Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Detroit '67...and so?

Detroit '67 -- Hartford Stage -- Through March 10

                Sometimes you can try too hard to make people care, to tell them “This is important – this is vital.” Such is the case with Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit ’67, which recently opened at Hartford Stage. The play focuses on a black family living in Detroit during the 1967 race riots, and it should be compelling, but it isn’t. The playwright works very hard to draw in the audience, to make those staring up at Riccardo Hernandez’s single set care about the characters, but, by and large, given the structure of the play, the audience remains aloof. Quite simply, you want to care, to be involved, but there’s not that much to care about.

                If you ever took Drama 101 in college, one of the first things you learned was that, for a play to work, there has to be conflict. That is, one character wants something and another character is set on thwarting him or her from achieving the goal. So, is there such conflict in Detroit ’67? Yes, of a sort, for you see, Lank (Johnny Ramey) wants to use inherited money to buy a bar, while his sister, Chelle (Myxolydia Tyler), opposes the idea. She wants to keep things safe, the way they have always been – hence her use of a phonograph to play scratched 45 rpm records. Lank wants to move forward, which is why he and his friend, Sly (Will Cobbs) bring a rather bulky 8-track tape player into the house. It takes a good deal of time to establish this (the production runs over two hours) and, to be honest, it really doesn’t generate much tension. Morisseau, perhaps realizing this, introduces a new character, and it is here that the play goes slightly off the rails.

                Mid-way through the first act, the door to the cellar opens and down the steps come Sly and Lank carrying a body. It’s Caroline (Ginna Le Vine), a white woman. They place the comatose body on the couch. Soon Chelle appears and asks the rather obvious question: “What the hell is she doing here?” The audience might well ask the same question. We learn, eventually, that Caroline, a “waitress” at a strip club, had been assaulted by her boyfriend, a cop, and wandering on the street in a daze, she was seen by Lank and Sly, and Lank, being the good Samaritan that he is, bundled her into their truck and brought her home. Really?

                So, Caroline eventually regains consciousness and reveals that she has no place to go, so Lank, obviously smitten by this white woman, suggests that she stay with his family for a while. Chelle initially objects, but finally suggests that if Caroline is to stay she needs to work, for the brother and sister run a sort-of after-hours club in their basement. Caroline agrees (Really??) and is thus charged with putting potato chips into bowls and doing other menial tasks (there’s a message here, but I’m not sure what it is).

                Le Vine’s character is initially dazed by her boyfriend’s assault. The daze wears off, but not the sense of “What the hell am I doing here in this play?” Le Vine, given the character she is asked to portray, seems at sea most of the time, dutifully delivering her lines but unsure of what her character is contributing to the thrust of the play. Not her fault. The fault lies in the fact that, I suspect, Morriseau is also unsure why she has created this character, or what Bunny (Nyahale Allie), a family friend, is also supposed to be contributing to the play.

                Then there are the race riots, which brought Federal troops and tanks to the city, their presence captured by Nicole Pearce’s lighting and Karin Graybash’s sound. Buildings are being burned, people are being shot and, yes, it affects the family we have been with, but it, oddly enough, seems somewhat beside the point. It’s not that these were not horrific times and that racial tensions didn’t came to a boil, but it all seems unrelated to what we’ve been asked to pay attention to, the disconnect being exacerbated by Caroline’s running in and out – a comely white woman can go wherever she wants in a black neighborhood during a race riot? I mean, again, really?

