Theater Reviews

Theater Review: Marie and Bruce

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Sunday, May 8th, 2011

Marie and Bruce
A Match Made in…

Marie (Marisa Tomei) and Bruce (Frank Whaley)

While the audience slowly wanders into the theater–greeting friends, finding seats and getting settled–a woman and man recline on the double bed on stage.  He sleeps soundly (snoring and snorting).  Tissue in hand, she tosses and turns, gets out of bed, paces, drinks water, fans herself, returns to bed, smokes a cigarette.  He stirs.  She addresses the audience directly:

Let me tell you something. I find my husband so God damned irritating that
I’m planning to leave him.

Then the lights go dark in the theater and the New York revival of Wallace Shawn’s Marie and Bruce continues.  He turns toward her and asks if it’s time to get up.  She responds testily that it isn’t and orders him back to sleep.  He sweetly suggests that she not be irritable, a request that maddens her further.

After he obediently rolls over and resumes sleep, she lets fly a tirade of invectives laced with schoolyard profanity directed at her supine spouse.  The story line interwoven with her cursing doesn’t account for the level of her fury.  Her husband had disturbed her sleep to ask the whereabouts of his beloved but noisy typewriter.  That he became unhappy when she admitted tossing it out only increases her scorn.

In response to the racket she’s now making, he wakes up.  An exchange of words ensues and continues intermittently throughout the play, never quite coalescing into communication.  In fact, the relationship that Marie (Marisa Tomei) and Bruce (Frank Whaley) attempt to share takes on an increasingly surreal quality as the drama unfolds.  The psychodynamics of this dyad resist analysis using any school of psychological thought.

Marie proclaims to the audience at the beginning that she intends to leave her husband and after a riotous dinner party at the home of Bruce’s friend Roger, attempts to convey her intentions to her mate.  Near the end of the play, as the disengaged couple share coffee and dessert in a dimly lit cafè, his response and her capitulation to his pleas reaffirm the bizarre nature of their dance.

Thanks to set designer Derek McLane’s considerable talents, the staging steals the show.  The bed of the first scene morphs into a round dinner table that rests on a rotating portion of the stage.  As the guests enter the home of their host, they each bring an assortment of props that become place settings and servings of food.

Once dinner is underway, the audience gets treated to snippets of chatter as the table turns to present first one spotlighted group and then another, with pauses in between marked by disco music and strobe lights.

At the end of the party, guests exit and take the props with them.  The round dinner table gets converted into several square tables, the lights dim for a cafè scene and customers carry in chairs and take seats.  Two men among them engage in loud conversation about the nastier symptoms of food poisoning.

After this final scene, as Marie and Bruce walked off into an imagined sunset, one had to wonder whether couples like this one actually exist and if they do, what drives them to that degree of rage?  In this case, the wife’s anger emerged aggressively and the husband’s took on an exquisitely passive-aggressive tone.  Often it’s the reverse.

None of the characters seem real but perhaps that’s the point.  Exaggeration, when done well as it is here, makes for amusing situations.  Good comedy sneaks up and surprises, conveying ideas ordinarily too unpalatable to digest.  In this theater piece, viewers enjoy a fly-on-the-wall view of the alienation that’s crept into 21st century life, and perhaps their own.

Marie and Bruce
The New Group @ Theater Row
410 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036


Theater Review: Kings (The Siege of Troy)

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Friday, April 1st, 2011

Men and Gods
Behaving Badly

Athena (J. Eric Cook) Preventing Achilles (Dana Watkins) from Attacking Agamemnon

Two men appear out of the darkness on a bare stage laterally framed by long black, purple and gold curtains; in the background a flat screen of pale blue reaches down to the floor.  One of the actors begins the recital with a scene-setting description.  Miss a few words and lose the context.

Despite paying rapt attention, viewers unfamiliar with the Iliad will still need assistance with the plot from the program insert, Literary Background.  Consulting that crib sheet, readers discover that Kings (The Siege of Troy) represents over forty years of effort by English poet Christopher Logue to update the Homeric classic for contemporary audiences.

Logue’s adventures with a poem that originally held little interest for him began back in 1959 as an invitation from the late classicist Donald Carne-Ross to revise certain passages from the ancient Greek epic for a new version to be aired on the BBC.  The rewrite evolved into a decades-long immersion in an assortment of other authors’ translations, including a literal one provided by Carne-Ross, and the creation of this and other poems based on sections of the Iliad.

Kings, taken from Books I and II, opens with a supplication by Achilles, the merciless Greek warrior, to his mother, the sea goddess Thetis, that she use her connections to induce Zeus, the king of the gods, to punish the Greek king Agamemnon for taking for his own the woman that Achilles had been awarded following his destruction of her city:

…Briseis, my ribbon she,
Whose fearless husband, plus some 50
Handsome-bodied warriors I killed and burned
And so was named her owner by you all
In recognition of my strength, my courage, my superiority.

