by Hazen Cuyler
Pushkin is a new play housed within the eclectic interior of The Sheen Center. It’s written by John Leaf and Directed by Christopher McElroen, running through August 25. If you’re a fan of Russian literature or curious about Alexander Pushkin’s entangled life and untimely death, you may want to see this misshapen production. At first glance it appears a collection of very good artists. But as the play drags on we quickly wonder how the production managed to become less successful than it should be.
At its core, the play surrounds the final two hapless years of Pushkin’s life as it collapses around him. His marriage is deteriorating, he lives in uncertainty with the Tsar and consequences from gambling and dueling are catching up to him. The play follows Pushkin, marching steadily toward his own demise. These historical realities serve as plot points.
Alexander Pushkin was a poet writing in verse and Pushkin is in verse. The similarities end there. John Leaf’s play lacks the energy verse is meant to inspire. It is devoid of rhythm and (despite the heightened historical circumstances) any emotional immediacy. While watching the show, I was constantly surprised how often dialogue sounded conversational. One could reformat the entire play into standard prose sentence structure and, because its poetic structure is so underdeveloped, few would notice any difference. And yet, it’s written with talent.
Despite an ensemble stacked with accomplished actors, we are presented one-note, two dimensional characters. The always irritated Tsar Nicholas I (Gene Gillette), who even at his own ball never ventures beyond a distinct perimeter of anger. Gogol (Kyle Cameron), the respectful companion. The diabolical Count Benkendorf (Lou Liberatore), without nuance or redeeming quality. And Pushkin, mutton-chop-masculine and entirely detached from any emotional consequence, including death. Yet, each actor is talented.
The Director is decorated. He has Drama Desk, Obie, Lucille Lortel, American Theatre Wing Awards. He’s given the opportunity to tackle a play about one of the most influential artists ever while supported by an outlandishly talented ensemble. And yet. There is no dynamic variation in tone from one scene to the next, lacking any semblance of an arch. Like the play’s actors, the production maintains a never-changing single note of mundane emotions from a script dealing with the highest stakes possible, life or death. And still, it’s conducted with talent.
An effective set built by Troy Hourie provides a potent atmosphere of Russian nobility. Costumes (Elivia Bovenzi) and props (Leila Ben-Abdallah) are both detailed and precise. Even a deck of playing cards with a shade of energetic orange reveals a historical nuance. However, the dress of Alexandra, although designed to clearly differentiate her from her sisters, appears homely and out of place while attending the Russian Tsar’s ball. Lighting by Zach Weeks balances and enhances colors on stage and at times shifts us into the fantastical. Even the stagehands come from the Flea Theater’s renowned Bats program.
Here’s why I think the play was unable to succeed. I think the director utilized a technique to engage verse and support his actors. But the script’s verse structure wasn’t heightened enough to support his technique. So instead of enlivening performances, it succeeded only in emphasizing bland verse, bland characters and flattening out the story arch. Alternatively, they could have simply run out of time to develop the necessary emotion and nuance.
I think the deeper problem lies in our current system of commercial theatre. Our system doesn’t allow for mistakes. Show-business people have schedules. And I guarantee each person on stage has an upcoming project. And I know they had projects before this. So the question becomes, is this really a worth-while priority for all artists involved? Or is this a paycheck. Is this a project these artists actually want to see properly accomplished? I find it interesting that The Sheen Center did not produce this play. Instead, the website given is the director’s. And listed among his current shows and successes, this production is coincidentally absent.
I think this play should be performed because I think the core is good. And I think these actors are good. And I think this director is good, even if he’s ashamed of his work. But it should have been worked on and developed until it was as emotionally affecting as the realities demanded by the script. It shouldn’t be just a paycheck or a side job ‘til Broadway calls again. It should be what its core story intends. An homage to and a lesson from one of our finest artists, which deserves our finest artists’ respect and dedication. Or they shouldn’t do it. In a play about stifled artistry, we are given a shockingly accurate parallel with the handling of this production.