                The problem with the play is best captured in its final moments, for there has been a loss, a death, that directly affects Chelle, and she grieves, but she is not allowed to grieve alone, for the lighting shifts and there is gunfire and the sound of growling tanks to accentuate her grief. We are asked to understand that the thin stitches that hold our society together are being torn apart but, it’s a theatrical, over-kill moment, manipulative in a most obvious way. Again, we are being instructed to care when the play has done little to make us want relate to these characters. Yes, there’s sound and fury, but what, in the end, does it signify? When, at the end of Driving Miss Daisy, Hoke feeds Daisy a piece of pie, our heart breaks and what the play has been about is confirmed. When Chelle grieves, we’re not sure what we should feel except, perhaps, relief that the play is finally over.
                Detroit ’67 runs through March 10. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to www.hartfordstage.org

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Present at the Revolution

The Revolutionists -- Playhouse on Park -- Through March 10

Olivia Jampol, Rebecca Hart and Erin Roche
Photos by Meredith Longo

“What’s playing at Hartford Stage?’
“(Insert here the name of a favorite play or musical you’ve probably seen more than once.)”
“Great, I’ll get tickets. How about at Playhouse on Park?”
“Something called ‘The Revolutionists.’”
“Never heard of it.”
“Neither have I.”
“I think we’ll pass.”

This conversation is not surprising, given the need to wisely use limited entertainment dollars. We have a tendency to go with the familiar rather than the unfamiliar, to bet on the tried-and-true rather than the untested. However, in the case of “The Revolutionists,” written by Lauren Gunderson, your decision to eschew an evening at Playhouse because you are unfamiliar with the play would be a big mistake, because “The Revolutionists” is a witty, engaging romp, an exercise into “what if?” history that satisfies on multiple levels and is more than worth the price of admission.

The play takes us to Paris during the height of the Reign of Terror and introduces us to four characters who, in real life, probably never met. First, we meet Olympe De Gouges (Rebecca Hart, who is blessed with a great sense of comedic timing), a frustrated female playwright whose theme song might well be “I Can’t Get Started.” Her only distinction is that she is probably the only female playwright in Paris, and it is for this reason that her door opens and in marches Charlotte Corday (the magnetic Olivia Jampol, who plays Corday as if she is a member of a female rock band and has time-traveled from the 1970s to the late 1700s).

Why has Corday come to see De Gouges? Well, she plans to assassinate Jean-Paul Marat, a man who has sent hundreds of people to meet Madame Guillotine. Corday flashes a knife and demands that De Gouges write an appropriate final line for her, something memorable she can exclaim as she cuts the tyrant’s throat. As would be expected, De Gouges is a bit flummoxed. Her confusion, however, will not end here, for she is about to receive two more visitors.

Jennifer Holcombe and Erin Roche

Marianne Angelle (the steady, engaging Erin Roche) is a Caribbean revolutionist who wishes to throw off the yoke of French rule and wants De Gouges to write pamphlets and broadsides in support of her cause. For a writer who is suffering from severe writer’s block, this is becoming a bit more than demanding, but there’s one more person who seeks out De Gouges for her writing ability, and that is, yes, Marie-Antoinette (the marvelous Jennifer Holcombe who, for most of the evening, plays the queen as if she’s just come from playing Miss Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls.”). The queen believes that she has been misunderstood and wishes De Gouges to set the record straight (you see, she never actually said “Let them eat cake,” she was just ordering lunch and, after all, what’s lunch without a piece of cake?)

Thus the stage is set for 90 minutes of rapid-fire dialogue dealing with, among other things, feminism, misogyny, revolutionary zealotry, the theater and the dynamics of play writing. If all of this sounds like heavy baggage, it isn’t, for Gunderson has a marvelous sense of humor and is deft at writing witty repartee while sliding in multiple allusions to contemporary history and theater, all of which director Sarah Hartman is keenly attuned to.

Perhaps you’re thinking, well, this is a period piece so the dialogue will probably be littered with archaic words and made difficult to understand because of out-of-date syntax. Here, again, you would be wrong, for though these are characters who lived in the late 18th century, their vocabulary and style of conversation is definitely modern, which, in itself, creates much of the humor, for one would not expect, for example, Marie-Antoinette to speak about certain topics in the manner she does.