In retaliation for that insult, Achilles withdrew his troops from the nine-year-old Greek effort to breach the walls of Troy and gain victory over that city.  Seeking further vengeance, he asks the gods to ensure the destruction of the Greeks and their king:

Beg him this:
Let the Greeks burn, let them taste pain,
Asphyxiate their hope, so as their blood soaks down into the sand,
Or as they sink like rings into the sea…

As for Agamemnon, his arrogance and inflated ego (even for royalty) contribute to his inability to recognize the trap the gods set for him when they entice him to order an ill-conceived assault on Troy.  Those character flaws also cost him his best fighter.

In the Introduction, Logue explained his decision to retain the original storyline and, inspired by liberties taken by the other writers and mindful of the characters’ intentions, winnow away Homer’s excessive dependence on adjectives, and alter the descriptions and dialog “to make their voices come alive and to keep the action on the move.”

For the most part he has done just that.  Some of the strongest scenes contain venomous exchanges between Achilles and Agamemnon, illustrating to the extreme their will to power.  At other times, the action slows as the two actors create settings with words or enact other, somewhat peripheral roles that afford little opportunity for character development.  Logue delights with occasional insertions of film directions that enhance the contemporary relevance of the poem:

Reverse the shot.
Go close.

In the lands of the Iliad, women remain out of sight except as deities and spoils of war.  One wonders whether, in the absence of tempering by the feminine traits of empathy and nurturing, such an imbalance leaves men more prone to violence.  A murderous lunge by Achilles in answer to Agamemnon’s refusal to change his mind about taking Briseis gets aborted by Athena, acting on Hera’s orders.

`Hera has sent me.  As God’s wife, she said:
`Stop him.  I like them both.’
I share her view.  In any case
We have arranged another death for Agamemnon.
If you can stick to speech, harass him now.
But try to kill him, and I kill you.’

Use words not violence, the goddess dictates.  Having little choice, Achilles responds with a volley of vitriol and then storms off.  Not quite diplomacy, it does avoid bloodshed, if only for the moment.

Kings (The Siege of Troy)
Handcart Ensemble
Verse Theater Manhattan
Workshop Theater Company
312 West 36th Street, 4th floor
New York, NY 10018
(212) 695-4173


Theater Review: Freud’s Last Session

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Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

Skeptical Freud
Pious C. S. Lewis

Mark H. Dold as C. S. Lewis (left) & Martin Rayner as Sigmund Freud (right).

In a room easily mistaken for his office in Vienna, Sigmund Freud sits at his desk bathed in light from the picture window behind him.  After listening to a bulletin about Germany’s invasion of Poland, the doctor turns off the radio when musical programing resumes.  A dog offstage barks the arrival of his invited guest, the young writer Clive Staples (C. S.) Lewis.

Inspired by a question that appeared in Armand M. Nicholi, Jr.’s The Question of God, about whether the Oxford professor who would later gain renown for his Chronicles of Narnia ever met the father of psychoanalysis, playwright Mark St. Germain turned the imagined conversation of such an encounter into a full-length play, Freud’s Last Session.

As portrayed by Martin Rayner, Freud impresses with his acerbic wit and his stoic attitude toward the cancer that devours his mouth.  Ever conscious of the finite nature of life, especially his own, when Lewis apologizes for arriving late, the doctor counters with a quick retort, “If I wasn’t eighty-three I would say it doesn’t matter.”

Mark H. Dold plays the 41-year-old Lewis as the quite proper Oxford intellectual and recent convert to Christianity.  Summoned by the elder man, he assumes Freud took umbrage at an unpleasant satirization of him in one of his books.  In fact, Freud hadn’t even read the novel and enjoys undermining Lewis’s self-importance by surprising him with that fact.

The doctor had, however, heard about its contents from a colleague and felt the need to personally interrogate a former atheist newly enthralled by God.  Comprising the only action in the play, their dialog ranges widely, punctuated by the BBC’s coverage of the 1939 events leading up to World War II, Freud’s oral cancer and his struggles to adjust his bloody prosthesis, and air raid sirens.

Their exchange takes the form of an intellectual sparring match between two smart and equally self-righteous men about the existence of God.  They sprinkle their remarks with humor and powerful one-liners.  Some favorites:

Lewis:  Doctor, I’ll be the first to admit that the greatest problem
with Christianity are Christians.  But you can’t reduce a faith
to an institution.

Freud:  But Hitler learns from history.  A warrior’s greatest
ally is always God.

Freud:  His followers deified him.  He performed magic trick
miracles.  His strategy was a complete success.

Lewis:  I wouldn’t call any strategy ending with crucifixion a
complete success.

At times it seemed as though the sharp-tongued Freud had the lead, what with the war raging outside and the one threatening his life from within.  Having lost his 27-year-old daughter to the Spanish flu and his grandson to tuberculosis at five, Freud had ample reasons to question God’s beneficence.

Exalting the power and goodness of God, Lewis pins the blame for evil on man’s free choice.  Freud’s angry rejoinder, “Is that your excuse for pain and suffering?  Did I bring about my own cancer?”, garners an admission of ignorance from the now hesitant believer.  Many a survivor of childhood abuse and neglect has similarly hurled accusations at the existence of any god let alone an all-powerful father figure running the show for the benefit of all.