Photos: Carol Rosegg
by Hazen Cuyler
The Russian Arts Theater and Studio is led by one of the most imaginative and unique directors working in New York City, Aleksey Burago. Additionally, he just so happens to be one of the foremost experts on Anton Chekhov. I recently saw a Russian Arts show alongside a prominent theatre actor and director. Afterward, he said to me, “I could see 1,000 shows and I would be able to immediately pick out the one directed by Aleksey Burago.” Lady with a Lapdog and Other Jokes with a Happy Ending staged at Theatre for The New City and running through March 10th, is a deeply funny love song. A masterclass in guiding extremely talented actors into a work of art no one should miss.
The play follows a man vacationing in Yalta. He becomes fascinated by a woman walking her small dog near a pier. They quickly become intertwined in a passionate affair. Their time vacationing comes to an end. But of course the love affair carries on. Leading to the most difficult decision of their lives. Seamlessly woven between these passionate encounters are many iconic Chekhov short stories.
Before I continue. I must clarify the significance in labeling Lady with a Lapdog with Jokes and a Happy Ending a work of art. It is a masterpiece created by an important artist of our generation. And so, this review reflects that grand achievement.
Di Zhu, playing the title character, is one of the finest actors working in independent theatre. She not only captures meaningful contradictions in every character she plays, but does so with a level of joy too rarely seen in theatre today. Her Anna is no exception. She brings sharp nuance to Chekhov’s work, allowing audiences to discover new meaning within his sensational classic.
Tom Schubert, as Dmitri, is the charming and bold force guiding us. Not only is his electric acting on display, but his vocal expertise as well. One doesn’t immediately think of Amy Winehouse when considering Chekhov. But when Mr. Schubert sings “Back to Black,” he is so connected to its relevance within the circumstances that we nearly forget it wasn’t Chekhov’s original intent.
Ariel Polanco can only be described as show-stopping. His profound grace and versatility as a remarkable actor and dancer make up so many parts of this astounding production. His final movement and dance piece is an achievement. It could easily be celebrated as its own show.
Michael Dona’s characters are diverse and entirely hilarious. Never will you see a more talented actor capable of doing so much with silence. Because of his clear reverence and joy for each character, the audience remains transfixed with a deep sense of gratitude.
Lana Stimmler is incredibly funny in everything she does on this stage. It’s remarkable how consistently she can elicit belly laughs from the audience while maintaining the absolute heightened truth in her circumstances.
Luisa Menzen warms the audience like a summer’s day. Her work in each scene is intricate and heartfelt. When she smiles, it is impossible not to feel joy. When she sits atop a lonely, snowy hill, looking down at everything a sled cannot give her, your heart has no choice but to shatter and melt away. In an astounding act of theatrical magic, she stands under a pillar of falling snow. Trapped within memory’s snow globe; encased in time. The soft elegance and beauty in her gentle movements will remain imprinted within you.
Conor Andrew Hall is a powerful and versatile actor. In “A Little Joke,” a young man is doomed to regret his unfortunate joke played on a beautiful girl. Mr. Hall aptly captures a commanding and youthful naiveté. With a smile, he reveals how love and regret dance together in life.
Flavio Romeo’s unique vocal clarity and physical presence fills the large space. Whether playing a dentist or a general, the bold strength of his characters leave lasting impressions.
Conducting this work is the profound director, Aleksey Burago. Like any great artist, his ideas are to be wrestled with. The feelings he evokes in this production resound within the reaches of your soul; forever changing you into a better, more compassionate person full of humor and love.
If you believe in theatre as art, then Lady is a must-see. Do not miss your chance to witness this important work. Chekhov is cherished by so many for his convention-shattering ideas as well as his simplicity. That he has found such an excellent partner in The Russian Arts Theater and Studio is certainly a happy ending.
