they had to land phrases on, particularly in solo moments. When they were comfortable, especially in the ensemble choral parts, they were often stunning to hear. Likewise, all of the big solo numbers were expertly fielded. For instance, Sebastian Ryder, as the hero’s mother, has a great number, “Throw It Out,” dedicated to forcibly deaccessioning her son’s books; Kathryne Daniels, as Rhoda, the hero’s best friend, delivers nicely a bit of an indecent patter number, “Whenever I Dream,” about the elusive meaning of dreams; and Brian Ott, as Roger, the hero’s significant other, gets a charming soft song about sailing (a pursuit resignedly deprecated as “goyish” by his Jewish lover). Nor can I fail to mention Danielle Harrow’s hilarious turn as a homeless woman hawking the very books the mom deaccessioned, in “The Homeless Lady’s Revenge.” Pretty much every cast member receives a showoff solo number, and each one is nailed. Hats off, therefore, to the other performers: Eva Hellerbach, John Knapp, and Nicholas Miles, each of whom could be similarly singled-out.

The hero himself, William Finn‘s alter ego, named Gordon Schwinn, is ably presented by Charles Johnson, who has to be a triple threat, singing and playing the piano (although Johnson gets a lot of unseen piano help from an offstage accompanist, either Suzanne Jones or Ching-Yi Lin), and serving as music director. (Johnson and Ott are pictured above.) The role, that of a man who effectively dies and comes back to life in what amounts to a resurrection narrative, has to be painted with a wide emotional palette, and Johnson, perhaps because he has been directed to, shows some colors more than others; I thought sometimes his expression was blank where the audience was looking to him to convey something more. But this is a comparatively minor complaint of a performer who has to subsist for nearly two acts in a hospital gown and spend much of that time on a gurney, and most of the rest in front of a piano.

I’ve mentioned a lot of the songs, but there are a lot of songs, over thirty by any count, to mention. And that forces a critic to bring up the strange thing about this lyrical cornucopia: almost nothing is hummable or catchy. It all works in context, but doesn’t stick in the mind much as one departs. (This is a frequent weakness in sung-through musicals.) There is a deliberate effort to craft just such a song, “I Feel So Much Spring,” as the closer, and it feels and sounds good, but by the time the song finishes, there have been so many harmonic variations sung by the various characters that the core melody has largely been overwritten mentally.

What will not be overwritten is the joyous feeling that the song, and the ending, bring about. Finn’s show – I should mention that the “book” as opposed to the lyrics, is credited to both Finn and James Lapine (though what constitutes a “book” in a sung-through musical is anyone’s guess) – will not send you out humming, but it will indeed send you out happy.

It may also be worth mentioning what this show represents in terms of Iron Crow’s own development. Iron Crow (which describes itself as Baltimore’s queer theater company) has recently gone through some well-publicized controversy. Whatever one may think of that, it seems clear from the large and enthusiastic contingent of theatergoers on opening night that Iron Crow’s audience stands behind it. And Iron Crow is not merely surviving; the program notes that Actors’ Equity members have been part of every show it has presented this season, and that the company is “laying the foundation for becoming Baltimore’s next Equity theatre.” It would be very exciting to have another Equity house join Center Stage, Everyman, and The REP. With a critical mass, it would be much easier to develop a pool of Equity-credentialed talent in this theater-intensive town. Fingers crossed.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn except for production photo.

Photo credit: Rob Clatterbuck

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DISASTER! Slays at Cockpit In Court

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DISASTER! Slays at Cockpit In Court

Posted on June 15, 2019

Disaster!, currently being presented by Cockpit in Court at the Essex branch of the Community College of Baltimore County, is the brainchild of the motormouth of the airwaves, “the Amahzing Seth Rudetsky,” as he bills himself on the On Broadway channel of Sirius XM. Along with collaborators Jack Plotnick and Drew Geraci, Rudetsky lovingly pokes fun at two staples of 1970s popular culture: disaster movies like Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure and the disco-heavy pop music of the era. The evocation of the disaster flicks includes such necessary tropes of the genre as crowds running in terror from one predicament to another, moral dilemmas as to whom to save, and multiple individual dramas all brought to a crisis by the disaster. And the music – well, there are over thirty period songs at least sampled, from the opening number, Hot Stuff, to the closer, Hooked on a Feeling. Even if you weren’t there for the Seventies the first time around, you already know, coming in, that the artefacts of this bygone time are ridiculously easy to parody, and ripe for the picking.

And pick them Rudetsky does, imbuing the process with a rare talent for the groaningly bad joke. Watch for the setup that provides the merest shred of context for various characters to sing 25 or 6 to 4, or for the nun (there has to be a member of the clergy in these movies) to sing Never Can Say Goodbye to a one-armed bandit. Look for the plot twist that turns tap dancing into a rescue tactic, or the one that explains why the nerdy disaster expert (there also has to be one of those in these movies) recreates with the torch singer character the Carly Simon/James Taylor duet Mockingbird. Plausibility is worth less than nothing in a show like this; the setup – and the sendup – are all.