Later in their conversation, after Freud has skewered Lewis with insinuations about his sexual behavior, the writer gets his turn, inquiring about the doctor’s overly close relationship with his daughter, Anna.  Hearing that she had never married, remained devoted to her father, and wrote a paper on sadomasochistic fantasies based on her father’s psychoanalytic treatment of her, Lewis demurs from further questions and reminds Freud of the analyst’s earlier observation, “What people say is less important than what they cannot.”

By the end of the play, each has occupied the famous couch, both literally and figuratively.  Out of the acrimony flying between them has sprouted spontaneous expressions of trust and concern, culminating in a rapprochement based on a shared joke and a mutual acceptance that faith by its very nature does not submit to proof.

Freud’s Last Session
Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater
West Side YMCA
10 West 64th Street
New York, NY 10023


Theater Review: Reservoir

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Friday, January 21st, 2011

Terrible Knowledge

Hasek (Alesandro Colla, right) confides in his Army buddy (Nathan Ramos, left) at the motorpool. Photo by Bobae Kim.

Reports and concerns about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) resurface whenever the United States hosts returning soldiers from a war zone.  Veterans afflicted with this condition, first described as shell shock (and war neurosis) during World War I, struggle with suicidal and homicidal impulses, alcohol and drug problems, disrupted sleep, intrusive thoughts and images, and other symptoms that put stress on their relationships and render even ordinary activities difficult if not impossible to perform.

In the intimate setting of The Drilling Company, a small off-off Broadway venue that provides an arena for quality productions not yet commercially viable, theater once again afforded a vehicle for exploring the impact of war on its survivors.  Joining a long tradition dating back at least to the ancient Greeks (over 2,000 years ago), Eric Henry Sanders shined the klieg lights on a contemporary American war in his drama, Reservoir, a compact play requiring little in the way of staging and props, and able to dramatize its story with just a handful of characters.

The development of PTSD follows “…exposure to an extreme traumatic stressor involving direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or other threat to one’s physical integrity; or witnessing an event that involves death, injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of another person; or learning about unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threat of death or injury experienced by a family member or other close associate…”1

Further, “…the person’s response to the event must involve intense fear, helplessness, or horror…”2

And, “[t]he disorder may be especially severe or long lasting when the stressor is of human design.”3

In Sanders’s play, Frank Hasek (convincingly portrayed by Alessandro Colla) has recently returned from a first and long deployment in an unspecified theater of operations and can’t stop twitching and checking around corners for hidden threats.  Andre (masterfully interpreted by Nathan Ramos), his buddy on the job at the vehicle repair shop on the military base, keeps his symptoms at bay through the wonders of modern chemistry and music piped into his ears.

Marisa, the mother of Hasek’s infant son, pleads, cajoles and finally takes it upon herself to set up an appointment for her oddly behaving partner to see a doctor at the Veterans Administration.  Afforded a mere 15 minutes by an overwhelmed system, Hasek lucks out, finding himself in session with a more than understanding psychiatrist (finely acted by Karla Hendrik).  Eventually he gets to tell his story, though that alone cannot cure his malady.

Ordered to participate in activities that result in the taking of innocent life, the knowledge that Hasek acquires about the behavior of ordinary people in life-threatening situations continues to haunt him long after he has left the scene.  In writing the play, did Sanders have information about real events on the ground in what sounded like Baghdad?

Answering that and other questions in an interview,4 the playwright described doing research for the script by speaking with veterans, including one from the current war in Iraq and another from the historical one in Vietnam.  The knowledge he gained from  those conversations broadened his understanding of soldiers.  He learned about the gruesome reality of life in a combat zone and that most young men enlist for economic reasons.

Originally basing the character of the emotionally wounded soldier on Woyzeck in the eponymous 1837 play by Georg Büchner and additionally inspired by contemporary interpretations of Greek battle tragedies,5 Sanders created Hasek as an amalgam of impressions gathered from his various sources.  While the details might reflect actual conditions, the playwright deliberately avoided linking the events in his play to any specific soldier’s experience.

A self-described news junky,6 Sanders had noticed the similarity between the plight of Woyzeck and that of returning soldiers from Afghanistan, including reports of several who had murdered their spouses.7 Drawn to know more and apparently needing to share his newly acquired awareness, the playwright developed Reservoir which, despite numerous revisions, remained essentially the same as originally conceived.

Later in the play, when Marisa keeps her own appointment with Hasek’s psychiatrist, the doctor assures her, “It’s possible he can be the same person again.”  But unfolding events onstage put the lie to that assertion and place audience members in the uncomfortable position of helpless bystanders as the ghosts that inhabit Hasek’s mind and control his life prevail, leading to even more bloodshed.  Viewers, slow to leave at the play’s conclusion, must then grapple with their own vicarious traumatization.

The Drilling Company
236 West 78th Street
New York, NY 10024

1 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition.  American Psychiatric Association, 1994, 424.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Interview with Eric Henry Sanders, January 14, 2011.