Gunderson has written what might well be called a verbal carnival that offers something for everyone, and the four superb actors seem determined that you not miss anything. Hart’s portrayal of the somewhat neurotic De Gouges, the first character we meet, establishes the slightly zany, verbal pyrotechnics that will fill the evening. If you weren’t sure that you had entered a Wonderland version of the French Revolution, Corday’s entrance will confirm that we’ve gone down the rabbit hole. With untamed golden locks, Jampol is a self-proclaimed assassin who seems to be on Speed, a whirlwind of emotions whose only wish is become immortal by insuring her place in history.

Of the four characters, Roche’s Marianne Angell seems to be the most stable as she works to help De Gouges overcome her inability to set pen to paper. Yet Roche instills in her character a dignity and dedication to “the cause” that is a nice counterpoint to Corday’s more histrionic approach to combatting tyranny.

Finally, there’s Holcombe’s Marie-Antoinette. The challenge of creating a “ditzy blond (or bewigged)” character is much akin to that of creating a “bad actor” character – there’s always the temptation to take the portrayal just a bit too far, but Holcombe, thanks to the dialogue she’s been given by Gunderson, while prancing and often babbling, allows her character’s innate intelligence to peek through.

To get the full benefit of attending and enjoying “The Revolutionists,” you have to pay close attention, for many of the best lines are, well, one-liners, such as Du Gouges comment to Marianne (who is black) that Thomas Jefferson would appreciate her, or when, near the end of the play, De Gouges envisions writing a musical about the Revolution, she asks, “Do you hear the people sing?” Her idea is rejected out of hand.

So, if you’re deciding how to budget your entertainment funds, give “The Revolutionists” a shot. You won’t begrudge the money spent, because the play is chock-full of verbal goodies and is brought to life by four actors who, each in her own way, beguiles and entrances. Quite simply, this is theater worth seeing.

“The Revolutionists” runs through March 10. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org

Monday, February 18, 2019

On the Job

Working -- ACT of Connecticut -- Through March 10

The cast of "Working." Photo by Jeff Butcher

In 1974, Studs Terkel published Working, an oral history of working folks talking about their jobs and how they felt about them. In 1977, Stephen Schwartz, he of Pippin and Wicked fame, created a musical loosely based on the book, with four other composers also supplying music and four writers besides Schwartz penning lyrics. The show previewed in Chicago and then opened on Broadway in 1978, running for 24 performances. Since then, the show has been tinkered with and massaged several times, and its latest iteration is now up at ACT of Connecticut in Ridgefield, with director Daniel C. Levine doing additional massaging and tinkering, with songs now coming from six composers including Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The result? Well, if you’re looking for a strong plot-line you’ll be disappointed, for the show is essentially a series of vignettes (most centered on songs, but there are several monologues), but if you just want to be entertained by a stellar cast backed by a four-man orchestra that jumps, jives and pulsates, then Working is the show for you. It is, at moments, bright and bubbly, emotionally moving, and highly perceptive about the working folks who construct buildings, fight fires, serve food, clean homes and offices and tend to the aged, often going about their jobs without really being noticed.

Levine approached Schwartz, who is a Ridgefield resident, with suggestions about how the show might be modified. Schwartz gave the nod, and Levine proceeded to create his own version of Working, primarily by inclusion of video clips and projections – a lot of videos and projections. Some might complain that, in sum, it creates a certain visual overload, but, oddly enough, the effect is that you have been immersed in the Terkel book and in the lives of the people the actors represent, but it also gives the show a very distinct 21st-century feel, for we have (like it or not) become used to images flashing before our eyes and multiple screens streaming information. Levine has also given a local spin to the production, for as he notes in the Playbill, the show offers insights into “what the waitress at Dimitri’s Diner thinks about,” as well as how the man who trims tree branches away from Main Street’s power lines came to his job or “what the owner of Tony’s Deli dreams about.”