Photos: Jared Biunno
by Hazen Cuyler
Commissioned by Arena Stage in 2013, The Originalist by John Strand surrounds Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The play, directed by Molly Smith, remounted at 59e59 thru August 19, is perhaps more relevant than ever before.
Antonin Scalia (Edward Gero) arrives on campus to lecture young, doting, conservative minds. The discourse runs smoothly until Cat (Tracy Ifeachor), a liberal African American student, confronts his traditional talking points only to quickly become his newest clerk. In just over an hour and a half, The Originalist glides through recent landmark cases leading to Scalia’s dissent in the 2013 United States v Windsor case which struck down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.
The infamous Supreme Court Judge is embodied by Washington DC based Edward Gero. As Scalia, he is effortlessly charming, distinctly cultured and frustratingly dogmatic. He sings opera to our applause, impersonates Ted Kennedy to our laughter and refuses to consider equal rights arguments regarding gay people and minorities. Mr. Gero’s respect for the Justice is transparent as he moves through a transformative, articulate and lovable performance. It is a masterful and surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a powerful and contradictory historical figure. His Scalia is a creature of habit. His brain heats and his body emboldens, assessing every word debated, calculating his opponent’s weakness. When comforting Cat, he listens with boundless compassion. We feel his heartbeat couple with her emotional well-being. A compelling duality, this emotional and intellectual life revealed by Mr. Gero is a major reason why you may wish to see this divisive production.
Scalia is a historical figure demanding a definitive form through voice, body and spirit. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be Antonin Scalia. Cat is a more elusive character who, at times, behaves as a mechanism devised to influence our polarized opinions of the Judge; making him appear more compassionate and his ideas more relatable. Cat is gifted at stirring backstory but no matter how desperate her history may become, these added details feel manipulated to construct a more sympathetic Scalia. However, in transcending this challenge, Ms. Ifeachor’s acting is like a virtuoso jazz musician. Her instincts command this fiery character. Her Cat is not a definitive form like Scalia. Instead, Cat is a culmination of quick, unfiltered, moment-to-moment, dynamic expressions. While debating her conservative colleague, Brad (played skillfully by Brett Mack), their powerful minds passionately veer from topic to topic, racing across the political map. Their exchange ranges from race relations to four percent of the founders being gay to throwing pizza at each other across the room. As Brad attempts to convert Cat to conservatism, the talented Ms. Ifeachor boldly parries each of Brad’s affronts like an agile fencer. Through Ms. Ifeachor we are gifted a challenging portrait of powerful liberalism, desperate enough to consider the center.
The staging is from Arena’s Artistic Director, Molly Smith. Dignified, simple and aside from one messy corner of a law library, it’s only the bare necessities. A chair, a desk, a rectangle of light on the ground for a hospital bed. Characters move through shadows and blocks of light. Like fragmented memories of our echoing civility, fading into history.
John Strand’s play is a brave and talented work. He successfully portrays Antonin Scalia as a kind human being; a daring accomplishment considering Scalia is often decried a monster. But Scalia was also very loved. And those opposing him were also condemned as monsters. Mr. Strand’s play is a discourse from two antagonistic ideologies, mixed in friendship, moving together toward compromise. To a center point. To a place without monsters. Or perhaps where monsters meet.
And onto the point. Why is this entering into our theatre consciousness? It’s New York City and the audience was certainly liberal. The recurrent outbursts were hints. This is a play about someone who liberals do not exactly appreciate. And yet the audience remained captivated. It’s the ideas this audience was hungry for. But it’s a great performance from two very different actors and it’s their exceptional performances which make the ideas accessible. We, in this time period have a hunger for dangerous perspectives and within a safe space we can contemplate frightening human perspectives. Not an angry text bubble on a phone. Not a charming and manipulative pundit. Not shouting facts at someone deaf to logic. Not eschewing compassion, comfortably clinging to cold facts. We blind monsters are beginning to see each other and recognize ourselves. And as we embrace others’ emotional reality, we are forced to face the facts of our shared existence.