5 Jonathan Shay, Odysseus in America, 2002, and Bob Meagher, Herakles Gone Mad, 2006.

6 Op cit.

7 Massachusetts Cultural Council, Three Stages, interview with Eric Henry Sanders, June 4, 2010.


Theater/Art Review: Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte

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Monday, January 3rd, 2011

The Art of John Kelly:
Embodying Egon Schiele

A man rolls out a record player with a green felt turntable and spins a disk that plays period music while two other men enter, carrying identical signs that note defining moments in the all-too-brief life of Austrian artist, Egon Schiele.

In the next scene, the same man dances with a blank canvas, casting purple shadows on its white expanse, striking poses that capture the angularity of Schiele’s images, and focusing on fingers and hands that move of their own volition.

Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte, a combination of theater, dance, video and art, represents a culmination of 28 years of creation and reflection by John Kelly, the writer and performer who plays the young artist.  Introduced to Schiele by an art teacher while attending Parson’s School of Design in the late 70s, Kelly fell in love with and then tried to emulate, often in self-portraits, the quality inherent in Schiele’s drawings, especially his line.1 The more he learned as he researched the artist, the greater affinity he felt for the man who drew and painted in Vienna during the second decade of the 1900s.

The artist Egon Schiele had the misfortune, in 1890, to be born into a family in the grip of a syphilitic father who refused treatment, infected his wife (11 years his junior) and gradually lost his mind to his disease, releasing the family when he died in 1904.  Two years later, the 16-year-old Egon took his 12-year-old sister Gerti to Trieste on a trip that replicated their parents’ honeymoon.2 In 1912, charged with immorality and seduction for having under-aged girls model for him, Schiele spent 24 days in a local prison.3

Kelly captures that jail time in a video that cycles through the nights and days of his confinement.  After an initial encounter with a guard who torches a drawing of a nude girl while a woman’s voice intones in German—perhaps the complainant in the case—the scene alternates between darkness and an overhead view of Schiele on his prison cot bathed in light.  The positions he assumes as he tosses and turns echo his artwork, including one with outstretched arms like a crucifixion: the artist as martyr for his work.

In the onstage action that immediately follows, Kelly—wearing an undershirt—lies on the floor and becomes Schiele on the cot while his alter Egons dressed in suits walk around and mirror his movements.  The tempo increases and when the Egons disappear, Schiele awakens as if from a dream to ponder the dance with his selves.  The scene ends with a wall of stone projected on the screen replaced by his painting of four red-leaved trees.  Out of pain comes art.

For Kelly, revisiting Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte provided an opportunity to rework the youthful version that grew out of his early days as an artist long before the success he enjoys now.  Originally naming it with the more benign sausage knachwurst, he changed it to blutwurst (bloodwurst) because he found the latter more disgusting.4

To the originally physically challenging production that irreverently focused on telling the story—the truth—he added scenes and infused the entire performance with the gravitas that comes with maturity.  The pleasure he experienced in the process surprised him; he didn’t know he would find the desire.  The result exceeded his expectations.5

The scenes Kelly added to the original elaborate on Schiele’s relationships with women.  First came Wally, a young woman he met in art school who became his model and lover.  Then, after his release from jail and an eventual move to a new place, Schiele pursued a more reputable young woman, Edith, who later became his wife and the mother of his children.

Those familiar with Schiele’s paintings and life might have recognized Death and the Maiden, expressive of the artist’s desire to hold onto Wally despite his new marital status.  In one scene, Schiele and his lover disappear behind a covered, tent-shaped form and re-emerge with the lifting of the drapery to reveal their faces in place of those in the painting.  Life animates art.

Schiele’s wife Edith, the woman who had brought love and stability into his life, at six months pregnant succumbed to the 1918 flu, days before the artist did.  In one of the most poignant scenes, the grieving Schiele confronts her body lying where she fell, draws a white chalk line around it, then retraces it, and tenderly, desperately, hugs various parts of her body.

Kelly’s additions and changes, including the ending scene of Schiele’s death, reflect a shift from youth’s blissful ignorance about relationships and their accompanying risks and losses to a more mature awareness of life’s vicissitudes.  Browsing John Kelly’s website suggests a restless soul of many talents whose need to express himself requires a multiplicity of art forms.

Despite program notes that proclaim this as the definitive version of Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte, Kelly might surprise himself again in another 25 years with an urge to revise the piece, adding to and tweaking it from the vantage point of another quarter century of experience, growth and acquired self-knowledge.

1 Interview with John Kelly, December 22, 2010.

2 Alessandra Comini, Egon Schiele, 1976, 10-11.

3 Galerie St. Etienne exhibit essay, “Egon Schiele as Printmaker,” 2009, 1.

4 Op cit.

5 Op cit.


Theater Review: Elling

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Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Apollo & Dionysus:
Rooming Together

Kjell Bjarne startles awake in a dorm-like room, jumps out of bed and looks around for a suspected presence, eventually finding Elling in the wardrobe.  Exiting the closet, this new arrival attempts to conceal a notebook and explains that he moved in while the other man slept.  After they share names, Kjell asks Elling, “What are you here for?”