There’s also the fact that the visuals are simply icing on the cake, for the focus remains on the six actors who create multiple characters during the 80-minute run of the show, and they do a hell of a job. You have whores and a grade school teacher, a fireman, a cleaning lady, a waitress, a somewhat addled retired gentleman, a player in the financial market, a housewife and several health care workers. And it all works, primarily because these are not cardboard characters – as the actors appear in different guises their voices change, their body language changes, and the whore magically becomes the cleaning lady.

This is definitely an ensemble effort, but there are moments that seem to glitter more than just shine, and two of them are created by Laura Woyasz, first as the grade school teacher who is bedeviled and confused about how the classroom and the students have changed over the four decades she has been teaching (“Nobody Tells Me How”), and then she reappears as a waitress in “It’s an Art,” in which she leaps, glides and whirls as she serves food and makes nice with customers. Her performances as these two characters, in themselves, are worth the price of admission.

Then there’s Cooper Grodin who plays the nasty finance whiz but reappears later on as the retired man who can barely walk. With a wig (compliments of Liz Printz) and appropriate body language, he becomes a shattered man who struggles to continue to give meaning to his life.

Then there’s Zuri Washington’s turn in “Just a Housewife,” a set-piece that must have resonated with more than a few in the audience. She deftly captures the drudgery and moments of despair that many women – just housewives! – must deal with.

Pointing out these specific performances does not in any way lessen the work of the other actors: Brad Greer, Andre Jordan and Monica Ramirez. Under the deft, creative direction of Levine, they all contribute to what is a tremendously enjoyable evening of musical theater, capped by the show’s final two songs, “If I Could’ve Been,” a heartfelt consideration of what might have been if “life” hadn’t stepped in and demanded that rent be paid and children be fed, and the show’s finale, “Something to Point to,” which emphasizes that people, in their jobs, need to be able to claim that they made a difference, that they helped create something, that they were not just drones eking out a 9-to-5 existence.

The show is a visual whirligig, for the actors are almost in constant motion, the set spins, and the various characters appear and disappear in kaleidoscopic fashion, all of this while projections and video clips (the work of Caite Hevner) propel and punctuate the action. Levine has taken full advantage of the technical resources available to him in this state-of-the-art theater and the result is a carnival of sight and sound, a stroll down a midway where every booth is staffed by working folks offering something intriguing, entertaining, touching and, at moments, entrancing.

Working runs through March 10. For tickets go to actofct.org.

Friday, February 8, 2019

What the Playwright Heard

Good Faith -- Yale Repertory Theatre -- Through February 23

Rob Demery, Laura Heisler, Billy Eugene Jones
and Ian Bedford. Photo by Carol Rosegg
                “Good Faith,” a new play that is enjoying its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre, is one of those plays that draws the adjective “important” to it like a magnet draws metal filings. Why? Well, it deals with important issues, a whole laundry list of important issues. As a matter of fact, I don’t think playwright Karen Hartman has missed a single contentious topic that bubbles on or beneath the surface of the troubled waters of 21st-century America. Does this make for an enjoyable or gripping evening of theater? Well, I guess that’s in the eye (or, perhaps more accurately, often the ear) of the beholder.

                As directed by Kenny Leon, this exercise in touching all of the politically correct and incorrect bases was birthed when Yale contacted the playwright and asked her if she would like to write a play about the Ricci v. DeStefano court case that was initiated after 118 New Haven firefighters took a test in 2003 to see who would qualify for promotion to lieutenant.

The results of the test were contested, based on the claim that the test was biased. This led to an investigation by New Haven’s Civil Service Board, which failed to certify the test’s results, which meant all promotions were frozen. Twenty firefighters, primarily white, brought suit on the basis of reverse-discrimination. The case reached all the way to the Supreme Court (2009), which ruled in favor of what had become known as the New Haven Twenty. A subsequent lawsuit was filed by a black fireman, arguing that how the test was constructed and weighted was discriminatory. After a financial settlement was offered to him by the city, the case was dropped. Of course, there’s more, much more, but your eyes are probably already starting to cross (if you want or need clarification – and you may just – read the show’s program).