Photos: Joan Marcus
By Hazen Cuyler
This is certainly not his finest play. It’s not even a completed play. In its original form, this untitled work is about five hours long. Several loose adaptations of Platonov have made it to the stage since Anton Chekhov’s early death (he died at just 44 of tuberculosis) but the original was never produced during his life. It was simply abandoned. Untitled, incomplete and unperformed. Blessed Unrest’s Platonov or The Contemptible, directed by Jessica Burr and housed at New Ohio Theatre, is condensed to about 100 minutes. This production is an appreciated but flawed glimpse at a very young Chekhov testing out ideas and forms that will later alter the world’s landscape of theatre.
Anna’s home is in the process of being sold by her step son, Sergei. Platonov arrives with his wife and child on the five year anniversary of his father’s death. A schoolmaster, Platonov is described as “the hero of a play or novel yet to be written in these precarious times.” He soon finds himself entangled in affairs with every woman on stage. And of course none of this is sustainable.
Jessica Burr, once again ushers the audience through vivid atmospheres. We lie beneath a starry night sky, sit as colorful fireworks burst in the distance and are frozen as a racing train speeds by. Guiding her talented actors, she constructs her show on the foundation of an impressive and connected ensemble.
As Platonov, Darrell Stokes remains pleasant to a fault. This level headed Platonov is cherished for his charm and personality early on in the play. By the play’s end, that same pleasantness becomes disturbingly apathetic.
Irina Abraham’s Anna commands the stage as the widow of a deceased General. Her Anna is strong-willed, immovable and passionately sought after. Miss Abraham’s talent is unique and inarguable. Her technical prowess holds the audience captive throughout the entirety of the play.
Laura Wickens’ adaptation is an enjoyable read. She expertly captures the nuanced behavior within Chekhov’s simple and precise language.
Chekhov was 18 when he first wrote this play. And Platonovis entirely less engrossing than his later, greater and far more influential works. It does not contain the same deeply specific, interwoven and connected community of characters his later works are known for. Not only are there fewer complexities, but characters literally show up out of nowhere. Characters float without a direct sense of destination or place. I must admit that I have not read the original five hour draft of Platonov. But I can’t help but imagine that these flaws may be the result of reducing an unfinished, five hour work to one lasting just over an hour and a half.
The set from Anna-Alisa Belous, Teddy Jefferson and Matt Opatrny is extremely minimal, cozy and adaptable. It’s startling how easily the environment transitions from a warm home to a night sky under stars. Miriam Nilofa Crowe’s fascinating lighting is hugely helpful in these environments. With help from Fan Zhang’s sound design, fireworks burst in the distance and a speeding train races past the audience. These two experiences will stay with me for a very long time.
Sarah Thea’s costumes have nice texture and color. Unfortunately, roles are doubled and ages miscast (for reasons I don’t quite understand) and quick changes are impossibly fast. This forces actors to repeatedly enter on stage half dressed.
And so we come back to the play. And the young man. Platonov or The Contemptible contains all the charm and joy and satisfaction in visiting his earlier short stories. No, they’re not the same as his later and more mature work. But that doesn’t mean they’re without value. And it doesn’t mean they aren’t fun. That’s what’s nice about Blessed Unrest’s production. Its value comes from the joy in exploring and sharing an important moment in this great artist’s evolution. In the introduction to Paul Schmidt’s famed collection of Chekhov’s works, he explains that Chekhov was a great writer not because of some supernatural gift, but because he wrote every single day without fail for 25 years. Chekhov died at 44. He was 18 when he wrote Platonov. In Chekhov’s own words, when asked what it takes to become a good writer, he said, “You need a good ass”. So, perhaps what we can appreciate is not some remarkable singular work. But a moment taken from a great man’s history. One moment in the journey of a great artist. On his way to attaining a truly remarkable ass.