The conversation that follows reveals their location–a state psychiatric hospital in Oslo–and their very different natures.  They find commonality in not having any need to be there and display profound differences in their descriptions of how they came to be committed.

Elling:  The government generously supplies places – – for people who are in a – – hectic phase in their lives.  After some coercion I accepted.

Kjell:  I was jumped on by six policemen, tied up in a strait-jacket, thrown in the back of a paddy wagon and beaten unconscious.

Elling, constrained in body, thought and deed, can barely abide Kjell Bjarne, impulsive, careless and slovenly dressed.  Flash forward two years: they find themselves on the way to a new life in a government-financed apartment, supervised by Frank, a cigarette-smoking social worker assigned to help them navigate re-entry into the real world.

The plot of Elling focuses on their challenges.  Elling must overcome his agoraphobia to leave the house and Kjell Bjarne must act appropriately despite his obsession with bedding a woman.  Their case manager, a thorn in their collective side, threatens rehospitalization when they falter at the beginning.  Later Elling comes to rely on him for help when a crisis in Kjell’s new relationship sends his friend to bed for four days.  Ultimately, Frank declares the roommates normal for doing what Elling fears qualifies them for recommitment.

But the real action lies in the way that both Denis O’Hare as Elling and Brendan Fraser as Kjell Bjarne inhabit the bodies of their characters, bringing these unlikely roommates to life.  In the course of the play, the audience learns that Elling’s hospitalization followed the death of his possessive mother, with whom he was Oedipally close, and that Kjell Bjarne frequently carried his drunk mother to bed.

Their psychological ticks align perfectly with their histories, lending credibility to all the action and conflict that provide the play’s drama.  Exceptionally entertaining, at times bordering on the vaudevillian, Elling delights as well with poignant moments and brilliant dialog:

Kjell:  The government sent me to a special school, where they only taught idiots.

Alfons (the poet):  My parents sent me to a special school, where only idiots taught.

Unfortunately, New York’s theater-going public didn’t seem to get the joke or appreciate the broader references.  Soon after the previews, the producers announced the play’s closing due to lackluster ticket sales, undoubtedly compromised further by the negative review of an all-too-influential drama critic who seems to have an aversion to psychologically challenging material.

The juxtaposition of the divergent personality types represented by Apollonian Elling and Dionysian Kjell Bjarne personifies the ancient mind-body split.  Apollo, sun god, associated with truth, rational thought and poetry, exists in contrast to that other son of Zeus, Dionysus (aka Bacchus), god of wine, who spreads ecstasy through intoxication and pursuit of primal pleasures.

Elling’s path to himself, barricaded by his mother’s restrictions and admonitions, leads through discovery of his inner poet, assisted by the lapsed writer Alfons (perfectly played by Richard Easton).  But Elling would never have ventured outside without Kjell’s insistent drive to engage with a woman.  When that opportunity lands outside their apartment door and Kjell automatically assumes a caretaking role with her, Elling goes into a jealous rage that speaks volumes about his mother’s reactions to him and impels him on a quest of his own that leads to a poetry reading.

Kjell Bjarne, the epitome of pure id, raised by a woman enslaved to Bacchus, fights the excessively rational constraints imposed by Elling but also learns from them.  Each man functions better by virtue of his contact with the other.

Flesh and blood examples of the dangers of extremism in any direction, the characters of Elling and Kjell Bjarne have much to teach viewers courageous enough to find bits of themselves in both the uptight poet and his guileless sidekick.  Normality, however defined, must surely depend on living at peace with all aspects of oneself.


Theater Review: Down There

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Thursday, October 7th, 2010

The Lethality of the Ordinary

Upon entering the theater, audience members received a program with an insert containing a brief description of the story about to unfold.  On the reverse, a facsimile of a handwritten letter explained how Casey, the victim, acquired marks on her stomach that read, “I am a prostitute and proud of it.”

Providing the plot outline before the lights go out removes a major source of dramatic tension and situates the focus on character development and relationship exposition.  Based on a crime committed in 1965, Down There (at the Axis Theater Company), imagines answers to questions posed by the murder of teenager Sylvia Marie Likens: “How could a diverse group of people of various ages who went to school, interacted with others, had their own families, ate snacks and played return daily to a basement and torture a girl to death?  And:  Why didn’t Sylvia run away?  What was in her personal condition that allowed her to understand her abuse as something normal?” (From the press release.)

To solve that mystery, writers Randy Sharp and Michael Gump conjured up the Menckl family, whose pathological dynamics make it well qualified to kill.  One formed by accretion rather than procreation, it consists of Pat, the long-suffering mother; Frank, the disabled, unemployed, alcoholic father; and Jim, the developmentally disabled son with psychiatric problems.  Acquired members include John, Rickie and Paula, older teenagers, soon joined by polio-stricken Joyce and her protective 16-year-old sister Casey.  These relationships coalesce slowly, leaving viewers in an unsettled state not unlike that of those on stage.