So, how do your craft a play about all of this? Well, Hartman decided to write a play about how she went about researching to write the play, along the way interviewing many of the key players, these interviews providing the subtitle for the play: “Four Chats About Race and the New Haven Fire Department.” Does it work? Well, yes and no.

The play opens with the Writer (an engaging Laura Heisler) telling a family story and then setting the stage for what follows, which is the appearance of four people she interviewed who were involved in the lawsuits: Frank, a white firefighter (Ian Bedford), two black firefighters, Mike (Billy Eugene Jones) and Tyrone (Rob Demery), and Karen, (Rene Augesen), the attorney for the New Haven Twenty who won the Supreme Court case.

The rest of the two-plus hours consists of some insights into how firefighters are trained plus what the playwright heard and recorded at these interviews in scenes in which the Writer mostly sits quietly listening to what is being said. There’s a lot of contention in these interviews, first between Mike, who is erudite (sometimes making up his own words when real ones won’t suffice) and seems to be a walking encyclopedia of race relations in America over the past three centuries, and Tyrone, who eschews flights of philosophical musings mixed with sociological theory for a more down-to-earth look at race relations.

These two characters have a lot to say…I mean, a lot to say. The problem is, they often talk over each other – not just biting into each other’s lines but talking, often at high volume, at the same time for extended moments. The result is an avalanche of words – you hear the rumble and tumble, but it’s often well-nigh impossible to capture what each character is actually saying. Phrases pop out like stones tossed from the avalanche, but there is little to no coherence when this is going on, and it happens several times. Thus, as with being caught in an avalanche, if you survive you cannot help but feel a bit bruised and broken.

Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), the second-act’s extended scene in which the Writer interviews Karen, the lawyer, quickly turns into a monologue in which what the lawyer says is never truly contested…she just gives her views on the case, on sexism, on politics and how it affects the judicial system and, along the way, takes to task Sonia Sotomayor, who ruled against the plaintiffs when the case came before the Second Court of Appeals in 2007. Her ruling later became a topic when Sotomayor was testifying prior to her confirmation for a seat on the Supreme Court. It all comes off as a guest appearance by a well-known lawyer at some high-profile law school’s seminar, with the play’s audience in attendance, whether they wish to be or not.

The most effective of the “chats’ is the final one, when the Writer finally gets Mike and Frank to sit down and talk. It’s effective because the two men, coming at all that has happened from two different perspectives, both make valid points, and although they do interrupt each other, there is none of the double-dialogue that mars the “chats” between Mike and Tyrone. It’s a strong way to end the play and you just wish there had been more of this type of staging (and writing) earlier on.

I may have truly become a citizen of Curmudgeon Land, but after the very engrossing scene between Mike and Frank, the play ends somewhat gratuitously. As flames roar above them, (compliments of projection designer Zachary Borovay), the characters assemble on stage and essentially ask the audience who is there to save them when they are caught in a fire? Well, of course, it’s the firefighters. Well, as true as that is, and with no disrespect to those who risk their lives battling fires, the moment is a manipulative throw-in and has little to do with what the play is essentially about. In essence, it’s a cheap shot to generate a “feel-good” emotion as the audience exits the theater.

The basic problem with “Good Faith” is that the audience is often twice-removed from what occurs on stage due to Hartman’s decision to frame the play in terms of what the playwright saw and heard during her research (and the fact that the Writer is always there, watching). In essence, we are seeing what the Writer saw rather than experiencing the “chats” and inherent confrontations on our own. It’s like Ibsen is a character in “The Doll’s House,” telling us what he saw as he took meticulous notes while observing the goings-on in the Helmer household. Nora does finally slam that door, but Ibsen is there watching.
“Good Faith” runs through February 23. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org