Photos: Maria Baranova
By Hazen Cuyler
It’s not surprising that The Civilians was the first theatre company to earn a residency at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Their remounted production of The Undertaking, now playing at 59E59 Theaters, blurs the line between theatre and fine art installation. Written and Directed by the talented Steve Cosson, Undertaking is a fascinating dialogue whose characters, sounds and immersive imagery further develop our relationship with death. If you’re a big fan of Richard Linklater dialogue, then this production is guaranteed to captivate. But Undertaking’s cool, intellectual discussions and evocative packaging make a departure from the typical play whose meaning is more directly derived from human behavior and circumstance.
The play begins with Steve, a writer and director, conducting interviews on death for an upcoming play with his company, The Civilians (You may have noticed some recurring names). He’s recording an interview with Lydia at her photography studio. Lydia asks him why in the world he’s tackling this subject. He gives Lydia an unconvincing answer, which she doesn’t buy. “I don’t do personal,” Steve unconvincingly explains. And so, of course, we spend the remaining hour and twenty minutes waiting for him to recognize he’s full of shit.
Aysan Celik and Dan Domingues tackle a host of characters including Lydia and Steve, respectively. They seamlessly transform from one detailed character study to the next, moving with ease through fascinating monologue testimonials. These hyper-realistic interviews recall moments of incredible despair and trauma though surprisingly sober eyes. And that experience is strangely affecting because watching a character soberly recall deep pain removes immediacy. So the experience becomes fascinating but detached.
At fleeting moments I would stop and look around only to realize the absence of conflict. Every character, though played with great skill, basically gets along with every other character. The Undertaking holds less immediate dramatic tension than most plays you’ll see. However, when Lydia and Steve commit to dissecting and resolving Steve’s fear of death, we see conflict not as two colliding forces, but an emotional journey of one man who rejects his fear of death and then transitions to become more in touch with his fears and anxieties. And then he cries a lot. And that is closer to the point; that our death is our own. Each of us experience it, do battle with it and work to live alongside these fears. In an interview later on the play, a woman explains her relationship to death: Everything will be gone, even Einstein and Aristotle. She did not exist for billions of years before life and will not exist for billions of years after life. It’s not the only opinion. But it is resounding in its placement of the piece.
Within the confines of Marsha Ginsberg’s set, white walls of simple plastic streamers cascade from ceiling to painted white floor. Live plants and animal skins tastefully organize a living atmosphere within Lydia’s sterile photography studio. It’s like reverence to life within a plastic heaven. The bright white, clean set is an easy canvas for Tal Yarden’s masterful projections. All-encompassing philosophical and religious images engulf the space. Ravens soar at impossible heights. Forests ensnare everything below. His backgrounds during interviews begin like a blurred Chuck Close painting and become clear, revealing core values to each character. Mikhail Fiksel’s sound pops in and out. We hear interdimensional echoes of interspersed audio flashbacks from past interviews. Thomas Dunn’s lighting shutters us in and out of scenes in the blink of an eye.
And then there is the conductor of this modern piece of theatre art. Mr. Cosson orchestrates countless nuanced, specifically placed elements. Aside from sculpting the impressively crafted script, coordinating sound with set with light with projections, and guiding the creation of many vivid characters on stage, Mr. Cosson has created a new, accessible dramatized symposium on death. Those fortunate enough to see The Undertaking, may find something necessary to accept death as an inevitable part of life. And once accepted we recognize that the goal is not to experience a peaceful eternity in death, but to live a peaceful finite life.
The play comes to a close with Steve and Lydia in a bright park together. Birds sing, an ice cream truck is in the distance. Steve, now more emotionally available, is crying. Lydia says “I believe in the possibility of everything… So it’s still a mystery. You know what I mean? It’s all so fucking mysterious.” And so there we are. The play leaves us feeling, mostly the way we did before. But perhaps with a greater sense of responsibility. To place further value on this life and not worry so much about the next one. And if there isn’t a next one, we won’t know anyway. And like Steve says when he comes to this realization, “fuck.”