The action reveals how one person’s rage has the power to infect others.   Pat projects her own misery onto those around her and enlists her charges to assist her in scapegoating and eventually killing a child she agreed to foster.  She viciously berates Paula for eating candy, calling her a fat girl who nobody will want.  Endlessly complaining about her various ailments, she takes pain pills to cope with a bad back and Jim’s pills for her nerves.  Attracting stray children for the money their care brings, she seethes with resentment over the insufficiency of the remuneration and directs her anger at the kids and Frank.

When Casey arrives, she brings with her a certain vibrancy and sense of entitlement that immediately irritates Pat, who accuses her of coming on to the boys in the house.  Meanwhile, Pat embraces Jim more like a lover than a son.  As time goes on, Pat observes that Frank’s drinking picked up after Casey’s arrival and blames the child for that, too.

None of it makes any sense and yet the chaos enacted leads inexorably toward the imprisonment of Casey in the basement and the deprivation and abuse that result in her slow and painful death.  The audience finds itself caught up in the vortex of fast-paced, disjointed action, drawn into the role of helpless bystander.  After the play ended, many remained fixed in their seats, too stunned to move.

How closely do these fictional characters resemble the actual participants in the 1965 crime?  If not taken from life, how ever were they dreamed up?

In an interview, writer and director Sharp explained her need to figure out how terrible things occurred.  “They’re more frightening if they’re inexplicable, less scary if you can figure out why things happened.”  Back in the ’60s when she first learned about the murder of Sylvia Likens, it blew her mind that it had taken three months for the victim to succumb and that during that time, nobody noticed.

She imagined the dialog and, using the information available about Gertrude Baniszewski, the real mother, she created a character that retained some of her personality, including the pill popping and eating disorder (anorexia).  Gertrude didn’t have a developmentally disabled son and the neighborhood children who participated were many and as young as 11.

Running an online search on Sylvia reveals memorial websites, some with detailed information about the fate of the murderers.  Apparently Sharp wasn’t the only one appalled and perplexed by the ability of one woman to mastermind the death of a teenager in this way.

In her drive to understand the minds of these perpetrators, Sharp successfully deployed a cast of characters with the right mix of ordinariness and strangeness to account for the invisibility and lethality that enabled them to torture and murder in plain sight.

Down There
Axis Theater
1 Sheridan Square
New York, NY 10014


Theater Review: Me, Myself & I

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Friday, September 24th, 2010

Mirror, Mirror…
Who Am I?

A mother looks at her grown son and fails to recognize him.  A brother looks at his identical twin and denies his existence.  An identical twin looks in the mirror and finds his true brother.  Actors acknowledge the audience that watches them.  In his latest creation, Me, Myself and I, Edward Albee finds a way to amuse and entertain while at the same time confronting deep psychological issues of identity formation.

Before the red curtain rises, a young man dressed in black pants and grey shirt comes on stage to set up the action, revealing directly to the audience his intention to stir up family matters so he can extricate himself from them.  Identifying himself as OTTO, he pins his hopes on getting rid of his identical twin, who soon joins him on stage in clothing reflecting his own, but fails to get OTTO to acknowledge him.

The curtain goes up to reveal a woman (Mother) in a nightdress, sitting up in bed painting her toe nails.  Another person remains hidden under the cover but a bowler hat on the headboard suggests the presence of a man.  Soon enough, the man–Mother’s doctor (Dr)–emerges, fully dressed in business attire.

When OTTO joins them, Mother greets him with, “Who are you?  Which one are you?”  She can only identify his brother because he’s the one who loves her.  Dr has no trouble telling the twins apart because, he explains, neither of them love him.  In fact, both twins resent him for taking their father’s place soon after he disappeared.  When OTTO complains, ‘You never tell me who I am,” Mother continues to insist, “I don’t know who you are.”

OTTO possesses no small amount of rage toward his mother and the interloper Dr, though camouflaged by his remarkably subdued tone, and entertains the fantasy that his father will come back some day “if only to apologize for sticking me with you.”

Eventually OTTO announces that he has decided to become Chinese.  He’s tired of being occidental and anyway the future lies in the East.  When Mother asks whether his brother is going with him, OTTO says yes, but clarifies it’s a new brother–the old one no longer exists–and exits, leaving Mother and Dr to digest what just happened.

Mother reminisces about the time 28 years before when she learned she would be having identical twins and how her husband abandoned her following his visit to the delivery room.  The first time she held the newborn boys, for that single moment she recognized them.  In this disjointed conversation with Dr, Mother defends how she named one OTTO (loud) and the other otto (soft).  Dr, always frustrated with Mother’s absurdities, admonishes her for sowing similar chaos from the stage: “…you’re confusing them, and a confused audience is not an attentive one, I read somewhere.”

The profound impact on OTTO of being raised by a narcissistic mother who refuses to see him because he won’t lavish her with adoration becomes poignantly apparent later in the play when he explains his new twin.  Always before when he had looked in the mirror he had been afraid to touch himself, fearing he didn’t exist and neither did the image reflected back to him.  His resolution of that unbearable state creates a split between himself and what he sees when he decides that even though it looks exactly like him, it’s actually his twin.