Bringing Rudetsky’s farrago to life is a talented and game cast, including but not limited to Lisa Pastella, Brian Jacobs and Nancy Parrish Asendorf as the aforementioned nun, expert, and torch singer respectively, Rikki Howie Lacewell as a disco diva in financial dire straits, sporting a Brillo-Pad Afro that looks like her dog (or does it turn out to be the other way around?), Liam Hamilton as a cute little boy (or is it little girl?), Liz Boyer Hunnicutt as a happily-married woman who’s lived long enough to look death in the face (even if the process will require her to gag herself repeatedly while muttering obscenities), and Carly J. Amato as the incredibly plucky ingenue (who may have made some bad romantic choices in the past that by the sheerest coincidence she can now undo). These characters are presented with an absurd titular disaster within the setting, “various locations on The Barracuda, New York City’s first floating casino and discotheque.”

Along their various paths to survival or its opposite, these characters get to engage in some spirited and well-choreographed dancing (arrangements by David Dabbon, choreography by Todd Pearthree, who also directs with precision), and sing their way through a wide variety of pop styles (vocal arrangements by Michael McElroy), accompanied by an 8-piece pit orchestra (Michael DeVito, music director). Add some great physical gags involving used body parts, deliberately unconvincing dummy body-doubles, sharks and piranhas, and the signage on the ship’s spa (thank-yous to props manager Shane Lowry and set designer Michael Rasinski).

Whether to go is not going to present any great dilemmas. This is a perfect summer evening’s smart-alecky entertainment.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production logo.

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The Moving Finger Writes — And Moves On

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The Moving Finger Writes — And Moves On

Published in The Daily Record September 20, 2019

When I was still practicing law, I would occasionally serve clients who had once practiced law but had since moved on to other pursuits. These clients never failed to surprise me with a trait they displayed: to a man and woman, they no longer thought like lawyers. I’m not sure I can easily summarize what “thinking like a lawyer” is like, but it certainly includes being aware of the large interlocking body of rules that governs almost every transaction, knowing as well when politics really trumps the ostensible rules, reflexively remembering the costs of dispute resolution, staying wary of letting emotions substitute for logic, doggedly considering procedural hoops one must jump through to accomplish things, and habitually shunning incautious action. Whatever fine implements these former lawyers of whom I speak may have added to their mental toolkits after leaving the active bar, with disuse their “thinking like a lawyer” tools invariably rusted quickly.

Rusting Up

With retirement, it is now about 16 months since I made my own last efforts to advise or represent clients. I still have frequent reasons to be in the office, and I still enjoy my contacts with my old firm, and also with my old colleagues throughout the profession. But I can already sense my own mental tools rusting up.

I pick up a professional journal, and already can see issues and developments mentioned (e.g., blockchain document authentication) that I do not grasp in the depth I would have not so long ago. And even when I understand the general outlines of something (the extreme rightward tilt of the Supreme Court, for example), I may realize that I have read none of the most recent cases. I have taken to scanning the headlines and moving on, but the consequence is that I do not understand many developments at the level of detail I would once have insisted on for myself. It’s not that I couldn’t still do it; I could. But I now am focusing on other things and neither want nor need the distraction of the effort to remain current.

This transition, I find, has affected not just the parts of my mind I formerly relied on to practice law, but also some of the parts that helped me write this column, which has from the first been dedicated to the interface of law and policy.

Different Environment

The big legal and policy issues of our day increasingly rotate around a single man, and the coverage of that man and his activities one way or another implicating law and policy have drawn enormous amounts of very well-informed and thoughtful analysis from full-time participants in a 24/7 commentariat. This creates a different media environment from the one in which this column started. A columnist addressing the law and policy issues on a monthly basis, in a 1,000-word column that may not come out promptly even after it is submitted, is engaged in a competition for originality and depth and currency he is sure to lose. And in my case this doomed competition has recently been waged at a moment when my attention was being drawn away from the “law” piece of the “law and policy” dyad in any case.

More than that, I and my various editors over the years have always tried to avoid making the column too political. But I’m finding it increasingly urgent at this moment to be political. An opinion columnist is not required to hew to the kind of objectivity that a reporter is. But in a business-oriented newspaper, opinion columnists had better steer clear of partisanship. And I’ve reached a point where the effort to avoid partisanship has grown too exhausting for me. Right now, in my view, we need a healthy dose of it to keep our dialogue sane. Or at least I do.

On Hiatus

So I’m going to put this column on hiatus. There may come an issue from time to time that fits this column’s parameters that I may find irresistible to write about, and, if so, I’ll certainly submit it for consideration. And there may come a time when the maelstrom of coverage centered on one individual’s effort to rewrite our laws and our policies, together with our political conventions and what many consider to be our Constitution itself, dies down. At that point, there may again be breathing space for a column such as mine.

But for the time being, I am taking my cue from the poet John Milton, who concluded an elegy by looking ahead: “To morrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new.” Like the poet, I have other things to do and other things to write. And it is time to get down to them.

Gone Fishin’

I am enormously grateful to The Daily Record and to my stellar editors over the years for the space and the freedom they have afforded me, and to my readers, so many of whom have shared their reactions with me. And from that gratitude I do not exclude the readers who quite frequently prefaced their comments with the remark that they didn’t agree with me much but enjoyed reading me anyway. I never needed agreement, just engagement, and that I never doubted I was receiving. It has been a pleasure and an honor to command that engagement for a long time. But now it is time to move on.

Bing Crosby once sang (with an assist from Louis Armstrong): “On my door I’d hang a sign: Gone Fishin’ instead of just a-wishin.’” Amen.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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