By Hazen Cuyler
Before seeing this one-man-show, I’d heard some of the hype and excitement surrounding Strange Interlude produced by Transport Group Theatre Company, directed by Jack Cummings III and performed by David Greenspan. The fact that this show exists is an accomplishment. It’s a six hour Eugene O’Neill play, with eight characters who speak their fragmented thought process throughout each scene. In Transport Group’s production, all eight characters are played by the incredibly talented David Greenspan. During the play, audience members would routinely burst into collective laughter and applause. At each intermission, voices could be heard vaguely describing their growing interest in the show. It is not a perfect production, but one which devoted theatre audiences should experience.
Strange Interlude is a play written in 1923 which both appeared on Broadway and won the Pulitzer in 1928. It follows Nina, whose fiancé is killed in WWI, before they are able to consummate the marriage. She marries another man, Sam, and discovers his family’s history with mental illness and fears passing it down to their child. So she gets an abortion, has a child with another man and pretends it’s Sam’s. The child grows older, never being told who his biological father is.
Here’s where the production’s imperfections begin. I had absolutely no idea that’s what happened after spending nearly six hours watching Strange Interlude.
I’ll get to the most important point first. David Greenspan is a wonderful talent. He’s impressively decorated and seems to have a glowing career as an important solo artist of our generation. He worked on Strange Interlude for four years. Anyone can criticize someone else’s performance. But when a skilled and seasoned artist is onstage, alone, with only himself to talk to, as eight complex individual people, for nearly six hours, it forces one to acknowledge the accomplishment and examine criticism through a slightly more appreciative lens. So, to sum it up, he is a remarkable talent.
Here’s what I found to be the core problematic issue with Strange Interlude.
David Greenspan talks too quickly and the importance of articulation is under-appreciated. The majority of the production feels and sounds like he and the producers were terrified of the show running eight hours instead of a brisk six. The rushed delivery distances us from the reality of time; a circumstance in these characters’ lives. In Strange Interlude, characters speak their fragmented inner thought process alongside their dialogue to other characters. The increased speed and loose articulation challenges our ability to differentiate characters’ dialogue from the spoken thoughts inside their heads. I hoped my ear would adjust to the language and style, like in Shakespeare, and ease me into the world of the play. This never happened.
There are moments of astonishing work throughout. But they erupt and, no matter how badly you wish them to stay, quickly dissipate back into a repetitious rhythm. When you sit through this for six hours it unfortunately becomes very boring. It’s frustrating because Mr. Greenspan is such an immensely talented artist. His talent is palpable. He can be sitting on the floor and you know you’re in the presence of a refined and important artist. But while watching this play, for six hours, I hadn’t the slightest idea what was happening.
So. Why should you see this?
Because it’s a daring accomplishment from one of our great artists, the likes of which you may not see again for many years. Mr. Greenspan is deeply connected to each of O’Neill’s diverse characters and that stays with you long after leaving the theater. The play is not perfect and neither is the production. At times Strange Interlude is frustrating and even boring. But the flashes of truth from Mr. Greenspan, within the simplistic and clean environment sensitively designed by Dane Laffrey, stay with you. It reminds you of theatre’s potential and the capabilities of a dedicated creative spirit.
The ending was beautiful. An amazing piece of melancholic, fragile theatre handling the text with dignity and delicacy. Neither Mr. Greenspan nor the audience wished for the performance to end. And at that moment, neither did I. I could feel the resignation in these characters’ fates. Nina’s layered exhaustion and weariness. Charlie’s eternal longing finally fulfilled after passing beyond desire. It had only just begun for me. After nearly six hours of waiting in a packed theater, it was over. With a raised hand, they were gone. His characters disappeared. A gesture of evaporating elegance. Lights out. A glimpse of greatness and a burst of applause.
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