The question of identity must resonate with this playwright.  Albee was born in 1928 and, as an infant, was adopted by a wealthy couple who “didn’t like children.”  He admitted in a recent Playbill interview, that he “didn’t get along very well with [them].”  Though his adopted parents provided him with a top-notch education and other physical comforts, “they were bigots” and at 18, Albee left because they disapproved of his homosexuality.  He has never sought out his birth parents–back then no one could get access to adoption records–and now claims it “troubled [him] only for health reasons.”

The play resonates with elements of Albee’s own experience of knowing nothing about his origins and having adopted parents ill equipped to provide the nurturing he needed to begin to fill that void.  Because he differed so markedly from them, they also failed as models, leaving Albee to invent himself.  As for twins, he had this to say about them in the Playbill interview:  “I think I decided I was probably an identical twin myself.  Being an orphan, you need all the identity you can get.  I never knew whether I had any brothers or sisters so I invent them in my plays.”

The parents he invents suggest comparison with his history as well.  In Me, Myself and I, OTTO’s mother refuses to acknowledge her son’s unique identity, and his father, who abandons him, gets replaced by an imposter.  Children born with temperaments radically different from their parents’ often believe they must have been adopted and fantasize about their real parents showing up to retrieve them.  Albee stages just such a fantasy late in the play, though in the end it fails to achieve the hoped for happy ending.

The brilliance of this play lies in its sly use of language to disguise the pain OTTO must feel.  Through exaggerated characters, humorous exchanges and bizarre situations, Albee leaves the audience mildly dazed.  Perhaps the method in the madness that sows confusion creates just enough distance from the reality of the content to maintain the audience’s attention.  When the fog lifts, more will be revealed.

Me, Myself and I
Playwrights Horizons
Mainstage Theater
416 West 42nd Street
New York, NY10036
(212) 564-1235


Theater Review: Vision Disturbance

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Monday, September 13th, 2010

Collaboration or Imposition:
Can Directing Rewrite a Script?

On a stage floor and backdrop of unfinished plywood populated by a woman, a man, two chairs, a pen light, an eye patch, a cymbal and furniture leg, and a baby grand piano, Vision Disturbance tells the story of an unlikely relationship between an ophthalmologist and his patient.

In her newest play, Christina Masciotti mines her own childhood experiences to create two characters from disparate worlds who share a knack for bending language to better suit their needs.  The patient, Mondo (short for Diamondo), brings her world into the examining room where she presses Dr. Hull for a quick cure for her malady, diagnosed by him as Idiopathic (cause unknown) Central Serous Chorioretinopathy, a blurring of vision in one eye that he attributes to stress.  While he prescribes and treats her with  music to help her relax, she shares with him and the audience the ongoing drama of divorce proceedings she recently initiated against her philandering husband.

Directed by Richard Maxwell and produced by the New York City Players, Vision Disturbance relies heavily on dialogue between the two characters and monologues directed at the audience.  Mondo, an emigre from Greece, effectively fractures English idioms to enhance their communicative power.  Dr. Hull’s utterances, mostly devoid of emotion except when punctuated by chilling expressions of rage, say more than he can imagine.

Dr. Hull (Jay Smith) eyes Mondo (Linda Mancini). Photo courtesy New York City Players.

Describing her situation, Mondo explains that she’s “between a rock and hell.”  About her husband of 13 years, she says he’s “the scum of the dirt.”  Dr. Hull, living upstairs from his mother, tells Mondo about his old cat, Socks, who enjoys being pulled up by his tail as he clutches the carpet with his claws.  The doctor, yet to master the intricacies of his smart phone, promises Mondo he’ll call a lawyer friend for her “if I can work this; I keep taking pictures of my ear.”  He deals with the lawyer’s refusal by cursing at him and later, when the phone rings, hurls it across the stage, explaining that he still hasn’t figured out how to turn it off.

When Dr. Hull prescribes music as a de-stressor for his patient, initially he has in mind its soothing power.  But for Mondo, it’s most effective as an outlet for her anger not just at her husband’s betrayal, but also at the traditional Greek culture that provides men with that kind of freedom while constraining women to serve them.  In one of their sessions, when her doctor gives her the furniture leg to use on the cymbal, she goes at it with verve, filling the theater with loud, unnerving reverberations.  Later she’ll find great relief in the percussive power of the piano, which will fall apart under her pounding.

As more comes to light about Dr. Hull’s own affliction–back pain diagnosed as arthritis for which he takes lots of pain pills–and the narrowness of his life, one wonders whether he wouldn’t benefit from some of his own music therapy.  The patient with visual problems displays the clarity that the doctor lacks.  The wounded woman finds her way at the same time the man in authority loses his.

Masciotti’s script provides the perfect vehicle for Maxwell’s direction, known for its reductionism.  Stripping it bare of stage directions that include a doctor’s office, a front door that Mondo opens to find a box with the eye patch she ordered (in the production, she retrieves the box from the top of the piano) and head gear for a special eye examination, Maxwell substantially changes the visual aspects of the play.  The character of the actors’ speech probably owes more to Maxwell’s inclination to drain tone from speech and focus attention on content than to Masciotti’s original vision for the play.

Maxwell’s directing style works well here; his simplifications spotlight Masciotti’s skillful dialogue and take advantage of her indifference to stage directing.  But when a seasoned playwright and director like Maxwell picks up a script of a writer whose day job is teaching college math, the situation has the potential to devolve into the same power struggle between the sexes portrayed in Mondo’s narration about her marriage and subsequent divorce proceedings.

Vision Disturbance demonstrates in its content as well as its style the transformative power of relationships.  The play’s coda, anchored in Masciotti’s original ideas for the staging, will surprise and delight the audience, revealing a musical setting that supports the characters as they grapple with the uncertainty of newly altered roles.

Vision Disturbance
Abrons Arts Center
Henry Street Settlement

466 Grand Street
New York, NY 10002


Theater Review: Kim Katzberg’s Penetrating the Space

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Friday, August 6th, 2010

Under Construction at Dixon Place

Best not to expect a finished product when signing up to see a performance at Dixon Place, a downtown venue catering to artists of all persuasions looking to test drive their latest creative endeavors in front of a live audience.  Founded in 1986, Dixon Place exists to provide a space for writers and performers whose work might not be otherwise accessible because of its cutting-edge, provocative nature.

To get to the staging area after entering the venue from the street, one has to first walk through Dixon Place’s brilliant fundraising strategy, the bar, where a pre-theater crowd gathers and chats.  Thanks to alcohol’s great disinhibiting properties, a well-lubricated audience provides the additional benefit of being more receptive to the unconventional fare about to be offered up.  How else to account for the laughter that greeted Kim Katzberg’s highly unsettling attempt to communicate her personal struggle to make sense of her internal world?

Part of Dixon Place’s 19th Annual HOT! Festival, Penetrating the Space is described in the program as “a one-woman show in which a kooky bisexual performance artist and incest survivor mistakenly believes that theatricalizing her psychological fragmentation and integration in front of an audience will lead to mainstream acceptance in the acting industry and a big-time agent.”  On her website, Katzberg owns its autobiographical nature: “The show is inspired by my relationship with my Dad and with men in general.”

Eventually the doors open and the audience ambles in to fill the three rows of seats, the first of which sits on the floor of the performance area.  As loud music plays in advance of the show, stage lighting reveals a set comprised of a screen on which hangs a long black wig; a box of organic buttermilk pancake mix under a double spotlight; a black garment laid out on the floor; and a chair surrounded by and topped with assorted props including an ancient combination phone and answering machine, a phallic-shaped aluminum thermos, a box of Kashi cereal and a “Supersize Stickermania Sticker Album.”

At show time, the music stops and a character soon to be identified as Terry saunters on, carrying her music player.  Dressed in a low-cut, leopard-patterned jumpsuit, she dances erotically to the music and slurs her words as she begins to talk about herself. When the phone rings, she answers it “suicide prevention hotline.”

More characters will follow, introduced in the next scene by a film showing the aspiring writer-actor, Jinny, entering Dixon Place in search of an appropriate space for her work in progress.  She steps out of the film and struts onto the stage wearing a blue jumpsuit and pink patten-leather heels, commenting on the theater in an exaggerated, affected tone of seriousness.  In describing the content of her script, she shares that three orifices in her body have pockets where lives a secret, that her daddy touched her there.

Breaking out of role, Jinny confides to the audience, “I’m totally freaking out, doing this,” but bravely continues on as the wanton Purple-Horse Girl, riding her pony-sized stuffed horse, the aspiring model/actor Wolf Girl, whose fanged mask impairs her speech, and the part-time stripper and counselor Terry, whose suicide prevention advice to a gray-mustached man seen in several predicaments on film is “just don’t do it.”

In her hypersexualized roles, Katzberg presents the eroticized child grown up, eager to pleasure men/daddy, though always with an undercurrent of rage, most evident in Terry’s nonchalant responses to the guy trying to off himself.  As Jinny on film, the writer-actor complains to Terry by phone about being triggered by Richard, the only person who attended her one-woman show, describing how in response to him, she hovered above her body and was cutting herself.  “Because you work professionally with men,” she implores her friend, “tell me how to deal with this dissociation.”

The audience experiences these effects of living with incest in much the same fragmented way survivors do—without the benefit of integration.  The device of a play about creating and staging a performance invites the audience to accompany the writer-actor along this obstacle-encumbered journey.  Though Katzberg shares some of her intentions and trepidations, her relationship to her characters remains vague, perhaps imitating life more than she realizes.

The raw material of this work in progress has great potential to be shaped into a cohesive story of one woman’s attempts to wrest meaning from trauma by communicating the more uncomfortable truths about how incest affects children and the adults they become.  One hopes as Katzberg comes to grips with her own family history that she’ll achieve more control over the characters in Penetrating the Space and give the world the powerful performance it can be.

The 19th Annual Dixon Place HOT! Festival
Dixon Place
161A Chrystie Street
New York, NY 10002